change us, too

[The following is a brief talk I gave at the opening plenary of RBMS 2019, a meeting of the Rare Books and Manuscripts section of the ACRL/ALA. This year’s theme was “Response and Responsibility: Special Collections and Climate Change,” and my co-panelists were Frances Beinecke of the National Resources Defense Council and Brenda Ekwurzel of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Many thanks to 2019 conference chairs Ben Goldman and Kate Hutchens, session chair Melissa Hubbard, and outgoing RBMS chair Shannon Supple. The talk draws together some of my past writings, all of which are linked to and freely available. Images in my slide deck, as here, were by Catherine Nelson.]

Six years ago, I began writing about cultural heritage and cultural memory in the context of our ongoing climate disaster. Starting to write and talk publicly was a frank attempt to assuage my terror and my grief—my personal grief at past and coming losses in the natural world, and the sense of terror growing inside me, both at the long-term future of the digital and physical collections in my charge, and at the unplanned-for environmental hardships and accelerating social unrest my two young children, then six and nine years old, would one day face.

I latched, as people trained as scholars sometimes do, onto a set of rich and varied theoretical frameworks. These were developed by others grappling with the exact same existential dread: some quite recent, some going back to the 1960s, the 1920s, even the 1870s—demonstrating, for me, not just the continuity of scientific agreement on the facts of climate change and the need for collective action (as my co-panelists have demonstrated), but scholarly and artistic agreement on the generative value of responses from what would become the environmental humanities and from practices I might call green speculative design. The concepts and theories I lighted on, however, served another function. They allowed me simultaneously to elevate and to sublimate many of my hardest-hitting feelings. In other words, I put my fears into a linguistic machine labeled “the Anthropocene”—engineered to extract angst and allow me to crank out historicized, lyrical melancholy on the other end.

Since then I’ve also become concerned that, alongside and through the explicit, theoretical frameworks I found in the literature, I leaned unconsciously—as cis-gender white women and other members of dominant groups almost inevitably do—on implicit frameworks of white supremacy, on my gender privilege, and on the settler ideologies that got us here in the first place, all of which uphold and support the kind of emotional and fundamentally self-centered response I was first disposed to make. I see more clearly now that none of this is about my own relatively vastly privileged children and well-tended collections—except insofar as both of them exist within broader networks and collectives of care, as one achingly beloved and all-too-transitory part.

Please don’t misunderstand me: it remains absolutely vital that we honor our attachments, and acknowledge the complexity and deep reality of our emotional responses to living through the sixth great mass extinction of life on this planet—vital to compassionate teaching and leadership, to responsible stewardship, and to defining value systems that help us become more humane in the face of problems of inhuman scale. Grappling with our emotions as librarians and archivists (and as curators, conservators, collectors, community organizers, scholars, and scientists) will be a major part of the work of this conference. It is also vital to doing work that appreciates its own inner standing point, and uses its positionality to promote understanding and effect change.

But I’ve felt my own orientation changing. For me, all of this is, every day, less and less about my feelings on special collections and climate change—except to the degree that those feelings drive me toward actions that have systemic impact and are consonant with a set of values we may share. So this is a brief talk that will try to walk you (for what it’s worth) along the intellectual path I’ve taken over the past six years—in the space of about sixteen minutes.

Continue reading “change us, too”

how the light gets in

I took a chance on a hackberry bowl at a farmer’s market—blue-stained and turned like a drop of water. It’s a good name for it. He had hacked it down at the bottom of his garden. (They’re filling in the timber where the oaks aren’t coming back.)

But the craftsman had never worked that kind of wood before, kiln-dried at steamy summer’s height. “Will it split?”

It did. Now it’s winter, and I make kintsukuroi, a golden repair. I found the wax conservators use on gilded picture-frames, and had some mailed from London. It softens in the heat of hands.

Go on. Let the dry air crack you open. You can break and be mended again.

hackberry bowl, repaired

reconstitute the world

rare book school poster[What follows is the text of a talk I gave in two different contexts last week, as “Reconstitute the World: Machine-Reading Archives of Mass Extinction.” First, I opened the summer lecture series at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, where I’m privileged to be a faculty member and supporter. Next, I closed the first week of the 2018 Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria and opened a Digital Library Federation (DLF) unconference on social justice and digital libraries, DLFxDHSI. I started my UVic talk by noting that we met on the unceded, traditional territory of the Lkwungen-speaking peoples of that part of the Pacific Northwest, and I therefore acknowledged the Songhees and Esquimalt, and also the WSÁNE? peoples who are among the First Nations with historical and enduring relationships to that land. I note this here, because the talk I gave is relevant, I think, to the need for humility, respect, and reparation and to the celebration of endurance and renewal (or, better, reclamation) that such statements, still uncommon in the United States, suggest.]

This is a talk on digital stewardship and heritage futures at a strange confluence. I’m more used to saying “cultural heritage”—cultural heritage futures—and I will certainly be addressing those today: possibilities for the strongly future-oriented digital stewardship of human expression as we encounter it in transitory, embodied performances, as intangible culture, and of course in ways that leave more lasting, material traces. But I use the broader phrase “heritage futures” deliberately, because this is also a talk that moves me beyond my training and my various cultural comfort zones in two big ways.

First, I’ll step out of the humanities to gesture at projects in preservation, access, and scientific analysis that address our broader, global heritage of biodiversity. That’s a heritage we share with all living things. And where we’ve failed in stewarding living environments, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve only moderately well succeeded in documenting them—which in this case are two radically different things. Our success is particularly mixed—though improving—in documenting them with an eye toward the activist, artistic, or reflective work we may soon wish to do in radically changed ecosystems.

Next, I’m here to speak, frankly, far beyond my own expertise, but I hope with some imagination, about how we might connect these concerns to our present revolution in machine learning and artificial intelligence. I particularly want to think about how to do so in a way that leverages the skills and deep-seated understandings that a background in the humanities, librarianship, or in post-custodial and community archives almost uniquely provides. It’s important for me to say, though, that that there are some lenses or comfort zones that it is difficult for person coming from a settler background to drop and exit, particularly when talking about library and museum collections “acquired” and maintained in colonialist contexts. I’m trying.

I draw the title for this talk from Adrienne Rich—from part of a 1977 poem she called “Natural Resources.”

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.

Sounding through today’s talk—alongside a bit of ecological despair that is still echoing, for me, from my last attempt to address these issues in front of a DH audience—you may hear the undertone of a feminist ethic of care, and also of that utterly commonplace and yet counter-acting power of reconstitution or repair that Rich evokes in these lines on the screen.

But my basic argument is simple, and it has to do with stuff. What I want you to take away from this talk is an understanding that the constitution—the very make-up and organization—of our natural history and cultural heritage collections becomes vastly more important when we accept two truths. The first is that we assemble them at the end of things. All “archives” of the Holocene (and therefore not just of print and manuscript culture and their digital sequelae, but indeed our archaeological and more recent paleontological records, and the stories we read in landscapes and ice cores)—all are archives of diminishment: of a shift to plant, animal, and human monocultures. They are archives, in fact, of the 6th great mass extinction of life on our planet. And accompanying that sobering thought is a second necessary understanding. The very make-up (again, the contents, the structure) of our heritage collections likewise becomes a matter of critical concern, when we realize that we no longer steward them for human readers alone. This is the strange confluence of our present moment.  Continue reading “reconstitute the world”

5 spectra for speculative knowledge design

[Last weekend, I joined the inspiring, interdisciplinary Ecotopian Toolkit gathering hosted by Penn’s Program in Environmental Humanities. (How lucky was I? We even got a sneak peek at the Pig Iron Theatre Company’s stunning symphonic meditation on the Anthropocene, A Period of Animate Existence, which will premiere in Philadelphia later this year.) What follows is a short talk I gave on the last day of the conference. The beginning of it is stuff you may have heard from me before. An augmented, footnoted, slightly more sober version is bound for an edited collection by Martin Eve and Jonathan Gray, on the “past, present, and future of open access.”]

Today, I want to ask how we might realize digital libraries, archives, and museums as more socially just and hopeful (maybe even “Ecotopian”) knowledge infrastructure. Three threads from Afrofuturism are woven through this talk. They take form of a question and a set of twinned assertions. The geopolitical and environmental inflection-points that have been the subject of this conference demand that we answer the question in the affirmative, and that we actively encode the assertions—these two key Afrofuturist assertions I’ll share—into the very weft and the weave of our digital libraries: from the deep structures in which we store, deliver, protect, and preserve cultural and scientific data; to the ontologies and metadata systems through which we produce information and organize, rationalize, and make it interoperable; to those surface platforms and interfaces for discovery, contemplation, analysis, and storytelling that must be forevermore inextricably algorithmic and humane. What do I mean, humane? I mean predicated on decisions, understandings, and ethical, empathetic engagement with communities understood both locally and (as they say) “at scale.”

So first you’ll get the question from me, and then the assertions. And it’ll be in their light that I want to present five spectra along which I think digital cultural heritage and open science platform-designers must more self-consciously work, if we mean to do our part in the project that has brought us together this week—that is, if we want to contribute basic knowledge infrastructure for toolkits to meet present challenges and far-future, global and interpersonal responsibilities.  Continue reading “5 spectra for speculative knowledge design”

speculative collections

[This is the text of a talk I gave last week, as “Speculative Collections and the Emancipatory Library,” to close a symposium honoring Dan Hazen, about the future of academic library collecting. See also #HazenatHarvard tweets as assembled by Merrilee Proffitt, a video of the presentation from Harvard Library, and an excerpt from a prior talk (“Alternate Futures/Usable Pasts“), which introduces the concept and offers some paths in.]

[Edited to add: and please read the wonderful “Liberatory Archives,” by Jarrett M. Drake, which takes up many of the same themes as the talk below, and was apparently delivered on the same day! Maybe it’s time? Hurry up please it’s time.]

Reproducibility. Openness. Transparency. Rationality. Interoperability, and an orientation toward interdisciplinary problem-solving. Mine is a non-exclusive list, to be sure, but you might recognize these as values driving data management in the sciences and social sciences, and underlying the creation of collections, interfaces, and infrastructure in what we call “data-driven” fields. They have their problems of positivism, these values—and it has become the necessary project of many thinkers in the library and information science community to demonstrate how underlying assumptions of neutrality and universality in them—and therefore in our practices of selection and description, our design of search mechanisms, and even in many libraries’ public service policies and stances around them—are in fact decidedly non-neutral expressions of dominant, sometimes oppressive ideologies.

But I’ll risk the ire of friends to say that—taken together—the value-sets of open science represent a quality I find disappointingly, maybe even irresponsibly absent from digital library interface design and collection-building. They represent a forward-looking temporal orientation. And I think we feel the absence of that orientation, particularly, now that we are so decidedly past the era of collecting “on spec”—past, that is, being able to hold an image of libraries un-stuck in time, libraries on the long tail, libraries with a far, far future reach—where we invest in and gather materials that may have no immediate use-value.

While administrative imagination slowly catches up to the logic of the network—and while we work to realize “collective collections” that might mitigate this problem—local pressures move inexorably in, and train our attention on contemporary, not future needs: on meeting needs (as we say) “just in time.” Please don’t misunderstand. I do not propose that we adopt the values of open science wholesale (it will be a cold day in Hell when “reproducibility” takes hold in English departments—and “openness” itself has different valences and dangers across communities and fields). Instead, I suggest that we consider the cumulative effect of underlying value sets like these in terms of their temporal orientation—the degree of forward-lookingness and open-endedness inherent in the concepts we hold dear—and what that means for the systems we build. Continue reading “speculative collections”