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.]

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”

foreword (to the past)

Congratulations to Melissa Terras and Paul Gooding on the publication of an important new collection of essays entitled Electronic Legal Deposit: Shaping the Library Collections of the Future! This volume takes a global outlook on challenges and successes in preserving digital information, and stems from their Digital Library Futures AHRC project, which first analyzed the impact of electronic legal deposit legislation on academic libraries and their users in the UK. More from Melissa here, including “An Ark to Save Learning from Deluge? Reconceptualising Legal Deposit after the Digital Turn,” an OA version of the opening chapter she & Paul contributed to the collection.

I was honored to be asked to write a Foreword to the book, which I share here, under Facet Publishing’s Green OA agreement, as my own author’s last copy of a single chapter from an edited collection. I thought I’d post it, particularly, now — as next week not only marks World Digital Preservation Day, but another highly significant Election Day in the United States. We are four years on from the moment I describe below…

On the morning of November 9th, 2016, I looked out over a Milwaukee ballroom crowded with librarians, archivists, and specialists in digital preservation. Some were pensive. Many were weeping. Others seemed stricken.

My audience had gathered for the first joint conference of the Digital Library Federation (DLF, the US-based nonprofit organization I then directed) with its new partner, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA)—a cross-industry group that had recently come under DLF’s wing from its place of genesis at the Library of Congress. We were strangers and friends, largely though not exclusively American, united in a community of practice and the common cause of a dedication to the future of libraries, archives, and their holdings and information services in the digital age. But it suddenly felt as if we didn’t know what information was, and whether—despite all our efforts, expertise, and the shared infrastructure that our memory institutions represented—its future could be made secure.

The unexpected outcome of the US presidential election, announced in the wee hours the night before, had cast a pall over this professional audience that crossed party lines. How could so many confident, data-driven predictions have been so wrong? What shared social understandings—built from the seeming common landscape of ubiquitous digital information that we had met to manage and survey—had never, in fact, been shared or were even commonly legible at all? And what evidentiary traces of this time would remain, in a political scene of post-truth posturing, the devaluation of expert knowledge, and the willingness of our new authorities—soon to become as evident on federal websites as in press conferences and cable news punditry—to revise and resubmit the historical record?

The weeks and months that followed, for DLF and NDSA members, were filled with action. While the End of Term Web Archive project sprang to its regular work of harvesting US federal domains at moments of presidential transition, reports that Trump administration officials had ordered the removal of information on climate change and animal welfare from the websites of the Environmental Protection agency and US Department of Agriculture fostered a fear of the widespread deletion of scientific records, and prompted emergency ‘Data Rescue’ download parties. A new DLF Government Records Transparency and Accountability working group was launched. Its members began watch-dogging preparations for the 2020 US Census and highlighting House and Senate bills meant to curtail scientific and demographic data creation; scrutinizing proposed changes to the records retention schedules of federal agencies and seeking ways to make the arcanum of their digital preservation workflows more accessible to the general public; and—amid new threats of the deportation of immigrants and the continued rise of violent nationalism—asking crucial questions about what electronic information should be made discoverable and accessible, for the protection of vulnerable persons. The Social Sciences Research Council convened a meeting on challenges to the digital preservation of documents of particular value to historians, economists, cultural anthropologists, and other social scientists, and the PEGI Project—focusing on the Preservation of Electronic Government Information—commissioned a wide-ranging report on at-risk, born-digital information meant to be held by US federal depository libraries and other cultural memory institutions for long-term public access and use.

Over time, reflective, pedagogical, and awareness-raising projects like Endangered Data Week emerged, ties among the NDSA and international organizations like the UK-based Digital Preservation Coalition were strengthened, and conversations on college campuses (fueled by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the work of scholars of race, technology, and social media like Safiya Noble and Siva Vaidhyanathan) turned more squarely to data ethics and algorithmic literacy. Frenetic Data Rescue parties gave over to the more measured advocacy and storytelling approach of the Data Refuge movement. And in the UK, an AHRC-funded ‘Digital Library Futures’ project led by Paul Gooding and Melissa Terras (the seed of this edited collection) offered a golden opportunity to reflect—in the light of altered global understandings of the preservation and access challenges surrounding digital information—on the parliamentary Legal Deposit Libraries (Non Print Works) Regulations of 2013, which extended collecting practices dating to the Early Modern Period to new media formats beyond the book.

You hold in your hands (or view on your screens, or listen to through e-readers, or encounter in some other way I can’t yet foresee) an important and timely volume. It is well balanced between reflection-and-outlook and practice-and-method in what our editors call the ‘contested space’ of e-legal deposit—taking on the international and very long-term consequences of our present-day conception, regulation, assembly, positioning, and use of library-held digital collections.

In other words, the essays assembled here cross space and time. The editors take a necessarily global view in bringing together a broad array of national approaches to the legal deposit of materials that already circulate in world-wide networks. And while the authors they’ve invited to contribute certainly take a long view of digital information, they also frequently address, head-on, the ways that electronic legal deposit forces our attention not just on posterity, but on the here-and-now of what media consumption means and how it works in the digital age. Rather than asking us to rest our imaginations on a far-future prospect in which reading is conducted as it ever was in print (was any such act, as Jerome McGann would ask, self-identical?), the authors of these essays, collectively, assert that the kaleidoscopic mediations of e-legal deposit show us we’ve never really known what reading is. 

The best thinkers on libraries question the very assumptions that our memory institutions rest upon, while elevating and honoring both their promise and the centuries of labor and careful (if not always disinterested or benign) intent that have made them what they are. Melissa Terras and Paul Gooding are among the best, and the perspectives they have assembled here—from publishers, eminent librarians and archivists, technologists, organizers, and scholars—make this edited collection an essential contribution to the literature on digital preservation. It is a necessary book that grapples with legal, practical, technical, and conceptual problems: with the distinctive visions and values of libraries; with the necessarily concomitant development of policies and platforms; and even with the very nature of our documentary heritage, at a moment when print-era logics break down.

What I most appreciate is that this book—like the notion of e-legal deposit itself—calls for careful consideration of both present-day services and research possibilities not yet dreamt of. In this, it serves the true mission of legal deposit libraries: to be a stable bridge between a past that is perpetually constructed by our acts of preservation and erasure—and the many futures we may mediate but can barely imagine.

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.

Continue reading “a pledge: self-examination and concrete action in the JMU Libraries”

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.

Continue reading “change us, too”