Building a Digital Archive

The Journey to Upload the Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement

• August 2011

The digital archive of the Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement (GFM) is the culmination of a confluence of research, activism, and collaboration. In this brief piece I will lay out the events that led to this historic collection, in the hope that this information will provide some background to the rest of the sx salon discussion, and that it might provide a blueprint for other such undertakings.

On 3 June 2009 I co-organized the first regional meeting of the Caribbean International Resource Network (IRN) in Kingston, Jamaica. The IRN is a web-based project housed at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) of the City University of New York; it seeks to connect academic and community-based workers around the world in areas related to diverse sexualities and genders. In addition to the Caribbean, the other regions are Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America. The first in-person meeting of the Caribbean IRN gathered over thirty activists, scholars, politicians, and artists with relationships to over a dozen Caribbean countries and territories familiar with all four major languages of the region. The meeting itself was very productive, and we looked forward to a “lime” (an informal gathering) hosted by the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG) and Jamaica AIDS Support (JAS), to relax after all that work.

During that lime, we were invited into a back room to see a box that had recently been discovered. In that box were documents relating to the Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement, the first public organization in Jamaica advocating for sexual minorities. We oohed and ahhed over the historical papers—including newsletters, personal letters, and formal minutes, and agreed that something should be done with “the box.”

Thomas Glave, a creative writer who is also well known for his essays addressing Jamaican attitudes towards homosexuality, was at the time also on the Caribbean IRN board of directors, and he took charge. With the help of J-FLAG, he determined that the box belonged to Laurence Chang, a GFM and J-FLAG co-founder now living under asylum in the United States. Glave worked with Larry to bring the box to the United States and to think through where it might be housed. As a first step, we asked Steven Fullwood, the archivist of the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, to look at the collection. Fullwood provided a formal assessment, but noted that the Schomburg could not take the materials in their current condition. Thus “the box” of materials, now transferred to a suitcase, ended up in my living room.

From Paper to Web

As a web-based project, the IRN had no physical location to house the archive. Yet we were committed to preserving it and to making the materials available to people in the Caribbean. The answer, of course, was a digital archive—a project that was already underway. We had previously established a relationship with the amazing Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC), a cooperative digital library which makes resources from and about the region available online for free. The dLOC was as excited about the GFM archive as we were, and agreed to set up a dedicated subcollection.

Now all we needed to do was to clean up, organize, and scan in the materials. Since this substantial task was beyond my time and skills, and those of the other Caribbean IRN board members, I applied for a small “diversity grant” from my employer, the City University of New York. I asked for $5000 and received $2000.

With these funds I hired Stephanie Harvey, a former graduate student, to organize and scan the documents. When I visited the Brooklyn College Library Archives and Special Collections section to ask for some help, I received infinitely more than I expected. Marianne LaBatto, one of the BC archivists, said her office could provide space for Harvey to work, as well as access to their scanner and acid-free materials and training in professional archiving methods—at no cost to the project. This generous support enabled the cleaning, organizing, and digitizing of the archive, and provided a young scholar with professional training.

After cataloguing the materials and placing them into new, safe sleeves and folders, Harvey spent several months scanning individual documents and then e-mailing the files to Vidyaratha Kissoon, the coordinator of the Caribbean IRN Region and the manager of our website and dLOC collections. Kissoon optimized the scanned images and worked with dLOC to upload them to the site—now visible at http://dloc.com/icirngfm.

What Next? The Launch and the Future

Once the matter of dealing with the physical materials was underway, I turned my attention to how to publicize the archive. A digital archive is useless if no one knows it exists. Again, in line with the goals of the IRN, my priorities included providing access to people in the region and honoring Chang’s work with the GFM. We decided to use a variety of technology to create the event we wanted.

Web conferencing (through the WebEx service) allowed a group in New York and groups in the Caribbean to see and hear each other. Live webstreaming (via UStream) allowed anyone, anywhere, to view the event. And the IRN website,1 Facebook, and e-mail were used to publicize the event as widely as possible. On 21 June 2011, Chang, Glave, and I, with Angelique Nixon (my co-chair of the Caribbean IRN board), were the speakers at Brooklyn College. Kissoon provided an electronic tour of the collection from his office in Guyana, and longtime activist Colin Robinson spoke via the internet. To broaden the discussion beyond Jamaica and men, we also screened Sisters without Misters, a documentary about Trinidadian lesbians, by Cynthia Cheeseman. Our other webconference sites were hosted by Pride in Action (Mona, Jamaica), J-FLAG (Kingston, Jamaica), and The Hub (Nassau, Bahamas)—and we have confirmed individual viewers in Amsterdam (Netherlands), New Hampshire (US), Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Maarten, where we subsequently received coverage in the local newspaper, the Daily Herald. The technology was facilitated by Kissoon, in Guyana, and by Nicholas Irons, director of Academic Information Technologies at Brooklyn College.

The ripples from our event went far and wide, and continue to be felt. Before the official launch, Dr. Alison Donnell, director of research for the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Reading (UK), mentioned our digital archive in her keynote address at the Eighth Workshop on Caribbean Theory and Criticism at the University of the West Indies-Cave Hill (Barbados). Several film crews, including a French crew filming a documentary about Caribbean homophobia, recorded our event, and interviewed Chang separately. We also took advantage of having some important personalities in the same place at the same time, and taped a conversation between Chang and Thomas that will be premiered with our upcoming Theorizing Homophobia(s) electronic collection. Several scholars and activists who attended remarked on the importance of the archive and their intention to make use of it. And, of course, there is this exciting sx salon discussion, which we expect will generate even more discussion and traffic to our digital archive and other websites.

As you can see, this endeavor was marked by a great degree of collaboration, free labor, and “happy accidents”—but it was not without its share of challenges. For instance, the GFM digital archive contains most, but not all, of the material in the physical collection. This is due both to financial constraints and to concerns about publicizing personal letters, which caused us to prioritize digitizing the public material in the collection.

As one might imagine, a number of challenges were related to technology. While we were successfully able to actively involve people in multiple countries in the launch event, we are aware that the use of technology depends on literacy as well as on access to hardware and an internet connection, bandwidth and electronic capacity, and, in some places, government censorship.

And, of course, we are still in search of a professional, climate-controlled location to permanently house the physical collection. Notwithstanding these limitations and challenges, we are extremely excited that only two years from the discovery of “the box” we were able to launch the GFM digital archive; materials documenting the lives, indigenous activism, and cultures of Caribbean sexual minorities are available, into perpetuity, online via the Caribbean IRN’s GFM and general collection. Since the launch, organizations such as Pink House in Curaçao, Serovie in Haiti, and Caribbean Pride in the United States have expressed interest in adding materials to our online collection.

Replicating the IRN’s efforts

While the IRN’s digital archive focuses on the histories of Caribbean sexual minorities, the dLOC is open to facilitating the online preservation of any material related to the region. I have become a bit of an archive evangelist—I urge anyone who is reading this to scan in materials important to you, your family, or your community. If you cannot digitize the materials, at least try to keep them safe; if we do not preserve our cultural heritage, it may well disappear.

The technical arrangements for the archive and the launch event required a lot of communication, but they were not as difficult to organize as I had thought. I hope more people will make the effort to provide live streaming and/or online participation opportunities for events. While the WebEx platform charges to create webconferences, most of the platforms the IRN uses—including Skype, Facebook, and Ustream—are free.  In addition, access to the IRN is itself free—our website provides access to a range of materials, including syllabi, essays, and links to regional organizations. If you register to become a member of the IRN (also free), you can add to our collection yourself by uploading materials, and you can have access to our monthly electronic newsletter, which provides updates on information relevant to sexual minorities in the Caribbean, including the current debates around cross-dressing in Guyana and attempts to repeal the sodomy law in Belize. We are currently organizing and editing our first electronic journal, Theorizing Homophobia(s), which will include scholarly articles, activist reports, fiction, poetry, interviews, and video. So please stay in touch with the Caribbean IRN.

As I reflect on the events that turned “the box” into a digital archive, I know that we needed money and hardware to make all of this happen. But the most essential element of the endeavor was passion—our excitement about this project kept us going when it seemed futile and inspired others to support us with their resources. My sincere thanks to everyone who helped make this online archive a reality.

 

Rosamond S. King, PhD, is co-chair of the Caribbean board of directors of the International Resource Network and teaches in the English Department at Brooklyn College. Her scholarly work focuses on Caribbean and African literature, sexuality, and performance, and has appeared in numerous journals and collections. She is a 2011–12 Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellow, and sits on the board of directors of both the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies and the Organization of Women Writers of Africa.

 


1 See Vidyaratha Kissoon, “Caribbean IRN,” IRNweb, 19 May 2010, http://www.irnweb.org/en/resources/articles/view/the-caribbean-irn.

 


Article hyperlinks:
1 http://dloc.com/icirngfm
2 www.irnweb.org
3 http://dloc.com/icirn
4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eT4t9CMsUH4
5 http://www.irnweb.org/en/resources/videos/view/part-3-dr-alison-donnell-keynote-address-eigth-workshop-on-caribbean-theory-and-crticism
6 http://www.irnweb.org/en/resources/articles/view/the-caribbean-irn

 

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