from the grass roots

greenery growing up through the keys of a typewriter

[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.

In the brief time I have with you, I’ll walk through some grassroots practices I see as guiding us to new organizational modes: ways of working and building collective strength, knowledge, and—dare I say—institutional and professional compassion that are coming to the academy not from academic DH, but increasingly through it, as a conduit, from various communities of inspiration that function outside of or alongside the research library. The collectives I look to with deepest admiration in this sphere are focused on liberation, resilience, shared history, and restorative justice for marginalized people, and they are organized so that participants can bolster and support each other through frameworks of mutual aid—a philosophy I’ll define later on.

But first, I want to acknowledge that some of the groups and impulses I’ll describe function not just beyond and without the traditional structures of the academy, but actively in spite of us. So even as I look to them for inspiration, I want to speak strongly against doing so in the extractive context that has too frequently governed academic labor, so-called town/gown partnerships, and other interactions where marked power differentials exist.

If we can use our common ground, common needs, and common humanity to foster more authentic and truly equitable partnerships with people doing the work I’ll gesture toward—partnerships based on honesty, reciprocity, acknowledgment of positionality, and an ethic of care—we may yet realize the transformative potential of digital librarianship and DH. And that is to bring fresh understandings, renewed passion, and (crucially, and to my point in this talk) new working structures to our libraries and scholarly disciplines: structures I see as necessary to the health of heritage institutions in a changing world. But that means we must constantly be asking ourselves questions—questions like: what is possible and appropriate for us to give in return, if we mean to learn 21st century problem-solving from people who have, historically, found us to be a problem?  And: how can we repair what’s wounded in our (often settler) colonialist libraries—when we’re the ones who owe reparations?

Until quite recently, I had the honor of directing the Digital Library Federation, a consortium of college, university, and public libraries, museums and galleries, labs and archives, state and federal cultural heritage agencies, and likeminded non-profit organizations. DLF grew rapidly during my four-year tenure to include nearly 200 institutions, largely though not exclusively from North America. They come together through a shared dedication (as our mission statement now has it) to advancing research, learning, social justice, and the public good through the creative design and wise application of digital library technologies.

My first goal as director was to expand the organization’s scope, to ready it for engagement with the kinds of projects and ideas I’ll talk about today. This meant expanding our mission, which had, over DLF’s first two decades, strongly emphasized digital library R&D: technology innovations. In a new phase, I hoped to see DLF focus equally on the hoped-for consequences and shared motives of our work—explicitly prioritizing social justice and the common good. The redrafting of our mission statement therefore urged the DLF community to address not just the creation of diglib tools and platforms but their thoughtful application in the world. (We actually went so far as to challenge ourselves to “wisdom.”)

This change in focus both codified and accelerated an expansion that was already starting within DLF’s membership. (And I’m pausing here to tell a little story about our recent evolution, because I think it helps to get at the ways in which a new generation of librarians, archivists, technologists, and scholars is applying community organizing methods adopted from other aspects of their lived experience, to the professional environment of the DH-inflected library—and also to show how one organization adapted itself to suit their preferred working patterns, their goals, and their strong collectivist assumptions.)

Within a very short amount of time, the Digital Library Federation went from a small organization dominated by major research libraries to a large one with a much more diverse membership. The seeds for transformation were already in place when I joined DLF, thanks to a partnership with the Oberlin Group fostered in thoughtful work by Louisa Kwasigroch and my predecessor, Rachel Frick—through which liberal arts colleges began to join DLF. The closeness among librarians, faculty, and students at smaller institutions (particularly, I noticed, among those engaging in approaches to digital scholarship informed by critical race theory) rapidly changed the conversations that were even possible to have at our annual conference—which, like our membership, shortly doubled in size.

DLF soon invested heavily in fellowship programs, ably supported by Oliver Bendorf and then Becca Quon, to bring new voices to our shared work. I was honored to invite amazing women of color as keynote speakers—Safiya Noble, Stacie Williams, Rasheedah Phillips, and Anasuya Sengupta—to bring their crucial perspectives to our annual conference (an event now beautifully managed by Aliya Reich). We likewise expanded our advisory board and worked to attract a more diverse set of perspectives to it. Thanks to a collaboration with the Kress Foundation, many more museums and arts institutions joined the DLF. We became the low-red-tape organizational home for self-governing, external groups like the National Digital Stewardship Alliance and Code4Lib; and most importantly, DLF began a partnership—grounded self-consciously in principles of equity and authenticity—with the HBCU Library Alliance. The Alliance is a vital organization representing the libraries of historically black colleges and universities in the United States, largely established between the US Civil War and the Civil Rights era as a bulwark of learning, mutual uplift, and African American intellectual power and community.

The growth and change and influx of ideas I describe at DLF also happened in the context of a major outward shift in American politics. Our 2016 DLF Forum, our largest and most diverse conference to date and the first to be shaped by a newly-commissioned committee on inclusivity, was held during the week of the US Presidential election. I had the daunting task—and, in retrospect, the privilege—of addressing a considerably shell-shocked crowd at our closing plenary the morning those surprise election results were announced. (And thanks to Monday’s keynoter, Charles Kriel, among others, we now understand better why so many—though not all of us—were surprised.)

My primary urging to the DLF “village” in that moment was simply that they use us, and use the strong and caring connections with each other they were so plainly creating through us: that they use the Digital Library Federation as a platform for organizing, for imagining and co-creating the world they wanted to live in, and—straightforwardly—for resisting any forces that worked against their shared, developing vision. One result of the DLF-as-platform offer was our Organizers’ Toolkit. This was in fact something we were edging toward already, as an overarching way of working for the Digital Library Federation, simply based on the reality of how incredibly lightly staffed we were, in comparison with the tremendous grassroots energy we were attempting to channel and support.

The Organizers’ Toolkit outlined some basic principles of group formation and gave light and nonrestrictive guidance for working together through DLF. It was basically a guide to starting new cross-institutional projects and thematic collaborations or discussions with the least amount of bureaucratic friction and the maximum amount of community ownership and control possible. Some of its sections were quite pedestrian—like the administrivia of available communications and publication platforms—but we also included resources for building momentum, fostering leadership, and undertaking consensus-building in newly-formed and geographically distributed communities. Throughout, we placed a strong emphasis on care for the self and for each other. We not only acknowledged but foregrounded the volunteer nature of the activities that participants were undertaking, above and beyond their day jobs—and sometimes outside their cultural comfort zones—with sections on “facilitating for diversity and inclusion” and “preventing and managing burnout.”

Our offer of DLF as platform seemed to catch fire in that particular social and political moment, provoking the creation of new working and interest groupsand a deepening of work already being done by existing teams. For instance, some members of our digital library assessment interest group (the DLF-AIG) worked to devise more humanistic measures of the use and re-use of digital objects, and others turned to thoughtful ways of undertaking what they called “cultural assessment”—diversity measures for the content of digital collections and measures of inclusion for personnel. The Organizers’ Toolkit also sparked the creation of new groups: among others, one emerged to consider transparency and accountability problems in government records, another focused on protecting library users from “Technologies of Surveillance,” and a third worked to better articulate and address pressing labor issues in libraries, museums, and archives.

Soon people were not just doing community-building and learning through these groups, but also undertaking active, inter-institutional projects: establishing digital library workflows based on shared ethics and principles, convening focus groups and writing whitepapers; undertaking data-gathering efforts and building tools and widgets; publishing “explainer” documents and fully articulated research agendas; and hosting national meetings—all self-motivated and with only light facilitation by the brilliant Katherine Kim. Just as one example,principled and dedicated members of our Labor group recently received IMLS funding for a National Forum called “Collective Responsibility,” on how funding agencies, library and museum administrators, and workers all need to band together to address the rise of contingent and precarious labor, or short-term, soft money jobs in our fields. (As a side note, I’ll mention that some of the workers fighting hardest against the adjunctification of GLAM labor are also those who put themselves most on the line in protecting intellectual freedom for librarians. In both cases, these are causes that connect the micro to the macro: lived experience and personal working conditions to broad, systemic issues in the academy.)

Some of the strongest work I noted after we made our open invitation happened when members of DLF groups collaborated with or drew direct inspiration—in terms of structures and practices—from their own distributed networks. This allowed them to activate in turn the networks of those networks. We watched the resulting Networkpalooza with admiration and not a little bit of awe. And in truth, the Zeitgeist had DLF and digital humanities community members working in very similar rapid-response modes everywhere. Just a few among many possible examples were the Data Refuge project, which began at the University of Pennsylvania’s Environmental Humanities Lab and undertook “guerilla archiving,” largely of climate change records thought to be newly or especially imperiled under the current administration. (They have since shifted focus to data storytelling.) There was the similar educational and awareness-raising work of Endangered Data Week, a grassroots effort that soon connected with our Records Transparency group and was bolstered by the Open Leaders program at the Mozilla Foundation—itself a program full of stellar examples of grassroots action. And, more recently, the DLF community has been inspired by Torn Apart/Separados, a powerful project based at Columbia University’s experimental methods lab, applying investigative data journalism techniques to the current administration’s policy of separating asylum-seeking children from their parents at our southern border. Separados itself was built on lessons learned by DH scholars who scrambled to apply their technical skills to disaster relief, in self-organized community mapping projects after hurricanes and earthquakes—now documented in the organizational how-to of “Nimble Tents.”

Groups like these, and most of our DLF teams, seem to gravitate less toward ways of working that they’ve been disciplined to practice in school and in the academic workplace, and more to methods learned in non-academic contexts and in their private lives—from participation in industry and government watchdog groups to direct action, protests, hackathons, volunteer community service projects, and labor organizing. Their collaborations didn’t feel much like sober committee and task force work, the well-trodden paths of professional associations and technical standards bodies that were the digital library community’s prior, basic points of reference. One of the highest compliments the DLF received in that brief era of group formation came from Dr. Buhle Mbambo-Thata, distinguished former university librarian of the universities of Zimbabwe and of South Africa, now with AfLIA, the African Library and Information Association. In explaining to fellow advisory committee members what drew her to join our parent organization’s board, she shared that DLF reminded her of the activist librarians of her youth.

And the taking of stances—at least active ones, if activism itself is thought to go too far—seems to resonate with a growing understanding in American libraries.The understanding is that to claim neutrality—even with the best of intentions—is far too often to side tacitly with whatever systems and forces are historically dominant, that is, to side with the oppressor. (This is a topic that has been thoughtfully considered and contested at RLUK this week.) From where I sit, I see an increasingly widespread recognition that any DH or digital library practice divorced from deeply motivated work—from protecting the vulnerable while creating brave spaces, and from collectively defining an ethics of care that works against cold neutrality—has lost the horizon. It’s become a cluster of methods without purchase on the most crucial structures and challenges of our day.

My own learning on such matters has been greatly supported by contact with generous souls working in two (extremely heterogenous) groups: community archives and HBCUs, and with the ways they are using digital humanities platforms and critical theory and principles of action to advance their work. HBCUs, again, are historically black colleges and universities in the United States, and community archives, if you’re not familiar with the term, are run by people who independently—often on a shoestring budget, at great personal sacrifice, and with deep cultural and content expertise but sometimes limited digital and archival training—undertake the work of archiving and exhibiting materials of value to communities that have been neglected or misinterpreted by established collecting institutions and dominant groups. There has been an explosion of this work in North America in recent decades, and it is increasingly coming to the attention of academic libraries hungry to make up for lost time and demonstrate relevance to their cities and towns. Among the many community archives I admire, let me mention just a few: SAADA, Interference Archive, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the Southern California Library, a People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, Densho, the Shorefront Legacy Center, and the Community Futures Lab. (And here is a syllabus for a Rare Book School course I’m teaching this summer on community archives and digital cultural memory, if you are interested in exploring the scene further.)

As my time is limited, I’ll speak to just two common ways of being that seem to emerge—either in action or as an aspiration—in successful community archives, library labor advocacy groups, grassroots DH and digital library collectives, and HBCU-PWI (“predominantly white institution”) partnerships, and which I think need to be accounted for in any organizational transformation that would poise a library to work more fruitfully with grassroots energy. These two factors are authenticity and mutual aid.

Authenticity has been the chief theme of a growing collaboration between the HBCU Library Alliance and the DLF. Through a joint conference and now IMLS support for a 3-year, co-hosted fellowship program for HBCU librarians, we have emphasized getting real with each other, interpersonally, inter-institutionally, and as two library associations working together. Executive director Sandra Phoenix and I came to see the kind of honest and authentic engagement that individual participants in our programs were calling for from each other, as they worked to overcome structures that kept them apart, as the basis from which all the organizational work we might do together could extend. In other words, we felt that starting from authenticity rather than from assumed or even aspirational neutrality would ultimately get us to a better, more meaningful place. “Authenticity” is a term we’ve left deliberately under-theorized, so that it can continue to evolve for DLF and the Alliance in the organic way that it emerged in our partnership. Voicing it mostly serves as a shared reminder.  

Similarly, mutual aid is a philosophy of sharing and co-creation, designed for getting much farther from the grassroots than may be possible through top-down resourcing frameworks. It’s based on collaborative principles for social and material support, in which people try to help each other while resisting (as the Big Door Brigade puts it) “the control dynamics, hierarchies and system-affirming, oppressive arrangements of charity and social services.” In a nutshell, top-down approaches to social problem-solving through philanthropy have been increasingly codified, “privatized, and contracted out to what critics call the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,”—which means that decision-making and autonomy is kept pretty far from the people who are meant to benefit from programs. (And on this subject, I commend to you a book recently re-published by Duke University Press: The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Its essays describe—in devastating terms to many of us who have devoted ourselves to the model—the many ways in which the nonprofit industrial complex has functioned to manage dissent. It’s a deeply illuminating and uncomfortable read.)

By way of example, my former colleague Nikki Ferriaolo describes a recent meeting of community archivists I was also privileged to attend, at which funders were shocked to hear how often the large museums and libraries who approach struggling, independent archives to “collaborate” on prestigious digitization projects never even allow their partners to view their own grant budgets:

“What I don’t understand is where did all the money go? We were partners on a grant of more than a million dollars and we saw none of it.” Many of the community-based archivists present nodded in understanding. I turned to the group and asked, “How many of you have actually seen a budget for a grant you partnered on?” I didn’t register a single affirmative response. 

Transparency, shared governance, solidarity, consensus, and dignity are the basic tenets of the alternative, community-based ways of working put forth in frameworks of mutual aid. And here I’m particularly excited about efforts coming out of the American office of the UK design firm Shift.—hosts of the aforementioned meeting, “Architecting Sustainable Futures”—and specifically by work being done by their new director of equity initiatives, Bergis Jules, to draw community archives together to explore a potential mutual aid framework he’s calling the Cultural Heritage Collective. Bergis describes the background to this in the report from a transformative meeting held in New Orleans last year. I’ve felt honored to be included in some Cultural Heritage Collective conversations, to help think through ways we might connect academic library staff with community archives leaders and volunteers in wholly equitable frameworks for respectful and reciprocal learning—including about the vital ways that DH and the work of digital cultural memory is practiced in non-academic communities.

Before I make some concluding remarks, I want to offer a few more little signposts from the grass roots that we might look to:

The first is the InfoMaintainers. This is a quiet expansion of the “Maintainers” research collective—a group that works against the overwhelming privileging of tech innovation, to bring attention to infrastructure, repair, and the forms of labor and expertise in maintenance that sustain so many human systems. I’ve been part of a little group of librarians, archivists, and data scientists digging into feminist ethics of care as a structuring mechanism for understanding how and why we work in information maintenance, and its vital role in the here-and-now. Look for a framing paper later this spring, which will invite a wider community to join us, as well as a dedicated track at the third annual Maintainers conference this October, in Washington, DC.

I think library leaders should take note of the uncanny super-power exhibited by archivists, who are at the forefront of so many of these issues, to ask really concrete, practical questions with huge theoretical and organizational implications—like this one, by Jessica Farrell. She’s musing on “what collective action/distributed appraisal workflows [for special collections] might look like. So… power is distributed” and decision-making about what is worthy of acquisition and preservation can rest less in the hands of any one appraiser. (I cite it because it shows just one little way that acknowledging positionality and thinking collectively can provoke us to re-examine organizational practice.)

And we should seek insights gained through the moves and personal investments being made by individual scholars in these latter days of the alt-ac diaspora—like Umi Hsu, a PhD-trained digital ethnomusicologist who stepped away from the academy to become a public servant in the City of Los Angeles’ municipal arts agency. They write, “I made a decision to take 5 years to explore professional practices outside of academia. This journey of going from academic ethnomusicology to public sector research and design strategy has taught me to be a humbler listener, to be listening compassionately and reflexively to bodies of people in various positions of power.”

Just as one last example, I’d like to point to observations from researchers like Sarah Taber—people doing the work of digital culture and digital systems/labor analysis outside the academy and sharing it in social media. Taber is in fact an agricultural scientist. Here, she’s looking at technology and its pragmatic applications (specifically, the takeover of American agriculture and food-safety systems by Silicon Valley software companies) from a highly positional, working-class perspective. She observes that “a lot of the knowledge that it takes to run a company safely is working-class knowledge. And ‘tech does real things’ companies [like those promoting new food-delivery networks and apps] tend to operate on a really strong class system,” such that working-class folks are unlikely to rise through the ranks to positions of power. (I recommend reading the whole thread.)

So, what’s the upshot of all this messy, grassroots activity and public intellectual chatter? Well, it’s made me feel hopeful. Despite the daunting challenges that lie before us, and perhaps because of the hopeless ones, it feels as if librarians and DH scholars and students are entering a new era of power-building—a scene of collective, creative flourishing and deep civic and interpersonal engagement. Is it possible that the models for mutual aid and frameworks for community organizing they’re fashioning together can challenge established relationships, economies, and organizational understandings in the research library?

Much will depend on the willingness of library leadership to listen and respond. We should take seriously the inclination our students, faculty, staff, and community members show to gravitate toward engaged approaches, and we should resource them appropriately. We should do this despite their riskiness, the fact that they’re rough around the edges, and the ways in which they break our existing disciplinary and service molds—and even (or maybe especially) when their political pointedness scares us. We should do this because we want to create organizations that work—from the individual and interpersonal to the systemic and strategic level—with new attention to those for whom they have not worked before. And we should do this, lest our institutions succumb to the illusion that they can be simultaneously effective and apolitical, shining from no-where and everywhere like some kind of ambient light—without simply illuminating more paths out of dark corners for the forces of white supremacy, or failing to highlight what’s already everywhere and yet will be suffered differentially, like ecocide.

I therefore urge you to take these examples of new collectives and governing principles for grassroots work as an opportunity for honest reflection—reflection on the suitability of our current library and association structures to the grand challenges and wicked problems of our day. Let’s reflect most of all, perhaps, on whose voices may be heard least in decision-making and whose material conditions may be most affected by the way in which our libraries presently do their business. Reflect on what constitutes authenticity and equity, both with and within your own staff and among the communities they represent and serve. Reflect on what’s possible now in communication and investigation that our digital tools and methods did not support even a decade ago, and how libraries can work to protect those who want to use DH platforms to make meaningful change. Reflect on what your own identity and experience well equips you to understand, and what it obscures from you. Reflect on what you as a library leader might be willing to lose.