Tomorrow’s History & the Role of Public Libraries

I’ve been thinking about digitization and history; specifically the trusim that history is written by the victors (aka the privileged), and what that means for our current era.

With literacy and war-conquests-slash-oppression on the part of literate groups, orality became devalued as “official” history in most of the mainstream, dominant, Western societies.  Non-literate or illiterate people and groups have largely either been written out or written *about* in what we now deem to be literature and history. (Please forgive my rushed-through and simplistic history of the conquests of literacy-based-culture here…this is just the context part of the post!) With mass printing, the privilege bar to produce, distribute and preserve was reinforced, perhaps nudged a bit, right?  Certainly by the 20th century just writing something down was rarely enough to incorporate it into official narratives of “history”; the writing had to be adjudicated and then reproduced by a professional publisher, preserved by an archivist, or otherwise selected by someone with societal power.

I went to undergrad in 1994.  It was a heady, exciting time, especially if you worked in a library, as I was fortunate enough to do.  The Internet had just gone public!  Netscape and Mozilla were battling it out!  Web 2.0 was already being foreshadowed by innovators like Crayon (remember CraYoN – Create your own newspaper?  Early mashup, back in ‘95!). All the street-level activists in my circles were xeroxing radical zines on their temp job office photocopiers, and the Internet was going to democratize the world! Anyone could publish their work and reach the whole world! Well, anyone in the portions of the world that had electricity at least.  Or at least the literate portions of the world that had electricity…

< – -time warp here- – >

Now, we have these amazing Open Access repositories forming, and we have increasing numbers of people creating and sharing content online. I’m particularly excited about and interested in the community-based archiving projects that are popping up. (**Note to self: write a post about some of these cool projects soon**)

BUT, I have a big concern. I think we’ve all outgrown the “the Internet is going to democratize the world!” phase by now (yes? no?), but I don’t think we’re paying adequate attention to the fact that this migration of “scholarship” and preservation – basically the bulk of what will be tomorrow’s “history”  – is reinforcing the exclusive nature of historical preservation.

We are beginning to see documentation of the same type of hierarchical dynamics in online content generation as we do in printed matter.  I’ve seen recent scholarship focused on the male-female gender gap both in scholarly self-archiving and in creative digital media sharing.

I know most of us aren’t purposefully torching the libraries of our enemies and competitors.  And I don’t want to question the very sensible move of scholarly communication into online, open access format.  But I would like to talk with more folk about how we can hark back to our idealistic 1994 mentality and regain those ideals, if not the naïveté, relating to the potential that digitization holds for the whole of society.

Academic libraries are working fast and furious toward digitally archiving their institutions’ scholarly output.  I think there’s a place for public libraries to serve an organizing function in the community in terms of creating public history. A public history project, perhaps.

Public History Project…I kind of like the sound of that.  Too bad the acronym’s already pretty much “taken.”  Maybe if we slap a “Canadian” on the front end or some such…

Of course, it’s easy to spout off about, and much harder to actually figure out the nuts & bolts: How to you ensure broad community representation?  What do you do with communities that don’t want to participate? How do you select what is of long-term value – or do you at all?  Is that up to the communities themselves, perhaps?  Do you allocate more space to groups under-represented in formal histories and scholarly communities?  Is there content that is unacceptable? What about illegal stuff?  Who’s responsible for the maintenance?  And where does all of this…stuff…reside, anyway?  What formats can reasonably be accepted and preserved? Should the government be involved in this?  What about private funding?  How do you keep things impartial?  Should you strive to keep things impartial?

Despite all of this chaos in my mind about the details, I do think that public libraries are uniquely suited to facilitate a public history project: something technically based on open source software, and developed in coalition with community groups.  And, frankly, perhaps in collaboration with academic libraries, who are doing TONS of work already getting Institutional Repositories up and running.

What are your thoughts?

-Greyson

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2 Comments

Filed under academic libraries, archives, censorship, community development, digitization, gender, globalization, media democracy, OA, preservation, public libraries, publishing, racism, technology

2 responses to “Tomorrow’s History & the Role of Public Libraries

  1. This is exactly the vision behind what was the Alouette Canada project, now part of Canadiana.org. One central service to provide support in the form of standards to allow for interoperable searching and support preservation so that community groups, public libraries, archives, and others can do their own self-archiving. Still very much in the early days! The BC portion for the coordinated search is called West Beyond the West, and can be found at: http://westbeyondthewest.ca/

  2. greyson

    Ah, thanks for the comment Heather. Although I’ve chatted with some folk from Alouette at conferences and been to the Alouette website, I had no idea this was part of the Alouette/Canadiana vision.

    My impressions were that CIHM/Canadian.org was primarily focused on the white colonizer’s history in Canada in past centuries (the ECO collection), and that Alouette was more or less a digitization & union of existing historical archives. I had heard that there was some sort of merger between the two projects in the spring, but don’t know much about what that might mean in terms of future projects.

    In addition to supporting/providing access and preservation to existing historical collections (a laudable undertaking in itself, to be sure), is there a vision within Alouette/Canadiana of opening up tomorrow’s history, so that it might be more representative of diverse experiences and viewpoints — of working with Canadians whose voices aren’t generally represented in official historical narratives?

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