Kinsey Collections Reveal the Value of Variety

by Leigh Hedger

For the study of human sexuality, the Kinsey Institute has the richest and possibly the largest collections of research materials in the world," says Judith Serebnick, an associate professor emeritus in the School of Library and Information Science at
Indiana University Bloomington. Serebnick is a member of the institute's Collections Advisory Board, which has been assessing the institute's collections. The collections include over 7,000 original works of art; approximately 75,000 photographic images dating from 1880 to the present; about 80,000 books, journals, and scientific articles; around 6,500 reels of film; and a variety of artifacts spanning more than 2,000 years of human history dating back to the Greco-Roman period. Within the collections are works by famous artists, including Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, as well as those by unknown artisans and amateurs. Included are popular magazines, commercial periodicals, gag items, and the ephemera of sexual humor that, over the ages, has found expression in so many different ways. In addition to the fifty-five file cabinets brimming with original Kinsey Institute research records and correspondence, the collections include many records of private individuals, diaries, love letters, personal essays, and photograph albums.

The institute's founder, Alfred Kinsey, once said, "We are recorders and reporters of facts--not judges of the behavior we describe." At the Kinsey Institute, one person's private collection of erotica becomes a scholar's primary source research material. Taken together as a collection, these items reveal much about societies of today and of the past--their values and perspectives on sexuality and gender, the forms of expressing those views, and how those values and perspectives have changed over time. According to Jennifer Yamashiro, curator at the Kinsey Institute, "having both fine art and mainstream items--such as newsletters of fetish groups, pulp fiction, comic books, and other ephemera--represented allows comparison between fine art and popular culture. They play off each other, and to have collections allowing that comparison lends historians new perspectives."

According to Liana Zhou, head, technical services at the institute, the collections got their start from Kinsey's own pocket with purchases of books and erotic objects back in the 1940s. Collecting was a part of just about everything Kinsey did--everything was a study of variety. As a researcher in the areas of biology and zoology, he had gathered a vast collection of gall wasps. In his garden, he had over two hundred varieties of irises. He accumulated recordings of classical music, and, with his son, he even collected knives. "He believed knowledge came from collecting data, knowing the different varieties, and pulling it all together for future research purposes," Zhou says. Margaret Harter, an associate librarian and head of reference and information services at the institute, explains that Kinsey had a wide view of what data was and that he looked at his collections of books and objects related to sexuality as part of his data on sexual behavior. "It wasn't as though he could just go to the IU library for the materials he needed. There were no sexuality courses, and there was no gender or gay and lesbian studies. Research libraries weren't trying to document the variety of human sexual behavior. That was Kinsey's interest. The exploration of variation was the driving force of his career and was reflected in his collections."

Kinsey also received items from many of his research subjects who knew of his interest in collecting materials for data. Since those early days, there has been a steady stream of donations from individuals all over the world, particularly those who had been collectors themselves and saw the Kinsey Institute as a place where their collections would be valued, secure, and well used. The size and breadth of the collections today is due to these many donors.

When the institute was incorporated in 1947, Kinsey sold his collections to it for $1. Incorporating the institute was a strategic move to ensure that the confidential nature of his research collections would be preserved. He was amassing thousands of sexual histories, and he needed to protect their confidentiality at Indiana University, a public institution. He also needed to ensure that erotic materials could continue to be collected freely and securely. At the same time, the identities of donors and models needed to remain out of public scrutiny.

In his 1948 annual report, Kinsey stated that the collections "must draw material from a diversity of fields. Not only must biology, medicine, psychology, psychiatry, and other sciences be represented, but also material from purely literary sources, from the classics, from modern fiction, from poetry, from art, from law, from religious literature, and from many other fields." The theme of sexuality is central to the collections, but in keeping with Kinsey's vision, sexuality is broadly defined, taking into consideration aspects including the representation of sexuality and gender in cultural materials, behavior, laws, education, knowledge, customs, beliefs, attitudes, and folklore. Originally, the collections were for the exclusive use of institute researchers. But because the content of the materials crossed so many different disciplines, the collections were opened in the 1960s to a wider constituency of scholars and professionals. As the study of human sexuality has broadened in recent years, so has the range of disciplines now using the collections.

Possibly the strongest part of the visual art collections, in terms of its comprehensiveness and depth, is the photography collection. According to Yamashiro, it was Paul Gebhard, a member of Kinsey's research team and the director of the institute following Kinsey's death, who encouraged Kinsey to collect visual representations. "Gebhard's anthropological perspective placed great value on the cultural importance of visual representation," Yamashiro says. "His influence inspired Kinsey to begin collecting visual material--much to our benefit." James Reilly, founder and director of the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, New York, evaluated the Kinsey Institute's photography collection in 1985. Reilly's summary of the value of the collection underscores its importance for researchers: "It documents in a very thorough way the use of the photographic medium for erotic depictions. Original photographs, published as a commercial enterprise, have now almost disappeared from the culture. . . . The Institute's collection, probably more completely than any other in the world, provides an opportunity to study how human sexuality was depicted during the period when original photographic prints were the most influential medium for the dissemination of erotica and pornography."

In the photography collection, the institute has 1,732 negatives by fine arts photographer George Platt Lynes, known during the 1930s and '40s for his fashion photography that appeared in such mainstream publications as Modern Bride and Vogue. Lynes donated many of these images, which he could not publicly exhibit, to the Kinsey Institute at a time when "he was worried about raids," Yamashiro says. Some fifty years later, in 1993, these images were the subject of an exhibition of their own, shown at the School of Fine Arts Gallery in the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts at IUB and the Grey Gallery at New York University. In addition to the aesthetic quality of the images, the very act of Lynes' donation is of cultural and historical significance. "Read in the sociohistorical context," Yamashiro says, "these images are enlightening about the views of the time period, and they help reveal how those views have changed."

In the past two years, the institute's own archives, which formerly were inaccessible, have been opened up for special research projects. These archives contain documentation from the institute's past and ongoing research projects, as well as correspondence. "Kinsey kept records of all of his correspondence with thousands of people," says Dr. John Bancroft, a clinical professor of psychiatry at IUB and director of the institute. "He corresponded with an enormously wide range of people, many of them famous, many ordinary individuals contacting him for advice. He answered all of the letters and kept copies. They discussed all sorts of issues, even bits from diaries and memoirs and about private problems and concerns." In addition, there are reports, field notes, unpublished manuscripts, and personal diaries. "The archives are a gold mine of historical information," Bancroft says. "They have letters and memos documenting how different institute policies were originated over the years and harsh personal letters criticizing the institute. These archives are one of the institute's big strengths -this is the primary source material historians and other researchers hunt for." According to Judith Allen, a professor of history, director of women's studies at IUB, and a member of the institute's collections advisory board, the collections are "potentially the leading world repository for archives and manuscripts critical to the history of sexuality, sex research, sexology, and the legal, religious, and cultural regulation of sexual practices and behaviors."

The archives also include the records of eighteen thousand original interviews conducted during Kinsey's collection of sexual histories for research. This data, which in many respects remains the most comprehensive set of questions about the sexual experiences of a large number of people, is still being used by researchers. While its somewhat unrepresentative nature limits its usefulness for establishing the prevalence of specific behaviors, its depth of detail allows many specific research questions, examining relationships between different variables, to be addressed.

To ensure that additions to the collections are supporting the institute's overall goals, the institute established the collections advisory board in 1995. The board guides the institute on the further development of its collections by identifying areas that are sufficiently strong to justify further acquisitions and those are that are sufficiently weak, or covered better elsewhere, to warrant no further attention. It was the board's conclusion that the institute should give priority to the photography collection and to its archives, and these form the basis for two external grant applications currently in preparation. A recent award of funding from IU's Strategic Directions Charter and matching funds from the Office of Research and the University Graduate School now make both of these external grant applications feasible. If successful, the result will be collections that are not only secure, in conservation terms, but much more accessible to scholars through modern accessing technology. The library collection will be the next to receive the board's close attention, while the film collection has been temporarily stored off-site during the refurbishment of the institute's fifth floor.

The institute collections are not part of IU's library system and are not open to the public. Each year, however, there are four hundred to six hundred research visits by qualified scholars, scientists, professionals, media representatives, and students with a demonstrable research need who are at least eighteen years old. Some materials in the collections have additional donor restrictions. For instance, some materials are inaccessible until fifty years after the donor's death, with the exception of senior institute staff members. Researchers have used the collections to address topics ranging from sex and aging, gender identity disorder, and lesbian pornography to honeymoons, health reform eras, and white slavery in Victorian England.
The collection itself is private, owned by the not-for-profit corporation, which is part of the institute. "No public funds are used for acquisitions," Harter says. "We rely on what donors give us, royalties on published materials, and cash donations." To a large extent, the further development of the collections will continue to depend on donations. Hundreds of books and other materials are donated each year. Previously any donation was accepted; now, for reasons of space and the staff time in processing, donations are only accepted if they are consistent with the institute's collection development policy. Some donors ask for their identity to remain confidential and their wishes are respected. Others want their donations known, and the institute is currently working on a better system for acknowledgment of donors. Donations come from a variety of sources, including artists, collectors, relatives of artists or collectors, libraries that find erotica while processing gift collections, and researchers of sexuality. The motivation behind almost all donations is the desire to have the materials and collections preserved for posterity and accessible to scholars.

"The works in these collections may represent attitudes, but they also work to shape attitudes," Yamashiro says. "As with any piece of work, there is a conversation between the piece and the viewer that speaks on a number of levels. That conversation is enriched by having the broad range of materials, from commercial to amateur to fine art." According to Bancroft, "attitudes about sexuality are important in shaping behavior. At a time when we are grappling in our society with a number of major problems related to sex, understanding the factors that shape and influence attitudes is crucially important. When striving to intervene in a socially constructive fashion, we need to know much more about the variety of ways in which sexual attitudes are expressed today, and how that differs from other time periods and across cultures. The collections of the Kinsey Institute are a unique resource that can aid that endeavour." Kinsey