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.

Text for Muscle Panic

I had the privilege this summer of writing a text for a project called Muscle Panic by toronto-based artist Hazel Meyer, presented by Mercer Union as part of their offsite programming, in partnership with Sunday Drive Art Projects. Hazel used her brilliant brain and expert hands to transform a barn in rural Warkworth, Ontario into an imaginary “after-hours sports club for Muscle Panic, a rogue girl’s basketball team in need of a space in which to train, scheme, and otherwise spend time together, often at night.” The text was for the team’s Handbook.

Sports is one of my favourite topics, and I don’t get to write about it pretty much ever, so this was a lot of fun. Here’s an excerpt:

Time Out

Part installation, part performance, part absence, somewhere in between “real” and imagined, we encounter Muscle Panic through the material remnants of the team’s practice and play: the uniforms they sweat through and peel off, the custom basketballs waiting to be dribbled. Is this a long-abandoned clubhouse, or might the team walk into their makeshift gym at any moment and start running drills? Either way, something about this whole thing feels a bit illicit. We are intruders, trespassing in the sacrosanct space of a team who prefers to meet at night, when we’ve all gone home and no one is around to supervise. Muscle Panic plays in a time and place that is willfully unclear, deviating from the “normal” rhythms of recreation, broken off from the clarity of either “past” or “present.” The fantasy gymnasium becomes a “simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live,” a space in which the hot smell of bodies hangs in the air.[i]

[i] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias, October (1984 [1967]).


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:

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:

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 July 1983

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 (more…)

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: