“Archives, Advocacy, and Change” at the New York Academy of Medicine

By Carissa

“The archival profession is inherently an activist profession.” -Rich Wandel

Last night, the New York Academy of Medicine hosted a panel called “Archives, Advocacy, and Change” as part of their Changemakers series. The panelists were Jenna Freedman, founder of the Barnard Zine Library; Steven Fullwood, founder of In the Life Archive; Timothy Johnson, director of NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives and co-director of Tamiment’s Cold War Center; and Rich Wandel (quoted above), founder of  The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive.  Continue reading

Observation: The Internet Archive and the Question of Abundance

By keneilb

Historians, in fact, maybe facing a fundamental paradigm shift from a culture of scarcity to a culture of abundance. Not so long ago, we worried about the small numbers of people we could reach, pages of scholarship we could publish, primary sources we could introduce to our students, and documents that had survived from the past. At least potentially, digital technology has removed many of these limits: over the Internet, it costs no more to deliver the AHR two 15 million people than 15,000 people; it costs less for our students to have access to literally millions of primary sources than a handful in a published anthology. And we may be able to both save and quickly search through all of the products of our culture. But will abundance bring better or more thoughtful history? (Rosenzweig, 2013)

In the recent past, information wasn’t as available as it is today. In today’s age we can hardly imagine what it is like to not have constant access to information. The moment we think of something we don’t know the answer to or someone asks us a question we might not know the answer to we can immediately pull out a mere device such as a cellphone to look up the answers practically instantaneously. Information is constantly at our beck and call, and with the tremendous growth in technology we have many ways of accessing it, storing it, and archiving it, whether it be through computers, laptops, phones, tablets, and even glasses. In addition to that, there is still the “old school” method of simply going to a library and finding the text you need, which now is much easier to browse since you can do it from home, have a book placed on hold for you so it’s ready upon your arrival to the library. Insane! But not really, because we are so used to it.

Rosenzweig asks the question as previously quoted, “But will abundance bring better or more thoughtful history?” I like to agree with Jason Silva on this one. Jason Silva is a futurist who puts a positive light on technological advancements and how humans can and will interface with them. In one of his videos on the YouTube channel Shots of Awe, he talks about one facet of how technology is shared, through the Internet, and describes how it actually increases the flow of curiosity and creativity. Many people believe that technology is making us lazy, that the Internet makes us simply look for an answer and then just move on without much thought. However, Jason Silva makes a good point that the Internet actually offloads some of our mental faculties, so that we can focus on even more things. What he means is that by being aided by the Internet to get an abundance of information quickly, we can spend more time on greater things, such as more thought towards what we have learned from it. So I believe that the answer to Rosenzweig’s question is that abundance will indeed bring better and more thoughtful history.

As previously mentioned, technology has made even using the library quicker and more efficient. We wont be saying good-bye to libraries any time soon. But, not only can you access physical items through a library, but also one of the most widely growing areas is digitizing resources. Now we might not always have to set foot into a library if we are looking for a quick e-source such as an e-book, journal article, etc. Most libraries offer access to these things, specifically academic libraries. It’s gotten so far that there are some libraries that might not have a specific physical location for their patrons to come in, but rather they exist online. One such place is the Internet Archive, at https://www.archive.org

The Internet Archive is a non-profit Internet library that started in 1997 with the purpose to “include offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format.” Many may already know them for their Way Back Machine that has 439 web pages saved from different periods of time, but they also store formats from texts, video, audio, software, image, concerts, and collections.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 11.22.06 PM

Way Back Machine

The Way Back Machine was fun to explore. It was quite interesting to see websites such as yahoo, and amazon in its early stages. Yahoo, for instance was in no way visually appealing, and worked like a directory with a general list that branched off into more lists until you could narrow it down to the sites that you were looking for. It shows the gradual increase in our interfaces and how the Internet became much more user oriented as time went on, making it easier for humans to interface with it.

Old Yahoo

I also went ahead and created my own account for their website. The heading of the account creation page states, “Get a Virtual Library Card”. They treat their website as a library of its own, and your account is considered to be your Library Card. Having an account allows you to access other functions of the website. This includes favoriting, reviewing and rating items. The Internet Archive’s collections has a very straight forward browsing tool. When on a collection, each item has its own box which shows the item type, how many times its been viewed, how many times its been favorited, and how many times its been reviewed. This creates a very unique community, because with a physical library a patron doesn’t have any access to how many times an item has been viewed or how many people like it, or what people think about it. With this available to patrons, it can help them browse for popular items or less popular items or read up on what people have to say about it. Having the ability to write a review also allows patrons to leave very helpful tips. Through my observations, I’ve seen patrons give advice as to where to go to find more information on an item, as well as correct an item and informing the Internet Archive team about missing information from an item. At the bottom of each item you can also find what people have found after finding the current item. This creates a trend that can be very helpful for those with similar taste in books or whatever the item type is.

I’ve noticed that not all items are full text, but many are. I’ve even searched for “The Jungle Book” and was able to find the full original movie from 1942 and was able to watch it all for free! https://archive.org/details/JungleBook. There were also some very interesting finds just from browsing, like audio from NASA launches to be listened to in full. There are also tons of images archived on this website, even including your favorite music album covers.

As I browsed the site I was in awe of all the history we are able to store and access because of sites like the Internet Archive. But behind it all was the nagging question of how permanent can all this truly be? Their purpose states that it’s a permanent place, but in actuality all of this is stored on servers, computers probably in different areas and links back to other sources that they might have received it from. It would probably be really difficult to lose all of these files, but I can’t help but think that it is still possible. Technology is always growing and changing, leaving old methods of storage nearly obsolete; such as computers today not having a floppy disc drive to read files stored on a floppy. So, having archival websites like this one is a massive historical tool that can help many people to learn from the past and present. It probably wont be going anywhere for a long time, but I believe efforts should be made to observe ways to store these things in an even more permanent way, so that people in the future will also have access and not just for our time alone. This, too, can have issues with space to store so much information, but the trend seems to be that we are inventing smaller and smaller spaces of storage. Who knows how far we will go.

References

Internet Archive. https://archive.org. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Rosenzweig, R. (2003). Scarcity or abundance? Preserving the past in a digital era. The American Historical Review, 108(3), 735-762.

Can We Avoid Biases in Library Classification Systems?

By keneilb

The problem of bias in library classification structures and subject language are, from a queer perspective, problems endemic to the knowledge organization project itself. If social categories and names are understood as embedded in contingencies of space, time, and discourse, then bias is inextricable from the process of classification and cataloging. When an item is placed in a particular category or given a particular name, those decisions always reflect a particular ideology or approach to understanding the material itself. 1

As human beings, we are bound to our subjectivity. The way we shape the world is due to our upbringing, experiences, community, culture, and other social influences. I believe that, because of this, it is near impossible for us to truly see objectively. Every thought and idea we have is influenced by something else. This notion trickles down even to library classification and subject language use. It would be lovely if we could all agree on a universal classification structure that everyone mutually agreed upon, and that did not offend anyone, but how could we achieve such a thing? Language itself is subjective and not only is it difficult to get the exact same meaning between two different languages, but even between two individuals speaking the same language you will find that their experiences and influences has shaped how they interpret their language and it doesn’t always have the same implications between the two. In Drabinksi’s article, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” she points out these important statements, pointing out the subjective nature of classification and subject language.

Why does any of this matter? Something Drabinksi says in her article stood out to me, as it was the first time I’ve ever thought of it that way. “As users interact with these structures to browse and retrieve materials, they inevitably learn. . .”. 1 Her focus is on the learning of negative stereotypes about race, gender, class and other social identities, however I can see it also being general. As people interact with a library, not only will they learn from the materials they are using, but there can also be the side effect of learning from simply browsing for their material. Some of our major classification systems like Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress were created through the white, Christian male perspective in the past. Because of this, classification systems pay heavy attention to the Christian religion but treats Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as minor religions. Someone who is browsing will either, knowingly or unknowingly, observe and learn from this. This is the same for the marginalization of gay and lesbian sexuality, while making heterosexuality the normative.

 

This brought back a memory I had when I was in undergrad, doing research for one of my psychology courses for the first time. This particular library used Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC). I was looking in the 500s because that was the science section. To my surprise, psychology was not located there. So I thought, perhaps it would be under social science, the 300s? No. Instead, I found psychology under the 100s as a subgroup of philosophy. 3 I understood that psychology had ties with philosophy, since it happens to have sprung forth from that field, and it was widely thought of as pseudoscience early on in its beginnings, but I didn’t think to find it still classified this way. It’s also the same in Library of Congress Classification (LCC), where psychology is under B, still a subgroup of philosophy, along with religion. 4 What’s surprising is that although psychology has prospered into its own field of science, its still portrayed in the classifications as less.

Drabinski makes excellent points about the biases contained within the classification and subject heading structures, she believes that the way we should combat this is by “queer theory”, which basically is an approach where instead of directly combatting the structures, we empower the users of libraries by teaching them to think critically and use the system critically. Although, in my experience, users don’t give much thought to the classification structures, this would still be a powerful thing to implement nonetheless, for those who do happen to engage with it and have questions.

 

Approaching the problem of library classification and cataloging from a queer perspective demands that we leave intact the traces of historicity and ideology that mar the classification and cataloging project. Such traces can reveal the limit of the universal knowledge organization project. . . 1

 

At first, I thought Drabinski was saying that we should do nothing about making a change to the classifications, but as I took all her words in I believe I see her point. I may be wrong in my interpretation, but I believe she is trying to give a different approach, rather than having the responsibility on just catalogers, it will shift over to the librarians who engage with users and expose them to understanding that will inevitably put an eventual strain on making the change.

 

As previously mentioned, however, biases will always exist. We cannot come to a complete “finish” with this process. The process will be forever ongoing, and this is due to the subjectivity of human perspective. We can only continue the process and it will continue to reflect the zeitgeist of the time, or perhaps the previous time since every few generations will come up with their own ideas that will challenge the previous’, as we are doing now. It is impossible for us to have full neutrality within the Library. As Jensen implies throughout his article, whatever stance is taken even if its supposedly neutral, it is still a stance and thus making it non-neutral. 6 Applying that to the field of Librarianship or a Cataloger, no matter what direction we take in changing classification and subject heading language, there will always be others who disagree and who will have their toes stepped on by the changes. This doesn’t mean that we should not engage and challenge our current positions, but instead we should attempt to find means of progression where we can continually move forward with the times, and with current understandings. Drabinksi’s method is a great one, and I would even add that we should find ways to actively engage library users with the classification systems, because for the most part they usually come in with an idea of what they want, and quickly get it and then leave. If we found a way to engage them into learning, it will spread understanding and more people will take notice to the system, its flaws and its strengths.

  1. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.
  2. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.
  3. OCLC. (n.d.). DDC 23 summaries. Retrieved September 26, 2015, from OCLC website: http://www.oclc.org/content/dam/oclc/dewey/DDC%2023_Summaries.pdf
  4. Library of Congress. (n.d.). Library of congress classification outline. Retrieved September 26, 2015, from Library of Congress website: http://www.loc.gov/catdir/cpso/lcco/
  5. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.
  6. Jensen, R. (2006). “The myth of the neutral professional” in Questioning Library Neutrality, ed. A. Lewis. Library Juice, 89–96.
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