Fellow Reflection: Amy Wickner

Amy WicknerThis post was written by Amy Wickner, who received a Focus Fellowship to attend this year’s DLF Forum.

Amy is co-facilitator of the DLF Working Group on Labor in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums and a co-investigator on the Collective Responsibility project. To learn more about this work, please join for a meeting and panel at the DLF Forum and/or in a series of monthly calls. During the week, Amy manages a born-digital archives program at the University of Maryland, College Park. As a doctoral candidate in information studies, her research explores impacts of impermanence on recordkeeping, archives, and digital libraries.


In reflecting on DLF Forum 2019, I’m thinking about uncertainty and instability as affective constants of digital library work. I connect this impermanence to two fixtures of digital library discourse: what it means to lead, and narratives of immateriality.

Several speakers called for leaders to bridge gaps between value systems. As Ben Armintor argued, the dynamics of the open-source communities on which digital libraries rely don’t always cohere with the structure and resourcing of library IT departments. Distributed responsibility in the community, for example in determining what constitutes a release, can stall progress within member organizations. Library resourcing often demands a return on investment – but it can be hard to elicit specific, local, annual-report-friendly value from projects whose collaborators have diverse priorities. One clear need, then, is for leaders who can work within an open source model, to plan for and assess collaborative work while adequately supporting staff who engage in it.

Digital archives and other collections have leadership challenges too. Not for the first time, we heard from workers and managers alike that voracious collecting attenuates their capacity to manage materials and find ever-more-efficient ways of doing so. Core activities like archival processing, metadata creation, and repository development stall amid growth out of proportion to capacity. Meanwhile, choices that pay near-future dividends offload remediation to workers down the road. Another perspective, equally prominent at the Forum, insists that attenuation and technical debt are conditions we must learn to accept. There’s a sore need for leaders who take responsibility for the material effects of their decisions on digital library workers now and in the future.

I don’t anticipate this will be easy; perhaps the stickiest narrative in digital library spaces is immateriality: of bodies, labor, and bits. I observe the immateriality of bodies in conversations that render subjects of records as commodities to process and map with “implied consent.” (Yvette Ramirez and Dr. Rachel Mattson offered necessary, ethical alternatives, centering consent and partnership in their respective oral history initiatives.) Immateriality haunts every reference to a “flexible workforce” and Taylorized digital library work. As Alexis Logsdon demonstrated, euphemism in the supply chain often means the use of prison labor. Mary Kidd, Dinah Handel, Stefanie Ramsay, and Jenna Freedman spoke about hard-to-define forms of work, asking, “How do we touch anything when the work seems fundamentally immaterial?” Related to all of the above is the ostensible immateriality of the digital, stemming from the ability not to attend to working conditions, environmental impact, and infrastructure when it’s not convenient.

Thinking through these normalized forms of impermanence, I am strongly reminded of Dorothy Berry’s argument that so much of what’s wrong with digital library labor indicates a lack of imagination. A critical approach identifies and explains a problem, proposes alternatives, and establishes norms for achieving those alternatives. This imagining otherwise could be the task of digital library leaders too, if they (we) can only let go of what has come to seem permanent.