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Cha(lle)nging the dynamics of privilege in archives and technology

Like others, I found the presidential address of Jackie Dooley last August’s Society of American Archivists annual meeting to be problematic. At the time, I had little more to add than what was articulated by others, such as Sam Winn’s post on professional privilege. As the dust settles, though I’ve gotten a lot more clarity.

The Society of American Archivists is not really an easy place to examine our privilege or our struggle. There are many ways in which we desperately need to examine privilege within the context of our profession as well as the overall organization, but for now, I’m going to limit this post to addressing an issue that has been racing through my head since the SAA annual meeting, which concern privilege and the intersection of archives and technology, the area in which I work.

I am nothing if not enthusiastic about open culture and open source software and their transformative potential. I release my own work (meaning software, presentations, writing, etc.) under an open source or Creative Commons license whenever possible, and I’ve spend the better part of the last three and a half years working on technology projects within archives that have developed open source software (ArchivesSpace and the AIMS project, which developed the requirements for and prototype of Hypatia). Yet I’m troubled when I am put in the position of having to encourage colleagues to participate in open source, knowing that only 1.5% of open source community members are women, that incidents of sexism (trigger warnings on links from that post) are so rampant that they merit being documented, and that women and people of color in my our profession can’t speak out for fear of having charges of snark or airing dirty laundry leveled against them. I also have my concerns that “digital archives” (whatever that may be) is becoming one of the least diverse and welcoming areas of our profession, despite there being a history of amazing women working in this field like Margaret Hedstrom and Nancy McGovern.

There are a few things that I want to do to start to fix this, to make this space of the profession to be more safe, welcoming, and supportive:

Restructuring the dynamic of continuing archival education and mentorship. I am not convinced that continuing archival education is really all that helpful beyond getting either a big picture view or focusing minutely on using specific tools. In many cases we presume that the level of expertise of the instructor far exceeds that of the student. Despite being a so-called “expert” in born digital records and software development for this profession, I disclaim this expertise by realizing that the process of learning for this stuff has to be continuous, and is largely driven by focusing on either relevance to a task at hand or personal curiosity. Satisfying the latter is usually only possible if you have some degree of privilege. What I’d like to see is a different type of educational dynamic where people with different backgrounds and strengths, types professional experience, and issues to solve come together with some regularity - to share skills, to look to each other for counsel, and to break bread together as equals as we progress forward on common goals. I think this absolutely has to happen at a smaller level than an organization like SAA, and perhaps locally is the best option.

Developing explicitly safe spaces for professional interaction. I’ve seen many definitions for safe space, but that developed by Advocates for Youth is by far one of the clearest:

a place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others

Despite my concerns about SAA’s efficacy for some of these issues, an actionable effort for SAA would be to develop a code of conduct for its events. I am happy to say that Code4lib adopted a code of conduct over the last year, as did the Digital Library Federation. Stanford University Libraries also have strongly encouraged their employees to only attend conferences with anti-harassment policies.

I’m also hoping to try out this educational model I mentioned above within the New York area some time soon, and I’d like to get together with others interested in getting a better understanding of applied technology and how we collaborate that values everyone’s expertise equally. In the short term, I’ve also decided to organize a Computer Anonymous group in New York with Alex Duryee. Computer Anonymous (which doesn’t have anything to do with Anonymous) describes itself as the following:

This might be the group for you if you want to meet socially conscious nerds to talk about interesting things. This is not an entrepreneurial meetup, nor is it networking: It is a support group, a place to meet good people and talk about good and bad things. … [T]he primary goal is to create a social group for people in and around tech, from all backgrounds, where they feel comfortable and welcome.

If you’re interested and have any feedback, be it concerns, suggestions, or encouragement, please comment here or reach out to me on Twitter.



  • 💬 Jordon at October 16, 2013, 13:07 UTC:

    Interesting post, especially this concept of the code of conduct. Why do you think there's a need for one? Reading the ones you posted, I'm alarmed that this suggests that harassment and discrimination have occurred at these other conferences (never been to them)--otherwise, to create such a policy would be a solution in search of a problem, right? I can't recall ever encountering even the trace of bigotry at SAA--just a few waves of your garden variety intellectual differences of opinion amidst an ocean of tolerance and support, but maybe others have?

  • 💬 M.A. Matienzo at October 16, 2013, 13:22 UTC:

    I think there's a need for one for a few reasons. First, it demonstrates that SAA is concerned about the community of its attendees and its members. Secondly, while I can't speak to details, I am aware of a couple of troubling incidents at/within Code4lib in the past.

    I don't think having an anti-harassment policy is necessarily a solution in search of a problem because sexism (and racism, etc.) are systemic and more than just bigotry. If as an organization SAA is going to be committed to diversity, the organization has to make it clear that it is willing to stand with and behind everyone who participates in events like the annual meeting.

  • 💬 Maureen at October 16, 2013, 14:04 UTC:

    There's so much that I like here. Anything that we can do to demystify (or de-center) the "digital" in "digital archives" is good work, in my view.

    As a wise man once said, "I'm a digital archivist, or, as I'll be known in the future, an archivist."

    Our work is to acquire, arrange and describe, provide access to and preserve records (traces) of human activities within the scope of our collecting policies, regardless of those records' format. We as practitioners, resource-allocators, educators, and users have to take this mission seriously. Digital is not “extra”, a project, the future, an indulgence, or the next generation’s problem.

    This doesn't mean that the technical challenges that accompany electronic records aren't real, or don't require skill. But a lot of our work requires skill already, and there are plenty of smart archivists out there. I would say (as you have suggested) that capacity toward skill is much more widely distributed than the subset we see of folks actually working with electronic records.

    There's been a lot of work done elsewhere about why work in technology skews male. This seems especially striking in library technology, a subset of a field that is otherwise hugely woman-dominated. I think that diminishing the figure of the "expert" is a huge first step toward making it clear that the bits and pieces of skill that fit into already-existing archival theory and practice are attainable by any good archivist, regardless of background. I'm not sure that the technical education for archivists I see has this point of view. Instead of a long set of expensive workshops toward a credential that may or may not be relevant as challenges change, I also prefer your model of building community around problem solving and skill share.

    I'm excited about the newly-formed Computer Anonymous group. It reminds me of the model that I saw at PyStar Philly and GirlDevelopIt (groups for women who want to learn to code) -- a non-competitive, curiosity-fueled space that acknowledges that we work in a system of asymmetry and domination around issues of class, race, gender, gender expression and sexual orientation. Being part of a learning community where my understanding and experience of oppression is acknowledged rather than denied is an important first step toward being able to be an open learner.