Piles and piles of digital stuff

In the latest issue of No More Potlucks, Tara-Michelle Ziniuk interviews Laura Yaros, host of Matrix, the longest running feminist radio show in Canada. Laura touches on two issues that come up again and again in my own conversations with activists and archivists working with lesbian material: 1 ) digitization is crucial for preservation, though by no means a magic bullet solution and 2) digitization has no necessary relation to the provision of access. In other words, if you digitize it, the digital documents will probably still sit in a metaphorical drawer; other ways of promoting access are needed. The interview is great for anyone interested in digital and queer archives, or the history of community radio in Canada.

As I’ve started working more earnestly on my dissertation proposal, talking to a lot of queer and lesbian “archivists” – I use the term loosely to describe a range of practices from the informal or accidental collector to the community archive coordinator – about the scope of their projects, I’ve noticed that there’s often a similar refrain at the beginning of their stories: an attempt to communicate, in no uncertain terms, the daunting scope of their archives. Language like “piles,” “drawers-full,” “mountains,” “boxes and boxes,” “stacks” gets invoked against digital “stuff” (why are digital documents always called stuff, Dylan?). This digital stuff is also described as overwhelming but with metaphors that are less spatial, and more about keeping track of hardware and software over time: I’m going to have do something with those files, or those USB keys, eventually.

Brought together, a process emerges: I have piles and piles of stuff in my apartment that I need to digitize, then I have all this stuff on my computer or on the Internet that I need to do something with. Access provision is a third step that complicates the assumptions folks often make about digitization as the neat end-game for our messy feminist archives. As Laura points out in the interview, gesturing, I think, toward this access issue: “But that’s not all we should be doing – not everyone is going to know that material exists and to look for it. Maybe we need to have workshops or conferences or informal gatherings where some of this material is shared. Even just our stories, we all have our stories. In addition to written and electronic preservation, we need to preserve an oral tradition as well. It doesn’t have to be formal or academic.” The question then becomes, how do digital access provisions get imagined in ways that are unique to queer-feminist methods and circles?