Deciding when to put yourself out there

Quietly, incrementally, I’ve been sharing things I wrote over the last few years – the experimental outtakes of my first attempt at writing about landscape, an entirely serious paper on records management in sci-fi, the thesis I didn’t want to acknowledge for the better part of two years. I’m happy to be releasing things on my own terms. My first! peer-reviewed! article! is coming out soon in the (open access!) Journal of Radical Librarianship, co-authored with the hyperbrilliant Jane Schmidt, and I hope that every early-career librarian-archivist type has the opportunity to publish with such generous peers who are a little further down the path. We’re presenting it for a second time at the upcoming TRY+ conference, where I am also participating in a panel on the work that cataloguers and collections specialists can engage in to support the recommendations of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. As a cartographic cataloguer who spent much of last week sorting through hundreds of maps representing mining potential on Treaty 3 and Treaty 9 lands, I try and think of all the ways in which I can acknowledge the histories and territories of Indigenous nations, which are generally unrepresented in many of the maps I work with, in my daily work at the library. At night, I wonder how new systems could be built to tell complex and overlapping stories of place.

In any case, I am now choosing to share my work, one piece at a time. Here is something else I wrote last semester, on consent and sharing one’s work with the archive.

The ethics of archiving sex workers’ lives
Jordan Hale, December 2016

The impetus for writing this paper came from the final project in my Managing Audiovisual Materials course, in which I assessed the collections and practices of the Prelinger Archives, a San Francisco-based institution dedicated to the preservation of ephemeral film and video works with a significant presence on the Internet Archive. When reviewing their digitized collections, I used the various browse options to sort by title, date published, and popularity, to get a sense of the extent and subjects of their online holdings, but was struck by the fact that some of their most popular items were black-and-white films of strippers and burlesque dancers from the early 20th century, ostensibly seen as titillating to their viewers. The subjects of these films of indeterminate age, while not identified in descriptions, were identifiable and potentially still alive, and I wondered if they all knew they were being filmed. Given the time of their creation, there is no way that the subjects would be able to consent to the eventual digitization and public distribution of their image on the Internet Archive.

In this paper, I propose a number of archival practices, grounded in postmodernist archival theory and feminist thought, that work to protect the privacy of past and present sex workers in archival settings, while providing a space for their cultural memory to exist in the long term. Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor (2016) suggest that archival practice be informed by radical empathy and a responsibility towards an ethics of care, which recognizes that the subjects represented in archival records are as important as the creators of those records, and seeks to understand and respect the circumstances of their involvement. By taking the lead from sex workers on how and where their identities are disclosed, and by treating their work as real work, archivists can better appraise, describe, and provide meaningful and respectful access to the contents of these collections. By applying Caswell and Cifor’s advice to the core archival concepts of appraisal, description, and access, I explain ways in which archivists can act as trustworthy and ethical allies to sex workers.

Radical empathy in archival practice

In their 2016 article “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives”, Caswell and Cifor propose a shift in considering the role of archives in social justice from a liberal, universalizing rights-based framework, to one prioritizing relations of care and the contingencies of experience at the core of its ethical stance. They explain that prioritizing care in their model of justice – from respect for the contingencies of individual experience, to the recognition of caregiving work as productive labour – serves to facilitate the development of new models of human rights, less based on more-or-less fixed conceptions of morality and rationality (26-29). Following from this, they advocate cultivating practices that foster a “radical empathy” for the subjects and communities represented in archives and creating a space for users to viscerally and intimately identify with their lives, which has the capacity to provoke social and political change as individuals discover new ways of seeing themselves in the world (30-32).

In order to facilitate the transformation of the archive as a physical and conceptual space for radical empathy, the authors elaborate on the affective relationships and responsibilities held between archivists and records creators, the subjects of records, archival users, and the larger community. They suggest that:

in making appraisal decisions, the archivist should ask, would the creator want this material to be made available? In making descriptive choices, the archivist should ask, what language would the creator use to describe the records? In making preservation decisions, the archivist should ask, would the creator want this material to be preserved indefinitely? This does not mean that the wishes of the creator trump that of the other interested parties – indeed the subject of the record, the user of the record, and the community of the record will likely have conflict and more morally compelling claims to the record than the record creator – but rather, in a feminist approach, each one of these parties is considered empathetically and in relation to each other and to dominant power structures before archival decisions are made. (2016, 34)

The suggestions I set out in this paper conceptually align with this proposition, and I adapt more mainstream archival stances toward appraisal, description, and access to suit the particularities of working with sex workers’ records.

The work of sex work

Sex work encompasses a range of erotic activities in which a worker is compensated to engage in intimate acts with a client. For many populations excluded from full participation in the labour force, such as people with disabilities, racialized communities, individuals outside the gender binary, undocumented immigrants, and students, sex work has the potential to be a flexible and satisfying means of earning wages. While it is outside the scope of this paper to describe the many different juridical frameworks that govern the work of sex work, one must immediately note that it is decriminalized or legal in very few jurisdictions, and therefore archival records may be considered as evidence within these frameworks of criminalization. As well, sex work continues to be stigmatizing (see Gira Grant 2014, 75-82) – even more so for people of colour – and so those who participate in it tend to work pseudonymously, maintaining strict boundaries between their identities.

Sex work consists of a variety of different kinds of labour that is carried out in exchange for compensation, including stripping, porn production, phone sex, and “full service” provision. Sex workers work alone or in conjunction with agencies, may or may not be responsible for their own marketing, and meet potential clients via online platforms, in venues, in print publications, or outdoors (“street-based” sex work). The intimacy inherent in sex work also allows it to be considered a caregiving occupation. For many, sex work may not be their primary occupation, and may accompany one or more other jobs or responsibilities, which is important for archivists to keep in mind. As well, communities of sex workers cannot be thought of monolithically, as their lives and experiences differ vastly according to race, gender, class, age, ability, and geography. A feminist archival ethics acknowledges that a record subject’s drive to enter sex work, along with the rest of their “moral decision-making is deeply relational, context dependent, and emotionally resonant” (Caswell and Cifor 2016, 28).


Sex workers produce many records over the course of their work, yet adopting a radical empathic approach to archival appraisal starts from the belief that the sexual nature of the records in itself is not of any additional value to the archive. By treating sex work as real work, this perspective comes naturally.

As sex work has typically taken place at the margins of public life, archivists should consider the sociopolitical contexts of sex work, and existing sources of cultural memory, by engaging in macro-appraisal processes (Cook 1992; Hedstrom 2010, 171). Many public records pertaining to the lives of sex workers are produced by police and governments in the course of legislating their bodies, and only in the last several decades of the history of the “oldest profession” have sex worker-led organizations emerged to tell their own stories and archive their memories (Gira Grant 2014, 111-112). In context, these records tell stories of activism, of legal battles, of caregiving, of creativity, and of violence. Many of these stories intersect narratives found in queer, trans, and Black archives, and directly contradict those told in more “official” accounts, as seen in the recent University of Toronto Libraries exhibit Canada’s Oldest Profession: Sex Work and Bawdy House Legislation, which juxtaposed sex worker-led accounts of their work against government documents.

Many textual, audiovisual, and business records may be produced as a result of this type of operation (see Gira Grant 2014, chapter 6), and the intellectual rights of contractors may need to be considered, such as the work of photographers. Archivists should ensure that any records not selected during the appraisal process are destroyed in a secure manner to ensure the privacy of individual subjects. Items selected for archival retention should immediately be treated as having access conditions, unless otherwise explicitly articulated by the records creator. Archivists should develop a blanket policy on access to records pertaining to Indigenous people, whose recorded presence in many archives has been without their consent, in consultation with Indigenous community members, at the time of appraisal. While mainstream archival theories place less value on records that may be subject to access restrictions, a feminist perspective of the type advocated by Caswell and Cifor suggests that archivists be willing to accept such restrictions, to balance the privacy of identified subjects with the cultural memory contained in the archive. As well, working with sex workers through the appraisal and arrangement process, an approach advocated by Shilton and Srinivasan (2007) in their work with particular ethnocultural communities, allows them to identify narratives, provide context, and suggest respectful ways of engaging with the records in hand.


In “Debates About Description”, Geoffrey Yeo (2010) describes the various practical and political contexts in which archival description plays a role. Description is used to extend the reach of records across domains, and into the future, by summarizing their form and content, appraisal and arrangement decisions, and by providing preservation metadata for those working with such collections down the line. Harris and Duff (2002, 267-270) describe the different perspectives on description when it comes to elucidating the different relationships between creators and records that may be effaced when strictly adhering to provenance-based methods of archival arrangement, which separate records into fonds according to their creators. In their article, they note the disagreements between various contemporary archival theorists about the primary role of description, and the groups that it is intended to benefit, whether any and all potential users of the collection (as per Heather MacNeil) or archivists and recordkeepers themselves (as argued by Chris Hurley; ibid, 273). I propose a modest modification to MacNeil’s statement, in suggesting that description should be suited to sex workers themselves, both as potential archival users, and as a community who can benefit from research and advocacy conducted within their records.

Many of the words used to describe sex work and workers in popular culture and media are politically charged and offensive to many, and even the legal terms enshrined in legislation are considered stigmatizing, such as “prostitute”. The use of such terms may come out of ignorance, for those unaware that their words are offensive, or from a place of malice, for those trying to prohibit others from participating in sex work. While a range of terms exist to describe the different jobs that exist in sex industries, the term “sex worker” (Gira Grant 2014, 20, see also chapter 10) provides a no-nonsense label encompassing this work, and should be used in collection descriptions and finding aids, unless the records creator has provided a reason for using an alternate term.

Descriptions that are online and indexed by search engines, whether in a finding aid or at the item level, may compromise the safety and privacy of individuals whose identities are represented in the archive. If describing items for access – for example, captioning a digitized photograph of a sex worker and her friends – do not conduct undue research into subjects of the photo whose identities are not known, and only identify the subjects in the same terms the records creator did. “Use the form of the name on the piece being catalogued,” describes the Zine Librarians’ Code of Ethics (2015, 17). As Luciana Duranti (1997, 214) describes the evidentiary work of records in common law jurisdictions as the demonstration of relationality between “a fact to be proven and the fact that proves it”, the description of relationships, when evaluated in the context provided by an archive, may prove legally dangerous to sex workers. As such, discretion should be employed to minimally describe certain items when they could prove harmful to the subjects represented by them.


If sex workers themselves are considered as a significant community of users for sex work archives (Caswell and Cifor 2016, 24), and their potential needs as a community – and any goals that can be achieved with these records – are prioritized, then policies should be

In 2016, librarian Tara Robertson learned that media firm Reveal Digital had digitized and made open the back issues of pioneering lesbian porn magazine On Our Backs some years earlier with the consent of the publication’s editors, but not with any of its contributors. Robertson travelled to Cornell University’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection to examine the personal papers of editor Susie Bright, where contributor agreements were held, and confirmed that individual models and photographers had negotiated different terms, none of which included online distribution rights for the publication (given that it ran from 1984-1994, such terms were very unlikely to be negotiated). She also interviewed acquaintances of hers whose likenesses appeared in the digitized On Our Backs collection about the impacts of this unwanted reuse on their lives – in fact, one did not even consent to her image being used in print in the first place, attached to her full legal name. All reported feeling that their personal boundaries felt violated by this breach of consent.This incident demonstrates how scary such ethical missteps in the name of open access can be for the subjects whose lives are made open as a result. Following this, series containing identifying information about sex workers should be subject to access restrictions. Items that record the names or contact information of clients or colleagues should not be linked to other records pertaining to those individuals, even within the same collection, and ideally should only be accessed in person, or put online only after a substantial amount of time after the creator’s death has elapsed.

While many archivists would consider this an unnecessary impediment to access, requiring that archivists be contacted in order to review a finding aid, instead of providing one online, is a meaningful obstacle for the community of sex workers at large. I propose that archivists, in consultation with records creators, develop a good-faith access agreement and usage guide for potential users of the collection. This helps users be aware of the cultural importance and sensitivity of these records, clarifies their copyright status, and provides users with guidelines for any published research that they may be engaging in. That said, such an agreement should not need to involve any uncomfortable disclosures from users of the archive: for example, one should not need to self-disclose as a sex worker, an uncomfortable proposition for many, in order to access records.

Though in contradiction to the Association of Canadian Archivists’ Code of Ethics, section C5, such an agreement involves informing living subjects of any uncomfortable inquiries regarding records that my pertain to them, for their safety. As the British Library stated alongside their digital collection showcasing the British feminist magazine Spare Rib, “usage guide is based on goodwill. It is not a legal contract. We ask that you respect it” (quoted in Robertson 2016). The Zine Librarian Code of Ethics suggests that users of their collection request permissions from zine authors before citing them in publications beyond a classroom setting – facilitating such connections between users and sex workers portrayed in archival records to ensure research is carried out respectfully is another duty of the empathic archivist. Documenting such gatekeeping decisions in a written history of arrangement and finding aids, following the advice of Heather MacNeil and Laura Millar (MacNeil 2009), lays the groundwork for present colleagues and future custodians to respectfully abide by the needs of the records creators, while confirming the social and political nature of their work.


Archiving the lives of sex workers, with their informed consent and, preferably, cooperation, helps build narratives of resilience and care amongst communities of sex workers and their loved ones, and tells their own histories of protest and their role in the transformations of civil rights and politics (Gira Grant 2014). Their decades of labour organizing, activism, and all other forms of support are the definition of care, and so their archives should be treated with the same degree of care.

Caswell and Cifor suggest that the ethical stewardship of an archivist coming from a place of radical empathy should translate to the production of a safe and comfortable space for users to engage with these records – this translation of archival principles into an affectively intimate space is a enabling factor in helping broader sex worker communities learn more about themselves and continue to tell the stories. This degree of care is therefore felt viscerally.

Works cited

Caswell, Michelle, and Marika Cifor. 2016. From human rights to feminist ethics: radical empathy in the archives. Archivaria 81: 23-43.

Duff, Wendy M., and Verne Harris. 2002. Stories and names: archival description as narrating records and constructing meanings. Archival Science 2: 263-285.

Gira Grant, Melissa. 2014. Playing the whore: the work of sex work. London: Verso.

Hedstrom, Margaret. 2010. “Archives and Collective Memory: More than a Metaphor, Less than an Analogy,” in Currents of Archival Thinking, eds. Terry Eastwood and Heather MacNeil, 89-115. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited.

MacNeil, Heather. 2009. Trusting description: authenticity, accountability, and archival description standards. Journal of Archival Organization 7, 89-107.

Robertson, Tara. 2016. “Not all information wants to be free.” Keynote address at LITA Forum, Fort Worth, Texas.

Shilton, Katie, and Ramesh Srinivasan. 2007. Counterpoint: participatory appraisal and arrangement for multicultural archival collections. Archivaria 63, 87-101.

Yeo, Geoffrey. 2010. “Debates about Description,” in Currents of Archival Thinking, 163-181.

Zine Librarians Code of Ethics. 2015.