A Good Jobs Strategy for Libraries

I’m thrilled to share that the new issue of Library Leadership & Management includes a new article from me, titled A Good Jobs Strategy for Libraries.

Huge thanks to Thomas Padilla and Ruth Tillman who provided some really thoughtful comments on a draft of it.

Sharing the abstract for it below.

Abstract: In the 2014 book “The Good Jobs Strategy” management and organizational theory scholar Zeynep Ton identifies a set of key issues in job design, operational models, and staffing that enable organizations to both create good jobs and, as a result, deliver better products and services. Written primarily about retail, the key concepts in the framework relating to building teams, defining services, and supporting and empowering staff are also relevant to library organizations. Ton’s framework focuses on four principles; offer less, standardize and empower, cross-train, and operate with slack, each of which are relevant to varying degrees to library and archives organization contexts. This essay brings together points from the framework and connects them to issues in library management and organizational theory literature to explore the extent to which issues in the framework connect with issues facing libraries. The paper ends with recommendations for how libraries can similarly benefit from implementing a good jobs strategy that both supports library workers and enables better functions for our organizations.

After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory (My Next Book)

I’m excited to share that last weekend I signed the contract for my next book with University of Michigan Press. Over the course of the next year I will be developing After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory. In this post I share an overview plan for the book and I’ll be sharing drafts of it as I go. I’m looking forward to any comments or recommendations you might have about how I’m approaching this.

As I finished my last book, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the broader set of issues facing cultural memory institutions. The last chapter of The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation shifts into thinking about the future and the wide range of challenges that the Anthropocene presents to preservation and this book will largely work as a further zooming out on some of those issues. To that end, this book also builds from some of what I was exploring in the Stone Lecture I gave earlier this year. Along with that, I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenges that the grad students in my digital history and libraries and archives classes face as they work to break into the field. So the book is also an attempt to think through and synthesize a lot of issues that have surfaced in my teaching.

I am happy to share that the press is onboard with me sharing drafts of what I write here on my blog for feedback and review as I develop the manuscript. So I’m currently thinking that I will likely have a draft of the first half of the book together to share with you all at some point in the spring and then a draft of the second half of the book to share in the summer. I have already gotten a lot of helpful and thoughtful feedback from my editor, Sara Jo Cohen, and the reviewers and others at the press on the proposal and first two chapters I submitted with the proposal. I’m planning to use the blog as a place to expand that circle to others who are interested in following along on the project and offering any feedback.

In the interest of continuing to invite discussion and input about what I’m starting to put together, I’m also sharing the text of the book proposal here too. Based on feedback I’ve received, I already know a few things that are going to be tweaked and changed as the full book comes together, but I figured it made sense to share the proposal text more or less as is for input while I’m thinking through things too.

Overview of the Book

The digital age is burning out our most precious resources. Among other things the future of the past is at stake. Ted Talk style rhetoric about tech innovation and unending growth are partly responsible for the era of social, economic, cultural, and ecological calamities we are now facing. Our institutions of cultural memory, libraries, archives, museums, humanities departments and research institutes, have been disrupted, and largely not for the better.

As the tech sector and social media took center stage in cultures of management and management consulting in the 90s and 00s their ideology became a driving force in civic, social, and cultural institutions. University deans talk of disruptive innovation. Library directors track key performance indicators on data analytics dashboards. Historians stress the importance of scholars developing their personal brands on Twitter. Along with access to millions of digitized books and an abundance of forms of digital scholarship we find ourselves in memory institutions with increasingly precarious labor, mounting financial challenges that threaten their survival, and among the public, a loss of trust in expert analysis of the historical record. All the while, we continue to be told to be vigilant for the ways that digital technology will still yet disrupt our organizations futures.

I am describing things that have already happened, which prompts a question: What comes after disruption? Tech ideology demands perpetual anxiety about the coming disruption. My question to cultural heritage institution leaders and workers is instead, what should we do now, after disruption? How do we make sense of both the good and the bad that has come from our tech sector disrupted memory institutions? We are no longer planning for a digital future but living in a digital present. In that context, how do we plan for and develop a more just, sustainable, and healthy future for cultural memory? Over the next century, as sea levels and temperatures rise, we will see a widespread breakdown of norms and assumptions that have driven society over the previous century. At the same time, we have seen income inequality and increased precarity for workers in nearly all fields. Given that, what is the future of cultural memory in the face of a breakdown in our shared assumptions about both memory and the future? These are exactly the questions which After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory sets out to answer. 

Facile, naïve, and problematic, start-up ideology came bundled with digital technologies. It’s essential to name and trace those ideas and their effects. The first half of the book draws on critical scholarship on the history of technology and business to document and expose the sources of these ideologies and their pernicious results.  Specifically, an obsession with disruptive innovation, an insistence on the importance of “the hustle” and personal brands, and faith in “money-ball” style analytics and data have done extensive harm. I’ve slowly come to see how these, often at first compelling sounding ideas, play out and the havoc they bring to those of us working for the future of memory institutions.

It’s not enough to identify problematic ideologies. We need powerful and compelling counter frameworks and values to replace them. Drawing on work in science and technology studies, intersectional feminist theory, and educational philosophy, the second half of the book offers maintenance, care, and repair as three intertwined notions to moor the future of memory work and memory institutions. We need to invest in maintenance of our memory infrastructure. We need to create physical, digital, and social infrastructure that supports networks of care for memory workers, collections, communities, and the environment. We need to commit to repair and remodel our institutions to cut out patriarchy, settler colonialism, white supremacy, and manifest destiny and replace them with allyship, centering the voices and needs of the vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed. The book concludes with discussion of the realities of working to enact and live these values as a memory worker, a manager in a cultural heritage institution, and an educator of historians, librarians, and archivists.

The book will appeal broadly to those interested in the future of humanities and memory institutions and their relationships to technology. It relates directly to and builds on a wide range of recent scholarship. As a critique and practical call to action it pairs well with and would appeal to a similarly broad audience as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. It builds on and draws from recent work on the centrality of maintenance, like Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russel’s The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most. It similarly builds on and draws from work the on problems with metrics in organizations, like Jerry Z. Muller’s The Tyranny of Metrics. As a critique of/resistance to tech sector thinking it draws from and relates to books like Jenny Odell’s, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, and Adrian Daub’s What Tech Calls Thinking. It connects with current discussions about the importance of care in society and organizations, like the Care Collective’s Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence.

While anchored in relevant scholarship and context, the book is also intended to be accessible and engaging to a broad audience of scholars, administrators, librarians, archivists, and museum professionals. It will also be a valuable resource as a textbook for graduate humanities seminars and courses in library and information science programs on organizational planning and management.

Chapter One: A Future for Cultural Memory

The future of our past is dependent on the future of cultural memory institutions and their workers. The challenge of the Anthropocene has brought into question core assumptions of our imagined future. Simultaneously, digital storage technologies have changed how we conceptualize memory itself. As a starting point for the book, this chapter is focused on clarifying what is at stake for both notions of the future and memory in the wake of the disruption that the tech sector has brought about in the last half century. 

In philosopher Franco Berardi’s terms, we find ourselves living and working “after the future.” In hindsight, somewhere around the great recession of 2008, faith in technology’s potential for progress dimmed. While Google still tells us it exists to organize the world’s knowledge, there is increasing skepticism about the kinds of algorithmic biases they promote. At the same time, faith in the creative freedom provided by knowledge work careers lost out to the growth of precarity in the “gig economy.” Memory institutions are increasingly offering temporary jobs to individuals increasingly carrying more and more student debt.

All the while the effects of anthropogenic climate change are making themselves known. In Roy Scranton’s terms, it is time for societies to begin considering how to die in the Anthropocene. Humanity is likely to survive beyond the 21st and 22nd centuries, but it will come out the other side of the centuries with its civilizations and institutions transformed. What should the purpose of memory work and memory institutions be in civilizations facing extinction? As archivist Sam Win argues, it is now important to think about palliative practice for cultural and social memory. In short, our assumptions about perpetual growth and progress in imagining the future need to change.

Alongside changing ideas about the future, the development of digital media has changed how we conceptualize memory itself. As media scholar Wendy Chun argues, memory has been hardened into storage. We are awash in documentation and recordings of the world and life and faced with ever larger quantities of information and data to consider collecting. As a result of computing, memory is now a tangible object, data encoded in a medium. We need to second guess the technical assumptions about memory as storage, or memory as data. It is critical to return to ideas of social and cultural memory as a lived part of identity, belonging, and community. When we take a more expansive notion of “living memory” we also find ways to better imagine a future for our shared cultural memory.

With notions of both the future and memory unpacked and articulated, the chapter ends with a roadmap for the book. What follows is an excavation of the recent past to document the emergence of three bankrupt ideologies that created the disrupted present: disruptive innovation, data analytics, and personal brands. After picking apart the pernicious nature of these sets of ideas the book transitions to elaborate on the way that maintenance, care and repair can become a new foundation to enact a more sustainable, equitable, and just future for cultural memory.

Chapter Two: What Disruption Wants

Fail faster. Creative destruction. Disruptive innovation. Hackathons. Asking, in almost any meeting, “but will it scale?” Over the last three decades the language of Silicon Valley start-ups and venture capitalists has found a home in the strategic plans and mission and vision statements of higher education and cultural memory institutions. This vocabulary, which historians of technology Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell have named “innovation-speak,” is now a core part of management cultures across the U.S. and beyond. This chapter is an exploration of the history of these ideas and the mixed results of their spread into institutions of cultural memory.

In retrospect, the last broad-based positive vision of a future for our world, and our memory along with it, came at the end of the 20th century. Philosopher Franco Berardi calls it “the Wired imagination.” Wired magazine popularized and sold a us a vision of a world where we would become netizens and independent creative professionals continually revolutionizing and democratizing how people and cultures tell their stories and connect with each other through the medium of the open web.  In this context notions that “information wants to be free” and the open-source software movement emerged. Those movements wove their ways into the academy in the emergence of digital history, digital preservation, digital scholarship, and the digital humanities. I experienced them firsthand working as the first and only “technology evangelist” hired on at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. 

While innovation-speak is wrapped in the rhetoric of revolution and freedom, those are not the source of its ideological success. The subtitle to Chirstianson’s 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, is telling in this regard. The heart of innovation-speak is not working toward a better future, it is about the fear of being left behind. Of critical importance, chasing after novelty and the new has resulted in the creation a tiered society of work and workers, the maintainers and the innovators. The former are relegated to try and hold things together. The latter are provisioned resources to experiment, play and envision a future that is increasingly disassociated with the realities of the work and issues at hand.

The revolutionary rhetoric of innovation-speak is anything but. In practice, innovation-speak is a face for colonialism, white supremacy, and toxic masculinity. The gig economy isn’t a form of liberation. It’s sold in the language of freedom but it’s really the opposite. One of the most pernicious problems of innovation-speak is it lulls one into believing they are a force for change and good. Facebook can assert its mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” But it is increasingly clear that big tech is not the noble force it purports to be. Instead, big tech is anchored in surveillance and control.

It’s long past time to leave behind novelty seeking and innovation-speak. Leaders in institutions of memory need to review and second guess the extent to which we have bought into an increasingly bankrupt vision for the future. We need to stop outsourcing envisioning the future to management consultants and the tech sector and instead return to the values and core missions of cultural heritage institutions.

Chapter Three: Data Analytics Myopia

In 2006, data scientist Clive Humby declared “Data is the new oil.” This bit of hype reoccurs every so often in headlines in Wired and The Economist. It offers a point of entry to understand the consultant classes ideology of data analytics. Data is out there waiting to be mined, extracted, processed and exploited. It is to be consumed to fuel perpetual growth. This chapter focuses on the way notions of data driven decision making, Key Performance Indicators, and Objectives and Key Results have resulted in reductionist and myopic perspectives for planning and envisioning the future of memory institutions. 

All sorts of organizations now have Chief Data Officers, often people who know data analysis techniques but aren’t themselves experts in the issues at hand for the organization’s missions. Of course, making decisions informed by evidence is a good thing, but when the quest for data and the desire to track it becomes central to all areas of work and planning it warps perspectives on what matters, and literally what counts. Historian Jerry Z. Muller describes the problems that emerge in this context as the tyranny of metrics, a situation where only things that can be easily counted and tracked are zeroed in on as targets and goals for growth.

Cultural memory institutions and workers now increasingly operate under this tyranny of metrics. Leaders in library organizations have sought “money ball” approaches to statistical analysis of their collections and collections use patterns. Federal agencies supporting advancement scholarship have been pushed to track reductive performance measures like citation counts. In each of these cases, chasing data creates a dichotomy between the analyst and the analyzed. The expert at their craft (librarians, archivists, historians, etc.) who can appreciate the full range of issues and challenges in each context are to be distrusted. On the ground expert judgement is dismissed as subjective instead of being understood as nuanced, contextualized and embedded.

As leaders from a wide range of institutions embrace books like Measure What Matters: OKRs – The Simple Idea that Drives 10x growth they celebrate the ascendance of individual key trackable metrics for growth. Of note, a central case study in this book is illustrative of the harm this perspective can bring. In 2011, YouTube decided to focus solely on aggregate watch time of videos as its metric. As one might suspect, when all you care about is getting people to watch a billion hours a day you don’t end up caring about what they watch. YouTube ended up meeting that target in large part because the best way to rack up those hours is by promulgating and building a broad audience for fringe conspiracy theories.

We are now two decades out from the critically acclaimed release of the television show The Wire, but it’s depiction of teachers, police officers, journalists, and civic leaders work to juke the stats and put spin on what does and doesn’t get counted could very well describe the functions and operations of our civic and cultural institutions today. We need to be thinking about how to undermine the false notions of objectivity in data and sort through how to turn back responsibilities to improving our world to the experts on the ground working in their fields.

Chapter Four: Solipsism and Personal Brands

In 2010, historians Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, invited scholars around the world to contribute to the open access book Hacking the Academy. One of the prompts in their call for participation was “Can Twitter replace a scholarly society?” At the time, at least for me, it felt like the answer might be yes. I had established a social media presence and found community and connection with a wide range of historians, digital humanities scholars, librarians, archivists and museum professionals. That network was far more important to me professionally than what I had found in the American Historical Association, the American Library Association, or the Society of American Archivists.

These sentiments about Twitter have not aged well. While Twitter provided a way to get your name out there and make connections it functions as part of a draining always on attention economy. The laissez-faire heart of technolibertarinaism that animates social media platforms also makes them places where women and people of color face near constant harassment. This chapter explores the effects of ideas about social media, personal brands and the entrepreneurial self on memory workers careers and the institutions that employ them.

The insistence that we cultivate our individual personal brands directly connects to a now multi-generational divestment in institutions and a push to treat every person as their own entrepreneurial self. As sociologist Annette Lareau noted in research in the early 1990s, middle class parents began shifting their focus to one of “concerted cultivation” of their children. Where children had once engaged in free play, nearly every activity from playing on the soccer team to going to violin lessons became part of building out one’s resume for college and their eventual future career. The cult of the hustle emerged and places more and more responsibility on individuals to invent and pitch themselves to stitch together careers through gig and freelance work. As social media emerged as a place to build a personal brand it also presented another way to raise the stakes on what it means to be a good worker.

Both Millennials and now Gen Z, have grown up in a culture that values work not only as a source of income but also as validation of self to be performed for friends and family on social media. A good job isn’t enough. As Anne Hellen Peterson argues, it’s now essential to have “a cool job.” Work in cultural memory; as librarians, archivists, curators, and historians, is “cool” enough that young people are willing to endure increasingly extreme hardships, racking up loans for graduate degrees, moving across the country for unpaid or low-pay contract positions, all for the chance at landing one of these “cool jobs.” Higher education and cultural memory institutions have engaged in a race to the bottom, with more and more rungs on ladders of low pay and unpaid work that make it increasingly likely that only those who come from money have a chance to take on roles in memory institutions. 

Cultural heritage institutions need to push back against the solipsism of the hustle and resist the accelerating trend to pay less and offer less security to those seekers of “cool jobs.” The result of all of this is an increasingly burned-out workforce which is less and less able to take care of themselves and less and less equipped or supported to be stewards of cultural memory.

Chapter Five: Centering Maintenance

In 1969, in the Maintenance Art Manifesto, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles identified a dichotomy between a death and life instinct in society. The death instinct focused on “separation, individuality, Avant-Gard par excellence; to follow one’s own path-do your own thing.” In contrast, the life instinct involved “unification, the eternal return; the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species; survival systems and operations, equilibrium.” Ukeles vision of the death instinct could work as a synopsis of the last three chapters. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the themes around the life instinct, specifically with the focus on maintenance, are central to envisioning a better future for cultural memory. There is a robust body of research and scholarship on both the value of preventive maintenance and the value of investing in engineering more redundant and resilient infrastructure and systems. This chapter engages with this work and relates it to cultural memory.

Centering maintenance is critical to improving the function of our institutions in this era after disruption. Significantly, in legal scholar Jedediah Purdy’s terms, we also find ourselves living in a time “after nature.” In the Anthropocene, humanity has so deeply disrupted the cycles and ecosystems of the Earth that we need to not only be maintainers and sustainers of our social, economic, and cultural infrastructure but we also need to be committed to making the very ecosystems of the planet sustainable and maintainable in the face of human activity. 

We need to begin to center maintenance over innovation. Or alternatively, we need to reframe what it means to be innovative to envision more resilient systems, to focus on maintainability, in ways to support anti-growth. The ideological core of innovation-speak assumes never ending perpetual growth but within the context of a living entity unchecked growth is a cancer. It’s detrimental to the ability for survival.

We can shift our resources and our thinking away from novelty. We can shift our resources away from the analyst at a distance interpreting data out of context and instead work to empower and engage deeply in contexts of the work at hand. At the same time, we need to make sure that a focus on maintenance doesn’t become maintenance of the status quo.

Chapter Five: Starting from Care

We need to replace the individualism of innovation with the interdependence of care. In good news, in parallel with the development of innovation rhetoric, feminist scholarship has developed and advanced an ethics and politics better attuned to the world we find ourselves in. The politics and ethics of care. In philosopher Nel Noddings terms, to work from an ethic of care is to “always act so as to establish, maintain, or enhance caring relations” and “to meet the other as one-caring.” This involves striving to advance the ends of others on their terms. This chapter focuses on describing the ethics and politics of care and articulating what it would mean for cultural memory institutions start from care as the basis of their work.  

At its heart, a politics of care transposes the interdependence that exist in our individual relationships with each other as a basis for imagining social, political, and institutional structures and systems. As the Care Manifesto contends, “Only by multiplying our circles of care – in the first instance, by expanding our notion of kinship – will we achieve the psychic infrastructures necessary to build a caring society that has universal care as its ideal.” Much of the language of innovation exapts Darwinian survival of the fittest metaphors which have increasingly been dismissed as ways to understand biological environments. Ecosystems and evolution are now increasingly understood not in terms of struggle and dominance but in terms of symbiosis, and sympoiesis (making with). Processes of both intra and inter species collaboration and cooperation offer models to draw from for enacting this politics of care.

On some level we all understand we are dependent on each other. We are born incapable of taking care of ourselves. We grow old and are dependent on care. But in the middle, at some points, we imagine ourselves independent. Much of our psychological theory and our economic theory is based on the idea that individual people function as rational independent units. It’s worth underscoring that both psychological and economic theory is shifting to become more ecological in nature as well.

Notions of interdependence and care come with connections to longstanding notions of how organizations and businesses should function.  Robert Greenleaf’s vision for servant leadership was anchored in the idea that institutions and companies exist as much for their patrons and customers as they do to provide meaningful and fulfilling work for their employees.

In this context, care is valuable in helping us reinvent the very language of adaption and change. Discussions of maintenance still focus attention on masculine notions of construction, building, engineering and the built environment. In contrast, notions like care provide metaphors like “gardening” which offer ways to think about co-creation and ecological systems perspectives. A gardener is making-with, is engaging in activities of sympoiesis. Indeed, as we increasingly move into a world that exists “after nature,” it’s essential that we transition away from metaphors that position “makers” in contrast to “materials.” When we start from care we will set fundamentally different kinds of goals for fundamentally different kinds of results.

Chapter Seven: Remodeling, Renovation & Repair

In “Rethinking Repair,” information science scholar Stephen Jackson asks us to “take erosion, breakdown, and decay, rather than novelty, growth, and progress, as our starting points in thinking through the nature, use, and effects of information technology and new media.” In contrast to notions of disruptive and destructive innovation, this line of thinking leads us to see the capacity of human civilization to absorb and respond to dramatic changes as the sites of genuine innovation. Through discussion of the ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh, Jackson demonstrates how a source of global waste and detritus of abandoned ships becomes a resource that is broken down to its parts and circulated back into the global economy. Along with maintenance and care, repair and related notions of renovation and remodeling provide valuable metaphors for thinking about how to sustain people and institutions throughout change.

As noted earlier, an issue with maintenance as a concept is that it can come with a reactionary connotation. It’s critical to develop an approach to maintenance that is not synonymous with “maintaining the status quo.” Pairing maintenance with care and repair is essential to support the major repair and remodeling necessary in our social, civic, and economic institutions. Toxic masculinity, white supremacy and settler colonialism are founding extractive central problems for memory work and memory institutions. As a result, there is rampant racism, ableism, ageism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, queer-phobia and other forms of oppression that are endemic to memory work and institutions of cultural memory.

Make America Great Again masquerades as a narrative of restoration and repair. Of course, it’s not a return to union jobs and lower income inequality. The rise of Trump and the nostalgic reactionary agenda of MAGA is illustrative of real harm that can come from manipulations of cultural memory. Notions of “heritage” are central to fascism and the need to be directly confronted as the cancer that they are. The oppressive structural problems at the heart of memory institutions require remodeling. We need to fix and repair them. There is dismantling that needs to happen but it’s not fundamentally a destructive process. We need to treat and remove the cancers in our professions, institutions, and society and only then will we all be able to live in a healthier way. We don’t need “creative destruction.”

We don’t need “disruptive innovation.” The rhetoric of revolution in innovation-speak is, again, false. We need deliberate focused efforts to remodel and repair our institutions. We can make our institutions better versions of themselves that live up to the lofty values like equity and justice that were carved above many of their stone entry ways centuries ago. As artist Jenny Odell’s argues, we can engage in acts of manifest dismantling. As Odell notes, the intentional dismantling of the San Clemente Dam in California involved working to repair and re-cultivate ecosystems the dam had disrupted. The dam was implemented to control and dominate nature, and the answer wasn’t to blow it up, but to intentionally dismantle it and engage in work to repair the damage it had done. We can similarly engage in manifest dismantling of the structures, systems, and processes that work against equity, justice, and inclusion in institutions of cultural memory.

Chapter Eight: Institutions of Memory for the Anthropocene

What should institutions of memory become in the Anthropocene? This last chapter works to provide a synthesis of the previous chapters and offer both practical and more far-reaching recommendations for how memory work and memory institutions would change if we centered maintenance, care, and repair.

Maintenance is anti-hype. It is anti-unfettered growth. Maintenance about keeping things together. It’s about sustainability. If we got serious about focusing on maintenance and maintainability, we would be prioritizing a focus on a more sustainable pace of work, more modest goals for our work, and thinking more about the long-term costs and knock-on effects of new efforts and initiatives. 

Care is anti-individualist. It is about interdependence. Care is about tending, pruning, and gardening instead of building, demolition, and construction. If we center care in the work of memory institutions, we will be thinking about the networks of interdependence that emerge from memory institutions. Networks from the workers and labor of collecting and preserving, through the communities whose memories are recorded, documented and interpreted form collections. We would focus on cyclicality, of engagement and exploration and not on extraction and isolation. We would respect and honor memory as a living part of communities, identity and belonging.

Repair is anti-breaking. It’s about fixing. It’s about tweaking. It’s about finding where we are broken and mending not only to keep things working but to also try and make them better fit our needs and uses. We can identify what needs to be remodeled so that the lofty high-minded missions and visions of cultural heritage institutions better align with the lived experience of their function and operations. 

If we are serious about centering maintenance, care, and repair in memory institutions we need to replace the fear impulse that comes from narratives about navigating disruption and keeping up with the times and intentionally shift to longer term planning to develop robust and sustainable, in every sense of the words, infrastructures and engagement with our communities. We can strive to make sure that our institutions provide good jobs and to advocate for resources to support those good jobs. We can understand good jobs as positions that come with clear boundaries between work and the rest of life. As jobs that provide opportunities for people close to the work and the problems at hand both the ability to develop and improve their craft and the resources necessary to do their work in ways that don’t burn them out. We can prioritize the development and improvement of resilient and generous systems in our organizations that can support people enacting care. In this context, we can focus our efforts on how to support more holistic notions of outcomes that take in mind the varied and different issues that the communities we are entrusted to support memory for are directly engaged in and participants of.

A key tool for doing this work can be working to support broader systems thinking approaches to the problems we face. We can work to avoid reductionist models focused on single key metrics and instead focus deliberate time and attention in understanding the complexity that emerges from dynamic systems that span between people, culture, nature and technology. In all of this, if we center care in our work and our organizations, we will center allyship and the need to seek out reparative and restorative justice. At its heart chasing after innovation has been a process of fear. Fear of being left behind. In the wake of the disruption of innovation, in this time after disruption, we can accept our vulnerability as a starting point and stop thinking about how to do more with less and think more about what we should do with the limited time, space, resources, and connections we have to each other and our communities.

Are NFTs Nonsense for Digital Cultural Heritage Collections?

The idea of a Rare and Antiquarian eBook Shop made for a solid McSweeney’s article in 2012. “Why, hello there!—I was just appraising some rare PDFs in the back room when I heard you come in.” Rare PDFs sound a bit funny. However, the idea of rare “born digital” materials has become an important and serious thing for cultural heritage orgs. Authors and playwrights drafts are now files on computers and not handwritten or typewritten documents, so if you’re in the business of working with records of the creative process you have to get into digital files. Similarly, if you care about books at this point, for the most part, a print book you hold in your hand is effectively a print surrogate of an original or source digital file. Doug Reside’s 2014 article File Not Found: Rarity in an Age of Digital Plenty, published in the RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, is a great introduction to many of the issues at hand for thinking about the idea of rare PDFs.

Reside makes a powerful case for how and why collecting institutions that work with rare book and manuscript materials need to start taking acquiring and preserving digital content seriously. Rarity doesn’t totally make sense in the digital context in the way it does with an analog context, but there is a continuity at play. In an analog context, you can have one of a kind objects or artifacts. But the very premiss of working with a digital object involves making copies of it. So if you have a rare PDF and you email it to someone their copy is identical. Even just loading the PDF on your computer involves creating copies of it within your local environment. As your computer optimizes storage space it overwrites the original location on a disk that your file was located on and makes a copy. It’s functionally the case that something is authentically itself and equivalent to being original if contains the same sequence of bits.

As NFTs come on the scene a range  of discussions have emerged about if NFTs could be a way to do something like rare ebooks. These pieces on NFTs for ebooks have come up in conversations with a range of colleagues. I work on supporting folks to collect, preserve, and ensure future access to digital content. I’ve also written award winning work about how to approach preserving digital content. It is from that context that I’ve been following things about the hype about NFTs.

My sense that NFTs look to be a non-solution to a non-problem, at least in the context of collecting digital objects. But there is enough interest in this that it seems like we need to work through it and I am also totally open to the idea that I might be wrong about this.

In what follows I attempt to do the following;

  • Provide some links to good essays on NFTs with some key pull quotes for background
  • Share my own summary of takeaways from those essays
  • Give an overview of varied and different ways one can own or collect analog and digital things as context for assessing NFTs
  • Offer a preliminary assessment of NFTs in relation to their utility for organizations that collect and preserve cultural records and works.

Some background on NFTs

I’m not going to write a general explainer about NFTs or write broadly about their problems. That work has already been done, so I’m sharing links to a few articles for background. I encourage everyone who hasn’t read these articles to go read them and then come back to this. That noted, I’ve gone ahead and pulled some block quotes out that I think are particularly relevant to understand what NFTS are and aren’t and what if anything they have to do with collecting digital stuff. 

The One Redeeming Quality of NFTs Might Not Even Exist, Kal Raustiala and Christopher Jon Sprigman, Anil Dash, Slate

NFTs are “nonfungible” in the sense that each is unique. It is this feature that people point to when they say that an NFT can be used as a token to identify an “authentic” digital artwork. Let’s turn back to Everydays and see if that argument holds up. The Christie’s description of the auction states that Beeple will deliver a copy of Everydays—a 500-megapixel image with a file size of about 300 megabytes—to the buyer. That feature makes this transaction resemble a typical art sale—buyer pays money; artist delivers “authentic” artwork. But unlike a painting or a sculpture or even a traditional photograph that has been created by the hand of the artist, there are countless perfect copies of Everydays floating around on the internet, copies that are indistinguishable from the one Beeple delivered to the buyer.” So, NFTs don’t help resolve the question of authenticity, and in fact, they might make things more complicated. How? Because anyone can make an NFT of any digital artwork. Making an NFT doesn’t involve copying, distributing, or displaying the artwork itself, and so copyright law is not implicated. And in fact, many people have made NFTs of others’ artwork, and each one is owned by a different person. Which means that not only are NFTs useless at distinguishing the authentic copy, they also can add a lot of spurious and potentially confusing information about ownership—at least if you take NFTs seriously as stating some sort of ownership claim to a particular piece of art.

People Are Stealing Art and Turning It Into NFTs, Ben Munster, Motherboard 

“NFTs are not JPEGs, or tweets, or anything like that; they are cryptographic signatures (an alphanumeric code) that buyers and sellers merely believe is somehow connected to the work in question. Where and how the actual work itself is stored or hosted online is incidental to this cryptographic proof.”

NFTs Weren’t Supposed to End Like This. Anil Dash,The Atlantic 

“when someone buys an NFT, they’re not buying the actual digital artwork; they’re buying a link to it. And worse, they’re buying a link that, in many cases, lives on the website of a new start-up that’s likely to fail within a few years. Decades from now, how will anyone verify whether the linked artwork is the original?

All common NFT platforms today share some of these weaknesses. They still depend on one company staying in business to verify your art. They still depend on the old-fashioned pre-blockchain internet, where an artwork would suddenly vanish if someone forgot to renew a domain name. “Right now NFTs are built on an absolute house of cards constructed by the people selling them,” the software engineer Jonty Wareing recently wrote on Twitter.

Parsing those stories and quotes you can pull out a set of points for considering if they might have anything to do with digital collecting.


  1. Do not directly involve owning copies of a work
  2. Do involve creating an entry in a ledger that says you own something related to a set of characters in a hash value
  3. Do not involve a buyer getting any kind of unique copy of a thing. In most cases all sorts of folks out there can have actual copies of the thing you ostensibly bought
  4. Do not come with any kind of assurance that your purchase of the thing that you don’t have is actually a legit sale
  5. Do come with a serious environmental impact because of the really strange nature of blockchain being something that requires huge amounts of energy to run computer systems to “mine” it. 

So far, I will admit, I don’t really get the appeal of NFTs.

With that noted, a lot of things about how we have and own digital things are strange. So it’s good to think through a bit about the various ways you can own a thing, either digital or analog, and iron out if there is some root problem in owning digital things that NFTs, even notionally, could help solve. 

Some ways you can own a thing (digital or otherwise)

With the context and background from those points above, we can think through a few ways that a person can own a thing, digital or analog, and think through which if any of these ways to own a thing relates to what NFTs do. 

First: You come into possession of an instance of a thing

This is pretty much the most straightforward and traditional way to own a thing. You go to an auction house and buy an oil painting. You take it home and hang it on the wall. It is in your possession. You buy a print copy of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus at the Mall, you drive home and put it on your book shelf. You might even then read it. You see a for sale sign out front of a historic house. You make an offer. They accept it. You sign a bunch of documents and exchange a bunch of money. Then you take possession of the home.

This can work exactly the same way for buying a digital object. Right now, you can go to Cory Doctorow’s website and buy a copy of his book Little Brother. You can also go to Jonathan Coulton’s website and buy a copy of the song I’m Your Moon. In either case, you pay some money and then you get to download a copy of the thing you bought. In the case of Doctorow’s book it’s an EPUB or a PDF. In the case of Coulton’s song, it’s an MP3. You can then make as many copies of that file as you like. You can put copies of it on different devices etc. They let you get DRM free copies, but you can also go to iTunes and buy a different book or song and Apple uses some software that controls things like how many devices you can have that file on at any point in time. Even in those DRM cases, you still bought a thing. You download the file with the content and you have a license that allows you do various things with it.

Strangely, when you buy an NFT none of these things are true. The NFT is in effect someone writing down on some list that you own something. It is unrelated to having a copy of the thing and strangely it’s also basically unrelated to owning any kind of license for anything. If you want to buy a genuinely scarce digital thing, you can try to get the single copy of the Wu-Tang Clan’s album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. If you want to make a scarce digital thing, you could follow their lead and make a single copy of some digital object put it on a CD or a thumb drive, and sell it at auction. In any event, you don’t need an NFT.

Second: You enter into a contract that says you own something or aspect of a thing or an idea

When it comes to art and creative work there are a lot of things that are somewhat intangible and difficult to own. In good news there are already well trodden and trusted creative ways to solve that problem. In general they involve writing contracts. For example, when Dan Flavin sold his light based artworks to collectors he didn’t sell them a bunch of bulbs. He sold them a signed certificate of authenticity and diagrams for how to reconstruct the thing from off the shelf parts (there is a great discussion of this on pages 30-33 in Re-collection: New Media, Art and Society). 

Significantly, you don’t need NFTs or blockchain to write contracts. If there was something that blockchain would be useful for it would ostensibly be things like contracts, but still, it’s not really a thing anyone is seriously doing. In large part because we can do contracts just fine without distributed ledgers.

It’s worth noting that folks into digital cryptography have been trying to make digital signatures happen for a really long time. For all that effort they seem to be largely useless. One of my biggest take away from Jean-François Blanchette’s excellent book Burdens of Proof Cryptographic Culture and Evidence Law in the Age of Electronic Documents is that a huge amount of work went into attempts to make public key encryption be the basis of ubiquitous digital signatures but that in practice they don’t really do that much for us.

How many of us are emailing pictures of our signatures to each other pasted into word docs or stuck on PDFs? It’s clear that in practice emails work fine as records of approvals or authorizations. At the same time we frequently use various docusign style applications where there are click through agreements that are actually the underlying basis of executing a given contract or agreement and not anything fancy with digital signatures. We don’t need crypto for digital signatures because, as is the case with most signatures in the analog world, from context we know when we should have confidence that someone is agreeing to authorize something. As is the case in so many cases where crypto attempts to offer solutions, the situation of signatures is not really a technical problem it’s a social problem. We don’t need any kind of crypto to do contracts and agreements in a digital era. We certainly don’t need blockchain contracts, and in any event, NFTS clearly aren’t even related to contractual agreements documenting exchange of legitimate ownership of anything.  

Third: You can just assert you own something

In 2010 MOMA declared they were acquiring the @ symbol, and a few years later they similarly asserted they were acquiring the creative commons symbol. As far as I understand it, this is on some level a performative thing. They didn’t necessarily acquire anything, but in effect, by documenting the symbols and giving them pride of place and engaging in interpretation of them they are effectively doing the thing cultural heritage institutions do with artifacts even though the things in this case are intangible symbols.

What’s really fascinating about the acquisition of the @ symbol, is that, as Chan and Cope have noted, these kinds of examples of acquiring ideas and documentation of things are valuable frameworks to think about the future of collecting in cultural heritage institutions. In their case, these examples can change how a museum goes about collecting things like an iPhone app.

The take away in this case is that it’s possible for cultural heritage institutions to acquire funky immaterial things and for it to be both really inexpensive and genuinely useful in advancing their missions. This all has literally nothing to do with NFTs but in good news it’s far more interesting of a concept for cultural heritage orgs to explore.

Forth: You pay someone to write down on a list that they claim you own something

There are situations where what is being sold is an assertion that you are the owner of something. A good example of something like this is Star Registries. There are a bunch of different ones out there. They have been described as “low key scams.” The concept here is that someone who isn’t really authorized to sell naming rights to a star sets up shop and starts selling naming rights to stars. What you’re buying is the idea that they put your name on their list and according to them you got the naming rights to the star.

From what I understand, this is the closest analogy to an NFT. However, significantly, star registries also run just fine without using blockchain. Which makes star registries way more environmentally friendly than NFTs, which have been described as “an ecological nightmare pyramid scheme.” You don’t even need NFTs to run these kind of “low key scams.”

What would we say if a Planetarium started buying or selling Star Registries? 

At this point it feels like the right analogy here for NFTs is that they are effectively star registries that come with additional environmental problems. What would the cultural heritage community say if the Adler Planetarium started buying or selling entries on star registries? My guess is various professional communities would be outraged. So, if these things are effectively equivalent then it would seem we should all get outraged if any cultural heritage org entertains buying (or minting) NFTs. 

NFTs appear to be a non-solution to a non-problem for digital creative works

The examples I walked through demonstrate a range of ways someone can own and buy digital things. They all work fine without NFTs. So, I don’t even understand what imagined problem they are intended to solve. The only way I can understand NFTs as a phenomena is that 1) the hype in the cryptocurrency community is so strong 2) the level of understanding of the nature of digital content in the art community is so weak and 3) that the desire/vanity to assert that someone owns something is so strong for a lot of folks that people are lining up to play along with a really strange “low key scam.”

In any event, it doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with working to ensure enduring access to digital content. It seems, like much of cryptocurrency and blockchain more broadly, that this is all part of a strange techno-libertarian hype bubble around non-problems. In the case of currency at least, crypto folks are right that money is strangely all a big belief system. So when it comes to currency, I can accept on some level that distributed ledgers can solve similar problems to the made up problems that currencies solve. However, custody of objects isn’t the same kind of belief system situation as currency.

If there is something that I am really missing here? I’d love to hear it in a discussion in the comments. I do admit that the level of interest in this kind of thing is so large that I remain genuinely baffled about the whole thing and would be happy to engage with discussion about how I might be totally off base about it. 

Giving Digital History a History

I recently picked up and rapidly read Adam Cymble’s new book Technology and the Historian: Transformations in the Digital Age. I found it to be a great read and I’m planning to use it when I teach my Digital History grad seminar next spring.

One of the books conclusions is that historians “must stop calling it digital history” (p.166) which I think is going to draw out some good discussion in a course that has “digital history” in its name.

Given that the book in part explores the rise and fall of history blogging and specifically includes my own blog as part of that history it seemed fitting to put up a post and share out some thoughts, reactions and observations prompted by the book.

Digital Historiography

“Digital history does not need definitions. It needs histories” (p. 161). This works as a great opener for Crymble’s conclusions. I read that and it hit me as being spot on as both being right and being the ultimate historian move in any game of definitions. When someone asks what something means the historians go to move is to assert that things mean what particular people meant by them in particular contexts at particular moments in time.

The book does a great job at historicizing digital history. In that context it is really useful in helping to bridge earlier “history and computing” work and more recent “digital history” work. Cymble follows and connects ideas about historical research, teaching and learning, and scholarly communications through a range of contexts. Including books like 1971’s The Historian and the Computer: A Practical Guide, 1987’s History and Computing, 2016’s Exploring Big Historical Data and most centrally 2005’s Digital History A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web.

Defusing Digital History

In working across this history, Cymble ultimately argues that there isn’t much of a center to a thing one might call “digital history.” In his words “We must bring to an end our notion of a coherent digital history subfield” (p 164). That is, one historian’s work using digital tools and platforms to engage with the public has almost nothing to do with how a different historian is using computational tools to engage in analysis of historical sources. In service to this point, Cymble offers a glossary that includes a lot more terms we might use to describe the varied and different areas where computing and digital tools have emerged in a wide range of historical fields and disciplines.

In broad strokes, I agree. In the decade that I’ve been teaching the digital history course for American University’s Public History Program, I’ve increasingly embraced the eclectic survey nature of such a course.

To do any justice to the way that the work of historians and history organizations is changing as a result of digital tools ends up meaning that you can spent a bit of time on everything things including but not limited to;

  • User centered design
  • Project planning and management
  • GIS and mapping tools
  • Computational text analysis
  • Visualization tools
  • Computer vision
  • Digital platforms for oral history
  • Analysis of historical storytelling in video games
  • Development and creation of historical videogames and interactives
  • Mobile media and apps
  • Online exhibits
  • Crowdsourcing
  • The varied meanings of digital archives
  • Open access scholarship

That is a lot to try and cover in a survey course, but my sense is that, for most history programs, the option is having this kind of survey course or having nothing at all. That is, for graduate students, I think it’s still the case that they are lucky if there is a single catch all course like this in a history department. While I would love to see this kind of material showing up in other parts of the curriculum, I know full well that there is a lot of other kinds of material to cover in other courses too.

The Failure to “Un” All The Things

At the center of the book is a great exploration of the rise and fall of history blogging. As I’ve recently suggested, despite the fact that blogging didn’t take off like it could have, I think blogging is still an important set of practices for people to learn, particularly for folks that want to work at cultural heritage institutions. While we don’t see the kind of growth of individual scholars engaging in blogging as a practice, it still seems to be the case that cultural heritage institutions large and small continue to maintain and run blogs.

More broadly, I think the failure of scholarly blogging to take off represents a broader failure of an attempt to “un” all the things in academia. Blogging meant that publish became a button instead of being a function of who could authorize and enable distribution of one’s ideas. Unconferences, like THATCamp, similarly presented a chance to upend a lot of the norms and assumptions of how academics could convene, discuss, and build new kinds of scholarship.

Through that line of thinking, it made sense to gather together and think through how we might hack the academy and make something more open and democratic. Growing up professionally through events and communities like THATcamp had gotten me to think that we could build something like a DIY humanities. But it didn’t really happen. Digital history didn’t take off as something libratory in that vein. If there was going to be some unifying notion across a wide range of digital history areas it seemed for a bit like it might be related to changing norms about how openness worked in scholarship. To be fair, in hindsight, a lot of the “un” all the things ends up participating in a lot of what Franco Berardi calls the Wired Imagination, the set of values and ideology from Silicon Valley that operates to devalue much of the kinds of investment that needs to happen to support and sustain institutions like academia and cultural heritage institutions.

What Future is there for History?

On some level, it seems strange to try and sort out what the future of digital history can be given that we’ve got so much to think about in terms of if there is going to be much of a future for any kind of history.

We’re now legitimately in a place where archivists like Sam Win are helping us try and think through what Dying Well in the Anthropocene can look like for fields focused on memory work.

It does indeed feel like History departments in the academy should be reworking what they train future historians for too, but given that history professor jobs, like jobs in so many fields, really haven’t bounced back since the 2008 recession, it also seems like it might be a somewhat moot point. If the history profession is defined as what history professors do it does really seem like that, like so many other professions, is also dying and being replaced by a much more precarious adjunct gig economy.

In that context, if we start asking what kinds of things history graduate programs should teach students it seems like the answer should increasingly be disassociated with any idea that they are being prepared for a job market for history professor jobs.

In any event, I find myself lucky to have Cymble’s new book on hand. Its biggest strength is to help clarify and chart the varied paths that digital history and history and computing have followed to the moment where we are. Related, one of the resources that students in my course find particularly useful and helpful is The Programing Historian and the book provides useful context on how that open access publication and resource came to be. Significantly, I think the success of The Programing Historian on some level undermines the idea that that “digital history” doesn’t hold together as a concept in that the resource brings together information about a wide range of different areas of digital history and supports a very different kind of open form of scholarship. That is, if there is a thread that connects together digital history as a concept it may well be the kinds of open community that The Programing Historian itself manifests. To that end, I’m personally looking forward to putting it into the hands of students who can use it to help think about and chart where we should all be going from here.

Caring for Digital Collections in the Anthropocene

Earlier this month, I had the chance to give a talk as part of the Dr. Elizabeth w. Stone Lecture Series. It’s pretty humbling to be a part of a series that is now entering it’s fourth decade and includes people like Kate Zwaard, Deanna Marcum, Clifford Lynch, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Carla Hayden, and Henriette Avram as previous speakers. I thought the talk went well. I particularly enjoyed the great questions I got from the audience.

Several folks asked about if there was a video of the event, which I’m happy to share below. I’ve also posted my slides and notes from the talk in case folks would rather skim through it.

Video of the talk 

Slides for the talk 

The slide deck and text of the talk is up as this PDF too.

Caring for Digital Collections in the Anthropocene

The craft of digital preservation and digital collections care is anchored in the past. It builds off the records, files, and works of those who came before us and those who designed and set up the systems that enable the creation, transmission, and rendering of their work. At the same time, the craft of digital preservation is also the work of a futurist. We must look to the past trends in the ebb and flow of the development of digital media and hedge our bets on how digital technologies of the future will play out. This talk explores key issues for exploring and imagining that future. We start with consideration of some key emerging technologies relevant to digital collections and then zoom out to consider the future of digital collections in the context of technologies of surveillance, precarity of both cultural heritage institutions and cultural heritage workers in the context of neoliberalism, and then explore the broad set of challenges facing the future of collections stemming from the increasing effects of anthropogenic climate change. Drawing on frameworks for maintenance, care, and repair this talk concludes with an opportunity to reflect on and consider how memory and information workers should approach the digital present and future of our institutions and professions.

Collaboration, Empathy, & Change: Library Leadership in 2020

Collaboration, Empathy & Change: Perspectives on Leadership in Libraries and Archives in 2020

Last semester I taught a grad seminar on leadership and organizational theory in libraries and archives. As part of the course we worked together to create an open access book called Collaboration, Empathy & Change: Perspectives on Leadership in Libraries and Archives in 2020. You can download the book for free from SocArXiv. Below is the intro I wrote up for the book.

2020 was hard. It was hard in a lot of different ways at the same time. The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed nearly every aspect of our technical, social, and political systems and infrastructure. In this global context, people working in libraries, archives, and museums continue to struggle with how to take care of each other and persist in their work. Students aspiring for careers or for advancement in their careers transitioned to online courses. Through it all, we have faced major challenges in maintaining our health and well-being.

In that fraught context, the students in the organizational theory and leadership course I taught at the University of Maryland’s iSchool worked together to produce this book. Every student in the University of Maryland’s iSchool MLIS program is required to take Achieving Organizational Excellence, a course focused on “the principles, practices, and techniques required for effective leadership and management.” I’m really proud of the work that we did together over the semester. This book distills, documents, and communicates much of what we have learned together.

Context for this book

Each chapter of this book was written for the course in the Fall of 2020. With some support from me, each student connected with an individual working in a leadership role in an information organization relevant to their career interests. Each student interviewed their subject to learn about that person’s approach to leadership and organizations. Students then drew from those interviews to develop essays connecting their subject’s perspectives to literature on organizational theory and leadership. Inclusion of essays in this book was optional. Some students preferred not to publish their work here. Some interview subjects preferred that their perspectives not be widely shared. As a result, the scope of this book is intentionally non-comprehensive. This is not a survey of various areas and roles in the field. Instead, the book brings together voices and perspectives anchored in these particular students.

The book is itself part of the pedagogical approach of the course. It’s one thing to read about leadership and organizational theory. It’s another to see how ideas from books and journal articles connect to the real-world experiences of leaders in the field. It’s still a whole other level of learning to synthesize perspectives from leaders in the field with the literature and publish it. Library and archives practitioners working in the field wrote most of our course readings. A key part of joining that professional community of practice is developing the ability to contribute to the professional dialog in our scholarship and writing.

Overview of the book’s structure and contributions

The structure and content of the book emerges out of the career interests of the students and the ideas and perspectives of their interview subjects. To that end, I have organized the book primarily around the types of roles and organizations that individual interview subjects come from. The first section of the book includes a selection of essays on leadership in archives and special collections. The second section includes essays focused on senior leaders in academic libraries. The third section focuses on leaders in library organizations in the U.S. federal government. The fourth section focuses on work outside of libraries and archives, specifically in museums, humanities research centers, and corporations. The final section of the book offers two essays that more broadly explore issues on the need for libraries and archives to develop field-wide toward a more equitable future.

There are a range of crosscutting issues and themes that emerge in the book. First and foremost, the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic assert themselves throughout the text. Many of the interview subjects were in the midst of figuring out how to maintain and continue the operations of their organizations in the midst of a global crisis. To that end, the collection of essays in this book offers a unique opportunity to explore the more or less real-time processing and response to the challenges the pandemic presents.

The essays are also connected by consistent application of ideas and frameworks from Bolman and Deal’s book Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. Bolman and Deal’s perspectives are focused on developing and exploring four competing frames for thinking about leadership and organizations: a structural frame tied up in separation of duties and functions, a human resource frame focused on how to support people in organizations to flourish and grow, a political frame focused on how scarcity of resources produces the need to build coalitions, and a symbolic frame focused on the ways that symbols, values, rituals, and ceremonies create and sustain organizational cultures. Throughout the book, students apply and explore issues in how these frames work to approach the perspectives of their interview subjects. As a result, the book presents a sustained exploration of how these frames of leadership fit with the perspectives of leaders in the library and archives community at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century.

I’m deeply grateful for the time and care that the individuals profiled in this book took to share their ideas and perspectives with our class and now more broadly in this book. As you might imagine, the Fall of 2020 was a stressful time to be working in library and information organizations. In that context, it would have been entirely reasonable for leaders in the field not to be able to make time for talking with students about their careers or library and archives organizations. All of the individuals featured in the profiles in this book were willing to make time to talk with students and give feedback and input on their drafts. The wisdom and insights they shared with students are invaluable.

It’s been a pleasure to have the chance to develop this book and facilitate this dialog between leaders in the field and students working to start or advance their careers. I learned so much from the generous and thoughtful perspectives offered by interview subjects and drawn into focus by students in the course. I hope you will, too

800 Posts Later: Reflections on teaching digital history with a public course blog

This is a draft that has been kicking around for a while in a few different forms, wanted to see it out in the world so I’m putting it up here on the blog. 

Now that the novelty of academic blogging has worn off, what are we left with? A decade ago, it seemed blogging was emerging as a core practice of scholarly writing. I speak specifically about history and the humanities, but the trend seems true for a range of other fields too. In 2005 the History News Network began recognizing the best history blogs with a series of awards shared out at the American Historical Association’s annual meetings. In 2006, Dan Cohen’s made the case for academic blogging in “Professors, Start Your Blogs.” A year later, academic blogging itself would be explored and extolled as a new literacy in scholarly communications. By 2015, academic blogging itself had become a subject of in depth analysis as part of the infrastructure of scholarly communications.

In the resulting decade, blogging appears to have stabilized into a persistent form of public writing. However, it does not seem to be poised for substantial further growth. Some scholars, librarians, and archivists blog. Most do not. Of those that do blog, they largely seem to do so a lot less. Analysis of the growth of blogging in the digital humanities suggests that the peak moment of growth in the field was in fact in 2008.  Indicative of this change, In 2011, the History News Network made the seventh and last set of history blog awards. The lack of growth of blogging has been largely attributed to the mainstreaming of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Using Blogs for Graduate Seminars 

When academic blogging was emerging as a new literacy and scholarly form in academia, it made a lot of sense for digital history, humanities and library and archives inclined educators to explore introducing blogging as a part of digital humanities pedagogy. In that context, in 2012, I offered a perspective on these issues in The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends. Notably, that contribution, like many of the original contributions to the first Debates in the Digital Humanities, began as an entry in a series of blog posts. In that blog-post-turned-essay, I reported on the results of teaching my first graduate seminar, a digital history course, through a public course blog. Now 8 years, 9 seminars, 818 student blog posts, and 2057 blog comments later, after the hype of academic blogging has faded, I thought it might be good to circle back and interrogate the extent to which the potential of this form of open public writing has lived up to its potential.

While blog boosterism has faltered, the practices around course blogging in the humanities in particular, seem to steadily continue. In this context of the stabilization of blogging as a form of public writing how do we understand the value of public blogging as a pedagogical practice in the humanities and social sciences? I’ve gone back and looked at some of my students reactions over time to my use of course blogging and thought it might be interesting to share them here. It seems somewhat natural to post about them here on my blog.

Functions of a Public Course Blog

In The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends.  I made three primary claims about what I saw as the central value of the public course blog as a teaching mode. As a starting point, it is worth fully articulating each of these concepts.

  • Blogging enabled a shift from teaching as knowledge dissemination to teaching as knowledge production: Where classes generally require students to produce writing read by the instructor, by implementing a public course blog students were instead writing for each other and also for others outside and beyond the course.
  • Blogging enabled extending courses through time and space:  Where courses function as discrete classrooms that persist for a fixed semester of time, a public course blog could both spatially and temporarily extend the reach of a course. Teaching using the same course blog allowed for students to encounter and engage with previous writing for the course and could enable students from prior classes to engage with current students.
  • Blogging enabled students to write for and connect with broader audiences:  Students participating in the course were not only writing for each other, but they could also interact with the broader digital history community. That is, through the blog students could interact with the creators of tools and scholarship via the public blog.

Positive but somewhat mixed reactions from students

Overall, all ten of the graduate seminars I have thought through the course blogging platform have been well received in student course reviews. Most of these courses have been a digital public history methods seminar (see the syllabus from 2011, 2012, 2015, Summer 2015 , 2018, 2019, and 2020 versions of the course.) I also used the same approach to teach a Digital Art Curation seminar in 2016, and a Digital Preservation seminar in 2016 and 2018. I decided not to use the same approach for an online Digital Curation Policy and Ethics seminar I taught in 2019 (I had internal course discussion boards for that in part to facilitate more candid discussions). I also decided not to use that approach for the online course I taught on organizational leadership for libraries and archives last semester, in fall of 2020.

For context, this blogging assignment has been part of work with face-to-face classes. That is until spring 2020 when my digital history methods course shifted rapidly into an online course. Of note, I’m about to start teaching the spring 2021 version of that course which will be all online.

The numerical scores from student reviews  for each of those courses rank them higher than the median values for both the departments and colleagues that the courses are taught in. That offers, at least preliminary support for the idea that the public course blog, a central component of each of these courses, can be part of an effective approach to teaching and learning. That noted, delving into anonymous comments from students offer a chance to explore some of the varied ways that students have responded to this as a teaching too.

Blogging kept it interesting

Over the last decade writing as part of online discussions in course management systems has become an increasingly routine part of teaching for college courses. To this end, one of the students reflected that they found, “blogging was an enjoyable way to get to know the class over the semester and the less formal tone kept it from being a chore.”

This student went on to observe that they “have come to loath the mandatory discussion board participation in all my classes over the semester” and that they were “surprised with how much I enjoyed writing for the public course blog.” In this context, the goal of writing for broader audiences identified in my original objectives for course blogging appears to have indeed made this form of class writing more engaging.

This kind of general positive response to course blogging largely fits with additional feedback I have received on course design. With that noted, those aspects of writing for a broader audience have also resulted in specific related negative feedback from some students.

Finding the right rhythm for blogging and reading

One student explained that they were “too time-crunched and overwhelmed trying to read and understand the material to try to engage in a public intellectual discussion about my own or others posts.” This observation is an important one that I have been working to reflect on and refine my approach to. On some level, asking students to process readings and then engage in discussion of the readings in advance of a class session in which we then further engage in discussion  can create  significant opportunities for redundancy.

This sentiment was shared by another student who noted that they found the requirement to “write/comment/discuss ad nauseam” made it “impossible to keep up.” Throughout both of these students comments it becomes clear that it is challenging to establish and manage a rhythm for the course between the function of the blog as a place for discussion and the function of the face to face situation of the class. Resolving this issue is challenging. Many of the graduate students in the courses I teach are taking multiple graduate seminars while also often working full time jobs. To that end, I’ve worked over time to try and pace the volume of reading better and to lower the total number of times I ask students to blog for the course.

Notably, I have consistently observed over the course of teaching various instances of these classes through the blog that different students participate to varying degrees in the online discussions and the face-to-face discussions. To that end, it does appear that providing the two, potentially complementary, spaces for discussion to occur are creating opportunities for students to engage in discussion in ways they find most comfortable. Still, the comments from students also clearly suggest that the multiplicity of places for discussion also promote a kind of anxiety about a course being always on.

Engaging with “the profession in the real world”

Accepting the challenges and issues that are presented by the integration of blogging as a form of public writing in the course, there are also notable strengths that come through in this form of teaching. One student’s explanation of the role of blogging in their learning experience underscores several of these points. In their words, “Trevor…was always looking for ways to engage us with the profession in the real world.”

As a specific example of how I supported their engagement with the “profession in the real world” they mention my “referring working professionals in the field to student posts on the class blog via social media.” In keeping with my objectives for using the public writing function of the blog as a means to connect students with professionals in the field I will regularly share out examples of particularly thoughtful student posts and connect them with others working on those issues over Twitter. This kind of direct interaction with the people behind the papers, the tools, or the platforms we are working with can have a really powerful effect in the classroom.

The student who wrote that comment ended by asserting that, “In Trevor’s class I felt that I was treated as a professional and expected to perform accordingly, a challenge that I very much appreciated.” Blogging wasn’t the only part of the course that they asserted supported that feeling, but they did directly connect the concept of public writing, writing for an audience and connecting with that audience beyond their classroom, as something that supported that.

A Future for the Public Course Blog

Dighist.org has come to present a significant collection of research and writing of students in public. While most student work in course discussion spaces is erased and overwritten shortly after it is created these posts, for the most part, persist. Given that the bulk of the courses taught on and through this platform are digital public history courses it makes sense that this platform functions as a way for students to engage in this for of public writing.

With that noted, part of my original concept for teaching through the public course blog was that blogging was an increasingly important form of academic public writing that it was significant for students to be learning. It appears now that even when I had started using blogging as a means for teaching in 2012 academic blogging had already reached its saturation point. Where at one point it appeared as if scholars of the future might each maintain and manage their own blogs as a kind of public research journal, it now appears to be the case that blogging has matured into a somewhat niche form of academic journaling.

In this context, and with these notes from students on the ups and downs of academic blogging, what do we make of the public course blog? I believe the strong positive reactions to the role of the public course blog suggest that students do indeed largely find value in this approach to teaching. With that noted, I am also sympathetic to the concept that an always on kind of course with considerable reading and writing isn’t particularly sustainable for all students.

Given all this, I’m still a believer in the value that public course blogs can offer to graduate seminar design. With that noted, I think a lot of my initial takes on why this would be useful don’t hold up. Blogging didn’t become a “new literacy” for scholarly communication. It’s a thing that some academics do but that most don’t. To that end there isn’t necessarily a general value for grad students to learn about blogging.

With that noted, if you want to do work in public history, or in libraries and archives, it turns out that blogging does persist as a valuable tool in the toolkit of social media communications. Organizations continue to use blogs alongside social media platforms to communicate with their audiences. In that context, learning how to use wordpress and thinking about audiences and public writing on history is inherently useful as a skill for folks that are interest in public history. I think that leaves me at the point where I’m going to continue to use public course blogging when it’s inherently relevant to the context and goals of the course.

To that end, in the last few years I’ve taught two courses that didn’t use the same public course blog platform. In one case,  the course is focused on digital curation policy and ethics, and I wanted to make sure that students felt comfortable discussing their own experiences with ethical and policy related challenges and dilemmas relating to digital curation and it struck me that this was not a great context for pushing students outward into public writing. Similarly, for the leadership and organizational theory course I taught, I wanted to make sure that students had a space where they could share candid reactions and reflections on their work experiences and on readings about workplaces. In both of those cases, I think setting up a more closed and temporary space for course discussions and student journaling worked a lot better then it would have if students were trying to filter things through what they would be comfortable saying in a more public forum.

Processing 2020: Going Inside, Supporting, and Learning

As the end of the year comes to a close, I generally make time organize and synthesize what I’ve been up to across different parts of my work each year. You can see my reflections at the end of 20192018, 20172015,  20142013, and 2012. I’m a big fan of metacognition, so I get a lot out of taking time to round up, reflect, and try and synthesize things at least once a year.

Going Inside 

Looking back at those blog posts from years gone by just draws attention to how dramatically different the world feels now. I also don’t think I’m really at the point where I can process the year. Marjee and I rang in the last New Year with hikes in the Torres del Paine, at the literal end of the earth. Then… so much of the rest of the year feels like a blur.  As the Pandemic hit and we both shifted into being in and around our home and our very local community. On multiple levels this felt like “going inside”, which also makes me think about one of my favorite John Fursciante songs. We ‘re inside our home far more than we have been in any previous year and I think we were inside our heads and reflective in ways that we haven’t been in previous years.

Growing as a supporter and facilitator

As the team at work shifted to an all online mode, I’ve been consistently impressed with how much I’ve seen folks help to support each other and find ways to grow and learn and get things done together. I’ve been increasingly transitioning my efforts in my work to focus on how to be a better supporter and facilitator for a team that continues to grow.

I was excited to interview some folks who joined our team this year about their work and goals. You can find those interviews here:  Web Archiving Virtually In Residence: An Interview with Meghan LyonDiving into Digital Content Management: An Interview with Mark Lopez10 Weeks of Digital Content Management at a Distance: An Interview with Junior Fellow Randi Proescholdt.

I taught two grad seminars, my Digital History Methods Seminar started out face to face and shifted online in the spring as the pandemic hit. Students worked up some really fun and creative projects and I was impressed by how they rolled with transitioning into an online format for the second half of the semester. My library organization theory seminar ran entirely online. It was the first time that I taught the library org theory course, and I found it really rewarding to engage in that kind of meta level discussion about navigating and working to improve library, archives, and museum organizations. In working on that course, I also read a lot more scholarship and work in management, business, public policy, and related fields which has been helpful in my own development of ideas about how organizations can better need the needs of both their constituencies and the people that make them run.

Reading and Sharing

While the year has been challenging, i’ve gotten a lot from the introspective space of all of it. I read a lot more than I have in previous years, we rode our bikes around the extensive trails in our community. I had a lot of fun talking about my digital preservation book on the Archives in Context podcast. Even before the pandemic, I was reflecting on my relationship with the end of the THATcamp era. I got pretty into TikTok, which, at one point sharing out a bunch of links to how people play with history on TikTok and also reflecting a bit on how folks told the story of the election in maps on the platform. Along with that, a few essays I’d collaborated with others on over time made their way into publication in 2020, one on digital sources and digital archives and another on studying digital culture in web archives.

I decided not to start writing a book, which feels like growth for me.  I’ve got a tendency to just keep piling up projects and it felt good this time to really try on the idea of a project and then just deicide I’d rather spend that time cooking, organizing my closet, and reading.

I enjoyed learning more about how to work with video editing and had a ton of fun helping Marjee work on her documentary film.

I was really thrilled to end up being a finalist for the Digital Preservation Teaching and Communication Award. I made this video about it for the review panel which I think underscores how meaningful that particular distinction is to me.

I was invited to contribute to the Biblioteca Nacional de México’s  Día Mundial de la Preservación Digital 2020 video series. Which will also ensure lasting documentation of my brief stint of having a goatee during quarantine.

Looking and Seeing

Thought I would leave off with some “How it started, How it’s going” run through photos. This is just a smattering of pictures from my phone in order.

MapTok: Watching the Election on TikTok

Collage of TikToks about the election

Over the last year I’ve come to really enjoy seeing the wide range of really creative things that folks are doing on TikTok. For example, I think it’s fun to see what folks do with history on the platform.

The platform is largely written off as something frivolous, but I’m routinely impressed by how people are using looping audio and video and green screen tools to create genuinely engaging stuff and thought provoking media.

As I was compulsively refreshing various online dashboard/election maps last week to see how the election was playing out, I was also switching over to TikTok a lot.

On TikTok, users were playing with those maps too, and I started thinking that by sequencing those videos you could see a bit of the emotional rollercoaster of the election playing out.

Below is the result of selecting and sequencing some of these. I included the text and hashtags that go along with each video to offer some context. I think it hangs together as a short documentary film about the election, data visualization, and storytelling on TikTok.

In these videos the states become characters with different personas. Memes like “I did it” and “what was the reason” become conversations between the states on the maps. A states teaches other states how to do a TikTok dance to a remix of a Russian Honey Nut Cheerios jingleLorde lyrics answer questions about why the map looks the way it does.

Looking at these reminds me a bit of some of the ideas that Dragan Espenschied was putting out in Big Data, Tiny Narration. That is, as we all kept refreshing these maps which pull together real time data, a whole cast of folks was sorting through what that data meant and doing creative storytelling about what it meant to them.

TikToks Included

  1. https://www.tiktok.com/@dancinchaz/video/6883907430225333510
  2. https://www.tiktok.com/@athanlau/video/6891198051642313989
  3. https://www.tiktok.com/@owenamooney/video/6891325484341234946
  4. https://www.tiktok.com/@conwilk/video/6891436701986606342
  5. https://www.tiktok.com/@n8yaz/video/6892560856945544453
  6. https://www.tiktok.com/@kaylabaumgardner2/video/6892147427181120773
  7. https://www.tiktok.com/@scoliosisth0t/video/6892141569374194950
  8. https://www.tiktok.com/@therealalisharai/video/6891947362978221318
  9. https://www.tiktok.com/@yasminghasiri/video/6891787644779433221
  10. https://www.tiktok.com/@lainabainaxo/video/6892197715942378758
  11. https://www.tiktok.com/@heyitsryanelise/video/6891987314487086342
  12. https://www.tiktok.com/@meliodas_jonn/video/6892427201053052165
  13. https://www.tiktok.com/@.devon.james/video/6892152160117591301
  14. https://www.tiktok.com/@marejonj/video/6892446640905440518

Achieving Organizational Excellence Course Syllabus

Over the summer I’ve been  developing a syllabus and plan for teaching LBSC 631, Achieving Organizational Excellence at the University of Maryland’s College of Information.  It is the leadership/management/organizational theory course, and it’s one of the three core courses for the UMD iSchool’s MILS program. I just sent the syllabus out to everyone in the class and I’m also posting the syllabus here for anyone who might be interested.

This is a new course for me. Over the last five years I’ve taught five other graduate seminars for the iSchool, but those were all digital curation, preservation, and policy courses.

My section of the course was originally intended to be a face to face course, so in transitioning it to an online course I ended up playing around with approaches to make sure that there is a lot of flexibility in the course design. I sent out a questionnaire  to students in advance of the semester which confirmed my sense that there would be some anxiety about both a desire for synchronous interactions from some students and concerns about how to make  synchronous  interactions work for everyones schedules during the ongoing pandemic. I’m hopeful that I’ve figured out some ways to build a lot of flexibility in on the course but it will be curious to see how it all plays out. I should note that a lot of my approach to the design of this course is anchored in a fantastic education leadership seminar I took in my Ph.D program with David Brazer.

Reading on How Orgs work and how to work Orgs

I’ve largely developed the course around Bolman and Deal’s Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership which I’ve written about before. I like how they approach work in organization in terms of competing frames; structural, human resources, political, and symbolic. I also really appreciate that their book is more about organizational theory than it is about leaders and leadership. In large part, I think the cult of leadership books on what leaders do misses out on how things really get done in the complex systems that are organizations. I’ve paired that book with some sections from Evans & Greenwell’s Management Basics for Information Professionals, which is great at being more directly focused on issues in libraries and archives but I think less strong as an overarching toolkit for understanding organizations.

Along with those two books, I’ve also assigned two other books that we will focus on for individual weeks in the semester. We will read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which I continue to find to be a really accessible point of entry into a lot of work in the psychology of motivation. We will also read Systems Thinking For Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, which is both a great point of entry into systems thinking and also a useful book in getting us to think beyond the boundaries of individual organizations to collectively enable social change.

I’ve tried to round out readings from those books with a mixture of articles. It ended up working out that I’ve got a lot of straightforward articles from Library Leadership & Management which I’ve tried to round out with much more critical work, largely from In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

Alongside the readings, I’ve built in a few situations where students need to go out explore some resources that I think everyone in library school needs to know about. Things like the Library Journal Placement and Salaries reports, the AFL-CIO“Library Professionals: Facts, Figures, and Union Membership” results from the IMLS annual  public library survey and both the ARL Salary data and general ARL library statistics. While all these reports are pretty dry, they are also amazingly useful resources for understanding how pay works in the field and how resources are located across and within library organizations.

Reflection, Introspection, and Engagement through Assignments

I spent a lot of time trying to think of what the right kinds of assignments are for a course like this. I think this kind of course really needs to support students in working to process and synthesize their own notions of how organizations work. To that end, I decided that a core part of the course would involve weekly journaling about course readings.

At the same time, I wanted to make sure that there were opportunities for students to connect with each other. This was originally intended to be a face to face course. Beyond that, there are actually two sections of this course this semester and the other one was an online course from the start. So functionally this section of the course is all students that had explicitly opted to take a face to face version of the course. It’s great that the course can work well as an online course, but I fully realize that this isn’t what students had signed up for. Beyond that it’s a seminar with 30 students, which presents challenges for having everyone do anything together in any situation. In light of that, I worked out a process where students are going to have peer learning partners that they set up time to check in with each week and who they will read and comment on each others journals. Over the course of the semester the partners are going to rotate four times, so everyone will have a few weeks with a different partner. My hope is that this helps scaffold everyone into some rich discussions and explorations of the issues that we get into over the course of the semester.

The last major set of assignments are focused on having each student do an interview with someone working in a leadership/management role in a library or archives who they will then write an essay about that connects that persons ideas about leadership with readings from the course. My current concept is that for all the students that opt in, I will go ahead and put out an open access book of all these essays on LISSA. My hope with this assignment is that it provides a chance for everyone in the class to do some networking and meet folks working in the field while also giving us a chance to make something together that everyone can point to after the semester as an outcome from the course. I’ll be curious to see how it goes!