Slides from the BC Library Association's 2017 conference plenary Hot Topics panel.
Figuring out an ethical way to respectfully digitize culturally sensitive collections, like OOB, will strengthen our relationships with communities, our collection development policies, and our digitization practices. As a profession we need to build relationships with communities and listen to what they think is appropriate access, and then build systems that respect that.
This short talk is based on my chapter for the forthcoming book titled Applying Values to Library Technology: Tips and Techniques for Advancing Within Your Mission, edited by Peter Fernandez and Kelly Tilton and published by the American Library Association’s Association for College Research Libraries.
This talk has nothing to do with my day job or my institution. I’ve been researching, writing and speaking on this topic in my own time.
The thank yous normally come at the end, but I’d like to put them at the beginning. I feel a great deal of gratitude towards many people who inspire me and 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.
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.
I am a queer, mixed-race systems librarian who works in accessibility and disability rights. I am a feminist. I am a former sex worker.
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.
I also have first-hand experience of what it’s like to have content about myself online that I didn’t consent to. In my case, it was a newspaper article that appeared in the Montreal Gazette that identified me as a sex worker and a librarian. This newspaper is indexed by ProQuest’s Canadian Newsstand, so it’s searchable. Earlier in my career I was terrified that in a job search process a potential employer might find this out about me. We live in a judgemental society where there are many negative stereotypes about sex workers. I was worried that this would undermine my professional reputation as a librarian.
In March last year I learned that Reveal Digital 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 holders, there are ethical issues with digitizing collections like this. Consenting to a porn shoot that would be in an independent, queer print magazine is a different thing to consenting to have your porn shoot be online.
I talked to a few people I know who modelled and they generously agreed to give me quotes to use in this talk.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
Amber Dawn is a writer, a poet, and a creative writing instructor. She’s won numerous awards for her writing and art. Her memoir won the City of Vancouver’s Book Award in 2013.
She says: “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 a very real consequence. I quickly learned the 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.
Amber Dawn says: “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.”
Later last March, I spoke to Peggy Glahn, Project Director for Reveal Digital, about my concerns about this project. First, I was concerned about the privacy of people who appeared in this magazine. Second, while I imagined that Reveal Digital had copyright permissions to digitize this magazine I was concerned that they didn’t have consent from the people who appeared in the magazine. Third, I was troubled that there was no clear takedown policy or contact information if someone wanted to request that photos of them be removed. I requested that they take down the collection until they had obtained consent from all the models and consulted with the communities that are impacted by this project.
I was disappointed, but not surprised, when they said no.
Glahn explained that Reveal Digital didn’t have a formal takedown policy. She explained that it was up to a model who wanted their images removed to figure out the identity of the rights holder, find their contact information, and contact them with the request. Only then would Reveal Digital consider their request to remove their photos from the internet. Even for librarians, it’s 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.
Shortly after we talked, Glahn informed me that they had received their first takedown request and would be redacting some content. 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. Again, I was puzzled. I’m not sure why this information couldn’t be put up on a simple webpage and linked to this collection. Reveal Digital posted that people could email them with takedown requests that would be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
I was talking about this on social media with queers, librarians, archivists, feminists, pornographers, academics in digital humanities, history, and women’s studies. My critiques were reaching a broader audience, including librarians at institutions who fund Reveal Digital’s projects.
Last August was invited to speak at code4lib NYS. I learned that Cornell University has Susie Bright’s papers in their Rare Book and Manuscripts Collection. Susie Bright cofounded and edited OOB. When I was at Cornell I got a chance to look through this amazing collection. I was super excited to find the contracts with the contributors. For photos, it’s the photographer, not the model, who holds copyright to the image. I wondered for this small feminist porn magazine, if contributors signed away all their rights. This contributor contract from 1991 shows that they didn’t. It is for one-time rights only.
On August 24, 2016 Reveal Digital announced that they were temporarily removing access to the OOB content. The main reason they gave for taking this collection down was 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 temporary. 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. In case you didn’t know, there’s a lot of porn available on the internet.
Reveal Digital cited the Greenberg v. National Geographic Society ruling and said it gives them “the legal right to create a faithful digital reproduction of the publication, without the need to obtain permissions from individual contributors”. To me this foreshadows that they’re going to put the whole collection online again.
When I first started talking to them about my concerns they defined community narrowly, basically their fiscal stakeholders, or 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”.
Last month while double checking my citations for this chapter I was surprised to find the OOB content was online again. On Twitter they said that it had been online again for a few weeks. Once notified they quickly removed the content again.
This mistake makes me feel wary that they’re the right organization for libraries to be partnering with around digital collections.
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 believe I have a responsibility to speak up.
I’d like to end with another quote from Amber Dawn. In her memoir 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.”
In closing, I’d like to ask you to listen to the voices of the people in communities whose materials are in your collections. I’d also like to invite you to speak up where and when you can. Figuring out an ethical way to respectfully digitize culturally sensitive collections, like OOB, will strengthen our relationships with communities, our collection development policies, and our digitization practices. As a profession we need to build relationships with communities and listen to what they think is appropriate access, and then build systems that respect that.
Not all information wants to be free: the case study of on our backs
N O T A L L I N F O R M A T I O N W A N T S T O
B E F R E E :
T H E C A S E S T U D Y O F O N O U R
B A C K S
@ T A R A R O B E R T S O N
# B C L C 2 0 1 7
T H A N K Y O U
“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.”
– A N O N Y M O U S # 1
“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”
– A N O N Y M O U S # 2
“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.”
– A M B E R D A W N
I A S K T H E M T O T A K E
T H I S C O L L E C T I O N
O F F L I N E
M A R C H 2 0 1 6
R E V E A L D I G I T A L R E C E I V E S
T H E I R F I R S T T A K E D O W N
R E Q U E S T F R O M A
C O N T R I B U T O R
A P R I L 2 0 1 6
C O R N E L L ’ S S P E C I A L
C O L L E C T I O N S
R E V E A L D I G I T A L
R E M O V E S C O L L E C T I O N
T E M P O R A R I L Y
A U G U S T 2 0 1 6
C O N T E N T O N L I N E A G A I N ,
O O P S ! M A R C H 2 0 1 7