I’m posting a short series of a lightly edited posts from of my keynote for the University of Maryland Library Research and Innovative Practice Forum. Slides and talk are available through DRUM. This is Part 2 of the series. Read Part 1. —Purdom
The interface for Take Back the Archive which aims for transparency and temporality:
The timeline is one way of showing stories persist over time. We are working to improve the timeline, but for now, the lines above the dots (which are sized according to how many materials are in the collection) indicate how these stories reappear over time. We want to visualize how these stories drop out of conversations or how often they are referenced.
The Take Back the Archive project explores experimental interfaces including Rich Prospect Browsing as outlined in Visual Interface Design for Digital Cultural Heritage. We used Rich Prospect Browsing as an element of transparency and poly-vocalism to show the extent of the collected materials for the archive, as well as a quick way of identifying the type of content. In this case, materials were designated as advocacy materials, policy reports, and journalistic accounts. Rich Prospect Browsing offers options for representing the full scope of materials with the goal of empowering users to understand the varied paths through the archival materials, that there is not one story, but many represented within. A major challenge to transparency is the ability to visualize absence–we know that many people do not report, particularly men and people from the LGBT community, so their stories do not appear in the archive. Can we better represent absence of materials to signal that this archive is incomplete or not fully representational?
Showing every item within the collection additionally resists embedding assumptions of rank and relevance in search algorithms, namely that the most commonly asserted statements must be true. Sadler and Bourg point out that ‘search algorithms represent a single majority-rules point of view, masquerading as neutrality; which does not render visible how the system has been designed for an “ideal user.” Further, the documentation and research determining the characteristics of that ideal user are not shared with others.
I lean on Safiya Noble’s work on Biased Data which explores the ways search algorithms reflect racism. She writes ”when we talk about these kinds of racist experiences and pointers that happen in technical systems, we also hear in the public discourse these things talked about, again, as anomalies, as glitches, rather than helping us understand and unveil the ways that programmers are people who write, and code is a language. And all languages are value-laden, including binary code languages.”
Nobel writes ”when we talk about these kinds of racist experiences and pointers that happen in technical systems, we also hear in the public discourse these things talked about, again, as anomalies, as glitches, rather than helping us understand and unveil the ways that programmers are people who write, and code is a language. And all languages are value-laden, including binary code languages.”
For the De/Post/Colonial Digital Humanities course at HILT 2015, Roopika Risam and Micha Cardenas collaborated with participants to develop a resource for designing digital humanities research with demonstrated commitments to social justice. 11 participants shared their work publicly with an explicit invitation for others to contribute prompts and resources around access, material conditions, methods, ontologies and epistemologies that shape digital humanities. In their words, “The goal here is to make visible the critical and theoretical processes that subtend digital humanities practices.”
The site contains prompts, such as “How accessible is the project for people with disabilities?” “How accessible is the project in low-bandwidth environments?” “Which archives does the project use?” and “Whose voices are absent from these archives?” alongside links to practitioners and resources engaged with the issues around a particular prompt.
Users are able to comment at sentence, paragraph, or section level, extending a conversation about practice beyond the local and temporally located working group. The goal here is not to stagnate or stall a project, rather to slow down and reflect upon the ethical choices needed in the creation of digital work. The goal is to break these choices down to manageable, addressable parts. As Amy Wickner observed, Ethical tensions are addressable. While ethical considerations need to be at the center of our work, they need not prohibit this work from progressing.
African Diaspora PhD, led by Jessica Marie Johnson, Kidada Williams, and Ana-Lucia Araujo—uses tagging and clear licensing information as well as multiple entry points into content, as examples of elements of the principle of transparency. The team page does a great job of showcasing who is contributing to the various pieces of the project, highlighting shared credit as an element of collaboration.
Collaboration here, as in the next example, Documenting the Now, can be very useful when thinking about the library. What does collaboration look like and mean within the library? Particularly for liaison librarians, but also for all throughout the library, we can include a Collaborator’s Bill of Rights or other documents to make visible our expectations, skills, and constraints when we collaborate. Making shared credit something actionable for our work.
Documenting the Now does a fantastic job at communicating technical infrastructure and project decisions through a variety of platforms, from newsletters to a Slack Channel to GitHub, all elements of transparency.
Further, Documenting the Now builds tools alongside the community of activists, scholars, researchers, and interested public so users are able to manage their own data and representation. Christina Harlow points to DocNow as a model for library and information professionals in opening our work of selecting, curating, and managing data and tools to the very users who are best positioned to shape and improve these practices.
Collecting in collaboration with communities is slower, more complicated, yet this practice can support our reflection on biases inherent within traditional collecting policies, particularly who decides what is valuable, worth of collecting and preserving and therefore status, funding, and place within the archive. It also means we must address what collaboration looks like and mean within the library, particularly attention to what power structures are inherent and tacit within collaborations? Ed Summers, co-PI of Doc Now, indicates that collaboration can be a source of tension-but this tension is vital because the project has a responsibility to work with communities to insure people are authentically represented, or not, within the archive.