Digitization and the NYU University Archives

By kiemma

On the 10th floor of Elmer Holmes Bobst Library lies a well-kept secret: the NYU University Archives. With only two full time staff, four part-time graduate assistants, and one part-time undergraduate student, the department is incredibly lean. This small staff supports roughly 800 unique patrons per year, with 55% of patrons affiliated with NYU, and 45% coming from outside the University. Though only formally created in the late 1970s, the department has been collecting materials since the University’s founding in 1831. The Archive is home to a range of collections, including items such as architectural renderings, administrative records, realia, busts, posters, audiovisual materials, mascots, and more. The Archive houses their collections onsite at Bobst and in a storage facility at Cooper Square, with 40% of the collection stored offsite in a warehouse upstate. Unlike a rare book and special collection reading room, the University Archives have a fairly flexible admission policy. Their reading room is open Monday through Friday, 9:30am to 5:00pm, by appointment only. However, this collection is not restricted to patrons with specific credentials (ie. academics), but instead is open to anyone with an interest in the Archive’s holdings.

Visiting NYU’s University Archives definitely brought up issues of access. The archives are open five days a week during normal business hours. A visit to the collection for anyone with a 9-5 weekday job would be impossible. Janet Bunde, the interim University Archivist at NYU, explained that the Archive hopes to extend their hours in order to better accommodate patrons who are only available on weekends. Digitization, of course, serves as a successful remedy to the challenges of physical access. However, a crucial issue facing many university archives and special collections, including the NYU University Archives, is the lack of funding available for digitization of records. NYU has only digitized an extremely small portion of their university archives, including 1,400 photographs, a small number of 35mm films, and a few documents. The collections that NYU has digitized have been made easily accessible through their digital finding aids, and are clearly organized and presented.

NYU University Archives  (from NYU Archives website)

NYU University Archives (from NYU Archives website)

I applaud Bunde and her staff for their hard work to make their archives accessible to all, and it seems that they are making great progress toward opening the collection to an even broader audience. There are still, however, major issues across institutions as to priorities of funding. Where staff constraints affect such issues of access as reading room hours, digitization serves as the antidote. There is a one-time labor commitment of digitizing and uploading materials to a server, which results in inestimable hours of use by patrons. This includes, of course, the labor of website and database maintenance, but one could argue that this time is still minimal compared to the perpetual staff needs of operating a reading room, retrieving physical materials for patrons, and providing face-to-face reference support (which of course has it’s positives, as compared to digital reference support).

Another challenge that Bunde discussed was determining which materials are necessary to preserve. In a university as large as NYU, there is a significant amount of material that must be sorted through and culled on an annual basis. As the university is able to bolster its digitization efforts, issues of quantity will become even more pressing. As Roy Rosenzweig states, “the simultaneous fragility and promiscuity of digital data requires yet more rethinking –about whether we should be trying to save everything, who is ‘responsible’ for preserving the past, and how we find and define historical evidence” (Rosenzweig, 2003). This will become a challenge that Bunde and her staff will have to grapple with as they are able to increase their digitization efforts.

Ultimately, I was very impressed with the NYU University Archives’ commitment to open access for all. Bunde and her staff created a welcoming environment for researchers who may not be regular patrons of university special collections. As Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook state, “archives –as records –wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies” (Schwartz & Cook, 2002). I believe that NYU has worked to create an archive that is inclusive of the many dialogues of NYU and the surrounding community, both historically and in current day. I was impressed with their commitment to functioning as an archive for the community, and I look forward to seeing what types of materials their future digitization projects bring to light.

References

Schwartz, Joan, and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2.1-19 (2002): 2-13. Print.

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era”. The American Historical Review 108.3 (2003): 739. Print.

 

The Internet Archive and Identity Formation

By kiemma

In 1996, in an attic in San Francisco, Brewster Kahle started the Internet Archive, an organization whose mission is, quite literally, to archive the Internet. Kahle often likens the goal of IA to that of the Library of Alexandria, to provide “universal access to all knowledge” (Internet Archive, 2015). The traditional role of the archive in preserving cultural heritage and aiding in (or dictating) the construction of identity and social memory is well documented. However, I believe that twenty-first century technologies have not only changed conceptions of archives and access, but will also completely transform the process of meaning-making as it relates to understandings of the self. I believe systems like the Internet Archive will play a significant role in this change, allowing users to challenge historical understandings of power dynamics, hegemonic narratives, and accessibility through unrestricted access to enormous quantities of archived information.

internet-archive

“Archives — as records— wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies”, state Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook, from their 2002 article Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. As Schwartz and Cook argue, the powerful typically control the hegemonic historical narrative that is constructed through archives by dictating what is preserved and what is sacrificed. The histories of select socioeconomically and culturally favored groups are retained, while the stories of marginalized groups are dismissed. It is important to note, I think, that “marginalized” does not necessarily mean statistically insignificant, merely socially and economically disadvantaged due to complex socio-historical factors. The ways in which these marginalized groups are able to engage with archives, as well as the ways that a lack of representation effects identity construction for these underrepresented groups, are extremely complicated. Questions of selection, retention, organization, and access quickly come to the forefront when considering archives. As Schwartz and Cook assert, “Records are also about power. They are about imposing control and order on transactions, events, people, and societies through the legal, symbolic, structural, and operational power of recorded communication” (Schwartz & Cook, 2002). I believe that digital technology has played a large role in alleviating issues of access, though I argue that issues of power dynamics, hegemonic representation, and material organization are still as prevalent as they were in the pre-digital era. This is especially true when considering monolithic cultural and educational institutions that have merely digitized their existing collections, effectively providing wider access to the same socio-historically problematic materials and presentation. I do, however, believe that the Internet Archive represents an exciting new realm of archiving, one that aspires to adhere to tenets of egalitarianism, non-discrimination, and universal access.

One of the most powerful aspects of digital archives is the ability of users to engage with material on a much deeper level than traditional archives allowed, often providing space for expansive reinterpretations of community and of self. In Marija Dalbello’s paper on digital cultural heritage, she includes a quote from Springer et al., who raise an important point when they ask “Does releasing public content with no known restrictions create a sense of democratic access or increase the sense of public ownership and shared stewardship for public cultural heritage resources” (Springer et al., 2008, 15). I argue that this is in fact the case. A sense of ownership in relation to cultural heritage enables users to see themselves and their communities as being present in the complex historical narratives that are told by archives. I believe that the Internet Archive provides space for people to participate in these kinds of reinterpretations of culture (and, by extension, identity construction) through open access to an exhaustive, and largely uncensored, quantity of material.

I think the potential for underrepresented (or entirely disregarded) groups, as well as individuals, to radically transform their processes of identity formation is present with an “unregulated “ (or at the very least lightly curated) archival system like the Internet Archive. Whether or not this will prove true remains to be seen. Identity formation and understandings of the self are complicated and greatly nuanced, and, since the advent of recorded history, have been deeply impacted by the hegemonic narratives of official archives. I believe the Internet Archive will serve as a sort of case study for the future of information retention, presentation, and access and the way that marginalized groups engage with these materials. I personally am incredibly excited at the prospect of a future of archival systems that seek to represent all, rather than the narrative of the privileged few.

References

Dalbello, Marija. “Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts, Projects, and Emerging Constructions of Heritage.” Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) conference, 25-30 May, 2009.

Internet Archive. https://archive.org. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.

Lepore, Jill. “The Cobweb: Can the Internet be Archived?” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 26 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.

Schwartz, Joan, and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2.1-19 (2002): 2-13. Print.

 

The Producer/Consumer Dichotomy and Knowledge as Commodity

By kiemma

Isabel Rechberg and Jawad Syed’s paper “Ethical issues in knowledge management: conflict of knowledge ownership” highlights some important issues surrounding knowledge production and management within the corporate sphere. However, I wish they had expanded upon this topic further by asking what larger issues arise when we treat knowledge as a commodity? What are the potentials for violence in this system? Finally, I ask how approaching this issue from a library and information studies perspective can help to reframe the concepts of knowledge production, management, and consumption.

Rechberg and Syed’s paper emphasizes “the need for a moral contract of KM between organizations and individuals that is built on the ethical constructs of trust, fairness and justice, so that individuals are acknowledged as legitimate and foremost owners of knowledge, and are willing to participate in KM and enhance its effectiveness” (Rechberg and Syed, 2013). While I agree that it is important to protect the intellectual property of employees, I believe that the protection of the individual is paramount, and should not merely be a stepping-stone to a more streamlined knowledge production team for the company. It seems for Rechberg and Syed, the end goal is to provide a ‘safe space’ for knowledge production within the capitalist system in order to encourage “individuals to willingly participate in knowledge processes” (Rechberg and Syed, 2013). I would have loved to see Rechberg and Syed take their arguments one step further and discuss the ways that treating knowledge as a commodity alienates both producers and consumers, and is inherently detrimental to the knowledge production process. As the knowledge economy becomes further entrenched in the realm of Web-based production, the potential for exploitation is magnified. I look to Mechanical Turk as a prime example of this phenomenon.

Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s crowdsourcing marketplace, was established in 2005 with the goal of matching companies with individuals who bid on jobs that can only be completed by humans. Moshe Marvit’s article in The Nation, “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine”, cites tasks such as detecting biases in an article, recognizing irony, and reading text out of photographs (Marvit, 2014). While on the surface this digital marketplace seemed like a perfect platform for matching companies with willing employees, it has actually become something of an Internet sweatshop, creating an unregulated labor market that is novel even within Western capitalist history. As Marx states:

            Even if the system of working remains the same, the simultaneous employment of a large number of labourers brings about a total change in the material conditions of the labour process. Buildings in which many are at work…which serve, simultaneously or otherwise, the purpose of many labourers, are now consumed in common. (Marx, 1867).

The Internet as a whole, and Mechanical Turk specifically, is the 21st century version of the “buildings in which many are at work” that Marx speaks of, and a “total change in the material conditions of the labour process” has been the result. Given the fact that Mechanical Turk is centered on people performing tasks that computers cannot, I argue that this labor market is not just exploiting the labor of employees, but also their knowledge, both tacit and explicit. Mechanical Turk gives us a glimpse of a digital work environment centered on non-negotiable contracts, fierce competition, and free from minimum wage regulation, where individuals’ labor and knowledge are both exploited to frightening degrees. The question, then, is where do librarians fit into this violent new labor market? Is it possible to return a degree of agency to the knowledge production/consumption process?

Library and information professionals such as Christine Pawley have grappled with the complex relationship between production and consumption and have, in my opinion, crafted some solutions that are applicable to the Web-based knowledge market. Pawley’s “Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling” raises some important points regarding issues with the concept of information literacy as a whole, while also touching on the need to reframe the concepts of information production and consumption. Pawley discusses the need to develop “information literacy practices that situate all information users—not just scholars—at the center of processes of information production and recontextualization, thus hybridizing the identity of consumer-as-producer and producer-as-consumer” (Pawley, 2003). Pawley points to the need to reframe knowledge and information production/consumption not as dichotomous, but as one single, inextricably linked process. When we begin to recognize, as Pawley discusses, the idea of information as a process, not merely an item to be created by some and consumed by others, we can move information out of the realm of commodity. By participating in the both the information production and consumption processes, individuals are no longer subjected to the alienating effects of knowledge as commodity. As information and library professionals help to reframe this understanding of knowledge as an active process, individuals will be presented with the opportunity to escape the production/consumption dichotomy and the associated commodification of the “product”. It is in this way that I believe library and information studies can help to combat the negative aspects of knowledge production, management, and consumption in the corporate environment, and reintroduce a sense of agency to the process.

 

References

Marvit, Moshe. “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine.” The Nation. The Nation Mag., 5 Feb. 2014. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

Marx, Karl. “Capital: An Analysis of Capitalist Production.” Ed. Julian Borchardt. Capital. Ed. Max Eastman. New York: Random House, 1959. 64-65. Print.

Pawley, Christine. “Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 73.4 (2003): 422-448. Digital.

Rechberg, Isabel, and Jawad Syed. “Ethical issues in knowledge management: conflict of knowledge ownership.” Journal of Knowledge Management 17.6 (2013): 828-840. Digital.

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