INKE 2018: Opening the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony to Community Contributions

INKE 2018: Opening the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony to Community Contributions

The following paper was presented at the 2018 INKE (Implementing New Knowledge Environments) gatherin in Victoria, British Columbia. The theme of the conference this year was "Beyond Open: Implementing Social Scholarship," and we spent the day discussing what "open-access" means when it comes to social sciences and humanities research, viewing open-access scholarship as an enabling strategy to reach more specific end-goals and progress research, and what the future might look like for open-access research. 

Elise (the ALOT's director) and I (Meghan, the project archivist) presented a four minute talk in a multidisciplinarty lightening round. It was a lot of fun! Below is the full paper. 

Bridging the Gap: A SSHRC-Funded OSS Digital Archives Project

Elise Chenier with Meghan Walley

Simon Fraser University

In this paper I describe some practical challenges encountered in executing a SSHRC-funded OSS project.

Up until recently, whenever archives would receive material of a sexual nature, a small crisis ensued. Should the archives keep it and risk being associated with the material? Or should they destroy it?  Sometime in the 1950s they had a third option: send it to Alfred Kinsey, an American biologist famous for his studies of the sexual behavior of the human male and female, and who also become the most well-known collector of sexually explicit material.[1]

The situation changed yet again – at least for material related to same-sex sexuality – in the early 1970s when gay liberationists set out to discover, document and preserve the queer past. Heeding radical queer activist Carl Wittman’s 1969 call to found “counter community institutions,” volunteer-run gay archives emerged in cities like Toronto, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. As part of a broader movement for transformative change, they were always much more than an archives. They provided a space for lesbians and gays to “free ourselves” and “begin to be!” (Wittman, 4)

Wittman’s ideas were steeped in a distinctly post-World War Two New Left push  to return power to the people. As part of this movement, historically-minded grassroots activists took up oral history as a method of gathering evidence of a past that had been subject to so much censure and erasure. Like the archives itself, oral history was about much more than documenting the past; it was a tool to empower and uplift entire communities who would subsequently enrich civil society. By teaching people the skills they need to tell their own stories, and by sharing those stories, knowledge and history would be democratized.

At the height of this movement, activist and writer Joan Nestle anticipated that archives would inevitably be dominated by the records of men, and so founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives to ensure that lesbian records would have a permanent home where they would enjoy high visibility. Nestle undertook several of her own oral history interviews, perhaps the most important being with Mabel Hampton, an African American who provided first-hand accounts of queer New York during the interwar period.[2]

Jump ahead almost fifty years and the archiving scene has changed dramatically. In the mainstream at least, lesbian, gays, and bisexuals, and to an increasing degree transgender people, are much less stigmatized. Mainstream archives now include us in their strategic plans. Indeed, at present, more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) material is held by institutions like Cornell University, the New York Public Library, and the University of Victoria, than by local grass-roots archives.

This is a major victory for the LGBTQ movement, which sought to end the very attitudes and practices that ensured our erasure. But change comes at a cost: the community building function grassroots archives played diminishes in proportion to the “normalization” of LGBTQ material. People who go to community-based archives go to discover not just the past, but themselves; it is a step on the road to political transformation and consciousness raising. Beyond scouring the fonds, users might also attend community-based events supporting and promoting the work of the archives; they might become a volunteer and learn basic archiving principles; they might develop new personal and professional networks. In short, community-based archives enabled and sustained identity and community formation.  

University-based archives can play that role, but generally only for a much smaller, much more privileged community. Oriented toward the scholarly community, they do not typically engage the broader community, participate in community events, or welcome volunteers from the community to assist in the organization of collections. When housed in a national archives, a university archives, or even in the New York Public Library, which has one of the most extensive LGBT collections in the United States, queer archives’ role in identity formation, community building, and political transformation is diminished.

Bridging the Gap, a Social Sciences Research and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC)-funded project of the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony (ALOT), seeks to address this problem. Since 2010, I and a team of students and research assistants at Simon Fraser University have been digitizing and archiving oral testimonies that speak to the experiences of same-sex attracted women. These include interviews conducted by journalists, graduate students, and scholars; radio programs; and one cable television program. As an online archives ALOT is more accessible to everyday people than are bricks-and-mortar institutional archives, but there nevertheless remains a gap between ourselves and those we hope to serve.[3] A local grassroots archives is visible in real time and space, for example, but we are not. The non-specialist is unlikely to discover the archives and therefore unable to reap the potential benefits of accessing the stories and testimonies available on our site. And even if community members find the archives, how can we know how to and if we are serving the community’s needs?

Drawing on Anthony Cocciolo’s research which shows that the more opportunity for users to participate in online archives, the higher their engagement, “Bridging the Gap” hypothesizes that the gap between an online archives and the community it strives to serve can be bridged by building participatory functions into the archives’ site’s infrastructure. In what follows, I describe the approach I originally formulated, how and why it changed over time, and some of the obstacles I have encountered along the way. Problems were sometimes generative of new creative directions, and sometimes they were just problems. I conclude that institutional and other barriers add challenges to these types of projects that one does not normally encounter in a traditional social science and humanities research, and must be both taken into account when planning such projects. Structural changes at all levels would also greatly facilitate this type of new scholarship.

I devised two strategies to promote greater user engagement with and participation in the archives. The first was to enable users to upload to the archives an interview they created, thus encouraging community members to become active contributors to the archives. The second was to enable community members to tag and “rate” (using a 5-star scale) interviews. These activities require users to register and create a profile by providing the archives with their name and email address. Online activity is linked to the user’s account, thus mitigating spam and other unwelcome content. Because we did not anticipate a high volume of user engagement, approving new accounts and reviewing uploaded interviews seemed manageable.

Although the impetus for the research was to find new ways to engage and serve the broader community of lesbian and queer women, user participation has obvious benefits to the archives and to the broader community it serves. Crowd-sourced content would increase our holdings, making more personal narratives available to users, and tagging diversifies the taxonomies used to identify themes and topics for users conducting searches by adding new and regionally specific language and terminology.

Once the technical infrastructure was enabled, the initial plan was to launch a grass-roots oral history project in three different communities with established lesbian social networks. After training local volunteers in oral interviewing methods, the project archivist would guide them through the uploading process, and survey people about their experience. Participants would also be asked to listen to and tag one interview. The model was to work in the field – what I was used to doing as an oral historian – to test the functionality of our new tools.

The challenges I have faced in the execution of this project offer some general lessons to be learned that may be of value to others considering developing their own DH open social scholarship projects, and to those who are currently experiencing similar challenges but wondering if they are alone. The challenges fall into three categories:

  1. work flow, work load, and DH recognition issues on tenure and promotion committees;
  2. making the conceptual shift from the real world to the online world;
  3. managing a staff.

1. Like many traditional scholars moving into the digital humanities, I consistently underestimate the hours required to complete the work involved. Compounding my inexperience is that, since founding ALOT, I have tried to maintain my traditional research agenda, which is unrelated to this project, in part because I want to, and in part because my department has been very slow to recognize digital humanities work as research scholarship, thus my career advancement depends on it.[4] For these reasons, my research attention has been divided between a manuscript and the development of the archives, which has had the predictable effect of slowing the progress of both.

Other workflow and workload challenges occur around hiring and supervising a full-time archivist and Work-Study students who digitize and tag our material, as well as hiring on short-term contract a web development and design expert, and a social media marketing manager. Additionally, while ALOT has enjoyed the support of benefits enormously from its relationship with Simon Fraser University Library’s Special Collections unit, this relationship also needs tending. Establishing the parameters of their relationship to my project, including in particular training and other types of support for the project archivist, is ongoing.

While it makes sense that the archivist be located in Special Collections where she works alongside people with like-jobs who can help troubleshoot (and besides, while my grant provides the support for the position, my department does not have physical space to accommodate research assistants of any type), our working in different physical spaces has a detrimental effect. Managing our relationship and overseeing the archivists work requires continuous effort and planning, which tends to get tucked in around teaching and administrative responsibilities.

This project also places new demands on administrative staff in my department. Because grant funds are managed by the university and all expense claims are filtered through my department’s administrative assistant, I require assistance with employee contracts and payroll, invoices for contract work, honoraria to community participants, and I generate a regular flow of research expense claims of my own. I am constantly defeated by an extremely cumbersome online claim system that consumes many hours of my time.[5] The amount of work this in turn creates for the administrative staff in my department has been a source of ongoing friction.


2. I set out to launch a local oral history project in three communities, each with an established lesbian social network. The first was Nelson, British Columbia. I travelled there twice: first to promote the project during Pride weekend, and again to provide a half-day training in oral history methods. I was warmly welcomed and quickly invited into people’s homes. Interest in the project seemed high. A local documentary filmmaker even loaned me the video cameras she uses in her filmmaking course. Yet the number of people who signed on was low: two were well-established members the community and four were young women recently arrived in Nelson who were attracted to the project as a means to get to know women in the lesbian community and to improve their communication skills.

Despite participants’ keen enthusiasm, the project never got off the ground. Three months and four email requests later, only two of the group had even created a profile on the website, the first step toward participating in the project. One year later, only one interview was uploaded. Obviously working at a distance from the group was insufficient; I had to rethink the project.

Disappointment turned into an important insight: if the goal is to inspire people who are accessing the site online to do an interview and upload it to the archives, I should orient my efforts toward the online community. I shifted strategies and hired a social media content manager to increase awareness of the archives, and a podcaster to create programming that would inspire in people the desire and confidence to conduct an interview. One of the benefits of SSHRC funding is that it allows for just such creative, innovative shifts in strategy. Although I had not budgeted for these positions, the funds I had allocated to community-based research now freed up to allow me to pursue a new strategy.


3.  Given the pressure (and my desire) to produce traditional historical research, I decided to employ research model more common to the sciences than the humanities: I hired an archivist with the experience, skills, and self-direction necessary to carry out eighty-five percent of the research project herself, someone who would require minimal oversight, and who in the third and final year could co-author with me a scholarly article based on the findings.

Despite a carefully crafted job posting, however, the person hired for the position was disinclined to work on tasks that fell outside of the archives proper. Although the poor fit was obvious in less than two months, it was nine months before I conceded that the situation was not going to improve. Unfortunately, institutional bureaucracy complicated the process further; employment contracts crafted by the university which I had been required to use to hire the archivist turned out to have major flaws that could have resulted in my having to pay out the entire two year contract. Consequently, the process of firing one staff person took three and a half full work days.

Hiring a social media content developer also presented unique challenges. Highly skilled and incredibly enthusiastic, there was nevertheless a significant gap between the kind of content she developed, and the kind of content I considered suitable as representative of the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony. The goal was to attract the interest of non-scholars, but my requirement was that any content we presented be up to scholarly standards – not peer-reviewed, but not derived from research conducted on the internet without regard for the source. The developer was unable to adapt her skill set to meet this requirement. At the end of a three-month contract, user engagement via social media increased only marginally.

Much more successful was the production of a podcast. Using the funds freed up from my abandoned community-based work, I hired Callie Thompson who had recently graduated with a B.A. in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and had been doing feminist student radio for some time to produce and host a podcast in which she would interview an oral historian about a favourite interview with a lesbian or queer-identified woman. She would also solicit from them a tip for aspiring oral historians. Thompson produced 24 episodes which were released every two weeks from spring 2017 to 2018. While the podcast, which can be found on SoundCloud and iTunes, has yet to generate any new contributions to the archives, it is arguably the most successful project initiative thus far in that it truly captures the spirit of both the archival and the Bridging the Gap project.

That Thompson came to this work with a background in social science and humanities research is, I believe, at the heart of the success of the podcast. For this reason, when I filled the vacant archivist position in September 2017, I chose an applicant who came with no archival training, but with experience running her own oral history project with queer Inuit youth. Although I scaled back the job requirements to its archival elements to avoid the problems I had encountered with the previous archivist, Meghan Walley was keen to participate in all aspects of the research, including especially outreach.


Moving Forward

With only six months remaining in the active research phase, we have a robust schedule of outreach activities aimed at inspiring community engagement. This month Walley launched a new social media strategy intended to increase our public reach and encourage people to explore and contribute to the archives. This strategy includes adding Instagram to our current Facebook and Twitter accounts. Instagram posts tend to have a greater organic reach than Facebook and Twitter, which means that we can publicize Bridging the Gap more easily without resorting to paid advertising. Second, communicating through images and videos will give a human face to what might seem like a distant institution. By demystifying our work, we can more effectively invite people in and create a sense that they have agency in the documentation of historical narratives.

We are also holding a series of on and off-line events. The first is a webinar scheduled for February 24th to be broadcast via Facebook Live where we will introduce people to the craft of oral history interviewing and allow participants to pose any questions they may have. In March, ALOT's poet-in-virtual-residence Jane Byers will be reading poetry inspired by the archives’ holdings at SFU’s Special Collections and Rare Books. This event will also be streamed via Facebook live. A second reading will take place during Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival.

The third event is a four-day advanced graduate seminar in May, led by me and historian Laura Doan. This last event is aimed at increasing our profile among graduate students who are the most active producers or oral testimonies, and our future donors of materials. I do not anticipate a great increase in user engagement, but I am satisfied to know that the infrastructure is there to support it, and hope ALOT can serve as a model for other archives seeking to undertake similar steps.           

Each of us at INKE are maximizing new technologies in innovative ways and creating new opportunities to share scholarly work, to include a broader cross-section of people in knowledge production, and to engage audiences in diverse ways. But it’s all work, and our granting agencies, our institutions, our departments, and even our own skill sets do not necessarily provide sufficient or efficient supports to facilitate it. Innovation in these directions requires structural changes that I hope we can better provide for the next generation of scholars who take up this important work.


[1] Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy, Clyde E. Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Philadelphia, Penn: Saunders, 1948); Alfred C. Kinsey, et. Al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders C, 1953).Bottom of Form

[2] Mabel Hampton, interview by Joan Nestle, Mabel Hampton, Undated (Tape 1), Herstories: Audio/Visual Collections of the LHA, Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn, New York, accessed May 17, 2017,

[3] The project is described in full here: Elise Chenier, “Reclaiming the Lesbian Archives,”

The Oral History Review, 43, no. 1, (April 2016): 170–182, See Anthony Cocciolo, “Can Web 2.0 Enhance Community Participation in an Institutional Repository? The Case of PocketKnowledge at Teachers College, Columbia University,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 36, no. 4 (July 2010): 304–12, doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2010.05.004; Anthony Cocciolo, “Learning History through Digital Preservation: Student Experiences in a LGBT Archive,” Preservation, Digital Technology and Culture 42, no. 3 (September 1, 2013): 129–36; Kate Eichhorn, The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013).

[4] While I am now Full Professor, I almost wasn’t because the Tenure and Promotion Committee (TPC) was divided on the value of my digital humanities work. Although I did not apply for promotion until I had a sufficient number of traditional history scholarly publications, a minority of TPC members formally opposed the Chair’s recommendation for promotion.

[5] Because my administrator was frustrated by the fact that my claims almost always have errors, I hired an administrative support person in another department whose job it is to fill out these same claim forms. I paid her out of my own pocket, an expense well worth it if it would reduce the friction in my department, but even the claim forms she filled out were returned with errors. I presently spend on average five hours a month preparing and reviewing expense claims before submitting them. About six in seven are still returned to me. The time, aggravation, and friction of this process alone makes it unlikely I will apply for a further grant to continue this project.