Working with names and naming, Bri seeks to address and help redress the harms done to the Two-Spirit, transgender, non-binary, gender diverse and/or gender nonconforming individuals and communities. Working towards the equitable cataloging and classification of individual and community preferred terminologies, Bri plans on producing resources, policies, and procedures for use by publishers and Galleries, Archives, Libraries, Museums, and Special Collections.
Brian M. Watson (Bri) is a white, queer, disabled, and nonbinary settler living in unceded Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish lands. Although they go by Brian M. Watson in publications, their preferred name is Bri. Like many other academics, their name has become inextricably tied to their work, to the point where they can no longer change it. This is a frequently-faced and discussed problem among trans and gender diverse authors, married authors who change their surnames, and/or Indigenous people with names that are either not meant to be a part of the public record, or cannot be used. Bri’s research focuses on misrepresented terminology of marginalized communities, and works to develop a better and more accurate vocabulary by working directly with the communities involved.
This research respectfully involves and engages Indigenous communities and professionals. Additionally, professionals from other marginalized communities (i.e. Black, Queer, Disabled and Communities of Color) will be consulted and compensated. This project advances a seemingly non-radical hypothesis: members of communities—especially those belonging to marginalized or intersectional ones—are the best-placed individuals to consult for the proper names and descriptions of their communities.
However, this claim runs contrary to nearly a century's worth of practice in Galleries, Archives, Libraries, Museums, and Special Collections (GLAMS). This is not a one-issue or one community problem: current terms describing marginalized groups in GLAMS' catalogs have been described as inaccurate, inappropriate, misleading, or outrightly offensive. Nor is this a minor issue—for example, for queer library patrons, information about HIV/AIDS can be literally lifesaving.
Finally, research on minority stress demonstrates that improper description has a measurable health impact: encountering feedback from society that is incompatible with one's self-identity increases the likelihood that individuals will experience symptoms such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and suicidal ideation. Following ethics review and other research protocols, I propose to recruit and compensate catalogers that belong to marginalized communities and develop "working" focus groups—with the goal of developing better, and more accurate terminology. The resultant work will be incorporated in the Homosaurus International LGBTQ Thesaurus, an alternative vocabulary for use in GLAMS that has already had tremendous impact. Finally, I will use this research and its discoveries to support the updating of a local community library, as well as other initiatives.
What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?
I believe very strongly that the work of the so-called ivory tower must also be the work of the ivied public libraries. Through all the years of my university education I have consistently and readily sought out public engagement and connection, whether that takes the form of hundreds of hours of oral history and podcast episodes, a book aimed at the general population, or the public-facing historical and informational work I do in my current program. Because of my inability to belong to any one world because of my disabilities, queerness, or other minoritizations, I have always had the drive to bridge different worlds and ways of being. As a result, being a Public Scholar feels like a high honor and a recognition of the unpaid and unrecognized work that I have been doing—work that does not fit into the traditional disciplinary boundaries.
In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?
As someone who went through the trauma of seeing their field collapse around them during the 2008 recession I recognize the importance of alternative roles for PhD students and graduates in the years to come. I had always wanted to be a teacher and every year of school I would announce that *this* was going to be the grade I was going to teach—that is, until I went to a small public university in the state that I grew up in. Knowing that being a humanities' professor would be difficult but still possible, I went to graduate school for history and deliberately choosing fields that would remain relevant into the future and make me a flexible candidate. However, over the course of a few years I watched the near-collapse of the humanities job market, and realized that it was not possible for me to achieve the things I wanted to there. The next few years was spent in search of a role: writing a book, doing a podcast, recording oral histories, adjuncting, and other oddities until I ended up finding a niche in the archiving world and carrying on through my current PhD.
How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?
Due to my experiences my PhD and activism work is squarely aimed at broader career possibilities. Specifically, my research aims to use a new technology called “linked data” to supplant these outdated terms, allowing people and communities to use accurate and relevant terminology derived from their own lives. Through my MLIS and into my PhD. I have focused on understanding the theoretical issues in implementing this technology, and have spent the past summer gaining hands-on experience with the coding and use of this technology. In this way, even if an academic career does not work out for me, my skills would also provide me the ability to forgo an academic career and to begin professional work if I so chose. I no longer felt like the right kind of historical work would make real and material changes in everyday lives. This is one way that my work in information sciences and GLAMS is markedly different—my work (such as that on the Homosaurus or the NCPWG) has already had impact on the lives of everyday practitioners.
How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?
In line with the PSI’s goals of enhanced career opportunities and social engagement, the PSI will allow me to undertake collaborations with stakeholders in the academic, professional, publishing, and cultural heritage fields with the aim of co-developing resources, documents, and practices specifically aimed at having lasting impact. PSI support allows me the time and space to build deeper relationships with those who will support my future career and allow me to gain experience in work that I will continue following graduation. Specifically, I am using the funds for continued work on the Name Change Policy Working Group, which I founded with academics from a wide variety of fields and which has already brought about significant change: a partial tally of publishers that have introduced new or revised policies following our guidance employ more than 50,000 people, are responsible for 12,000+ journals, and report revenues of more than CAD $13.5B annually. Secondly, PSI’s support allows me to address historical harms, via the Homosaurus, an alternative cataloging vocabulary for GLAMS, and a related initiative, the Trans Metadata Collective, which I co-founded in order to develop ethical recommendations, best practices, and policies for the cataloging, classification, and description of marginalized and minoritized gender identities based on the experience and work of over a hundred cultural heritage workers. Support provided by the PSI will allow me to continue developing relationships and building upon the public-facing interdisciplinary work that I have undertaken over the past year towards these goals.
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
When I returned to graduate school in search of an alternative career, my coursework in knowledge organization, cataloging, classification, and metadata allowed me to finally begin connecting my lived experiences and intersections with the way that the world around me operated. These classes also taught me that each of my own (and others') terms and identities are charged with historical import and personal meaning—they make up our innermost desires and outward goals. My historical training made me understand the ways that information systems developed, are structured, and change was deliberate: the racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and colonialism of information systems are not accidents—they are manifestations of a system doing what it was designed to do. I concluded that it was not enough to simply make systems more humane in small ways, to try to revise the more hateful aspects of knowledge organization systems—we are also required to uproot them and build alternatives. These lessons, along with the realization that this work could have larger and more systemic impact were what spurred me to apply for a PhD program at the UBC’s iSchool. The things I have accomplished over the course of my first year as a doctoral student have substantiated this belief, as discussed with TMDC and NCPWG above.
Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?
One of the major benefits of this research project is the number of interlocking and complimentary community-based projects that I am able draw upon and contribute to. UBC’s campus is home to Out On The Shelves (OOTS), volunteer-run, non-profit, LGBT2QIA+ community library, which would also be a recipient of the work undertaken by this research proposal. As I sit on OOTS’ board, I will be undertaking a revision of their current catalog to update it to the Homosaurus vocabulary with the support of the other coordinators and volunteers. Thus, the proposed consultations will allow for feedback on Homosaurus terms from the communities that it describes and allow for further contributions to queer knowledge organization, and OOTS will provide a real-world testing ground for outcomes of renaming, and potential future publications. Another benefit to UBC, OOTS and my advisor, Dr. Julia Bullard have collaborated on publications in the past and are recipients of a related SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant that provides additional support for this work. This is not the only way that previous SSHRC grants would be augmented through the support of the PSI: Dr. Bullard also received a SSHRC Insight Development Grant for work involving the cataloging and classification of Indigenous literature, known as Subjects from the Margin (STFM). I have served as a research assistant on this project over the course of the previous year, and seen it result in an award-winning paper and exciting insights. Additionally, UBC is a world-class leader in Indigenous information work, as it is home to X̱wi7x̱wa Library, the First Nations House of Learning, the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, and the iSchool’s First Nations Curriculum Concentration, Colleagues and friends at each of these institutions have provided valuable time, education, and feedback to this application and would be continually consulted. Another significant support to this project is the work of Dr. Tricia Logan, an Assistant Professor at the iSchool and one of my letter writers. Her work on genocide studies, residential school records as well a semester-long course (Information Practice and Protocol in Support of Indigenous Initiatives) significantly influenced me and this proposal. Finally, UBC’s iSchool also has two brilliant faculty members whom I would be able to consult on archives and museum-specific contexts: Dr. Jennifer Douglas and Dr. Hannah Turner respectively.
What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?
When I began searching for programs to continue my research at, UBC's iSchool quickly ended up at the very top of my list due to its reputation as a leader in many aspects of information science, as well as its interdisciplinary and diverse faculty. No other PhD program offers the diversity of scholars and perspectives that the iSchool does. Ultimately, I decided to attend the iSchool because of its engagement with communities inside and outside UBC via knowledge translation, collaboration, and time.
For you, what was the best surprise about graduate life, about UBC or life in Vancouver?
Cinnamon rolls! I had no idea that UBC and Vancouver were known for such amazing cinnamon rolls. Also, all of the *amazing* Ukrainian restaurants here. Huge shoutout to the staff at Ike's Cafe and Kozak Ukraïnian Eatery for their amazing cinnamon rolls and pletenka.
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?
I cannot wait to get to the interview part of my dissertation research. I just have to get through qualification exams and proposal defense—wish me luck.
What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?
The accelerating trend of cultural heritage digitization provides an invaluable opportunity to examine and correct past injustices in description and naming. Despite this, Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums, and Special Collections (GLAMS) dedicated to documenting and preserving sometimes-ephemeral identities utilize systems that describe marginalized groups in ways that have been criticized as inadaquate or outrightly offensive.
My research is motivated by the necessity of the knowledge organization field to meet this urgent need, and to create spaces of reclamation, redescription, reappropiation, and renaming. Generally speaking, with my research I want to encourage individuals to think productively about the ways in which their identities and intersections are historically constructed. Intersections are reductive and limiting, but they can also be productive and generating. I also aim to push GLAMS and other institutions to consciously think through and engage with the ways that they actively construct and shape individual identities. Cataloging, classification, data and its metadata are profoundly powerful.
How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?
UBC and the iSchool have been extraordinarily supportive of my work through collaboration with iSchool faculty members and through internal awards and supports. For example, UBCs Graduate Student Career Activation Award awarded me funds to gain the skills needed for a major grant from the Linked Infrastructure for Networked Cultural Scholarship (LINCS) project. Additionally, UBC has recognized my work on the Trans Metadata Collective (https://transmetadatacollective.org/) and the Name Change Policy Working Group (https://ncpwg.org/) through its Public Scholar Initiative Award, which is designed to support UBC doctoral students as they strive for purposeful social contribution, produce new and creative forms of scholarship and dissertations, and explore diverse career pathways.
Do you have any tips for students from your home country coming to Canada / to UBC Grad School?
Try to find the things that make you angry, sad, happy, or amused. That is, try to find the things you care about emotionally, whether or not that necessarily aligns with the goals of your program or what you said in your statement of purpose. These are things that will carry your interest and dedication. At the same time, be wary of burnout and compassion fatigue; academic environments are full of things that will exploit your passion, energy, and time for free. The concept of fighting compassion fatigue by developing compassion stamina is something I heard about in an interview with Dr. Mark Stemen, and it has proven pivotal for me.