Round-Up: Archival Futures, Neutrality and Speculative Knowledge Design

The texts of three provocative presentations relating to archival futures, current events, and digital libraries were shared online this week. While each of these texts in themselves merit individual attention, we thought that pulling them together might surface meaningful interconnections:

The Hubris of Neutrality in Archives,” by Samantha Winn (Virginia Tech). Delivered at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference in Newark, NJ on April 21, 2017, Winn posted her slides and the text of her talk via “On Archivy,” a collection of archival writings shared on Medium. Winn’s talk focuses on the concept of “honesty” within archival description, the legacy within collections of the fallacy of archival neutrality, and challenging assumed professional norms:

…archivists who go out of their way to name the unnamed are seen as activists. Those who defy Western linguistic norms and information protocols are seen as radical, even partisan. But no matter how comfortable it feels to uphold the status quo (palatable, euphemistic, even vague descriptions of Great Men and Important Events), this is a political act.

Also shared via  “On Archivy,” Jarrett M. Drake (Princeton University Archives) posted the text of a talk he gave at the 2017 British Columbia Library Association meeting, “How Libraries Can Trump the Trend to Make America Hate Again.” Drake’s talk begins with an examination of the slogan “Make America Great Again”:

As an archivist, I’m most intrigued by the last word of the slogan, “again,” because it signals to the past in subtle ways other words cannot. Concluding an already loaded slogan with “again” invites a careful observer to interrogate the then, the now, and the future implied by this signaling.

He goes on to discuss this specific form of nostalgia and how it contrasts with others’ remembered pasts, and goes on to offer “three concrete propositions for libraries and librarians in their pursuit of a more perfect union. Those propositions are to: 1) assert authority, 2) center communities, and 3) never normalize.”

We specialize in transforming, migrating, or massaging data from one system so that it fits neatly into others. From that process, we are able to achieve the interoperability of our systems and provide users with enhanced access to our collections. However, the rising tide of fascism should offer pause regarding the benefits of normalized data that can easily be piped from system to another. Local languages, taxonomies, and other forms of knowledge that only people within specific communities can decipher might well be a form of resistance…

Similarly, “5 Spectra for Speculative Knowledge Design,” by Bethanie Nowviskie (Digital Library Federation), which was delivered on April 15, 2017 at the Ecotopian Toolkit gathering hosted by Penn’s Program in Environmental Humanities, examines “how we might realize digital libraries, archives, and museums as more socially just and hopeful (maybe even “Ecotopian”) knowledge infrastructure.”

Our designs must also respect individual and community agency in determining whether historical or contemporary cultural records should be open to access and display in the first place—ideally fostering and encouraging local intellectual control. But here, again,  the contradictory challenge is to build infrastructure that can shield while also opening up. We need our digital library platforms to contribute to watchdog and sunlight initiatives promoting transparency, accountability, and openness in government and corporate archives—while simultaneously upholding cultural and individual rights to privacy and local control.

dh+lib Review

This post was produced through a cooperation between Amber D'Ambrosio, Rebecca Dowson, Benedikt Kroll, John Meyerhofer, Liz Rodrigues, Jordan Sly, and Mary Vasudeva (Editors-at-large for the week), Roxanne Shirazi (Editor for the week), and Caitlin Christian-Lamb, Caro Pinto and Patrick Williams (dh+lib Review Editors).