dubious durability

It is mind blowing to consider the scope of the lengths we have to go to in order to store even a relatively miniscule chunk of the information continuously being produced at astonishing rates. Not to mention how those rates are expected to rise as time goes on (“Five years ago humans had produced 4.4 zettabytes of data; that’s set to explode to 160 zettabytes (each year!) by 2025. Current infrastructure can handle only a fraction of the coming data deluge, which is expected to consume all the world’s microchip-grade silicon by 2040.” From The Rise of DNA Data Storage). Even more mind blowing to me is the development of artificial DNA technology used as more dense and durable data storage. As I was reading the “Archiving a Website for Ten Thousand Years,” they also mentioned DNA data storage and linked to an article linked here: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160407121455.htm. With this picture:


“All the movies, images, emails and other digital data from more than 600 basic smartphones (10,000 gigabytes) can be stored in the faint pink smear of DNA at the end of this test tube.”

Another image from the sciencedaily article states there will be enough digital data by 2020 to fill six stacks of computer tablets reaching to the moon. I don’t even know what to say about that. Still, I wonder how durable these new technologies actually are. As the “Archiving a Website for Ten Thousand Years,” article discussed, many of the time capsules people thought would remain stable for centuries have been lost to renovations and decay already.

Critlib: The Dilemmas of Meeting Theory and Practice

Critical librarianship, or critlib for short, is a term that has emerged in the last few decades in reference to the application of critical social theory to the practices of librarians, cataloguers, archivists, and others concerned with the storage, classification, and accessibility of knowledge. The spread of the term critlib has also been popularized across social media, specifically Twitter with #critlib, to connect a community of librarians with a particular set of values they bring to their professions. But regardless of whether one actively engages with that online community directly, critlib largely represents the process of problematizing librarianship through theoretically informed practice. Critlib as a term encompasses both the critical theory informing it and the varied practices of rethinking the role and organization of the library.

The emergence of critlib was accompanied by valid criticisms of the uses of critical theory; some argue that it is inaccessible, elitist, and is too convoluted to provide a framework to work from in the day-to-day profession.[1] Others argue that the library needs to be an objective place and that the role of the librarian is to help students learn “information literacy concepts and how to apply those concepts to their tasks… we are not paid to subscribe to some abstraction about oppressive power structures or to apply our skill sets to an ambiguous and amorphous idea of ‘social change.’”[2] However, this stance fails to recognize the already non-neutral position of the library in regard to how its structure makes certain resources accessible or not accessible, the implications of its classifications, and the mainstream emphasis on practicality in the library.

Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins look at the history of the organization and expansion of librarianship and its relationship to the rapidly industrializing and competitive characteristics of the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and the Progressive Era (1890-1920). Melvil Dewey, one of the primary founders of the library system and director of the American Library Association from 1887-1905, often used language to describe librarianship that indicated he saw “business practice as the ideal for the organization and practice of librarianship.”[3] The business practices in mind during this time placed emphasis on efficiency (increased mechanization) and saw the intensifying power of corporate entities.

However, even at these early stages of the organization of the library system, resistance to the proposed corporate model of the library was pushed by the Vice Director at the time, Mary Salome Cutler Fairchild. Fairchild’s design of the class “Reading Seminar” at the New York State Library School “inspired women training to become librarians to think more deeply about the implications of their work for their communities, and the historical and cultural contexts of their work.”[4] Despite many responses to a survey dispersed to alumni that indicated the value and importance of theoretical and philosophical training in librarianship, Dewey’s Handbook of the New York State Library School focused largely on practical matters and efficiency. Here, theory is cast aside for practice, specifically practice that is unengaged with looking carefully at the machinations of the corporate model that standardizes library work into a mechanical process, disconnecting the profession from the communities it is meant to serve.

Considering this legacy of the commodification approach to librarianship and the concurrent response of certain librarians arguing for more attention to theoretical work, the modern American library system has been faced with the dilemma of reconciling theory and practice since the early formations of its aims and organization. This dilemma, as Emily Drabinski explains, is to be expected:

“If we understand action and discourse as both produced by  and productive of the present, the coincidence of critical and compliance perspectives makes analytic sense. The kairos of contemporary critical approaches is not generic, but emerges from and alongside a kairos of compliance that it contests and resists…Critical perspectives on information literacy instruction represent a reaction against a kairos of compliance.”[5]

Drabinski uses the Greek term Kairos here to refer to qualitative time, marrying ordinal time with social, political, and historical context to a sense of the present.

In 2014, the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (Framework) was offered as a critical alternative to the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (Standards), which were in place since 2000. The Framework aimed to emphasize the importance of local and contextual learning outcomes measured by local and contextual tools, where the Standards provided a general set of performance indicators and data reporting tools. Though the Framework has been lauded for making room for the specificities of community context, providing flexibility in the assessment of a library’s value, the actual implementation of the Framework has been a complex process fraught with uncertainties. The Standards, with its generalized approach, provided certain tools that librarians made use of to show the importance of the library in its community in order to secure funding for maintenance.[6] Furthermore, as Alison Hicks points out in “Making the Case for a Sociocultural Perspective on Information Literacy,” the Framework in its effort to provide a contextually based approach has “positioned all disciplinary thinking as emerging from the same core and overarching information literacy concepts rather than, as is the case with a sociocultural perspective, recognizing the individuality and uniqueness of each discipline.”[7] By vaguely alluding to the importance of community knowing without specifying how to engage with it, the Framework also works to homogenize the value of collective and varied experiences in a hazy catch-all.

Critlib as an engagement with both theory and practice is not to be understood as some ideal harmonious meeting of the two, as it clearly comes with its own dilemmas surrounding implementation and engagement. Rather, critlib enables us to consider the way librarianship has been embedded in these dilemmas in the formation of its foundational structure through to the contemporary processes of rethinking the library. Considering the general concern of librarians with accessibility and engagement, critlib aims to meld the self-reflexive thinking of theory with the implementation of effectual practices responsive to community needs.


[1] Karen P. Nicholson and Maura Seale, “Introduction,” in The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship, ed. Karen P. Nicholson and Maura Seale, Sacramento: Library Juice Press (2017): 8.

[2] Eamon Tewell, “The Practice and Promise of Critical Information Literacy: Academic Librarians’ Involvement in Critical Library Instruction,” College and Research Libraries (2017): 37.

[3] Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins, “In Resistance to a Capitalist Past: Emerging Practices of Critical Librarianship,” in The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship, ed. Karen P. Nicholson and Maura Seale, Sacramento: Library Juice Press (2017): 26.

[4] Gregory and Higgins, 29.

[5] Emily Drabinski, “A Kairos of the Critical: Teaching Critically in a Time of Compliance,” Communications in Information Literacy, 11(1) 2017: 83.

[6] Drabinski, 85.

[7] Alison Hicks, “Making the Case for a Sociocultural Perspective on Information Literacy,” in The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship, ed. Karen P. Nicholson and Maura Seale, Sacramento: Library Juice Press (2017): 73.


Works Cited

Drabinski, Emily. “A Kairos of the Critical: Teaching Critically in a Time of Compliance.”Communications in Information Literacy, 11(1) 2017: 76-94.

Gregory, Lua and Shana Higgins. “In Resistance to a Capitalist Past: Emerging Practices of Critical Librarianship.” in The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship. ed. Karen P. Nicholson and Maura Seale, Sacramento: Library Juice Press (2017): 21-38.

Hicks, Alison. “Making the Case for a Sociocultural Perspective on Information Literacy.” in The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship. ed. Karen P. Nicholson and Maura Seale, Sacramento: Library Juice Press (2017): 70-81.

Nicholson, Karen P. and Maura Seale. “Introduction.” in The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship. ed. Karen P. Nicholson and Maura Seale, Sacramento: Library Juice Press (2017): 1-18.

Tewell, Eamon. “The Practice and Promise of Critical Information Literacy: Academic Librarians’ Involvement in Critical Library Instruction.” College and Research Libraries (2017).


embodiment within the archive

In “The Archive and the Repertoire,” Diana Taylor explores the ways in which written knowledge in the archive has been prioritized above embodied performance as a way to transfer knowledge. While I agree largely with this claim especially in the way it pertains to the systemic destruction of certain indigenous rituals, dances, and ceremonies during the Spanish conquest of the New World, there were other statements made about the archive that seemed to me a bit inflexible and stagnant. On page 19 Taylor delves into the myths of the archive – that the archive supposedly “resists change, corruptibility, and political manipulation.” Yet on the very next page, she relies on these ‘false’ images of the archive in order to establish all the things embodied performance can do that the archive can’t. “As opposed to the supposedly stable objects in the archive, the actions that are the repertoire do not remain the same.” (20, emphasis mine). The “supposedly” hints at her understanding that objects, in fact, do not remain the same in the archive either, but this set-up ultimately places these two knowledge transmission systems in a binary of one as dry, the other fluid; one as stable, the other as adaptable; one as stationary, the other as movement. Again, while I understand the purpose of this piece is to explore the importance and possibilities available through embodied performance, establishing the archive as something that lacks embodiment doesn’t seem accurate to me. The way the body moves through the archive, the way hands must handle fragile items, the sifting through files, not to mention artists who engage the archive in their work or create performances centered around archival materials (perhaps Lena H. could speak to this a bit more than I could?) are all interesting routes that could explore the particularities of embodied practices within the archive.

Translating movement

The materials this week alongside our two field trips to the New York Municipal Archives and the Brooklyn Public Library provide us with particular glimpses at the sensory possibilities that infrastructure can either contribute to or deny. To take, for example, the Warburg library – much of the “poetic composition” of the library seems to be dependent on the way one moves through the physical space of the shelves, which guide the visitor along lines of an “uninterrupted association of titles, not a linear order with a beginning and an end” (Manguel, 204). Is it possible for a sensory experience to exist in a comparable manner without the aid of movement through physical space? Is it possible for the sensorial exploratory atmosphere created by the geospatial arrangement system of the shelves (Kissinger), the nearness of certain titles to others, the cross-pollinations of images and texts due to proximity, to be transferable to the digital? The question I’m trying to ask is not whether there is a sensorial exploratory aspect to digital collections, as there certainly is. Rather, I’m wondering if it is possible to digitize the original physical arrangement, and its particular sensory experience, of the collection itself. And if it is possible, the question of “should it?” remains. Should a digitized collection strive to induce the same sensory experience as the original physical collection, or can the digitized be allowed to form its own particular sensorium? I ask this in specific reference to Henry Wilhelm’s initial commentary on the Corbis Image Vault as aiming towards preservation, when he laments the deterioration of photographs. Can deterioration exist in the archive without being treated as a spiteful pest?

The personal(ity) within the archive

The readings this week outline the structure and organization of the archives, primarily focusing on what documents might make it to the archive and which one’s fall through the selective non-uniform sieve of the archivist (An Archivist). Unlike a library catalog that categorizes by subject, the archival records are organized first by the source (who wrote it) and second by what details the record contains, including biographical and contextual information about the source and contents of the record. However, as straightforward as the Archives @ PAMA post made archival organization out to be, the other readings point to a practice of archiving that is anything but. Though records tend to follow the descriptive patterns laid out in the PAMA post, there is no universal archival cataloging process used by all archivists in the cultivation of their records.

In the examples given regarding how records reach the archive, I wonder about the how the original source might organize their own records before giving them up. Though some of the fonds might be collected by someone other than the source (am I using the word fonds correctly?), I wonder about sources that deliberately do their own DIY personal archive work before they hand their records over to someone else. For example, I am fond of writing long letters to friends, and have been considering asking them for copies so I can have a record of things I wrote years ago. Not sure what I’ll end up doing with it all, but I consider it the cultivation of my own little archive. How much can archivists account for the source’s own awareness of their documents’ possibility of being archived, and how that awareness shapes the records they produce/create/destroy/decide not to make?