What politics shape information management and access to knowledge? What are the social and environmental implications of ubiquitous digital preservation? How are librarians and archivists at the forefront of radical social justice projects?

In episode 70 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews librarian and archivist Stacie Williams about how knowledge and information gathering has always been deeply racialized and gendered, the radical work librarians and archivists are doing to end sexual violence and the carceral state, why digitizing everything is actually a terrible idea with big environmental consequences, and how love is key to how Stacie imagines otherwise.

Guest: Stacie Williams

Stacie Williams wearing a grey sweater and silver earrings in front of a bookcase. Text reads "Stacie Williams, Imagine Otherwise podcast episode 70"Stacie Williams is the director of the new Center for Digital Scholarship at the University of Chicago. She formerly managed the Digital Scholarship Program at Case Western Reserve University’s Kelvin Smith Library.

Stacie is an advisory archivist for A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland and has worked at Harvard University, the University of Kentucky, and the Lexington Public Library in Kentucky.

She is also an essayist whose work has appeared in Bitch, LitHubNew York magazine, CatapultGordon Square Review and The Rumpus.

Stacie’s first bibliomemoir on gentrification and race is forthcoming in October 2018 as part of Fiction Advocate’s AFTERWORDS series.

We chatted about

  • The politics of preservation and why digitizing everything is actually a terrible idea (05:35)
  • The radical work librarians and archivists are doing in social justice movements (09:01)
  • Archives as storytelling devices (14:03)
  • Mobilizing digital tools for social justice projects (17:20)
  • Community-responsive librarianship (20:56)
  • Imagining otherwise (22:19)

Rows of open books. Text reads "There was never any neutrality in the library space. When books began to be printed, they weren't for everybody. They were for a very small subset of the population. The nature of what we do has always been inherently politicized." Quote from Stacie Williams on episode 70 of the Imagine Otherwise podcastTakeaways

Should everything be digitally preserved?

The aspect of digital preservation that I’m actually the most interested in is what we’re doing with the actual resources or tools that allow us to preserve digital objects and what those materials are with regard to resources like our environments and our communities. So I might be on a different side of the fence with digital preservation in that I’m someone who actually feels like we should be doing it in a really limited kind of way because the footprint of it is so large in terms of what it takes up in resources, what it does to our environment, and what it demands of the people who are actually doing that labor and the overall unwillingness to fund that from a larger societal or cultural perspective.

Working with community members in archival projects

One of the things that I’m most excited about, especially when it comes to archiving or preservation of cultural heritage materials, is the increase of community archiving projects, specifically with a post-custodial model. For anybody listening who is not familiar with that term [post-custodial], it’s this idea that as archivists, especially if you’re in an academic institution, we don’t always have to be the ones who just take, take, take from communities—that we could simply function as advisors or just people willing to assist and give other people the tools that they need to be able to take care of and preserve their own materials in the way that they want to and retain stewardship over those materials. So totally getting rid of this idea that it’s about going into communities or going into organizations and taking things or being gifted things, but really just giving people the tools that they need to push forward.

Libraries have never been “neutral spaces”

I think that one of the challenges is addressing this idea of libraries as so-called “neutral spaces.” There are a lot of people even in the profession who are deeply invested in this idea of libraries as totally neutral spaces where we shouldn’t be talking about politics, who say we shouldn’t make things political. But there was never any neutrality in the library space. When books began to be printed, they weren’t for everybody. They were for a very small subset of the population. We have to move forward and evolve; we have to understand that the nature of what we do has always been inherently politicized.

The future of librarianship

What I hope is the future of librarianship or digital scholarship: that it is absolutely responsive and responsible to the communities around it. My bigger vision of digital scholarship is using it to get research into the hands of people who will be the most affected by it. Especially if you’re at a university located in a city, the idea is that we could be a conduit to getting that information into the hands of the communities who could be affected by that research through policy or planning or some other thing because that research is used for those things. Politicians and policy makers use that research to determine one thing or another. So if people have access, then they could use that to advocate for things that they need or advocate for some type of positive impact or outcome. That’s what I hope that digital scholarship and librarianship in general can be moving towards.

Imagining otherwise

I want a world where everyone is included in every aspect of it. I want a world in which, if we are in the library or putting a digital exhibits online, that they’re fully accessible to people with disabilities and that our buildings themselves are accessible to people from all walks of life. I want a world in which people can use this information. We talk sometimes about this idea of liberatory work—liberatory archives or liberatory librarianship—where we’re getting documents to people on the down low….So I want a world in which that information is just there, it’s not behind a paywall, and we’re actively interrogating what’s there all the time. I want a world where everybody has the tools that they need to actively interrogate the information at hand. So that means that our schools are good and that they’re open to everybody. Where it’s not cost prohibitive to go to college if you’re not super wealthy. I want a world that is equal and open and, quite honestly, loving. At a library conference I attended once, they had everybody stand up and say what they were motivated by. And I said, quite frankly, I am motivated by love. I hope that doesn’t sound corny. I don’t think love is corny. I feel like that is the thing that’s really sustained us over a long period of time. Nothing else has allowed us to sustain and grow and thrive or fight the way that love does. What we’re doing in the library space or in the archives can contribute to that. I want to be a part of that and that be a part of the world that that we’re working toward.

More from Stacie

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:23] This is episode 70, and my guest today is Stacie Williams. Stacie’s the director of the new Center for Digital Scholarship at the University of Chicago. She formerly managed the Digital Scholarship Program at Case Western Reserve University’s Kelvin Smith Library. Stacie is an advisory archivist for A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland and has worked at Harvard University, the University of Kentucky, and the Lexington Public Library in Kentucky. She is also an essayist whose work has appeared in Bitch, LitHubNew York magazine, CatapultGordon Square Review and The Rumpus. Stacie’s first bibliomemoir on gentrification and race is forthcoming in October 2018 as part of Fiction Advocate’s AFTERWORDS series.

In our interview, Stacie and I talk about how knowledge and information gathering has always been deeply racialized and gendered, the radical work librarians and archivists are doing to stop end sexual violence and the carceral state, why digitizing everything is actually  a terrible idea with big environmental consequences, and how love is key to Stacie imagines otherwise.

[To Stacie] So thank you so much for being with us Stacie.

Stacie Williams [01:37]: Thank you so much for having me, Cathy.

Cathy [01:39]: So I’d love to dive into your badass work as a content strategist, librarian archivist, and all around awesome human. I’m curious, what got you interested in libraries and digital preservation?

Stacie [01:54]: There’s a bunch of answers to that. I did not start out as a librarian. I was a journalist for about ten years and during the recession I started thinking that perhaps I needed to identify something else that I could do in case in case journalism was not going to allow me to have the length of your career that I hoped that I would have. And so librarianship came up really organically. I looked at the skill sets and I am someone who has always spent a lot of time in libraries. My mother took me to the library all the time. I really enjoyed being in the library space, so it just felt like a really great way to tap into this thing that I really, really loved to do but also still help people in the way that I felt like or that I hoped I was helping people through journalism.

[02:52] Now digital preservation is more an organic outgrowth of just the things that you have to do in the day-to-day if you’re working as a librarian or if you’re working as an archivist. We’re working in born-digital spaces with born-digital content and even the things that aren’t born digital, we are (when we have funds or human resources available) making an attempt to digitize those things. So in terms of just needing to get through the day-to-day on my job, I guess that’s how I became interested in it. But the aspect of digital preservation that I’m actually the most interested in is what we’re doing with the actual resources or tools that allow us to preserve digital objects and what those materials are with regard to resources like our environments and our communities.

[03:52] So I might be on a different side of a fence with digital preservation in that I’m someone who actually feels like we should be doing it in a really limited kind of way because the footprint of it is so large in terms of what it takes up in resources, what it does to our environment, and what it demands of the people who are actually doing that labor and the overall unwillingness to fund that from a larger societal or cultural perspective. So I’m interested in digital preservation, but maybe not in the same way that some of my peers might be

Cathy [04:30]: That’s a really interesting take on this field that we often hear about as just universally championed, right? Like it’s just universally good. “Of course everything should be digitized!” It almost goes without saying, it’s just an assumption.

Stacie [04:45]: That is the assumption and I thought that at the start of my career as a librarian. But if you’re actually paying attention to the day-to-day, [you realize that] this work extracts a huge cost in in a bunch of different areas. So by looking at librarianship as wanting to help people, wanting to be in service, and if you are actively and intentionally trying to make a positive impact, then I have to kind of cast a side eye at digitization, at digital preservation, and understand a bit more about it. I’m trying to look at ways that we can do it responsibly.

Cathy [05:31]: I’m curious what you see some of the big challenges facing this field in the coming years. I mean, you’ve mentioned some ones already in terms of environmental impact and labor impact of digitization, but are there other issues that you see coming down the pike that you’re excited (or maybe wary about?) sinking your teeth into?

Stacie [05:53]: Sure. I think that there are a lot of really exciting things happening right now. One of the things that I’m most excited about, especially when it comes to archiving or preservation of cultural heritage materials, is the increase of community archiving projects, specifically with a post-custodial model. So for anybody listening who is not familiar with that term [post-custodial], it’s this idea that as archivists, especially if you’re in an academic institution, that we don’t always have to be the ones who just take, take, take from communities—that we could simply function as advisors or just people willing to assist and give other people the tools that they need to be able to take care of and preserve their own materials in the way that they want to and retain stewardship over those materials. So totally getting rid of this idea that it’s about going into communities or going into organizations and taking things or being gifted things, but really just giving people the tools that they need to push forward.

[06:50] A good friend of mine, Bergis Jules, recently received a pretty exciting grant that focuses on not just helping out people who are working on community archives projects but helping them get funds to do that because that’s another thing. I’ve been part of university or other library initiatives to go out into communities and teach people the basics of archiving. But those workshops very seldom talk about funds. So you’re like, “yeah, put everything in an acid-free folder,” but we haven’t even told people where they could get acid-free folders or how much they cost or how much it costs to have boxes or how much it costs to adjust your HVAC system so that your humidity is on point or to have a room that’s free of moisture and things of that nature.

[08:02] I think that prior to very recently we’ve talked about this with people in these kind of abstract ways or have given them just sort of general tips. But this project that Bergis and Jon Voss are working on is something that will really take it a step further and show people how to get the money to make that sustainable. So I think that’s really, really exciting and I think it’s the type of thing that will allow not just more voices to be heard (voices that have traditionally been silenced or underrepresented in our more traditional archives) but also just allow people to be autonomous and have the space to determine how they’re sharing or if they choose to share or not to share. I think it’s a really exciting time for giving people back some of that power.

Cathy [09:00]: You’ve written quite a lot about the labor of libraries and archiving spaces, especially the ways that such labor is intensely racialized and gendered. And we’ve had several librarians and archivists on the show over the episodes who have explicitly connected their librarian and archivist practices to social justice movements, much in the vein of your work. We had Polly Thistlethwaite, for example, on here talking about queer librarians getting lifesaving medical information to people living with AIDS, Zach McDowell talking about the Open Access movement, and Lauren Rile Smith talking about archival practices from a queer and feminist perspective. I’m curious what you see as the role of librarians or archivists in the kind of movements and communities that you’re really passionate about.

Stacie [09:49]: Oh, absolutely. I think especially right now, in this current moment of history that we’re living in, the skills that librarians and archivists have could be really, really powerful. I mean, we’re talking about not just access to information but what is and what isn’t information in general. We’re at a point in our history where people are actively questioning this and you kind of have to because we have elected officials straight up making things up in real time or even, in terms of news media, the language and the words that they use to softens a thing or make opaque a concept. I mean, I don’t even know what to think about the linguistic construction of a “tender-age shelter.” These are facilities with chain-link fences and locks on the door and people are not allowed to come and go. Sounds like jail to me and we’re putting children in them.

[10:56]: So right now, there is a real battle happening with what we are doing to information, what we’re doing with words. And so I think the skill set of librarians and archivists with regard to research and digging into a really awesome project [is really valuable]. I’m on the Advisory Board of the Digital Library Federation and some of the members just the other day released this really incredible map that they were working on. They found a bunch of data sets, connecting with librarians and digital scholarship folks from all over the place. They were working at Columbia, they were working in universities in Texas and in the borderlands areas, and they got together and they made it happen. They created a series of very compelling maps about where ICE [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] facilities are located. Being able to visualize the carceral state as it relates to immigration, I think for people is very powerful so you really understand the scope of what is happening here

[12:07] It’s, it’s a good time for those of us who are trying to do that work. I think that one of the challenges is addressing this idea of libraries as so-called “neutral spaces.” There are a lot of people even in the profession who are deeply invested in this idea of libraries as totally neutral spaces where we shouldn’t be talking about politics, who say we shouldn’t make things political. But there was never any neutrality in the library space. When books began to be printed, they weren’t for everybody. They were for a very small subset of the population. We have to move forward and evolve; we have to understand that the nature of what we do has always been inherently politicized. So we need to understand that, acknowledge that, and then take that and move forward in a space where we can actually do good. I think that’s a huge challenge that we’re facing. We’re in these trying times, but librarians and archivists do have this skillset.

[13:32] I believe in some of the things that I’ve seen and I want to say that there are some really, really incredible people right now doing really important and meaningful and deeply impactful work. And I just try to learn from them, continue learning as much as I can and trying to conceptualize with other people ways that we can do this work to the benefit of everyone.

Cathy [14:03]: So we’ve kind of talked around this issue, but I wonder if we can dive a little bit deeper into this question of how you conceptualize the work that you do as combining your academic interests with your interests in creativity or art and social justice activism.

Stacie [14:23]: That is a really great question. I’ve tried to define it before, but it also feels like perhaps I’ve just been operating this way for a while. I don’t mean to say that I just knew the whole of my life or that I’ve always just been this super woke person. I mean, the things that I’ve thought about with regard to social justice have been evolving for a very, very long time. Growing up, I had parents who absolutely encouraged creativity in their children. So we had exposure to the arts constantly. I did a lot of writing; my parents encouraged me to do a lot of writing.

I love reading and I love just thinking about the different ways that we tell stories. So I suppose that that plays into my belief that working with archives is just another way that we tell stories. We have gathered these materials and said, “okay, people, researchers, general public, what have you, come to this institution and use these resources and you’ll be able to tell these stories .” But the materials that we’ve gathered over a period of time, the stories that those sometimes told were very narrow or you had to look a lot deeper to find other stories beyond that. So I’ve looked at this as a way to help people tell stories.

I think also having been a journalist, feel like there’s so many similar things happening between the two fields. I’ve constantly trying to merge those ideas. So some of the early digital scholarship projects that I did were done on what were news or long-read platforms, utilizing some of the storytelling techniques that journalists would use.

[16:35] I’ve worked with people who have tried to actively and intentionally engage activist spaces for either the purposes of helping disseminate information to them or opening up room for them to come in our spaces and share their stories and talk about their experiences using library resources or using archival resources. I think that’s probably been the strongest link. I see myself in a continuum that’s existed for a really long time of different ways to share information.

Cathy: What are some of the projects that you’re working on right now that you’re super excited about?

Stacie [17:30]: Oh, well there’s a couple. So at Case Western [Reserve University], we’re in the middle of planning a digital scholarship colloquium for the fall. We have it timed to be just before Election Day. So it’s gonna be November 1 and 2.

The theme is “the digital and democracy” so our Call for Papers asked people to engage the ways that people use digital tools to either uphold or undermine democracy. And we’ve seen a lot of that, right? I mean, just in this year alone, just in last the six months alone, we’ve gone from from one thing to another: Cambridge Analytica and Google employees stepping down over defense contracts, but we’re also seeing on the flip side, the ways that people are using digital tools and apps to, for instance, raise money to bail out women of color on Mother’s Day.

[18:39] I think it goes back to this idea of neutrality. Some people will think that the digital is neutral, that it’s just code and it’s just hardware. But no, there are actual people creating those codes and creating that hardware. They design it according to their own biases. That’s what I think is really fascinating and also horrifying about how we use technology.

So I’m really excited [about the symposium]. We closed the submissions and some really, really incredible ones have come in. So I’m really, really looking forward to that.

[19:35] We also have a fellowship program through our Center for Digital Scholarship and last year we were working with some researchers who had gotten a huge grant from, I believe, the Justice Department, to study backlog rape kits here in Cuyahoga County. So they also received a fellowship from us and they worked with our GIS [Global Information System] librarian to create a series of maps that visualized where these assaults had taken place. They had something like twenty years worth of data.

What was really exciting to me was that we were then able to connect them to resources in our case, very specifically the redlining maps of the early twentieth century. It was really exciting, but also deeply impactful to see these researchers connecting what they thought was relatively contemporary data to something that had happened years and years ago, and connecting some of those patterns of assault here on the east side of the city [of Cleveland] directly back to redlining and everything that sprouted from that. They’ve continued on with that work and some of our librarians are going to do a workshop at a local tech hub here in the city that does a lot of outreach with communities on the east side of Cleveland to give a workshop about how to use GIS tools and the implications of visualizing that type of data.

[20:51] I think the work they’re doing is so awesome. I feel so fortunate that the library has been able to partner with them. It’s also what I think or what I hope is the future of librarianship or digital scholarship: that it is absolutely responsive and responsible to the communities around it. My bigger vision of digital scholarship is using it to get research into the hands of people who will be the most affected by it. Especially if you’re at a university located in a city, the idea is that we could be a conduit to getting that information into the hands of the communities who could be affected by that research through policy or planning or some other thing because that research is used for those things. Politicians and policy makers use that research to determine one thing or another. So if people have access, then they could use that to advocate for things that they need or advocate for some type of positive impact or outcome. That’s what I hope that digital scholarship and librarianship in general can be moving towards.

Cathy [22:15]: This brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask guests, which really gets at the heart of why you do what you do and that’s the question of the world that you’re working towards—essentially what all of this adds up to for you. So it’s a big question but it’s my favorite question. I think it can be scary for some people, but I also think it’s one that we don’t get asked enough and we don’t get enough chances to answer. We’re often very focused on what’s bad, right? And fixing what’s bad. And that’s super important work. But, as we know, we also are working towards something. So I’ll ask you, what is that world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?

Stacie [22:56]: Oh, that is a heavy question. I want a world where everyone is included in every aspect of it. I want a world in which, if we are in the library or putting a digital exhibits online, that they’re fully accessible to people with disabilities and that our buildings themselves are accessible to people from all walks of life. I want a world in which people can use this information. We talk sometimes about this idea of liberatory work, liberatory archives or liberatory librarianship where maybe we’re getting documents to people on the down low, kind of what Polly Thistlethwaite was talking about. So I want a world in which that information is just there, it’s not behind a paywall, and we’re actively interrogating what’s there all the time.

[24:03] I want a world where everybody has the tools that they need to actively interrogate the information at hand. So that means that our schools are good and that they’re open to everybody. Where it’s not cost prohibitive to go to college if you’re not super wealthy.

I want a world that is equal and open and, quite honestly, loving. At a library conference I attended once, they had everybody stand up and say what they were motivated by. And I said, quite frankly, I am motivated by love. I hope that doesn’t sound corny. I don’t think love is corny. I feel like that is the thing that’s really sustained us over a long period of time. Nothing else has allowed us to sustain and grow and thrive or fight the way that love does. What we’re doing in the library space or in the archives can contribute to that. I want to be a part of that and that be a part of the world that that we’re working toward. That’s a great question.

Cathy [25:21]: That’s a great answer! Well thank you so much for being with us, Stacie, and sharing the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Stacie: Thank you so much for having me, Cathy. This was wonderful.

Cathy [25:36]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]