New Suns highlights a range of perspectives on relationships between technology, data, and community. Topics span aspirations toward equity, historical reflection, contemporary engagement, cross domain collaboration, infrastructure, labor, and more.

A Future for Cultural Memory

remixed from La Jolla Tidepools by photos_by_clark
remixed from La Jolla Tidepools by photos_by_clark
Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Trevor Owens is a librarian, researcher, policy maker, and educator advancing digital infrastructure and programs for libraries, archives, museums, and related cultural institutions. Owens is the recipient of the 2021 Frederick G. Kilgour Award for Research in Library and Information Technology, sponsored by OCLC and Core: Leadership, Infrastructure, Futures. Owens is currently working on his third book, After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory (under contract with University of Michigan Press).

Thomas: Your career path is eclectic, spanning a digital history center (Center for History and New Media), a federal funding agency (Institute of Museum and Library Services), a History department (American University), an iSchool (University of Maryland), and a national library (Library of Congress). What questions and/or dispositions to work and relationships did you start with? Where did they come from? Why have they changed? Who and what prompted change?

Trevor: When you say it like that, I guess it is a bit eclectic. I don’t think it ever felt that way. Each step seemed to make a lot of sense at the time and when I think about it broadly it feels like I've kept circling some of the same issues across those roles. Since I started undergrad I’ve been working on things related to history, digital technology, and libraries. I kept a lot of plates spinning for a long time. I think a lot of the root of this is how much I was trying to min/max things as a part of hustle culture in the early 2000s. I think I grew up like a lot of millennials in a world of concerted cultivation, trying to rack up accomplishments that I could leverage into opportunities in a hyper competitive world. 

When I was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, I declared the History of Science as my major and had little confidence in what kind of job I could get after school. I kept signing up for 18 credits a semester, originally thinking I would drop whatever class wasn’t the most interesting, but instead ended up keeping all 18 credits. It cost me the same if I did 12 or 18 credits so it felt like I should be loading up as much as I could. I worked as an RA in a dorm. I worked as a part time orchestra librarian. I took classes through the summer. I volunteered with Teach for America for an afterschool program. I interned with the Games Learning and Society conference doing outreach. Through the Games Learning and Society community I got connected with nascent academic blogging communities and began to learn how the academy worked. Ultimately, that set of experience worked well for getting into the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) where I was hired to do Zotero outreach. Through CHNM I worked on an IMLS funded project and got involved in some grant writing. I also connected with work on digital preservation and learned more about NDIIPP at the Library of Congress where I ended up going after that. 

I think the biggest way I’ve changed and grown in relation to dispositions from early in my career is that early in my career I felt like with the right DIY ethos and through things like THATCamp we could make a better, more open and more equitable world. In hindsight, I see how much of that optimism was tied up in a lot of privilege and in the last gasp of what Bernardi calls “the Wired imagination.” I now see hustle culture as part of the problem that is keeping us from building a better future for cultural memory together. That is something I delve into a bit in a recent article I wrote about a good jobs strategy for libraries and is a big part of the book I’m working on.

Thomas: In After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory (under contract with University of Michigan Press, currently inviting comments on draft chapters here), you very clearly center memory workers (librarians, archivists, curators, museum workers and more!) as fundamental to the future of cultural memory. You bring together a wide range of work to make your case on what memory jobs should look like, including but not limited to Fobazi Ettarh’s work on vocational awe, Kathleen Kuehn and Thomas Corrigan’s work on hope labor, and Zeynep Ton’s work on good jobs. You describe a need to “cultivate our own digital talent”. What is the need you see? How do we get started addressing the need? What promising examples can you share from within the Library of Congress and/or beyond? 

Trevor: Thanks for asking about the book! A core concept in the book is that digital technologies are not inert and that “what tech calls thinking” is often bundled up in how those technologies are sold to people and organizations. When we draw out the longer historical and cultural context around ideas like disruptive innovation, moneyball statistical thinking, and hustle culture in work, I think it becomes clear that there are a lot of things that are assumed to be neutral or natural about how organizations should change and evolve that are in fact ideological value judgements that we should all be more closely interrogating. This ends up prompting a question about expertise. Who are the right experts to envision the future of cultural memory organizations? My contention is that there is considerable wisdom and insight in the practices of memory workers and that the future of memory work needs to be anchored in that wisdom and insight. 

Jeff Jarvis’ 2011 book What Would Google Do?: Reverse-Engineering the Fastest Growing Company in the History of the World is a useful example of how "what tech calls thinking" works. The success of companies like Google was so dramatic that it prompted many, exemplified by Jarvis in this case, to suggest that figuring out what Google would do in your field was the essential question of our times. It’s important for memory workers to not cede the future of cultural memory to companies like Google, but instead for our organizations and our field to invest in developing a deep understanding of the potential that digital technologies present us for the future of memory work. That future needs to be grounded in the principles and values of library and archives work.

To that end, I think it’s really critical for memory institutions and workers to invest time and resources in supporting people working within our field to deeply and critically explore new technologies, consider their potential, and assess them in terms of the values and missions of our organizations. As far as examples, I continue to be a big fan of the way that my colleagues in LC labs support this kind of thinking and exploration. A lot of the work that I was able to help support through the National Digital Platform initiative at IMLS exemplifies this too. In that context I would point at the Software Preservation Network, Civic Switchboard, the Diversifying the Digital Historical Record forum, and your own work to support collections as data approaches. 

Thomas: At multiple points in this conversation you’ve called out “hustle culture” as problematic - I sense from your responses that some of this has to do with unsustainable workload and disproportionate ability to carry the weight - a fundamental inequity with cascading effects. Can you unpack hustle culture a bit more as it applies to culture heritage work? What is the kind of ______ culture we should be working toward? 

Trevor: I’m thinking about hustle culture as a celebration of overwork, beliefs about the idea that if people just hustle harder they can be successful and happy despite the challenges. I think it’s a huge problem that we live in a world where advertisements try to appeal to us by saying, “You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.” 

In terms of things to look to replace it, I think a maintenance mindset is a good contender. That said, I think it’s going to be a huge challenge because hustle culture has become such a driving force in contemporary culture. As Melissa Gregg points out in Counterproductive, thinking about min-maxing productivity practices in nearly all parts of our lives has become a kind of personal athleticism. I think we can make inroads against hustle culture but it’s also such a major part of the zeitgeist at this point that I don’t think we can necessarily really escape it.

Thomas: The Center for Research Libraries has a global focus - how do you see the ideas you’ve introduced in this conversation interacting with cultural heritage work in other countries? 

Trevor: My work and my experience has been situated in the U.S. so I can’t really speak to how the points I have brought up here do or don’t resonate in other countries. WIth that noted, cultural narratives and frameworks are one of the biggest exports of the U.S. to other parts of the globe. To that end, it’s my sense that hustle culture, and moneyball thinking, and ideas about disruptive innovation that I’m pushing back against in my forthcoming book are having similar kinds of detrimental effects globally. In Between Gaia and Ground Elizabeth Povinelli argues that climatic, environmental, viral, and social catastrophes are best understood not as something new or novel, but as an extension of, “an ancestral catastrophe through which Indigenous and colonized peoples have been suffering for centuries.” If we take that point seriously I think it can work as a broader context to connect and relate out to any number of issues/problems - including the ones I’ve been discussing here. 

Thomas: You take part in a fair number of interviews! What is a question you haven’t received that you’d like to respond to? 

Trevor: How about “What works of fiction resonate with you most in thinking about your work?” To that, I will say that I think about Neil Gaiman’s American Gods a lot. Specifically, I love the way that the book draws out how alive and real our mythological notions of the world are. I fully realize and appreciate the way that the mythology of “the technical boy” has shaped how people see me and see my work. Along with that, I would add Octavia Buttler’s Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents. I think that series is really powerful for how it envisions a future working through the strife of anthropogenic climate change. Lastly, I just finished reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from The Goon Squad, and there were some ideas about how beats of rest/silence/pauses work in music, our lives, and our relationships that I’m going to be thinking about for a long time. 

Thomas: Lastly, whose work do you want more people to know about and why? 

Trevor: There are a lot of folks, so I think I will try and run through a number of things here quick. I can’t recommend Catherine D’Ignazio & Lauren F. Klein's book Data Feminism enough. I used it this semester in my digital history grad seminar and it worked so much better than any other book I’ve assigned about data analysis/data science. It is way more accessible and engaging and draws out a number of really important points about why data justice is so much more important than a data ethics frame of mind. I think anyone working with digital infrastructure would benefit from reading Marianne Bellotti’s Kill It with Fire: Manage Aging Computer Systems. That book is really powerful in helping reframe the nature of work with IT systems and environments into a maintenance mindset. I read Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing last year and keep thinking about it. In particular, I think her approach to “manifest dismantling” is really powerful. The last thing I will bring up is Sofia Y. Leung and Jorge R. López-McKnight’s edited volume Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory. That book is full of a whole series of essays that I think can and should become foundational for a lot of future work in our field.