By Bri(an) M. Watson, K.J. Rawson, and Jackson Huang
The Trans Metadata Collective is an ad-hoc group of nearly a hundred cataloguers, librarians, archivists, scholars, and information professionals who share a concerted interest in improving the description and classification of trans and gender diverse people in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums, and Special Collections (GLAMS) and other information systems. We formed the TMDC in response to the lack of attention paid to trans and gender diverse issues in GLAMS, especially among the creators of metadata standards. Often, metadata is created about us, our communities, and/or our art by people who aren’t familiar with the issues we face. Commonly used controlled vocabularies and classification systems under- and misrepresent us and our communities. Furthermore, we can be misnamed or misgendered in metadata, meaning that supposedly-neutral metadata can out us, putting us at risk of harm or violence. These harms can be especially pernicious in archival institutions, where metadata records may persist for decades.
The TMDC’s primary goal was to develop a set of best practices for the description and classification of trans and gender diverse information resources that could be widely shared and implemented throughout the GLAMS sector. Our newly-released report, “Metadata Best Practices for Trans and Gender-Diverse Resources” (available here), is the result of a year of work and collaboration. It was released for circulation in June 2022 and has already been downloaded over 10,000 times across various platforms.
The initial idea for this project began during conversations after a panel at the University of Victoria’s Moving Trans History Forward conference in March 2021. Within a few weeks, planning for what would become the Trans Metadata Collective began in earnest by K.J. Rawson, Bri(an) M. Watson, Beck Schaefer, Laura Horak, Magnus Berg, Clair Kronk, and Djaz Zulida in the summer of 2021. Recognizing the limitations of their perspectives, this planning group launched a broad call for participation on Twitter, GLAMS-relevant listservs, and elsewhere. The response to this call was overwhelming, and over a hundred GLAMS professionals expressed interest in participation.
Two large-scale meetings (called the Convening Committee) were held to discuss action plans and organize several working groups that would cover narrower themes and allow individuals to contribute based on their own expertise. These initial working groups were called Descriptive Practices, Subject Headings & Authorities, Name Authorities & Access, and Ethical Recommendations, and were initially made up of 10-15 members each. A Slack workspace was created, and the working groups began meeting to develop individual documents (see below diagram for more detail on this process). These documents took a variety of forms, including lists, bibliographies, and formal reports.
On a semi-monthly basis, representatives from each working group met in a Coordinating Committee in order to ensure that work was progressing and not being duplicated. As working groups finished preliminary drafts of their self-assigned work, their documents were merged into a larger document compiled and edited by the Coordinating Committee. During this year-long process, the makeup and number of individuals involved in the working group process waxed and waned as individuals participated as they were able to and committees remained productive despite the challenges of COVID-19. The editors and primary authors of the final TMDC were Jasmine Burns, Michelle Cronquist, Jackson Huang, Devon Murphy, K.J. Rawson, Beck Schaefer, Jamie Simons, B.M. Watson, and Adrian Williams.
Our highest-level recommendations include:
- making the process of metadata creation transparent, which may include making descriptive standards, rationale, and context publicly available, providing methods for user feedback, and and collaborating with community members (with consent and compensation);
- using culturally and contextually appropriate labels for trans and gender diverse communities and subjects: different cultures and communities may have terms for genders that may not translate into the typical descriptive tone or primary descriptive language. This may include Indigenous vocabulary or community terminology uncontrolled by vocabularies. Collaborate with specific communities and prioritize their terms and protocols alongside controlled vocabularies or otherwise authoritative terms;
- correctly naming and identifying trans individuals, meaning that trans and gender diverse individuals may use different names in different points or contexts in their lives and that metadata should rely on self-identification and self-description where possible, including direct consultation with individuals or communities. It is not necessary and not recommended to record information about someone’s gender identity or previous names when resources have nothing to do with gender identity;
- being explicit about transphobia in collections, items, and metadata, meaning that metadata should identify perpetrators and victims and use active voice and subject headings to embed responsibility. Metadata workers and policies should aim to correct, update and remediate offensive or inaccurate language provided by other metadata creators; and
- identifying trans-related content and metadata through regular assessment and prioritizing it for remediation, meaning that institutions should plan proactively for periodic assessment and remediation, including the identification of materials related to trans and gender diverse communities and individuals, especially when they are parts of larger collections where they are not the focus. We also recommend avoiding using automation for batch replacement and caution when using externally supplied records.
By striking a balance between general recommendations applicable across all cultural heritage institutions and detailed guidelines for metadata workers who use standards such as Library of Congress Subject Headings, Metadata Best Practices for Trans and Gender Diverse Resources aims to be a widely-usable, practical text for institutions small or large, and academic, private, or public users.
The TMDC has formally wrapped up our work and many members moved over into a larger group that is in the early stages of creating a best practices resource for queer metadata: the Queer Metadata Collective (QMDC; https://queermetadatacollective.org/). Our report will be updated by a few members on an as-needed basis; however, if larger changes are needed, the group would reconvene to plan a collective approach. We hope this resource will prove to be widely useful and that it will inform practices in a range of cultural heritage contexts. We welcome feedback and collaborations!
Bri(an) M. Watson (they/them; @brimwats) is a disabled, white, queer & nonbinary settler living in Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish. They are currently a Vanier Scholar at University of British Columbia’s iSchool focusing on histories of information and the practice of equitable cataloging in libraries, archives, museums, and special collections. Watson is the Archivist-Historian of the American Psychological Association’s Consensual Nonmonogamy Committee (div44cnm.org) and the Haslam Collection on Polyamory at the Kinsey Institute. They serve on the editorial board of Homosaurus (homosaurus.org), an international linked data vocabulary for queer terminology, and are the Director of HistSex.org, a free and open access resource for the history of sexuality. For 2022-23, they are one of UBC Library’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Scholars-in-Residence.
K.J. Rawson (he/him) works at the intersections of the Digital Humanities and Rhetoric, LGBTQ+, and Feminist Studies. Focusing on archives as key sites of cultural power, he studies the rhetorical work of queer and transgender archival collections in brick-and-mortar and digital spaces. Rawson is founder and director of the Digital Transgender Archive, an award-winning collection of trans-related historical materials, and he chairs the editorial board of the Homosaurus, an LGBTQ+ linked data vocabulary.
Jackson Huang is a gender variant library technologist whose work focuses on the intersections of structural politics and technological infrastructure in libraries and archives. Their research explores metadata translation and digital aggregations on the representation of materials related to the history of marginalized communities. They currently work as the digital collections and content ingest coordinator at the University of Michigan.