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Darling of the Month: Janika Seitz and “the Database”

1. February 2024

The eager drive towards digitalization did not pass the Gay Museum by. In a digital laboratory, we implemented various online projects, especially at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. This includes the online exhibition on Love At First Fight!, the digital format Unknown Objects – Newly Told Stories and the digitization of the photo collections on Jürgen Baldiga and Petra Gall. Janika Seitz is less concerned with the “What?” than with the “How?” of digital knowledge management at SMU, and shares her findings with us. However, this interview is not her first rodeo: we interviewed her two years ago when she was a volunteer at the SMU Library. Read here what has happened since then and what a versatile and challenging treasure Janika has brought with her.

Hello Janika! In 2021, we had the pleasure of meeting you as a volunteer at the Gay Museum. Today you are sitting in front of me with much shorter hair! But you certainly bring other new facets with you beyond the hairstyle. Will you introduce yourself to us again?

I already stumbled over this question last time, but I’m happy to try again: I’ve been living in Berlin for ten years, the last three of which I spent at the Gay Museum. Before that, I studied literature and cultural studies and worked in academia and the cultural sector. Since the summer before last, I’ve been part of a digitization project at the SMU.

If I remember correctly, you have also implemented this focus on digitalization in other projects in your life?

Exactly, in the middle of the pandemic I started another part-time Master’s degree course called Digital Data Management. I finished this course in summer 2023.

Congratulations to you!

Thank you! (laughs) In my Master’s thesis, I conducted an empirical study on the state of digitization in queer archives. My questions were: How are library and archive collections managed? What is the qualitative status of this data? This will probably be published in the coming months. I asked the member organizations of QueerSearch, an umbrella organization of queer archives in German-speaking countries, i.e. Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, to which the Schwules Museum also belongs. I have represented the SMU on the QueerSearch board for a year now. The aim of this association is to develop a joint online catalog to make the collections of the individual institutions more easily accessible and visible.

You are currently doing something similar for the Petra Gall collection at the Gay Museum…

Yes, I co-curated the collection on women’s and lesbian movements of the 80s and 90s. That means that, together with my colleague Laura Niebuhr, I selected and described various photo series, we had them digitized and are entering them into the database system. We are in the final stages of this project and are in the process of planning how to pass them on to our cooperation partners.

Is there a specific division of labor in your team?

There is no strict division, but Lauri and I already have different areas that we work on, simply because of our different previous experience and skills. Lauri is much more familiar with art history and photography, so setting up and running the repro station is her expertise. I’m closer to data management, where I look at how I document what. Knowledge management is something I’ve been establishing at the Gay Museum for a long time: Who knows what? Are there templates and handouts? Where is helpful information written down? How can we reuse knowledge? As exhausting as it can be with a data structure as developed as that of the SMU, I enjoy doing it and am an expert in it.

Do you have any idea where this passion comes from?

I’ve always been fascinated by knowledge itself. Cultural studies is a great degree if you don’t want to limit yourself to a specific subject. Knowledge management is not about producing knowledge, but can manage knowledge on a meta-level. This puts me in a position where I’m confronted with exciting topics all the time without having to delve into them in detail. I like to stay at this intermediate level and ultimately I’m just good at keeping an overview.

Is everything so well organized in your private life? What does your PC desktop look like, for example?

I’m the kind of person who always puts things in the same place. Otherwise I end up with chaos. I park files in one place on my desktop until I tidy them up into folders at some point. That’s why I have a junk corner on one side and a few folders on the other.

So it’s very structured, that makes sense! What darling did you bring us?

I couldn’t really bring this little darling with me, but to stay true to myself and this work, my darling is the database! Getting data into it and maintaining existing data is a big part of my job. The SMU’s database has really great potential, it could actually be used to map the museum’s entire work: What are there for loan transactions? What have we already digitized? Which objects were in which exhibitions … My dream would also be to be able to use the database as a search engine: What do we have from 1983? We are still exploring this potential.

What makes the Gay Museum database so special?

Our database can be used for all kinds of things. We can use it to manage our library and archive holdings as well as the art collection, people, geography and administrative processes. All of this can be mapped in one system! Just like the Gay Museum is three in one – archive, library and museum – so is our database.

That makes our database very queer! How I see it, bits also have the potential to become anything that can be programmed.

Yes, that really is a queer approach: being one in everything, not wanting to be tied down anywhere… That’s no small challenge for software.

Now you’re leaving the Schwules Museum in May, leaving your darling behind…

I attach great importance to documenting what we have done in our project and which processes we have established. All these learnings should be saved in our wiki and help to keep the digitization processes going. Digital collection management is an ongoing process. I would actually really like to continue to help shape these processes at the Gay Museum. The to-do list in my head is definitely longer than my employment contract (laughs).

What’s next for you?

Lauri and I will complete the Petra Gall project in February, and then we’ll have until May to document and pass on our knowledge. After that, I’ll be looking around at cultural institutions in Berlin, I’m quite confident about that. There are quite a lot of jobs at the moment that have to do with digital collection management and cultural heritage. I’ve heard that in institutions like the State Library, around 40% of employees will be retiring in the next few years. The Federal Government is also spending considerable sums on the development of a national research data infrastructure (NFDI); 90 million is being invested each year in the development of platforms for making research data available. This is a very exciting field! Actually, the data we have here in the archive, all the estates, images and journals, are also research data. Although they are often not accessible due to their level of indexing, they offer great potential for digital humanities projects, for example!

These are good prospects and a great final word. Thank you Janika!


(Interview and photo: mino Künze)