With Great Access, Comes Great Responsibility

Well folks, we’ve officially made it to Week 10 and my absolutely favorite part of the library & archives world – ACCESS! After these readings, however, I’m rethinking where “access” fits in to how we approach our digital holdings. While we tend to think about preservation in terms of the future, Owens argues that access to data *today* is equally as important…

…and other scholars agree. In 2012, the AIMS Working Group made an attempt to build a framework for how we approach born-digital collections. In it, they make the point that discovery and access should be on the top of our minds from the start – through the acquisition, accessioning, and arrangement & description stages. If we remember to keep access at the forefront, all of the data we gather – from donor agreements to item-level metadata – will make later considerations of how to make materials available all the more clear.

As for how cultural institutions actually make their materials accessible, Owens outlines the differences between “wholesale” and “boutique” approaches. The former requires less time and resources from the cultural institution, who simply provide access in the easiest and quickest form possible while researchers and users take the lead on making that information easy-to-use and appealing to larger audiences. “Boutique” approaches, on the other hand, are when the institutions themselves invest time and money into designing exhibits and detailed catalogs in order to attract users directly to the collections.

There are opportunities and challenges provided by both approaches. One example of a project that resulted from a “wholesale” approach is outlined in “One Terabyte of the Kilobyte Age.” The creators used the bulk data harvested from GeoCities to show modern-day users the site in the most true-to-form, low-cost way they could think of. They made sure to consider both the look and feel of the site’s original interface and ease of access (like that most people don’t have access to emulation software), resulting in a blog that anyone can visit to see screenshots of original GeoCities pages. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a “boutique” approach, where the cultural institution itself plays a large role in targeting its collections for use by a specific user group. One popular way that this is being approached is by creating a National History Day Toolkit! This resource, created through a joint effort by SAA, helps archivists learn how to target their materials towards middle and high school students, who then use the collections to make a project. While it can be harder to justify the resources required for these types of targeted projects, the results can be beneficial to the institution as a whole as users take the lead on creating new and innovative approaches to collections.

Technological advances in particular present a golden opportunity for libraries and archives to expand access to collections. Cultural institutions are full of humanities data… it’s just that librarians and archivists have historically been focused on displaying their data (books, images, etc.) to users, instead of encouraging them to engage with it in the ways that Owens suggests. Padilla & Higgins write that looking at humanities data (like books, text, and images) through a technical lens allows us to “see” it in a way we couldn’t before. Looking at photographs as a combination of pixels, rather than as something that we personally interpret or experience, can reveal patterns and alternative ways of depicting that image.

The digital methods and tools that are currently in use – and the ones that are yet to be created – can expand the opportunities that we, as librarians and archivists, have to engage with users. But DH approaches allow us to change more than how we all view collections – they can help us combat the structural inequities that have historically silenced and excluded certain voices from the archives. Sadler and Bourg argue that “without an explicit feminist agenda, the same processes of exclusion and marginalization that have always influenced libraries — and therefore scholarship — will continue to play out in our digital library and online discovery environments.” They call for the incorporation of feminist principles into software development, putting principles like plurality – acknowledging that there are always multiple points of view – and embodiment – focusing on the emotional responses that users have to collections – at the forefront of our technological advances. In my own studies, I am interested in exploring the imbalances in how non-English speaking populations are disproportionately represented in institutional archives, and subsequently, in digital projects that spring from them. Christen’s work in creating the Mukurtu digital archive is a prime example of efforts that are being made to combat the historical place that archives have held as oppressive institutions, rooted in elitism.

It is in our best interest to turn our attention to training our users in the digital humanities, so that they can be the ones who do innovative and interesting things with our collections. In doing so, we will be contributing both to the empowerment of our users and the long-term preservation of our cherished collections.

P.S. While you’re at it – take a look at some of the DH projects that are out there right now… there really is something out there for everyone!

One Reply to “With Great Access, Comes Great Responsibility”

  1. I found both the Padilla & Higgins and the Sadler & Bourg articles quite interesting. I have some reservations about the approach to image content algorithms that P&H describe, but can see how in certain contexts computational processing of thousands of images would be very useful. What gives me pause is the idea of throwing a collection of sensitive material at an algorithm and expecting it to ethically identify/describe content. I think one thing we’ve established in this class (and the MLIS program as a whole) is that nothing is completely neutral, not even technology. For example, facial recognition is problematic for multiple reasons: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/technology/facial-recognition-race-artificial-intelligence.html

    The ideas that S&B and Christen put forth on how to approach archive & library work really resonate with me. I read about the Mukurtu digital archive in a past class too, and I was impressed at how innovative, thoughtful, & decolonizing it is. Like you said at the top re the AIMS piece, thoughtful design with access priorities built into a project from step one is how we best serve users.

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