“Digital archives are helping LGBTQI communities to take ownership of their stories”

BY SHARON WEBB

Across the country, individuals and communities (most of whom are volunteers) are collecting, digitising and making available digital objects that capture moments of LGBTQI history – as well as moments of personal histories and herstories.

Projects like Queer In Brighton capture the margins of mainstream history; the traditionally oppressed voices, giving life to the stories that make us – they breathe life into our history, help us make sense of our present and inform, secure and enhance our futures. 

A Queer In Brighton event.

However, queer stories and histories are precarious.

Their digital traces are especially at risk because the digital environments we rely on are not as secure or as future proof as we might imagine – this is true, of course, of all world history but especially significant given past erasure of queer lives from the “official historical record.”

The stories we tell, the objects we keep and the photos we cherish are the fabric of our communities.

They are expressions of our collective and individual identity. They capture the moments of history that we celebrate, commemorate and acknowledge. 

Still, the traces of lived experiences in the mainstream historical record are not alway obvious and sometimes do not even exist. Grand swathes of queer history have either been undocumented, kept hidden, erased or worst of all, destroyed.

Dr Sharon Webb speaking at an event.

As a response to this systematic “forgetfulness” LGBTQI communities have taken charge of their own history and have created – or are in the process of creating – their own digital archives in order to safe-guard our stories. 

Google “queer digital archives UK” and today, it’s amazing the number of projects, collections and initiatives you will find.

But they are at risk! Hard-drives die, software fails, websites die, files corrupt, formats change, bit rot is a thing (look it up, it’s kinda fascinating!) 

Remember MySpace? They recently just “lost” 50 million songs from their servers. If Justin Timberlake can’t secure digital objects, what hope do small, independent, volunteer led organisations have? 

But it’s not only the digital objects created by queer history groups that are at risk, what about those photos you have sitting on your hard-drive? Pictures of your first pride march, your first protest – these are also at risk.

Our personal archives are mostly digital now and they don’t last forever. What will our future historical record look like? Will our queer stories but yet again erased? 

There is no magic solution to this problem but highlighting the issue is a start – what do you think?

Dr Sharon Webb is a Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex

To find out more about the project to conserve LGBTQ+ stories in Brighton, visit: queerinbrighton.co.uk and preservingcommunityarchives.co.uk 

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