No More Potlucks

An essay I wrote on the digitization of oral histories tapes at the Lesbian Herstory Archives just came out in No More Potlucks. You can read it here. This is the first piece of writing to come out of my research at this archives in 2012/2013.

An excerpt:

Colette shows me the digitization system she researched and designed, which includes a digitizer that connects a basic tape player to a laptop via USB, the free and open-source audio software Audacity, two hard drives for storing files, and a CD folder where the compressed versions of each tape are cataloged for visiting researchers who would like to listen. Colette talks with pride about her ability to design a system that was in budget and works just as well as professional equipment: we “realized we could do it on the cheap because this thing [pointing to the digitizer] cost ten dollars and we get the same quality.” The system is, above all, good enough—the audio quality is remarkable, actually, and the portable hard drives are a decent substitute for the stable online repository that the archives would love to have but can’t afford. Colette showed me how to set up the digitization station, how to watch for and eliminate clipping, and how to noise-reduce the files, all of which she learned through a process of “trial and error,” made possible by a willingness at this archive to try something at which one is not an expert, to be wrong, even to fail.

Thank you to Maxine Wolfe, Colette Montoya, Anthony Cocciolo, and the volunteer staff at the LHA for their hospitality and help with the essay. And thank you to SSHRC who supported the research.

 

VHS, Porn, and the Digital Archive

Image source: http://dealwithimpossibility.tumblr.com/post/77463284947

Gay and Lesbian archives tend to have large collections of videotapes. These tapes are generally rare because no one else bothered to collect them, or because they’re amateur, one-of-a kind recordings. Gay and lesbian archives also have a lot of porn on tape, porn that is a critical record of queer sex cultures. Lest we forget, how, why, and with whom we have sex is important to document. It’s something folks have fought hard for, put their bodies on the line for. It’s as important as that tape of the 1989 Dyke March, or the 1992 Gay Games, or the 1993 March on Washington. It’s as important as a speech by Vito Russo. We are, after all, talking about the archives of sexual minorities–communities organized around sex.

VHS tapes are one of the least stable formats held in community archives. They degrade quickly. VHS is expensive to digitize through a third-party vendor. It’s possible to digitize in-house, by non-professionals, but it takes time and equipment. This guy, John Raines, volunteers to digitize tapes for the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco:

Photo Jane Philomen Cleland: http://www.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=69163

Raines is retired and he does this work at home, five days a week, because he thinks it’s important.

I haven’t spoken to Raines, though I’d like to, but I have spoken to volunteers at other gay and lesbian archives working on digitizing their moving image collections. I ask them how they choose what tapes to digitize. Always strapped for volunteer time and money, these archives have to set priorities. Decisions are based on “archival value.” This concept isn’t objective; it doesn’t mean anything in particular. Archival value is usually assigned to materials because of volume of researcher request, state of degradation, ease of acquiring permissions, appeal to granting bodies, and just simple perceptions of what is most important to remember.

Moving images of sexuality, especially “porn,” don’t fare well in a lot of these measurements, but then what happens to these tapes in this digital moment? What happens to our records of marginal sexual subcultures when these tapes get left in the drawer? And what will become of queer histories when we’re left to construct them without these primary sources?

 

 

Telewoman

Network imagery and language was prevalent across a range of lesbian-feminist periodicals and newsletters in the 1970s. The names and purpose statements of these publications give a sense of the role mediated communication played in imagining a movement that would, above all, bring into the fold women who were not yet enfranchised as feminists. Countless publications featuring the word “network” in their title stand alongside other names invested in the political possibility of communication, such as the San Francisco-based Telewoman (1977–1986), which attached the Greek prefix “tele,” meaning “over a distance” — telephone, television, telegraph — to the shape of the newsletter form, but also to the idea of woman: Connected over distance are subscribers in need of information for practical reasons, but also for more emotional forms of care, such as to ameliorate isolation or provide access to mental health services. Reads Telewoman’s masthead: “We provide networking services for lesbians who live anywhere through this newsletter… . We connect lesbian mothers. We make referrals to women’s service organizations, lesbian-feminist therapists, and give job/housing information. We connect city lesbians and country lesbians. We serve isolated lesbians and integrate them into the local and larger women’s communities.”

Lorraine Hansberry at 32

 

Last week I saw the Lorraine Hansberry show in the Sackler Center at the Brooklyn Museum. Hansberry (1930–65) was a lesbian and woman of colour who wrote A Raisin in the Sun. The show documents her involvement with The Ladder, the first lesbian magazine in the United States. Though the show mostly tries to explain The Ladder’s political importance through the figure of Hansberry, the last vitrine features a series of reflections on her life that Hansberry wrote each year on her birthday. They are totally captivating, moving, vulnerable in a careful, performed sort of way, and all-the-more weighty given that she died at 34 from pancreatic cancer. These notes come from Hansberry’s papers which are at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL.

[Ooof: the simplicity and timelessness of desiring "to work and to finish something" and regretting "that love is really as elusive as everybody over 30 knows it to be."]

Myself in Notes                      at 32 (July, 1962)

 I regret­—

                        (this now comes first; ah age, age! thou art cruel)

That love is really as elusive as everybody over 30 knows it to be

Some parts of the last two years—but only parts

My lack of discipline Continue reading

The Lesbian Switchboard of New York City (1972–97)

From the Lesbian Switchboard Volunteer Handbook:

Who we are: The Lesbian Switchboard is an organization that functions as an informational, referral and telephonic support system for the lesbian community. In addition, aside from our basic support of lesbianism, we do not advertise or endorse any one political viewpoint over another.

Our purpose: The purpose of the Lesbian Switchboard is to support Lesbians by providing resource information, referrals and (raps, emotion support whatever) for Lesbians. We respect the confidentiality of all calls.

The Iconography of Lesbian Telephony:

 

How we work: the micropolitics of rhythm, computer, post-it note

I love this photo of Jim Henson, writing in his eames lounger. What would be, for me, the most awkward pose in which to write, works for him. His feet are propped up not just on the chair’s ottoman, but also on a shelving unit, which suggests that he’s put the chair in that place, just so. I like that Henson wrote this way because it’s eccentric and wonderful, must like his muppets. There is purpose to the artist’s strange ergonomic.

A while ago I went to see Matthew Kirshenbaum give a talk about his forthcoming book Track Changes: the Literary History of Word Processing. As part of this project, Kirshenbaum is “cataloging the first computers or word processors for as many authors as I can reliably ascertain.” During the lecture he showed slides of writers working at these computers, and though Kirhshenbaum’s interest is in the type of machine and its interface, I was brought in by the rest of the desk, the room, the choices of where things are placed, how the space is lit, what time of day of it is, what they are drinking, wearing, small choices that add up to a whole habitus, the spaces, practices, and routines that construct our sense of value and our place in the world.

Annie Leibovitz, Susan with Karla Eoff, West 24th Street, New York, 1992

The images that illustrate Kirshenbaum’s project were what lead me to start cataloguing instances of “feminist computing” here. This ongoing project is about an old-school concern for the personal-as-political. What Victoria Hesford describes as the “micropolitics of vaccuming and sexual intercourse”—to which I would add “choice of post-it notes”—, which become “sites for feminist resistance,” acknowledged in their political charge instead of being written off as unimportant because of their everyday character.

Recently I went to hear Julie Maroh, creator of the graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), speak about her practice and her new book. She talked about process a lot, and my favourite question asked her to describe her daily routine—what do the banal habits of working look like for her? She talked about mornings spent drinking tea at her desk while responding to email, afternoons of drawing or writing (rarely both activities in one day). She talked about going grocery shopping in the mornings. Staying up late to work. And then days when she feels like she accomplishes nothing at all, a frustrated feeling I want to learn how to let go of.

The small ways that we choose to work matter. What gets left out of conversations about art and labour, or about academia and precarity, is what this work actually looks like: what the rhythm of a day feel like, and how small habits and tiny practices become major ways of dealing with the ways that capital diminishes the steps that go into doing this kind of work. Steps like making a pot of tea to drink in your ridiculous chair.

The Librarian and the Pornographer

From the New York Public Library’s Acquisition Policy (1973):

Works of a Pornographic Nature

Pornography is defined as writings of an obscene or licentious character. The term, “works of pornographic nature,” is used here to include works judged pornographic by current standards and works formerly judged or considered to be pornographic.

3. Material sold in bookstores which specialized in “pornography for profit” 

The third category of material does not appear in lists or catalogs, but is to be found in outlets or bookstores specializing in “pornography for profit.” Three or four times a year a member of the staff will be delegated to purchase samplings of books and periodicals at these outlets. Collection in this category will be on a selective basis.

Black Lesbians: An Annotated Bibliography (1981)

I’m working on research for a dissertation chapter about lesbian feminist information activism in the 1970s. The collecting, archiving, indexing, annotating, and circulating of information about lesbian feminism amongst women across the United States and Canada was an elaborate system linking archives, periodicals, and academic, and activist organizations. As glamorous as this network sounds, the mailing lists and bibliographies that formed its infrastructure depended on the hard work of unpaid women who spent countless hours working alone with stacks of paper and xerox machines, in hopes that the hard-to-find information to which they improved access might lighten the load of others, and facilitate political change.

JR Roberts (Barbara Rae Henry), a self-described “Reliable Lesbian Information Dealer,” published Black Lesbians: An Annotated Bibliography in 1981. Roberts, who was also involved with the Circle of Lesbian Indexers (Spread across the U.S.), the Lesbian Herstory Archives (New York), and The New Alexandria Lesbian Library (Chicago, later Massachusetts), solicited contributions to her bibliography through word-of-mouth and by publishing classified ads in lesbian periodicals during the 1970s.

From the Introduction:

“Lesbian, for the most part has connoted white, middle class lesbian to the exclusion of other realities and perspectives. This bibliographic situation mirrors the denial and invalidation of Black lesbian experience and uniqueness… Because catalogs, indexes, and bibliographies do not usually reflect Black lesbian content, my main methodology has been to peruse large quantities of materials always on the alert for Black lesbian references…. Clearly, one of my most fruitful sources of information was other lesbian and gay researchers and readers who often alerted me to items of interest. The bibliography owes much to grassroots communication networks and newsletters, and special lesbian and women’s libraries and archives.”

 

Audre Lorde Goes Fishing – Recreation and the Feminist Body

This is very minor but very wonderful piece of information uncovered during my current archival research at the New York Public Library:

In 1981, Audre Lorde was presented with the Gay Book Award of the American Library Association’s Gay Task Force (now the Stonewall Book Award), for her memoir, The Cancer Journals. The adjudication committee described the book as having, “the poignancy and immediacy of this black lesbian poet’s responses to physical and emotional trauma… This effort to retain control of her body, to preserve her sense of herself in a changed body, is intelligent and inspiring.”

Instead of a trophy or certificate, the Gay Task Force would present each recipient with a personalized token to honour their achievement. Audre Lorde was presented with the following “token”: “a set of fish hooks (for her favorite pastime).”