Partnering to Amplify Underrepresented and Unheard Voices Using Digital Scholarship On Demand | ALA Annual 2021

During the American Library Association (ALA) Virtual Annual Meeting, attendees listened to an on-demand session featuring a panel of speakers who discussed partnering to amplify underrepresented and unheard voices using digital scholarship.

slide from ALAAC21 session showing newspaper, old photo of Black boys standing togetherDuring the American Library Association (ALA) Virtual Annual Meeting, attendees listened to an on-demand session featuring a panel of speakers who discussed partnering to amplify underrepresented and unheard voices using digital scholarship.

Moderated by Cal Murgu, instructional design librarian at Brock University, Ontario, the panel began with a presentation by Dr. Portia Hopkins, CLIR/DLF postdoctoral research associate in data curation for African American studies at Rice University, Houston. Hopkins spoke about uncovering Houston history through Project Pleasantville and Rice University special collections as part of her postdoctoral assignment. She worked with the Pleasantville community, founded in 1948, as a veterans’ community for African Americans after World War II. She stated that sharing resources between institutions and community groups can facilitate real change and be transformative in different ways.

Originally, the project focused on toxicity and environmental racism as it relates to the Pleasantville community. Due to COVID-related challenges, the project was made virtual and developed into an oral histories project. This created challenges to the project for communities that did not have internet access or proficiency with virtual tools like Zoom.

Hopkins spoke about how the archives at Rice University and smaller local archives provided multiple pieces of the historical record that aided in the digital curation of resources. Because the collections are new, there were many items to add to research projects. Hopkins showcased how these pieces of local history contributed to curriculum development, including the Convict Lease and Labor Project. Student workers worked collaboratively with the Houston Flood Museum and added a timeline of Pleasantville major events online that also contained the collected oral histories.

Hopkins emphasized that this kind of digital curation gave community members creative control and agency over their narrative. There are plans to train a younger generation of residents through a workshop to ensure that the communities feel empowered in collecting, restoring, and preserving their history. This allows for community members to use institutional resources to amplify their voices.

Dr. Alex Gil, digital scholarship librarian at Columbia University, NY, then spoke about the Frontline Nurses Project and minimal computing solutions for oral history archives. This is a digital archive and exhibit of oral histories of nurses who were on the frontline during the Ebola crisis in West Africa, specifically in Sierra Leone and Liberia. These histories will then be compared with nurses in New York City during the COVID-19 crisis. The Ebola part of the project is the only aspect that is available online so far.

Gil explained that the project gathers three exhibits: the oral histories, an interactive timeline, and a multimedia historical essay that provides historical context. The interactive timeline was built using Timeline JS, an open source tool.

The oral histories are further curated to showcase nurses from Sierra Leone and Liberia. A visitor can listen to an excerpt of an interview and read a transcription. The exhibits feature a tool called “Wax,” developed at Columbia University, which takes into consideration the digital divide. Gil explained that the digital divide is like a “fragmented ecosystem.” Different parts of the world, cities, and regions see differing use of and infrastructure for internet access, including environments with low bandwidth, no internet access but computer access, intermittent internet accessibility, heavy censorship, or restrictions for incarcerated individuals, all with the need to circulate data outside of the internet.

These challenges have been made more visible due to COVID-related inequities, such as the experiences of largely woman-dominated fields like nursing not having their stories be a part of the national and international conversation of public health organizations. The goal of this project is to raise these unheard voices to affect decision-making. This “comparative oral history” is also aimed at creating space for listening to public health voices that have gathered wisdom from recent epidemic crises with on-the-ground experience, regardless of their country of origin, for future learning. Gil believes that librarians are primed for this kind of approach to activism because they are equipped to provide the platforms and think through the infrastructures that make these kinds of encounters possible. Gil stated that digital scholarship in the midst of crisis is taking public humanities in a new direction that aligns it with public library principles. Hopkins spoke about engaged research and collaborative learning and agreed that this is the next generation of studies for digital humanities. Both agreed on the importance of giving back to the communities that contribute to digital projects, validating and honoring the struggles of the people within historical narratives. Hopkins talked about combining resources for new academic scholarship.

The intended last panelist, Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, university archivist at the University of Maryland, was unable to join the recording due to unforeseen circumstances.

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