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. 

Continue reading “cultural memory and the peri-pandemic library”

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”

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”

inauguration day

"your train of thought has been cancelled"

January 20th has inaugurated the worst and longest case of writer’s block of my life.

I hate to write, under the best of circumstances. It’s painful for me. It’s no fun. It has eaten up whole weekends of my children’s youth that I never saw and will not see again—me, holed up in coffee shops; my family playing games or buying too many comic books or feeding ducks at the park or making spaghetti or doing all the things my partner thought to do with little ones while I was trying to write. It has created bad habits, fetishes. That I can only write well first thing in the morning (still seeking quiet in my college dorm). That grown-up me needs water first—a shower or a swim. That I can only write important things if I’m mad. Lyrical stuff if sad, or scared.

Dissertations postpartum. (But here, writing-brain, the joke’s on you! I’m never doing those two things again!)

That the cost of a keynote is dual weekends at the screen: the first one wasted, the second half-inspired, driven half by fear. That the deadline for articles, chapters, has to loom—has actually to be here.

People think, because I write pretty things, they must be pretty to write.

Donald Trump, you wrecking ball, you craven seething hateful tragic little man. You tool of forces stronger and more evil than yourself, you sign of things to come and things that cannot be allowed to be. You broke my finger-tips, you broke my brain.

open invitations

[These are unedited remarks from the closing plenary of the 2016 DLF Forum, written about 15 minutes before it began, on the morning after Election Day. Video should be available soon.]

I thought I knew on Monday what I needed to say this morning. I was going to give heartfelt thanks to you all for being the community that you are—and for the experience of the past year and a half, for me, as director—and of the past three days for us all, as a tongue-in-cheek little conference village.

Mostly I was just going to be cheerful and chirpy, make a happy announcement about some new advisory board members, and turn things over to our panelists for equally cheerful and brief pitches about their groups and projects. (Panelists, I am so grateful to you for being up here with me.)

This plenary session is called “Open Invitations,” and I think that suits what I’m going to say now, instead, just fine.

What I’m going to say now presumes nothing about your personal politics. I think we saw last night how little we can presume, and how much work is needed on the systems and methods of data collection and analysis that we bear responsibility for and are complicit in as information professionals. How little we understand each other.

And I am especially conscious of how some of you in far less privileged and safe positions than mine must be feeling this morning—far from home, maybe among some friends, surely among many strangers, and perhaps in a lonely minority here, by virtue of the color of your skin or other qualities of the one precious body you’re in, by virtue of the place of your origin or the assumptions people make about that place, or the faiths you hold dear, or the genders of the people you love or want to love one day, or just by virtue of who know yourself to be. Even in what I hope and believe is a DLF village full of allies—clumsy, awkward allies, probably, most of us, but people who honor you and want and need you here—I know you must be feeling very alone.

What I want to say presumes nothing about the politics of anyone in this room, but the newly explicit social justice mission of the DLF is no secret. You may have seen me steer left. And it’s no secret that together, as a collective of individuals, many of us have been working to move this organization along the arc of the moral universe, and to follow where that arc bends—and go where people much more qualified to lead than we are, are leading. Continue reading “open invitations”