The following project proposal was constructed for INFO 654: Information Technologies, taught by Meg Wacha. After being asked to create a technology proposal and space if funding was not a problem, I decided to create an algorithm-based history project that works with archives and collections to combat queer erasure in academia. The Queer Evidence and Erasure Project (QEEP) proposal is the result of that.
Oftentimes, historical figures are “straight-washed” by historians because of cultural stigma and heteronormativity. Romantic relationships can be erased as life long friendships, for example, or outright erased from historical literature.
The information objective of QEEP is to provide a centralized source of primary material on queer figures in history in the form of a searchable database and linked open data set, with specialized focus on different countries and cultures as the project expands.
As the author’s background hails from Eastern Europe, this proposal will begin in that lens, but it should be noted that queerness looks different in every culture. QEEP aims to act as a flexible and fluid initiative to inspire other QEEP spaces that accommodate cultural differences.
This is enhanced by having the project led by and collaborating with queer people of the country it is focusing on. For example, a QEEP space created at an institution in India will form around Indian ideas of queerness and be led by community members and scholars in that field.
Each QEEP space can accommodate the needs of each culture, depending on the severity of erasure. Just like queerness, QEEP is fluid in form and formed by communities.
User Personas & Needs
Asa, 23 (they/them)
Asa is a queer artist that lives in Chicago, Illinois with their family who immigrated from Belarus.
Recently, Asa has been inspired by protests in Belarus against homophobia and transphobia in the country and would like to learn more about queer figures in Belarusian culture. Although a quick Google search provides some results, many are very vague Belarusian government websites or forums of people speculating on queer Belarusian history.
Belarus is known for erasing queer history, so their government-sponsored websites may not be entirely accurate. Asa is also looking for more primary sources than online forums.
They are in need of a centralized database of queer figures in history that can be filtered by country of origin and supported by primary source material.
-Remotely browsing the online and public database to research queer Belarusian historical figures
-Utilizing the open linked dataset to discover relationships between other collections
-Downloading the open linked dataset to run their own data analysis from home
George, 32 (he/him)
George is a graduate student studying for his Master’s in Gender & Sexuality Studies.
George’s focus is on ideas of queer experience in 19th century Poland. After studying up on a particular 19th century writer, George found that many historians dismissed possible queer relationships as friendships, even though the writer remained unmarried and uninterested in heterosexual relationships until his death.
After consulting with the writer’s personal papers on an archive trip, George found clear instances of queer relationships in the writer’s life. George is frustrated with this erasure in the historical literature and wishes there was a centralized space and community to mitigate this erasure.
-Organizing the primary sources he found on his archival trip into the database, using his expertise to give appropriate tags and metadata
-Mentoring undergraduate students at his institution’s QEEP space by teaching digitization skills
-Collaborating skills and knowledge with other historians to analyze retrieved documents from the QEEP algorithm
QEEP is built to be an addition to already existing archives and institutions. The proximity to archival collections will allow for an easier workflow and symbiotic relationship, as QEEP is able to assess collections for queer erasure with ease, while the collections can become more diversified by its reevaluation.
QEEP is hosted in a computer lab setting, complete with computers to run algorithms, large format scanners to digitize material, and separate workspaces and computers for those organizing the database. Many of the technological components of this project are software and digitally-based, so the space can also host a meeting table for workshops and programming, a whiteboard for brainstorming, and bookshelves to hold reference material and archival materials awaiting to be assessed or digitized.
Since archival material would be moving to and from the space, it ideally should be in close quarters of the archive itself. This can also provide the opportunity for students and volunteers of the institution to gain experience in archival methods in a hands-on environment. Scholarly experts such as the librarians and archivists of the institutional archives are also readily available for guidance and mentorship.
Given these circumstances, the QEEP space would allow for effective historical analysis and collaboration with the institutional archive.
Two of the main projects involving archival material for QEEP include text mining queer-coded language within already digitized material and helping to digitize material that then can be text mined. Here, text mining refers to using algorithms to search large sets of text for specific phrases. Queercoded language, or language that insinuates queer relationships or identities, may come from both primary and secondary sources.
For example, user persona George found the writer he was researching exchanged lengthy and romantic letters with another writer of the same sex. Secondary material often used phrasing like “life-long companionship” or “close friends” to describe this relationship, but George thinks otherwise. George had to make lengthy and expensive trips to an archive in order to assess the primary material of the writer to confirm this suspicion.
With QEEP, George would be able to use algorithmic tools similar to Tesseract and Translate Shell to search for this language, instead of sifting through hundreds of untranscribed papers himself. The documents that are flagged by the algorithm will then be analyzed by human hand for contextual clues and confirmation of queer language and relationships. This way, algorithmic bias can be mitigated by not relying entirely on the algorithm to make decisions concerning people’s personal lives, but instead be used more as a retrieval tool for users. The confirmed documents can then be tagged and organized into a searchable QEEP database available to the public, with the proper permissions of the archives and owners of the material.
For user persona Asa, who lives in Chicago, this database could be used to access primary source material across the world so that the information is readily available.
The database would also be available as linked open data, so that little-known information on queer figures can be shared and potentially further linked with other open datasets. This is similar to the History Lab, a project at Columbia University that gathers historical data to create linked open datasets, or Wikidata.
QEEP can also aid archives and institutions with the digitization work as well, as the QEEP space would accommodate flatbed scanners and book scanners similar to ones used at the Internet Archive. Ulitmately, QEEP aims to use algorithms as retrieval aids for historians and researchers, while providing supplemental support to institutional archives.
Potential partners for QEEP include queer history organizations and institutional archives. As the QEEP space is designed to add onto institutional collections, potential partners can include university libraries, such as the Tufts Queer History Project or general library collections that are looking to diversify or uplift queer history within their narratives.
A large inspiration for QEEP is the Queer Archives Institute, which focuses on archiving queer history from Eastern Europe. Although not based at an institution, the QAI aims to mitigate queer erasure in a different form than QEEP by collecting material culture, while QEEP focuses on literary texts, archival papers, and academic discussion. Overall, this proposal can be applied to many different institutions to form spaces that uplift and mitigate queer erasure.
As mentioned before, this proposal centers around Western ideas of queerness and definitions can be fluid depending on the culture that QEEP is working within. What is of upmost important is that the most marginalized voices are listened to and applied within the work-frame of this project, and reflects the culture accurately through collaboration and hiring of queer people within that culture. With more visibility and validity of our humanity, we can work towards a safer future for all.