A meandering reflection on the “representation” theme of DLF and how it nearly fell flat

Yasmeen Shorish
This Forum Update was provided by Yasmeen Shorish, Physical & Life Sciences Librarian at James Madison University. @yasmeen_azadi | https://staffweb.lib.jmu.edu/users/shorisyl

Thanks to the DLF + ARL Fellowship aimed at underrepresented groups, I attended my first-ever DLF in October. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard so much about DLF (usually in hushed tones) regarding its exclusivity, its amazing work, and its heavy technical engagement. I had heard all these things at a distance because my institution is not a DLF member. As such, I thought I would experience this Forum sort of like an outsider looking in, but I was happily surprised to find that this Forum was mostly a very welcoming environment and no one seemed to care/know if you were from a member institution or not. Much of what I had heard about was evident, but I was glad not to get the “we’re so exclusive” vibe. I witnessed some amazing work from the presentations, and I learned about some pretty great technologies in use across institutions, but what I did not expect was how people-focused this conference was.

Dr. Safiya Noble’s keynote helped set the stage for all this. Her inspiring talk was rooted firmly in the belief that we cannot separate the people from the technology. As humans, we imbue our work and our interactions with our values and biases and it is impossible to extricate those values and biases from the objects and processes that we create, describe, or mediate access to. The lack of diverse perspectives in positions of power and the historical disenfranchisement of the oppressed result in a narrow perspective of truth and reality via information gateways. The response to Dr. Noble’s keynote appeared overwhelmingly positive. I was glad to have the opportunity to bring up aspects from the talk in other sessions throughout the conference and to witness others do the same. This doesn’t just recognize the strength of the keynote, I think it recognizes the desire from many attendees to acknowledge this situation and to work to combat the entrenched biases that we all face/hold.               

Which brings me to the “underrepresented” part of this blog post. After all, I received this opportunity not just because I was able to: 1) explain my involvement with digital libraries, 2) explain how I saw myself benefiting from/participating in the DLF Forum, and 3) give a statement of need, but also because I could 4) indicate eligibility (eligibility defined as: being part of a traditionally underrepresented group including, but not limited to, people of Hispanic or Latino, Black or African-American, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or American Indian or Alaskan Native descent). So, what does it mean to be “underrepresented” at DLF? Honestly, I don’t know enough about the organization to say. The definition of eligibility is narrowly focused (although not limited to) on ethnic or racial characteristics. However, if we aim to combat institutionalized biases in society, or at least shine light on them (which I hope any information scientist, librarian, information professional, etc… wants to do), we must have a representative way to bring all the voices to the table. I think this is an area that many communities are struggling to measure success in and I am thankful that DLF and ARL are making the effort.

I am an Afghan-American woman, who identifies as Muslim, and who came to librarianship from a non-academic career. Is this underrepresented at DLF? I’m going to go ahead and guess “yes” because my secret Muslim/Afghan ESP didn’t pick up other signals (kidding!!). No, I will guess “yes” because at the end of this wonderful experience, at the #ourDLF session, I found myself feeling like very much the “other” and the outsider. Why? Because I found myself having a visceral and emotional response to  Charles Henry’s very moving speech on the CLIR initiative with UNESCO to build a digital library for endangered cultural heritage work in the Middle East (more of his thoughts on that here: http://connect.clir.org/blogs/charles-henry/2015/10/01/culture-under-threat-and-digital-libraries). This is wonderful and important work that I fully support, yet the preamble to the description of the digital library felt hollow as it did little to connect these works to the people who are actively being killed and displaced right now.

Full disclosure: this is also a sore subject for me because I am immediately reminded of the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 2001. It is a sore subject, not just because of the sadness that I feel for such wanton destruction of art, but because I vividly remember how outraged the international community was. An outrage that I remember as being disproportionate when compared to the global reaction of the Taliban’s repressive and murderous acts since 1996. The destruction of the Buddhas helped draw the international community together in its condemnation of the Taliban, in ways that the oppression and murder of women, perversion of Islam, genocide of religious and ethnic minorities, and harboring of international terrorists (pre-9/11, of course) could not. So, my ears prick up when I hear long lamentations about the loss of cultural artifacts disconnected from the loss of the people who constitute that culture.

In that moment, I felt deeply conflicted. Here was an individual who felt very deeply regarding the situation in Daesh-controlled areas, yet I could not help but feel that the people were being brushed aside. It came across (to me) as though “the natives” needed the West to save them from themselves. I *know* this was not Dr. Henry’s intention, yet I could not tamp down my response. I wanted more. More acknowledgement of the human cost. More detail about local involvement. More acknowledgement that steps would be taken not to recolonize the items through the digital library creation, via selection decisions and description. Via Twitter, people were enthusiastically supporting his presentation. Had I left the room immediately afterwards, I think my experience with DLF would have been soured.

It is a testament, then, to the impact of Dr. Noble and the #ourDLF panel (especially Oliver Bendorf) that I instead felt empowered enough to explain my feelings to both Bethany Nowviskie and Dr. Henry before leaving the room. Once I elbowed my way past the man who literally stepped in front of me to talk to Dr. Henry (seriously, ಠ_ಠ), I explained how important it is to voice those acknowledgements and provide those details, lest the message be lost. That we (in this case: Muslims, people who have a connection to the region or to the history of cultural genocide, people who have been involved in wars and conflicts) were here too, in this room, and our perspectives and deep emotional connections should be considered. Dr. Henry was very gracious and receptive to my comments and I think we had a productive discussion.

And that discussion is a critical component of growth and progress towards creating a more inclusive organization and society. Helping create the space where people feel free to speak their mind, recognizing when practices can be improved, and having the courage and strength to make those changes and move forward can be difficult practices to cultivate. I am encouraged that DLF appears to be embracing the ethos of inclusivity and representation and I hope to be able to both contribute to that effort and to bring it forward to my own practice and institution.

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