Thoughts on Diversity in the Archive

by Giorgina Paiella
Published July 23, 2018

The WE1S Research Blog posts discoveries, observations, and questions by project members bearing on WE1S's themes and methods. (For context, see "About" WE1S.)
Since last summer, I have served as a scoping and collection domain expert for what we are now referring to as “diverse populations.” I have specifically focused on how we can represent gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity in the WE1S corpus. I tackled the issue of representativeness that has occupied the C-Hackers’ work this year by investigating how we can achieve representativeness for a variety of ethnic, racial, linguistic, geographic, and gender groups, as well as a spectrum of sexual identities. Gathering news sources that represent these groups is essential to core questions the WE1S project aims to answer, which include the following: How are different gender and ethnic groups positioned in relation to the humanities in public discourse? What kind of conversations do these groups hold about the humanities? Are there discrepancies between how these groups position themselves in relation to the humanities and the ways in which other groups position them in relation to the humanities?

When I wrote my area of focus report, I was delineating high-priority sources for collection and inclusion in the WE1S main corpus. I primarily selected newspaper and magazine sources from ProQuest Ethnic NewsWatch ProQuest GenderWatch, which represent ethnic and racial identities and women’s studies and LGBTQIA+ perspectives, respectively. The representativeness of my corpus was determined by the representativeness of these databases. This wasn’t a major concern, however, because these databases were created in the first place to correct an archival bias that tends to overlook minoritized perspectives. By collecting a wide variety of publications from academic, radical, community, and independent presses that would otherwise not be represented in more mainstream news databases or mainstream media impact figures, these databases actively work to counter absence in the archive and make these essential sources available to researchers. I suggested a number of high-value publications for our initial collection track, but ultimately suggested collecting from all of the newspapers and magazines from Ethnic NewsWatch and GenderWatch.

When our WE1S summer collection work began, I initially hoped that we would be able to collect from these high-value databases and publications. Our summer collection work requires us to collect from sources available on LexisNexis. At first glance, it appeared as though LexisNexis contained most of the publications that are part of the ProQuest GenderWatch and Ethnic NewsWatch databases, but our collection attempts returned no results, which suggests that LexisNexis does not have these publications after all. This obstacle posed a major challenge to collection work for the diverse populations group, especially because many of the publications that represented minoritized groups (Native American and African American historical papers, for example) were simply not available in the same quantities. The next logical step, however, was to start scanning the LexisNexis source list for sources that represent these groups. There was no easy way to filter these searches or have access to these special interest publications in the same way as in ProQuest, so this work required filtering results to North American news publications, reading publication descriptions, and determining whether the publication was pertinent to our diverse populations research.

This process revealed a very different thrust to the publications available in LexisNexis in comparison with those available in ProQuest. While ProQuest GenderWatch offered many canonical feminist publications—like off our backs and Ms. magazine, for example—women’s interests publications available in LexisNexis were overwhelmingly beauty, fashion, and lifestyle magazines, including VogueAllure, Redbook, and Good Housekeeping. This poses an interesting methodological question for WE1S’s approach to collection. Is Vogue, for example, representative of women’s interests in the same way as off our backs? It’s clear that these publications have very different aims and foci; while Vogue is a fashion and lifestyle magazine spanning fashion, beauty, culture, and runway coverage, off our backs was a radical feminist periodical. These two publications differ in just about every way, down to their organizational structure—off our backs was published by a collective of women who practiced consensus decision-making, while Vogue has a conventional magazine job hierarchy—but they both consider their audience to be primarily comprised of women, and by extension, representative of what we would call “women’s interests.”

I did not anticipate collecting from these more mainstream women’s interests magazines, but I ultimately decided that we should include them in our corpus for a number of reasons. First, providing a scan of the sources available in LexisNexis allows us to determine the representativeness of the database on behalf of these groups, which may be used in the future for comparatively exploring representativeness across different databases. Second, these magazines are mainstream publications that are part of public discourse, and they’re often more visible than more niche publications or more overtly political publications. Collecting from these sources is essential to our examination of “what everyone says” about the humanities, and also allows us to take stock of what everyone is not saying about the humanities (especially because it would not be surprising, say, that a beauty publication like Allure magazine doesn’t have much to say about the humanities). Operating on my existing knowledge of these publications, I would hypothesize that Ms. magazine likely has far more discussion surrounding “the humanities” in its pages because of its core sociopolitical investments, compared with women’s beauty and fashion publications. It is also likely more representative of female perspectives because it was created to counter what had been actively excluded from mainstream media, as well as the conversations that dominated women’s magazines at the time. Ms. is also entirely owned, created, and operated by women, rather than being filtered through the standpoint of male writers, editors, and publishers. I initially recoiled at the consideration of including “women’s interests” publications available in LexisNexis like Brides magazine—would including this publication in our corpus reproduce the same patriarchal logic and biases that delineated what “women’s interests” were in the first place?

When conducting any kind of research, it’s important to eliminate as many biases as possible, and that includes suspending researcher value judgments about what publications may be “worthy” of collection, inclusion, and representativeness. Furthermore, these publications are part of public discourse and actively shape our embodied identities, so it’s essential to understand what exactly these publications are producing for the public, particularly if we want to use these conversations to critique our existing knowledge structures, entrenched hierarchies, and hegemonic ways of being. That said, we can still acknowledge that these publications have very different aims—if anything, this collection process is a lesson in media specificity.

These challenges have allowed me to articulate some complexities at work about how our project understands the relationship between diverse populations and publications that are ostensibly representative of these groups: Are we collecting papers that filter news and events through the perspective of a given group or population? Is a publication’s identity and relevance to diverse populations determined by its primary readership? Or must a given group be the focus of a publication’s content and reporting? It’s very possible that these objectives converge and overlap, but I think these questions provide the WE1S team with a prime opportunity to reflect upon the means by which a population situates itself in relation to media outlets, as well as how media outlets situate themselves in relation to a given readership or authorship.

Going forward, I suggest that the WE1S project develop an automated workflow to collect from ProQuest (once manual search and download has been completed according to database terms and conditions) to ensure that we are getting access to high-value publications that are created by and for the groups that they intend to represent. Ongoing reflection about these issues ensures that we understand how audiences and interests are actively created and shaped by media discourse, while also safeguarding against reiterating exclusion and absence in the archive.