a pledge: self-examination and concrete action in the JMU Libraries

“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.” — Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race.

Black lives matter. Too long have we allowed acts of racism and deeply ingrained, institutionalized forces of white supremacy to devalue, endanger, and grievously harm Black people and members of other minoritized and marginalized groups. State-sanctioned violence and racial terror exist alongside slower and more deep-seated forces of inequality, anti-Blackness, colonization, militarization, class warfare, and oppression.

As members of the JMU Libraries Dean’s Council and Council on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, we acknowledge these forces to be both national and local, shaping the daily lived experiences of our students, faculty, staff, and community members. As a blended library and educational technology organization operating within a PWI, the JMU Libraries both participates in and is damaged by the whiteness and privilege of our institutions and fields. Supporting the James Madison University community through a global pandemic has helped us see imbalances, biases, and fault lines of inequality more clearly.

We pledge self-examination and concrete action. Libraries and educational technology organizations hold power, and can share or even cede it. As we strive to create welcoming spaces and services for all members of our community, we assert the fundamental non-neutrality of libraries and the necessity of taking visible and real action against the forces of racism and oppression that affect BIPOC students, faculty, staff, and community members.

Specifically, and in order to “fight racism wherever [we] find it, including in [ourselves],” we commit to:

  • Listen to BIPOC and student voices, recognizing that they have long spoken on these issues and have too often gone unheard.
  • Educate ourselves and ask questions of all the work we do. (“To what end? To whose benefit? Whose comfort is centered? Who has most agency and voice? Who is silenced, ignored, or harmed? Who is elevated, honored, and made to feel safe? Who can experience and express joy?”) 
  • Set public and increasingly measurable goals related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism, so that we may be held accountable.
  • Continue to examine, revise, and augment our collections, services, policies, spending patterns, and commitments, in order to institutionalize better practices and create offerings with enduring impact.
  • Learn from, and do better by, our own colleagues.

We are a predominantly white organization and it is likely that we will make mistakes as we try to live up to this pledge. When that happens, we will do the work to learn and rectify. We will apologize, examine our actions and embedded power structures, attempt to mitigate any harm caused by our actions, and we will do better.

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change us, too

[The following is a brief talk I gave at the opening plenary of RBMS 2019, a meeting of the Rare Books and Manuscripts section of the ACRL/ALA. This year’s theme was “Response and Responsibility: Special Collections and Climate Change,” and my co-panelists were Frances Beinecke of the National Resources Defense Council and Brenda Ekwurzel of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Many thanks to 2019 conference chairs Ben Goldman and Kate Hutchens, session chair Melissa Hubbard, and outgoing RBMS chair Shannon Supple. The talk draws together some of my past writings, all of which are linked to and freely available. Images in my slide deck, as here, were by Catherine Nelson.]

Six years ago, I began writing about cultural heritage and cultural memory in the context of our ongoing climate disaster. Starting to write and talk publicly was a frank attempt to assuage my terror and my grief—my personal grief at past and coming losses in the natural world, and the sense of terror growing inside me, both at the long-term future of the digital and physical collections in my charge, and at the unplanned-for environmental hardships and accelerating social unrest my two young children, then six and nine years old, would one day face.

I latched, as people trained as scholars sometimes do, onto a set of rich and varied theoretical frameworks. These were developed by others grappling with the exact same existential dread: some quite recent, some going back to the 1960s, the 1920s, even the 1870s—demonstrating, for me, not just the continuity of scientific agreement on the facts of climate change and the need for collective action (as my co-panelists have demonstrated), but scholarly and artistic agreement on the generative value of responses from what would become the environmental humanities and from practices I might call green speculative design. The concepts and theories I lighted on, however, served another function. They allowed me simultaneously to elevate and to sublimate many of my hardest-hitting feelings. In other words, I put my fears into a linguistic machine labeled “the Anthropocene”—engineered to extract angst and allow me to crank out historicized, lyrical melancholy on the other end.

Since then I’ve also become concerned that, alongside and through the explicit, theoretical frameworks I found in the literature, I leaned unconsciously—as cis-gender white women and other members of dominant groups almost inevitably do—on implicit frameworks of white supremacy, on my gender privilege, and on the settler ideologies that got us here in the first place, all of which uphold and support the kind of emotional and fundamentally self-centered response I was first disposed to make. I see more clearly now that none of this is about my own relatively vastly privileged children and well-tended collections—except insofar as both of them exist within broader networks and collectives of care, as one achingly beloved and all-too-transitory part.

Please don’t misunderstand me: it remains absolutely vital that we honor our attachments, and acknowledge the complexity and deep reality of our emotional responses to living through the sixth great mass extinction of life on this planet—vital to compassionate teaching and leadership, to responsible stewardship, and to defining value systems that help us become more humane in the face of problems of inhuman scale. Grappling with our emotions as librarians and archivists (and as curators, conservators, collectors, community organizers, scholars, and scientists) will be a major part of the work of this conference. It is also vital to doing work that appreciates its own inner standing point, and uses its positionality to promote understanding and effect change.

But I’ve felt my own orientation changing. For me, all of this is, every day, less and less about my feelings on special collections and climate change—except to the degree that those feelings drive me toward actions that have systemic impact and are consonant with a set of values we may share. So this is a brief talk that will try to walk you (for what it’s worth) along the intellectual path I’ve taken over the past six years—in the space of about sixteen minutes.

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from the grass roots

[This is a cleaned-up version of the text from which I spoke at the 2019 conference of Research Libraries UK, held at the Wellcome Collection in London last week. I’d like to thank my wonderful hosts for an opportunity to reflect on my time at DLF. As I said to the crowd, I hope the talk offers some useful—or at least productively vexing—ideas.]

At a meeting in which the status of libraries as “neutral spaces” has been asserted and lauded, I feel obligated to confess: I’m not a believer in dispassionate and disinterested neutrality—not for human beings nor for the institutions that we continually reinforce or reinvent, based on our interactions in and through them. My training as a humanities scholar has shown me all the ways that it is in fact impossible for us to step wholly out of our multiple, layered, subjective positions, interpretive frameworks, and embodied existence. It has also taught me the dangers of assuming—no matter how noble our intentions—that socially constructed institutions might likewise escape their historical and contemporary positioning, and somehow operate as neutral actors in neutral space.

Happily, we don’t need neutrality to move constructively from independent points of view to shared understandings and collective action. There are models for this. The ones I will focus on today are broadly “DH-adjacent,” and they depend, sometimes uncomfortably, on the vulnerability, subjectivity, and autonomy of the people who engage with them—foregrounding the ways that individual professional roles intersect with personal lives as they come together around shared missions and goals. And as I discuss them, please note that I’ll be referring to the digital humanities and to digital librarianship somewhat loosely—in their cultural lineaments—speaking to the diffuse and socially constructed way both are practiced on the ground. In particular, I’ll reference a DH that is (for my purposes today) relatively unconcerned with technologies, methods, and objects of study. It’s my hope that shifting our focus—after much fruitful discussion, this week, of concrete research support—to a digital humanities that can also be understood as organizational, positional, and intersubjective might prompt some structural attunement to new ways of working in libraries.

And I do this here, at a consortial gathering of “the most significant research libraries in the UK and Ireland,” because I think that self-consciously expanding our attention in library leadership from the pragmatic provision of data, platforms, skills-teaching, and research support for DH, outward to its larger organizational frame is one way of cracking open serious and opportune contributions by people who would not consider themselves digital humanists at all. This likely includes many of you, your colleagues in university administration across areas and functions, and most members of your libraries’ personnel. Such a change in focus invites all of us to be attentive to the deeper and fundamentally different kinds of engagement and transformation we might foster through DH as a vector and perhaps with only simple re-inflections of the resources we already devote to the field. It could also open our organizations up to illuminating partnerships with communities of practice who frankly don’t give a fig about academic disciplinary labels or whether they are or are not “doing DH.”

I also speak to library leaders because my call is not for work to be done by individual scholars as researchers and teachers alone, nor even by small teams of librarians laboring in support of the research and cultural heritage enterprise—but rather by our fully-engaged institutions as altered structures of power.

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how the light gets in

I took a chance on a hackberry bowl at a farmer’s market—blue-stained and turned like a drop of water. It’s a good name for it. He had hacked it down at the bottom of his garden. (They’re filling in the timber where the oaks aren’t coming back.)

But the craftsman had never worked that kind of wood before, kiln-dried at steamy summer’s height. “Will it split?”

It did. Now it’s winter, and I make kintsukuroi, a golden repair. I found the wax conservators use on gilded picture-frames, and had some mailed from London. It softens in the heat of hands.

Go on. Let the dry air crack you open. You can break and be mended again.

hackberry bowl, repaired

reconstitute the world

rare book school poster[What follows is the text of a talk I gave in two different contexts last week, as “Reconstitute the World: Machine-Reading Archives of Mass Extinction.” First, I opened the summer lecture series at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, where I’m privileged to be a faculty member and supporter. Next, I closed the first week of the 2018 Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria and opened a Digital Library Federation (DLF) unconference on social justice and digital libraries, DLFxDHSI. I started my UVic talk by noting that we met on the unceded, traditional territory of the Lkwungen-speaking peoples of that part of the Pacific Northwest, and I therefore acknowledged the Songhees and Esquimalt, and also the WSÁNE? peoples who are among the First Nations with historical and enduring relationships to that land. I note this here, because the talk I gave is relevant, I think, to the need for humility, respect, and reparation and to the celebration of endurance and renewal (or, better, reclamation) that such statements, still uncommon in the United States, suggest.]

This is a talk on digital stewardship and heritage futures at a strange confluence. I’m more used to saying “cultural heritage”—cultural heritage futures—and I will certainly be addressing those today: possibilities for the strongly future-oriented digital stewardship of human expression as we encounter it in transitory, embodied performances, as intangible culture, and of course in ways that leave more lasting, material traces. But I use the broader phrase “heritage futures” deliberately, because this is also a talk that moves me beyond my training and my various cultural comfort zones in two big ways.

First, I’ll step out of the humanities to gesture at projects in preservation, access, and scientific analysis that address our broader, global heritage of biodiversity. That’s a heritage we share with all living things. And where we’ve failed in stewarding living environments, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve only moderately well succeeded in documenting them—which in this case are two radically different things. Our success is particularly mixed—though improving—in documenting them with an eye toward the activist, artistic, or reflective work we may soon wish to do in radically changed ecosystems.

Next, I’m here to speak, frankly, far beyond my own expertise, but I hope with some imagination, about how we might connect these concerns to our present revolution in machine learning and artificial intelligence. I particularly want to think about how to do so in a way that leverages the skills and deep-seated understandings that a background in the humanities, librarianship, or in post-custodial and community archives almost uniquely provides. It’s important for me to say, though, that that there are some lenses or comfort zones that it is difficult for person coming from a settler background to drop and exit, particularly when talking about library and museum collections “acquired” and maintained in colonialist contexts. I’m trying.

I draw the title for this talk from Adrienne Rich—from part of a 1977 poem she called “Natural Resources.”

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

Sounding through today’s talk—alongside a bit of ecological despair that is still echoing, for me, from my last attempt to address these issues in front of a DH audience—you may hear the undertone of a feminist ethic of care, and also of that utterly commonplace and yet counter-acting power of reconstitution or repair that Rich evokes in these lines on the screen.

But my basic argument is simple, and it has to do with stuff. What I want you to take away from this talk is an understanding that the constitution—the very make-up and organization—of our natural history and cultural heritage collections becomes vastly more important when we accept two truths. The first is that we assemble them at the end of things. All “archives” of the Holocene (and therefore not just of print and manuscript culture and their digital sequelae, but indeed our archaeological and more recent paleontological records, and the stories we read in landscapes and ice cores)—all are archives of diminishment: of a shift to plant, animal, and human monocultures. They are archives, in fact, of the 6th great mass extinction of life on our planet. And accompanying that sobering thought is a second necessary understanding. The very make-up (again, the contents, the structure) of our heritage collections likewise becomes a matter of critical concern, when we realize that we no longer steward them for human readers alone. This is the strange confluence of our present moment.  Continue reading “reconstitute the world”