The Circle of Lesbian Indexers – Book, Card, Computer

Tomorrow I’ll be giving a paper on The Circle of Lesbian Indexers here in Toronto at what looks to be a great symposium organized by Emily Drabinski: Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies.

This is new work, part of my almost-finished final dissertation chapter. In the paper I consider  The Circle of Lesbian Indexers, a group of six feminist information activists scattered across the U.S., who indexed hundreds of lesbian periodicals by subject between 1980 and 1986. Specifically, I examine The Circle’s manuals and correspondence alongside histories of computing from that era to examine how these women thought about emergent database computing and its potential for organizing their growing index. I argue that three “materials” critical to The Circle’s work—the book, the card, the computer—create a tension that is key to the promises of  information activism, and to creating a heterogeneous, feminist media history of emergent computing.

Circle diagram

Here’s an excerpt:

Cards allowed the index to be revised and re-sorted, and it allowed Potter to facilitate the Circle’s collaborative workflow, bringing multiple batches of cards into the fold of one growing index. This was no small task: In the Circle’s guide to indexing, Potter writes, “the numbers of cards we can safely manage without the help of machines seems finite. We can keep on top of hundreds (no problem), or a few thousand cards, but even dykedom has its limits” (Potter 1979a: 9).

At the limit of “dykedom” likes emergent database computing. The Circle used cards, but they thought about computers, discussing the merits of going electronic often in their correspondence and training manuals. Potter invested a great deal of hope in the possibilities that computer databases might present for managing the Lesbian Periodicals Index. She spent many evenings and weekends at Stanford University’s Computer Center, trying to learn how to use WYLBUR.

WYLBUR illustration

WYLBUR was a text-editing program that ran on the time-sharing system pictured here—this is when a big, central mainframe computer is shared by multiple users at individual terminals. This is an illustration from the hand-drawn manual to WYLBUR, created by one of the scientists who worked at the lab. The figure in this drawing is smiling at her terminal, but Potter was not. She describes learning the system with frustration in a 1981 letter to one of the other indexers: “I find I just can’t spend my every night and weekend at the Stanford center learning and then inputting. I need to spread some of the parts of this others!” (Potter 1981c). Potter didn’t want to be working alone at her keyboard in the sterile computer lab that was such a far-cry from the warm, domestic scenes she describes in The Circle documents. Scenes of workshoping subject terms with other Circle members in rocking chairs on her porch.