The hidden politics of digital catalogs - Technical.ly Brooklyn

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Nov. 28, 2016 7:34 am

The hidden politics of digital catalogs

Meet the radical librarians of Gowanus' Interference Archive.
Interference Archive hosted a “propaganda party” for climate justice in October.

Interference Archive hosted a "propaganda party" for climate justice in October.

(Photo by April Joyner)

Walk into the Gowanus office of Interference Archive and you’re instantly greeted with an old-school-bookstore vibe. There are shelves upon shelves of books and vinyl records. Posters and T-shirts hang on the walls.

The archive, which is run entirely by volunteers, is devoted to preserving propaganda from social movements, ranging from disability activism to the current #NoDAPL protests. But, it turns out, it’s also home to some sophisticated thinking on access to tech.

Meet Jen Hoyer, one of Interference Archive’s volunteers. At her day job, she works for the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library. At Interference Archive, she coordinates the organization’s effort to catalog its collection of more than 10,000 items. Along the way, she’s become a proponent of open source software — and making it more accessible to the average user.

Making room for representation in open source

The open-source cataloging program Interference Archive uses is called Collective Access. It’s used by many other community archives and nonprofits, including the renowned East Village experimental theater La MaMa. On the face of it, it seems simple enough: just plug in a few categories and you’re good to go, right?

Jen Hoyer, the coordinator of Inteference Archive's digital catalog.

Jen Hoyer, the Inteference Archive’s digital catalog coordinator. (Photo by April Joyner)

Not quite. Interference Archive uses a modified version of VRA Core, a data standard developed by the Library of Congress and the Visual Resources Association, to catalog its materials. But the standard has quite a few holes, Hoyer said. Its subject headings, which are used to classify the topic of any given item, don’t account for many of the diverse materials within the archive. For instance, Hoyer pointed out, there’s no official subject heading for “queer theater” within the Library of Congress system.

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“They don’t include headings for many issues in marginalized communities,” she said.

So part of Hoyer’s work has been to develop new methods of categorization. That involves taking a critical look at metadata, which has become a buzzword ever since Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance. Outside of national security, it’s an important consideration for any application that includes a search function — in other words, most of the tech products we use each day. Netflix, for instance, has gotten flak for how it characterizes certain films by race (which this reporter has previously written about).

Thinking about those issues is a critical part of any librarian or archivist’s job, Hoyer said. But putting agreed-upon guidelines into practice at scale requires tech savvy, to code them into the software. The volunteers for Interference Archive’s catalog range from developers to near-Luddites, Hoyer said. She placed herself somewhere in the middle.

“I can think critically about user behavior aspects, but I’m not a coder,” she said. “At this point, I have to admit that I’m probably not going to learn PHP.”

‘Resisting the hierarchy’

Fortunately, volunteering for the archive doesn’t require such knowledge. One of its initiatives has been to get non-technical volunteers engaged in tech production. That includes developing easy-to-follow workflows for the cataloging process. The archive holds open “parties” twice a month during which anyone can swing by to participate. It has also organized Wikipedia edit-a-thons, including a recent event on November 13 devoted to topics related to justice for indigenous peoples. And the archive hosts a working group, coordinated by volunteer Bonnie Gordon, on digital materials, which require additional considerations regarding storage.

Plenty of people, such as the mayor’s senior broadband advisor Joshua Breitbart, have cited the importance of bridging the tech gap in order to increase economic opportunity and civic engagement. For Hoyer, the same principle applies to accessing and disseminating information: those who code can do so more readily than those who don’t. That’s something the archive’s cataloging volunteers are pushing back against, she said.

“All of us involved in using [the catalog] are trying to resist the hierarchy,” she said.

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