Overcoming the Paywall: Radical empathy and making the Gay Community News accessible to all

The August 2-8, 1987, issue of the Gay Community News. Its front page is an image of protesters standing in front of the U.S. Capitol with the headline "DC-Active! Coming out center stage to march on Washington"
The August 2-8, 1987, of the Gay Community News.

The Library (thanks, Kerri!) recently published a piece about the article I wrote for the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies (currently in preprint) that problematizes for-profit companies selling digitized collections that originate from under-documented comminities, and our attempt to un-paywall the Gay Community News. I’ve pasted the text below, but the article can be read directly on the Library’s blog here.

TL;DR? The main message is to archivists and digital collection builders: You can un-paywall your collections legally, too!

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When Jackson Davidow was looking for information on Boston’s gay community in the 1970s, he knew where to go.

“I’ve long been interested in the relationship between queer politics and queer art, particularly in Boston in the 1970s, a point at which the city was a crucial hub of gay discourse, activism, nightlife, and sex,” said Davidow, a postdoctoral fellow in the “Translating Race” Lab at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University. Gay Community News “was grounded in the political, cultural, and social environments of Boston. For that reason, it is an invaluable resource for researchers who study gay and lesbian life and liberation in Boston and beyond.”

Scan of the January 12, 1974 issue of the Gay Community News. It includes the headlines: New Gay Bills; UNH Saga Continues; and Maine Gays Attacked
The January 12, 1974, issue of the Gay Community News, one of its first published.

Gay Community News (GCN) was started in 1973 by eight Bostonians seeking to create a community voice for gays and lesbians in the Boston area. Originally published as a 2-page mimeographed sheet, the newspaper grew to have a national and international audience by the late 1970s and became one of the longest-running and most progressive national newspapers in the gay community. It was a natural place to start to gather the information Davidow needed. Issues of the GCN and records from its parent organization, the Bromfield Street Educational Foundation were subsequently donated to the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections (NUASC).  

While today’s researchers can contact many archives by email and receive scans of collections remotely, there was a time when physically visiting an Archives was only possible for those who lived in or could travel to the area. To provide more access to collections in the 1980s and 1990s, some Archives made arrangements to microfilm high use portions of their collections. In recent years those microfilms have been digitized and are offered via subscription to libraries — usually at a high cost — and then made available to the students and faculty affiliated with that university, a practice commonly described as “paywalling.”

Unfortunately, this means that the many of the volunteers who wrote and edited articles, turned the crank on the mimeograph machine, or paid to advertise a queer night at a local club no longer have access to the content they created. It’s a trend that Giordana Mecagni, Head of the NUASC, knows all too well. Troubled, she recently published “Tear Down This (Pay)wall!: Equality, Equity, and Liberation for Archivists” in the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies. The piece describes the negative effect paywalled archives have on institutions, archives, and researchers, and focuses on the GCN.

“Having the Gay Community News behind a paywall results in uneven access, where affiliates of universities can access the resource but members of marginalized groups within the queer community may not,” Mecagni wrote.

“Paywalls restrict who has access to archival materials. Many scholars are independent and unattached to academic institutions, or attached to academic institutions that do not have the money to subscribe to special historical resources,” Davidow added.

The NUASC recently completed an effort to made the Gay Community News freely available to anyone by re-scanning the GCN with help from the Boston Public Library’s “Library for the Commonwealth” program. This program provides free scanning services to Massachusetts libraries who have unique materials they want to share widely  and freely. Now researchers, students, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, writers, and anyone else can browse through 26 years of the GCN to get a glimpse of the gay community in Boston and around the world.

Researchers like Davidow are thrilled.

“The digitization of GCN helps scholars and community members learn about and revisit these important histories,” he said. “During my research for my recent essay in The Baffler, ‘Against Our Vanishing,’ I talked with many people involved in GCN, and everyone was thrilled to learn that the full run is available online.”

The GCN is available to access digitally through the NUASC’s LGBTQIA+ History Collection.


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