I had the honor of being on an IMLS Focus panel this Thursday in Washington, DC. The theme of the day was needs of a national digital platform, one of the core IMLS funding priorities; my panel (chaired by the inimitable John Palfrey, and also featuring Bethany Nowviskie, Kim Schroeder, and Margo Padilla) was on professional development.
I had an outline about the nuts and bolts of ongoing coding skills training for librarians, based on my experience teaching workshops and what I learned interviewing librarians who code for my latest Library Technology Report. And then I found I couldn’t deliver it because, well, I had to say this instead.
There’s more I was trying to say, but I couldn’t quite find the words. Maybe you can help.
I was going to talk about why ongoing tech training is hard, the nuts and bolts of pedagogy, and what you can do to help. Maybe I still will in Q&A. But right now, 40 miles north of us, Baltimore is burning. Or it isn’t: it is ten thousand people protesting peacefully against many years of secret violence, violence kept secret by habitual gag orders, with national media drawn like moths to the mere handful of flames. The stories I hear on Twitter are not the same as the stories on CNN. And we, as cultural heritage institutions, are about our communities and their stories, and about which stories are told, which are made canon, and how and why.
So I want to talk about how technology training and digital platforms can either support, or threaten, our communities and their ability to tell their stories, and to have their stories reflected in the canonical story that we build when we build a national platform. I want to make it explicit what we are doing in this room, today, is about deciding whose stories get told, by whom, and how. Whose are widely recognized as valid, and whose are samizdat, whose get to reach our corridors of power only through protest and fire.
I was reminded this morning of an article co-authored by Myrna Morales, who was researching the Young Lords Party, which is a political organization in her native Puerto Rico, and she couldn’t find any literature about it, and she had a sinking feeling, she thought maybe she should check the header for gangs, and that was where she found information on this.
And I was reminded of a thing I did at a Harvard LibraryCloud
hackathon earlier, intersectional librarycloud, where I looked at the most popular elements circulated at Harvard, using the StackScore and their API, and I looked at whether they also had subject headers that reflected women’s studies or LGBT studies or African American studies, using code and meta data as a way to surface what people learn matters when they’re doing scholarship and learning at one of the most famous institutions on earth. TL;DR, it didn’t really turn out to matter. They’re not reading about stuff like that when they’re reading the things that they mostly read at Harvard.
So, the way that we structure our meta data, the content we seek, the tools we give people for interrogating the platform, whom we empower to use these tools and add this content and teach about these tools and construct them, how many they are, how diverse they are have these profound effects on which stories that we advance and we say matter as cultural heritage institutions, which in turn, shapes the present and the future.
I’ve said before that libraries are about transforming people through access to information and each other, and that’s true, but today I’m thinking more about what we can do to let more people transform libraries, and how libraries and our content and APIs and platforms can be tools for more people to transform each other. How the metadata that courses through digital platforms is the frame we have to tell, and interpret, stories, and how therefore as metadata creators we must be consciously inclusive. And how, when we train librarians to use and create national digital platforms, we can train them to use those skills in a contextually aware way, to not just understand technology but to interrogate it from a critical perspective. To see how technology interacts with our communities and their stories and where those gaps are, and how they can be part of bridging them. Because here we are, comfortable and safe and supplied with coffee, mostly white, talking about how millions of dollars should be spent, and Baltimore is convulsed by its history, and by the blind eyes so many of us have turned to it.