The purpose of the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) is to increase the accessibility of transgender history by providing an online hub for digitized historical materials, born-digital materials, and information on archival holdings throughout the world. Based in Worcester, Massachusetts at the College of the Holy Cross, the DTA is an international collaboration among more than fifty colleges, universities, nonprofit organizations, public libraries, and private collections. By digitally localizing a wide range of trans-related materials, the DTA expands access to trans history for academics and independent researchers alike in order to foster education and dialog concerning trans history.
The DTA uses the term transgender to refer to a broad and inclusive range of non-normative gender practices. We treat transgender as a practice rather than an identity category in order to bring together a trans-historical and trans-cultural collection of materials related to trans-ing gender. We collect materials from anywhere in the world with a focus on materials created before the year 2000.
The idea for the DTA first began to take root when K.J. Rawson and Nick Matte met at the TransSomatechnics conference held at Simon Fraser University in the spring of 2008. Through a series of conversations, K.J. and Nick realized that their own challenges researching transgender history were representative of systematic challenges.
The first of these challenges is that trans-related historical materials are widely dispersed throughout the world in a number of different repositories ranging from university-based collections to non-profit and grassroots archives. Most archives that have significant holdings in this area have no official ties and do not collaborate regularly. The amount of materials in these collections that are processed and made available to researchers varies widely and some archives do not have the most basic, collection-level information about their holdings available to researchers. These factors make it difficult to know which archives collect trans materials, what materials these archives have, and how holdings at various archives relate to one another.
A second challenge of research on trans phenomena is rooted in language. While "transgender" is now widely used in contemporary U.S. culture, the term is not only culturally specific, but it is also only a few decades old. In an archival context, this very recent emergence of the term means that any materials processed before the 1990's would not include the term in descriptive information. Throughout the world, many other terms are used to describe trans-related practices, often in ways that are both temporally and contextually foreign to a U.S.-based understanding of transgender. Without a key term to cohere gender non-conforming practices, researchers are forced to attempt alternative, and often unsuccessful, ways of finding relevant materials.
A third challenge is that very few primary source materials are available online and even those are difficult to discover. Moreover, with some archives having no online presence and others offering only limited descriptions of their holdings, researchers have few ways of learning where particular transgender materials are housed.
In order to address these significant barriers to the accessibility of trans history, the DTA virtually merges disparate archival collections, digital materials, and independent projects with a single search engine. With rich primary source materials and powerful search tools, the DTA offers a generative point of entry into the expansive world of trans history.
It’s important to note that the DTA uses transgender in a broad and inclusive sense, not simply as a fixed identity term. Though the term transgender is already widely used as a broad identity category in the U.S. (though not without controversy), the term does not adequately capture the gender diversity that exists around the world (see Global Terms for more on this). Consequently, we use transgender and trans as a framework for collecting materials, as a point of departure, so that we can work toward developing deeper understandings of practices of trans-ing gender on a global scale.
The DTA is made possible because of the generous support of the College of the Holy Cross, Digital Commonwealth, and the American Council of Learned Societies, which awarded K.J. a Digital Innovation Fellowship for the 2015–2016 academic year and the project a Digital Extension Grant for the 2017–2018 academic year..
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