The hidden politics of digital catalogs

Enter the Gowanus office of Interference Archive and you’re instantly greeted with an old-school bookstore vibe. There are shelves upon shelves of books and vinyl records. Posters and T-shirts hang on the walls.
The archive, which is run entirely by volunteers, is dedicated to preserving social movement propaganda, ranging from disability activism to current #NoDAPL protests. But, it turns out, it also houses sophisticated thinking about access to technology.
To meet Jen Hoyer, one of the Interference Archive volunteers. At her day job, she works for the Brooklyn Public Library Central Library. At Interference Archive, she coordinates the organization’s efforts to catalog its collection of over 10,000 items. Along the way, she became a proponent of open source software and made it more accessible to the average user.

The open source cataloging program used by Interference Archive is called Collective access. It is used by many other community archives and non-profit organizations, including the famed East Village Experimental Theater The mother. At first glance, it seems pretty simple: just plug in a few categories and you’re good to go, right?

Jen Hoyer, Interference Archive’s digital catalog coordinator. (Photo by April Joyner)

Not enough. Interference Archive uses a modified version of VRA corea data standard developed by the Library of Congress and the Association of visual resources, to catalog its materials. But the standard has quite a few holes, Hoyer said. Its subject headings, which are used to classify the subject of a given item, do not take into account most of the various documents contained in the archives. For example, Hoyer pointed out, there is no official subject heading for “queer theatre” in the Library of Congress system.
“They don’t include titles for many issues in marginalized communities,” she said.
Thus, part of Hoyer’s work has been to develop new methods of categorization. This involves taking a critical look at metadata, which has become a buzzword since by Edward Snowden revelations about government surveillance. Outside of national security, it’s an important consideration for any app that includes a search function — in other words, most of the tech products we use every day. netflixfor example, has been criticized for the way it characterizes certain films by race (which this reporter has written about before).
Thinking about these questions is an essential part of the job of any librarian or archivist, Hoyer said. But putting agreed guidelines into practice on a large scale requires a mastery of the technology to code them into software. Interference Archive’s catalog volunteers range from developers to quasi-Luddites, Hoyer said. She placed herself somewhere in the middle.
“I can think critically about aspects of user behavior, but I’m not a coder,” she said. “At this point, I have to admit that I’m probably not going to learn PHP.”

Fortunately, volunteering for the archives does not require such knowledge. One of its initiatives has been to engage non-technical volunteers in technology production. This includes developing easy-to-follow workflows for the cataloging process. The archives hold open “parties” twice a month where anyone can participate. He also organized Wikipedia edit-a-thons, including a recent event on November 13 dedicated to topics related to justice for Indigenous peoples. And the archive hosts a working group, coordinated by volunteers Bonnie Gordonon digital media, which require additional storage considerations.
Lots of people, like the mayor’s broadband adviser Joshua Breitbart, cited the importance of bridging the technology divide to increase economic opportunity and civic engagement. For Hoyer, the same principle applies to accessing and disseminating information: those who code can do it more easily than those who don’t. This is something archive cataloging volunteers oppose, she said.
“All of us involved in the use [the catalog] try to resist the hierarchy,” she said.