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.

a tribute to Stéfan Sinclair

I’m sharing here remarks I offered today at the 2022 DH Unbound conference. The occasion was a plenary roundtable honoring the work and legacy of my friend and digital humanities collaborator Dr. Stéfan Sinclair (1972-2020). The session was moderated and introduced by Susan Brown (University of Guelph), and—alongside tributes from the audience—the other moving speakers were Michael Sinatra (Université de Montréal), Geoffrey Rockwell (University of Alberta), Diane Jakacki (Bucknell University), and Constance Crompton (University of Ottawa).

Some time late last summer, a software update made Stéfan’s name and email address start popping up in my mail client every time I tried to send a message to one of my closest colleagues here in the Libraries. When I finally got to confessing this to others, as a kind of commentary on aleatory grief in a digital age, I said that I knew I could take him out of my address book and be done with it — but at that point preferred instead to be stabbed in the heart, multiple times per day.

So… I’m still letting this happen. But the name that was a gut punch in September now pops up in the way you might catch sight of a dear, local friend in your neighborhood pub or cafe. Not wholly unexpected that he’s there, even if you didn’t enter the place looking for him — but a nice surprise, a comfortable delight.

I think I’m leaving it because there’s something about algorithmic surprise in that feature that’s a bug, the bug that’s a feature — something in it that Stéfan would have liked.

Stéfan holds up a light-up finger puppet he has made. His smile is brighter!

I first got to know Stéfan Sinclair when we were both grad students starting to run in humanities computing circles, through ACH/ALLC. He was working on HyperPo, the tool that later became Voyant — and Stéfan’s approach to it was so playful and fun, and completely theoretically aligned in its roots in OuLiPo to what I was doing with friends and mentors at UVa, in prototyping games and toys and gizmos for the study of literature. I recognized a kindred spirit.

Like, sure. There was analytical rigor to our mishmash of ‘patacritical tools and approaches (…some of them, anyway) — but there was also just delight — delight in what pops up — and that was so characteristic of all my later work with Stéfan, much of which was in DH community organizing and the administrative kinds of service that not many people take deep pleasure in. With him, it was joyful always, never forgetting even when we were trying to do big, hard things in the ADHO and ACH realms (in bringing people together across disciplines and professions and value systems and languages and time zones) — never forgetting that we were in it to BE surprised, amused, to take pleasure in each other’s company and in what we could enable for those around us — to have fun, to learn, and to set the conditions for the unexpected and delightful and weirdly useful to emerge for other people.

Maybe that’s just what you do when you’re young and you feel like you’re building a field.

But it’s also characteristic of Stéfan’s orientation toward the world. In what I think was the last letter he ever wrote to me, in response to my sharing some kind words and a syllabus from a couple of JMU librarians using Voyant in a class, he said this: “It’s great to see people seemingly having so much fun with their teaching, but then again, we have the immense fortune of being in a profession where we work with the things we love. If we’re not having fun, then we must be doing it wrong.”

I was going not just through emails but also old pictures recently. Not surprisingly, my favorites are of us goofing off while also working. Sneaking to take and then post screenshots of each other on some long-ago Day of DH. Stéfan posing with a light-up finger puppet he was going to take home to his girls from a soft circuits class Bill Turkel and I taught at THATCamp. Pictures he took from an open mike in a conference bar where we were sharing software programming haikus.

But aside from the joy and fun of collaborating with Stéfan — which included our time together on the Exec of ACH and then as a very tight-knit and happy team of president and VP — aside from sharing that sense of OuLiPian delight with you that I always felt in working with him — my other theme today is his generosity and kindness.

Screenshot of Stéfan speaking animatedly

I had never worked with someone outside of reporting-line or teacher-student relationships who was so very explicit in making sure I knew that he BELIEVED in me. Stéfan trusted and supported and was a vocal and frequent, private cheerleader for my emerging leadership of ACH to an extent I had never experienced before in my working life.

I was already a manager, you know — a longtime project manager, director of a center and manager of teams — but I have no doubt that it was Stéfan’s confidence in me and clarity, behind the scenes, that he WANTED me to lead, even though I considered him senior to me, that brought me to the kind of leadership I have since tried to offer in different domains — and which led me to my present work. I will be forever grateful to him for that.

He also recognized and nudged me from time to time about my workaholic tendencies, reminding me of what was really important in life. (And I’m coming now to a close.) When he got sick and I freaked out, Stéfan wrote me a letter about how he was doing that always sticks in my mind:

“I think a lot about being with my girls,” he wrote, “now 10 and 13, they’re like the best book ever that I don’t want to end… Despite everything I feel like I’ve been very fortunate in my misfortune… I savour the bonus time allotted to me. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, I’ve had an incredibly lucky life, from an absurdly happy childhood to a completely fulfilling adulthood including a loving family and rewarding work. And things are moving very fast in medical research, who knows what may be in store.”

That was in 2017, and I’m so glad he did get more time, for the people and the work he loved.

DH is a better field because of Stéfan Sinclair. Many of us are better human beings. Better leaders, co-workers, collaborators, friends, and people capable of surprise and delight.

[I closed with some more private words to Stéfan’s wife and parents, and greatly appreciate the conference organizers’ invitation to join and reflect.]

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”

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 W?SÁNE? 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”

everywhere, every when

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? Continue reading “everywhere, every when”