Digital Library Matters: DLF Liberal Arts College Pre-conference

Text of my part of the DLF Liberal Arts College pre-conference keynote that I gave with the amazing Cecily Walker. Her part is here, and linked in context below.
There are also community notes from our talk, and an active twitter stream (#dlflac).

I am delighted to be here, and to have the chance to talk to you this morning with my colleague from the Vancouver public library, Cecily Walker.

Funny story – I really just met Cecily last night at a sports bar. Seriously – we had never met in person before last night. But lest you think I am in the habit of just meeting people in sports bars and asking them to share a keynote with me, I’ve actually known Cecily online for years. I’ve long admired her work – especially the way she reflects on the work she does and the way she encourages the rest of us to think more critically about the work we do.

On twitter and on her blog, Cecily’s reflections have compelled me to reconsider what it means to be me, doing the work that I do. She has prodded me, perhaps unknowingly, to think more carefully about how my work and my relationship to librarianship is situated in my personal and professional identity and in the complicated intersections of race, gender, sexuality, power, gender identity, ability, and other statuses that continually define and redefine my identity and situational privilege.

Cecily is one of those friend/colleagues who makes me think and makes me laugh — my very favorite kind of colleague — and I’m really happy and honored to be co-presenting with her this morning.

What we plan to talk about this morning is our shared and our individual perspectives on Digital Library Matters – which is a title we use to signify that we will talk about digital library matters, but also about how and why digital libraries matter; and why we are both advocates for doing work that matters and of thinking carefully and critically about why our work matters on multiple levels.

I’m going to talk a bit about why I think libraries, digital libraries, and the librarians, archivists and others who do the work of libraries matter so much now. Then Cecily is going to talk about her experiences doing digital library work at the Vancouver Public Library on projects that matter to her and to her community. Then I hope we can have a conversation on digital library matters, and how y’all think about what matters and why and how in the work you do – or aspire to do.

I have to start with a couple of caveats:

First – I’m actually not a fan of keynote talks.

I’m becoming increasingly disenchanted with the whole concept of one special choosen person spouting wisdom and inspiration to a roomful of peers; then answering questions from the stage like some wise oracle. But I decided to say yes to this invitation on the condition that I could invite a colleague to co-present with me; because I knew that would give me the opportunity to hear more about Cecily’s work and how she approaches that work. And because I want more of us to hear what she has to say. I’m also hoping that doing this together will inspire something more like a conversation than a Q&A at the end.

My second caveat is that this might get personal.

The last several talks I’ve given have been a bit more personal than usual — in March, I gave a talk just days after a beloved bother-in-laws funeral. This June I gave a talk at ALA just days after the Charleston shootings, and an intro to a panel at RBMS on the very morning that the Supreme Court declared my marriage was legal across the country. Those events and my feelings about them definitely ended up in my talks.

As I long-time feminist, I’ve long believed that the personal is political, and as someone who came to librarianship because it is a values-based profession, I also believe the personal is professional and vice-versa. So personal and political events tend to find their way into my work – including and perhaps especially into talks I give. Let me be clear, I offer that as an informational warning only, NOT as an apology.

Probably the most significant thing going on for me personally and professionally is that I recently made a move from being an associate university librarian at Stanford University, where my portfolio was all humanities and social sciences – at a school with large and very strong programs in both – to being the library director at an institute of technology – actually at THE Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And something very strange is happening — in meetings all over MIT I frequently find myself looking around the room and thinking “oh, I’m the only humanities person here.”

Now the thing that is strange about that is that I’m not actually a humanities person — I’m a sociologist. I haven’t taken a humanities class since my sophomore year in college and that was more than a few years ago. And frankly I didn’t do very well in it, if I recall correctly. My education, my training, my research, all of my degrees are in sociology – and quantitative sociology at that.

But there is something about being situated in a science, engineering and technology school, amongst so many engineers and “real” scientists, that has given me an even deeper appreciation & affinity for the humanities, and for a humanistic perspective that incorporates the skills of engrossment and empathy, as DLF’s own Bethany Nowviskie describes in her recent talk about “capacity and care.”

But the humanities don’t need me to represent them or defend them or save them – although funding cuts have forced many humanities departments and advocates into defensive postures.

I expect many of you have seen the clever defense of the humanities proclaiming that while science can tell you how to clone a T-Rex, humanities can tell you why you might not want to.Science v Humanities

Not to diss too much on the good folks from the school of humanities at the University of Utah who created the poster, but I think we can understand the value of humanities in a more nuanced way than this.

First of all, science can’t actually tell us how to clone a t-rex. I checked with colleagues at MIT, and they assure me that we don’t really know how to do that yet.

But more importantly, it takes science, engineering, social sciences & humanities to tell us the kinds of impacts technology and technology enabled innovations will have on society, on the planet, and on individuals.

I have to take a minute here to brag about both my new and my old schools.

The Times Higher Education World University rankings just named MIT, Stanford, and some other school just up the river from MIT as the top 3 universities worldwide for Arts and Humanities Education.

In some ways, what I loved most about this was not the the ranking itself, but was what MIT’s president Rafael Reif, an engineer, had to say about it —

Humanities and Arts teaching are central to guiding MIT students in their growth as human beings who understand the power of science and technology, are alert to its impacts on society, and are prepared to be bold, thoughtful leaders of constructive change.

And then listen to what Melissa Nobles, the Dean of the School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences at MIT, had to say: “The world’s problems are so complex they’re not only science and technological problems. They are as much human and moral problems.”

Dean Nobles goes on to say that the big challenges facing us today are so complex that our only hope of progress is through collaboration across skills, disciplines, and perspectives.

To me it is clear that this is true of digital library matters as well.

We need all kinds of people contributing to the work we do – people with technical chops, people skilled and trained in the methods and values of librarianship, people with humanities training and insights, and maybe even a few folks like me with social science backgrounds.

And, although I wish I could say it goes without saying, I know that it doesn’t, so I’ll say it – we also need people of all genders, races, abilities, socio-economic statuses, and nationalities. If we want to do work that contributes to a fuller, richer, more varied understanding of our world, then we need inclusive and diverse teams collaborating on that work. Full stop.

And I think this is critical precisely because I do believe that our work matters. I am convinced that libraries, maybe especially digital libraries, matter more than ever in the age of … well, in the age of now.

Some of you may recognize that I am deliberately invoking the subtitle of John Palfrey’s recent book about the future of libraries – Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More than Ever in the Age of Google.

Jiffy with Bibliotech

the cutest dog on the internet recommends Bibliotech

If you haven’t read it yet, Jiffy and I certainly recommend it. In addition to being the cutest dog on the internet, with his own hashtag #DailyJiffy, he is an exceptionally discriminating and well-read fellow.

Back to the book – in BiblioTech, Palfrey makes the grand argument that communities need public libraries; and colleges and universities need academic libraries now more than ever, because … well, because technology.

If I understand it correctly, his argument is that technologies (google, digital books, mobile computing, MOOCs, etc.) don’t replace traditional libraries and library functions but that they actually create new demands and new manifestations of long-existing library missions and functions.

To be fair, that isn’t his whole argument, and he does us all a solid by making it quite clear that one of the main goals of his book is to make it very clear to those who control library funding, and that libraries serve and will continue to serve crucial social functions, and that therefore libraries need and deserve copious financial support.

AMEN – I am not about to argue with that.

But/and, I think it is important to also proclaim that libraries (and archives) matter now more than even not just because of google and technology; but also because of the very real and urgent social and human problems and challenges facing our nation and our world.

Libraries matter because humanity

Libraries matter because humanity

I’m talking about problems like ridiculously large wealth and income gaps that keep growing, which means we have both crippling poverty and hunger in various parts of the world while in the US we also have an increasingly powerful 1% with growing wealth and growing influence on the economy, on government, and on our shared future.

I’m also talking about problems like the fact that we are witnessing refugee crises so tragic and so massive that many of us can barely comprehend the scale of human suffering we are witnessing.

I’m referring to challenges like the fact that we don’t yet know how we can ensure that there will be enough food and clean water for the estimated 9.6 billion people who will occupy the planet by 2050.

We likewise haven’t figured out yet how to provide quality education to the billions more people who need and want it, people who the next generation will count on to solve the wicked problems we leave them with.

So I am less concerned with what it means to be a librarian in the age of Google — instead the questions that motivate me are:

What does it mean or what could it mean to be a librarian or an archivist or a digital library developer doing the work we do in the age of #BlackLivesMatter?

How do make sure our work matters in a time when the need to confront climate change has never been more urgent nor the science more politicized?

What is the role of digital libraries in this particular moment in time when desperate refugee families risk and lose everything fleeing violence while a leading US presidential candidate says that if elected,he will send them back, while he woos voters with the promise that he will build a big beautiful fall to keep “illegals” (some of whom, he begrudgingly concedes might be decent people) out of our country?
I warned you this might get political.

How do we make sure we are doing work that matters when news of the latest mass shooting in the US comes at us before we have even made sense of the last one – as if we could actually make sense of news like this.

What does it mean – what could it mean – to be doing the work we do at a time like this?

I believe – I chose to believe – that libraries, and yes, even technology – can be forces for social good in this world. Not that they are existentially good – but that they can be. BUT only when intentional, critical, deeply value-laden (NOT neutral) choices are made in how we define, develop, and deliver the set of things we call Digital Libraries.

We are in the process of developing a bold new vision for the MIT Libraries, and it will certainly include the notion that our libraries ought to provide safe, interdisciplinary, inclusive, ecumenical gathering spaces – physical and virtual – where community members have access to scholarly resources and to experts to support their research and learning goals and their personal growth and well-being. My vision is for spaces and environments where community members have access to all kinds of resources – books and journals, or course; but also data, maps, images, newspapers, films, and the tools and expertise that provide the context that might help us make sense of the world around us.

I see libraries, digital and physical, as platforms for equipping all of us to be more informed global citizens, able to participate effectively in the public sphere. And not to be too much of a downer here, but the wicked challenges we face as a global society require all of us to participate at our fullest capacities- together.

This is what I mean when I say digital libraries matter now more than ever. This is also why I couldn’t imagine giving this talk by myself – I don’t really DO digital library work.

But I have had the great privilege to work with many people who do extraordinary work leveraging technology to bring context and meaning to grand challenges & big issues.

And I have had the privilege of getting to know incredibly talented and passionate people via social media – people like Cecily.

I told y’all at the outset why I asked Cecily to join me up here today; so now it is her turn to tell us why she said yes.


Go now and read what Cecily said – it is powerful and important and amazing.

(Did you read it? Told ya it was great, right?)


As we wrap up here, instead of y’all asking us questions, we’d really rather hear your reactions, your comments, and we have some questions to ask you:

    What are examples of work you’ve done, or want to do, that matters?

How should we collaborate across our different kinds and sizes of libraries – with different ideas about what matters, and different resources? How can DLF help?

How can we do work that matters, that we care about, without becoming too enmeshed and running the risk of suffering emotional burn-out at the individual level, and/or contributing to the devaluation of librarianship as a feminized, caring profession? In other words how can we balance capacity, community, and care?

2 Responses to “Digital Library Matters: DLF Liberal Arts College Pre-conference”



  1. 1 Thomas Padilla Trackback on October 29, 2015 at 12:53 pm
  2. 2 Digital Library Matters: DLF Forum Pre-Conference Keynote | Cecily Walker Trackback on October 27, 2015 at 11:10 am

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