Not all information wants to be free

It was an honour to be invited to give the closing keynote at LITA Forum. I have never been asked to do a keynote, so I was equal parts terrified and excited.

Here’s the text from my talk. I’d love to know what you think: @tararobertson on Twitter or email me.

Note: the Creative Commons license for these slides differs from the rest of the content on this site. These slides are licensed with an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license as they contain extended quotes that are not mine, and while most of the of the images are CC-BY licensed, several are not.

Title slide - Not all information wants to be free: ethical considerations for digitization, LITA Forum, November 2016,, Tara Robertson, @tararobertson, CC-BY-NC-ND

Land acknowledgement

I am from Vancouver, Canada which is the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations. Unceded means that the land was never sold, given, or released to any colonial government. In Canada we’re thinking a lot about relationships between settlers and First Nations in many areas of society.

In Canada we’re still deeply feeling the effects of colonization and the effects of Residential Schools where the church and state tried together to “kill the Indian in the child”. Through the process of Truth and Reconciliation we’ve witnessed the stories of people who survived and heard about the massive amount of physical, sexual and emotional abuse that occurred. The Truth and Reconciliation Report called this cultural genocide. Despite systemic efforts from the church and the state to erase Aboriginal people in Canada these nations and cultures continue to persevere, resist, and First Nations and settlers are actively working to break the cycle of violence and trauma.

I’m half-Japanese-Canadian and my family was interned during WWII in Canada. So for me a settler, learning and naming whose land I’m on is a small thing that I’m committed to doing as part of the process of decolonization and reconciliation with First Nations.

Even with the help of several librarians I wasn’t able to find out whose homeland we have been conferencing on. If you know, I’d love to learn how to appropriately acknowledge this.

powerlines with transmission towers that look like giant abstract people holding the powerlines up over the landscape
Choi+Shine Architects. The Land of Giants. (used with permission)


For me the land impacts my thinking quite a bit. While I was born in Vancouver, I grew up in a northern logging town halfway between Washington state and Alaska. While I live in a city now, a lot of the technology work I’ve done supports people in rural areas and seeks to bridge the digital divide.

I’ve worked in libraries for 13 years, 9 of which I’ve been a librarian. I’ve worked doing training and support for small public libraries who migrated to Evergreen, an open source ILS. I’ve worked as a systems librarian at a small art and design college, and currently do accessibility work to remove barriers for students with print disabilities by format shifting their textbooks.

I love this image from Choi+Shine Architects’ concept drawings for powerlines in Iceland. I feel like this photo illustrates the technology work I’ve done in libraries. When having a imposter syndrome moment at a conference, a colleague said, “I think of the technology work you do is the last mile”. So, while I’m not at the front breaking new ground and innovating, I’m chugging along behind making sure everyone can access information.

I became a librarian because I’m passionate about access to information. My core values are around “open”: open source, open access, open textbooks and open education. So, why am I arguing that all information should not be accessible?

Before I get into that, I’d like to tell you about one of my favourite writers.

Amber Dawn

cover of Amber Dawn's book How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler's Memoir

Amber Dawn is a writer, a poet, and a creative writing instructor at a couple of universities and in community driven art and healing spaces.

In the preface to How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, she writes:

…my writing does not stand on its own. My writing is comprised of the lives, deaths, struggles, and the work, accomplishments, alliances, and love of many. My writing is indebted to queers and feminists, sex workers and radical culture makers, nonconformists and trailblazers, artists and healers, missing women and justice fighters. My writing stands with those who also have been asked—in one way or another—to edit their bios.

Thank you

list of 33 people, see:

I feel a great deal of gratitude towards many people who inspire me and have my back.

I’m one of those annoying extroverts who needs to think out loud. I appreciate the generosity that all of these people have extended to me. These people are friends, colleagues, comrades, librarians, sex worker activists, academics, feminists, queers, artists and pornographers. I think it’s important for me to acknowledge all of these people as extended feminist citation practice but also because I wouldn’t have the courage to speak today. I’m standing on the shoulders of these giants.

I feel privileged to talk to you today about some of the ethical issues I’m concerned about in digitization. For me I need to step out of my comfort and safety of being a professional and share my personal stake in this conversation.

Amber Dawn writes:

If comfort or credibility is to be gained by omitting parts of myself, then I don’t want comfort or credibility. I am not ashamed of my bio. What would be a shame is if I were to fall silent. Each time I bring my fingers to the keyboard, I join the many who also seek to explore and discover seldom-told stories, speak the tough and tender words that are too rarely articulated in day-to-day discourse, and create that place where we have permission to express emotions.

Red umbrellas

5 open red umbrellas in a tree

The first time I did sex work, I was 19 years old and studying Japanese at the University of Victoria. I was a macho third wave feminist and I was broke. I dipped in and out of different types of sex work over the next 15 years, usually while doing some other straight job as well. I worked at Legal Aid while I worked at a BDSM brothel and worked at the public library while I worked as an escort. My shame kept these two work lives very separate and I was unable to speak to many people about my experiences. I don’t think sex work is shameful work, but the judgements and assumptions that are made about sex workers has made me wary and careful about where I’ve talked about these parts of my life.

Until very recently this isn’t something that I ever talked about.

It’s interesting to be a stealth about my sex work history while working in higher education. I’ve heard a lot of very educated people say some very ignorant things when they were describing sex workers with simplistic stereotypes. At last year’s Open Ed conference the participant swag were red umbrellas. It rains a lot in Vancouver, so that makes sense. What the organizers didn’t know is that red umbrellas are the symbol for sex worker rights. 

Montreal Out Games, 2006

5 different photos of participants from around at the world at the Workers Out human rights conference

When I was working at the public library as a library assistant I was selected to represent my union at an international LGBT labour union conference in Montreal that was part of the Out Games. One of the goals was to produce a proclamation on LGBT human rights. We met in various caucus groups to learn about issues from different countries and the issues facing workers in different industries.

The plenary took place in a large, generic, beige conference room with a panel at the front of the room on the stage, mic in the middle of the centre aisle, and the simultaneous translation booths at the back. In the caucus meetings leading up to the plenary I’d listened to many of the older feminist union leaders talking about us sex workers as pitiful and naive victims who were undeserving of workplace protections.

I hadn’t planned on speaking, so I’m not sure how I ended up at the mic. My hands and my voice were shaking. I remember introducing myself as a feminist, a sex worker and a library worker. I said inherent in the phrase “sex worker” was that we were workers and like all workers should be entitled to a safe and respectful workplace. After I felt super overwhelmed and my hearing started to go, like it does before I black out. Through my inadequate high school French and some professional translators I had a passionate discussion with some of the feminist leaders of the Quebec labour movement who had done a 180 and were now supporting including explicit protections for sex workers in the proclamation. Svend Robinson (that’s me and him in the top left photo), Canada’s first openly gay national politician, crossed the floor and gave me a big hug and told me how proud he was of me for strategically coming out to facilitate a more inclusive proclamation. Speaking from my experience was really powerful for me because I changed people’s attitudes about sex workers.

ProQuest: Canadian Major Dailies

screenshot of ProQuests' Canadian Major Dailies datatbase with "Action plan on rights set up [Final Edition]" article

What I didn’t know was that a reporter from the Montreal Gazette was in the room. The next morning while reading the newspaper I almost threw up when I saw I had been quoted in the newspaper as “Tara Robertson, Vancouver public librarian and former sex worker”.

Honestly about half my fear was the wrath of librarians policing the border between paraprofessionals, which I was, and their credentialed selves. The various types of sex work I had done had always been under a pseudonym and with the makeup and wigs, I wasn’t easily recognized as my library worker persona. I was angry and scared. I didn’t know that there were media in the room and I hadn’t intended to come out, let alone make a public, searchable record of it.

The Montreal Gazette is indexed in a couple of ProQuest databases. My biggest fear, earlier in my career, was that I would be outed through a thorough reference check for a job. People would be searching for “Tara Robertson and libraries” and discover that I was a former sex worker. This is one of the reasons that I purchased my website domain when I was a library school student. I wanted to do what I could to control what came up when people searched for me.

I didn’t have the courage to retrieve this article until earlier this year.

Reflect Look inside. By yourself think about a time when you felt shame. You will not be asked to share these thoughts with others.

This is a self reflection exercise and I will not be asking you to share your thoughts out loud with other people. For the next minute you may want to close your eyes. I’d like you to think about a time when you felt shame.

What caused this shame? Where do you feel shame in your body? Who has seen your shame? What would it be like if your shame was public?

On Our Backs

screenshot of On Our Backs in Reveal Digital's Independent Voices collection

I know firsthand what it’s like to have information on the internet that I didn’t consent to, the fear that it could harm my career, and the double standard against women’s sexuality in our culture.

In March of this year I learned that Reveal Digital has digitized On Our Backs, a lesbian porn magazine that ran from 1984-2004. It had actually been online for several years before I learned about it. For a brief moment 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 was worried that this kind of exposure could be personally or professionally harmful for them.

While Reveal Digital claims to have gone 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 talked to a few people I know who modelled and they generously agreed to give me quotes to use in this talk.

Quote #1


From the first discussion with the editors, I knew I had to weigh what appearing in the magazine might cost me in my work and community life. But at the time, I felt that the magazine had a small print run, and was sold in queer spaces to queer audiences.

When I realized the distribution was broader, I requested that my name not be added to metadata, and tried to do my best to protect myself. The editors respected my request and even had the UK distributor edit their tags and metadata for me.

Quote #1 continued


When I heard all the issues of the magazine are being digitized, my heart sank. I meant this work to be for my community and now I am being objectified in a way that I have no control over. People can cut up my body and make it a collage. My professional and public life can be high jacked. These are uses I never intended and I still don’t want.

Quote #2


I actually never consented to have my photoshoot published in On Our Backs in print, in 2002. My ex and I were in a photoshoot specifically for a photographer’s book on kink in 1993—before the first web browser was released!—and signed a model contract for limited use. So 9 years later, I felt fairly fucked over to discover this shoot in On Our Backs–with our real names on the cover–after it had already been out for over a month.

This person works in the tech industry and as a queer woman has to work harder to be taken seriously as an expert in her field. She’s worried that if this is digitized, with her name on the cover, it’ll impact what is searchable under her name.

Quote #2 continued


“It’s one thing to have regrets over what you’ve published, but I actually never consented to have this photoshoot published by On Our Backs in the first place, let alone digitally.”

Quote from Amber Dawn Quote from Amber Dawn

In 2005, I co-edited a queer erotica anthology titled With A Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn. The collection marked many things for me, the most significant of which was my coming out as a queer, femme sex worker and survivor within published writing. I was motivated by the growing number of mentors and peers who had spoken up before me, and also by the much larger number of sex workers and survivors I knew who did not have the privilege or ability to speak up. The evolving sex-positive and social justice values of the mid-2000s did not protect me from fear and stigma I faced coming out. Backlash, I discovered, was very real consequence. I quickly learned importance of making strategic and self-caring choices about where to use my voice and body.”

Some early decisions Amber Dawn made for herself included:

  1. to only speak, publish or showcase body art in forums where she can directly speak to and negotiate with the editor or curator,
  2. where she understands the intended audience to be communities that share similar sex-positive and social justice values and
  3. where she has the ability to directly connect with audiences and foster future respectful dialogue.

Amber Dawn says that choosing to appear in OOB in 2005 allowed her to adhere 3 of these conditions.

Quote from Amber Dawn continued


Years later, the digitization of On Our Backs strips me of all three. What was once a dignified choice now feels like a violation of my body, my voice and my right to choose. In no small way is the digitization a perpetuation of how sex workers, survivors and queer bodies have been historically and pervasively coopted. How larger, often institutional, forces have made decisions without consulting us or considering our personal well-being.

Ethics of care


These three quotes clearly illustrate that these people had clear ideas about the content, how they wanted it viewed and used. They all have sophisticated and nuanced understandings of media representation and how they wanted to be represented.

The consent issues here are dodgy. For the first woman there was an agreement that this content would never be online. For the second woman there was no consent given to even appear in the magazine. For Amber Dawn having OOB digitized and put online violated the conditions that she had decided were critical for her.

Even the copyright issue is complicated: the photographer would’ve held copyright, not the models. The photographer would’ve then either handed over copyright to the magazine, signed over copyright for a specified time period, or agreed to have them published and retained copyright. OOB doesn’t exist anymore, so it takes some sleuthing to track down who now owns the rights. When I was at Cornell I visited the Rare Book and Manuscripts Collection to sift through Susie Bright’s papers. Susie Bright is a sex positive feminist who cofounded and edited OOB from 1984-1991. I found copies of contributor agreements. Some of them were for one time rights only, or for first time North American serial rights, or for a period of one year from a specific date.

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. This could negatively impact many people’s careers and lives.

When I brought up these concerns in March the most common critique from librarians was about our responsibility to be good stewards of our collections. A few librarians viewed this as limit on open access and worried about censorship. A year ago these would’ve been the same points that I would have made.

We talk about our responsibility to the collections, but what about our responsibility to communities. In this case I found myself caught between my profession and one of my communities, and I noticed that my opinion changed. “The community” wasn’t an abstract notion, it was the people who gave me those generous quotes. I could see their faces and empathize with their fears and feelings that institutions had screwed them over again.

If you haven’t read Bethany Nowviskie’s piece on Capacity and Care I highly recommend it. In discussing the application of an ethic of care Nowviskie says:

…let’s create more cultural heritage platforms that promote an understanding of the vulnerability of the individual person and object. Let our visualization systems more beautifully express the relationship of parts, one to another and to many a greater whole.

Reveal Digital takes down OOB


On August 24, 2016 Reveal Digital announced that they were temporarily removing access to the OOB content. The main reason they gave was took this collection down citing minors access to pornography, the privacy concerns I raised and the need to consult with community.

I was happy to hear that they had removed this content from the web, even if it is temporarily. However, I feel very conflicted about the work that Reveal Digital is doing. On one hand I admire that they’ve figured out a unique business model and a way to work with libraries to digitize and make independent media accessible on the web. On the other hand I feel that naming restricting access to minors as the first reason for why On Our Backs as been temporarily removed is odd. While citing the Greenberg v. National Geographic Society ruling Reveal Digital says it gives “the legal right to create a faithful digital reproduction of the publication, without the need to obtain permissions from individual contributors”. When I first started talking to them about my concerns they defined community narrowly, basically as the libraries that are funding their work. Thankfully they’ve broadened their idea of community in this instance to include “publishers, contributors, libraries, archives, researchers, and others”.

In an interview in The Charleston Advisor Peggy Glahn, Project Manager at Reveal Digital, stated that future projects will focus on zines. She said that they would be “working in close partnership with librarians who are currently following the Zine Librarians Code of Ethics and intend to be in full compliance with this document when we do work with zine content.” This statement is a bit odd for me as the Zine Librarians Code of Ethics is not a technical standard or legal code that one could be in full compliance with. The Zine Librarians Code of Ethics says “This document aims to support you in asking questions, rather than to provide definitive answers.”

Zine Librarians Code of Ethics

screenshot of the cover of the Zine Librarians Code of Ethics

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

Zines are often highly personal and some authors might find the wider exposure exciting, but others might 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.

The Zine Librarians 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:

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.

Delgamuukw Trial Transcripts

screenshot of UBC Library's Open Collections, Delgamuuk Trial Transcripts

Here’s another example of something that shouldn’t have been digitized.

The Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Delgamuukw case (PDF) in 1997 is widely seen as a landmark case for treaty negotiations. During the trial Delgamuukw elders testified and shared information that would not normally be shared outside their community. They chose to break cultural protocols for the greater good of their community’s land rights. As this was in the courts their testimonies were part of the court record.

These trial transcripts are widely available in print in law libraries across Canada. At the request of UBC’s Law Library they were digitized. As you can see in the screenshot, these are part of UBC’s “Open Collections”.

Even though these materials are widely available in print at law libraries across Canada, some people believe that UBC should not have digitized this collection. There was an acknowledgement that a policy is needed, but this collection is still up while there’s slow progress towards writing the overall policy. UBC should take this collection down while they consult with the nations whose traditional knowledge was put online without their consent.


screenshot of Mukurtu website

So, I’ve showed you a couple of examples of digitization projects that I consider really problematic. What’s a better way to do this?

Mukurtu is a Warumungu word meaning a safe keeping place for sacred materials. The Warumungu are a group of Indigenous people in Australia.

Mukurtu is an awesome grassroots project aiming to empower communities to manage, share, preserve, and exchange their digital heritage in culturally relevant and ethically-minded ways. It’s open source and community driven. The top priority is to help build a platform that fosters relationships of respect and trust.

Mukurtu allows you to set up complex permissions, for both digital objects and users, so that the digital access mirrors existing cultural protocols around accessing information. I also love how the community can contribute metadata alongside our spare institutional metadata.

This summer I attended one of their twice monthly online office hour sessions. This is a great strategy for open source software projects. It’s really accessible, welcoming and while documentation is good, it’s great to talk to someone who really knows the software. Alex Merrill did a great demo and was able to answer all of my questions about how permissions work.

Traditional knowledge (TK)


I was at a loss of what to put for an image here. I thought of a variety of First Nations technologies, and then decided it was best to leave it blank. These aren’t my cultural traditions and it didn’t feel like it was my place to pick an image for this slide.

I’ve read several of Greg Younging’s publications on traditional knowledge and copyright. I love the ideas he’s introduced me to and how accessible his writing is.

In the recently released (July 2016) IFLA publication Indigenous Notions of Ownership and Libraries, Archives and Museums he has a chapter where he gives many examples of customary laws around the use of traditional knowledge. These vary greatly between indigenous nations and include:

  • certain plant harvesting, songs, dances, stories, and dramatic performances
    which can only be performed/recited in certain settings, seasons and for certain cultural reasons;
  • artistic aspects of TK, such as songs, dances, stories, dramatic performances, and herbal and medicinal techniques which can only be shared in certain settings or spiritual ceremonies with individuals who have earned, inherited, or gone through a cultural or educational process.

These are just two examples, Younging identifies several more.

Younging lists 3 major ways that TK and Western system of intellectual property rights clash:

  1. that expressions of TK often cannot qualify for protection because they are too old and are, therefore, supposedly in the public domain;
  2. that the “author” of the material is often not identifiable and there is thus no “rights holder” in the usual sense of the term;
  3. that TK is owned “collectively” by indigenous groups for cultural claims and not by individuals or corporations for economic claims.

So, what is a good way to respond to these conflicts?

TK labels

Screenshot of

There are some TK licenses that have been developed for when people own the copyright for their traditional knowledge. But what about cases where someone else, like a museum or a library holds the copyright to traditional knowledge that belongs to an Indigenous group? TK labels were designed for this scenario. TK labels are educational and informational. They are not legal tools.

I watched a video of Kim Christen Withey speaking on TK. She says:

Many Indigenous knowledge systems rely on protocols. Many of the protocols have to do with *not* seeing, which very much is the antithesis of the Western “seeing is believing”. You have to see it to know it. And these systems are saying you don’t get to see it or know it—deal with it.

Last summer I went to the c̓əsnaʔəm exhibition where the Musqueam nation told the story of their history and culture in their own words. One of the most impactful things was a display case with photo of a bowl. The actual bowl wasn’t inside. The explanation read:

Our relationships with the spiritual and sacred world are personal and private. Some belongings, such as those used in ceremonies and the ornate stone bowls used for mixing medicines, were the property of powerful ritualists who lived at c̓əsnaʔəm. These belongings remain spiritually potent and can be dangerous. They must not be touched or viewed by people who do not have the proper ritual training, hereditary privileges, or ceremonial knowledge.

Like Kim Christen Withey said “you don’t get to see it, deal with it”.

At they explain that working with the community is necessary to use TK labels:

Using the TK Labels requires community decision-making. This is especially the case for cultural material that is not owned individually but should be managed collectively by your local community. The decision-making processes for using these TK Labels should be established before you choose which labels will suit your needs. The TK Labels can also facilitate dialogue about what options are more appropriate for your local context, and what kinds of conversations need to happen before even using or developing the TK Labels. Each family, clan or community will have different processes and frameworks for decision-making.

Moko: or Maori Tattooing (1896)

Maori man who has the right side of his face tattooed.

Moko; or Maori Tattooing was published in 1896 by Chapman & Hall in London. Horatio Gordon Robley wrote this book, and it contained many illustrations that he did of mokomakai. According to Wikipedia: “Mokomokai are the preserved heads of Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, where the faces have been decorated by tā moko tattooing. They became valuable trade items during the Musket Wars of the early 19th century.”

This is an important historical book for New Zealand so the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection wanted to digitize it. They wrote a thoughtful report that includes background information, outlines a range of digitization options, describes the community consultation process and concludes with the digitization path that they chose. I love that they’ve put their report online, which raises awareness of the issues that surround digitization of textual taonga, or cultural treasures.

The six perceived options for digitization ranged from:

  • Present everything online.
  • Provide access to all content except photographs of mokamokai.
  • Provide access to all content except photos and line drawings of mokamokai.
  • Provide access to all content except all photos of people and line drawings of mokamokai.
  • Provide access to text only.
  • Suppress everything.

They consulted with academics, librarians and curators, and with communities.

Academics were generally in favour of retaining the integrity of the book in the interests of scholarship by presenting all the content online.

Librarians and curators had a wide variety of opinions. Some concerns were “expressed about both the public display of images of ancestral remains and the potential for the moko themselves to be copied and used in inappropriate ways when made globally accessible online”. As parts of the book had been digitized by Google Books some felt that it was better that a New Zealand organization was digitizing New Zealand historical materials.

People from user and source communities also had a wide variety of opinions. One artist was against, it as he felt that wide dissemination of moko designs might result in others profiting from them. Suggestions were made that they should contact the family of those in the images to ask for permission to display them or to have a way of dealing with grievances and requests from family asking them to remove the images.

In the end they decided to present the text with all associated images except those depicting mokamokai or human remains. They also stated that they were open to altering their decision. They were willing to remove images of people’s ancestors as well as willing to add information about people’s ancestors.

Spare Rib

2 covers of Spare Rib magazine. Left one shows a woman standing behind giant photos of an iron, teapot and spool of thread. Right: illustration of a short haired woman with her hand resting on her chin

Michelle Morovec, a historian of women’s culture and digital history at Rosemont College in Philadelphia introduced me to this case study. Spare Rib was a UK feminist magazine that was published from 1972-1993. In 2013 the British Library wanted to digitize and put the entire magazine run online. Unlike a mainstream magazine, Spare Rib was edited by a feminist collective who didn’t necessarily get copyright clearances for things they published. The British Library hired a copyright clearance officer who worked with some members of the collective to track down over 4,000 authors and artists who had contributed to Spare Rib.

A contributor named Gillian Spragg wasn’t opposed to the content being digitized and put online, but she found the request that contributors agree to have their content licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license to be problematic. She was worried that her feminist content could be remixed for anti-feminist purposes. In 2014 a law was passed that allowed “orphan works”, or work where the copyright holder can’t be found, to be digitized and the project went ahead. For each digital object there are clear rights statements. It’s also easy to find who to contact if you have more information about an object which I assume also includes if you know whose work it is, or if it’s yours and you want to have the licensed changed or have it removed from the website.

According to the British Library approximately 20% of the Spare Rib content has been removed from the website.

I love that they also have a page on Ethical Use acknowledge that the “usage guide is based on goodwill. It is not a legal contract. We ask that you respect it.”

Generate examples

Generate examples: In pairs discuss What are some other examples of culturally sensitive materials in libraries, archives and museums?

What are some other examples of culturally sensitive materials in libraries, archives and museums?

You’ll have 4 minutes, 2 minutes each to talk. I’ll give you a time check halfway through.

Community led digital projects

the night sky

Academic libraries can learn a lot from public libraries about how to work in community and with community.

In a toolkit on community-led libraries Annette DeFaveri talks about a time when she worked to build relationships with people in a homeless shelter and how it revealed some of her assumptions and biases. When she asked them what they might like from the library

One man said that he thought the library should give free courses in astronomy. Another person suggested that the library do astrology courses as well. Finally, someone else suggested that the library buy a telescope. This was a significant discussion for me and revealed many of the biases and prejudices I had brought to the work. I had expected people to talk about the importance of offering free coffee at the library or to discuss the dismal lack of wet weather beds in the community and ask what the library could do about that. I thought I would hear about all the issues that concerned me about homeless people in the community. After I left the shelter, I realized that the people I talked with had asked for things from the library that were relevant to their lives. They were interested in the night sky, astronomy, astrology and telescopes because they often slept outside and so spent significant amounts of time looking at the stars.

If the library worked with the community to co-create a digitization project from the start I think the process and the outcome could be awesome. Co-creation is much more than just consulting with the community on metadata, or tweaking a project that’s already done. It’s working with communities to identify the scope of the project, the process and what the final project will look like. We bring some knowledge of digitization, workflows and metadata, but I think we could let go of control a lot more and truly co-create with our communities. This could be transformative. Not just for the digital collections that we create, but for the relationships we have, and for libraries as a whole.

Problem solve

Problem Solve: In groups of 4 discuss How can we do a better job of digitizing and providing access to culturally sensitive materials? Add your ideas to this document:

How can we do a better job of digitizing culturally sensitive materials? 

Break into groups of 4 and discuss. Add your ideas to this Google Doc:


closeup of a microphone

I work at a really wonderful community college. In preparation for this talk, I had a few meetings to make sure that speaking about being a former sex worker wouldn’t compromise or cost me my job. Both my director and faculty association president had awesome, supportive responses. I used to describe myself as lucky, but more and more I’m realizing that it’s not luck—it’s privilege. Because I have this privilege I have a responsibility to speak up about these things.

I’d like to end with another quote from Amber Dawn. She writes about a social experiment she ran in the 90s when she would answer the question “what kind of work do you do?” with “prostitution.” She observed that this made people uncomfortable and speechless. She writes:

While this little investigation was by no means sound research, it revealed a larger truth—that to listen to and include sex workers’ voices in dialogue is a skill that we have not yet developed, just as we have not learned how to include the voices of anyone who does not conform to accepted behaviours or ideas. What does it mean to be given the rare and privileged opportunity to have a voice? To me, it means possibility and responsibility. It means nurturing my creativity and playing with personal storytelling, while honouring the profound strength and dignity of a largely invisible population of workers and survivors. It means revelling in the groundbreaking work of voices that have come before me.

I’d like to ask you to listen to the voices of the people in communities whose materials are in the collections that we care for. I’d also like to invite you to speak up where and when you can. As a profession we need to travel the last mile to build relationships with communities and listen to what they think is appropriate access, and then build systems that respect that.

Thank you.

Image credits

All images are CC-BY except for The Land of Giants, fingerlove, and the Spare Rib covers.

Thank you


I feel a great deal of gratitude towards many people who really have my back.

I’m one of those annoying extroverts who needs to think out loud. I appreciate the generosity that all of these people have extended to me. These people are friends, colleagues, comrades, librarians, sex worker activists, academics, feminists, queers, artists and pornographers. I think it’s important for me to acknowledge all of these people as extended feminist citation practice but also because I wouldn’t have the courage to speak today. I’m standing on the shoulders of these giants:

Carolyn Arthur

Safia Noble 

Baharak Yousefi

Emily Drabinski 

Elaine Miller

Vanessa Kwan 

Eli Manning

Christina Harlow

Francis Kayiwa

Mark Matienzo

Patricia Cia

Annette DeFaveri

Shirley Lew

Gwen Bird

Anne Olsen

Lindsay Tripp

Sarah Hunt

Carmen Suchy

Lynn Carter

Lia Friedman

Beth Davis

Jane Schmidt

Alison Macrina

Amy Buckland

Lisa Sloniowski

Jess Mitchell

Chanelle Gallant

Amber Dawn

Devra Polack

Sam Bradd

Stuart Yeates

Stephen Blaeser

Ruth Koleszar-Green

an interview and an article

It was a pleasure to do an interview with Jill Emery for her column “Heard on the Net” in The Charleston Advisor. She sent Peggy Glahn, Program Director, Reveal Digital, and I the same set of questions around developing the theme of balance of discovery and respect with primary resources.

I was also surprised to be mentioned in an article by Kritika Agarwal titled “Doing Right Online: Archivists Shape an Ethics for the Digital Age” in Perspectives on History in The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association. This thoughtful article mentions some awesome archivists and librarians and some really exciting projects, like Bergis Jules and Documenting the Now, Michelle Caswell and the South Asian American Digital Archive, and Kim Christen Withey and Mukurtu.

My day to day work as a librarian is more about accessibility and workflows, so it’s been energizing and satisfying to think about broader ethical and policy issues.

concerns about Reveal Digital’s statement about On Our Backs

This is my third post about Reveal Digital and On Our Backs. The first post in March outlines my objections with this content being put online. The second post has some contributor agreements I found in the Cornell’s Rare Books and Manuscripts collection and the notes from my talk at code4libNYS.

About a month ago Reveal Digital decided to temporarily take down the On Our Backs (OOB) content. I was happy to hear about this. However I’ve got several concerns about their public statement (PDF). First, I’m concerned that citing Greenberg v. National Geographic Society foreshadows that they are going to disregard contributor agreements and concerns and put the whole collection online. Second, I’m concerned that minors accessing porn is listed ahead of contributor privacy issues and that reflects Reveal Digital’s priorities. Finally, I’m glad that Reveal Digital has broadened their idea of community consultation from financial stakeholders to include publishers, contributors, libraries, archives, researchers, and others, however I’m still worried about whose voices will be centered in these discussions.


According to Reveal Digital the Greenberg v. National Geographic Society ruling says gives them “the legal right to create a faithful digital reproduction of the publication, without the need to obtain permissions from individual contributors”. ARL has a summary of this case and a 5 page brief written by Ben Grilliot, who was a legal intern for ARL at the time. I’m far from being an expert on US Copyright Law but I understand this to mean that if Reveal Digital digitizes the entire run of OOB without making any changes it doesn’t matter that contributor agreements has limitations. Even if this is legal, it is not ethical.

The ARL summary says “The Copyright Act is “media-neutral,” and libraries believe that it should allow publishers to take advantage of new technologies to preserve and distribute creative works to the public.” I spoke to 3 people who modelled for OOB and none of them consented to have their photos appear online (PDF). As librarians we can’t uncritically fight for access to information, we need to take a more nuanced approach.


I’m puzzled by “minors accessing sexually explicit content” as the first reason Reveal Digital listed.  I can understand that this might be a liability issue, but it’s not difficult to find porn on the internet, especially porn that is more explicit and hard core than the images in OOB. I’m confused by this. Reveal Digital describes OOB as filling “an important hole in the feminist digital canon and is an essential artifact of the ‘feminist sex wars'” so for me this is an unexpected reason. Their statement says that they need a window of time to make the necessary software upgrades to solve this issue. I’m disappointed that this reason is given ahead of contributor privacy.


I was really happy to read how Reveal Digital articulates the importance of contributor privacy:

On the more complex issue of contributor privacy, Reveal Digital has come to share the concerns expressed by a few contributors and others around the digitization of OOB and the potential impact it might have on contributor privacy. While we feel that OOB carries an important voice that should be preserved and studied, we also feel that the privacy wishes of individual contributors should have an opportunity to be voiced and honored.

I feel like the above statement shows that they really heard and understood the concerns that many of the contributors and I had.

Community consultation

I’m thrilled to read that Reveal Digital intends to consult with various communities including “publishers, contributors, libraries, archives, researchers, and others”.

Often when people talk about consultations they mention a need to balance interests. We reject that libraries are neutral, so we need to extend that understanding to community consultation processes like these. Contributors, especially many models, could have their lives damaged by this. Researchers seek to gain prestige, grants, tenure and promotion from access to this collection and don’t stand to lose much, if anything. Different communities have a different stake in these decisions. Also, these groups aren’t homogeneous–it’s likely that some contributors will want this content online, some will be OK with some parts, and others will not any of it online. I hope that centering contributor voices is something that Reveal Digital will build into their consultation plan.

This isn’t the first digitization process that has needed community consultation. We can learn from the consultation process that took place around the digitization of the book Moko: or Maori tattooing or around the digitization of the second wave feminist periodical Spare Rib in the UK (thanks Michelle Moravec for telling me about this). Academic libraries can also learn from how public libraries build relationships with communities.

update on On Our Backs and Reveal Digital

In March I wrote a post outlining the ethical issues of Reveal Digital digitizing On Our Backs, a lesbian porn magazine. Last week I spoke at code4lib NYS and shared examples of where libraries have digitized materials where they really shouldn’t have. My slides are online, and here’s a PDF of the slides with notes. Also: Jenna Freedman and I co-hosted a #critlib discussion on digitization ethics.

Susie Bright’s papers in Cornell’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Collection

A couple of weeks before code4lib NYS, I learned that Cornell has Susie Bright’s papers, which include some of the administrative records for On Our Backs. When I was at Cornell I visited the Rare Book and Manuscripts Collection and looked through this amazing collection. The first book of erotica I ever bought was Herotica, edited by Susie Bright, so it was especially amazing to see her papers. It was so exciting to see photo negatives or photos of images that became iconic for lesbians either in On Our Backs, or on the covers of other books. While the wave of nostalgia was fun, the purpose of my visit was to see if the contracts with the contributors were in the administrative papers.

I hit the jackpot when found a thin folder labelled Contributors Agreements. All of them weren’t there, but there were many contracts where the content creators did not sign over all rights to the magazine. Here are three examples.

This contributor contract from 1991 is for “one-time rights only”.


This contributor contract from 1988 is for “1st time N.A. serial rights”. In this context N.A. means North American. 


This contributor’s contract from 1985 is “for the period of one year, beginning 1.1.86”. 


Copyright and digitizing On Our Backs

Initially I thought that Reveal Digital had proper copyright clearances to put this content online. In addition to the above contributors contract examples, I talked to someone who modeled for On Our Backs (see slides 9 to 11 for model quotes) who said there was an agreement with the editor that the photo shoot would never appear online. These things make me wonder if the perceived current rights holder of this defunct magazine actually had the rights to grant to Reveal Digital to put this content online.

I’m still puzzled by Reveal Digital’s choice for a Creative Commons attribution (CC-BY) license. One of the former models describes how inappropriate this license is, and more worrisome as the lack of her consent in making this content available online.

People can cut up my body and make a collage. My professional and personal life can be high jacked. These are uses I never intended and still don’t want.

Response from Reveal Digital

Last week I spoke with Peggy Glahn, Program Director and part of the leadership team at Reveal Digital. She updated me on some Reveal Digital’s response to my critiques.

Takedown policy and proceedures

Peggy informed me that they had a takedown request and will be redacting some content and with their workflow it takes about 3 weeks to make those changes. She also said that they’ll be posting their takedown policy and process on their website but that there are technical challenges with their digital collections platform. It shouldn’t be difficult to link to a HTML page with the takedown policy, procedures and contact information. I’m not sure why this is a technical challenge. In the meantime, people can email with takedown requests. Reveal Digital will “assess each request on a case-by-case basis”.

Not removing this collection

I am really disappointed to hear that Reveal Digital does not have plans to take down this entire collection. Peggy spoke about a need to balance the rights of people accessing this collection and individual people’s right to privacy. It was nice to hear that they recognized that lesbian porn from the 80s and 90s differs from historical newspapers, both in content and in relative age. However by putting both types of collections on the web in the same way it feels like this is a shallow understanding of the differences.

Peggy mentioned that Reveal Digital had consulted the community and made the decision to leave this collection online. I asked who the community was in this case and she answered that the community was the libraries who are funding this initiative. This is an overly narrow definition of community, which is basically the fiscal stakeholders (thanks Christina Harlow for this phrase). If you work at one of these institutions, I’d love to hear what the consultation process looked like.

Community consultation is critical

As this is porn from the lesbian community in the 80s and 90s it is important that these people are consulted about their wishes and desires. Like most communities, I don’t think the lesbian and queer women’s community has ever agreed on anything, but it’s important that this consultation takes place. It’s also important to centre the voices of the queer women whose asses are literally on the page and respect their right to keep this content offline. I don’t have quick or simple solutions on how this can happen, but this is the responsibility that one takes on when you do a digitization project like this.

Learning from the best practices of digitizing traditional knowledge

The smart folks behind the Murkutu project, and Local Contexts (including the Traditional Knowledge labels) are leading the way in digitizing content in culturally appropriate and ethical ways. Reveal Digital could look at the thoughtful work that’s going on around the ethics of digitizing traditional knowledge as a blueprint for providing the right kind of access to the right people. The New Zealand Electronic Text Centre has also put a thoughtful paper outlining the consultation process and project outcomes how they to digitized the historic text Moko; or Maori tattooing.

After talking to several models who appeared in On Our Backs a common thread was that they did not consent to have their bodies online and that this posed a risk to their careers. Keeping this collection online is an act of institutional violence against the queer women who do not want this extremely personal information about themselves to so easily accessible online.

Librarians–we need to do better.

alternate formats: who pays?

text: "free the textbook" over a blue sky with white clouds and open books that look like they're flying

Yesterday a had a big realization. Many textbook publishers continue to publish inaccessible content and those costs are borne by the public education system through alternate format production. Publishers are not responsible for producing accessible material and universities and colleges purchase things that aren’t accessible to all their students and then pay again to make them accessible. In BC I’d estimate that at least $1 million per year is spent on obtaining or producing alternate formats. This is an access issue, a human rights issue, and it’s also an economics issue.

Here are some of the conversations and pieces of information that led to this observation.

Creating an Inclusive Quality Standard of Education

I was sad to miss The Guelph Accessibility Conference at University of Guelph last week. Karen McCall presented Creating an Inclusive Quality Standard of Education (PDF handouts of her slides) where she argues that access to education is a human right. At work I’m more focused on the technical workflows and had forgotten about the human rights issues around access to education. She says that “accommodation is the norm, rather than the exception” and that this keeps people with disabilities “on the periphery of society” (slide 3). She states that “what this does is shift “the ‘cost” of inclusive design and inclusive communities to the corporate sector instead of in primary, secondary and tertiary education” (slide 3).

Karen states that in the US $79 billion is spent on ICT (information communication technology) a year, so there is enough purchasing power to demand that things are accessible from the start. She argues that “the best way to ensure inclusive communities is to mandate the procurement of eAccessible only products and services” (slide 6). This would also encourage competition and innovation in the market, which would benefit everyone.

Universal design for learning workshops

Recently I’ve presented a few workshops on universal design for learning (UDL) with Amanda Coolidge and Sue Doner. These workshops build on the personas from the Accessibility Toolkit. The workshop materials are also CC-BY licensed, so feel free to use or adapt them.


Appendix: Redesign or Accommodation Activity Guidelines

In this workshop we also compare disability accommodation and UDL. There will always be a need for disability accommodation, but we argue that using the UDL principles can solve many of the common access issues (videos without captions, images that lack descriptions, poor organization of information and concepts).

Disability Accommodation Universal design for learning
reactive proactive
accommodation is for one student who has appropriate documentation improves accessibility for many students students with disabilities; students who have a disability and lack the documentation; students with a disability who for whom the stigma in accessing services is too great; students for whom English is not their first language; students with a variety of learning styles
for many students there is a stigma in accessing disability services the onus is on the instructor to think about how they are teaching rather than on the individual student to request a retrofit

Jennifer LeVecque, from Camosun’s Disability Services Department, pointed out that for print coursepacks from the campus bookstore it’s possible that the publisher gets paid more than once. First, the library might already be paying to license journal articles databases that have those articles. Second, the bookstore (or the copyright office) might be paying the publisher for the rights to produce the coursepack, then passing those costs on to the student. When most academic libraries opted out of Access Copyright tariff in 2012, many worked to change the workflow for producing and licensing coursepacks, encouraging faculty to link directly to the articles that the library had licensed. This is also a UDL best practice as it supports multiple ways of representation and allows students who have print disabilities to access these digital files using whatever assistive technology they use.

CAPER-BC Advisory Committee meeting

At the CAPER BC Advisory Committee meeting there were questions about why publishers are producing new e-textbooks that are not accessible. Jewelles Smith, BC Director for NEADS, suggested that it would be useful to collaborate in assessing the accessibility of specific publisher e-textbook platforms, or of common e-textbook titles that are being used. Last month Benetech published their Buy Accessible guidelines, which is a list of specific questions for people who are selecting and purchasing textbooks to ask publishers and vendors.

So what?

Many for profit textbook publishers continue to publish content that is inaccessible and the public education system spends money to remediate these textbooks to make them accessible. Textbook publishers make a lot of money and have shrugged off their ethical and legal (depending on where you live) responsibilities to students with disabilities and faculty keep choosing to use these textbooks, and bookstores keep buying them. Then Disability Service Offices and organizations like where I work spend a lot of time and money retrofitting. This is not a financially sustainable model.


We need to build in language around accessibility into procurement policies at universities and colleges. Where things are not accessible we need to make the cost of retrofit explicit and charge that cost back to the publisher. With digital workflows publishers have the opportunity to make fully accessible digital versions of textbooks available for students to buy. Right now alternate format production is a market externality to publishers, so there is no financial incentive or cost to meeting accessibility guidelines. If we believe that education is a human right for all, then we need procurement policies and laws that reflect this.

changing the rules of the game: what libraries can learn from Beyoncé


black t-shirt that says "Okay, ladies, now get's get information"
Dr. Safiya U. Noble‘s selfie

Recently two awesome things changed my world. Beyoncé released her album Lemonade and the BC Library Association conference happened.

Cory Doctorow’s opening keynote was brilliant. As expected he gave a smart and funny talk full of examples to illustrate the bigger issues. I don’t think anyone will forget the baby monitor cam that was taken over by creepy men who were taunting the baby as an example of privacy flaws in everyday “smart” devices. I feel like he gave libraries more credit than we deserve. I felt pretty depressed and without hope thinking about how libraries continue to choose proprietary vendor technology that does not reflect our core values.

One of my favourite conversations at this conference was with Alison Macrina, from the Library Freedom Project.  We talked about many things, including our mutual love for Beyoncé. She saw her concert in Houston and told me about the amazing choreography for Freedom, which was the last song Beyoncé performed.

When I asked friends what their favourite song was on Beyoncé’s Lemonade a few people said that they thought of the whole album as one song, or as an opera. So, on the way home from the conference, I was listening the whole album and hearing it in a new way. I jumped off the bus and walked up the street to my home just as Freedom came on, by the end of the song I had a realization. Beyonce embodies freedom by owning her creative product, but perhaps even more importantly she owns the means of distribution. Like Beyoncé, libraries need to own our distribution platforms.

Tidal, Beyonce’s distribution channel, is a streaming music platform that is a competitor to Spotify and Pandora. I’m not sure what the ownership breakdown is, but Tidal is owned by artists.  A few of the artist-owners are Jay Z , Beyoncé, Prince, Rihanna, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Daft Punk, Jack White, Madonna, Arcade Fire, Alicia Keys, Usher, Chris Martin, Calvin Harris, deadmau5, Jason Aldean and J. Cole. Initially many people thought Tidal was a failure, but that has changed.

Lemonade was launched on HBO on April 22. On the 23rd the only place Lemonade was available was streamed through Tidal, and for purchase the day after. On the 25th it was available for purchase by track or album to Amazon Music and the iTunes Store. Physical copies of the album went on sale at brick and mortar stores on May 6. Initially the shift to digital distribution replicated the business model for distributing records which generated huge profits for record labels, but often cut out the artist.

PKP (Public Knowledge Project) is a great example of how academic libraries built open source publishing tools to challenge scholarly publishers. This has been a game changer in terms of how research is published, distributed and accessed.

For more than 10 years we’ve been complaining about Overdrive’s DRM-laced ebooks, and the crappy user experience. Instead of relying on vendors, we need to build our own distribution platform for ebooks. I realize that it’s the content our patrons are hungry for, and that we’re neither Jay Z, nor Beyoncé. If publishers aren’t willing to play with us, we have strong relationships with authors and could work directly with them as content creators. There needs to be a new business model where people can access creative works and that the content creators can make a living. Access Copyright’s model doesn’t work, but we could work with content creators to figure out a business model that does.

In her closing keynote at BCLA activist and writer Harsha Walia talked about systemic power structures and the need to change how we do things. Talking about pay equity she said “It’s not about breaking the glass ceiling, it’s about shattering the whole house.” Vendor rules and platforms are about profit margins for those companies. Libraries need to change the rules of the game.

Tryna rain, tryna rain on the thunder
Tell the storm I’m new
I’m a wall, come and march on the regular
Painting white flags blue

Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move
Freedom, cut me loose!
Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?
Cause I need freedom too!

embodied library work

I’m coming down from the Gender and Sexuality in Library and Information Studies colloquium that Emily Drabinski, Baharak Yousefi and I organized. For me one of the big themes was bodies and embodiment.

Vanessa Richards‘ keynote was amazing. She spoke a bit and facilitated us in singing together. It was powerful, transformative and extremely emotional for me. Some of the instruction she gave us was to pay attention to our bodies, “what do you feel and where in your body do you feel it when I tell you we are going to sing together?” Both my body and my mind are very uncomfortable with singing. At some point in my life someone told me I was a bad singer and ridiculed me and I think I believed them. Vanessa Richards said something like: “Your body is the source code. Your body knows how to sing. All the people who told you that you can’t sing, kick them to the curb. This is your human right.”

For me this was deeply transformative and created magic in the room. We sang 3 songs together, and by the last one there was a beautiful transformation. I observed people’s bodies. People’s shoulders had dropped and their weight was sinking their weight down into their feet. People were taking up more space and looking less self conscious. Also, our voices were much louder and they were beautiful. This was an unconventional and magical way to start the day together.

There were so many excellent presentations. I was so excited to learn about GynePunk, the cyborg witches of DIY gynecology in Spain. James Cheng, Lauren Di Monte, and Madison Sullivan completely blew my mind in their talk titled Makerspace Meets Medicine: Politics, Gender, and Embodiment in Critical Information Practice. This is the most exciting talk I’ve heard about makerspaces, though they argued that because it’s gendered and political we’re unlikely to see this in a library makerspace. GynePunk reminds me of the zine Hot Pantz that starts with:

Patriarchy sucks. It’s robbed us of our autonomy and much of our history. We believe it’s integral for women to be aware and in control of our own bodies.

I also loved Stacy Wood’s talk on Mourning and Melancholia in Archives. She told the story of working in an archive and having cremated ashes fall out of a poorly sealed bag that was in a poorly sealed envelope. I hope I have a chance to read her paper as she had many smart things to say about institutional practice, as well as melancholia.

Marika Cifor presented Blood, Sweat, and Hair: The Archival Potential of Queer and Trans Bodies in three acts: blood, sweat and hair. She used examples of these parts of our bodies that were part of archival objects:

  • blood – blood on a menstrual sponge, blood during the AIDS crisis, blood on Harvey Milk’s clothing from when he was shot and killed
  • sweat – sweat stains on a tshirt from a gay leather bar
  • hair – hair on a lipstick of Victoria Schneider a trans woman, sex worker and activist, and hair samples (both pubic hair and regular hair from your head) in Samuel Steward’s stud file, where he documented his lovers, that is in the Yale Archives

It was so exciting and nourishing to talk about bodies in relation to libraries, archives and information work. I didn’t realize that I was so hungry to have these conversations. I realized that when I’m doing my daily work I’m fairly unembodied dissociated. I bike to work, hang up my body on the back of my office door, and then let my brain run around for the day. I put on my body and go about the rest of my life. I’ve been working to try and be my whole self at work, and have realized that the brain/body binary needs to be dismantled.

I’m not really sure what this is going to look like. I fear it might be messy, as bodies often are. I also fear that there will be failure, as is common with trying new things. To start, I think I’m going to go join the Woodward’s Community Singers this Thursday and sing again.

Woodward’s Community Singers – An Invitation to Sing Together from Woodward’s Community Singers on Vimeo.

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.

On ramps to participation: what open education can learn from open source communities

slow exposure photo of a freeway with two on-ramps that go off in different directions
High Five Ramps by SETShot

As a newcomer to the open education community I observed that there is a core group of smart and passionate people who were doing their thing. At first the opportunities for where and how I could participate were not obvious or clear to me. I don’t think I’m the only person who has been puzzled by how to become an active participant, instead of a bystander, in this community.

I’m completely inspired by the idea of a Z-degree, or a degree program where there is no cost for textbooks for any of the classes, but feel that’s a daunting goal from where most of our institutions are at currently. I’m excited about how some faculty are moving away from disposable assignments to assignments that further knowledge creation and sharing, but I don’t regularly teach so this isn’t something that connects with me either.

While the open education community is much more decentralized and open source communities have some additional structures (like feature road maps and release dates) there are still some valuable lessons that can be learned.

Continue reading On ramps to participation: what open education can learn from open source communities