Landing : Athabascau University

The new and surprising challenge of describing things with words [NOT safe for work / kids]

I'm quickly learning that there is a serious plus side to having an actual librarian to guide me through this project, as opposed to the original plan of working with the magazine's copyright holder. Turns out making an index is complicated shit, and it becomes even more complicated by the archive's situation in a complicated political landscape. Just being ready to go in May is turning into a huge learning project. (Though not an entirely unwelcome or unenjoyable one.) So two issues have come up: the first, is to learn how to describe the content of the archive I'm indexing and the second is to learn how to describe the archive's place in the political situation I'm researching, the inclusion and exclusion of sex and sex work from history and culture.

My librarian guide is a nice fellow named Alan, who works for a university library by day and volunteers for the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives by night (the CLGA is all volunteer-run, so has really weird 7:30pm - 10:30pm weekday hours). Alan really, really digs what he does, so he's been a lot of help and very peppy to chat with so far. He's expressed agreeable sex-positive and sex work-positive politcs, and mentioned a background in labour studies, archiving and indexing for the Ministry of Labour. So I'm definitely feeling like I lucked out, and just from chatting I'm finding out how much I don't know as well as how much I might have to invent to be able to do the project. 

Describing porn with words

So what I didn't know, but now that I've given it some thought it seems obvious, is that you can't just describe things all willy-nilly and expect whoever comes after you to be able to find it. What I also didn't know is that libraries are changing how they categorize and describe things. The Library of Congress in the US and Library and Archives Canada are implementing a new cataloguing system called "Resource Description and Access" over the next couple of years. It's been under development since the late 90s as an attempt to bring libraries' information systems into line with the digital age and the internet. I read up on it a bit, but it's way beyond what I have the knowledge base to understand. Alan's short-version description, though, is that it's "an attempt to make cataloging work within the world of Google."

A part of what that means is that I won't have to use the strict subject terms that I might have been forced to use a few years ago (a good thing: I searched Library and Archives Canada's controlled vocabulary, and there was no term, period, for feminism, and only one, "pornography," for pornography -- that would be a bit of a problem). The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives has its own controlled vocabulary, or thesaurus, but Alan thinks it might also not be sensitive enough to accurately describe what is actually in the magazine. Sure, it's all porn, but all porn is not created equal. 

And then, not only do I need to be able to find a way to describe what's in the porn, but I also need to be able to describe the porn as a thing. How big is it? What's it made of? What does it look like? Where does it come from? Who made it? Who owns it? For every aspect of the thing and it's content that I decide to describe or not describe, I set a limit to what can or can't be known about it, at least in the little world that is my catalogue. 

For example. Here's an image that I really like, that I've worked with before as research material, and that I have available, both as a file on my computer and a photo that I have permission to redistribute. It's from a series of still shots that were part of a now-offline promotional website for the pornographic collection Bag Ladies


How would I describe this image so other researchers could find it?

I know the directors' names: Stellla Kowolsky and BJ Pink. I also know the directors' real names and the actor's identity, but only because I have access to one of the directors, so I can't include those in a description, even though anyone researching porn is probably more likely to search for the directors and actor by their real names. And I know (or could look at the website and find out) other bibliographic information, like when and where it was produced, the link for the Wayback Machine snapshot (minus photos) of the original website. I would have thought I was doing good with that.

But there is so much more to it. There are items in the image besides the sexualized naked woman: dirt, paper bag, kitchen, wood cabinets, shoes. There are items in the series of photos that aren't shown in this photo, but still have a significant role to play in its meaning; a clear glass bottle, an explicit image of the actor's vulva. She's posed in a particular way (I remember having a slightly mortifying conversation with Mark about whether there is an appropriately academic term for her pose... the best I could come up with was "cowgirl"), and it's feasible that folks could be looking for just images of that pose. They could be looking for (or excluding) only images that are in colour, as opposed to greyscale, sepia, or a particular tint. They could be looking for only images of a particular colour: in this case, I suppose it's mostly brown, or brown and white. The actor's race, gender, apparent age, even hair colour could be search terms. The image references, as Mark reminded me last time I worked with it, the "softcore" centrefolds of Playboy-style pornography, as a carnivalesque pardoy of the femininity they portray. So there's intertextual and theoretical allusions that could also be a way of categorizing it.

The importance of any or all of these terms depends on whether the person I'm imagining doing the search is doing scholarly research, finding raw material for reuse in other works, finding raw material for sexual fantasizing, or some other purpose that isn't even occurring to me. And if I categorize aspects of this picture one way, then I have to do them all the same way.

So suddenly describing a picture of a naked woman is a set of dozens of decisions that affects not only who can find and use this one image, but how everything else I might want to put into the index can be accessed as well. Before even touching On Our Backs, one of my research goals will have to be development of a set of guidelines for vocabulary and concepts (if none already exists for feminist porn -- I emailed the AU library and asked about this), and I'll probably have to update them to be responsive to the magazine's content as I go. What I have to go on for now is the RDA guidelines, Library and Archives Canada's and the CLGA's vocabularies, and the search terms from "lgbt Life," a database that has indexed some of the magazine's content from 2005-06 (but this could also be inadequate, since the exclusion of Q from the database's title suggests a different set of queer politics from my own and OOB's).


Where things get more complicated and I need to learn more new words

Not only is porn very diverse, but it happens and gets stored in diverse communities. Since switching the project from an online internship for She Who Shall Not Be Named to an in-person one for the CLGA, I've felt increasingly conscious that I'll be researching public or "openly displayed" sexuality and sex work in an area whose historical roots are chock-full of both, but whose current development is a force for displacement of sex workers. As Sky Gilbert writes in this 2009 article (and Becki Ross shows is a pattern of queer urban development), the gaybourhood isn't everyone's paradise. In an email, Josh suggested I need a new vocabulary for keeping this aspect of the archive's location, further complicated by the other case studies' locations in an academic library and an Indigenous human rights research centre, present and tangible in my research. Rather than talking about space, as a fixed location, he says, I can talk about "spatiality," or the spatialized relations between individuals and groups. Or I think that's what he means. (Sometimes I have to do major Google-fu to even start to grasp what Josh is telling me.)

Anyway, I think this will be a helpful vocabulary because I mapped out what I know of sex workers' displacement from the neighbourhood where the CLGA main archive and warehouse are, and they don't exactly overlap -- they're not in exactly the same place and the CLGA, as far as I know, didn't have a hand in the media and vigilante campaign to remove prostitutes from the neighbourhood -- but culturally and in terms of proximity, they engage. They also engage with a whole host of other development and equity issues. Josh offered to provide more input on picking up and using this vocabulary (these paragraphs represent the extent of my knowledge right now), so I think I'll just see if I can embed the map I made for now, and work on developing and explaining it later. Apparently I can't embed a map. Here's a link to it:

(I should also share that on Facebook and see if any of the sex workers more familiar with the neighbourhood and the displacement campaign can help me make it more accurate.)


  • Mark A. McCutcheon April 3, 2012 - 11:43am

    I'm just astonished that Library & Archives Canada has no search term for "feminism." The question about a search vocabulary for pornography is really interesting, given two contexts: first, how impoverished the English vocabulary of sexuality often seems (a point remarked by Henry Miller); and second, how keyword-driven digital porn can be - sometimes using not just crude, explicit, and Utilitarian language but even problematically gendered and racialized language. (Like "BBC," apparently.)

    Unrelatedly, I welcome the return of Dirt Bag to your research pursuits; she flies the brown paper flag of academic freedom. (And, btw, that was a good call in planting a caveat on the post's title.)

  • sarah beth April 3, 2012 - 1:05pm

    Well, I figured, should anyone ever complain, it will be a lot easier to argue that the anti-porn policy interferes with necessary research communication if I don't inadvertently get anyone fired when they click on innocuous-sounding links from the activity feed. :) 

    We will have to talk more about the vocabulary. The CLGA has a database for their other periodicals with some fields established to fill in, but given the issues of access that come up with the three archives taken together (the Feminist Porn Archive is navigating some complex issues to do with what porn-viewing behaviour is acceptable in public vs. what they can put online because of copyright issues), I want to try to emphasize to the non-scholarly reasons folks might search for porn: namely for fantasizing and for making derivative works (well, I suppose these aren't necessarily non-scholarly -- but less rigidly scholarly, I guess). I'm not sure the established databases are set up for that, and I'm not sure yet what to do with the problems you point out of problematic and impoverished language....

  • Mark A. McCutcheon April 3, 2012 - 1:32pm

    I'm not sure yet what to do with the problems you point out of problematic and impoverished language

    Me neither. It's one of those sort of theoretical, unanswerable, but still critically important questions...

  • sarah beth April 4, 2012 - 8:51pm

    I was talking to [Reluctantly Redacted Name] today, and the vocabulary issue got even more complicated. She told me she had found some really hot queer porn (NSFW) by Googling "ethical porn." It's also a pretty practical search term, though in a different way from the more mainstream keywords for niche porn, but for me it brings up the racialized and gendered discourse of "fair-trade" porn that constructs non-US porn actors as trafficking victims. 

    We also talked about gonzo and other "reality" porn; the fantasy of porn actors really getting off vs. my "workers' rights" perspective that it's no more reasonable to demand that your favourite sex worker really comes than it is to demand that the server at your favourite coffee shop not secretly wish you dead every time she smiles at you. 

    So yeah, probably an unanswerable set of problems... but hashing them out has been turning into really productive conversations about how and why particular vocabularies are employed to search for porn, and what (besides wet) the searcher is expecting to get out of it.

  • Joshua Evans April 5, 2012 - 11:31am

    On the spatiality front, I would be delighted to dialogue about various approaches. This is a crude taxonomy, but in short there are five main approaches in human geography:

    1) Political Economy

    2) Post-structuralist

    3) Phenomenological

    4) Psychoanalytic

    5) Nonrepresentational

    I could summarize all five, or focus on a few in more depth. What would be most helpful?

  • sarah beth April 5, 2012 - 11:50am

    Thanks, Josh! Of course I'm curious to hear about all five, but I'll let you decide whether you have the time and energy to describe all of them just for the sake of my curiosity. 

    In your comment on my grant proposal, you mentioned some ideas that, in my remedial Googling, led to nonrepresentational approaches. I have to say, I really didn't grasp much of it. It sounded neat, though, and what I could grasp seemed on target. I would like to hear more about the post-structuralist approach, too, which will maybe be more familiar to me. And I don't know enough about the other three to know whether they'd be useful or not, so I think I'm better off trusting your judgment there. 


    If I set the permissions for the group right, you should be able to write the summary as a separate blog post, wiki, or bookmark -- whichever best suits the explanation you have in mind. That will be easier to link to for reference in future blog posts, or to cite in my paper and presentation, than finding it in the comments. (As far as I know, I can't link to a specific comment.)

  • Joshua Evans April 17, 2012 - 8:41am

    I would like to write on all five because the content could possibly migrate into an undergraduate or MA-IS course at some point in the future. I will start with post-structuralist and non-representational.

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