remarks (DH@30, UVa)

[Last week, it was my privilege to participate in an event celebrating the anniversary of centers and institutes that have — for 30 years — supported digital humanities research, scholarship, teaching, and organizing at my alma mater and first professional employer, the University of Virginia — which is to say, the people and organizations that educated me, sustained and supported my growth, and gave me so many unexpected opportunities and gifts.

A joyous reunion weekend on the Lawn was quickly followed by campus tragedy. My heart goes out to the families and friends of the victims, to students, faculty, and staff at UVa, and to all those impacted by the scourge of gun violence in a country that seems to know no other way.]

I sat down to write this at a loss: how could I put three whole decades of gratitude and indebtedness into a 5-minute opening statement? — and I decided I’d do best in pay-it-forward mode — by spending some of my time on hopes for the future.

But one thing I’m grateful for, as I reflect on the past — sitting among so many friends and mentors, fellow-travelers, students of my own — is the privilege to have witnessed the full sweep of the 30 years of DH at UVa that we’re celebrating today.

I’m not sure how many of you know that I was a 19-year-old undergrad at the founding of IATH and EText — and a work-study student in Special Collections, when we created Virginia’s first online finding aids. I also had the amazing good fortune — a scholarship kid from the sticks, a double major in English and Archaeology — to study with two of IATH’s first faculty fellows: Jerry McGann and John Dobbins. What I was privileged to observe (from these two very different sorts of excavators) was their extreme, glowing intellectual excitement at the methods and techniques they were discovering, at what the prompts and provocations of digital representation and analysis might afford.

The excitement was catching. It brought me back for grad school five years later — to help Jerry design an interface to the Rossetti Archive and build subsequent projects like NINES, to work with John Unsworth on that age-old question, “Is Humanities Computing an Academic Discipline?”, to sit around with Steve Ramsay and ponder what it would mean to be “radical bibliographers” (and could he also please teach me Perl) — and mostly just to try not to miss it — to try not to miss the one magical moment of the birth of the web, of the start of DH, of the sense that everything, everything was about to change.

For me, the focus of that excitement changed as I moved, over the years, into very different kinds of organizing and design — as I became less interested in technological innovation than in concepts of maintenance and mutual aid, and as I encountered communities outside the serpentine walls (and learned of those I had missed within them) that helped me imagine more liberatory, even Afrofuturist, digital library infrastructures. But it never went away.

Later panels will elevate the experiences of students at UVa, grad students especially. This panel honors the organizational structures and institutional investments that enabled so much interdisciplinary and — as Steve Railton reminded us last night — inter-professional exchange, foment, and spread.

But to think about organizations is to think generationally.

I hope today’s celebration encourages us to reflect not just on the power and longevity of centers and institutes, but on what or whom we choose to center when we build them, and what kinds of cultures and ideals we will deliberately institute for the future, as we craft our next iterations — either here or elsewhere.

So, what did I try to institute, when in 2007 (as a young mother of two just coming off a postdoc, and thanks to Mike Furlough, Karin Wittenborg, and so many others) I had the opportunity to direct a brand-spanking-new Scholars’ Lab? For me, it was not only a chance to help the Library imagine a next phase of work, a new life for the several centers and teams that folded into it — it was my chance to revitalize a fading local grad student culture that had given me so much. It was a chance to try to spark up again, in the moment of a little lull, the best parts of what I had felt working in DH collectives that were so different from the solitary striving encouraged of most emerging scholars.

That was our reason for founding the Praxis Program in the Scholars’ Lab — for turning what was meant to be the director’s office into an exceptionally grubby, laughter-filled, interdisciplinary grad lounge —for thinking, as the field struggled to become more diverse, about what’s tacit and embodied in DH learning and how often we continued “Speaking in Code” — and for taking a mentoring and training approach to a laboratory culture that I know endures here: of staff creating projects with folks, not for them — and building up new practitioners even more than building out digital products.

I think, honestly, that’s the story and legacy of all the centers represented on this panel. Or at least that’s where their power lies: in the people who have come up through them — in what they’ve gained or learned from the structures around them — the gaps they’ve identified, and chosen to fill — and in what they’ll do next.

cultural memory and the peri-pandemic library

[Late last month, I was honored to deliver the annual James E. McLeod Memorial Lecture on Higher Education at Washington University in St. Louis. I wasn’t planning to post this one as it feels decidedly half-baked to me. But now — two weeks later — the swift lifting of coronavirus restrictions in the United States (amid so much “back to normal” rhetoric on our campuses and in state and national politics) makes me think there might be some value in sharing. This is the beginning of a project I hope to get back to.]

This is a talk about the role of libraries, museums, and archives as cultural memory institutions now, at our present juncture, which I am calling peri-pandemic: that is, midstream and pushing through. But it’s also a talk about how institutions like academic and public libraries are made up of individual people — people who are themselves in a peri-pandemic moment, laying down memories, processing trauma, revivifying the past, and projecting possible futures for themselves and the people and planet they love. The personal and the organizational are always intimately connected for knowledge workers, and I will spend some time exploring that connection today.

I bring this concept to the McLeod Lecture, especially, because I see a particular need for new, more conscious and explicit attention to this arising not just in libraries but throughout higher ed. Attention to the connection, that is, of the deeply personal with the organizational and technical. Of intimacy with structure — and how we accomplish such a dangerous and potentially generative and healing linkage, when we know full well that our institutions and systems have often chewed up and spat out the individual — and that they’ve been devised to center and memorialize only certain kinds of bodies and feelings. The humane connection of intimacy with structure is the connection of the lived pasts and present experiences of everyone with the social and environmental futures that will happen to no-one by accident: the futures that are the responsibility of our institutions of cultural memory and higher education to design. True confessions: these are all just some tentative thoughts from me at the outset of what I sense is a larger project. I want to dig into the role of the peri-pandemic library and its inhabitants in bridging affect and societal impact through the work of cultural memory. 

This is because — as we look increasingly clear-eyed on the massive structural and systemic challenges that will face us in the decades to come — it becomes evident that an impulse, in higher ed and cultural heritage leadership, to stay on one side or another of that personal-to-organizational equation diminishes both. Challenges of linking compassion with equity and systemic reform have been brought into new focus by our people’s simultaneous experiences of loneliness and over-exposure throughout the pandemic — whether that is a fearsome viral exposure for our on-site library skeleton crews or the kind of “exposure” that leaves remote workers feeling fatigued and sick of seeing their own faces and private homes displayed after a long day on Zoom.

We must characterize the experience of the pandemic accurately in order to appreciate its impact — including the impact of grief — on our knowledge systems. Library staff (like students and scholars) are persisting in their work through a global, mass death event. As time goes by and we look with more optimism to the future, I sense those of us in higher ed administration acknowledging this present reality less often. I fear that’s a kind of well-intentioned gaslighting that will result in alienating, not inspiring, our campus communities. And in this country, of course, the coronavirus event is happening in conjunction with our ongoing racial justice crisis in what’s been called a “twin pandemic” — which even those of us not experiencing personally and directly every moment of every day can feel happening on our campuses and in our towns, and see daily on our screens in the form of attacks on Asian Americans in the streets, continuing horrors at our southern border, and extrajudicial death sentences passed by police on Black children and adults. In Dionne Brand’s words: “I know, as many do, that I’ve been living a pandemic all my life; it is structural rather than viral; it is the global state of emergency of antiblackness. What the COVID-19 pandemic has done is expose even further the endoskeleton of the world.”

These are the challenges that have our students across disciplines calling out for a broad-scale re-memorialization of the past — for a fuller past told by new voices, for statues to be pulled down and buildings re-named. It has them calling for reparations for harms already done, and for the implementation of better social systems — the creation of a structural otherwise, centered not just on policy, but around deeply personal human flourishing and joy. 

Continue reading “cultural memory and the peri-pandemic library”

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.

Continue reading “from the grass roots”

supporting practice in community

[Here’s a cleaned-up version of brief remarks I made in a panel discussion on “Cultivating Digital Library Professionals,” at Tuesday’s IMLS Focus meeting in Washington, DC. The day-long conversation was meant to help shape a priority project at the Institute of Museum and Library Services: funding support in the United States for what is being called the “national digital platform.” (As in: we need one.) See the full agenda and archived webcasts, and learn about future #IMLSfocus events here. My message to the assembled group was pretty simple, and we’ve cross-posted it on the DLF site.]

We should put as much energy into connecting and building up people—into developing and supporting motivated, skilled, diverse, and intersecting communities of expert practitioners—as we do into connecting the services, systems, and corpora that are the other pillars of a national digital platform. The first thing needed in many institutions is not another technology component to support, but a functioning social conduit to a broader, supportive culture that values digital library workers and the various communities they inhabit and are inspired by.

I see the continuous renewal and expansion of expert practitioner communities as our most fundamental sustainability issue: the one on which all the others depend.

And I am consciously using the word “community” here, rather than calling this our digital library “workforce” or similar, although there’s some danger that such a happy-sounding word could make us elide difficult, (often gendered) labor issues in this discussion. Continue reading “supporting practice in community”

charter-ing a path

[Cross-posted from the Re:Thinking blog at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, where I’m honored to serve as Distinguished Presidential Fellow. Check out all the great content at CLIR!]

In recent years, we’ve guided four separate cohorts of the graduate fellows who participate in the Scholars’ Lab’s Praxis Program through an unusual exercise. Praxis is a team-based fellowship, in which six students, from a variety of humanities and social science disciplines and in varied phases of their graduate careers, spend two full semesters working together to design, create, and launch a digital project—either “from scratch” or by building on and refining the work of the previous year’s group. They do this with the benefit of careful mentorship, smart technical instruction, and lots of free caffeine and therapy from University of Virginia Library faculty and staff.

Our fellows’ first challenge, though, is not the daunting one of formulating a scholarly question that lends itself to exploration through building. Nor is it the challenge of learning a new digital production method (or four, or five), nor even of designing a system that can make a meaningful technical or intellectual contribution to humanities teaching and research (like the 2011-13 cohorts’ Prism project, or the past two groups’ revival of the Ivanhoe Game). Instead, our fellows nervously draft a project charter. Continue reading “charter-ing a path”