Keynoter Tressie McMillan Cottom Talks Human-Centered Data Rights and Pragmatic Hope | ACRL 2021

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) 2021 virtual conference, taking place April 13–16, started off on a strong note with Tressie McMillan Cottom’s opening keynote. Her thoughts on how to center human rights and justice within an academic framework gave attendees much to think about as they continued on to the many panels, sessions, exhibits, and other offerings.

Tressie McMillan Cottom standing, hand on hipThe Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) 2021 virtual conference, taking place April 13–16, started off on a strong note with Tressie McMillan Cottom’s opening keynote. Cottom—a cultural critic, scholar, associate professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC)–Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, podcast host, and author (most recently of Thick: And Other Essays)—wove together several threads relevant to the conference theme, “Ascending into an Open Future.” Her thoughts on how to center human rights and justice within an academic framework gave attendees much to think about as they continued on to the many panels, sessions, exhibits, and other offerings.

No matter where you are in your career, Cottom began—becoming a librarian, serving as a librarian, or thinking about librarianship—you have a professional obligation to consider the social and political meanings of that work. Cottom currently teaches two courses at UNC: Writing Across Public Life, which looks at how knowledge is produced and shared in an information-based society, and Networks of Racial Capitalism, where she and her students examine the ways platform capitalism promotes structural inequality—not only platforms such as Google, Facebook, or Twitter, she noted, but those that increasingly shape how library employees work and learn, such as learning management platforms. That some groups of people get more and others less of the world’s collective resources happens by design, she noted, rather than by nature.

The modern academic library can play a significant role in addressing these problems, Cottom proposed, stating, “We’re the problem-solving arm of the sociological imagination.”

Citing an article by Dave Ellenwood on In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Cottom posited the question of information’s value as a pedagogical problem, “the next logical step of literacies.” She agrees with Ellenwood that it’s important to look at information through a political economy lens, which in turn “sparks our imagination around avenues for resistance.” And sparking that imagination is more than just understanding problems; it invites people to think through ways to solve them.

“In an information-based society, information fundamentally derives its value from how we value the human beings who produce it,” she said, “that these are not just questions anymore about access, these are questions about citizenship. These are questions about who will exist, not just in the archive, but in the body politic. These are questions about civil rights and about human rights. And that is why we should use that framing.”

The problem, Cottom noted, is that “information capitalism, if left unchecked, will reproduce our preexisting social inequalities.” Academic institutions should consider data autonomy for every member—control over what they produce and how it will be used—and involving democratic decision-making throughout the academic community when it comes to developing or adopting new technology or entering into new partnerships.

In that spirit, she asked, what would it look like for an academic community to develop a code of data rights for its areas of work and practice—what she defines as “a human-centered, justice-first code of governing data”?

ACRL President Jon Cawthorne, dean of the Wayne State University Library System and School of Information Sciences, joined the conversation, and asked Cottom to elaborate on how college and research libraries can spark avenues of resistance.

“I don't know that we have a choice anymore but to consider the creative potential of what imagination can do in a fast-moving, rapidly changing society,” she said, and academic libraries are well positioned to do that work. At the same time, we need to be responsible to students, patrons, and community members. Although the current thought is that scale and size are “uncritical good things,” they come at a cost and need to be considered ethically—how to imagine ways the institution can work best for those who are most vulnerable.

But we also need to consider that the concept encompasses not one single set of ethics, but a range. “There are competing ethical frameworks,” Cottom said. “Before you even get to data ethics, there should be a really robust conversation, a very overt conversation, about what ethical framework the community is adopting.” That conversation, she added, should involve stakeholders from across the community. Such a practice, she said, has the potential to move the discussion beyond equity and fairness to justice: How do we build an environment, and structure our work, so it’s not just about reflecting our ideals but living them out?

How can campus library partners—staff and faculty—be encouraged to think along these lines? Cawthorne asked.

Cottom cautioned that above all, we need to be fair when considering who is being asked to do this work. Challenging economic conditions mean that many institutions are understaffed. Library workers are “overworked and busy and overextended, and there aren’t a lot of people holding out a reward for you to take a moment to think about your work,” she said—and not only in academic libraries.

One way to frame their importance, however, is imagining the library as “a front porch into the academic community for lots of people”—both on and off campus. It should be leading and guiding conversations. That talk should involve public discourse as a whole, but also the discussion of the technology used within an institution. “Any platform we adopt isn’t just a tool, it is also a container for shaping our values, politics, and ideas,” Cottom said. “If we thought about learning analytics not just as platform but ethical code with our colleagues and peers in our community, we might ask different questions.”

Reimagining modes of scholarship is the healthy evolutionary stage for academic institutions, she noted, whether that involves learning management systems, proprietary platforms, collections, or open access. And fortunately, library culture has what it needs for what Cottom calls pragmatic hope—“having a set of beliefs and ideas and knowing from the outset that you are going to fall short of them,” but figuring out how to try anyway. “When you hope uncritically, when you do hope without the pragmatic application of hope, it’s easy to sell people on ideas but hard to get them to commit to change.”

That concept encompasses compassion, she added. “Pragmatic hope is about translating those big ideas—human-centered, ethical, fair, just—what does that look like on Tuesday at 5? Tuesday at 5 pragmatic hope might look like saying, ‘Listen, staffers who have been working today need the time and space to decompress.’” It’s OK to fail, she added, and it’s OK to try new things, as long as libraries center caring for staff and workers along with their ideals. “If we figure that out, every hour of every day as we move forward—over the long hall, over the horizon—we will have done more good than bad, and I think that's the best we can all do.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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