The Collective History of the Quatrefoil Library and the Tretter Collection

Photos by Tj Turner

Subtly but inexorably, the Quatrefoil Library and the University of Minnesota’s Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies have celebrated the intoxicating diversity of queer history for decades.

Quatrefoil Library, founded from the private collection initially hidden away in the closet of couple David Irwin and Dick Hewetson, is the second-oldest LGBTQ+ lending library in the United States and exemplifies the fruits that can stem from queer romantic relationships. The library has been open to the public since 1986 in various locations, is entirely volunteer-
run, and is open seven days a week. Most materials are available for lending with a yearly membership.

Within the library is a dizzyingly wide-ranging collection, from travel guides to gay porn, pulp novels to serious fiction, children’s books to lesbian periodicals. The most spectacular part, though, is the history of the people involved. The library’s success has been due in no small part to the commitment of all the hard-working volunteers (contributing a sum of 5,100 hours per year), who believe in the dream of providing a safe and welcoming space for the LGBTQ+ community.

Claude Peck serves as the board vice president at Quatrefoil and has had a hand in catalyzing a renewed focus on community engagement events. He specifically mentions the library’s goal of serving young people in meaningful ways, recalling a mother who attended a book sale with her 8th- or 9th-grade child who was in the middle of a gender transition. “It really made my heart feel really glad that this was a place of discovery for a young person,” recounts Peck. “It was a place that they could expand, look, learn, read, and get turned onto things.”

One of the people who was heavily involved in the early days of the Quatrefoil was Jean-Nickolaus Tretter, a friend of the founders Irwin and Hewetson. Tretter started collecting LGBTQ+ memorabilia independently in his house in St. Paul in the 1970s after he failed to get the necessary institutional support to study gay and lesbian anthropology from the University of Minnesota, where he was a student, and realizing that it was something that he would need to start on his own. In a twist of fate, Tretter, after some negotiating, later donated his collection to the university in 2000, becoming curator of the newly established LGBTQ+ collection for over a decade until his retirement in 2011.

A valuable resource for the queer community, the Tretter Collection is part of the Department of Special Collections and Rare Books at the Elmer L. Andersen Library. The massive archive functions as a preservation system for items associated with the LGBTQ+ community worldwide such as publications, organizational records, personal manuscripts, films, music, posters, and other items. It’s stored in underground temperature-controlled facilities accessible through hermetically sealed hallways located under the Mississippi River on the West Bank of the U of M campus.

Student researchers interact with the archives in meaningful ways. Take masters student Noah Barth, who is making a documentary on the organization Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (see pg. 6), or senior Alex Schumacher, who is using the collection to research local LGBTQ+ radio shows. Ray Barney was first turned onto the collection through a program at the Minnesota History Center when they were 16 years old and subsequently returned to the Tretter Collection as a student worker. Myra Dawn Billund-Phibbs conducted an oral history project on the gay bathhouses, commercial sex businesses, and the cruising scene that used to exist in downtown Minneapolis that utilized materials from the archives for research and added additional recorded interviews to the collection upon completion.

Rachel Mattson with Olivia Jessie Rose Copia (Volunteer), Eliza McDonald Edwards (Archives Assistant), & Ray Barney (Student Staff) // Photo by Tj Turner

According to Rachel Mattson, curator of the Tretter Collection as of June 2018, the archive galvanizes the local LGBTQ+ community. “People in the Twin Cities are excited to learn about the history of local organizing, creative practice, and queer communities,” she says. Speaking to the collection’s vital role in the community, she notes that “thinking about the history of the place that we live in and alternative stories from the past can help us imagine alternative versions of the future.”

Part-time archives assistant Eliza Edwards was introduced to the collection four years ago when researching bisexual history and organizing in the ’80s and ’90s. “Archivists are caretakers and storytellers, and we’re people that are deeply embedded in these histories. These histories are surrounding us, and that comes with a huge responsibility to be asking questions about liberation and justice,” she says. “History is now, and our responsibilities are not just to things in the past that we are curating but also to the communities that we are actively involved in.”

While you can’t check out materials at the Tretter Collection like you can from Quatrefoil Library, you can make an appointment and review items in a reading room. “You can come here and request things for fun,” says Edwards. “It’s the best thing in the world and everybody should do it.”