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”

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.

Continue reading “from the grass roots”

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”

we raise our voices

[Crossposted Statement on US Administration Budget Proposal from the “Director’s Desk” at the Digital Library Federation blog.]

Last night, the Trump administration released its new budget blueprint, an advisory document that proposes increases in spending to military programs and national security, coupled with major decreases to—or the complete elimination of—many programs supporting scientific data and research, human health, and environmental safety; social uplift, education, and protection for the poor; international diplomacy, cooperation, and aid; and the arts, culture, history, and museum and library services. The House and Senate will now begin offering their own budget resolutions, and a long process of negotiation—informed by the will of the people, as expressed to our elected representatives—will ultimately result in Appropriations committee legislation setting funding levels for agencies and offices germane to the goals of the Digital Library Federation and its mission to “advance research, learning, social justice, and the public good.”

These include—among many others—agencies and offices whose federal budgets the Trump administration proposes to eliminate entirely: the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which supports NPR and PBS), the National Endowment for the Arts, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the US Institute of Peace, the Appalachian Regional Commission—and of course the IMLS, the Institute of Museum and Library Services. IMLS not only supports academic library and information science R&D programs that contribute to the development of a coherent and utterly necessary national digital platform; it also supports public programming and education in our nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums—themselves vulnerable to future budget cuts. Future reductions may also be proposed to the budgets of the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and other federally-funded keepers of records, culture, and national memory. Continue reading “we raise our voices”