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SUE, the Human in the Digital: Proposal

 ·  ☕ 12 min read

Hello everyone ! it’s been awhile since I updated this. I’ve been doing a lot! But it’s hard to explain or demonstrate. So I am posting this blog entry as a culmination of the three dozen or so things that I have been working towards. Enjoy!


We no longer live in a world of original desire. If such a thing was ever possible, it was in the halcyon days before the bibilo-catalogo-taxomania of Linnaeus, Kraft-Ebbing, Hirschfield, Kinsey, and others.1 As historians of sex, sexuality, and erotica have demonstrated, modern identities, pornographic genres and modalities have direct (and sometimes exact) antecedents in the nineteenth century categories and understandings.2 Current Victorian-era taxomanic terms by which we represent and organize untamable desires and classify perverse bodies still hold intense power, as Melissa Adler has shown in a number of places, and through her ongoing excavation of Library of Congress Subject Headings.3 Today, we live in a world where those desires, kinks, fetishes, and sexualities are indexed, cataloged, interlinked and interwoven on top of each other to the point of being self-generating, as Patrick Keilty has pointed out.4


This brings us to the problem that has plagued information professionals, activists and researchers for the past half century: what to do with subject headings. Another taxomanic invention, subject headings and controlled vocabularies are the most powerful tools for the representation, organization and control of knowledge ever created by institutions with “the power to name.”5 Unsurprisingly, the same groups marginalized by governments and institutions are described in terms criticized as inappropriate, misleading and/or outrightly offensive. Library of Congress Subject Headings have received the most critique, but Universal and Dewy Decimal Classifications have also come under fire.

There has not yet been any solution to Emily Drabinski’s 2013 challenge to think about ways to ‘queer the catalog,’ to recognize that identity is historically constructed, adopted, manifested and described.[^6 As Emily and I discussed at ACRL this year, part of the problem is that, since the invention of the internet we have increasingly moved all of human knowledge, understanding, and analysis onto computers. Computers are not queer. They are, in their cores, literally binary, literal strings of 0’s and 1’s forever.6

One proposed solution offered by researchers has been the use of folksonomies or tagging in place of subject headings, especially for minoritized people, but these proposals have been matched by a near-equal amount of research pointing out issues with tagging and uncontrolled vocabularies that lack meaning—there is “still a lot to lose.”7 Any review of this literature inevitably leads to despair: the Library of Congress Subject Headings do not belong in a library, especially not one concerned with congress (in all senses of that word); it has no real subjects and it only contains a few (suspect) headings.

Proposal Background & Review

The foregoing has been leading to the argument that a possible solution has only recently become available through the use of linked data. Linked data refers to the practice of interconnecting structured statements of subject predicate object called triples, allowing both humans and computers to understand statements like “Virginia Woolf isTheAuthorOf Orlando.” Due to their interest in sharing information, linked data technologies have been exploited most powerfully by librarians—indeed, the Library of Congress Subject Headings are published in linked data format.8.

Data can be interlinked, interwoven, and knitted together in order to form new networks and tapestries. Here I am arguing that linked data is the queering and feminization (meaning feminist) of the computer binary. The radical and subversive potential of this has gone largely unnoticed, with the exception of a few cases that will be discussed below. For example, the triple “Virginia Woolf was polyamorous [or afab, (Assigned Female At Birth); or queer]” can be linked to the Library of Congress Subject Heading for Woolf, meaning that non-majority terms can overwrite national and governmental libraries and create new sites of meaning and power.

A linked data vocabulary that can capture sexuality, broadly construed, can create spaces of reclamation, redescription, reappropiation, and renaming. That is what this proposal is.

Classifying ‘sexuality broadly construed’ falls into three (fuzzy) main domains in my view:

  • sex, by which I mean biological, physical, assigned or preferred sex & physical activity of sex which
  • might or might not have participants who are sexually oriented or have sexual/romantic interests towards other participants and which
  • might or might not be captured/preserved/archived in some way, material which then becomes erotica.

I abbreviate this as SUE (Sex/Uality & Erotica), which will be the name that this project takes.

With SUE, I am following in the examples of a few digital archives and linked data vocabularies, most notably Homosaurus and the archive that is enabled by it (the Digital Transgender Archive) as well as The Orlando Project, The Yellow Nineties Online, and the ways in which they queer (and query) sexuality.9 However, I am taking a slightly different tack, by arguing for the construction of a linked data vocabulary that focuses on all elements of SUE—including the decidedly obscene, pornographic, and ‘perverse.’ I argue that this is necessary, especially now, as linked data vocabularies begin to enter their first stage of maturity. To do otherwise, is to leave the description of queer and minoritized bodies, acts, and identities up to the least common commercial or governmental denominator.

I understand that the inclusion of obscene/pornographic/erotic categories is likely the most controversial of these inclusions, but to not do so is to surrender, and allow a company such as MindGeek, the owners of the PornHub network and a vast majority of pornographic websites, and a corporation on the literal cutting edge of information and data technologies to do so for us. Make no mistake, there is definitely increasing corporate interest in linked data vocabularies, and as Donna Drucker has demonstrated, thesauri and controlled vocabularies originate from corporations. Indeed, pornographic companies profit by how able they are to provide the correct intersections of words and tags to users. As demonstrated again and again through history and research, queer and minoritized bodies have acts of violence written and committed on them by these naming institutions, and we (speaking for myself as a feminist, queer, nonbinary, nonmono, crip) cannot permit it to happen again. As a number of chapters in Ethical Questions in Name Authority Control demonstrate, the ethical and pressing questions are immanent and urgent.10 As thesauri can“be powerful tools for challenging and remaking information hierarchies and the social hierarchies embedded within them,” I am arguing that linked data vocabularies can do the same.11

Through historically-oriented queer research and digital-humanistic use of sexuality nomenclature, I hope to obtain a significant amount of this vocabulary, but I am also drawing on another resource: archives. Archives are powerful institutions through which a user can “suddenly discover (them)selves existing.”[^13)]As a result, SUE will draw on the specialized thesauri and controlled vocabularies of archives and special collections (such as the Kinsey Institute’s Sexual Nomenclature, Homosaurus, and the Lavender Library), which have long struggled with how to describe material not represented in the Library of Congress.

The purpose of me beginning this proposal the way I did was to make this point: since the beginning of sexology, there have been two associated impulses: (1) the creation of archives/bodies of evidence and (2) taxonomizing & ‘KO-ing’ of that material, sometimes in order to alter the dominant paradigm. Sexual nomenclature is a tool that can be used to take apart the ‘master’s house with the master’s tools.’ 12

In its final form the project that I am proposing will, at the very least take the form of the creation of a linked data vocabulary such as the one present at At its most refined form, it will take the form of a linked data enabled digital archive like the Digital Transgender Archive, The Yellow Nineties, The Orlando Project and others. The impact of this project, in its final version is significant—it is about nonnormative, ‘weird,’ ‘queer’ and “perverse” bodies; it is about creating a place and space of justice for those bodies; and it is about drawing on the archives and past of humanity in order to allow for possible futures for digital humanity.


  1. Hopefully my sarcasm carries through here, but to be clear, I do not believe we ever lived in a world of original sexuality—the erotic human subject has always existed. Before Linnaeus and Hirschfield it was Catholic penitential manuals, which offered such a taxonomy, description and disclosure of sin (which is to say sexuality), that they were frequently mistaken for pornography itself (see Regina v. Hicklin and the Comstock Laws), and the Catholic Church had to warn its priests to not allow the knowledge to fall into the wrong hands For this see: Harper, Kyle. From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013. Lochrie, Karma. Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. McKeon, Michael. The Secret History of Domesticity: Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. For the broadest discussion in Western contexts, see: Fass, Paula S., ed. The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. The Routledge Histories. London ; New York: Routledge, 2013. Toulalan, Sarah, and Kate Fisher, eds. The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to the Present. The Routledge Histories. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2013. Also see Julie Peakman’s five volume Peakman, Julie, ed. A Cultural History of Sexuality. Oxford: Berg, 2011. For England and America see: Peakman, Julie. Mighty Lewd Books. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2003. Peakman, Julie. The Pleasure’s All Mine: A History of Perverse Sex. London: Reaktion Books, 2013. Toulalan, Sarah. Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Hitchcock, Tim. English Sexualities: 1700-1800. New York: Macmillan, 1997. Wahrman, Dror. The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. Dabhoiwala, Faramerz. The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Mudge, Bradford K., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Erotic Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. For the effects of sexology especially see: Bauer, Heike. English Literary Sexology: Translations of Inversion, 1860–1930. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Bauer, Heike. “Sexology Backward: Hirschfeld, Kinsey and the Reshaping of Sex Research in the 1950s.” In Queer 1950s, edited by Heike Bauer and Matt Cook, 133–49. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2012. Schaffner, Anna Katharina, and Palgrave Macmillan. Modernism and Perversion: Sexual Deviance in Sexology and Literature, 1850–1930. Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Stoops, Jamie. The Thorny Path: Pornography in Early Twentieth-Century Britain. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018. ↩︎

  2. For my own work, see Watson, Brian. “Society, Vice, and Suppression: The Historical Creation of Pornography in England, 1750-1850.” M.A. History and Culture, Drew University, 2013; Watson, Brian. Annals of Pornographie: How Porn Became Bad. 2016 and 2019. Watson, Brian M. “The Victorian with a Secret.” NOTCHES, December 12, 2017. Watson, Brian M. “‘A Poison More Deadly’: Defining Obscenity in the West.” NOTCHES, May 10, 2016. Also forthcoming chapter in The Edinburgh History of Reading ‘Hellfire and Cannibals: 18th and 19th Century Erotic Reading Groups and Their Manuscripts’. ↩︎

  3. Adler, Melissa. Cruising the Library: Perversities in the Organization of Knowledge. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017. Adler, Melissa. “The Case for Taxonomic Reparations.” Knowledge Organization. 43, no. 8 (2016): 630–40. Adler, Melissa. “Transcending Library Catalogs: A Comparative Study of Controlled Terms in Library of Congress Subject Headings and User-Generated Tags in LibraryThing for Transgender Books.” Journal of Web Librarianship 3, no. 4 (November 23, 2009): 309–31. Adler, Melissa A. “‘Let’s Not Homosexualize the Library Stacks’: Liberating Gays in the Library Catalog.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 24, no. 3 (September 2015): 478–507. Adler, Melissa, and Lindsey M. Harper. “Race and Ethnicity in Classification Systems: Teaching Knowledge Organization from a Social Justice Perspective.” Library Trends 67, no. 1 (2018): 52–73. Adler, Melissa, Jeffrey T. Huber, and A. Tyler Nix. “Stigmatizing Disability: Library Classifications and the Marking and Marginalization of Books about People with Disabilities.” The Library Quarterly 87, no. 2 (April 2017): 117–35. ↩︎

  4. Keilty, Patrick. “Carnal Indexing.” Knowledge Organization 44, no. 4 (2017): 265–72.
    Keilty, Patrick.“Duration and Desire.” Library Trends 66, no. 4 (2018): 487–510. Keilty, Patrick.“Embodiment and Desire in Browsing Online Pornography.” In Proceedings of the 2012 IConference on – IConference ’12, 41–47. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: ACM Press, 2012. Keilty, Patrick.“Seeking Sex in an Electronic Age.” Poster / Slidedeck, University Of Los Angeles, May 1, 2010. Keilty, Patrick.“Tabulating Queer: Space, Perversion, and Belonging.” Knowledge Organization 36, no. 4 (2009): 240–48. Keilty, Patrick.“Tagging and Sexual Boundaries.” Knowledge Organization 39, no. 6 (2012): 417–31. ↩︎

  5. Olson, Hope A. “How We Construct Subjects: A Feminist Analysis.” Library Trends 56, no. 2 (2008): 509–41. and “The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 26, no. 3 (April 2001): 639–68. ↩︎

  6. McPherson makes this point in another way: McPherson Tara. “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2012. Accessed June 9, 2019. ↩︎

  7. See earlier references to Adler and Keilty and see also: Lau, Andrew. 2008. Burning down the shelf: standardized classification, folksonomies, and ontological politics. InterActions: UCLA journal of education and information studies 4n1: article 4. Available Baucom, Erin. “An Exploration into Archival Descriptions of LGBTQ Materials.” The American Archivist 81, no. 1 (March 2018): 65–83. Greenblatt, Ellen. 1990. Homosexuality: the evolution of a concept in the Library of Congress Subject Headings. In Gough, Cal, and Greenblatt, Ellen eds., Gay and lesbian library service. McFarland, NC: McFarland & Company, 75-101. Greenblatt, Ellen. 2011. The treatment of LGBTIQ concepts in the Library of Congress subject headings. In Greenblatt, Ellen ed., Serving LGBTIQ library and archive users: essays on outreach, service, collections, and access. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 212-28. Rawson, K. J. “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 48, no. 4 (August 8, 2018): 327–51. Roberto, K. R., ed. Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co, 2008. Ornelas, Analisa. 2011. Queer as folksonomies. In Greenblatt, Ellen ed., Serving LGBTIQ library and archive users: essays on outreach, service, collections, and access. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 229-39 ↩︎

  8. See for the most basic introduction of linked data from its creator see: TED. Tim Berners-Lee: The next Web of Open, Linked Data. Accessed June 9, 2019. ↩︎

  9. See my review of these projects and Bodies of Information for SAA later this summer. ↩︎

  10. See my review of this for Catologing & Classification Quarterly later this summer. ↩︎

  11. Drucker, Donna J. “How Subjects Matter: The Kinsey Institute’s Sexual Nomenclature A Thesaurus (1976).” Information & Culture: A Journal of History 52, no. 2 (2017): 207–28. ↩︎

  12. Olson, Hope A. “The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs.” Signs 26, no. 3 (2001): 639–68, 661. ↩︎

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Brian M. Watson
Brian M. Watson
Archivist, Historian, Digital Humanist