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. 

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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

“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.

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from the grass roots

[This is a cleaned-up version of the text from which I spoke at the 2019 conference of Research Libraries UK, held at the Wellcome Collection in London last week. I’d like to thank my wonderful hosts for an opportunity to reflect on my time at DLF. As I said to the crowd, I hope the talk offers some useful—or at least productively vexing—ideas.]

At a meeting in which the status of libraries as “neutral spaces” has been asserted and lauded, I feel obligated to confess: I’m not a believer in dispassionate and disinterested neutrality—not for human beings nor for the institutions that we continually reinforce or reinvent, based on our interactions in and through them. My training as a humanities scholar has shown me all the ways that it is in fact impossible for us to step wholly out of our multiple, layered, subjective positions, interpretive frameworks, and embodied existence. It has also taught me the dangers of assuming—no matter how noble our intentions—that socially constructed institutions might likewise escape their historical and contemporary positioning, and somehow operate as neutral actors in neutral space.

Happily, we don’t need neutrality to move constructively from independent points of view to shared understandings and collective action. There are models for this. The ones I will focus on today are broadly “DH-adjacent,” and they depend, sometimes uncomfortably, on the vulnerability, subjectivity, and autonomy of the people who engage with them—foregrounding the ways that individual professional roles intersect with personal lives as they come together around shared missions and goals. And as I discuss them, please note that I’ll be referring to the digital humanities and to digital librarianship somewhat loosely—in their cultural lineaments—speaking to the diffuse and socially constructed way both are practiced on the ground. In particular, I’ll reference a DH that is (for my purposes today) relatively unconcerned with technologies, methods, and objects of study. It’s my hope that shifting our focus—after much fruitful discussion, this week, of concrete research support—to a digital humanities that can also be understood as organizational, positional, and intersubjective might prompt some structural attunement to new ways of working in libraries.

And I do this here, at a consortial gathering of “the most significant research libraries in the UK and Ireland,” because I think that self-consciously expanding our attention in library leadership from the pragmatic provision of data, platforms, skills-teaching, and research support for DH, outward to its larger organizational frame is one way of cracking open serious and opportune contributions by people who would not consider themselves digital humanists at all. This likely includes many of you, your colleagues in university administration across areas and functions, and most members of your libraries’ personnel. Such a change in focus invites all of us to be attentive to the deeper and fundamentally different kinds of engagement and transformation we might foster through DH as a vector and perhaps with only simple re-inflections of the resources we already devote to the field. It could also open our organizations up to illuminating partnerships with communities of practice who frankly don’t give a fig about academic disciplinary labels or whether they are or are not “doing DH.”

I also speak to library leaders because my call is not for work to be done by individual scholars as researchers and teachers alone, nor even by small teams of librarians laboring in support of the research and cultural heritage enterprise—but rather by our fully-engaged institutions as altered structures of power.

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on capacity and care

[This is the blended and edited text of two talks I gave last week. One, titled “On Capacity and Care,” was the keynote presentation at the 2015 Office of Digital Humanities project director’s meeting at the National Endowment for the Humanities. The other was titled “Grand Challenges in/and Graduate Education,” and was presented at the University of Michigan, to inaugurate a series of “Mellon Conversations on the Future of the Humanities Doctorate.” Want the tl;dr version? It’s here, as “Capacity Through Care,” a brief provocation for Debates in DH 2017.]

Let’s see the merest edge of a glacier—stable, renewed through deep time—quickly bow to pressure, calve, and rush with a roar to join a flood that rises six thousand miles away. Let us see (we have seen; we could hardly bear to see) a child face down in the surf of an unforgiving sea, its waters connected with those you bathed in this morning: one among thousands cast off from political and economic systems through which we are likewise linked. Let’s see a human gesture, a characteristic crooked smile, a passing thought typed into a search engine, any one of a dozen unthinking transactions of a morning—the purchase of an apple, a novel for the train. Let’s see all of these things become tiny points of data in a surging ocean of data in which we may feel increasingly alienated and lost, and yet—happily or with un-wished-for accuracy—be found.

We are educating new cohorts of students of the liberal arts, both graduate and undergraduate, perhaps best positioned to discover, interpret, and build upon a growing species of understanding—one that may be deeply uncomfortable, yet has been more deeply, fundamentally, and long desired in the humanities: the knowledge of relationships among the largest and smallest of things. It’s my belief that the sobering environmental and social challenges of the 21st century—our grand challenges, global challenges, even extinction-level challenges—will require a more capacious humanities. By that I mean one that understands its history and possible futures broadly, and that has organized itself to work effectively, simultaneously, and in deep empathy and interconnection with other fields and disciplines, across multiple, varied scales. And this is why I took the invitation to speak to you on graduate education reform—as an opportunity not just to address the sorts of tactical steps one might take at a university like yours, in response to the more immediate issues that often provoke this conversation (issues like the employment placement of grads, their funding streams, future prospects for the professions of literature, history, and so on within the academy), but to address some much larger frames outside it, through which I think we need to look. So, among my major themes tonight will be the complementary notions of capacity and of care: two ideas that rarely appear together—particularly as they seem to work on different ends of the scale, and are so differently gendered—in our discourse about the humanities in the digital age.
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