ALA Annual was my first fully in-person conference since ALA Midwinter in January 2020. It was a much smaller conference (by ALA standards) than it has been in previous years, but it still felt strange to be around so many people again!

This year, my conference revolved around my responsibilities as Chair of the RUSA History Section. I attended our section-sponsored program, led our all-section meeting, went on a local history walking tour of the Logan Circle neighborhood, and participated in the History Librarians’ Discussion Group. I greatly enjoyed meeting many of my fellow executive board and committee members in person for the first time, especially since I will continue to serve this group as Past Chair for the next year. I will share a few highlights of my time below.

RUSA HS Program: From Censorship to Digitization: Bringing Sensitive Collections to Light (Panel Discussion)

“The Colonial Entanglements that Cling” Dr. Melissa Adler, Assistant Professor of Information and Media Studies at Western University (Ontario)
Adler is the author of Cruising the Library: Perversities in the Organization of Knowledge. Her work focuses on classification as censorship. In her book, she outlines the history of the Delta Collection, a secret archive within the Library of Congress that housed materials confiscated by the United States Post Office and other federal agencies. These were materials deemed too obscene for public dissemination or general access. In this presentation, she chose to focus on Thomas Jefferson’s book collection, which the US government purchased from him to form the basis of the Library of Congress’s collection after the first library burned down in the War of 1812. Jefferson’s books came with his self-developed classification system and catalog, and the library retained this organization until the LC classification system was created. Jefferson’s views of race and and slavery impacted his classification system, which in turn impacted how the collection was used.

“Can We Digitize This? Should We?” Tim Vollmer, Scholarly Communication and Copyright Librarian at UC Berkeley.
Tim’s colleague Melissa Stoner, the Native American Studies Librarian, was also scheduled to present, but ALA scheduled her other presentation at the exact same time as this one, so he presented both parts. Vollmer shared about the Digital Lifecycle Program at UC Berkeley, which is attempting to digitize 200 million items in the libraries’ collections. In order to determine whether materials could be digitized, they had to look at 4 areas: copyright, contracts, privacy, and ethics. Although the first 3 are fairly straightforward, the last one, ethics required a different approach. The DLP group worked to create local policies for ethics through literature reviews and discussions. They ultimately created two policy documents, one to address more general collections materials, and one to specifically address indigenous materials. Vollmer shared that most ethical frameworks focus on the individual, but this doesn’t work with cultural heritage institutions such as libraries. Instead, they adapted an Ethics of Care framework that sought to balance the potential value of making materials available digitally with the potential for harm or exploitation. They created a set of criteria to evaluate each as they consider whether or not an item should be digitized. For indigenous materials, they are working directly with indigenous people and groups to create a policy and categorize which items are “culturally sensitive” (as defined by the American Philosophical Society). They are just beginning to test these policies with actual items in the collection.

We had standing room only for this program and lots of great questions afterwards. I appreciated this insight into the ways that historical beliefs and practices are still influencing our work today, as well as the complexities of how materials get digitized.

Although most of my time was taken up with the RUSA HS activities, I did attend another presentation of note: “The Algorithm Stole My Democracy: Libraries Grappling with Misinformation in a Polarized Society” [Slides Available Here] Kristin Fontichiaro, University of Michigan, School of Information; Wendy Stephens, Jacksonville State University, College of Education

There was lots to digest here, and not all of it was new information, but it directly addressed many of the current, ongoing issues affecting libraries. I also learned about Pink Slime, news sites that are designed to look like local new or citizen journalism, but are actually just showing a series of algorithmically-created stories that promote a particular political agenda. While much of the session was geared to public libraries, the presenters both acknowledged that universities are not immune from these challenges.

Beyond the conference, I enjoyed catching up with colleagues from other institutions around the country. I was also able to attend two museums, The National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn. The National Gallery had an exhibit on Afro-Atlantic Histories. The exhibit was initially presented in Brazil, and the inclusion of art and artists from South America added a new perspective to the history. I’ll be adding the exhibition catalog to the collection soon!  At the Hirshhorn, I was immersed in the Laurie Anderson exhibit, “The Weather”, which highlights Anderson’s many creative talents, including poetry, multimedia, music, sculpture, and more. I was also introduced to the artist Sam Gilliam through the exhibit, Full Circle; sadly, Gilliam passed away the same day that I visited the Hirshhorn. If you are in DC over the next few months, I highly recommend visiting both of these museums!