LIS 651 Observation: Interference Archive

By ekobert

This weekend, I observed and participated in a cataloging party at Interference Archive in Park Slope. According to their website (2018):

The mission of Interference Archive is to explore the relationship between cultural production and social movements. This work manifests in an open stacks archival collection, publications, a study center, and public programs including exhibitions, workshops, talks, and screenings, all of which encourage critical and creative engagement with the rich history of social movements.

Interference Archive (IA) is a fully volunteer-run and non-hierarchical organization, getting things done by way of working groups and effective communication, mainly via Basecamp and a Google listserv. The cataloging working group, for example, organizes semi-regular ‘parties’ where volunteers meet for several hours to create catalog records accessible through the organization’s public website. Most volunteers are local to New York City, though some commute from out of town to staff the archive or participate in events, and they include library and information professionals, artists, activists, and folks who are generally fascinated by social movements and believe that these materials can be used to inspire further social transformation. I count myself among this last category.

Folding sign in front of the archive

One thing that makes IA unusual as an archive is the open stacks structure. Any person who enters the archive during open hours is free to browse any materials on their own and to take pictures. The only instructions, highlighted on useful signs throughout the archive in both English and Spanish, are to handle the items with care (e.g., wash your hands first, lay larger items like posters on flat surfaces) and to avoid taking pictures of other visitors without their consent. Based on my own experience in staffing as well as reading the volunteer logs posted on Basecamp after each shift, visitors range from curious passersby to scholars looking for specific materials to college classes visiting with their professors. Volunteers are on hand to help point visitors in the right direction, and those who have been volunteering for years may have deep knowledge of the archive’s holdings, but this is really an archive without an archivist.

These signs are posted throughout the archive.

My own participation in cataloging on Saturday is a testament to this fact. When I arrived, I learned that we would be cataloging newspapers from a large donation. These objects had already been accessioned – assigned an ID with the year of the donation and a unique lot number, and listed on a shared spreadsheet with the item’s location and group-level descriptions – and our task was to record them using the cataloging program Collective Access. After creating a new account for me on Collective Access, two volunteers patiently walked me through the next steps. Because we were dealing with newspapers, the catalog records were series-level, so we created one entry for each newspaper title and then listed the volume or issue number and date of publication for each individual newspaper held in the collection. We used WorldCat and Wikipedia to research background information on the series like the run of publication, former or alternate names, and creators and contributors. We also used online information to create a general, text-searchable description field in the catalog record, and we took low-resolution photos to attach to each record. In the three hours that I was at the archive, I cataloged about a dozen newspapers under three different titles.

Objects at IA are sorted by format, and then further organized either alphabetically (in the case of serials, newspapers, and zines) or by subject (in the case of ephemera, posters, books, pamphlets, and vinyl records). One of the volunteers explained that a reason we prioritized cataloging newspapers over some other formats is that it’s harder to find what one is looking for alphabetically, so cataloging with subject terms and cross-references is much more helpful. For example, if a researcher is interested in the Black Panther Party, it would be simple enough to browse through pamphlets and posters under the Black Panther subject heading, but they might not know to look through the newspapers alphabetically for Space City!, a Houston-based underground newspaper that I cataloged which extensively covered the Black Panther movement.

 

Space City!, an underground newspaper, published in Houston, TX in the early 1970s

On the topic of subject terms, I was encouraged to use WorldCat subject headings as suggestions or jumping-off points, but one volunteer explained that the organization has elected not to use Library of Congress Subject Headings as an authority source because of how problematic they can be, especially as they pertain to more radical subjects, and they may not be in line with how the objects’ creators or the people who donated these objects would want them described. While this type of work takes place outside of the critical cataloging movement, which alternately attempts to correct biased information or engage pedagogically with the existing biased terms of the LCSH (Drabinski, 2013), I think it is a useful principled stand that sympathizes with the goals of critical cataloging. Attempts are made to describe objects in a straightforward and respectful fashion that is not subject to review by any authority source, but it’s also important to remember that even if only subconsciously, “all archivists bring assumptions, identities, and experiences to the task of description” (Caswell, 2016, p.19). I believe IA’s nature as a collective of pseudo-archivists with varying perspectives provides a powerful check to this issue, but it should not be ignored.

Another key theoretical concept in archives that plays out in an interesting way at IA is provenance. As noted above, information about donors is recorded and enshrined in cataloging records, but there is not really a concern for original order. An individual’s collection can be reconstructed digitally once it is fully cataloged, but it does not inform the way objects are physically organized. I think that Caswell’s (2016) proposed re-conception of provenance as “an ever-changing, infinitely evolving process of recontextualization” that takes into account creators, archivists, and users (p. 13) is particularly apt. That a person chose to donate their objects to a community archive, instead of a museum or more traditional archive, certainly says something about the object itself.

Cataloging at Interference Archive was a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon and to learn more about some of the objects in this collection. In the few months since I’ve gotten involved at IA, it has truly surprised me how productive and organized a group of volunteers can be, especially when they are not motivated by a time-sensitive or political goal (such as an election campaign). In its task of collecting of radical materials, IA takes a unconventional approach to the task of archiving, which suits its purposes and provides a useful model for organizations with similar goals.

Interference Archive’s collection of newspapers

 

 

References

Caswell, Michelle (2016). ‘The Archive’ Is Not an Archive: On Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies. Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, 16(1). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7bn4v1fk

Drabinski, Emily (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669547

Interference Archive (2018). Our Mission [web page]. Retrieved from http://interferencearchive.org/our-mission/

 

 

Inescapable Biases and the Construction of Catalog Realities

By belantara

Emily Drabinski’s article, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” discusses an important issue library professionals must face.   All attempts to create some type of globally relevant system of classification and organization have problems embedded within them. How can a library catalog ever be expected to be finite and representative all the various mindsets and ways of knowing that exist in the world or even in one cosmopolitan city? Language constantly develops, new ideas emerge, societies change, borders are redefined, concepts evolve, and policies are renegotiated.  Humans create categories in order to impose some kind of structure on the world so as not to feel lost in complete chaos.  Such structures may be imperfect illusions, but it does not seem that we humans have yet fathomed a better solution to finding our way through the labyrinthian archive known as existence.  Until we do, library and information professionals must deal with an ever-growing mass of information.  They must also endeavor to ensure that ways of finding and sorting through it are relevant to as many different people as possible.

Drabinski references the history of radical librarianship and notes that the biased nature of cataloging has been a debated issue in LIS professions since the late 1960s.  While radical catalogers have made progress in making changes to biased subject headings and class marks, Drabinski thinks that making these changes is basically like treating a symptom of an illness without addressing its cause.  She feels that critical catalogers miss an important point in their work when making corrections to the Library of Congress’ classification system: the problematic nature of cataloging itself.  She writes, “such corrections are always contingent and never final, shifting in response to discursive and political and social change…[they] reiterate an approach to classification and cataloging that elides contingency as a factor in determining what classification and cataloging decisions are imagined to be correct in any given context.”

Drabinski’s call for LIS professionals to “theorize the trouble with classification and cataloging in library knowledge systems [as] the root” of the problem is similar to demands critical theory scholars have made on academics to acknowledge the impact that socio-historical constructions, power structures, economics and politics have on supposedly objective research.  In their article, “Rethinking Critical Theory and Qualitative Research,” Kincheloe and McLaren discuss how practices in critical theory aim to make implicit inescapable biases more explicit in academic research.  By openly acknowledging and grappling with these biases as part of the research process, critical theorists aim to move towards a more balanced or democratic way of both conducting and representing research.  Both Drabinski’s and Kincheloe and McLaren’s articles draw attention to a tendency in society and in academia to cling to notions of objectivity or the so-called myth of neutrality even though one’s understanding and experience of the world is in constant flux and dependent on numerous changing factors.

So what can LIS professionals do to achieve their goal of making information accessible whilst understanding that the cataloging systems they must work with are irreparably flawed by their very nature?  Drabinski advocates what she considers to be a Queer intervention to this problem: leave contested headings or class marks in place to allow for critical public discussion and deconstruction of their meanings.   She believes that a rupture occurs when someone encounters an “obviously biased classification decision or subject heading” making it easy for library users to see the “constructed quality of library classification.”

While I can appreciate Drabinski’s desire to use biased cataloging practices as an impetus to spark discussions between library staff and critical patrons, I’m not convinced it will have the outcome she desires.  The rupture she speaks of is dependent upon a user already being of like mind about the “incorrectness” of the subject heading or class mark in question.  What may be an obvious bias to one user may be nothing remarkable to another.  Furthermore, it does not make sense to knowingly allow a biased structure to remain in place just to serve as a potential discussion point. People who are likely to experience such a rupture going through a library catalog already experience them everywhere in everyday life just trying to do ordinary things like finding a public restroom, buying “nude tone” bandages or make-up, finding a job, hailing a taxi, voting, getting married…and the list goes on.  They need not go to the library just to find one other reminder of how “the system” is up against them.  It seems to me that aiming to adopt progressive cataloging methods would have more of the desired impact. For example, radical cataloging practices could cause a rupture for those who would use subject headings like “sexual deviance” to organize books about homosexuality.  In my opinion, this is where the rupture Drabinski seeks ought to be taking place.

Towards the end of their article Kincheloe and McLaren introduce an ethnographic research method called “deconstructive ethnography.” Over the past few decades anthropologists have strived for reflexivity in their work, and deconstructive ethnography takes reflexivity even further. Kincheloe and McLaren write, “Whereas reflexive ethnography questions its own authority, deconstructive ethnography forfeits its authority.”  This approach is interesting to consider since many think the goal of research is to produce some kind of authoritative knowledge.

The concept of deconstructive ethnography is very interesting in the library context.  As Drabinski points out, library catalogs do provide an amazing potential to draw attention to the ways socio-political constructions create ideas of reality.  People seek things based off of what they think makes sense, using their own authoritative understanding of the world.  Librarians assign categories based on “authority records” and use “authority fields” to make catalog records.  Do these authorities recognize one another?  As libraries aim to provide equal access for all, it seems that they ought to adopt catalog and classifying practices that incorporate ways of describing and identifying that are in alignment with how those being classified define themselves. With new technology, there is no reason that catalogs could not be designed to provide a wide variety of access points in order to make items findable based on multiple perspectives of library users.  Would this be a sort of deconstructive cataloging?  Does there need to be an authoritative catalog?  While a permanent and universal system is an impossibility, a system that acknowledges its biases and accounts for the diversity of ways of knowing and accessing the world is not.

References:

  • Drabinksi, E. (2013), “Queering the catalog: queer theory and the politics of correction” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83(2): 94–111.
  • Kincheloe, J. and McLaren, P. (2002), “Rethinking Critical Theory and Qualitative Research” in Ethnography and Schools Qualitative Approaches to the Study of Education (Immigration and the Transnational Experience Series) Eds. Zou, Y and Truebe, E.  pp. 87-130
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