digitization: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

I learned this week that Reveal Digital has digitized On Our Backs (OOB), a lesbian porn magazine that ran from 1984-2004. This is a part of the Independent Voices collection that “chronicles the transformative decades of the 60s, 70s and 80s through the lens of an independent alternative press.” For a split second I was really excited — porn that was nostalgic for me was online! Then I quickly thought about friends who appeared in this magazine before the internet existed. I am deeply concerned that this kind of exposure could be personally or professionally harmful for them.

While Reveal Digital went through the proper steps to get permission from the copyright holder, there are ethical issues with digitizing collections like this. Consenting to a porn shoot that would be in a queer print magazine is a different thing to consenting to have your porn shoot be available online. I’m disappointed in my profession. Librarians have let down the queer community by digitizing On Our Backs.

Why is this collection different?

The nature of this content makes it different from digitizing textual content or non-pornographic images. We think about porn differently than other types of content.

Most of the OOB run was published before the internet existed. Consenting to appear in a limited run print publication is very different than consenting to have one’s sexualized image be freely available on the internet. These two things are completely different. Who in the early 90s could imagine what the internet would look like in 2016?

In talking to some queer pornographers, I’ve learned that some of their former models are now elementary school teachers, clergy, professors, child care workers, lawyers, mechanics, health care professionals, bus drivers and librarians. We live and work in a society that is homophobic and not sex positive. Librarians have an ethical obligation to steward this content with care for both the object and with care for the people involved in producing it.

How could this be different?

Reveal Digital does not have a clear takedown policy on their website. A takedown policy describes the mechanism for someone to request that digital content be taken off a website or digital collection. Hathi’s Trust’s takedown policy is a good example of a policy around copyright. When I spoke to Peggy Glahn, Program Director for Reveal Digital she explained there isn’t a formal takedown policy. Someone could contact the rights holder (the magazine publisher, the photographer, or the person who owns the copyright to the content) and have them make the takedown request to Reveal Digital. Even for librarians it’s sometimes tricky to track down the copyright holder of a magazine that’s not being published anymore. By being stewards of this digital content I believe that Reveal Digital has an ethical obligation to make this process clearer.

I noticed that not all issues are available online. Peggy Glahn said that they digitized copies from Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History & Culture at Duke University and Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University but they are still missing many of the later issues. More issues should not be digitized until formal ethical guidelines have been written. This process should include consultation with people who appeared in OOB.

There are ways to improve access to the content through metadata initiatives. I’m really, really excited by Bobby Noble and Lisa Sloniowski‘s proposed project exploring linked data in relation to Derrida and feminism. I’ve loved hearing how Lisa’s project has shifted from a physical or digital archive of feminist porn to a linked data project documenting the various relationships between different people. I think the current iteration avoids dodgy ethics while exploring new ways of thinking about the content and people through linked data. Another example of this is Sarah Mann’s index of the first 10 years of OOB for the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archive.

We need to have an in depth discussion about the ethics of digitization in libraries. The Zine librarian’s Code of Ethics is the best discussion of these issues that I’ve read. There two ideas that are relevant to my concerns are about consent and balancing interests between access to the collection and respect for individuals.

Whenever possible, it is important to give creators the right of refusal if they do not wish their work to be highly visible.

Because of the often highly personal content of zines, creators may object to having their material being publicly accessible. Zinesters (especially those who created zines before the Internet era) typically create their work without thought to their work ending up in institutions or being read by large numbers of people. To some, exposure to a wider audience is exciting, but others may find it unwelcome. For example, a zinester who wrote about questioning their sexuality as a young person in a zine distributed to their friends may object to having that material available to patrons in a library, or a particular zinester, as a countercultural creator, may object to having their zine in a government or academic institution.

Consent is a key feminist and legal concept. Digitizing a feminist porn publication without consideration for the right to be forgotten is unethical.

The Zine librarian’s Code of Ethics does a great job of articulating the tension that sometimes exists between making content available and the safety and privacy of the content creators:

To echo our preamble, zines are “often weird, ephemeral, magical, dangerous, and emotional.” Dangerous to whom, one might ask? It likely depends on whom one asks, but in the age of the Internet, at least one prospectively endangered population are zinesters themselves. Librarians and archivists should consider that making zines discoverable on the Web or in local catalogs and databases could have impacts on creators – anything from mild embarrassment to the divulging of dangerous personal information.

Zine librarians/archivists should strive to make zines as discoverable as possible while also respecting the safety and privacy of their creators.

I’ve heard similar concerns with lack of care by universities when digitizing traditional Indigenous knowledge without adequate consultation, policies or understanding of cultural protocols. I want to learn more about Indigenous intellectual property, especially in Canada. It’s been a few years since I’ve looked at Mukurtu, a digital collection platform that was built in collaboration with Indigenous groups to reflect and support cultural protocols. Perhaps queers and other marginalized groups can learn from Indigenous communities about how to create culturally appropriate digital collections.

Librarians need to take more care with the ethical issues, that go far beyond simple copyright clearances, when digitizing and putting content online.

8 thoughts on “digitization: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”

  1. You called it porn… but many of the contributors called it “erotic lesbian publication breaking new ground–images and stories by lesbians about our complex erotics..” if I may quote Joan Nestle.
    Your use of the word porn is a choice, and limits the effect and meaning of OOB to a complicated structure of values. For librarians the responsibilities are in providing a context, a proper place from which to interpret.

  2. Saskia, to clarify you don’t like that I categorize On Our Backs as porn?

    To me the only difference between “erotic publication” and “porn” is that the latter includes photos or video, the former may not. There’s no ethical judgement that one is good or one is bad for me.

    My main point is that there are ethical considerations beyond just copyright clearance that we need to consider. Especially for this publication, as it’s porn, and was created pre-internet days.

  3. I think you are limiting it by calling it porn. The women who made it did not limit themselves to just that label. Many of the women in it were and are very proud of their contributions and don’t want to see this limitation. Yes, we need to talk about who owns what. But maybe this was all discussed with the women who are still very much active… and proud of this.

  4. I doubt those of us who proudly label our political, personal, vulnerable creations as “porn” and those who feel misrepresented by association with the term are going to come wholly into accord. Not this week, anyway. We might agree to recognize that there is diversity of opinion within our communities on this and many other topics, as there should be. Conversations are more interesting that way.

    I personally began to shoot and model/perform in explicit sexual content around the time of OOB’s first publication. Though to my knowledge the magazine has never used my photos, I was then and am still in close contact with people whose images were featured in it. I believe I can speak with some accuracy to what was *not* discussed in the context of making photographic representations for what was then presumed to be limited, mostly intra-community distribution.

    Photographers and models in the 80s were not warning or warned about having a potentially infinite audience in perpetuity. We were not warning or warned about facial recognition software becoming more able daily to correlate faces with names. We were not warning or warned about parasitic industries whose income would derive solely from making those correlations in very public forums. These issues did not exist then, but are now very real parts of informed consent with regard to making or appearing in explicit sexual representations.

    I think digitizing independent, political, sensitive, pre-internet content imposes upon it dramatically new conditions of distribution. Regardless of the legal minimum standard for what constitutes consent in these circumstances, responsibility and care might dictate new conditions deserving a new contract.

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