change us, too

Catherine Nelson image, Sydney Botanical Gardens

[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.

DH in the Anthropocene

I started thinking out loud in this area by speaking to my most immediate, interdisciplinary community of practice: people laboring across fields in the digital humanities—that is, to scholarly editors, software developers and systems engineers, archaeologists, linguists and paleographers, text-miners, data scientists, and librarians, curators, archivists, and others engaged in DH. I asked them to “take to heart the notion that, alongside our more joyful motivating scholarly and intellectual concerns—or, rather, resting beneath them all, as a kind of substrate—there lies one core, shared problem.” The problem, I wrote in 2014, is that of extinction: “of multiple extinctions; heart-breaking extinctions; boring, quotidian, barely-noticed extinctions—both the absences that echo through centuries, and the disposable erosions of our lossy everyday.” And the questions that unfolded from that shared understanding were as follows—applicable, I think, to our concerns at RBMS this week and still worth asking: “What is a professional practice that grapples constantly with little extinctions and can look clear-eyed on a Big One? Is it socially conscious and activist in tone? Does it reflect the managerial and problem-solving character of our 21st-century institutions? Is it about preservation, conservation, and recovery—or about understanding ephemerality and embracing change? Does our work help us to appreciate, memorialize, and mourn the things we’ve lost? Does it alter, for us and for our audiences, our global frameworks and our sense of scale? Is it about teaching ourselves to live differently?” Or—as a soldier of a desert war had recently written in the New York Times—is our central task the task of learning how to die?—not (as Roy Scranton put it) “how to die as individuals, but as a civilization in the Anthropocene?”

From these questions, I moved through some of the concepts and theories they led to: chiefly ideas from biology and poetry about making space for mourning and about dwelling with extinction, and a survey of vain, irresistible experiments in communication across truly deep time, from modern nuclear semiotics to 19th and early 20th-century architecture designed to ruin picturesquely. And from there, I began thinking more about the organization and presentation of historical collections.

Speculative Collections

I focused in a series of talks and workshops on how the physical and digital interfaces we design for rare and unique materials delimit our own engagements with futurity; how they re-enact, in some cases, the violence against people, creatures, and landscapes of their acquisition; and how they interdict the liberty and autonomy of present-day and near-future users—particularly those from already-marginalized communities, who face the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

I wanted to know if we were designing libraries that “activate imaginations—both their users’ imaginations and those of the expert practitioners who craft and maintain them.” Are we building libraries free from what indigenous information scholars Marisa Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis demonstrate are colonially-imposed classification structures, or from what Rasheedah Phillips, a community activist and Black Quantum Futurist artist, shows are fatalistic and frankly deadly Western conceptions of linear time? Are we open (with scholar Deborah Thomas) to the alternate temporalities of “the Caribbean otherwise”—and with speculative fiction writer Sofia Samatar to an Afropolitanism that asserts “black people belong in all spaces?” Are we open to what Michelle Caswell and Anne Gilliland call “impossible archival imaginaries?” To the usable pasts articulated in Kodwo Eshun’s remarkable works of music and media criticism? Are we open, with designer Tom Schofield and collaborators, to a sense of “archival liveness” in the co-creation of library finding aids with those making active use of unprocessed collections? Are we open to Mitchell Whitelaw’s remarkable ecological and so-called “generous interfaces” for library collections? And are we in any way designing libraries and archives that grapple with what I came, through Dipesh Chakrabarty and others, to see as the fundamental paradox of the Anthropocene—that it is a moment asking us to hold both unpredictability and planetary-scale inevitability simultaneously in mind?

The answer is, on the whole, that we are not. So the question then became, for me: how can we work to admit alternate futures and ways of knowing not-our-own—to cede power, so that communities can use collections—theirs, not ours, in the first place—to build the independently constructed philosophical infrastructure that musician Shabaka Hutchings, through Eshun and John Akomfrah, identifies as the fundamental marker of a people’s agency and liberty. And can we do this in the awareness, as Chakrabarty teaches, that liberty itself (however sorely uneven in its distribution) has been a framework with unanticipated environmental costs? Could changing balances of power in the archival fuel for imagination change that calculus, too?

I further wanted to know, with Eshun, how cultural heritage might be activated in the world to comenot just for simply playback like a vinyl record, nor for emulation, in a digital preservation-and-access sense, but for transformative and even salvific use: archives scratched into instruments, libraries becoming motherships, herbaria becoming ecologies again.

I was struggling toward special collections as speculative ones, collections that (as C.P. Snow wrote of the community of scientists) hold the future in their bones. And I was looking for libraries and archives that might prove fundamentally necessary to our survival in a changing world—even as we fight (newly informed by comprehensive location data prepared by Tansey, Goldman, and Ray and released just this week) to ensure the survival of our charges in floodplains and fire-fields.

And that is how I washed up, lost and late, on the shores of Afrofuturism.

Reconstitute the World

More recently, I have come to two other realizations that feel, for me, fundamental to the future of special collections in the digital age. The first is that we in cultural heritage institutions can now understand our collective holdings, across institutional and national lines, as one vast archive of extinction: a story of diminishment, from variety to monocultures. I’m not just speaking of materials that we’ve interpreted and catalogued as relating to natural history. Together, over the past several centuries and in every box and shelf, the world’s libraries, museums, and archives have amassed a record of cause and consequence and life at the cusp of a new geological era: of the loss of species, habitats, traces of innocent and culpable people, and intricately co-evolved autochthonous understandings of the world. What if we could more adequately network and mine those collections? (What if we could root that work in a more respectful and less extractive metaphor than mining?)

My second realization is that we no longer steward our collections for human readers alone. In the same way that human beings are shaped by what we read, hear, and see, the machine readers that follow us into—and perhaps beyond—the Anthropocene have begun to be molded by independent reading, increasingly in so-called “unsupervised” encounters with our digital libraries. Advances in artificial intelligence have been swift, are unregulated, often more discomfiting than delightful (though delight is there, too), and are predicated—it must be said—on massively unsustainable draws on fossil fuel. (A recent study shows that the carbon costs of training a single AI model are equivalent to the energy expenditures of the usable lifespan of five automobiles, including the costs of those cars’ manufacture. It is something we in cultural heritage must reckon with.) But the machines are here, and they seem limited only by their available training data—in other words, by the collections we choose to digitize and give our algorithmic progeny to read.

This should prompt us to ask some questions of our process of digitization and our decision-making around digital access. Questions like those I asked Rare Book School and DHSI audiences last summer: “what kinds of indigenous and community-developed knowledge do we neglect to represent in our (digitized) libraries? What tacit and embodied (rather than purely informational) understandings? What animal and other nonhuman perspectives? What do we in fact choose, through those failures, to extinguish from history—and what does that mean at this precise cultural, technological, and ecological moment? On the other hand, what sorts of records and recordable things should responsible librarians and scholars shield from digitization—should we be working as hard as possible to protect from machine learning for the good of vulnerable communities and creatures—knowing, as we do, that technologies of collection and analysis are by nature tools of surveillance and structures of extractive power?” And, from what I’ve called “an elegiac archive, a library of endings,” with what poetic power—what power of making, and of making anew in an altered and diminished world—do we want to imbue them?

As the poet Adrienne Rich suggests, the most ordinary (and still extraordinary) power we mortal beings possess is the power to make art from fragments of the past. In a 1977 poem called “Natural Resources,” she writes:

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.

We’ve begun to extend our ordinary powers through machine learning, in highly uncharted ways. In the context of our current digital cultural heritage transformations and environmental emergencies, I wonder whether this kind of poeisis might be called on, one day, to reconstitute the world.

Maintenance and Care

All this brings me to a new collaboration, hearkening back to some earlier work, and to an invitation being issued in the form of a white paper this very day. It’s work happening under the banner of “The Maintainers,” an interdisciplinary scholarly and practitioner community challenging the dominant innovation rhetoric of our time and focusing instead on restorative and respectful cultures of maintenance and repair—what Steve Jackson articulated as “broken world thinking,” something perhaps necessary to us all in the days to come.

A small sub-group of us, mostly from the library and archives world, began meeting last year to talk about the intersection of information maintenance with feminist ethics of care. Two of the four core values we established for our ongoing work speak especially to the themes of this conference and to the ideas I’ve raised today. They are: “Embodiment: We seek to embody our values in information practices and structures. We further acknowledge that all information is embodied information, and that our information practices have an impact on real, vulnerable human bodies and natural and created environments;” and “Inter-generationality: Information maintenance, like other forms of maintenance, calls for long-term thinking beyond our lived cultural context. We value inter-generational knowledge sharing as it is practiced in communities and institutions.”

Today’s white paper, “Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care,” delineates the concept of “care” along similar lines. We think of care as something that is active and enacted, collective and networked, organized, scalable, interdisciplinary, and sustained across time, even or maybe especially in times of great uncertainty: “Acts of care (we write) preserve the knowledge of one generation so that it can be engaged with, interrogated, and built upon by the next. Likewise acts of care help us to extend and prepare that knowledge for present application and for future uses and users yet unclear.” The paper is really just an invitation to others who may want to join the metaphorical potluck dinner we’re throwing, to share their gifts and ideas, maybe find some sustenance in ours, and collectively help figure out what we should cook up next. So if this resonates with you, please join.


The very idea of the Anthropocene as a new stratigraphic era throws much into relief: our deep interconnectedness (as individuals, cultures, and species) with all things; the fragility and necessity of memory; the impulse to capture, fix, define, and know—and our basic lack of agreement across human cultures on the best way to do that. It also highlights the uncanny nature of the knowledge we now have: that we hold great, world-changing, destructive and creative power as a species, and must simultaneously recognize our utter insignificance in the face of truly deep time: an eyelash on the sliver of a nail in the extended geological sweep of planetary history. (A colored band in the rock. Some pigments, one day, to grind.)

I hope this conference will be remembered. I hope it will be remembered as a catalyzing moment for the special collections community. The twinned concepts of this opening plenary—responsibility and response—frame our coming together, for a precious few days of professional stock-taking around the most urgent problem of our time. And better than seeing it a soluble “problem,” perhaps, is to take on board the idea of ecosystem collapse as a wicked one, and as a state of being: the sustained predicament in which we will dwell together, personally and professionally, for the rest of our lives.

We’ll make good use of these few days if we can leave with some clarity of purpose, resolved to change our ways of working and the lenses through which we view our institutions, consortia, associations, and personal and professional responsibilities as cultural heritage workers. I’ve tried to suggest some possible lenses to look through this morning. The program ahead of us offers so many more.

I will be attending sessions with action-oriented questions in mind. They are the ones I now want to work past my emotions to address. First: can we articulate shared values for the RBMS community in the climate crisis? If so, what will they drive us to do? How can we work in ways that are positive, reparative, and with impact that is systems-wide? And how best can we center still-living ecosystems and struggling, future-oriented people in a field that has mostly focused on their material, documentary traces?

We don’t know how all this will turn out. Maybe our task is to lay away the tools survivors will need to curse us or to forgive us, and to celebrate, rebuild, and mourn. Maybe we can use our great human capacity for imagination and the tools past librarians and archivists have protected for us to unfold alternate, brighter timelines to the one that seems to confront us now. But I’ve asked all my questions today in the stark acknowledgment that we’ve already changed the world in which we work and love and try to make our way.

That has to change us, too.