Opening the Information Vault: Preserving, Digitizing, and Funding the International Women’s History Periodical Archive

I was honored to have as one of my co-panelists at Bryn Mawr College’s “Women’s History in the Digital World 2015” conference the most important feminist archivist of the sixties and seventies as well as the founder of Women’s History Month and so much more: Laura X.

In her talk, which appears here in this guest blog, edited for publication, Laura talks about the rediscovery of International Women’s Day, which then led to the creation of the central archive of the women’s movement from 1968 to 1974, and the founding of both Women’s History Month in 1969 and the Women’s History Library. Previous to 1969, she was a Head Start teacher in New York and a CORE picket captain and then active in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964 as well as the emerging peace and women’s movements.


 * * *

Ken, you are my hero for this digitizing of our early movement materials and your Voices from the Underground Series, including our chapter on It Aint Me Babe, the first U.S. national Women’s Liberation newspaper. I am so happy to be involved with the ingathering of feminist and lesbian periodicals for digitizing.

Ken asked me to tell our historical origin pre-story for the International Women’s History Periodical Archive. (Women’s Liberation Movement publications included the note “This publication is on file at the International Women’s History Periodical Archive” and our address, which caused other publications from 40 countries to place themselves on file in our archive as well.)

I’ll start with the strike that was inspired by Russian women in 1917, the discovery of which inspired me to help organize a demonstration in Berkeley for International Women’s Day on March 8, 1969, and to begin to build the idea of Women’s History Month around March 8. Our Women’s History Library, which maintained the International archive of our movement from 1968 to 1974, took a quantum leap forward from the national publicity as a result of that Berkeley demonstration. There had been no such demonstration for IWD in the U.S. since 1947. By the next year, 1970, there were Women’s Liberation events in 30 cities around the world for March 8.

So, to begin: Back in late 1968, I saw the 1929 Soviet film The End of St. Petersburg by Vsevolod Pudovkin. The women’s demonstration in St. Petersburg on February 23, 1917 for “bread, peace and land” is clearly the spark that ignited the strike for the Putilov factory workers. Their strike toppled the rule of the czars within four days of the women’s protest. What is not known, partly due to the confusion of the use of another calendar system by the Eastern church, is that their February 23 was March 8 on the Western calendar; the Bolshevik women who organized the demonstration over the protests of their male comrades were in fact deliberately celebrating International Women’s Day, which had been declared seven years earlier.

Although by 1969 I had considered myself a socialist for thirteen years, had been immersed in Left politics in New York and Berkeley, and had been to the Soviet Union twice to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary in 1967, I still did not learn until late 1968 that International Women’s Day was based on a U.S. event that took place on March 8, 1908. It had been celebrated big time in the Socialist countries around the world, but by 1969 in the USSR it had deteriorated into something like Mother’s Day in the U.S. where women are given flowers, and the day was ignored here.

In November 1968 I called for U.S. celebrations of IWD in a review of The End of St. Petersburg for the UC Berkeley newspaper The Daily Californian. I had just been told by Noel Ignatin, a socialist active in Chicago, about the Russian women inspiring the 1917 strike by demanding an end to World War I as well as bread and land. He also told me that the Socialist International meeting in Copenhagen in 1910 had declared March 8 to be International Working Women’s Day in a motion made by Clara Zetkin, a German Communist, and seconded by Lenin, the Russian Bolshevik (majority) party leader whose triumphant return from exile was made possible by the so-called February Revolution of 1917, the one begun by women on March 8 on the Western calendar. I believe his source was Isaac Deutscher’s The Unfinished Revolution: Russia, 1917-1967.

But what really ignited me was that once again American history had been stolen from us. I had just recently been angry about discovering that May Day, the enormous international socialist event on May 1, commemorated the Haymarket Square massacre of the workers in Chicago who were struggling for an eight-hour day in 1881. Noel told me that the resolution for International Women’s Day in 1910 was to commemorate a demonstration in New York in 1908 of garment workers who were demanding an end to sweatshops and to child labor, and also the right to vote.

The part about the vote intrigued me because women on the Left as late as 1969 were being hooted down and dismissed as bourgeois whenever we demanded our rights as women—indeed as human beings. And Leftist men were perpetuating the myth that no one in the working class wanted any women’s rights, including the right to vote. I had been collecting mimeographed manifestos and letters to the editors of the Leftist press about many such outrages by men in the antiwar and Civil Rights movements for six months or more in order to try to recapture my sanity after having been battered and nearly killed by my own comrade and lover. (He had been a child prodigy violinist and was by then a revolutionary poet. We met demonstrating in Puerto Rico against the U.S. invasion of Santo Domingo. The grief over the loss of that relationship and my fright over how it ended seemed insurmountable until I discovered the rising up of women in all the movements of the sixties.)

In January/February 1969 I was invited to a little party of sociology professors to show the mimeos and pamphlets to Pauline Bart, who was considering teaching a Women’s Studies course, the first at UC Berkeley. As we were being introduced, everyone’s favorite male radical professor, David Matza, whose courage had been demonstrated on the Third World Strike picket lines on campus, overheard us, and before I could speak he told Pauline not to bother teaching such a course, because there was not enough about women to fill a quarter course. That betrayal knocked me into the orbit of the pure fury of those heady days. In three days I pestered friends everywhere and pulled together a list of 1,000 women in world history: politics, the arts and sciences.

I had had the immense privilege of going to girls’ schools and a women’s college. It was only in my last year in college, at UC Berkeley, that I discovered that not everybody knew that women could do everything! I nailed the list to Professor Matza’s door (in homage to Luther) and went in search of a local women’s liberation group through the father of one of its members.

Bill Mandel had a show on the Soviet Union on Pacifica Radio that I started listening to in 1960 in New York, though it originated from Pacifica’s mother station in Berkeley. He regularly read from the Soviet press on International Women’s Day. His daughter, Phyllis, a long-time activist, took me to the Berkeley Women’s Liberation group, which then organized the first street demonstration about International Women’s Day since 1947 in the U.S. Many of us dressed up as women in history from my list. I was a cross between Alexandra Kollontai, the Bolshevik feminist, and Isadora Duncan, the American woman who lived for a time in Russia and transformed the world of dance away from the confines of the ballet.

Liberation News Service picked up the story from a San Francisco paper about our parade in Berkeley and its sources from my list. The publicity from their article caused people from this and many other countries to begin to send me everything imaginable about women in history, including information about their own family members. People also came to visit from around the country, and to volunteer. Ten thousand copies of the list, by now called the HERSTORY SYNOPSIS, were sold within a few short years. Five thousand people have volunteered here.

We put out the only national women’s liberation newsletter from April to December 1969, SPAZM: the Sophia Perovskaya and Andrei Zhelyabov Memorial Society for Peoples’ Freedom through Women’s Liberation. Sophia and Andrei were lovers. She was the 16-year-old daughter of the governor of St. Petersburg and the two of them assassinated the czar in 1881. I was not comfortable about assassinations as a political tactic, having just lived through several in the sixties:  John Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy.

But I liked the part about the comrade-lovers, and the rebellious adolescent daughter of a powerful man. The name was also in the style of rock groups, but the last part of it fully embodied my philosophy for peoples’ freedom, which I still hold today. By January 1970 we had to put SPAZM into newsprint as it was too unwieldy as a zine. Other people wanted to do a paper, too, so It Aint Me Babe, the first national newspaper of the U.S. Women’s Liberation Movement, was born. (People from off our backs called me to pick my brain for their name, which ended up being a combination of the quote from the Grimke sisters about getting our brothers off our necks and revulsion at the quote attributed to Stokely Carmichael about the position of women in SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) being prone and silent. Their paper came out only a few weeks later, the first national feminist paper to emerge from the East Coast.)

There were many other firsts from the Women’s History Library:

  • the anthology Masculine/Feminine in 1969 with all the great manifestos;
  • The Women’s Songbook;
  • Female Artists Past and Present: Films by and/or about Women Internationally, Past and Present;
  • Bibliography on Rape; and
  • Women and Religion Bibliography.

Most lasting are the microfilms of the records of our movement: nearly one million documents now available through the National Women’s History Project in Santa Rosa, California (707-636-2888;

Besides handling the distribution of our library’s resources, the people at National Women’s History Project have carried on the ideas we had when we founded our library beyond our wildest dreams, including their idea and work making Congress declare March as Women’s History Month. They also have put up the fabulous website for all of the celebrations in 1998 for the 150th anniversary of the Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.

My archive features documents, media, and other materials collected over the last fifty years. The collection pertains to the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, and a wide array of precursors and overlapping social movements from the second half of the twentieth century, with special emphasis on the women’s movement, including references to my own successful state-by-state campaign to abolish the legal privilege and exemption for marital and date rape. The presence of my materials in the Laura X Social Movements Archives most directly addresses the need to “understand the moral and ethical values of a diverse society and understand that many courses of action are guided by value judgments about the way things ought to be ….”

The important reservoirs of tens of thousands of documents from local, national, and international sources that constitute the Laura X Social Movements Archives have been carefully preserved and maintained for historical research and presentation. The collection is derived from my participation in an extensive array of social movements, including the anti-nuke, peace, Civil Rights, Free Speech, women’s rights, and environmental movements; my life in St. Louis and beyond; the organizations I founded; the materials I produced for my organizing work around the country; materials produced by other organizations that I collected for posterity; and smaller collections donated to me.

The staff and volunteers of the Laura X Institute (see text of informational flyer below) are currently engaged in sorting, cataloging, and assigning “finding aids” to the 580 boxes of materials, in order to keep them vibrant, accessible, and available for researchers, curators, film makers, and other interested parties. Once finished, the Institute’s archive will be a resource for students, professors, historians, film documentarians, museums, exhibitions, high school teachers, activists, and other members of the general public.

Our prior collection, covering up to 1974, was converted to microfilm and the master microfilm donated in 1989 by the Women’s History Research Center (WHRC) to the National Women’s History Project (NWHP). Since 1974 the microfilm copies have been distributed through NWHP and WHRC, now currently through Primary Source Media/Cengage Learning to some 450 libraries in fourteen countries so far.

We recently were displaced after the Missouri legislature removed funding to the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Many programs were cut, including our archives. So it is vital now that we get this project finished. We are experiencing many challenges in maintaining our collection of over 500 boxes. We also have to raise funding to rent our rooms near Harris-Stowe State University and St. Louis University. Museum-quality storage is expensive; HVAC systems, filtration, and proper shelving all come at high costs. Accessibility to our documents also is challenging; right now we can’t afford the price of digitizing all of our work and the equipment needed for it, which is why we are reaching out to other sources of funding. We would like our collection to be fully cataloged first so we can then get the large donation to digitize. Even cataloging our collection is costly and time consuming for only a few individuals.

If our collection were being funded under the Reveal Digital model, they would put it up on their crowd-funding website; once we had the support from libraries, we would go into production. No library pays a lot and yet every library benefits. My archives could be invaluable to courses in women’s history, the environment, the social movements of the sixties and seventies, and many others. The collaboration between libraries and archives is important; as we step into a more digitally focused age, the importance of these documents and publications becomes more apparent for researchers.

We are not trying to recreate history, but learn from it.

* * *

[Following is the text of the flyer from the Laura X World Institute and Archives]



Legacy and Learning of Social Justice Movements


 MEET THE CHALLENGE: Raise funds, find homes, send your favorite interns, and even swing by St. Louis to be inspired.


The legendary Women’s History Library, created by pioneer feminist Laura X with a mostly-volunteer staff, gathered nearly a million documents on the changing lives of women from 1968-1974, including the only comprehensive records of our movement, nationally and internationally. The library divided the archives into three collections for microfilm publishing: HERSTORY (90 reels of 821 serial titles: 20,000 issues of journals, newspapers, and newsletters from 40 countries); WOMEN’S HEALTH/MENTAL HEALTH (14 reels) and WOMEN AND LAW (40 reels covering Education, Politics, Employment, Abortion, Family, Rape, Prison, Prostitution, etc).

This historic treasure, described by the American Library Association as “the most comprehensive record of any social protest movement” is now available on microfilm in nearly 500 libraries in 14 countries. These microfilms can be purchased from the National Women’s History Project (707-636-2888), the great group that convinced Congress to make National Women’s History Month official. (The Week was approved in 1981 and the Month was recognized in 1987.)

Once the first stage of the Women’s History Library’s work was accomplished—the preservation of the first part of the woman’s liberation movement until 1974—Laura X, again with volunteers, founded the National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape in 1978. Documents and papers from numerous women’s movement groups and individuals continued to flow in despite the Library’s announced 1974 end of collecting, while Laura X accumulated more material from her own work on rape.

The University of Illinois took over many of the Clearinghouse resources in 1985, but Laura X continued until 1993, when she succeeded in making marital and date rape a crime in all 50 states.


For proper preservation of perishable materials, an apartment was rented for storage where room temperature, humidity, pesticide use, and other factors could be controlled. Laura finally gave up the non-profit in 2000. She has now spent over 41 years trying to stop the flow of materials to her while searching for funding and institutions to take over the materials!

Temporarily the bulk of the materials since 74’ were housed at the University of Missouri-St. Louis but, the legislature of Missouri cut $4 million dollars worth of project and program funding including ours. We moved to a strategic storefront next to Harris-Stowe State University and St. Louis University to be available to researchers and interns.

The papers, approximately 580 boxes, must be sorted still!


You will seek to find repositories for the remainder, with all the energy and brains you can muster!

Your tax-deductible donations and grants for the work of the Institute and archives as well as those for interns and digitizing may be sent to:

Website:   Email:

*PS. It should be noted that, as a social activist since her student days in the Sixties, thousands of documents from other social movements are also available.

The Laura X – Laura Rand Orthwein, Jr. World Institute is the teaching arm of Laura’s new nonprofit, Laura’s Social Movements Archives, which feature documents and other materials collected by Laura and so many others, over the last fifty years since the Free Speech Movement.

We have moved into a new location and would love any advice on lighting, archival materials, and digitizing equipment to use.




Redirecting Library Budgets in Support of Open Access

In my last post I reproduced the talk that I gave at the “Women’s History in the Digital World 2015” conference that was held at Bryn Mawr College on May 21-22. Today I am honored to publish the talk given by one of my fellow panelists, Andrée Rathemacher, head of acquisitions at University of Rhode Island. If you are a librarian or anyone interested in how library dollars are spent, especially why so few dollars are being spent on books nowadays, you will find this guest blog to be a major eye opener.

Andrée Rathemacher at Rhode Island Library Association conference, May 28, 2015. (c) 2015 Dhana Whiteing

Andrée Rathemacher at Rhode Island Library Association conference, May 28, 2015. (c) 2015 Dhana Whiteing


As my introduction noted, I’m the head of acquisitions at the University of Rhode Island Libraries. It is the Acquisitions Unit that expends the library’s annual materials budget of about $4 million. I’ve been in this role since 2009; before that, from 2003 to 2009, I was the serials librarian, managing the library’s thousands of print and online journal subscriptions.

Perhaps it is this personal involvement with channeling $4 million a year to various publishers that has turned me into an open access advocate.

Before I tell my story, let me share with you a definition of open access from open access leader Peter Suber, philosophy scholar and current director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication. Suber provides this definition: “Open-access or OA literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”

Thus, open access removes price barriers (like subscription fees and licensing fees), and open access removes permissions barriers (that is, restrictions on how material can be reused).

We’ll return to this definition later.

What I’m going to share with you today is the story of how I came to support open access and to believe that libraries should show their support of open access with their collection dollars.

 Scene One — Journal Cancellations

I started working as an academic librarian in November 1995. Not too many months after I started my job, the library embarked upon what was one in a long series of serials cancellations: In 1996 we canceled 169 titles that cost $216,000.

Incidentally, I was assigned as liaison to departments in the College of Business Administration, and in this role I was expected to meet with each department chairperson and share with them the list of journal titles in their area that the library did not plan on renewing. During the meeting with the chair of the Accounting Department, a senior accounting professor sitting in on the meeting began yelling at me in a classic case of shooting the messenger. After several minutes of this, I decided that I’d had enough, so I got up to leave. This faculty member followed me down the hall, shouting, “You come back here, young lady. I’m not finished talking to you.” Eyes straight ahead, I continued my walk back to the library and went straight to the office of our collection manager, where I promptly burst into tears and told him I was never going to go back to the College of Business ever again. He started laughing. It was a formative experience.

Such cuts had been commonplace, and they kept coming.

  • There had been cuts in 1976 (683 titles), 1983 (142 titles), 1988 (210 titles), 1991 (906 titles), and 1994 (131 titles).
  • After the tears incident, there followed more cuts in 1998 (237 titles), 1999 (196 titles), and 2003 (274 titles).

Then, after the financial crisis, in 2008 and 2009 (two years in a row), we cut a total of 1,212 titles worth $646,000.

This time, as serials librarian, these were my cuts. I was the one responsible for carrying them out.

Hey, after the fact, I even got two book chapters published on the topic.

Though it did occur to me that someday when I looked back on my professional career and how I made my mark, however small, it was kind of bleak that because of these circumstances the expertise I had developed was “how to cancel stuff.” (Incidentally, my next article, co-authored with a colleague with whom I led a project to dispose of almost a mile of bound periodicals from the library collection in order to make room for a “learning commons,” revealed my expertise in “how to throw stuff out.” Not the most inspiring legacy.)

This experience of journal cancellations was not unique to the University of Rhode Island. As many of you have probably heard, price increases for journals have far outpaced the rate of inflation since the mid-1980s. From 1986 to 2012, the cost of library materials in general has risen 322%. Continuing resources (that is, serials) have increased by 456%! During this time period, the general rate of inflation measured by the CPI only rose 109%.

In concrete terms, this means that in 2015 URI pays (in rounded numbers):

  • $106,000 for journals published by Sage;
  • $118,000 for journals published by Springer, now “Springer Nature” following Springer’s recent acquisition of Macmillan Science and Education).

Add to that

  • $36,000 for a small handful of journals published by Nature;
  • $85,000 for journals published by Taylor and Francis;
  • $283,000 for journals published by Wiley;
  • $77,000 for journals from the American Chemical Society;

And, everyone’s favorite…

  • $703,000 for journals published by Elsevier.

To name a few examples.

Together, expenditures on journal subscriptions make up 66% of our materials budget. If you include journals plus other subscription-based electronic resources, the total climbs to 85%. This leaves just 15% for books and media.

This is typical (actually, a little worse than typical).

According to statistics from the Association of Research Libraries (which represents the largest academic libraries in North America), in 2011-2012 expenditures on ongoing resources of all kinds comprised, on average, 69% of total library materials expenditures.

Where is all this money going? Of course there are legitimate costs to publishing, but, in the case of journals, most of the work (writing articles, editing, peer reviewing) is done by academics on a voluntary basis. Much of the staggering prices of these resources go, quite simply, to publisher profit.

For example:

For those of us not so into business, is this even high? Yes, it is high.

For comparison:

So why is this relevant, other than illustrating how I became an open access advocate?

Why is it relevant to you, women’s history scholars, who don’t deal all that much with journals, especially expensive science journals?

It is relevant because this is where all the money in libraries is locked up. This is money that is not available for books, for primary source databases, for humanities materials, for innovative new services.

 Scene Two — New Forms of Digital Scholarship

Ryan Cordell is an assistant professor of English at Northeastern University and a digital humanist. One of his areas of study is viral texts in nineteenth-century newspapers. I heard him speak about his research at a workshop for librarians in April 2013.

In the nineteenth century, newspapers and periodicals published short works of fiction, poetry, and other prose. At that time, before modern copyright law, it was common for editors to reprint these texts, originally published elsewhere. The texts moved around the country through this network, resulting in a shared print culture.

Cordell’s research seeks to identify these shared texts, to examine which were reprinted and why, and to map how they traveled and changed as they passed from publication to publication. Cordell’s primary source for his research is the Library of Congress’s website Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. The site contains the full text and page images of many American newspapers between 1836 and 1922.

Cordell and his colleague David Smith, a professor of computer and information science, “scraped” the full text of all newspapers published before 1860 in Chronicling America and performed a computational analysis using algorithms they developed to identify matching texts. Thus far, the team has identified thousands of viral texts, including minor pieces by major authors that were far more influential than previously realized. They have also mashed up their data with other open data to reveal connections between viral texts and the expansion of railroads, the establishment of political boundaries, and local population characteristics.

Yet, according to Cordell, there are “glaring holes” in his research. His data includes no content from Massachusetts—and Boston was a major publishing center of the time. There is also very little available to him from New York or Philadelphia, also vital to the period. He lacks this content because it is locked up in commercial databases of archival newspaper content, such as those published by Gale, Readex, and ProQuest. Although his institution subscribes to a number of these databases, the ability to download the text for analysis (which his research requires) is not available.

Hearing Ryan speak that day really deepened my understanding of the need for open access.

Remember that the definition of open access refers to material that is not just free to read, without cost, but free to re-use.

Ryan found that innovative re-use of the content of these databases was either not possible at all, or was possible only by special arrangement, under limited conditions, for a financial cost.

Even though many of the sources in archival, primary-source databases are themselves in the public domain, once the content is digitized, vendors assert intellectual property rights over it and sell it for a profit. Thus, they are not readily willing to openly release the full text.

Due to pressure from libraries, some vendors of primary-source databases are beginning to include text and data-mining rights in their licenses with libraries. (Gale was the first in a license pioneered by Darby Orcutt at North Carolina State University.) But this is still awkward, involving hard drives arriving in the mail and very bad quality OCR, as scholar Paul Fyfe at NC State has discovered. And still, these arrangements, when available, are only available to researchers at institutions that subscribe to a given resource.

So, open access is not only for journals; and it is not only to make sure that material is “free to read.” Open access applies to all types of scholarly materials, and re-use is a very important component.

This is why an open access model like Reveal Digital, as Ken outlined, is so important.

And it is important now, since even a casual perusal of the websites of Adam Matthew, Alexander Street Press, EBSCO, Gale, ProQuest, and Readex shows that they are working with libraries and other cultural heritage institutions to create newly digitized archival collections at a prolific rate. In fact, a 2015 press release from ProQuest boasted that, in 2014, the company digitized approximately 12 million pages of historical documents.

What Can Libraries Do?

Among the core values of librarianship are access to information, facilitating education and lifelong learning, social responsibility, and the public good. Open access aligns with all of these values. In fact, there are an increasing number of opportunities for libraries to support open access initiatives through crowd-funding and other models.

Here are the open access initiatives that we’ve supported so far at the University of Rhode Island:

  • January 2014: SCOAP3, Cost: $364. SCOAP3 is a worldwide initiative coordinated by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, that converted key journals in the field of high-energy physics to open access. SCOAP3 centrally pays the article charges for articles in these journals from a common fund to which libraries contribute.
  • January 2014: Knowledge Unlatched Pilot Collection, Cost: $1,196. This is a collection of 28 newly published, open access e-books in the humanities and social sciences from 13 well-known publishers; 297 libraries from 24 countries shared the cost of publishing these titles. As of April 2015, the titles had been downloaded almost 30,000 times from around the world.
  • March 2014: Reveal Digital, Independent Voices, Cost: $10,250.
  • October 2014: Reveal Digital, SNCC Archive, Cost: $4,000 (pledge).
  • October 2014: Reveal Digital, Liberation News Service Archive, Cost: $735 (pledge).
  • October 2014: Reveal Digital, Highlander Folk School Archive, Cost: $3,250 (pledge).
  • February 2015: Open Library of Humanities, Cost: $1,000 per year for 5 years. Open-access, peer-reviewed journal and book platform for the humanities funded by an international consortium of libraries.

As you can see, these costs are not at all expensive in comparison to overall library materials budgets and the costs of many library subscriptions. I encourage you to speak with your campus librarians and press them to support these and similar open access initiatives. And to remember that all open access is connected: whether for sciences or humanities, journals or books, or archives. Because OA in any of these areas has the potential to free up money in support of OA in another. And the more examples we have of successful OA initiatives, the easier it will be to advance open access publishing models in the future.

But, of course, open access is not just, or even primarily, about saving money. Initially, it might even cost more or require hard decisions about what to support or no longer to support.

Open access is primarily about enhancing access to scholarly content and enabling creative re-use.

So, I advocate for taking some portion of library budgets that currently are used to purchase the products of legacy, closed-access publishers in order to facilitate open access to scholarship and unique primary source material through new publishing models.

In Conclusion

I believe that librarians need to resist the enclosure of the scholarly and cultural commons that is the inevitable outcome of the traditional publication model and actively participate in experiments that seek alternatives.

Feminist and Lesbian Periodicals in the Digital Age

Following is my talk at the “Women’s History in the Digital World 2015” conference that was held at Bryn Mawr College this past Thursday and Friday, May 21-22. I was honored to be joined by Laura X and Andrée Rathemacher as fellow panelists and Julie Enszer as chair of our panel, which was titled “Feminist and Lesbian Periodicals in the Digital Age … Rebroadcasting Our Voices.” Quick bios:

  • Laura X: legendary feminist archivist and founder of both the Women’s History Research Center and the National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape as well as, more recently, the Laura X Institute to house her Social Movements Archives from the women’s movement and overlapping social movements
  • Andrée Rathemacher, professor and head of acquisitions in the University Libraries at the University of Rhode Island, and long-time advocate of open access and scholarly communication reform
  • Julie Enszer, visiting scholar in the Department of Women’s Studies at University of Maryland and editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal

Upcoming guest blog posts will be the presentations of Laura and Andrée.

Panelists (L to R) Andrée Rathemacher, Laura X, and Ken Wachsberger

Panelists (L to R) Andrée Rathemacher, Laura X, and Ken Wachsberger

* * *

When I got the word that my panel had been accepted into the conference I announced on Facebook that I would be speaking on the topic of the feminist and lesbian underground press. A college friend of mine, who I haven’t seen in over forty years, wrote, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

We lived in the dorm together back then. Today I think he’s Tea Party. I got busted after Kent State and emerged from solitary confinement as a committed radical. Not everyone who lived through the sixties experienced the magic of the period. Those of us who did read the underground press.

I’m not surprised today that so many young people have never heard of the underground press. Vietnam was a national embarrassment. We were the bad guys. We got trounced. And then, instead of having a national dialogue so that we could heal as a nation, Vietnam was disappeared from national discourse. Schools and colleges didn’t teach it. Generations grew up having no idea what happened.

So here’s a quick summary: The antiwar movement during the Vietnam years was the broadest, most diverse antiwar movement in the history of our country, no exception. The underground press—the independent, alternative, non-corporate, antiwar, underground press—was the voice of that movement. There were underground papers everywhere. They were all united against the war. But they all spoke to their individual communities. There was the gay press, the lesbian press the feminist press, the black press, Native Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asian-Americans, GIs, campus, community, high school, psychedelics, socialists, Southern consciousness, prisoners’ rights, rank-and-file workers, senior citizens….

I’m talking today about the women’s papers. Like the others, they were everywhere. In fact, I’m going to make an assertion and then I’m going to tell a story.

The assertion: You can’t fully know women’s history, especially in the sixties and seventies, without studying the feminist and lesbian underground press.

The story: Fifteen years after the war ended, I published my book, Voices from the Underground, a series of histories of different underground papers as written by key people on each of the papers. I included as many different sectors of the antiwar movement as I could because I wanted to create a mosaic of what the antiwar movement looked like. For the feminist press I chose off our backs, the first national feminist paper to emerge from the east coast. A group of radical lesbians broke away from off our backs and became known as The Furies, soon The legendary Furies. Their paper, The Furies, is also in Voices.

The book came out to much critical acclaim, and then it went out of print, in a story for another time but way too soon. Not long after it went out of print, I received a phone call from Susan Brownmiller. I’m sure most of you know who Susan is but for those of you who don’t, Susan was—is—a feminist author and organizer who became famous in the early seventies after publishing her book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, the book that put rape on the map as a feminist issue. At the time of her call she was writing a history of the feminist movement (In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (1999)) and wanted a copy of my book so she could read the off our backs and Furies entries. I didn’t have one—fortunately she found one on her own—but the experience stayed with me: Susan Brownmiller, the famous author, liked my book. I was pretty full of myself.

So another fifteen years later, when I was working on the revised and expanded second edition, which came out as the four-volume Voices from the Underground Series, I contacted her for a testimonial quote, which she graciously gave to me. It appears on the back cover of volume 1; off our backs is one of the stories in that volume. On my next trip to New York, I met her for the first time.

4-volume Voices from the Underground Series

4-volume Voices from the Underground Series

On my way from the subway to her apartment, I was visualizing our greeting: She opened the door to her apartment. She had a warm smile on her face. With outstretched arms, she embraced me and told me what a great book I had created and how much she admired me as an author and editor and a supporter of the feminist cause and how just all-around wonderful I was….

Okay, I admit it, I was in groupie mode. In fact, although I’m sure she said hello, I don’t remember it. What I remember is her opening the door and saying, “You don’t have enough women’s papers.” I was immediately thrown on the defensive. I tried to explain to her that I had off our backs, so I had feminist papers covered, and I had The Furies, so I had lesbian papers covered. And, after all, Voices from the Underground didn’t make any claims to be exhaustive; it was just representative.

But she insisted. She said the women’s papers were everywhere. “You can’t fully know women’s history, especially in the sixties and seventies, without studying the feminist and lesbian underground press.” Those are my words, not hers, but that was the exact message that I took away from her conclusion.

And then she said, “You’ve got to have It Aint Me Babe.” Those were her words. It Aint Me Babe was the first feminist paper to emerge from the west coast. It actually came out a few weeks before off our backs so it gets credit for being the first national feminist underground paper. But to Susan it had another level of significance. Her consciousness-raising group, New York Radical Feminists, used to read and discuss every issue as it came out. During one meeting, they discussed an article that was an interview with a woman who recently had been raped on her way home from a late-night meeting. Her boyfriend’s response had been less than sensitive: He had tried to make a joke out of it. The article was about that experience and what it meant. So Susan’s group discussed the article, and Susan had her light bulb moment that inspired her to write the book that made her famous.

Then she said to me, “You’ve got to contact Laura X.” It was Laura who conducted the interview and wrote the article; I’m honored to be sharing this panel with her today.

So I put “Laura X” in parentheses, did a Google search, and found her. Laura reconnected with other former staff members and they put together an amazing piece, the last history to be accepted into the series. It appears in volume 3 along with the history of The Furies. Susan wrote the foreword.

It was around that time that I was contacted by Jeff Moyer.

Jeff was the former head of the digitizing department at ProQuest. With a partner, he bought out the department and founded IDC, Image Data Conversion. But on his own he also started Reveal Digital because he had an idea for an economic model that would create wondrous keyword-searchable digital collections in a way that was friendly to library budgets and would end up with the collections going into open access, the holy grail for librarians. The first collection he wanted to create was of underground newspapers. He approached me after discovering the first edition of Voices from the Underground at the library of Eastern Michigan University, where I used to teach. He brought me on board as a consultant and not long after that he hired me full time. It Aint Me Babe was the first paper to become part of the collection.

Reveal Digital crowd-funding home page

Reveal Digital crowd-funding home page

What attracted me to the project, besides the opportunity to expand my knowledge of the underground press, was Jeff’s economic model, what he calls “cost recovery = open access.” Basically, we promote upcoming projects to libraries through our crowd-funding website, where we describe each project, explain its significance, lay out the proposed contents as well as the sourcing libraries, and list the line-item expenses. Then we invite libraries to commit to purchasing the collection but we don’t yet invoice them. When we have enough commitments to recover the costs, what we call our “sales threshold,” sales stop and we go into full production, including rights gathering, sourcing from libraries, and scanning and digitizing.

Libraries pay according to a tiered structure but it amounts to about 20% of what they would pay one of the larger digital publishing companies for a comparable project that the company would keep behind a pay wall forever. Those libraries that support us have immediate access to the evolving collection while it is in development. Once it is completed and after a certain period of exclusivity for our supporters, it goes into open access where even those libraries that didn’t support it have access to it. In other words, some libraries pay, every library and their patrons benefit. Meanwhile we’ll be working on other projects with the same model. No library pays for every collection but everyone benefits from every collection.

This is a righteous model that deserves library support. In an earlier life I worked for many years as managing editor of Reference Services Review and Serials Review, two journals that were read widely by, respectively, reference librarians and serials librarians. I read countless articles and heard countless librarian laments about rising costs and decreasing budgets. But I also remembered the community feeling that librarians shared. The focus was always on increasing and facilitating user access. Usually it was the larger libraries that made the big investments and then the benefits would trickle down to the smaller libraries. With Reveal’s tiered structure, everyone can help.

So this is the project and the model. Projects that are looking for funding include

With Independent Voices, the underground press collection, we’re still looking for funding but we are already actively working on it because we wanted to get one live collection out into the public. Our goal was to get over 1,000 titles. We already have more than that including some 120 women’s papers, 130 literary magazines—what were known as “little” magazines back then, 180 campus, community, gay, minority, and other underground and alternative newspapers and magazines from the period, some 900 papers published by and for members of the military in all branches of the service, and even 4 papers published by the FBI to sow dissension in the Movement.

So far we’re about 40% of the way to being fully funded. We could include a lot more titles, and we would like to, if we had the funding.

We’re working with a growing team of libraries that are sending us original papers from their collections that we scan and digitize and then return safely to them along with keyword-searchable digital files and metadata of the papers that we scan. For the women’s papers, we’ve worked most closely with Duke and Northwestern.

Our goal is to upload a million pages of exact keyword-searchable digital reproductions by the end of January 2017. So far we have uploaded about 250,000 pages. Currently the collection is accessible only to patrons of our supporting libraries, those who have invested in the project. After we reach our sales threshold, we’ll go into open access, which is the vision. However, libraries can make the files that we send them accessible immediately.

So this is where we are now. This is an amazing project—the first of hopefully many—that can be even better with your help. And we have a library-friendly model that achieves the holy grail of open access in a way that is friendly to library budgets. We’re looking for friendly libraries that believe in the community of libraries to help us make it come true. Let’s talk.