Bethany Nowviskie

open invitations

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[These are unedited remarks from the closing plenary of the 2016 DLF Forum, written about 15 minutes before it began, on the morning after Election Day. Video should be available soon.]

I thought I knew on Monday what I needed to say this morning. I was going to give heartfelt thanks to you all for being the community that you are—and for the experience of the past year and a half, for me, as director—and of the past three days for us all, as a tongue-in-cheek little conference village.

Mostly I was just going to be cheerful and chirpy, make a happy announcement about some new advisory board members, and turn things over to our panelists for equally cheerful and brief pitches about their groups and projects. (Panelists, I am so grateful to you for being up here with me.)

This plenary session is called “Open Invitations,” and I think that suits what I’m going to say now, instead, just fine.

What I’m going to say now presumes nothing about your personal politics. I think we saw last night how little we can presume, and how much work is needed on the systems and methods of data collection and analysis that we bear responsibility for and are complicit in as information professionals. How little we understand each other.

And I am especially conscious of how some of you in far less privileged and safe positions than mine must be feeling this morning—far from home, maybe among some friends, surely among many strangers, and perhaps in a lonely minority here, by virtue of the color of your skin or other qualities of the one precious body you’re in, by virtue of the place of your origin or the assumptions people make about that place, or the faiths you hold dear, or the genders of the people you love or want to love one day, or just by virtue of who know yourself to be. Even in what I hope and believe is a DLF village full of allies—clumsy, awkward allies, probably, most of us, but people who honor you and want and need you here—I know you must be feeling very alone.

What I want to say presumes nothing about the politics of anyone in this room, but the newly explicit social justice mission of the DLF is no secret. You may have seen me steer left. And it’s no secret that together, as a collective of individuals, many of us have been working to move this organization along the arc of the moral universe, and to follow where that arc bends—and go where people much more qualified to lead than we are, are leading. Read the rest of this entry »

speculative collections

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[This is the text of a talk I gave last week, as “Speculative Collections and the Emancipatory Library,” to close a Harvard symposium honoring Dan Hazen, about the future of academic library collecting. See also #HazenatHarvard tweets as assembled by Merrilee Proffitt, and an excerpt from a prior talk (“Alternate Futures/Usable Pasts“), which introduces the concept and offers some paths in.]

[Edited to add: and please read the wonderful “Liberatory Archives,” by Jarrett M. Drake, which takes up many of the same themes as the talk below, and was apparently delivered on the same day! Maybe it’s time? Hurry up please it’s time.]

Reproducibility. Openness. Transparency. Rationality. Interoperability, and an orientation toward interdisciplinary problem-solving. Mine is a non-exclusive list, to be sure, but you might recognize these as values driving data management in the sciences and social sciences, and underlying the creation of collections, interfaces, and infrastructure in what we call “data-driven” fields. They have their problems of positivism, these values—and it has become the necessary project of many thinkers in the library and information science community to demonstrate how underlying assumptions of neutrality and universality in them—and therefore in our practices of selection and description, our design of search mechanisms, and even in many libraries’ public service policies and stances around them—are in fact decidedly non-neutral expressions of dominant, sometimes oppressive ideologies.

But I’ll risk the ire of friends to say that—taken together—the value-sets of open science represent a quality I find disappointingly, maybe even irresponsibly absent from digital library interface design and collection-building. They represent a forward-looking temporal orientation. And I think we feel the absence of that orientation, particularly, now that we are so decidedly past the era of collecting “on spec”—past, that is, being able to hold an image of libraries un-stuck in time, libraries on the long tail, libraries with a far, far future reach—where we invest in and gather materials that may have no immediate use-value.

While administrative imagination slowly catches up to the logic of the network—and while we work to realize “collective collections” that might mitigate this problem—local pressures move inexorably in, and train our attention on contemporary, not future needs: on meeting needs (as we say) “just in time.” Please don’t misunderstand. I do not propose that we adopt the values of open science wholesale (it will be a cold day in Hell when “reproducibility” takes hold in English departments—and “openness” itself has different valences and dangers across communities and fields). Instead, I suggest that we consider the cumulative effect of underlying value sets like these in terms of their temporal orientation—the degree of forward-lookingness and open-endedness inherent in the concepts we hold dear—and what that means for the systems we build. Read the rest of this entry »

alternate futures/usable pasts

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[While I’m cleaning up the text of a talk I gave at Harvard’s Hazen Symposium last week (see #HazenatHarvard or Merrilee’s Storify for tweets from many great presentations), I thought I’d share just the prelude and final paragraph to one that preceded it, and was really a first stab at the concept. This is from Marquette University Library in late September.]

[Update: “Speculative Collections,” the talk that followed, is now available.]

It wasn’t until I took a job in the library that I became unstuck in time. I thought I knew what time was, in that way that you think you know things, now, when you’re just out of your 20s and it’s possible you could have it all together. I thought I knew time as a young mother: how it drags and loops with repetition (sleep and milk and laundry); how quickly it passes, as little bodies grow and reach and change. I thought I knew it as a scholar. My academic training had been in classical archaeology, on the one hand, and poetry and textual criticism on the other—the meter of lyric verse and the history of print culture—with a weird stop-over in the middle to teach the design and aesthetics of video games. Each of these disparate fields has its own ticking metronome, its particular largo or accelerando. They have positionality as disciplines and different ways of positioning the objects of their study, all splayed out on timelines of their own making.

I thought I knew time, too, because I’d designed software to model it. Part of my dissertation work around (ahem) the turn of the century, in which I was grappling toward something I called Speculative Computing, had been to collaborate with a small team (Johanna Drucker, Jim Allman, Petra Michel, and many generous colleagues) in prototyping a tool for humanistic timelines. These were timelines not governed—as nearly all digital interfaces to time were then and still are—by the mechanical ticking of a scientific clock. We were funded, oddly enough, by a grant to Johanna from the Intel Corporation, which was interested in hardware requirements for the Don Draper-like transcendent moments they hoped you might have with the digital equivalent of your family’s slide carousel. They wanted to sell computers that were machines for memory, rather than just memory-machines. So they offered money (time is money) to some humanities scholars (who come cheap), to tinker with stretchy, squishy timelines, to imagine interfaces and interaction modes for the personal and uniquely human experience of time.

We created timeline tools for fiction and memoir and contested historical events, lines on which nothing could be pinned precisely, tools for sketching ambiguous causes and imprecise moments. Our Temporal Modelling Project made timelines for causal relations and visions proleptic—acts of revision and retrospect, anticipation, prediction, self-illusion, and regret. We modeled time that zips by, and time that drags its feet. We also built branching timelines, my specialty, in which the subjective observer’s standing-point—the moment of the now, my experience necessarily very different from yours even in the same instant—was like a bead: any number of beads, really, all valid imaginary nows—which could move freely back and forth along unraveling threads of time—concentrating them for a moment, maybe, into a contingent view of past, present, and future—but always in motion and part of a fabric of observation and interpretation, being perpetually unmade and made.

So I guess I was primed to look beyond progress narratives and linear conceptions of time. Read the rest of this entry »

everywhere, every when

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This is the text of a presentation I made yesterday at a wonderful Columbia University symposium called Insuetude (still ongoing), which is bringing media archaeologists together with stones-and-bones archaeologists. I started my talk with a bit of film, as a way of time-traveling to the middle of my theme, in part for the pleasure of taking a jarring step back out. Please watch the first 90 seconds or so of The Last Angel of History, a brilliant 1996 documentary by John Akomfrah. You can catch it in this clip. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Now—what would it mean to take an explicitly antiracist approach to the digitization of cultural heritage? To its technological recovery? To its presentation, not as static content to be received, but as active technology to be used? What would it mean to create an actively antiracist digital library?

Let us first understand the construction of libraries in general, along with their embedded activities of remediation and digital stewardship, as exercises in spatial and temporal prospect. This is work that requires practitioners and builders to develop a geospatially expansive imagination, and to see their charge as having as much to do with things speculative as with retrospect—as much, that is, with scrying for possible, yet-unrealized futures as with reflecting documented, material pasts. If we agree that our collective network of libraries, archives, and museums should be made for prospect—with spatial scope and (as C.P. Snow wrote of the community of scientists) holding “the future in their bones”—then taking up the design problem of an antiracist digital library, particularly in this country, means addressing one fundamental question.

Where and when do black lives matter? Read the rest of this entry »

capacity through care

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[This is the draft of an invited contribution to a forum on “care” that will appear in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2017, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. It’s a capsule summary of my NEH talk, “On Capacity and Care.” (A more digestible pill?)] 

The grand challenges that face (and link) little cultures and fragile creatures across the implacable Anthropocene must be met by an academy made more capable—in every sense of that open-handed word. But our perpetually erupting anxieties about data-driven research and inquiry “at scale” seem to betray a deep-seated—and ill-timed—discomfort with the very notion of increased capacity in the humanities.

There are obvious and valid reasons for humanities scholars to be skeptical of big data analysis, distant reading, or work in the longue durée: problems of surveillance and privacy; the political ends to which data mining can be put and the systems of consumption and control in which it is complicit; intractable and cascading structural inequities in access to information; and disparities in sampling and representation, which limit the visibility of historical and present-day communities in our datasets, or filter them through a hostile lens. We can further understand and respect a discomfort with vastness in fields that have, most particularly over the past half century, focused intently on the little stuff: working in bits and bobs and “small things forgotten.”

Humanities scholars make theoretical and practical advances—including advances in the cause of social justice—by forwarding carefully observed, exquisitely described jewel-box examples. Our small data add nuance and offer counter-narratives to understandings of history and the arts that would otherwise fall along blunter lines. The finest contribution of the past several decades of humanities research has been to broaden, contextualize, and challenge canonical collections and privileged views. Scholars do this by elevating instances of neglected or alternate lived experience—singular human conditions, often revealed to reflect the mainstream.

The most compelling arguments against algorithmic visualization and analysis are not, therefore, fueled by nostalgic scholarly conservatism, but rather emerge across the political spectrum. Yet they share a common fear. Will the use of digital methods lead to an erosion of our most unique facility in the humanities, the aptitude for fine-grained and careful interpretive observation? In seeking macroscopic or synthetic views of arts and culture, will we forget to look carefully and take—or teach—care?

I see the well-established feminist ethic and praxis of care, itself, as a framework through which the digital humanities might advance in a deeply intertwingled, globalized, data-saturated age. An ethic of care—as formalized in the 1970s and ‘80s by Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, Joan Tronto, Virginia Held, and others—means to reorient its practitioners’ understanding in two essential ways. The first is toward a humanistic appreciation of context, interdependence, and vulnerability—of fragile, earthly things and their interrelation. The second is away from the supposedly objective evaluation and judgment of the philosophical mainstream of ethics—that is, away from criticism—and toward personal, worldly action and response. After all, the chief contribution, over prior directions in moral philosophy, of the feminist ethics of the 18th and 19th century that inform this work, was to see the self as most complete when in connection with others. Kantian morality and utilitarianism had valorized an impartial stance and posited that, as a man grew in judgment and developed ethical understanding, he separated himself from others. The mark of a fully developed (implicitly masculine) self was its ability to stand apart from and reason outside of familial systems and social bonds.

A feminist ethic of care—like many a DH research agenda or platform for large-scale visualization and analysis—seeks instead to illuminate the relationships of small components, one to another, within great systems. Noddings identifies the roots of care in what she calls engrossment: that close attention and focus on the other which provokes a productive appreciation of the standpoint or position of the cared-for person or group—or (I would say) of the qualities and affordances of an artifact, document, collection, or system requiring study or curation. Humanities scholars hone and experience engrossment in archival research and close reading. We perform it in explicating subjectivity. We reward each other for going deep. Yet one concern in the literature of care has been whether engrossment can become too intense. I believe the answer is the same for caregiving (nursing, teaching, tending, mothering, organizing) as it is for humanities scholarship. Real experts are those who manifest deep empathy, while still maintaining the level of distance necessary to perceive systemic effects and avoid projection of the self onto the other. In other words, empathetic appreciation of the positional or situated goes hand in hand with an increase in effective observational capacity. A care-filled humanities is by nature a capacious one.

To me, this suggests that a primary design desideratum for Anthropocenic DH and cultural heritage systems must be the facilitation of humanistic engrossment through digital reading (viewing, listening, sensing) and large-scale analysis. Let us build platforms that promote an understanding of the temporal vulnerability of the individual person or object; that more beautifully express the relationship of parts, one to another and to many a greater whole; and that instill, through depth of feeling in their users, an ethic of care—active, outward-facing, interdisciplinary, and expansive: sufficient to our daunting futures and broadened scope.

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.