a tribute to Stéfan Sinclair

I’m sharing here remarks I offered today at the 2022 DH Unbound conference. The occasion was a plenary roundtable honoring the work and legacy of my friend and digital humanities collaborator Dr. Stéfan Sinclair (1972-2020). The session was moderated and introduced by Susan Brown (University of Guelph), and—alongside tributes from the audience—the other moving speakers were Michael Sinatra (Université de Montréal), Geoffrey Rockwell (University of Alberta), Diane Jakacki (Bucknell University), and Constance Crompton (University of Ottawa).

Some time late last summer, a software update made Stéfan’s name and email address start popping up in my mail client every time I tried to send a message to one of my closest colleagues here in the Libraries. When I finally got to confessing this to others, as a kind of commentary on aleatory grief in a digital age, I said that I knew I could take him out of my address book and be done with it — but at that point preferred instead to be stabbed in the heart, multiple times per day.

So… I’m still letting this happen. But the name that was a gut punch in September now pops up in the way you might catch sight of a dear, local friend in your neighborhood pub or cafe. Not wholly unexpected that he’s there, even if you didn’t enter the place looking for him — but a nice surprise, a comfortable delight.

I think I’m leaving it because there’s something about algorithmic surprise in that feature that’s a bug, the bug that’s a feature — something in it that Stéfan would have liked.

Stéfan holds up a light-up finger puppet he has made. His smile is brighter!

I first got to know Stéfan Sinclair when we were both grad students starting to run in humanities computing circles, through ACH/ALLC. He was working on HyperPo, the tool that later became Voyant — and Stéfan’s approach to it was so playful and fun, and completely theoretically aligned in its roots in OuLiPo to what I was doing with friends and mentors at UVa, in prototyping games and toys and gizmos for the study of literature. I recognized a kindred spirit.

Like, sure. There was analytical rigor to our mishmash of ‘patacritical tools and approaches (…some of them, anyway) — but there was also just delight — delight in what pops up — and that was so characteristic of all my later work with Stéfan, much of which was in DH community organizing and the administrative kinds of service that not many people take deep pleasure in. With him, it was joyful always, never forgetting even when we were trying to do big, hard things in the ADHO and ACH realms (in bringing people together across disciplines and professions and value systems and languages and time zones) — never forgetting that we were in it to BE surprised, amused, to take pleasure in each other’s company and in what we could enable for those around us — to have fun, to learn, and to set the conditions for the unexpected and delightful and weirdly useful to emerge for other people.

Maybe that’s just what you do when you’re young and you feel like you’re building a field.

But it’s also characteristic of Stéfan’s orientation toward the world. In what I think was the last letter he ever wrote to me, in response to my sharing some kind words and a syllabus from a couple of JMU librarians using Voyant in a class, he said this: “It’s great to see people seemingly having so much fun with their teaching, but then again, we have the immense fortune of being in a profession where we work with the things we love. If we’re not having fun, then we must be doing it wrong.”

I was going not just through emails but also old pictures recently. Not surprisingly, my favorites are of us goofing off while also working. Sneaking to take and then post screenshots of each other on some long-ago Day of DH. Stéfan posing with a light-up finger puppet he was going to take home to his girls from a soft circuits class Bill Turkel and I taught at THATCamp. Pictures he took from an open mike in a conference bar where we were sharing software programming haikus.

But aside from the joy and fun of collaborating with Stéfan — which included our time together on the Exec of ACH and then as a very tight-knit and happy team of president and VP — aside from sharing that sense of OuLiPian delight with you that I always felt in working with him — my other theme today is his generosity and kindness.

Screenshot of Stéfan speaking animatedly

I had never worked with someone outside of reporting-line or teacher-student relationships who was so very explicit in making sure I knew that he BELIEVED in me. Stéfan trusted and supported and was a vocal and frequent, private cheerleader for my emerging leadership of ACH to an extent I had never experienced before in my working life.

I was already a manager, you know — a longtime project manager, director of a center and manager of teams — but I have no doubt that it was Stéfan’s confidence in me and clarity, behind the scenes, that he WANTED me to lead, even though I considered him senior to me, that brought me to the kind of leadership I have since tried to offer in different domains — and which led me to my present work. I will be forever grateful to him for that.

He also recognized and nudged me from time to time about my workaholic tendencies, reminding me of what was really important in life. (And I’m coming now to a close.) When he got sick and I freaked out, Stéfan wrote me a letter about how he was doing that always sticks in my mind:

“I think a lot about being with my girls,” he wrote, “now 10 and 13, they’re like the best book ever that I don’t want to end… Despite everything I feel like I’ve been very fortunate in my misfortune… I savour the bonus time allotted to me. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, I’ve had an incredibly lucky life, from an absurdly happy childhood to a completely fulfilling adulthood including a loving family and rewarding work. And things are moving very fast in medical research, who knows what may be in store.”

That was in 2017, and I’m so glad he did get more time, for the people and the work he loved.

DH is a better field because of Stéfan Sinclair. Many of us are better human beings. Better leaders, co-workers, collaborators, friends, and people capable of surprise and delight.

[I closed with some more private words to Stéfan’s wife and parents, and greatly appreciate the conference organizers’ invitation to join and reflect.]

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.