Protected: ‘Doing Things’ With Data: Observation and Analysis

By katemeizner

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Hart Island and the Case for Digitization

By katemeizner

Over the summer, the media was abuzz with developments involving Hart Island. Located north of Manhattan in the East River, Hart Island functions as New York City’s potter’s field and the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. The island is operated by the Department of Corrections, which employs prison labor to maintain its many mass grave sites. Among the one million New Yorkers buried, are indigent persons, prisoners, stillborn children, those whose families cannot afford private funerals and, more generally, anyone who is not claimed or identified within a two-week period after death.

As of July 2015, visitors would be permitted entry to grave sites once per month, a vast improvement that resulted from years of struggle between advocacy groups and city agencies (Kilgannon). Formerly, the cemetery was a point of contention due to the inaccessibility of both its grave sites and burial records. Those who sought information about burials encountered a bureaucratic labyrinth involving weeks of being bounced between personnel at the Department of Corrections. Hart Island visitors were subject to even more imposing barriers: the island was only reachable by a ferry which ran infrequently, and visitors were to undergo the same DOC processes used to grant visitors access to NYC’s prisons. Furthermore, those who jumped through these hoops and made it to Hart Island were physically barred from entry to actual grave sites, forced to gaze upon the mass graves from a small gazebo located near the ferry dock.

Hart Island’s inaccessibility not only restricted burial grounds, but also obscured a repository of information, including records and identities that contribute to social memory. Cox and Day consider cemeteries archives wherein components include artifacts, records and grave sites, and they describe these archives as a “rich source of historical information” (Cox 1). What happens, then, when that archive is neither accessible nor properly managed? In the case of Hart Island, social histories were rendered invisible due to poor record keeping and access protocol. The public potter’s field is chilling representation of the power bureaucratic structures wield over the voices and histories of citizens, socially-excluded groups in particular.

In “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” Schwartz and Cook expand on the importance of archival studies, saying, “…it is essential to reconsider the relationships between archives and the societies that create and use them. At the heart of that relationship is power” (Schwartz 5). They go on to explain the ways in which the archivist’s power manifests:

“…power to make records of certain event and ideas and not of others, power to name, label, and order records to meet business, government, or personal needs, power to preserve the record, power to mediate the record, power over access, power over individual rights and freedoms, over collective memory and national identity – is a concept largely absent from the traditional archival perspective” (Schwartz 5).

By considering the relationship between Hart Island’s archive and the society that created it, one may be able to deduce why the archive was approached with such carelessness. After all, the majority of those buried on Hart Island are indigent peoples who were likely neglected by the system during the course of their lives. I believe that the information missing from Hart Islands archive speaks volumes. Lack of physical and informational access, uninformative burial records, and shoddy management of Hart Island’s archive can be interpreted as a reflection lacking resources, and in turn, limited concern for Hart Island’s interred.

According to Schwartz and Cook, “Power over the documentary record, and by extension over the collective memory of marginalized members of society…” resides in “…the ways in which institutional resources are allotted for procurement and processing of collections, and the priority given to their diffusion…” (Schwartz 17). If it is an act of power to choose which information is entered into or omitted from the archive, then Hart Island’s anemic record keeping is a sad testament to city government’s desire and resources devoted to preserving social memory of socially excluded peoples. Hart Island is far from the only space where hegemony and colonialism result in erasure of certain voices from the archive.

Reforms to DOC procedures surrounding Hart Island did not happen on their own. After visiting Hart Island on a photography assignment, artist and activist Melinda Hunt took interest in the island, founding The Hart Island Project with the mission to connect loved ones with memories of friends and relatives buried on the island. Citing concerns about lack of access to information, she helped the NYCLU file a lawsuit against the city in the effort to make burial records publicly available (Surico). Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Department of Corrections was obliged to make this information accessible, and in addition, provide more resources for family members and guests to visit grave sites (Velsey).

Melinda Hunt’s Hart Island Project moved along a bit more quickly that the city’s lethargic bureaucracy: in 2008 soon after FOIA required the DOC to hand over burial information, Hunt had already pooled her resources to digitize the records and create an online collection called the Traveling Cloud Museum (Walshe). According to the official website’s description, the Traveling Cloud Museum “…offers an innovative method for preserving the histories of people whose identities are erased by a system of burials dating back to the American Civil War” (“The Hart Island Project”). Beyond simply providing burial information, the Traveling Cloud Museum functions as a citizen’s archive that crowdsources submissions of individual stories, images, and media about those buried on Hart Island (“The Hart Island Project”).

The breadth of burial information available on the Traveling Cloud Museum far surpasses the city’s database, which only contains fields for name, age, date of death, place of death, plot number and medical examiner. For example, Hunt recognized that a plot number would do no good in assisting visitors find their loved ones, so the Traveling Cloud Museum used Google Earth to map the exact location where each plot is located (“The Hart Island Project”).

Removed from the inertia of bureaucracy, the online collection created ‘space’ for narratives, voices and information often excluded from the archive. By digitizing records and crowdsourcing stories, the Traveling Cloud Museum’s online collection essentially became a citizen’s archive, circumventing bureaucratic structures that imposed restrictions on information access. The online archive is just one example of how digitization can facilitate access by overcoming barriers that prevent the public from interacting with certain information. While Rosenweig would argue that proper “preservation of the past is, in the end, often a matter of allocating adequate resources,” I believe the digital space allows for more public participation in archiving efforts – participation that has the potential to decolonize the archive (Rosenweig 762). In the case of Hart Island, digitization prevailed in disseminating information that bureaucratic structures had otherwise rendered invisible.

Sources Cited

Cox, Richard J. (2011) Stories of a Pleasant Green Space: Cemetery Records and Archives. Archival Issues, 33 (2). pp. 88-99. (In Press)

“The Hart Island Project.” HartIslandProject. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <>.

Kilgannon, Corey. “New York City to Allow Relatives to Visit Grave Sites at Potter’s Field.” The New York Times 9 July 2015: A22. The New York Times. 8 July 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” The American Historical Review 108.3 (2003): 745-762. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Schwartz, Joan M., and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2 (2002): 1-20. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Surico, John. “The Journey from Death to Hart Island.” Urban Omnibus. N.p., 14 Oct. 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <>.

Velsey, Kim. “An Open Hart Island: Off the Coast of the Bronx Lie 850,000 Lost Souls—the City Council Hopes to Pay Its Respects.” Observer. N.p., 28 Sept. 2012. Web. <>.

Walshe, Sadhbh. “‘Like a Prison for the Dead’: Welcome to Hart Island, Home to New York City’s Pauper Graves.” The Guardian. N.p., 3 June 2015. Web. <>.


Libraries and Local Government: How NYC’s Municipal ID Program Addresses Information Access

By katemeizner

In “A Political Economy of Librarianship?”, William F. Birdsall says that libraries are neither neutral nor airtight to the political climate of the outside world – that, in fact, a library environment is informed by the political and economic values of its surroundings (Birdsall 2). I often consider the many ways in which public libraries reflect the public policy initiatives of the nations, states, and cities in which they are located, especially in areas where elected officials invoke more ‘progressive’ ideologies that value public goods over privatization. In New York, where I live, City Hall’s policies have recently been driven by the populist left, which has paid special attention to the NYC’s breadth of public services, cultural institutions, and libraries. Unlike the fiscally conservative Michael Bloomberg, whose mayoral policies resulted in decreased operational subsidies for libraries, current Mayor Bill De Blasio is implementing programs and funding initiatives that will both improve the functionality and increase use of public libraries by all New Yorkers (Giles 36).

In addition to pumping $39 million into the city’s library budget, in January 2015 the mayor also rolled out the IDNYC, a municipal identification card issued by the city of New York which is also accepted as a library card at New York City’s three library systems. The IDNYC is the largest municipal ID program in history, made unique by offering up multi-uses and incentives crafted to benefit residents of New York City. According to the official website, one is able to apply for a card if they can provide proof of address and identity, although alternative options such as “care-of” forms are available for “…the most vulnerable communities—the homeless, youth, the elderly, undocumented immigrants, the formerly incarcerated and others who may have difficulty obtaining other government-issued ID” (IDNYC).

To summarize, IDNYC makes it possible for socially-excluded and otherwise undocumented residents to obtain valid forms of identification. Furthermore, its dual use as both an accepted ID and a library card is meant to incentivize New Yorkers to visit libraries and seek out the city’s many public services. The municipal ID card is truly a ‘one stop shop’ for access to many buildings in the city of New York. The IDNYC program’s popularity, with over 400,000 applicants and a 98% success rate as of August 2015, is a testament to power of libraries working with local governments to align goals and create programs that encourage more diverse patronage of public libraries.

I’m most interested in the idea of IDNYC as a tool of social inclusion; imperfect, of course, but also a real life example of John Gehner’s idea that libraries should work toward removing “barriers” that may further “…alienate socially excluded groups” from accessing public goods (Gehner 41). These barriers are rarely self-imposed and run the risk of flying under the radar, much to the detriment of the social-excluded peoples who likely need access public services the most. For example, Annette DeFaveri’s “Breaking Barriers” expresses dissatisfaction with library circulation policies that prohibit homeless individuals and those without proof of address and identification from procuring library cards (DeFaveri 5-6). While I understand promoting information access for socially-excluded groups is a pervasive, complex issue that requires reform at every level of the library’s functionality, I believe socially-excluded peoples must first be physically welcome through the library’s doors in order to access its resources and use its space. How would it be possible for the library’s internal mechanisms to reform and improve if socially excluded groups are barred from participating?

Annette DeFavari’s “Breaking Barriers” expresses a similar idea, saying that one way to create an inclusive place is to “emphasize the importance of the library’s initial contact with new patrons” (DeFaveri 2). This got me thinking about how important it is for library policy-makers to consider whether the library’s bureaucratic process of procuring a library card summons feelings of ‘otherness’ for certain groups. Some ideas to consider are whether the library card application is translated into multiple languages, whether patrons confined to online registration, whether circulation desk attendants are available to help, and if the application requires proof of US citizenship or proof of residence. These attributes of the application process, which may echo other ‘standard’ procedures such as filing taxes or employment applications, are placing an invisible blockade between the patron and the front doors of the library.

The IDNYC program, which folds in library card services, sends a concerted effort from City Hall to construct an accessible municipal ID procurement process by printing applications in 25 languages, offering registration in each borough and in public libraries, and creating positions for staff members to assist ID applicants. Proof of residence can be substantiated with a letter from “a City agency, nonprofit organization, religious institution, hospital, or health clinic in New York City” (IDNYC).

While the goal is inclusivity, I will note that there are still many facets of the program that may deter certain groups of New Yorkers from applying for municipal IDs. For example, a resident’s ability to access online letterheads could be limited, or maybe the resident simply feels uncomfortable approaching institutions for proof of residence letters. It is also possible that interacting with city officials may, as DeFaveri says, “…engender suspicion of authority, isolation, and non-participation” (DaFaveri 2). To quell these disinclinations, the installation of registration centers at community gathering spots such as parks, YMCAs and non-profits was introduced to make registration friendlier and more community-oriented. An inviting process of procuring library cards is one step toward opening the library to all, and thus, a step toward improving literacy within communities.

Critics of IDNYC have detailed concerns about the program’s policies surrounding security and privacy, and have expressed apprehension about ID holders being stigmatized when seeking out public services. I thought one of the most interesting aspects of this campaign was the care taken to camouflage ID holders without citizenship or permanent residencies, making their IDs indistinguishable from card holders who do have citizenship and residences. The ID holder’s personal information from their application is stored in a database which is only accessible to the HRA and is not connected to any other government authorities or law enforcement (IDNYC). To further protect the privacy of ID holder, addresses on not stored in the database at all, further diminishing an unlikely scenario in which an ID holder’s card information would be used national security tracking (IDNYC).

Beyond the actual privacy measures meant to protect IDNYC carriers, City Hall made inroads with NYC’s cultural institutions, health care providers, libraries, and public agencies, creating incentives attractive to all New Yorkers, as opposed to just socially-excluded groups. The idea that all types of New York residents find use and purpose in the municipal ID is settling – in a way, it further camouflages the ID holder and prevents conflation between IDNYC cards and criminality, underprivileged backgrounds, immigrant status, and disability. The IDNYC does not simply address the issue of socially-excluded peoples being refused library cards, but instead quells to the age-old myth that a municipality’s public services are most sought after by socially-excluded peoples.

I want to reiterate that the IDNYC is still imperfect: it does not address the issue of library fines prohibiting participation in the public library systems, it does not address internal library policies, and it certainly does not set any guidelines about accessible organizational methods within libraries, or staff behavior toward patrons. This article is also not an endorsement of government structures as they exist today – only an endorsement one government program’s potential. While New York City’s political climate has certainly assumed more of a leftist stance under De Blasio, broken windows still exists, real estate zoning laws are still influenced by corruption, and many socially-excluded groups feel insecure navigating the city-sponsored services. I only highlighted aspects of the IDNYC program that remove some of the barriers that prevent patrons from viewing libraries as a local resource – aspects that attempt to undo some of the damage created by a hegemonic system. When local governments and public libraries find common ground, and create programs to reflect their respective goals, I believe immense improvements can be made in the areas of access and literacy. This is why, Birdsall says, “…librarians need to devote more effort researching the political and economic dynamic that define the past and current environment of libraries” (Birdsall, p. 3). Thus, librarians must be tuned in to the political climate of their city, and engage themselves in local politics to enact necessary changes to public library systems.


Birdsall, William F. (2001). “A political economy of librarianship?” Progressive Librarian 18: 1-8.

DeFaveri, Annette. (2005). “Breaking Barriers: Libraries and Socially Excluded Communities.”

Information for Social Change. 21: Summer. (Accessed September 28, 2015)

Gehner (2010). “Libraries, low-income people, and social exclusion.” Public Libraries Quarterly 29: 39–47.

Giles, David, Jeanette Estima, and Noelle Francois. Re-envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries. Rep. New York, NY: Center for An Urban Future, 2014. (Accessed September 28, 2015)

IDNYC. (2015). “IDNYC”. (Accessed September 28, 2015).

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