Metadata Ethics

Notes from Metadata Ethics session at ZL(u)C 2016, Boston (July 29 2016). Notetaker: Leigh K.

Zine Metadata Collector!

Michele, Alana, Julie, Nora, & Leslie Fields @ Mt Holyoke are currently working on a research initiative / course called “Beyond the Riots: Zines in Archives and Digital Space”

The objective is to look at:

  • Sophia Smith Collection @ Smith College
  • Mt. Holyoke Collection
  • Zine Collection at Flywheel Arts Collective in East Hampton
  • Hampshire Collection

and to:

  • draw attention to these spaces, collections
  • work with DH grant, some other funding, to continue this fall
  • find out what zines are in these collections
  • illustrate connections and networks between the zines in the collections

Nora began going through the zines at Smith. Several students @ Hampshire and Mt. Holyoke are now also collecting metadata. East Hampton collection is also developing descriptive metadata.

How it’s being done:

  • using a google form, collecting data (almost 500 @ Smith alone)
  • separate spreadsheets for each collection
  • ie, “Girl Zines” isn’t a great descriptor for Smith’s collection… there are all sorts of donations!

new objectives for the fall

  • track networking between zinesters on Gephi
  • gather metadata on exactly what is in the collection


  • privacy
  • what does it mean to collect all of this info?
  • there is no way to locate and ask permission from many authors
  • should the metadata be public?
  • SNAC wanted to use the metadata, but it is unclear whether the metadata should be made public, or become a resource for others.

Info is gathered by going through, reading the zines, documenting cross references and mentions of other zines. This particular visualization is one example of cataloging and gathering information about zines and zine networks on the open web. Info gathering must be done within the context of the college course. Also, looking at

  • physical appearance
  • zine reviews
  • letters that came with the zines
  • packaging
  • personalizations on the zine
  • noting anything relating to gender, sexuality, race, etc.

Q: will you document whether the zines are review zines, or other types?

A: “If I knew now what I knew then…!” This is mostly a catchall. We don’t have as many details as would be fun and/or handy, now.

A: a few issues include the class members (cataloguers) didn’t grow up in the zine culture and may not know exactly what to look for. We are giving them a few key things to look for.

A: we are also looking to see which zines have a lot of cross referencing.

Q: in your collection @ Smith, are you retaining the letters and personalizations that come with the zines?

A: the majority of the zines @ Smith Girl Zines Collection come from two particular donors. Sofia Smith donated all of her personal papers, including zines. The zines were taken from her collection to be included in the Girl Zines collection. Some zines taken came from her originally donated collection of personal papers included letters, etc- in those cases, the letters and other ephemera were photocopied, the copy went with the zines to Girl Zines, and the originals went back into the personal papers collection. We know that there were letters or stamps included if the photocopies are there. Many of the collections weren’t consistent or intentional in their founding and/or history. 1.5 years into the process, we got more info (accession records), which helps to understand where they come from and where to look for more info/originals. New staff – excited! The volunteer cataloguers are unfamiliar or non-professional and are simply describing what they see.


Q: Can you talk about how this data relates to other data we’re already collecting? SNAC Project… do you have a takedown policy currently, plans for one, or plans to restrict other projects who use your data? What is it and how easy is it to do (take things down)? There comes a point with the data projects where you can’t always think about all of the scenarios, and it may be overly protectivist. This is a DH project. You may want to make assessments on where you are or aren’t protective of people’s data, for example, addresses or explicit relationships between people. You may want to say that you won’t partner with anyone who doesn’t offer an easy system to accommodate takedown requests. We (as librarians) may not do a good job of thinking about this. We may be traditionally over protective. The donor may want more public access. These are already extant collections- looking at the accession records is important. These zines come from different times, places, cultures, and the attitudes of the zinesters may have changed over time. The practice is evolving. Can we build an evolving system? May not be possible.

Last summer Nora began geographically mapping trends in zine production. Too ambitious! But, began listing cities, frequently changing the zip code 1 or 2 digits (within the same town) to respect privacy, but retain town. Awareness of the visualizations: for example, Cleveland, but not necessarily WHERE in Cleveland.

“Other Information” gained through this project:

Is it in the zine wiki? etc. There may be a wiki but no content, so now we know to go back in and populate that.

Part of the goals of the course is to educate digital natives about how zines were distributed hand-to-hand in analogue distribution methods. This is a tool that shows the connections between them and the common roots.

We were formerly looking at how zine prices have changed, how some zine content would now be better suited to tumblr, etc., but that info is less important now.

Using zines where we can contact and gain permission from the creator

Talking with the main donors about that donation process and experience

Q: can you speak to what the user experience will be like? Visualization? Effects? The linkages plotted between others, but are there other parts on the user side?

A: We envision (again it is a pilot class, using these tools for the first time with students) an open access wordpress, including pedagogical materials (syllabus, assignments, visitor info, etc), also the assignments and student work that comes out of the class, as well as the visualizations. The technology will hopefully load more data than you can sift through in your own mind. Also, the annotations. Finally, a compilation zine on “archive stories,” the experience on the archivists’s side, surprise connections made through the process, etc., scanned and put up on the website as well. We anticipate this will be local. Cuzap(?), POC Zine Project. Dovatail with the Union Catalogue. How can what we’re doing help that?

Q: Ethics and metadata… zinester-zine connections are thoroughly explored, but this is more about the connections zinester-zinester-publications-publishers. New way of researching zines.

A: @ Hampshire, our librarians in charge of the tech systems and data became excited about the publishing potential. However, because we don’t know the nature of the connections, just that connections may exist, the data can be misleading or dangerous. We don’t know much more from the metadata than title names and zinester names.

A: The virtual metadata, they will eventually connect the zines to the actual people, and the issue is surveillance. Conscious that we’re collecting descriptions, and it ends up looking like an objective truth. This gathering process is subjective, interpretive, may be mistakes. How do we challenge this data – feminist, queer, etc. These issues cannot be solved but they can be addressed in our course. Not ok with throwing all of the metadata into SNAC.

What is personal now will become historically rich and meaningful down the road. Academic lens on this data. The people who lived these experiences may be too uncomfortable now. Even attempts at anonymity can be subverted accidentally via other zines or distort affiliations. You need three pieces of anonymized data required to actually anonymize you. Some thought anonymity may not actually be. Is the forethought robust enough to proactively prevent this “outing?” Queering data, feminist data collection, algorithm generation- this cannot be done AFTER the data is collection. A small sample set may help test the security of the visualization. These data collections really matter! The language of consent changes over time… zinesters pioneered this. These connections really matter. Can we collect all of the info but not publish it for many years in order to protect individuals but strengthen the record? Will this archive prevail through time? Engaging students in the process of working through problems of archiving is so important. We rarely think about this – people think they’re being anonymous, but we rarely are. The digital native- very little privacy. The sense of privacy is changing. How are the archivists’s senses of privacy different (generationally, culturally, definitively), from the zinesters a few decades ago?


Exciting tool for digital analysis.

Archival research of fairly recent history, many subjects are old or recently passed. Very sensitive! Much information is embargoed until everyone close to the subjects have died. Many of our research subjects were quite young, and so are still quite young. Mt. Holyoke Archive contains many alumnae material, and so much of the material in the collection comes from people who were young when the work was created, and are still quite young. It’s rare that archives contain work from people who are still quite young in their contemporary life.

Hope to keep everyone up to date on this project.