Dawn Childress digital scholarship : book history : textual studies

Towards Speculative Catalogs (DH 2017)

This is a paper given at the Digital Humanities 2017 Conference as part of the panel Beyond Access: Critical Catalog Constructions, July 2017, Montréal.

My talk today focuses on framing our session theme of Beyond Access: Critical Catalog Constructions by outlining three potential areas of inquiry or exploration:

  1. Understanding the historical context, cultural biases, technical and other artifacts inherent to catalogs
  2. Rethinking our understanding of the catalog “reader”
  3. Moving toward the notion of “Speculative Catalogs”; or, how might we achieve points of access that facilitate active reframing and interrogation of our collections by “readers”

Understanding the historical context, cultural biases, technical and other artifacts inherent to catalogs

Catalogs have been created for a variety of different reasons: they often provide information on library holdings or document publishing or reading histories, they might document exhibitions or detail auction or bookseller offerings. And what about the digital collections and “archives” of the last decade and a half, some of which are constructed from their earlier analog counterparts? Early catalogs (and recent digital endeavors, for that matter) differ significantly in how they are constructed based on their function and the specific needs of the library, institution, scholar, or cataloger that created them. Inevitably, each of these constructions comes with its own organization, set of standards, and biases.

Likewise, as the forms of these catalogs have been transformed by new technologies such as printing, databases and MARC records, and now graph structures, new uses, standards, and the artifacts of old and new technologies colliding are potentially imposed upon the catalog — as well as new cultural, institutional, or disciplinary frameworks.

There is much we can we learn from these constructions, from the decisions that were made at the catalog’s inception or transformation, that would provide crucial context for the work of scholars. How does the record reflect the function and perspectives of its creators? What were the motivations behind the decisions of what to record? Do the structures reflect an implied hierarchy or world view? And so on…The point I want to make here is that these constructions and artifacts are as much a part of the catalog and the historical record as the descriptions contained within. I think we’ve reached a point where we no longer make assumptions about the neutrality of our records, whether catalogs or archives, (or at least I hope so) - that we recognize that the structures, standards, and vocabularies we choose are in fact non-neutral and that they carry assumptions and bias.

Understanding and examining these constructions becomes even more important as we put catalogs to new uses that go beyond discovery and access — whether it is transcribing and encoding a handwritten catalog, using OCR and R packages to “read” a print catalog, or harvesting records from an API-accessible datastore. Furthermore, since the data-driven methods we are talking about here, that “zoomed-out” macro view, creates distance between the scholar and the source materials, scholars would be well-served to zoom back in to understand the conditions under which these catalogs are constructed as they mine these stores of information for new insights and to expose patterns undetectable at the human scale.

Rethinking our understanding of the catalog “reader”

In addition to considering the catalog’s constructions, we might also explore our understanding of the “reader” of a catalog. Who were the implied (contemporaneous) users of early catalogs and (how) has this implied user changed over time and migration? How might we trace the connections between users and uses, and how catalogers approached their task? As catalogs age and become valued more as historical records than as points of access and discovery, or, as they move from analog to digital, they also potentially open themselves up to new readership or transcend their original purpose. For example, as Lindsay DiCurci [1] points out, as early American catalogs were transformed from manuscript to print, reprinting and dissemination opened these catalogs up to new readers beyond the library and therefore to new uses. The catalogs began functioning as reading lists that raised the profiles of certain books within their circles.

In the context of catalogs that are created or make their way to the digital, especially in the context of data-driven research, we are experiencing to some degree a collapse of the distinction between cataloger and reader. Thomas Padilla notes a “blurring” between the people who create collections and the people who use them.[2] This is in the context of their Collections as Data project, which is quite analogous to the way we are approaching “catalogs” here.

Also from Katherine Bode: she remarks ”If a history of transmission offers one way of discussing the multiple things and people that make collections, I think data-rich research is already creating collaborations between those who use and those who build collections; or more accurately, that these contemporary conditions of research are collapsing the distinction between those groups.[3] “ She goes on to describe how her work of describing the documentary record of Trove (the National Library of Australia’s catalog of digital items) is fed back into the catalog to become part of that same record — collapsing the roles of cataloger and reader.

Alongside this blurring of the distinction between creators and readers, comes the introduction of a new type of “reader”: the computer. While very few catalogs have been created with this user in mind (as these were not designed as sources for data intensive research), OCR and text mining tools, as well as the transformation of catalogs like ESTC to digital platforms has facilitated the rise of computational methods on these once analog sources. Catalogs are transformed into rich data stores for consumption by computers. How do we go about considering this user, and how do we construct our catalogs so they can be read by human and computer alike?

Towards Speculative Catalogs

Here is where we come to the idea of Speculative Catalogs, or the transformative promise of the digital as we reconstruct catalogs in new forms and formats. I choose the term “Speculative” here to purposefully lean on Bethany Nowviskie’s notions of Speculative Collections. In her talk on Speculative Collections, Nowviskie considers how infrastructure and interface in our digital collections might support or facilitate active reframing and interrogation of our collections by users.[4] This notion of interfaces and data models that allow us to embrace the multi-faceted complexity of cultural histories and lived experiences is a recurring one, and one that a number of presentations at the conference this year are attempting to address through their work.

Some things we might consider are: How might recent developments in the construction of catalogs make it possible to open the creation of the historical record to the broader community? How do we build infrastructures and interfaces that allow for multiple, simultaneous interpretations? How might we leverage current and emerging systems of practice for descriptive standards and data models to record and examine lacunae, erasures, and bias - as well as reframe, repair, and reconstruct the historical record and cultural memory? As we consider the effect of the values underlying the historical catalogs, we must also consider the net effect of the decisions we make today as we recreate catalogs in new forms or create new ones.

Before we can transform catalogs into the “improv platforms they should be” (Nowviskie), we must first explore and document the technical artifacts and functional or cultural biases that we might need to mitigate. Creators and users alike (especially the creator/user, since we’re seeing that these roles are collapsing) can begin by reflecting on and interrogating our processes, documenting decisions, and understanding how standards and technological frameworks impact reading and reception of the catalog and the data contained within. It’s time I turn this over to my colleagues, Molly and Paige, who are doing just that. ___

  1. Lisdsay DiCurci. “A Copy Among Rubbish”: Cataloguing and Recovery Work in the Early U.S. Archive,” part of the Technologies of the Catalog panel, SHARP Conference, Victoria, BC. 2017
  2. Thomas Padilla, from the Digital Humanities Slack, 2017
  3. Katherine Bode, from the Digital Humanites Slack, 2017
  4. Bethany Nowviskie. “speculative collections,” Blog post. Bethany Nowviskie. October 2016 http://nowviskie.org/2016/speculative-collections/

Preferred citation:

Childress, Dawn. "Towards Speculative Catalogs (DH 2017)." (blog), 20 Jul 2017, https://dawnchildress.com/2017/07/20/speccat/.