Information Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies

by Cait McKinney, Duke University Press, 2020, 304 pp.
Paperback $27.95, ISBN:978-1-4780-0828-6

Information ActivismInformation Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies addresses lesbian-feminist information activism in the United States and Canada during the period of transition from paper to digital media technologies from the 1970s to 2010s and subsequent questions on information abundance. Cait McKinney developed the book from their PhD dissertation in York University's Communication and Culture Program, specifically their research and volunteerism in the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA).

In their first chapter, McKinney discusses the women in print movement as it existed through newsletters such as Matrices. They historicize the coconstitutive technologies of archives and newsletters to define a form of lesbian-feminist media “network.” McKinney uses this subject matter as an opportunity to highlight the value of intergenerational collaboration toward feminist futurity. They also provide valuable critiques of institutional and capitalist modes of thinking regarding efficiency, longevity, and productivity in social movement activism. 

Chapter 2 covers the information economies, multimedia practices, care, and affective labor involved in lesbian telephone hotlines. McKinney provides metacommentary on the language they use in the book, such as “gay and lesbian” versus the more contemporary “LGBTQ+,” as well as reflection on the terminology used in their sources. These reflections on language are valuable for readers navigating similar questions of description practices within their research or archival work, especially regarding language that has at times perpetuated fraught dynamics impacting trans people. This chapter also engages with the lesser acknowledged dynamics in feminist activism, such as burnout, boredom, and isolation.

Chapter 3 continues the conversation on how descriptive practices inform questions of access, user interfaces, and the construction of knowledge regarding lesbian feminism through an examination of the Lesbian Periodicals Index and Black Lesbians: An Annotated Bibliography. Indexes, they argue, can both support alternative world-making practices and reify normative logics, as practices are often embedded within white and cis heteronormative institutional norms. For example, McKinney shows how Black lesbians and white antiracist activists have developed bibliographies that decenter whiteness in movement historiography and promote coalitional struggle across race, gender, and sexuality. McKinney argues that indexers present a quintessential representation of “information activist” work, mediating access to serve and sustain growing lesbian and queer publics (129).

The final chapter of Information Activism opens with McKinney's introduction to the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) as a researcher and volunteer. They examine core archival principles, such as digitization, preservation, access, and acquisition, and the ways lesbian feminist archival praxis destabilizes hegemonic assumptions behind them. I found the examination of relationships between minoritized archivists and individuals within dominant institutions, such as educators facilitating student engagement with the LHA, useful for suggesting ways that participatory pedagogy can be more accountable to activists. For example, solidaric relationships facilitate the redistribution of resources (e.g., labor, funding, technology, etc.), reexamine ethical practices in archival work, challenge fraught notions of professionalism, and support mutually beneficial relationships of skill-sharing rather than hierarchical patronization. This chapter also continues the conversation about descriptive practices, which makes this book a practical resource for archivists, memory workers, educators, and activists. In their epilogue, McKinney turns to economies of information abundance and how information activists cope with the labor and affective impacts of this abundance, particularly in light of new digital media.

Information Activism is simultaneously accessible and theoretically rich, making it an excellent contribution to information sciences and archival studies, LGBTQIA studies, communications, social movement historiography, and media history. It is also an excellent source for undergraduate and graduate educators across these fields, particularly those engaging with historiographic, feminist research methods. McKinney's website even includes a teaching guide for the book.1

Throughout the book, McKinney intentionally and accessibly defines the core concepts and terms they utilize, from the more specific, such as “feminist data politics” (2), “activist infrastructures” (8), and “lesbian-feminist media practices” (9), to the more general and thus often taken-for-granted definitions, such as “information,” “infrastructures,” and “networks.” McKinney also transparently reflects on how their own positionality and identity inform their research and affective identifications with lesbian activism.

There are some places in the book, particularly chapter 4, that could benefit from a more overt engagement with the community-archives scholarship reviewed in the introduction and some footnotes (166), such as analyses of activist approaches to digitization, preservation, and access. However, McKinney is right to center the voices of their research participants over preexisting scholarship, and this emphasis also assures that their work remains accessible and relevant across fields of practice.

As a queer, nonbinary archivist who came to this field through mobilizing to meet the information needs of incarcerated queer and trans folks, I loved reading this book. As emphasized throughout Information Activism, research on, about, and with activists must first and foremost center infrastructures of LGBTQIA survival and world-making. In this way, McKinney illustrates the interconnectedness of past social movements, present activism, and the attainability of liberatory futures. 

Note
 Cait McKinney, “Info Activism Teaching Guide,” https://caitmckinney.com/info-activism-teaching-guide/.

aems emswiler, University of Arizona