Fact Assembly: Library Days

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For my practicum at RISD’s Archives + Special Collection, I am digitizing materials from Brown University and RISD’s Community Art Project (1932-43). The person teaching me how to scan and add metadata into Digital Commons is a library science student who is writing his thesis on subjectivity and archives.  His name is Taylor McNailly, and he’s crazy about Japanese sci-fi detective fiction.

As we work together, I make small talk mentioning readings in our Digital Public Humanities course. He’s interested in description and encoding; and talks about it in terms of teleology, “access points” and “cultural turns.” I mention Lauren F. Klein’s “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemmings,” to acknowledge the politics of the archive and its legacy excluding non-White/male publics.

Reflecting more on encoding for this post, I’m recalling a presentation last year at Brown’s Digital Scholarship Lab on the Early Modern OCR project, Primeros Libros. I bring to mind the theoretical concerns expressed by Primero Libro’s presenter regarding metadata: the issue of material and linguistic analysis. How to bring native skill to Latin texts? Primeros Libros had been for the most part Latin-centric.

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This not only limits interpretation, but as texts continue to be digitized, whole knowledge systems are also being silenced. Primeros Libros acknowledges this problem and advises librarians and digital scholars to take ocular and modify.

When introducing public humanities to students, Steve Lubar mentions how communities are defined by mining the archive and digitizing. The problem with digitizing native texts, however, seems much rooted in project development as digital curation. Namely: what if a team of Zapotecs collaborated with a team of linguists, archivists, digital scholars, and technologists in the effort to digitize native texts? Level the playing field to diversify semiotic forms. The John Carter Brown Library has such a rich collection of Zapotec texts. What if the subaltern were allowed to speak?   What if digital natives were thought of in terms post-coloniality? It’s a project I hope unite collaborators to apply for a mega grant. Last week’s conference Digital Futures of Indigenous Studies gave me stock on native digital activism, but Paja Faudree’s presentation on Zapotec cyber revival, hit the mark.

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Inside of RISD’s Archives + Special Collections I look for opportunities to connect new media with humanities computing. The archivist Andy Martinez shows me cool stuff in their collection. I am ouu-and-awe over J. Kevin Barton’s thesis How to Fail at Archiving. It’s a project he conceived while shopping for mid-20th century photographic collections on eBay. After purchasing 12,000 images and coming to an impasse using standard archival practices, Barton realized he could use the actual photographs as index subject headings instead. In so doing, he questioned the normalcy of archiving and collecting, and got at deeper meanings in collections, like mystique, serendipity, and aura.

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Since last week’s class exercise to Archive Yourself on Omeka, I got into the idea of using the platform for an artistic archival practice very similar to how John Miller used PowerPoint to combine narrative and video art, critique, and biography to reconstruct notions of a public sphere. Following Miller and Barton, then, I repurpose Dublin Core’s reference system to experiment with writing, fragmentation, sensory urbanism, and alternative knowledge presentations.

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