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. 

I want to suggest to you that any structural solution that would discount embodied, individual experience (the suffering or pleasure we both fix and feel in our archives) is by design inhumane. And to move to the humanities, I’ll make a further uncivil claim. Any scholarly or creative “archival practice” that situates itself in higher ed and yet does not leverage the power of what Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor call “radical empathy in the archives,” — that seeks only to use the academic library to interpret the past but not participate in its perpetual remaking through insight, relationship, reorganization, and contemporary action and care is… I have no other word for it in 2021 besides “complicit.”

So you can see I feel the stakes are high, for libraries in their peri-pandemic moment — both in terms of how we function and behave right now as memory institutions in collaboration with our publics, and what our work will enable or foreclose for others in the future. This is why, as part of my abstract for the talk, I shared a quote by Ed Yong of The Atlantic, which I found particularly crystallizing. I’ll read it to you. Yong writes: “The pandemic will end not with a declaration, but with a long, protracted exhalation… Grief will turn into trauma. And a nation that has begun to return to normal will have to decide whether to remember that normal led to this.”

In other words, decisions made now by scholars, archivists, librarians, and community organizers, acting as individuals and as agents of their institutions and collectives, will shape our cultural memory of the pandemic—both the immediacy that we feel it prompting, of a need for change, and our capacity for fruitful speculative thinking, long after COVID-19 is an echo of a thought.

Let’s start with a story, which manages to be both post- and pre-pandemic at the same time — although my students and I couldn’t have realized it.

In the early summer of 2019, I had a few blessed weeks between jobs — I was moving from the digital library nonprofit world back into the academy — and I spent one of those weeks teaching a new offering for the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School. I had been a long-time instructor for RBS, and every summer course I had taught for them before had been held within the walls of UVA’s Alderman Library. But a disruption was coming. The library was about to be completely renovated and the staff of RBS were grappling with the need to move their collections and themselves into temporary digs. This would be no small task — RBS has amassed an extensive — not to say rollicking — teaching collection on the varied physical forms taken by the written word over the centuries, and on the tangled techno-social histories of print culture and the graphic arts, in line with its mission of preserving and analyzing books and manuscripts and broadsides, both as objects of material culture and for the ways of knowing they represent, at the moment of our near-wholesale, global shift to digital modes of communication. Despite that lofty purpose, theirs is an irreverent collection, completely idiosyncratically organized. At the time, it was largely housed in a warren of shelving buried not far from an underground river, in an icy library sub-basement known to the staff (for its proximity to the storage area for Tibetan and Himalayan materials) as Lower Tibet.  No Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal call numbers regiment the Rare Book School collection; instead, its organizational system is an organic and evolving match to generations of RBS instructors’ quirky teaching needs. My own favorite set of shelves are the ones labeled “Bad Ideas.”

With the daunting task of a move before them, Rare Book School staff had nudged some of us summer instructors out of the nest, inviting us to think expansively not just about what our adult, professional students needed to know, but where they might best learn.  So I found myself lodging in a bohemian airBnb with a cat named Batman, above a belly dancing studio a few blocks from the Free Library of Philadelphia. The venerable and internally-struggling Free Library became home base for the illuminating field trips my dozen students and I took every day for a week, all around the historic city.

The course was called Community Archives and Digital Cultural Memory. My students were mostly college professors, archivists, activists, and librarians-in-training, and together we tackled the conceptualization and curation of cultural memory online, with a particular focus on identity-construction through digital and material archives and (like this talk) on their utility for spinning out possible worlds. We worked especially on issues of power, agency, and liberation in and through the independent “philosophical structures” of community-based archives — that is, collections that typically arise through a particular place-based or cultural or ethnic group’s efforts, outside formal institutions like libraries or museums, to share and preserve that group’s history and to imagine its future. We visited, for example, with Samip Mallick of SAADA, the South Asian American Digital Archive, and spent time in the John J. Wilcox Jr. Archives of the William Way LGBT Community Center. We also devoted time, in part with our hosts at the Free Library, to the challenges that established memory institutions and professionalized libraries and archives face when attempting to work in community. These institutions, as we all know, are overwhelmingly white and have to reckon with their founding principles and templates — with the history of colonialism, eugenics, and white supremacy. Under what conditions, the course I was teaching asked, are authentic and equitable cultural memory partnerships even possible?

One day, mid-week, we paid a visit to the Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the oldest medical society in the United States, which was founded in 1787.  The Library’s attached museum and gallery space may be familiar to some of you. This is the Mütter Museum, a macabre and frankly sensationalized collection of anatomical specimens and historical medical equipment — a collection initially built on those eugenicist legacies and templates I just described — legacies that linger in Philadelphia, as we have just learned about the Penn Museum’s cavalier treatment of the bones of Black children murdered in the MOVE bombing of 1985. The Mütter’s lurid advertising catch-line is the phrase, “Disturbingly informative.” We were there to sit in some discomfort and learn about an upcoming exhibit with a harsh and hard-to-pronounce name: Spit Spreads Death.

To tell you about the planned exhibit, I need to tell another story. This is the story of the Liberty Loan Parade in Philadelphia just over a century ago. It was meant to be a patriotic, Great War fundraising exercise promoting government bonds to aid US and allied troops in Europe — part of a friendly competition among cities to see who could generate the greatest monetary support for the war effort. The parade was scheduled for September 28th, 1918 and expected to draw 10,000 people. But the so-called Spanish Flu had arrived in town with a group of sailors just nine days before. When parade festivities went forward despite the clear warnings of public health officials concerned about the circulation of a novel influenza virus, an estimated 200,000 people turned out in the streets. The 1918 Liberty Loan Parade became a flashpoint for infection, driving Philly to experience the highest pandemic death rate of any American city. Within 72 hours of the parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was full. Over the next six weeks, a quarter of the population fell ill, and more than 12,000 people died. This is a pace of one death in the city every five minutes, for those first 42 days.  

The scene was startlingly familiar from our present vantage point. Citizens stayed home from work and school; they avoided public transportation and went masked in the streets. Health officials fretted about ventilation and shared their best, albeit evolving, medical advice. Public expectoration was banned and fined, because — it was believed — “Spit Spreads Death.”

The official death tally for Philadelphia stretched to 20,000 souls over the following six months. (This is thought almost certainly to be an undercount.)  If you’ve spent time in Philly, you know that it’s a city of statues and memorials — today, it’s home to the wonderful “Monument Lab” project to re-envision a commemorative landscape designed for and by contemporary inhabitants — but not a single memorial stands in Philadelphia to the many thousands of victims of the 1918 flu. And while death data was — with some effort — extricable from coroners’ records for processing and visualization by the Mütter Museum as part of their planned exhibit, it, too was full of the gaps that happen in bureaucratic processes when mass trauma occurs and morgues and undertakers are overwhelmed, when record-keepers themselves are sick and dying, and when memories feel too fresh and raw to want to preserve.

Modernist literary scholar Elizabeth Outka writes of the 1918 pandemic and its odd, seeming absence in 20th-century arts and literature. Only a tiny handful of novels treat the worldwide disaster at all, and while there’s an argument to be made that modernist poetry speaks not just about the Great War but about this great dying — shoring fragments against our ruins, as “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” — in visual culture, two self-portraits of Edvard Munch recovering from the Spanish Flu are among the very few explicit depictions we have.  “I know enough about trauma,” Outka said to an interviewer, “to know that you can’t kill off 100 million people and not have it have an impact on the art or the culture. I started to wonder why, in modernist studies, we don’t study this right alongside the war, as two big mass death events of the early 20th century.” Through her analysis, she came to see the flu as a more “spectral trauma” than warfare, something you might call un-structured — harder to narrativize, something (in her words) “diffuse.” Outka’s timely late-2019 monograph, “Viral Modernism,” is an attempt to determine what literary culture can make of a diffuse disaster.

As for the Library of the College of Physicians and the Mütter Museum — they engaged an artsy British design firm called Blast Theory, with no connections to Philadelphia, to help make absence present. This group used extant records for what they called a “datafication” of the worst 24 hours of the pandemic in Philly — in which 700 people died in a single day. Geo-temporal interfaces were designed for touchscreens. And to provide a media backdrop to a more a conventional library and museum exhibit, the consultants planned, promoted, and later filmed… a parade.

This event — at the time of our visit, still under development — was to include a haunting, Gregorian-style chant of public health advisements and the names of the dead, played over marchers’ cellphones (with some fair warning given about battery drainage). Participants were provided placards with some of victims’ names to hold. There was a website with a “check your home address for who died there” feature… which likely had odd resonances in a gentrified city — and a sadder feel to it than intended, by early 2020. When my students reacted with some shock to what they considered the poor taste of the parade, which was planned to follow the Liberty Loan route, our appalled hosts stressed their intention to foster community involvement. The parade would end with a health fair and a flu shot clinic. My students — several of whom called Philadelphia home — stressed the historical and social context for vaccine hesitancy among the Black community. Their concern was fundamentally about privileged people engaged in grief tourism as a stunt, without regard for present day impact and echoes. I wrote a minor apology letter to our hosts after we left, but I hope the sharp and unexpected critique they offered did the project good. Ultimately the parade was held and the exhibition opened just a few months before Philadelphia was in pandemic lockdown once again.

We have learned lessons from past pandemics. And our rolling contemporary disasters have taught us how and why to launch the rapid collection of archival materials that spill out across our social media landscapes — work that is increasingly done, through the guidance of projects like Documenting the Now, with a concerned and community-centered, ethical lens. I quickly want to acknowledge the many library-based collecting projects — often, at the campus level, undertaken in collaboration with students and faculty — that have sprung into action with the coming of the coronavirus and which will provide materials for future interpretation, whatever form that may take.

An early 2020 press release from the Society of American Archivists drew attention to the wide variety of institutional collection efforts already underway: “Archivists Rally to Document COVID-19,” the headline read: “In the midst of one of the gravest public health and economic crises in modern history, archivists are taking action…” And more recently, the Library of Congress has published an accounting of its own varied activities over the course of the past year. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden cites the impact of the coronavirus as “unlike anything we’ve seen in the past century” and offers an expansive view of the collecting imperative of her institution. “Archivists and librarians,” she says, “are committed to documenting and preserving this difficult time in history through the eyes of artists, photographers, scientists and digital communicators.”

Many in cultural heritage see this moment as a prime time to push for better infrastructure. Among several policy briefings commissioned by the Royal Society of Canada, is one entitled “Remembering is a Form of Honouring: Preserving the COVID-19 Archival Record.” It contains capacity-building recommendations around “three key areas,” all recognizing that “in what feels like an unprecedented moment,” archives offer precedent — and that, for a much wider audience, “history has become an indispensable tool for examining concrete problems” and thinking through “where policy decisions might lead.” The RSC’s three recommendation areas treat “how memory institutions are funded and supported; the gaps in our capacity to preserve digital records that reflect how we communicate with one another today; and how to preserve and make accessible valuable scholarly research on the societal impact of COVID-19.” Most importantly, they point out that, “if we are not careful, the very same social inequities that are now hampering our ability to fight COVID-19 will determine whose lives will be remembered — the memories of the wealthy, the white, the powerful will be privileged over those of the racialized, working people, and those living ordinary lives in extraordinary times.” Citing Canadian archival theorist Terry Cook, the report’s authors remind us that “we keep what we are.”

Recommendations like these might help us move beyond documenting and preserving the now, to providing the raw materials for processing and understanding the pandemic in the longer term. This is crucial, because our libraries and archives will have an ongoing job to do with grief. A recent study led by Ashton Verdery, a professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, introduced the concept of a COVID-19 “bereavement multiplier” — a way of projecting the societal impact of what his research team calls a “mortality shock.” They estimate that, for every person who dies of COVID-19 in the United States, 9 loved ones are left behind to mourn. This calculus only considers the impact of losing a spouse, a sibling, one’s parent, child, or grandparent. If the researchers had chosen to consider “other relatives — like nieces and nephews, aunts, uncles, stepparents” — and if they had factored in the death of friends, Verdery told the New York Times that the number of mourners would have increased tenfold.

As of the time of delivery of this talk, 584,320 deaths had been reported in the United States. Worldwide, COVID-19 had claimed 3,091,511 lives. According to a research team led by Rachel Kidman, a professor of public health at Stony Brook, by February of this year some 43,000 American children had lost at least one parent to the disease, with a disproportionate percentage of that burden of loss falling on Black children. What are the archives and datasets that can represent such monumental generational grief?

We have a job to do with grief, when so many of our people are grieving, too. And our library and archival collections will have a role to play in narrativizing the pandemic. This is crucial because, for better or worse, stories are how we understand. On this subject, I recommend recent piece by Melissa Fay Green in The Atlantic, called “You Won’t Remember the Pandemic the Way You Think You Will.” It offers a popular read on the cognitive science of how memory gets laid down, especially as it relates to meaning-making through narrative: “We don’t shelve a pristine first edition of an experience in a dust-free inner sanctum,” she says. “We sloppily pass the memory around, inviting comment. The consolidated edition, with other people’s fingerprints all over it, is what we put on the shelf of long-term memory, unaware that we’ve done so.” (Talk about your Bad Ideas.)

Greene also treats Kurt Vonnegut’s archetypal narrative patterns (which got some interesting play in the digital humanities community a few years back), and she looks at the preference a group of researchers from Emory University showed we clearly have for one of those narrative graphs: the one called “Man in a Hole.” It’s a redemption story. Things looked really bad, but I got out that scrape. As I read this article — which to some extent encouraged telling happier stories in order to feel better — I thought about the uses of resilience in our institutions and archives: something Scarlet Galvan and collaborators Jacob Berg and Eamon Tewell have written on compellingly.  We all know that history is written by the victors: that the dominant, more “resilient” group will — implicitly or explicitly — do the most to craft collective memory. This guarantees gaps at any time, but may be a particular pandemic danger if the story we most want to tell ourselves is healing — is about climbing out of the hole, and not about who we’ve left behind.

Likewise, we have work ahead in warding against technologies that will use the archival record to exploit our vulnerabilities and deepest wounds. Take research by Amelia Acker and Mitch Chaiet, for example, on a growing “weaponization” of web archives. This issue sits squarely in the zone of misinformation. Bad actors are creating images of text from prior states of websites that have been crawled and preserved for historical purposes by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Vaccine conspiracy info, for instance, which has long since been discredited and taken down, can suddenly recirculate in screenshot form in social media. In this way it becomes almost invulnerable to the mechanisms platforms like Facebook have introduced to flag and warn readers they’re being preyed upon. As a result, misinformation circulates longer and does more damage.

Or consider the work, and I use that word loosely, of an Irish photographer named Matt Loughrey. He has been using easily available, AI-assisted consumer photo-editing software to stitch smiles onto archives of genocide. Atrocious edits of images of Khmer Rouge victims were published a couple of weeks ago with a chirpy and oblivious commentary in Vice Magazine. The National Cambodian Heritage and Killing Fields Museum confirms that “this was done without the consent of family members who lost loved ones in the prison, [or of] other Cambodian community organizations who are involved in this work.” “Minimizing the pain and trauma of our community from those who are not connected to the experience is not only revising and erasing history” they go on, “it’s a violent act… Our community has survivors, children and grandchildren who are the stewards of our Cambodian / Cambodian-American history. Our community is still processing these traumas. Our community is still healing. Our community is still telling their stories. Please listen to them, and most importantly, honor them.”

Of Loughrey’s digital image manipulations and the cavalier and ill-informed dialogue that passed editorial review to be published alongside them, Trinidadian journalist Stacy-Marie Ishmael remarked: “What a clear example of how many of us will actively, knowingly engage in rewriting the reality of suffering and death.”

Consider as well the new set of machine learning algorithms branded as “Deep Nostalgia” — just the latest example of a set of technologies I outlined in a 2018 talk called “Reconstitute the World.” Like the more benign and creative applications of predictive video I described in the context of biodiversity and natural history collections, Deep Nostalgia teleports still images of people from the archives into an uncanny valley — where artificial intelligence techniques have iterated over millions of examples of contemporary videos in order to teach the dead how to move. Among the many TikTok videos circulating lately, of weeping grandpas presented with coquettish animations of their lost loves — and all the immediate hot takes by archivists online — I give you mine, a proleptic terror: please let me never grieve so hard as to want this.

The great scholar Marisa Parham quicky penned what she called a “Twitter essay” on this subject, jumping off from a look at a re-animated Frederick Douglass, and meditating on truth gaps, hauntings, thresholds of perception, racial passing and the uncanny, and the way these archival photographs are animated through databases of the living, now applied to the dead. “How do we choose [Parham asks] to have technologies like “Deep Nostalgia” in our lives?” Especially when, as she writes, “For so many Black people, the proper place of nostalgia is situated in the future.”

Those of us from PWIs must learn all we can from approaches taken by community archives, to ensure that the materials we collect now will not be structured and regimented into systems (online and otherwise) that seem to foreclose the futures of minoritized people rather than open them up — a subject of much of my past work on digital library platforms and exhibit-builders in the digital humanities. Likewise, we cannot create spaces (digital or physical) for grief tourism, or the perverse re-writing of history. And we must ward against archival structures that support only the dominant narrative of resilience and recovery that I fear our leaders, in higher education as elsewhere, will be all too eager to put forth.

For just one example of that narrative, we have only to look to the speed with which colleges around the country are throwing all that we’ve learned about online education and flexible, remote work with the bathwater, in a rush to reaffirm an in-person campus experience that is so core to our business models. What have we newly seen, through the lens of the pandemic, about the digital divide in our student body — a divide that won’t be wholly erased when poor kids all have access to campus computer labs again? What have we learned about the needs of parents and other caregivers among our employees? About the environmental impact of our daily campus operations? About the particular interdependencies of our embeddedness in our college towns? Should we be so quick to go back to normal, when normal led to this?

We have job to do with grief. A role to play in narrativizing. And a task before us in organizing — both our archives and our collectives to honor the past and support better futures. In unpacking the Lower Tibet of Rare Book School’s stacks, that means understanding how and why we teach well enough to structure a collection accordingly. In immediate COVID response (or response to the next pandemic, the next humanitarian disaster), that means understanding how we live well enough to organize information flow in crisis.

Kim Gallon, creator of the COVID Black collective, extends the white feminist notion of an ethic of care to “a Black feminist data analytics [that] begins with care.” To her, care “lacks meaning without the response from the community which appraises its value and rewrites its significance within Black life.” In Gallon’s assessment, “data is relational… it requires human attention, consideration, and protection — care — to transform it into meaningful information.” This is fundamentally archival work. This is data curation and information science. This is the building of humane infrastructure. And this is the task of our peri-pandemic libraries — pushing through.

Gallon finds inspiration in Patricia Hill Collins’ application of the Black cultural practice of call-and-response to the ethics of care, a theory articulated in Black Feminist Thought: “What does it mean,” Gallon asks, “to analyze health data, particularly on race, through data analytics that are grounded in a Black feminist approach to care? This is where call-and-response is key. Like ethics of caring in Black feminism, care for data in Black feminist data analytics not only occurs within a context of communal life, it also requires a response and input from the community.”

Maybe this is how we connect the organizational with the personal; structure with intimacy. Jacque Wernimont writes of the breakdown of COVID vaccine sign-up systems seemingly unaware of the lived reality they need to interpenetrate — a lived reality so evident in our archives and library datasets, if only we only knew how to make it more actionable, if we only worked better across spectra and boundaries of many kinds. As Wernimont puts it, “media infrastructure is and always has been a matter of life and death.”

While I wrote this talk in my library office last weekend, we held our first real football game of the year. It was a delayed season, initially played to empty stands and a few parents of student athletes. Now we had a home game open, by Governor’s order, to a large — if capped — number of eager student spectators. The JMU Marching Royal Dukes, somewhat socially distanced on the sunny Quad outside my window, warmed up for the college fight song with a big, majestic sound. Graduating seniors, whose caps and gowns had recently arrived, took off their masks to smile for pictures by the fountain in front of the library. I watched some of them angle their cameras to catch the Black Lives Matter signs our Special Collections team had posted in upstairs windows. I was so happy to feel the campus coming back to life. I wished my staff could see it — both those whose in-person interactions had devolved into a stressful year of COVID policy-policing and reference questions answered behind plexiglass — and those who have not set foot in the library since March of 2020. I breathed a deep sigh of relief that both they and our students might begin to feel some normality at the end of a rough patch here.

There’s a lot behind those Special Collections windows. There was a lot behind my sigh. “The pandemic [as we’ve been told] will end… with a long, protracted exhalation.” Ed Yong warns us that “grief will turn into trauma. And a nation that has begun to return to normal will have to decide whether to remember that normal led to this.”