Author Archives: Katie

A summer workshop on Black Studies and Information Technology

I had the privilege of meeting Abdul Alkalimat at the annual iConference, a gathering of faculty and students from schools that are part of the “iSchool movement.”* Abdul is a professor with a joint appointment in Information Studies and Black Studies at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). He is organizing a four-day workshop on Black Studies and Information Technology this summer and is looking for applicants. More details here:

I believe the workshop funds its participants, with the main events will be limited to a small number of people – for those working in this area, it looks like a really interesting opportunity.


*Most (though not all) formerly known as library schools. Fodder for a different post.

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Community Archives Workshop in Los Angeles

For any readers who are in Los Angeles – or more broadly as a discussion prompt for anyone interested in community-based archives

I’m helping to coordinate a workshop on skills for community archives on Saturday, March 1st, at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research (SoCal Library), located at 6120 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (, from 11am to 2pm. The Los Angeles Radical Reference group ( is hosting this workshop to teach basic archival skills for community and activist groups. I’ll be leading the workshop alongside two incredible L.A. colleagues doing work in libraries, archives and community organizing.

We’ll use the workshop to begin processing a collection held by the SoCal library: records from the (now defunct) Los Angeles-based Communities Against Police Aggression. We’re especially excited to welcome current activists interested in learning more about these records. We’re hoping that this can foster ongoing cooperation between the SoCal Library, L.A.’s Radical Reference librarians, and community activists.

Some food for discussion/thought: are there others reading this who have worked on fostering collaborations between archives (or libraries) and activist groups? Can historical records be of benefit to the current work of activists? We’ll be talking about this more on Saturday, but I’d love to hear virtually from far-flung archivists or others with experience in this area.



Filed under archives, community development

Social Justice in The American Archivist (!)

I’ve been home with the flu, which has provided time to catch up on some reading (ok, also television. But that’s not for this blog.) The latest issue of The American Archivist crossed my desk about a week ago, and I was pleased to see an article worth writing about here: Randall Jimerson’s “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice.”

But first, a note. I’d love to link to this article here, but despite the fact that this is supposed to be the first issue of AA published online, I can’t find the online content anywhere. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the archivists, but I had no success finding their new online holdings.

Even if the article is available digitally, it’s still locked down for three years to subscribers (SAA members). Because it’s not widely available, I think it’s even more important to draw attention to Jimerson’s article. Jimerson is a former president of the Society of American Archivists and the editor of one of the major anthologies used in archival education. The fact that he’s writing about social justice and archives is a big step for the Archival Establishment in the U.S. (notoriously slow to wake up to archives and social justice – the Australians and Canadians are way out ahead of us.) So, first, three cheers for a social justice article in The American Archivist!

Jimerson addresses some aspects of social justice in archives quite well. He’s eloquent and thorough on archives’ role in accountability: a hot topic right now considering ongoing U.S. government recordkeeping scandals. He also revisits amazing and important work done by U.S. and international archivists, including ongoing attempts to use records to hold the U.S. government responsible for the Tuskegee syphilis study, and Verne Harris’ work using records to bring justice to oppressed groups after apartheid in South Africa.

Jimerson also makes a great argument against the supposed, impossible neutrality of archivists and archivists. He couches this argument, however, in a discussion of the difference between neutrality and “objectivity.” This difference seems a bit contrived to me. Jimerson would like to see archivists be objective rather than neutral, but the small difference between these terms seems like a semantic distinction that will not translate well into practice. Archival objectivity may be just as impossible as archival neutrality. I’d like to see archivists own their biases, limited standpoints, and political agendas, and better, mitigate them by increasing non-archivist participation in records collection and description. I’m not sure that calling for ‘objectivity’ is so different from calling for neutrality.

My major criticism of the article, however, arises when Jimerson gets to the “diversity” part of his platform. Jimerson calls for creating “racial, ethnic and community-based repositories” (p. 266) and “collecting and preserving the records of ordinary people,” (p. 269) which I support and advocate. But creating more collections that document people of color is the end of Jimerson’s vision of diversity. There is no talk of the marginalization of existing “diverse” collections within current repositories; of the political economy of funding for “diverse” collections; of the power imbalances when outsider archivists decide what records to collect and describe; of the ethics of removing collections from creating communities and placing them in elite institutions. There is also no discussion of documenting the ever-shifting nature of race, ethnicity and identity (hardly static entities), no discussion of democratizing participation with archival materials, and no discussion of the risks of tokenizing through “diversity” collecting.

Calling for “diversity” is not a nuanced view of archival social justice; it’s an easy platitude. Archivists must move away from advocating diversity in favor of rethinking and transforming archival practice. We must question – and then reconfigure – entrenched structures of inequitable cultural collection, description, and preservation.


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Records as Spoils of War

This is just depressing.

The Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank associated with Stanford University

…signed a deal on Monday with the Iraq Memory Foundation—a private, nonprofit group that has had custody of the documents since just after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003—for the transfer of about seven million pages of records and other artifacts from Saddam Hussein’s tenure as Iraqi president. The deal came despite recent impassioned calls from Iraq’s national archivist for the collections’ immediate repatriation back to Baghdad.

These records were taken from Baghdad just after the start of the U.S. invasion in 2003, and their presence in the U.S. has been debated ever since. The American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table initiated a resolution condemning the seizure of these documents at the recent ALA Midwinter meeting. That resolution was approved by ALA, and while it’s not yet online, should be available soon (I am told) at the Social Responsibilities Round Table site:

This is a very similar issue to the repatriation of Rwandan genocide records that I wrote about in an earlier post. The same arguments are in play: as an Iraqi expat and professor at Brandeis puts it in the Chronicle of Higher Ed article (linked above), “Baghdad is just not ready for it.” My opinion – and that of the entire American Library Association – remains the same: records belong with the people they belong to.

But how convenient that the Hoover Institution – specializing in the records of other countries undergoing “political transformation,” (their words) – should have these documents. I’m sure their first concern is for the Iraqi people. The whole thing just reverberates with the phony justifications and the clandestine interests of the U.S. in the war itself.

In fact, if you read alllll the way down in the Chronicle story linked above, there’s a hint of a bigger issue:

By all accounts, the largest collection of Baath-era documents resides not with Mr. Eskander or Mr. Makiya, but with the U.S. Department of Defense.


Thanks to Lisa Hooper for alterting the SAA student listserv to this issue.


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Library School and Information Ethics

An interest group within the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) has released a statement advocating for inclusion of courses on information ethics in all North American LIS curricula:

ALISE draws on ethics from the “universal core values” attributed to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This means advocating for ethics such as equality of opportunity, freedom of thought, opinion, and expression, and explicit rights to privacy and education.

I think teaching information ethics is information programs is fabulously important and I wholeheartedly support the ALISE statement. Ethical guidelines are critical in a profession devoted to information access and information freedom. For instance, U.S. libraries’ protection of patron privacy in the wake of the USA Patriot Act stemmed directly from professional codes of ethics and was an admirable example of privacy protection.

But I also see such broad definitions of information ethics as just a beginning. Broad codes can be very easily and uncritically summarized by ambivalent faculty or students as “be nice to others” guidelines. As a student in my required LIS ethics course asked: “Why do we need this class? Shouldn’t we just be nice to everyone?” And while the answer to her question is yes, of course, don’t our professional ethical obligations reach beyond being nice or treating everyone equally?

Broad ethical codes don’t overtly address entrenched, structural oppressions that librarians and archivists face, and participate in, every day. The IFLA and ALISE codes of ethics do little to question archival appraisal policies which have marginalized or destroyed the records of women, queer people, and communities of color. A broad code of ethics does little to guide progressive collection development policies or to help librarians decide whether controversial books should be removed from the children’s section. A broad code of ethics provides guidelines most librarians can agree upon, but in the end, does little to navigate some of the biggest challenges in our field today. LIS educators should look beyond broad codes of ethics to question the ways in which structural inequalities challenge our ethics. Emphasizing the importance of ethics while teaching that “universal” codes and guidelines are only a start can hopefully encourage critical ethical thinking in LIS education.



Filed under LIS education

Tagging in Archives

The U.S. Library of Congress’ new Flickr photo tagging effort The Commons is getting lots of attention from info studies folks and the wider blogosphere. The upload of historical photos owned by LC onto such a popular “Web 2.0” site has generated talk about possibilities for incorporating user tags into library and archive collections. The Commons tagline underscores this possibility, reading: “Your opportunity to contribute to describing the world’s public photo collections.”

The Commons is but one example of growing attention to the possibilities for user-generated content in museum, library and archival settings. Projects such as Steve.Museum have similar goals. But as RLG’s Hanging Together blog points out, the LC effort seems to be as much about publicity for LC’s digital collections as it is about incorporating descriptions provided by taggers into LC records. LC, much like Steve.Museum, seems to be testing the water on tags without full commitment to including user descriptions in collection metadata.

The effort also raises questions about the nature of “participation” in collection management and description. Tagging – the practice of users labeling online content with descriptors – seems to many info professionals a promising route toward increasing participation. As someone particularly interested in increasing participation and representation in archives, I’ve often wondered what tagging could do for description of archival resources.

But the more I learn about tagging, the more I question the assumption that tagging = description. Taggers have a wide range of motivations for tagging, and they span far beyond organizational and descriptive practices. Taggers use tags for personal retrieval and time management (tagging a webpage “to read” in tagging giant, and for self-expression and performance (tagging “favorites” or “I hate this” on, or as my colleague Alla Zollers cites, “Maybe that is why i sometimes still don’t feel like a grown woman-music” on music site*

Rather than user-generated description, tagging is something more like user-referential content: tags express a relationship between a person and a digital object. This means that tagging is most meaningful when a relationship between a user and an object exists. If users don’t feel a connection to the content in the LC Flickr collection, they won’t tag. I wonder if LC has considered their intended tagging public and their relationship to a photo collection in choosing collections for display? And if so, how did they define this public?

A different but equally interesting criticism of tagging is that the practice creates “flat” descriptions: tags like “grain elevator,” “baseball,” or “painting,” without dialog about what those descriptions mean. It is also a way of expressing one’s own view without recourse for discussion or the need to consider the view of others. (Tagging political items could really suffer from this lack of dialog). Could we instead envision a system that, instead of asking for one-word descriptions, asked questions like “what does this mean?” or “What is important here?”

For archives, projects like LC’s Flickr collection are a reminder of the question of how to meaningfully increase user participation in collection description. Tagging is appealing for its growing popularity and emerging accessibility. (Still unclear are questions about the demographics of the tagging population – who tags – and whether tagging is, at the moment, culturally widespread.) Tagging can be a step towards user involvement in archival description. But I do not think that tagging, in itself, can increase meaningful participation in archives.

What about all of you? Do you tag? Do you find it useful, accessible, interesting? Do any of the information organizations you work with use Web 2.0 technologies to experiment with collections?


A cool side note about The Commons: the pictures are all widely usable under the statement “no known copyright restrictions.” Fodder for a different post….

* Zollers, Alla. “Emerging Motivations for Tagging: Expression, Performance, and Activism.” Proceedings of WWW 2007. 2007.



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Neat, Free Tools for Info Professionals – and Others

As part of a small project I’m working on for the Council on Library and Information Resources, I’ve been evaluating online tools produced by “Digital Humanities Centers.” These are academic centers focused on bringing computing into humanities research.* The tools they’ve developed have a variety of primarily humanities research functions: 3d animation technology for virtually recreating archaeological sites, course software, text analysis software, online note-taking and annotation software aimed at academics, etc.

But a few, especially those developed by the creative folks at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, are broadly construed and would be useful to anyone working on community web projects, teaching online research skills, or beginning web archiving projects.

For community web work, GMU has a number of useful tools. Web Scrapbook is, as they say, a “clipping file for the internet.” You can share your clipping file or keep it private. Groups working together on any sort of research or interest project could use this tool to gather and annotate web sources of interest. Survey Builder and Poll Builder are both easy-to-use, what-you-see-is-what-you-get editors for creating survey and polls and adding them to websites.

For those teaching research skills or information access, I highly recommend GMU’s Zotero bibliographic software: It’s a free, open-source program that runs inside the Firefox browser. As you browse library catalogs, journal databases, Google Scholar, and even, Zotero can grab citation information at your command and save it to your computer. You can easily keep track of your references, and even better, make in-text citations, footnotes, and bibliographies using Microsoft Word. I was an EndNote user in the past, and have also taught students to use RefWorks, and I think Zotero is an excellent – and free – replacement for either of these programs.

Another useful tool for teachers and students: GMU’s Syllabus Finder. Syllabus Finder will do a tailored Google search for syllabi on whatever keywords you type into the search interface. This is a great way to figure out if/where classes are taught on a subject you’re interested in, or what reading materials others are using in their courses on X, Y or Z.

Perhaps most exciting for me, but still in private Beta so unavailable – yet – is GMU’s Omeka platform for publishing collections online. This promises to be a widely accessible tool for building digital archives and exhibits. This could be a great way for community organizations and small archives with digital collections to display them online, or to draw attention to their non-digital materials by creating an online exhibit.

Kudos to the Center for History and New Media for such creative, free digital information tools.


* Because of the nature of the current CLIR project, my scope is limited, and I’m only familiar with tools from about 30 U.S.-based centers.


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Why did I become a librarian (or, archivist)?

In response to Greyson’s audience-participation post about why we became librarians, I thought I’d chime in with thoughts of my own. It’s been great to read the comments from others, and I probably should have put this in the comments, as she requested, but figured it might run to post length. So here it is, taking up a lot of its own space…

I first worked in an archives for Greyson, actually, at a cooperative summer camp. I was in college, with little idea that “archivist” was a job title. Instead, what I saw was an attic with lots of papers, and kids. And over the summer, those papers became records, and some of those kids became interested in history. And I saw the direct link between shaping of the way we understand history and the interest of people in that history.

Another college job in an archive followed that, but was, again, just a college job. I left, worked in fundraising, but kept thinking back to both the impact of archives, and the injustice done when the experiences of groups or political viewpoints are left out of The Historical Record.  I also have to admit that I looked back fondly on the relative peace and quiet of working with records. For some reason, that seemed very appealing during the time I spent cold-calling and schmoozing donors at after-work events.

The peace and quiet part is funny now, three years into library school and on my way to a degree that will allow me (hopefully) to teach and do research about the social impact of archives. Because as soon as I got an archive internship in graduate school, I realized I didn’t want to the peace and quiet of archival processing. I wanted to tell people about archives, and ask people about archives, and question how we build them and why. I realized archives were growing in an area I had never considered: who tells our stories and how they will be told looms large as we increasingly record our history in digital forms and distributed digital places.

The definition and formation of archives are being reinvented in the digital era. I had no idea that this was happening when I began school. Shaping digital archives has such potential to, as Arjun Appadurai writes, “restore the deep link of the archive to popular memory and its practices, returning to the non-official actor the capability to choose the way in which traces and documents shall be formed into archives…”¹ But issues of inequitable digital access, inequitable digital literacy, and the logistics of digital preservation plague digital archives. I had no idea of the scope of this when I entered library school, but that’s why I’m still here.

I am at times delighted with the thought that goes into building just, equitable archives (and digital archives) in my program: there are a number of students, and a wonderful faculty mentor, focused on just these issues. But as Greyson and the posters in the comments have pointed out, it is certainly not universal to library school or librarians/archivists.  Yet another reason I want to go into archival education – I think a lot of this work has to be done in library school.

1. Appadurai, A. (2003). Archive and aspiration. In J. Brouwer & A. Mulder (Eds.), Information is Alive (pp. 14-25). Rotterdam: V2_Publishing/NAI Publishers.



Filed under archives, LIS education, The Profession

Internet literacy, three ways

Over the last week or so, I’ve been following very different, but equally interesting, threads about internet and technology literacy. Each offers a different slice of a wide problem, and I think comparing the three together presents interesting contrasts.

The first take on internet literacy comes by way of a colleague of mine who teaches classes in information literacy at Pasadena City College. Teaching information and internet literacy is an ongoing challenge for school librarians at every grade level. My colleague provided an example that he uses in class to demonstrate why students should think beyond Google for access to information. He asks students to find answers to a series of questions, including finding the third leading cause of death in the United States. The correct answer is stroke, but try searching “third leading cause of death” in Google. Information literacy problem #1: evaluating sources.

The second take on internet literacy comes from danah boyd’s always-interesting, sometimes-controversial blog, apophenia. Her post “Who clicks on ads?” speculates on a different sort of internet literacy: that of consumers. Recent studies are suggesting that only a small percentage of internet users click on internet advertisements. danah writes that qualitative data from her studies of social network sites suggests that users with lower internet literacy are providing marketers with the coveted click-throughs. As she writes:

“Consumer culture has historically capitalized on poorer populations, long before the web. Studies of consumer culture have shown how American identity has been constructed through consumption over the last century and how, not surprisingly, those who have a stronger need/desire to prove their American identity buy into the consumer culture.”

Is this being replicated online? Hard to tell if she’s right without more data, but it’s certainly interesting food for thought and hopefully, further study. So, information literacy problem #2: information equity.

Finally, problems of internet literacy among a subset of American elites: our legislators. The opinion piece “Don’t Know Their Yahoo from Their YouTube” by blogger Garrett M. Graff in The Washington Post points out that the legislators shaping technology policy in the U.S. have very little idea of how it all actually works. For a medium which is increasingly influential in news, entertainment, education, commerce (I could go on) … and which is fraught with policy questions about equitable access, data collection, privacy and data retention, policing vs. openness and – oh yeah – information literacy (see #1 and 2), this particular case of internet illiteracy seems unforgivable.



Filed under media democracy, Other blogs

Housing and Accessing the Record of a Genocide

Over on Feministe, contributor Anne has an interesting post on the fate of the archives documenting the proceedings and findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). These archives include case files, transcripts, confidential records and audio/visual materials that document the brutal history of the Rwandan genocide.

According to Anne (who attended a conference on the subject), there is pressure to move the physical archives out of Rwanda and to The Hague. This is a common archival dilemma: what are the ethics of moving the records of a community (or in this case, nation) into another community for ‘safekeeping’? This is enough of a problem in the local cultural communities of Los Angeles, where moving community records to a major institution (say, UCLA) can set up cultural and physical barriers to access. In the case of the ICTR archive, the problem is greatly magnified by factors such as travel distance, travel cost and visa requirements. Though The Hague may be the safest place to keep the records, moving the records to Europe would present huge barriers to access for Rwandans, to whom these records belong.

Anne mentions in passing, however, a potential way to address to ongoing questions of responsibility for documentary records. Apparently, digital copies have been made of most, if not all, of these records. A digital copy of the record allows physical as well as virtual access to the records. In this case (and in an increasing number of cases, as more of our records are ‘born’ digital), Rwanda could continue to house the physical records, keeping the evidence of history and its victims where its citizens can have access. But these records are also available virtually for access around the world.  Virtual access can facilitate ongoing research by the international community, and an (curated, preserved) virtual record can counter any government attempt to ‘expunge’ the physical records. (In light of my last post, experience shows that this is possible everywhere.) In a world of digital records, our notions of ‘ownership’ and ‘safekeeping’ of the record should change to allow for negotiated, flexible responsibilities. In the case of the ICTR records, the physical evidence can remain in Rwanada, where Rwandans can have the first and best access to these records of this difficult past.


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