Marginalia 27 – Authenticity, toolkits, and power

Authenticity and Information networks

One of my weekly joys is reading the latest email from Real Life magazine. Recently they explored (Real Results) the idea of “authenticity” online, and what commercial platforms mean by it.

“Real” is when you are not being intentional, when you are not selling something but are being sold to, when you are not active but passive, reacting rather than acting. Reddit posts are a resource only insofar as the posters aren’t trying to capitalize on them themselves but instead dutifully offer them up with a kind of ignorance or indifference about their commercial value. Only certain people can afford to be indifferent or ignorant like that, which biases the information in a subtler way.

Project Information Literacy interview Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner in Thinking ecologically about our polluted information networks. Phillips and Milner describe what they call an “ecological understanding” of online information, encouraging us to think about what we believe to be misinformation, disinformation or hateful speech as “pollution”, sidestepping any need to determine the original intention of a given message, and thinking about the consequences of sharing:

An ecological understanding helps people shift from asking, “How do I protect myself from the lies and hate coming at me?” to asking, “How can I share in a way that protects others from a whole range of harms?” The shift emphasizes the consequences of our collective information footprint over the individual motivations behind individual posts…

…We want students to get the correlation between feeling better and sharing better; it’s as essential to media literacy as tracing sources and checking facts.


CAUL has published an Open Research Toolkit in the form of a LibGuide (what else?):

The Open Research Toolkit was created by the Open Research Working Group, comprising representatives of the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) and the Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL). The Toolkit supports Australasian institutions to implement or further develop open research policy, strategy and practice.

The Toolkit contains information, resources and good practice examples related to all aspects of open research, including policy, governance, pathways and processes. It also includes resources for individual researchers interested in engaging in open research practices and training materials for support services fostering open research within their organisations.

The always-fascinating Shannon Mattern writes about tool kits in general for Toolshed in Unboxing the toolkit:

Kathryn Shroyer describes how we can “cognitively offload information into the environment through the organization of tools”; kits are a mechanism for distributed cognition.

Mattern writes about the history and meaning of toolkits, why we make them and why sometimes maybe we shouldn’t:

Especially given the proliferation of kits as methodological and political tools in design and development, we need to think about how kits are aesthetic objects that order and arrange things – and how those aesthetics are rhetorical and epistemological: they make an argument about “best practices,” about what matters, and about how we know things.

…A box full of surgical gloves and staplers isn’t going to thwart a persistent plague. In the face of sustained suffering, a kit is no substitute for robust, enduring, local, on-the-ground resources and expertise.

Power in the library

Finally, after decades of pretending that sites of neutral and objective knowledge creation and maintenance can exist, and that libraries are an enaction of this, suddenly everyone is talking about libraries as places of contested power.

It’s not that nobody ever questioned library practices before, but some combination of librarians increasingly disassociating their professional identities from the institutions they work for, and the across-the-board delegitimisation of governments and institutions more broadly, seems to be forcing some reckoning with the reality of power in libraries and librarianship.

In Shhh… What a library’s social character reveals about the logics and politics of source creation, Keiran Hegarty takes a sociologist’s view of libraries and archives and the “hidden work” that happens within them – or more to the point, used to happen within them, but now happens outside of them:

Now that the selection of library material is contingent as much on its accessibility as its content, contemporary library collecting can be used as a site to interrogate who or what exerts control over the cultural record. On a world wide web dominated by large commercial companies, access to web data is often contingent on the terms set by those companies. With this in mind, the lack of Facebook content in library collections can be read not as a gap in the historical record, but rather as evidence of contemporary struggles over data governance and Facebook’s refusal to allow access to data unless it is on the terms it stipulates.

Another kind of power struggle is that between workers and bosses. Last month the American Library Association recovered from their vocational awe and elected the socialist librarian running for President of the American Library Association, as Jacobin referred to Emily Drabinski. You love to see it.

This article is worth a read if you want to understand both why Drabinski won, and what might be in store for the ALA. But its this line that has stuck with me:

Libraries are at once immensely valuable and perhaps equally frivolous, because a life well lived doesn’t limit itself to useful things.

I really can’t think of a better way to describe what modern libraries are all about.

Another source of power in libraries is that of controlling the means of production, expression and use of the catalogue and the collection. With this in mind, Kat Cuttriss’s recent article for the CAUL/CAVAL Digital Dexterity blog about moving Massey University’s library management sytem to FOLIO is worth a read. It sounds like an interesting approach that was focussed more on learning from mistakes and experiments together than trying to perfect everything on the first go. How refreshing.

If you’re a librarian and haven’t yet read OCLC’s Reimagine Descriptive Workflows: A Community-informed Agenda for Reparative and Inclusive Descriptive Practice you really need to rectify that as soon as possible. You might be surprised to see me pushing an OCLC report, but I have no doubt that–despite obviously having gone through a few edits to tone it down a little–this report is destined to be an important trigger for libraries in the UK and the settler-colonial states it produced to start doing something–anything! – to fix our metadata and change how we approach resource description in a systematic way.

“But – what should we DO Hugh?”

I’m not a cataloguer, but Alissa McCulloch is, and she has some typically sensible and considered thoughts already, which she shared in Reimagining Australian descriptive workflows: where should we start? She also has this to say:

‘You all need to do something. You’ll fuck it up, and get it wrong, and need to fix things. But the worst thing you can do is to do nothing.’ I can’t remember where I heard Kirsten Thorpe say this—possibly relayed second-hand from someone else. But I think about it a lot. My well-meaning efforts might be misguided, I’ve undoubtedly made mistakes already, and I definitely don’t have all the answers, but at least I can stand up and say that I’m doing something. What will you do?

Let’s get on with it.