My annotated slides from SAA 2019

I presented at Archives*Records 2019 in Austin, on the panel “Means of Production and Selection: Capitalist Frameworks in Archival Contexts“, organized by Elizabeth Lisa Cruces of the University of Houston. My co-panelists were Sarah Carlson of the Harry Ransom Center, Dr. Jamie A. Lee of the University of Arizona, and Margarita Vargas-Betancourt of the University of Florida.

My annotated slides are below. You can also download my slides and those of my co-panelists from the Sched page for our panel.

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I’m here today to talk a bit about my work on post-custodial projects and how neoliberalism affects my work.

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First, I’d like to provide what I hope will be a helpful definition of neoliberalism.

At the most basic level, neoliberalism is an ideology that emerged in Western Europe and North America following World War II that asserts that the proliferation of markets and exchange is an inherent good. As a political ideology, this means eliminating barriers to free trade and privatizing public services to open these activities to market exchange.

I chose these two quotes because together they present two different sides of what can be meant by neoliberalism – the broad ideology itself on the one hand, and on the other hand the effects that many of us working in public institutions feel every day, as a result of that ideology’s successful proliferation.

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Going a bit deeper into the theory and what underpins it: Neoliberal ideology first emerges in the writing of Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek following World War II.

In his essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society”, Hayek outlines the big philosophical question that neoliberal ideology ultimately claims to be capable of answering: that is, how to account for and weigh competing motivations for billions of people at the same time, in order to make political and economic decisions that maximize productivity and happiness. Different cultures, local conditions, and individual circumstances always push individuals to value different things and make different, often unpredictable decisions. It would be impossible to consider all variables and analyze, much less predict, the sum of human behavior.

To Hayek, this is a “knowledge problem” that can be solved: Hayek argues that, whatever the local circumstances, the “price system” (how much someone is willing to sell something for, and how much someone is willing to buy something for) should be seen as a universal arbiter of value. To Hayek, a market exchange on one side of the world is fundamentally the same as a market exchange on the other side. Wherever an exchange takes place, the price paid for the good is a reliable marker of value.

Because price is the only universal arbiter of value to Hayek, one key implication of his philosophy is that only things that can be bought and sold register as having value.

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Post-custodial archival methodology was first discussed in 1981 by F. Gerald Ham. Ham argued that in the era of digital records, archivists can ensure the integrity of, preserve, and provide access to archival materials without taking physical custody over them.

In the late 1990s Jeannette Bastian took this framework and applied an ethical dimension to it. Bastian proposed adopting post-custodial methodology in post-colonial contexts as an alternative to traditional archival custodianship. Bastian argued that if traditional custodianship deprived those communities described in a body of records of access to those records — for example, when records describing colonial subjects and administration are only available for access in the colonial metropole — then traditional custodianship does not serve a useful archival purpose.

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Our deployment of post-custodial methodology at the Benson builds on the approach outlined by Bastian. We partner with records creators and holders in Latin American communities to digitize, describe, and provide access to their records, without removing these records from their original environments. These projects have been in place for more than a decade now. Our goals in approaching these projects are to build mutually-beneficial partnership, to build the capacity of our partners, and to preserve records relating to human rights issues.

For those interested, my colleagues Theresa Polk, Itza Carbajal, Dylan Joy, and Eddie Shore presented an excellent panel yesterday. I strongly recommend that you check out the recording of that presentation if you’re able.

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Like Bastian, we’ve developed and refined post-custodial projects through a post-colonial lens.  For the past century and particularly since the beginning of the Cold War, North American imperialism in Latin America and elsewhere has been accompanied by the extraction of documentary cultural heritage to large collecting institutions like UT Austin.

When we discuss and promote our deployment of post-custodial methodology at the Benson, we tend to focus on the ways we’re averting these colonial collecting practices: we say we’re non-extractive, that we’re avoiding the sorts of dependencies that force communities to sell their cultural heritage to institutions like ours. We think critically about our positionality as North Americans collaborating with organizations in Latin America, trying to help them digitize records of North American imperialism in Latin America.

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These are useful things to consider when approaching a project, but historically we haven’t been as good at interrogating our work through an anti-neoliberal lens. That is, our post-custodial partnerships, even when practiced reflexively and critically, may be perpetuating neoliberal processes which post-colonial frameworks aren’t as well suited to interrogating. This is especially troubling given how central neoliberalism has been to US imperialism in Latin America.

Neoliberalism intersects with my work in three ways: The tools I use, the way I discuss my work, and through the commodification of cultural heritage.

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A major component of my work is developing digitization workflows for use in post-custodial projects. Unfortunately, we’re mostly at the mercy of industry trends when it comes to the tools available to us to carry out these projects. We especially feel this when it comes to software.

We’ve had a lot of luck building digitization workflows around Adobe Lightroom. In the last couple of years, Adobe has moved away from selling permanent licenses to its software, towards a subscription based model called Creative Cloud (CC). A CC subscription promises regular updates and new functionality but costs much more over time than a permanent license and requires internet connectivity. For a few years after it was first rolled out, CC was offered alongside permanent licenses, but now it’s the only way to get Adobe’s desktop software.

This is a serious problem for us, because we don’t want to lock our partners in to an Adobe subscription, or even require that they maintain an active internet service subscription. We aren’t in a position to “donate” a recurring subscription to Adobe software or local ISPs to our partners.

David Harvey has written about the centrality of information infrastructure, like internet connections, to the spread of neoliberalism. Not all our partners have active internet subscriptions, but if the software we design our workflows around requires an active connection, we’re potentially encouraging our partners to buy into this neoliberal infrastructure.

Another element of neoliberalism at play here is the increasingly constrained world of computing. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, whose book cover you see here, has written about the neoliberal nature of software. She argues that software, like neoliberalism itself, offers individuals a feeling of empowerment but masks unequal exchanges between users and vendors. The CC model offers users a similar feeling of empowerment through bite-sized subscriptions to individual tools, but requires that users relinquish control and ownership over the means of production themselves.

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I’d like to issue a challenge to myself and to other digital archivists to build an archival community of practice and documentation around open-source digitization software like Darktable. Darktable is an open-source alternative to Lightroom, but I don’t know of any archivists using it. Making the switch from neoliberal software to open-source software can potentially solve one of the biggest challenges we face.

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Next, I’d like to talk about the way I construct my work discursively. My position is entirely grant-funded, as are our project budgets. The insecurity of contingent work leads me to frame my work in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, rather than focusing on the impact of partnerships or the cultural value of the materials we’re preserving and making available.

I tend to emphasize the speed of my digitization workflows and the number of digital assets that are produced from each partnership. These are screenshots of some of my posters, presentations, and writing on my website. These play into the obsession with innovation that’s common in tech fields like digital archives.

This is a problem for me because it erases some important soft skills I bring to the projects. It erases my Spanish language skills, my technical communication skills, and the contextual knowledge I have of collections and our partners’ communities.

It also erases the skills and contributions our partners bring to each project. We generally work with collections that are already arranged, for example. Our partners’ digitization teams take to metadata work very quickly and expertly. They adapt my digitization workflows on the fly to address problems, and they have excellent paleography skills.

Efficient workflows are only possible because of these soft skills, but the need to justify the continued existence of my position and these projects leads me to downplay their importance. It’s too easy instead to focus on innovation-friendly and market-friendly rhetoric, rather than assert the value of my work along traditional lines.

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My second challenge to myself and others is to stop referring to digital collections materials as “digital assets” without also mentioning what the collections are.

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Finally I’d like to talk about the way digitization and digital access can contribute tot he commodification of cultural heritage.

The first element has to do with how our partnerships are structured. Our goal as a post-custodial projects team is to maximize the money we give to our partners, and to help them digitize records and promote their work online. I frame it that way because our goal is not to set an “exchange rate” for cash and scans. We want to support our partners’ work broadly because we believe in it, and our partners want to preserve and promote their collections broadly because they know the benefit of doing so.

However, the rules for funding set by our university require that we treat our partnerships as transactions: whatever amount of money we have to support their work, we have to run a contract through the university specifically identifying the number of scans we’ll get in exchange for it. The fact that we as a team believe in the work our partners are doing doesn’t officially come into play – as far as the university is concerned, the scans have a market value, and our team can be trusted to appraise them.

We very deliberately appraise the collections in such a way that favors our partners, so they generally come away from a project with extra cash they can spend however they like, but we’re nonetheless subjecting these collections to the logic of the market and quite literally commodifying them by turning mutual exchanges into purchases. We open ourselves up to critiques from outside that we’re overpaying for scans, or that our collections stack up unfavorably next to others, in terms of the price we’re paying.

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The second element here has to do with the nature of digitization and digital access itself. By digitizing our partners’ records and putting them online, we’re stripping them of important context – we’re letting users access them without traveling to Latin America. I would argue, however, that the experience of being in that space, hearing the sounds of the city and feeling the air are important affective aspects of conducting research and understanding each collection.

Of course there’s research value in making these collections available online. Our partners want these records used widely. A recent focus of our work has been developing a single shared online repository for all our post-custodial projects, to allow users to draw thematic connections between the different collections.

But pooling collections in a single repository also risks exacerbating the problems of dislocation and decontextualization that are already inherent to digital access. A digital repository website built to provide access to a single collection has all kinds of opportunities to provide collection-specific context and really simulate the experience of browsing through the original physical collection, replicating the logic of the original collection. But our interface and metadata are built to make it as easy as possible to jump between different collections with as little mediation as possible. Our repository is built on an entirely different logic.

Our challenge is actually to go back and re-introduce collection-specific context for our users, using landing pages and namespaces that point users directly to our partners’ websites and missions. We try to remind our users that these records belong to our partners, not to us. It takes an active intervention on our part to reinscribe the original context on each object our users access.

As archivists we know that the value of these collections derives from that original context. Putting that context front and center is key to combating the process of commodification that would treat these documents like exchanged goods.

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So my third challenge to myself and the digital archives community is to continue to develop and creative new ways of recreating and reintroducing original context for digitized objects, to resist the process of commodification.

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In conclusion I’d like to stress that these are blind spots for us to improve upon, not flaws unique to post-custodial methodology. They aren’t reasons to avoid post-custodial projects, just evidence that our work isn’t magically exempt from the pervading influence of neoliberalism.

Post-custodial methodology emphasizes reflexivity, open communication, and flexibility. As such it may be uniquely well equipped to tackle these challenges to the benefit of our partners.

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3 thoughts on “My annotated slides from SAA 2019”

  1. David, thank you for sharing these slides! I am interested in reading more of the “source material” for neoliberal thinking on information infrastructure (as opposed to the responses). Besides Hayek, are there any other original neoliberal thinkers who were writing about this? Thanks so much for surfacing some of this history.

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    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and reply!

      I should start with the caveat that I don’t call myself an expert on the history of neoliberalism, nor have I had a chance to do the deepest of dives into the literature. I’ve read the Hayek essay cited here, a few essays by Friedman, and then a lot more criticism. The Friedman essays I read were mostly focused on anti-collectivist polemics and providing what he saw as the historical context for neoliberalism. They don’t lay out its philosophical underpinnings like the Hayek essay does. It’s entirely possible that Hayek, Friedman, or one of their contemporaries wrote something influential about information infrastructure in one of the economic journals of the day, but I haven’t found references to that.

      If it is the case that information infrastructure didn’t feature heavily in the early literature, I think that’s because information infrastructure was/is more of a by-product of the dispersed knowledge that Hayek and others claim drives the market than it was/is a goal in and of itself. That is, information technology arises out of the need for market actors to assess prices and make transactions more instantaneously. Hayek doesn’t seem to call for the development of information infrastructure so much as he presupposes that market actors themselves will develop it. Non-market uses of information technology are nice, but they’re not something Hayek was interested in himself as far as I can tell. Similarly, the criticism of information infrastructure as neoliberal I’ve read from Harvey and others characterizes it as the insidious result of spreading markets and liberalization rather than anything the early neoliberal thinkers themselves called for.

      I’m still new to neoliberalism as a topic of serious scholarship — my research background prior to my LIS program was 16th century European and Latin American history, so maybe someone more informed can come along and tell me the ways in which I’m clearly out of my depth. But I’m interested in reading and writing more, so if you do find something interesting from one of the early writers on neoliberalism that lays out their vision for communication and technology, I’d be very interested in reading it!

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