A Reflection on the Design for Diversity Forum
When a friend of mine invited me to the Design for Diversity (D4D) Forum at Northeastern University earlier this week, it was not what I was expecting; it was much better. Diversity conversations that I have witnessed, whether in formal conferences or in informal settings, tend to be predictable. 1) The reality that the library and archives fields are overwhelmingly white serves as a point of departure, 2) the importance of getting more people of color into the room is stressed, occasionally alongside proposals of how to facilitate this aim, and 3) the proposals, if they exist, only address minimally the structural issues that have caused the lack of diversity, if they address them at all. All the while, the terms “race” and “diversity” are used interchangeably, while other social identities—such as (dis)ability status, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation—receive little, if any, attention.
It was clear from the start that the D4D Forum would be a departure from business as usual. For some context, the purpose of this Forum is to examine the cultural biases that are hardwired into our information systems (for example, bias in subject headings or structural aspects of websites that limit accessibility). The Forum’s particular focus was on the field of digital humanities. As I walked in, Julia Flanders, one of the Forum organizers, was already highlighting the mission and goals of D4D. From my understanding, the Forum, rather than being a one-time event, is an ongoing project meant to amass a collection of case studies where people grapple with and try to change information systems on a structural level. From there, the Forum organizers seek to “reverse engineer” the case studies for wider application. As a result, they hope to create pedagogical narratives that can be shared in the Northeastern University and the wider LIS community. Flanders mentioned from the start that “diversity” and “design” are imperfect terms in that they can mean a lot or very little. Moreover, her speech was peppered with references to critical works such as T.L. Cowan’s “Transmedial Drag: Cabaret Methods, Digital Platforms and Technologies of Fabulous” and Miriam Posner’s “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities.” After this stellar introduction, I was excited to hear the presentations that would come next.
I will admit that some of the subject matter discussed over the course of the day was over my head, especially with regard to technical matters or the finer details of cataloging. Also, I only attended the first day of this two-day Forum, which limits my perspective. Still, I really appreciated the wide range of case studies represented: the establishment of the Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME), the use of linked data to pool information on Asian artists in New York, and the examination of ways to create accessible exhibits to blind and low-vision individuals were just a few of the subjects I witnessed. My favorite presentation was by Amber Billey of Columbia University Libraries. Her case study focused on her effort to persuade the creators of the Resource Description and Access (RDA) cataloging standard to improve their rules for assigning gender or sex to authority records. What prompted her to begin this work was a realization that the RDA recognized only male, female, and unknown with regard to sex, and in general tended to conflate gender and sex. Her effort involved publishing a paper explaining the problems with this rule in Cataloging and Classification Quarterly. Billey really emphasized that her subsequent steps in addressing those in charge of the RDA, namely her Fast Track proposal, were bolstered by her published article. Although the proposal was was deferred, the RDA did ultimately make changes.
As I have written in the past, I find that it can be difficult to devote time to issues or ideas that you really want to explore as a student. As I have become more familiar with the way the LIS field is currently I have frequently been exposed to the problems within our profession, but there has been less discussion of the solutions. It is clear that part of the reason for this trend is that we students are being tasked with creating those solutions when we venture off into the world upon our graduation. However, a factor of the difficulty of creating solutions is a lack of practice in this endeavor. Along these lines, an activity of the D4D Forum that I appreciated was a small group discussion session in which participants were asked to brainstorm ways of teaching the concepts highlighted in the case studies to those who design our information systems. Aside from being an engaging way to get to know other attendees, this segment of the Forum was very much in line with the stated goal of finding practical applications for the ideas brought up in the case studies.
Featured image is the Design for Diversity Logo: a thin grey tree trunk and branches with multicolored roots and leaves, behind the words “Des 4 Div.” Logo used with permission of D4D organizer Julia Flanders
Ayoola White is two years through a three-year graduate program in history and archives management at Simmons College.