Observation at Interference Archive

By ktidwell

Over two weekends in March, I volunteered at the Interference Archive in Gowanus, Brooklyn, as part of an ongoing series of accessioning and cataloguing parties kicked off to handle one of the largest donations the archive has seen. In June 2016, the archive received Sean Stewart’s “‘Babylon Falling Collection’ of underground press and related ephemera” and began a long term project to accession Stewart’s donation. I heard about the accessioning parties through an SAA posting to the Pratt email list.

Interference Archive is a volunteer-run archive, gallery, and events space dedicated to the cultural production of social and resistance movements across the world, although the collection has greater representation from American and later 20th century and contemporary movements. I first visited the archive in 2014 for the opening of an exhibit about prison resistance movements. I had not visited since and I was nervous- I have only minor and non-traditional cataloguing experience, and, frankly, Interference Archive seems really cool. I shouldn’t have worried. The gathering was small, and the volunteer running the event, Charlie, was ready to show me everything I needed to know.

My apprehension was also rooted in the general assumption that archives are closed systems, even while I actively pursue an LIS degree. In “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory” (2002), Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook criticize (especially institutional) archives’ “professional myth of impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity.” Even knowing that Interference is an independent nonprofit, I was still cowed by the power and authority ascribed to record keepers. The last archive I worked in was largely closed to the public, though it received taxpayer funding and all of its content was contributed by community members. Interference Archive, however, is a very open system. Not only do they have fully open stacks- as I learned when spontaneous visitors wandered through the space during the accessioning party- but they welcome community volunteers. One of the most knowledgeable volunteers there was a high school-age intern, who worked alongside the more experienced volunteers with confidence and ownership. In addition, a book club was meeting in the gallery space both weekends, with their readings informed by materials from the archive. Interference Archive is a rejection of the phenomenon, described by Schwartz and Cook that, “what goes on in the archives remains remarkably unknown. Users of archives (historians and others) and shapers of archives (records creators, records managers, and archivists) add layers of meaning, layers which become naturalized, internalized, and unquestioned.” The archive also hosts events where anyone can come and produce the kind of protest ephemera- posters, buttons, etc- that they archive.  It lives the principles of information literacy outlined in “Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling” (2003) by Christine Pawley, that “information ‘access’ is not just about information consumerism but also about individuals and groups of people actively shaping their world as knowledge producers in a way that renders the consumer-producer dichotomy irrelevant.” It actively undercuts the secrecy and authority of traditional archives by making its work collaborative and accessible.

I spent about nine hours total slowly paging through back issues of the Industrial Worker, a publication published by the Industrial Workers of the World, labeling each issue and then entering them all into the archive’s CMS. Other publications in the new Babylon Falls collection are from the underground presses of the 1960s and 70s. Underground press is a perfect example of collaborative and volunteer-based cultural production that existed before the internet permitted wide-scale collaboration.

Interference Archive manages their metadata in the open source Collective Access browser platform and keeps an instructional wiki for volunteers. This seems appropriate both for their collaborative structure and their collection theme. For a non-profit archive with an all-volunteer staff, funding may be relatively low, but labor is relatively available, making the free but involved nature of open source a perfect match. Additionally, thanks to the open source movement, institutions like libraries and archives that have a professional democratic focus, and institutions with even more specific collections focus on things like collective action and popular movements, can extend those principles to the tools they use in their daily work. While Yochai Benkler (2006) calls the open-source movement “a new mode of production emerging in the middle of the most advanced economies in the world,” the way that open source supports existing volunteer-run workspaces shows how it also bolsters existing modes of production.  Archives like the Interference Archive or the Lesbian Herstory Archive, can be described as “a flourishing non-market sector of information, knowledge, and cultural production,” some of which existed long before Benkler used those words to describe open-source software. Their market participation in terms of rent and supplies is comparable to the baseline participation of open source coders who have to pay for the physical space and supplies they need to participate in online communities. Of course, as Benkler writes, the scale is significantly different.

Open source software complements existing non-market collaborations. And non-market non-digital collaborations contribute to open source digital projects. At the second session I attended, another volunteer was working in the shared space, preparing materials for a Wikipedia edit-a-thon. She was going through the archives’ materials, preparing them for other volunteers to consume and share on Wikipedia. Technology has changed the meaning of outreach for activism-minded archives from offering themselves as accessible resources to actively defining history and reality in shared digital space. This distinction between their digital catalogue and the edit-a-thon is an illustration of the two stage permeation of computers described by James H. Moor in his 2006 paper, “What is Computer Ethics?”. The former fits the “introduction stage,” where “computers are understood as tools for doing standard jobs.” The latter represents “the permeation stage,” where “computers become an integral part of the activity.” An open source encyclopedia like Wikipedia has changed the reality of contribution to common record for “outsider”, or at least non-governmental, organizations.

I observed one small limitation of Collective Access that is not easily fixed with the limitations of an all volunteer staff. In the field for entering serial issues, each issue had to be entered chronologically- there was no support for sorting by date within the field. If an issue was discovered out of order, you could either delete all the entries up to that date and then enter the new issue and re-enter the others, or enter it at the end, permanently out of order. This also necessitates meticulously ordering all issues before beginning the process of cataloguing them, which, while I enjoyed the chance to look over the Industrial Worker a few times, cumulatively uses time that would not be necessary with a sort function. While this problem seems solvable with available technology, each minor solution takes time and technological know-how from volunteers. This is a minor drawback. Overall, Collective Access is flexible and customizable, and Interference Archive appears to have consistent volunteers.


Since volunteering, I have remained on the email list for volunteers. I have not made it back to the archive yet, but I plan to return soon (probably when this semester is over). Observing and participating in an archive that turns the traditional power structures of archives on its head fundamentally changed the way that I imagine archives can work.


Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press.

Pawley, C. (2003), Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling. Library Quarterly, 73(4), 422–52.

Moor, J. H. (1985). What is Computer Ethics? Metaphilosophy, 16(4), 266–275.

Schwartz, J. M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science, 2(1/2), 1-19.

ISP: Insane Surveillance Posse, or, “User-Centered” Madness and Waiting on a Response from ALA about Recent ISP Privacy Rules

By ktidwell

In the midst of executive orders and legislation clamoring for public attention, a recent vote in Congress to permit extensive collection and use of browsing data by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) has drawn a lot of public outcry and media analysis. The ISP legislation faces the wrath of people whose digital privacy has been repeatedly revealed to be already compromised, often illegally- by NSA surveillance, CIA surveillance, and even unauthorized commercial product surveillance. The added insult is that this time the decision to erode privacy happened, well, publicly. It also occurred without any pretense of security or content payoff. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are suddenly casual conversation fodder. Yet as tech savvy as the public is becoming, even a VPN, it turns out, is not the cloak of digital invisibility people want it to be. All Internet data is potentially and legally marketable information. With design becoming increasingly tailored to user profiles, the value of information about users has risen dramatically while the cultural capital of autonomous privacy-decisions is expressed in dialogue but not law. This user-focused approach originated in research initially done by in part libraries and information science researchers, but has grown beyond its initial scope of ethnographic user observation. The discrepancy between public consciousness and government and corporate policy illuminates previously hidden forms of information work, namely playing and existing alongside internet-enabled observant technology. It also highlights that even though public libraries can continue to serve as both information providers and information anonymizers, their reliance on third-party technology jeopardizes their core values.


User-centered design has become (or again become) the standard when researching and designing resources for people, and this has morphed into a market for user data. This turn towards user centered design, at least in information seeking behavior, “has been the province not of information systems as a discipline, but of information science and, before that, librarianship” according to Tom Wilson, a human information behavior researcher. The goal of such research was to better serve library users, and the success of the approach has spread it to advertisers, tech companies, and other for-profit corporations. This field of study has been in many ways ethnographic, based on direct observation of consenting users (Wilson 2000; Talja & Hartel, 2007). Wilson writes that the increased study of user habits “has been accompanied by a switch from quantitative methods to qualitative method.” In non-digital contexts, this will continue to be the case (barring implementation of widespread video observation devices on non-consenting people, like those used in London, and in the case of London, barring the use of that data for market research). In digital contexts, much of human information seeking behavior is easily tracked in browsing data, and the study of user behavior becomes again highly quantitative. New methods of collection and their intended purposes also exit the ethical realm of libraries, a problem that would not matter if libraries were opaque information silos with full control over the pathways of their user generated data. As will be discussed later: libraries are not so self-possessed.


Collecting that data is easy, and using and selling it under terms of service agreements has been a common practice by technology companies, to the point that many people are not actively aware that their interactions with the Internet are a form of labor. Free or cheap technology products have been subsidized by the sale of information. Using browsing data collected concurrently with daily information life is for now, the apex of user-centered design, though it may also represent the apex of public/private identity erosion. Gregory Downey wrote in 2014 of his students that “their own amateur media activity—whether uploading photos to their social network profile or downloading the latest cultural content outside of intellectual property paywalls—reinforces the fiction that information circulation is driven simply by ‘play’ and that information content is simply available for ‘free’”. Downey struggled to demonstrate the labor that creates and moves information and content. The transparency of and media attention towards the ISP bill, and the probability that data vending is not likely to be accompanied by a reduction in Internet cost, has revealed to a broad audience the labor of Internet-connected existence. The revelation, however, did not come soon enough. Now, individuals are charged with protecting their privacy with the limited means available to them. While this extends the existing opportunity for libraries to help protect their users’ privacy, it also constrains them in similar inescapable ways.


Libraries’ values present a tension between information access and privacy. As of March 30, 2017, the American Library Association’s web presence is preoccupied with fighting the specter of full funding cuts to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) proposed in a recent Trump Administration budget. This is understandable. The cuts represent an existential threat to libraries and their ability to make information accessible to their users. Simultaneously, the ALA celebrates collaborations with ISPs to bring Internet access, and therefore information access, to poor families. The well of funds and the national reach of corporations permit a broad expansion of information access in line with some of the fundamental principles of Democratic Theory in libraries (Buschman 2007), particularly when other streams of funding are threatened. Yet it also stands to consider how use of and partnerships with ISPs erode other facets of Democratic practice in libraries, particularly in light of the new legislation. While some larger libraries are their own ISPs, and therefore able to maintain near-absolute control over access to user data, most mid sized and smaller libraries use private ISPs that, under this ruling, could begin to selling all library users’ web browsing. While a library IP address obscures the user, any self-identifying information entered into a browsing session would undo this protection. Libraries should and do invest in VPNs to protect their users, but as mentioned above, this solution is not as effective as widely believed. Libraries who use private ISPs are subject to seeing at least some user data sold for profit when that data surfaces on other networks. Additionally, when libraries partner with ISPs who then offer Internet for reduced prices to poor families, they have no control whatsoever over the subsequent use of patrons’ home data that they helped facilitate.


The ALA does actively talk about privacy regarding data exchange, offering suggestions on how to protect patrons, and making privacy a major issue on their website and in their advocacy. Still, the ALA has yet to meaningfully acknowledge the new bill. The news is absent from their twitter feed and the news section of their main website. The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has thus far only acknowledged Congress’ vote in a news link roundup. Previously, the ALA has been vocal about other issues relating to ISPs, especially net neutrality. If libraries are to practice information access congruently with user privacy, they could follow Buschman’s suggestion to put Jürgen Habermas’ ideas in to practice, specifically “his concepts of colonization and de-integration of public and private life.” The ISP ruling co-opts a mostly non-market world, and places it in an inescapable arena of profit and observation.





Buschman, J. (2007). Democratic Theory in LIS: Toward an Emendation. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 1483–1496.

Downey, G. J. (2014). “Making media work: time, space, identity, and labor in the analysis of information and communication infrastructures” in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, eds. T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, and K. Foot. Cambridge: MIT Press, 141–165. https://gdowney.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/downey-g-2014-in-gillespie-t-et-al-eds-2014-making-media-work.pdf.

Habermas, J. (1987) . The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures (F. Lawrence, Trans.) . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Talja, S. & Hartel, J. (2007). “Revisiting the user-centered turn in information science research: an intellectual history perspective,” Information Research 12(4).http://InformationR.net/ir/12-4/colis/colis04.html

Wilson, T. D. (2000). Human information behavior. Informing Science, 3(2), 49-55.



admin. (2007, March 29). Privacy and Confidentiality [Text]. Retrieved March 30, 2017, from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/privacyconfidentiality/privacy/privacyconfidentiality

Assn, A. L. (2017, March 16). The President’s budget proposal to eliminate @US_IMLS funding is counterproductive and shortsighted.http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2017/03/president-s-budget-proposal-eliminate-federal-library-funding … [microblog]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/ALALibrary

New Checklists to Support Library Patron Privacy – LITA Blog. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://litablog.org/2017/02/new-checklists-to-support-library-patron-privacy/

SHAWNDA.KAY. (2017a, February 24). American Library Association and Cox Communications partner to narrow digital divide for low-income families [Text]. Retrieved March 30, 2017, from http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2017/02/american-library-association-and-cox-communications-partner-narrow-digital

SHAWNDA.KAY. (2017b, March 7). ALA and 170 public interest organizations call on FCC and Congress to protect and enforce strong net neutrality rules and secure the open internet [Text]. Retrieved March 30, 2017, from http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2017/03/ala-and-170-public-interest-organizations-call-fcc-and-congress-protect-and

Dawkins, A. (2017, March 10). Intellectual Freedom News 3/10/17. Retrieved from http://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=8859

The House just voted to wipe away the FCC’s landmark Internet privacy protections. (n.d.). Retrieved March 30, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/03/28/the-house-just-voted-to-wipe-out-the-fccs-landmark-internet-privacy-protections/

Democratic Student Participation at Olin College at METRO Conference 2017

By ktidwell

     At the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s annual conference on January 11, 2017, the two keynote sessions were both about libraries’ physical spaces, a theme perhaps influenced by METRO’s own move to, and plans for, a new location. Along with new spaces, all of the featured libraries talked about new technology- from large flatbed scanners, digital vinyl cutters, 3-D printers, photo stations, to interactive design stations- and the ways in which the spaces and their contents could be aligned to promote user participation and a sense of ownership. The final keynote from Jeff Goldenson of Olin College of Engineering credited the administrative transfer of decision-making to students and student access to shared property with the library’s success in engaging learning in their new space. While Olin Library’s experiment in democratizing decision-making worked for its institution, the presentation caused consternation among some audience members who expressed concern that Olin’s relative abundance of financial resources and small user population was a palliative and privileged measure for implementing democratic theory in libraries.

     The final keynote from Goldenson about the small liberal arts school’s campus library was a visually lush multi-media presentation about student engagement and the physical and technological improvements made to the space. Olin is an engineering college. The library, led by Goldenson, made itself central to campus life by becoming a sandbox to a volunteer group of students who were empowered by permission and access to funds to act on what they felt the library needed to become a useful resource to campus. For Olin this looked like a special collection of lendable power tools, a vinyl sticker cutter and student’s self-made labels for shelves, a hydroponic garden in a bookshelf, a free pour-over coffee bar, and bookshelves on rolling casters. For all its technological trappings, however, Olin library’s success was founded on its group of volunteer students, OWL, or Olin Workshop on the Library, who made decisions in a democratic manner. In a critical overview of democratic theory in library and information science, Democratic theory in LIS: toward an emendation, John Buschman reviews writings by Sheldon Wolin, Jürgen Habermas, and Amy Gutmann and generalizes that “democracy is not a specific thing to be attained (like a possession or a perfected structure), but rather a process that enables – even requires – debate about its meaning, limits, and problems in order to realize authentic collective democratic action.” By inviting students into the library as decision makers, Olin college created an evolutionary system that began to address problems as they presented themselves and to act on new ideas as they arose.

     The library also saw its student population as a network: students in OWL began taking input from students not directly involved in the library and highlighting them in meetings. As a student volunteer group, these contributions were made out of a love for collaborative creation. Yochai Benkler writes about this kind of non-capital motivation 2006 book, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, where he says that “nonmarket collaborations can be better at motivating effort and can allow creative people to work on information projects more efficiently than would traditional market mechanisms and corporations.” Though Benkler was talking specifically about networking over computers, his ideas apply here too. One of the reasons Benkler saw computer networks as a counter to the “industrial information economy” was the relatively low resource threshold to access free information and low cost or free access to tools of creation. In Olin Library’s case, allocation of budget to student-driven projects made resources available to be used collaboratively, in conjunction with the library’s core resource- information in digital and physical formats. The library encourages late-night student meet ups with no staff supervision- sending a message that the administration trusts and will minimally regulate student resource use. Students who build structures for the library are encouraged to share their plans, and photo stations are sometimes used to create shared art projects. In some ways, this seems to be a physical expression of the kind of collaboration that evolved during the “emergence of the networked information economy.”

     During the Q&A after Goldenson’s presentation, a jarring question drew both surprise and nodding heads. A public librarian raised his hand and asked: “What was your presentation about?” After the hour-long talk, the question seemed on the surface obtuse. Yet by the reactions of several in the crowd, it was implying a deeper divide in how people in the room understood the very purpose of a library. In a room of librarians from institutions of varying resources, those on the lower-resourced end were visibly uneasy about advancements in Democratic participation in libraries expressed as stream of new, and expensive, technical acquisitions. While Olin’s budget mimicked some of the freedoms of the internet for its students alone by allowing them a say in resources allocation and a freedom of use, it still falls under a critique of liberal arts education from Sheldon Wolin in his 2000 essay, Political Theory: From Vocation to Invocation, as quoted by John Buschman in Democratic theory in LIS:

“The ’virtual university’ tailored to the needs of a technologically driven society is gaining support […] it offers the hope, mainly illusory, that by a severely practical curriculum its students can climb the wall separating the [classes]. When scrutinized according to such measures as costeffectiveness… and productivity, the ideals of the humanistic liberal arts education cannot survive, except as an appendage to the culture industry or as a Potemkin village where the sons and daughters of the rich … receive a polish unobtainable elsewhere.”

When METRO participants from institutions with fewer resources assessed Olin’s demonstration of collaborative possibilities, many saw it as an unobtainable goal, and possibly even undesirable one. Even if Olin’s students are not exclusively “sons and daughters of the rich,” its exclusivity and high funding allow it smooth democratic operation within its prescribed world, where entry to its resources is guarded by restrictive school admissions, and where its pool of contributors is circumscribed. To some other librarians, the freedoms described at Olin looked haphazard and unscalable, and a contribution to democratic library involvement that did not meaningfully expand on democratic behavior in libraries at large.

     One of Olin Library’s greatest assets was a voluntary transfer of some governing power from administrators to a network of students. John Buschman asks in Democratic theory and LIS, “Can […] a library support intellectual freedom for its community without practicing it as a workplace?” The Olin Library cannot provide a complete answer to this question; its case study offers only the opposite, that yes, at least one library can support intellectual freedom while practicing it as a workplace.

     This question was tested in the negative at Long Island University when faculty, including librarians, were locked out for twelve days by the administration in a preemptive response to possible strikes over union contract negotiations. In a different session at METRO, Emily Drabinski and Aliqe Geraci detailed how the faculty organized with support from the well-organized library union, additional support from students, other unions, and professional associations. In a quote from the New York Times, Drabinski says, “We made a really clear statement that you can’t run a university without faculty and without students.” This was just one example of a library where empowerment of collective decision making- in this case faculty contract negotiations- was met with administrative absolutism. While Olin was successful in taking advantage of its assets to improve library experience for its specific patrons, the mixed reaction from the community of librarians at the METRO conference demonstrated a need for an acknowledgement of broader issues facing democratic theory and the library field at large when highlighting the success of an unusual institution.


Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press.

Bromwich, J. E., & Robbins, L. (2016, September 14). Faculty Lockout at L.I.U.-Brooklyn Ends With Contract Agreement. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/15/nyregion/faculty-lockout-at-liu-brooklyn-ends-with-contract-agreement.html

Buschman, J. (2007). Democratic Theory in LIS: Toward an Emendation. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 1483–1496.

Wolin, S. S. (2000) . Political Theory: From Vocation to Invocation. In J. A. Frank & J. Tambornino (Eds.), Vocations of Political Theory (pp. 3-22) . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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