Where do we go? Where do we go now, sweet blog o’ mine? Part 1 of 2

The Urban Archivist blog has been dormant for some time now. It has never been my desire to abandon the Urban Archives, the academic project that I started with two colleagues when we were graduate students in the mid-Aughts. However, when I became a graduate student again, there were a number of things that conspired to keep my focus away from the project: keeping my full-time job in addition to taking doctoral classes (funding, you say? what’s that?), reading pages until my eyes bled ink, focusing more on my own academic needs.

Finally, there was the fact that I was accelerating toward transition and finally hit the turbo button in April 2012. At this juncture, though, the dust has settled on the minutiae of transition and I’ve never been more ecstatic and full of energy in my life. Additionally, I really do feel a renewed sense of professionalism in my librarian life supporting academic librarianship, a result of my Master’s studies. Yet I get antsy when I’m too concrete and applied; in fact, I will melodramatically rail against such things. Fortunately, I can balance that with my current academic life of thinking, speaking, and writing on abstractions, theory, and philosophy.

I am also at the point in my academic career when I need to work on assembling my committee, creating my bibliography, and preparing for my general exam. Part of this process involves a return to deep dives into reading, thinking, and writing. So, of course, the best way to do this is to find a distraction through blogging. I have found in my life that the practice of writing/thinking in one sphere begets writing/thinking in other spheres. It switches the mind on, at least this is my hope.

During the course of the Urban Archives, my colleagues and I have sheparded its evolution and blooming into several interrelated strands, from mere collection of urban artifacts to mentoring undergraduate research projects to presentations and book chapters. The blog component was always meant to informally tie together all these aspects and help be a public face for our doings as well as writings.

Moreover, the Urban Archives, as a legitimate (mostly digital) archives emerged at a time when the very idea of archives has been under more direct interrogation. The time from the creation of an artifact or the performance of an action to the moment it is archived and preserved are dramatically shortening in our digital times. In fact, in many cases, archiving occurs at the same time of creation or performance, as Howard Besser said in his presentation at ALA Midwinter back in January. This is something that I have been thinking and saying for some time now, at least during the life of the Urban Archives, so it was nice to have the idea legitimized.

besser_slide

Much like Prof. Besser’s work in archiving Occupy Wall Street materials, the Urban Archives exists in a strange tension. We collect material from actors and produce scholarship upon topics too “low brow” (e.g. graffiti, political yard art, ETC) for most august archives. As a result, we exist farther toward the margins of what institutional archives typically consider worthy of preservation. This, in fact, is our vision; it is what animates and drives our work. Yet, perhaps we gives ourselves too much credit, though, and we are not nearly as edgy as we want to believe ourselves. After all, we cannot escape the fact that our digital collections are in fact generously housed within an institutional, university archives. We have the whole-hearted support and good-faith efforts on the part of our librarian colleagues, who generally pride themselves in trying to identify and aid marginalized voices. At the end of the day, we are still collecting those dissident voices and filtering them through a spin cycle of institutional privilege.

Yet, it remains, or at least my colleagues and I would like to think, that the Urban Archives hovers toward the end of the spectrum populated by activist archivists and other oppositional voices. Toward that end, the fortuitously timed ALA MidWinter conference in January 2013 rekindled the idea of this blog as an arm of the Urban Archives. I attended several sessions which sounded promising and which delivered on their promises, much to my surprise to be blunt. The panels and discussions that I attended made it feel more like an academic librarian conference. And it was nice to discuss possible raisings of a ruckus. I’d like this blog to shoot my future prospects in the foot hold up my end of those conversations.

Most importantly, the discussions revived my thinking about both the digital humanities (DH) and public scholarship, two concepts which have been at the heart of this project all along. The last panel, on digital humanities initiatives, featured some passioned calls and ideas for radically injecting DH projects into not only the ossified rubric of tenure but also into what should be considered “legitimate” alternatives to traditional publication. I would love to see more of these take flight.

As the university seems to be turning into an increasingly corporatized, emaciated Lean-ed out, and Six Sigma plus or minus 1.5 sigma shift undertaking, this opens a lot of room to cause trouble in the margins because the six-sigmoids never look there. In order to amuse ourselves and preserve our sanity, we may just come up with really amazing, popular, and useful projects. This is, after all, how the Urban Archives started: as a silly idea by three grad students on a non-existent budget built only on the personal investment of sweat equity.

Personally, I’m willing to fall on a few swords again. I mean, really, what have I–what have we–got to lose? Potentially lucrative adjunct gigs? Given my track record with institutional funding, it may just be that public scholarship will be the default way to go. Or nomad scholarship, as the reading group I’m part of, has discussed.

Bringing this back to a personal note: as this was actually my first conference post-transition, I relished speaking up, asking questions, and voicing ideas as the myself finally. It felt delirious, powerful, and righteous. I’d like to couple that excitement with the brash ideas broached at Midwinter. So I’ll think crazy thoughts out loud, write up some half-baked ideas here, and maybe eventually propose and collaborate on some great projects.

In that spirit, let us set this blog ablaze again.

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