by Angela Kroeger and Yumi Ohira
The Queer Omaha Archives (QOA) is an ongoing effort by the University of Nebraska at Omaha Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections to collect and preserve Omaha’s LGBTQIA+ history. This is still a fairly new initiative at the UNO Libraries, having been launched in June 2016. This blog post is adapted and expanded from a presentation entitled “Show Us Your Omaha: Combatting LGBTQ+ Archival Silences,” originally given at the June 2017 Nebraska Library Association College & University Section spring meeting. The QOA was only a year old at that point, and now that another year (plus change) has passed, the collection has continued to grow, and we’ve learned some new lessons.
So here are the top ten takeaways from UNO’s experience with the QOA.
#1. First, you need to notice the hole. Then you need to notice the opportunity to fill it.
In his article “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence,” Rodney G.S. Carter said, “Archival power is, in part, the power to allow voices to be heard. It consists of highlighting certain narratives and of including certain types of records created by certain groups. The power of the archive is witnessed in the act of inclusion, but this is only one of its components. The power to exclude is a fundamental aspect of the archive. Inevitably, there are distortions, omissions, erasures, and silences in the archive. Not every story is told.”
Archivists work hard to gather the voices of whichever communities we serve. Diaries, letters, meeting minutes, photographs. We want to tell the full story, but in reality, we are only telling the stories of those whose papers and records we’ve managed to obtain. Whose stories are missing? What segments of our population have no papers or records in our archives? These are the gaps, the silences. Gaps exist for a variety of reasons, sometimes intentional and sometimes accidental. But when you discover a gap, you need to decide whether it falls within your collecting mission and whether you have the time and resources to commit to filling it.
It can be difficult to find the voices of those who have been excluded in the past. If their words were not preserved back in the day, then those papers and photographs may no longer exist to be collected and preserved now. They have already vanished. Their history cannot be retrieved or reconstructed, unless you are able to collect the community’s oral history, recording interviews and stories from those willing to share their experiences, or second- or third-hand stories they remember learning from their antecedents. The longer you wait, the more people who experienced something first-hand pass away, the harder it is to find representations of life in the gaps. That is why it is important to begin collecting underrepresented voices from the present, to preserve them now so that they will not vanish in the future.
Although in the past, UNO—like most institutions in Nebraska at that time—both passively and actively silenced LGBTQIA+ voices on campus, by 2016, UNO had become a very LGBTQIA+-positive campus, with an active and engaged Gender and Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC) and a thriving student group, Queer and Trans Services (QTS, pronounced “Cuties”). The lack of LGBTQIA+ materials in our university archives and special collections became recognized as a glaring silence, and the time was right to mount an effort to fill it. The GSRC and QTS were obvious partnerships to lead with, but we also courted and welcomed resources from the greater Omaha community.
#2. A picture needs a thousand words. May your descriptions be ever honest and clear.
Part of the challenge with digitizing photographs is knowing how to correctly describe the digitized photographs and determining how to deliver the stories presented in the images. As we have digitized photographs of queer Omaha history, we have described, in detail, the context of creation, knowing that constructive dialogue with the LGBTQIA+ community and other diverse groups is important.
An example can be observed with this photograph from the Terry Sweeney and Pat Phalen Papers in the QOA. Michael is a drag queen, not transgender. When he wears female clothing, his preferred name is “Nici,” which is a female name. To contextualize his story and background, the description of this photograph includes, “Nici Leigh is the femme name Michael Groh used when he wore female clothing, adopted a female persona, and expressed a stereotypically feminine personality.”
In order to ensure that people are informed, and to deliver the detailed stories of the subjects, we have provided specific, clear, and honest metadata on each photograph and maintained quality archival descriptions of these image from Omaha’s LGBTQIA+ history.
#3. Find the right platform to present your resources.
Digital resources and web-based platforms bring together specialized collections and integrate access to digital resources for a diverse audience. The goals of the online side of the QOA project are to maintain, display, retrieve, and utilize the digitized materials of the QOA, and to facilitate access to digitized primary sources which include information about the LGBTQIA+ community and its history.
As a web-based presentation tool, Omeka.net is designed to display and exhibit digital collections. For a specialized outreach focus, we use Omeka.net as our digital repository for the QOA collection. Omeka.net is an excellent web-based publishing tool with an easy process for adding and organizing digital materials into specific categories, creating collections, and tagging items within these collections.
#4. Systematic workflows keep the work . . . well . . . flowing.
Workflow systems aid the efficient and effective digitization process. An open source support ticket system, osTicket, allows us to establish systematic workflows to request and complete digitizing and cataloging QOA materials.
With the systematic workflows through osTicket, we have successfully implemented the link between digital collections and their finding aids. As you can see in the image below, the URL of the digital object has been added to a cataloging record, and the URL of the cataloging record has been presented on the metadata of the digital object. Accessing the finding aid from the metadata of the digital object, the site user can learn more about the context of the digital object in the entire QOA and also explore other materials in this collection.
#5. Maintaining consistent metadata between multiple platforms is a
To provide the best access to materials in the QOA, it is important to create high-quality and consistent metadata across different platforms.
First, the item is digitized. Next, the digitized item will be presented on a digital platform (in this case, Omeka.net) with its metadata. Then, a finding aid describing the item will be imported into an archival information management system (in this case, ArchivesSpace). Different people are working on metadata creation in Omeka.net and ArchivesSpace. Also, each platform has slightly different metadata across the various elements. For example, the QOA Omeka.net site has subject headings at the item level, while ArchivesSpace has subject headings only at the collection level.
How can we create consistent metadata across different platforms with different people creating and maintaining the metadata? Metadata consistency is very important for the user to be able to find all information about the item in any platform. A manageable workflow for metadata creation among different systems, and people, can ensure that we provide the users the best possible access to the materials and metadata which describes each photograph and document.
However, when these different systems don’t talk to each other and the data doesn’t synchronize automatically across the platforms, then even metadata which starts out consistent can drift as a record updated in one system remains unchanged (or is changed differently) in another system. We still haven’t found a smooth, perfect way to deal with this, but Yumi (working in Omeka) and Angela (working in ArchivesSpace and Worldcat) have focused on improving our communication, so when one makes a change on one platform, the other can update the other platform to match.
A complicating factor is when the different metadata standards simply lack appropriate fields for information contained in another field, or have different standards for how that metadata should be formatted. For example, books and serials are cataloged in WorldCat with the MARC metadata standard following RDA rules. Items in ArchivesSpace are cataloged with EAD-compliant metadata according to DACS rules. Items in Omeka.net (which may have parallel records in either or both of the other systems) are described with Dublin Core metadata. Lossless mapping between these standards is rarer than we might wish. Sometimes even when platforms use adapted versions of the same metadata standard, such as Dublin Core, the metadata fields in each platform may still vary.
Further, beyond the compatibility of the standards, there is a parallel issue of system compatibility, and whether the tools used to move metadata from one platform into another can handle all of the fields present in both systems. We encountered a specific problem when migrating metadata from Omeka.net to ArchivesSpace for a batch of QOA items. Certain fields simply didn’t transfer at all due to the limitations of the third-party conversion tool available to us at the time. So while metadata consistency remains the ideal and the goal, reality sometimes dictates a little tolerance for metadata divergence. The resources are still findable in both systems, but not necessarily equally findable. This is an area where we continue to strive for improvements in the process.
Angela Kroeger is the Archives and Special Collections associate at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a lifelong Nebraskan. They received their B.A. in English from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and their Master’s in Library and Information Science from the University of Missouri.
Yumi Ohira is the Digital Initiatives Librarian at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Ohira is originally from Japan where she received a B.S. in Applied Physics from Fukuoka University. Ohira moved to the United States to attend University of Kansas and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale where she was awarded an M.F.A. in Studio Art. Ohira went on to study at Emporia State University, Kansas, where she received an M.L.S. and Archive Studies Certification.