Considering Digital Repatriation for LGBTQ Communities in the US South

Digital repatriation as a path toward justice.

Tennessee’s collecting institutions only recently started engaging local LGBTQ communities to preserve its history; thus, much of Nashville’s queer past ended up in other states, far removed from the people who need access. Other items stayed within private homes due to mistrust of institutions. Nashville Queer History, which I founded in 2021, began digitizing privately-held material for online access and mediating donations to local archives. Lack of access to items held outside of Tennessee continues to greatly hinder Nashville Queer History’s research initiatives; the all-volunteer community organization is forced to travel for research or buy digital reproductions of their own history, which add up to thousands of dollars.

Nashville is not the only Southern queer community experiencing this issue. The Invisible Histories Project, a nonprofit focused on preserving LGBTQ history in the South, has found Southern queer history dispersed across the United States. How can we bring these items home and empower the local communities? The possibilities of digital repatriation should be explored when it comes to connecting Southern queer communities with their historical materials.

What is digital repatriation?

Although it originated within anthropology, the galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) fields have practiced digital repatriation—also called digital return or virtual repatriation—as an access strategy since the late 1990s and early 2000s, but mostly in relation to ancient and Indigenous communities. In archival and library practice, repatriation is the return of cultural heritage materials to the people or country who created them, so digital repatriation focuses on returning such materials in digital formats, whether it be through digital collections, virtual exhibits or other online tools. One of the first GLAM projects using the phrase “digital repatriation” was a 1998 exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, which created virtual reality displays of Egyptian artifacts that put these items “back into the virtual copy of their original site” (MacDonald et al., 1999).

Several successful projects pertaining to Indigenous cultural resources exist as a form of digital repatriation, such as the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal or the Reciprocal Research Network. Because of legislation like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), GLAM fields have heavily used digital repatriation for Indigenous communities, but it is time to start applying this concept to other oppressed peoples.

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LGBTQ digital repatriation efforts

In the area of LGBTQ history and archives, there are few great examples of digital collaborations. The site Houston LGBT History is an especially effective, community-built digital archive. JD Doyle manages the site and created it based on his personal archives, but its significance and trustworthiness among the LGBTQ community have grown rapidly in recent years, so Doyle continuously receives archival contributions from queer people across the United States. Despite the site’s name, a user will find a lot more than just Houston, Texas, queer history there. Doyle’s work shows that queer and trans folks can develop their own digital archives without institutional support, which is what oppression forced the LGBTQ community to do with physical archives for several decades. Yet, GLAM institutions are better equipped with staffing, funding, tools and other resources needed for long-term sustainable digital archives, so collaborative access with marginalized communities is ideal.

Institutions holding Southern queer histories should be brainstorming radical and practical ways to provide open access to their holdings. Some archives and libraries are moving toward a post-custodial model when it comes to community histories.  In this model, professionals lend community partners the tools and knowledge needed to preserve their own materials (see Flinn, 2007; Kelleher, 2017; and Zavala et al., 2017). This strategy gives agency and power back to communities.

Still, what do we do about the collections previously accessioned into institutional archives? Physically returning items—one solution under NAGPRA—is typically not an option with LGBTQ materials due to the death of original donors; the donors’ next of kin not being accepting of LGBTQ identities; or the lack of agreed-upon community facility or no existing community facility (Nashville, for instance, does not have an LGBTQ community center). Constructing something digital is ultimately the most feasible option.

Library administration and archivists will shout about the costs and labor needed for digitization and digital projects, but consider the fact that digital repatriation is not meant to be easy or cost-effective. Digital repatriation and other forms of radical access are meant to right past wrongs, to shift the power from institution to community, and to subvert an institution’s perceived authority over collections from marginalized peoples.

It is true that digital collections are a major undertaking that require regular staff, training, hardware and software purchases, security, and digital preservation plans. There will be copyright issues to consider and the institution’s public admission that digital surrogates and digital access will never replace physical control over the material (Boast and Enote, 2013; Perullo, 2018).

But it is also true that, for too long, collecting institutions have prioritized acquisition and access to collections of rich, white, heteronormative, and gendernormative people. That, in order for there to truly be positive change, GLAM workers must commit to providing free digital copies to local community members, must stop policing fair usage of archival materials to online community platforms and social media sites, must actively reach out to community members and listen to their needs, and must dedicate parts of the ongoing, regular workflow to fulfilling digital access desires for LGBTQ communities who are unable to obtain their own ancestral past through reasonable physical means.

From queer pasts to the queer present

Today, the majority of the United States’ queer and transgender population lives in the South. They are also being brutally attacked by anti-LGBTQ legislation and threats of violence meant to wipe out their existence. Now more than ever, libraries and archives should be bending over backward to help Southern queer communities demonstrate the historical truth: LGBTQ folks have always lived in the South and contributed to the region’s political, social, economic, and cultural landscape. They are as Southern as anybody else. Keeping their history (our history, my history) in northern and western states and locked behind paywalls is contributing to these aforementioned waves of oppression. Digital repatriation techniques provide practical and achievable ways for libraries and archives to support LGBTQ communities in their quest for queer pasts so they can have viable queer futures.


Boast, R. & Enote, J. (2013). Virtual repatriation: It is neither virtual nor repatriation. In P. Biehl &
            C. Prescott (Eds.), Heritage in the context of globalization: Europe and the Americas (pp.

Flinn, A. (2007). Community histories, community archives: Some opportunities and
            challenges. Journal of the Society of Archivists, 28(2), 151-176. DOI:

Kelleher, C. (2017). Archives without archives: (Re)locating and (re)defining the archive through
            post-custodial praxis. Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, 1 (2). DOI:

MacDonald, G., Corcoran, F., Taylor, J., Boulanger, P., Rioux, M. (1999). Multimedia modeling,
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Perullo, A. (2018). Digital repatriation: Copyright policies, fair use, and ethics. In F. Grunderson,
            R.C. Lancefield & B. Woods (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Musical Repatriation (pp.
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Zavala, J., Migoni, A.A., Caswell, M., Geraci, N. & Cifor, M. (2017). ‘A process where we’re all at
            the table’: community archives challenging dominant modes of archival practice.
            Archives and Manuscripts, 45(3), 202-215. DOI: 10.1080/01576895.2017.1377088

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