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.

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”