Take Back the Archive is a digital archive of pre-published (or otherwise publicly available) materials, dating back to the 1800s but primarily from the 1950s until 2017. It has been constructed using Omeka Classic, an open access tool for the publication of digital media in the form of collections and curated exhibits. We use a customized Omeka theme called “takeback.” We also use the following Omeka plugins (all plugins not otherwise noted are by Roy Rosenweid Center for History and New Media, the creators of Omeka): 

  • Bulk Metadata Editor (by UC Santa Cruz University Library and Daniel Berthereau) 
  • CSV Export Format (by University of Toronto Libraries) 
  • Dropbox 
  • Dublin Core Extended 
  • Exhibit Builder 
  • Google Analytics (by Wayne Graham) 
  • History Log (by UC Santa Cruz Library and Daniel Berthereau)
  • HTML5 Media (by John Flatness) 
  • Item Relations 
  • Simple Pages 
  • Takeback Customizations (built in-house). 

Two of our exhibits (the Administrative Response timeline and the UVA Scholarship on Sexual Violence network visualization) were custom built outside of Omeka. All of our code is available on our GitHub repository. Lisa Goff, Asst. Professor in English and American Studies at the University of Virginia, is the co-founder and principal historian for the archive, along with Jeremy Boggs, Head of Research & Development for the University of Virginia’s Scholars' Lab, and a rotating team of undergraduate and graduate interns selected through UVA’s Public History Institute and featured on our page of collaborators. We have also enjoyed the support of the University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab and Library staff, including Purdom Lindblad, Ivey Glendon, Ronda Grizzle, Kara McClurken, and Brandon Butler.

A Chronology of the Archive

Take Back the Archive was a direct response to the publication, in November 2014, of the article “A Rape on Campus” in Rolling Stone magazine, a searing account set at UVA. It was an effort to record and interpret the outcry that followed the publication of the article, which five months later was retracted by the magazine. By that time, however, the archive had moved beyond its initial aims to embrace a bigger goal: documenting the history and culture of sexual violence at UVa over time, from the moment of its founding by Thomas Jefferson in the early nineteenth century to its current incarnation as one of the most prestigious public universities in the U.S., a university marred, like most of its peer institutions, by a growing crisis of sexual violence. While our first collecting was taken from the web and focused on journalism and our own interviews with student leaders, with time we moved towards building a collection of historical materials from the UVA library and archives. Finally, we moved towards finding ways to present and interpret certain groups of the materials we collected, through our exhibits.

Our first interns, Tierney Vial and Niki Afsar, started in spring 2015. They filmed and conducted the interviews with the six student leaders that we hoped would be just the beginning of original content on the site. Tierney's ties to students engaged in the responses to the Rolling Stone article and in anti-violence work in general were instrumental in getting the archive off the ground. Niki did the videoing and Tierney did the interviewing, off-camera. This was a decision we made together to minimize the interviewer and keep the focus on the student talking about their own experiences. One of our priorities was not to take stories from people, but to work in a collaborative process in which students had rights at every moment. We made sure that each student watched their videos before they went up and gave us explicit consent to use the video. We also gave them the right to have us take it down at any time.

Our original conception of the archive focused specifically on individual survivor stories. Then, in the aftermath of the Rolling Stone article, UVA changed its Title IX policy. Now, all faculty and grad students became mandatory reporters, meaning that if they discovered that a sexual assault had occurred, they were required to report it to the Title IX office. Though the intention of this policy was to make sure incidents were being reported to the correct authorities, it also had the effect of shutting down potential dialogues with students who were not ready or willing to discuss their experiences with the administration. With this in mind, we did not feel that we could continue with the survivor story project and instead turned our attention to UVA’s history.

Laura Widener and Vanessa Braganza began in summer 2015. Laura focused on LGBTQ sources and brought both a visual sense and a women's-studies-critical sense to her work. She was a great liaison to the Women and Gender Studies program. She researched and uploaded some of the initial documents in the archive, gathered documents from archives at the LGBTQ Center and Women's Center, and sketched a plan for a digital exhibit that features posters from University events about sexual violence. Vanessa had experience with the technical side of digital humanities, and pushed us to begin thinking in terms of digital exhibits we could produce from the items in the archive. Vanessa was a very key collaborator, starting that summer but continuing even beyond her graduation. She was the driving force behind the Cavalier Daily and other student newspaper archiving. She also started us thinking about the project of digital visualizations of archival materials. She became particularly interested in the evolving language used to describe rape and assault. Her research led to an exhibit about the semantic history of sexual violence and the shifts in perceptions and responses it documented. A lot of the conversations about the shape and future of the archive were born around this time and involved Laura and Vanessa, as well as co-founders Jeremy Boggs and Lisa Goff. In fall 2016, Lisa gave a paper about the archive at the National Women's Studies conference in Milwaukee, accompanied by Laura and Vanessa.

In summer 2016, Laura and Vanessa continued the work they'd started. Pinky Hossain joined the team and got very interested in including issues of Iris, a newsletter on women’s issues that emerged out of our university’s women’s center, and began the project of digitizing the old issues. We believe this was the first time they'd been digitized. Pinky also created a timeline for the archive and researched the intersection between race and sexual assault. 

This was a period of struggling to balance accumulation of more items versus exhibits based on items in the archive. We also worked, as we had to some extent in summer 2015, with folks at Special Collections on the question of metadata. Ivey Glendon was especially helpful on the topic of Library of Congress subject headings. At first, we did not want to use the headings, as they did not always use the same language we would choose (survivor vs. victim, for example) and did not always contain the entries we needed. Then, we realized that not using them would mean sacrificing a lot of researchers who worked according to those headings. One question that we posed ourselves was how to let politics speak in the archive. We never had the intention of creating a neutral archive, but rather have an explicit intention to expose under-recognized information about sexual violence at UVA in order to contribute to reducing its occurrence. We also wanted to make this an archive that researchers of all generations could find accessible. We debated whether too much metadata would overwhelm the focus versus whether to include thick metadata in anticipation of it being useful to researchers down the road. The tags that we ultimately chose are a small group selected from the many we originally applied. They are intended to imply themes that we want to emphasize and amplify, particularly about unspoken forces of power and patriarchy. There was some tension about putting energy into getting to the point where the archive would allow us to interpret data, versus collecting it or categorizing it. For this reason, we explicitly decided to value breadth over depth, and that is why things are often linked to, rather than having the full text included.

Rachel Newman worked on the archive as a research assistant to Lisa Goff in fall 2016 and spring 2017. At this point, we had decided on a short list of 5-6 topics for exhibits and to make making exhibits our priority, as opposed to adding more data to the archive. The exception to that was the Cav Daily collection, to which Vanessa continued adding items. Laura worked on digitizing a couple of boxes of papers and posters etc. from the Women's Center, which she didn't have time to finish and which remain unfinished. We also need to find a home for a few artifacts we collected from the protests in Nov. 2014 around the Rolling Stone article. Rachel developed on the UVA Scholarship about Sexual Violence collection and a historical timeline of the University's administrative responses to incidents of sexual assault.

Emily Lesmes worked on the archive in spring 2017 as an Independent Study. She digitized documents and focused on creating and regularizing graphics for the interface and imposed a coherent graphic look on much of the site.

In summer 2017, our interns were Melanie Pace and Katherine Donnally. Katherine took the graphics and visualizations to the next level. She had serious digital humanities chops and did some great work--at this point the visualization possibilities really became enticing. Melanie was not only a great scholar, but she had experience working with survivors. By this time we had abandoned the original hope that the archive would be a place for survivors to tell their own stories, but Melanie's work in the social work field brought a really important sensibility to decisions we made about exhibit priorities, etc. She also compiled a collection of administrative responses to reports of sexual violence at the University, concentrated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries but stretching back to its founding in the early nineteenth century. Victoria Tovig worked on the archive as Lisa Goff’s research assistant in the fall of 2017. She made significant advances on the project of digitizing issues of Iris magazine. 

Emily Mellen worked at the archive in the summer of 2019. Her goals were to update the digital infrastructure, including fixing bugs and making design tweaks to facilitate the use of the site with a particular eye for the ethics of the archive, and to work on a plan for the future of the archive, particularly bringing it into the eyes of researchers. She developed the current classroom use section, redesigned the front page of the archive, and, with the help of Lisa Goff and Jeremy Boggs, wrote this expanded project narrative. She also designed the network visualization of our collection on Scholarship on Sexual Violence at UVA.

Archival Issues

An early goal of the archive that we still hope to realize is to serve as a model for similar archives at other universities interested in documenting their own histories of sexual violence and assault. In this vein, we would like to surface a couple of the issues that we are still grappling with in our work and that we would like to be in conversation about.

First, we recognize that our archive is not representative of the entire history of sexual violence at UVA. We rely on documents produced in a past and present mired in white supremacy and class privilege. Our archive disproportionately represents the experiences of primarily white, female students, but these are certainly not the only survivors in UVA’s long history. There are many survivors who have not come forward for various reasons, whose records have been lost over time, or whose cases have not been deemed worthy of written discourse. There is an especially likely underrepresentation of people of color, queer and gender queer people, and men and a likely overrepresentation of sexual violence on students, rather than survivors in the broader community who were assaulted by members of the university but do not have the privileges that students hold. We cannot tell the history of sexual violence at UVA without also telling the history of violence at UVA, which includes almost fifty years of legal enslavement, a hundred years of segregation, and a continuing legacy of unequal treatment. While UVA did not admit female undergraduate students until 1970, that surely was not the beginning of its relationship with sexual violence. While we want to draw attention to the stories that we do have access to, those that are documented, we do not want to distort the archive.

Another issue that we are still considering is an ethics of consent. While our materials are all pre-published or otherwise accessible, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the parties involved were willing to have their stories discussed. Even if they were willing at the time of publication, this is not the same as consenting to be included in an archive such as ours. Reaching out to all of the authors and characters in our archive would be an impossible feat, both because of the number and because, as we go back further in history, some are no longer living. Yet, we are aware that this impossibility does not absolve us from ethical responsibility. We would like to establish a sense of who the stakeholders are in our project and make sure that they are involved in the process. One way this might happen is through collaboration with the student groups who are active on the question of sexual violence at UVA. Still, we need to think harder about the possible consequences of having this archive publicly accessible and whether or not we are facilitating potential harm to survivors. If so, we need to think about how we can inhibit this harm.

Future Directions

As of Summer/ Fall 2019, we are suspending work on the archive until further notice due to lack of funding and the full schedules of our founders. We would like to continue work on the archive in the future, but, if this is not possible, we plan to leave the archive up and live and will continue to respond to inquiries. If you are interested in continuing work on the archive or contributing sources of funding, please be in touch.

While building the archive is finished for the moment, we would like to expand in the direction of pedagogy. We would like to develop a class for undergraduates in which we teach the archive as a set of primary source documents. We hope that this course will lead to further research in the archive. We would also like to have this archive used as a resource for teaching sexual violence in K-12 education, in order to educate and prepare students before they arrive in the university setting.

Ultimately, we would like to make this archive a discussion point for our university and a broader intercampus discourse. We know that campus sexual violence happens all the time and the next time it becomes a media firestorm, we need to be able to make sure no one can say we didn’t know.

Current Team

Jeremy Boggs, Head of Research & Development, Scholars' Lab

Lisa Goff, Asst. Professor, English and American Studies, Co-founder and Principal Historian