Retired University of Saskatchewan librarian Neil Richards has made it his life's work to create a collection of LGBT history and life. The result is one of the largest collections of gay and lesbian related archives in the country. 

"It's probably the thing I'm most proud of in my life," said Richards. 

The materials include thousands of books, buttons, posters, and flags used by activists and it covers many eras including the settlement era in the Prairies.

'They're probably the finest of any library collection in Canada'

Richards said the university did a survey a couple of years ago which showed the U of S collection of 10,000 books made it the largest collection of LGBT related books of any university library. The Saskatchewan Board of Archives, which is also housed in the library building includes other material such as manuscripts.

Together, he said, "they're probably the finest of any library collection in Canada."

Richards has been doing this work for four decades. He was involved in the gay movement in the 1970s. He also describes himself as a "furious" collector. 

Initially Richards started collecting on his own and sending items to the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Ontario, an organization that says it is the largest such independent archives in the world. But he decided it was important to keep materials that were created in Saskatchewan in the same province since there would be long term interest from the local population.

He said he never felt he had to hide the collection. 

"I didn't have a lot of social pressure either since I didn't have a family in Saskatchewan which I think held many people back at that time."

Neil Richards

Retired U of S librarian Neil Richards has amassed a major collection of lesbian, gay and transgender materials from over the decades. The collection is one of the largest LGBT archives in the country. (Leisha Grebinski/CBC)

Some of the items date back to before the First World War

Many of the materials in the collection date back to before the First World War. 

"People at the time wouldn't be describing themselves or described as gay, or lesbian or transgender," he said. "But there are many instances where we find examples of gender variant people and also same sex affection among both men and women in the settlement era." 

Some documents include court records of people who came into conflict with the law. 

Richards said even if people may not have defined themselves as gay or lesbian in the same way we might understand now, there were many examples of men and women showing variance around gender lines.

"We have lots of post cards of men holding hands or embracing each, [or] women kissing, which is something I don't think people expect to find in the past." 

Richards said the collection is now one of the most used collections at the archives.

"It tells me that people aren't afraid or timid about looking out for information." 

Richards added the gay community is much larger now and much more diverse. 

The Neil Richards Collection of Sexual and Gender Diversity.is housed at both the U of S archives and the Saskatchewan archives, which is also located on campus.