DCDC Conference 2019 – Thomas Wales

DCDC19 offered a glimpse to what conferences should do and be.

Well, a starting point at least – three out of four keynotes delivered by women and an encouraging meeting of four professions.

When Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, University Archivist for the University of Maryland and founder of STAND began to deliver her keynote speech, it needed to be heard. After forty minutes, the audience captivated, Hughes-Watkins had dissected the profession’s ideal of archival neutrality, concluding that we need to be ‘more honest with who we are, who we have been and who we might become’. Given ARA’s recent announcement that the 2020 ARA Conference will centre on ‘Diversity, Advocacy and Sustainability’, Hughes-Watkins, along with others at DCDC, provided a stark reminder that digital preservation and archiving is about individuals, communities and their histories.

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Lae’l Hughes-Watkins presenting a keynote paper at DCDC19.

DCDC was my first archive conference, a fantastic opportunity to put faces to names and meet some of the speakers. Hughes-Watkins’ and Liz Jolly’s (Chief Librarian at the British Library) keynotes sought to breakdown traditional archive barriers and provide a positive outlook. Hughes-Watkins managed to weave our crisis with archival neutrality with the microcosmic example of her time at Kent State University working with student activists, as she engaged with minority communities disillusioned by the sizeable institution she represented. As a child, she only saw Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and slavery as representations of who she was, Black women were invisible, erased, undermined and under-documented in the ‘American scrapbook’. She recognised that the records we kept were not representing the full breadth of human experience. In her role at Kent State she brought with her an awareness of this, looking to guarantee that experiences and conversations captured by activists on social media looked to the people behind ‘retweets and favourites’. During questions from the floor, Hughes-Watkins spoke frankly about archival neutrality, our ‘day-to-day role is not neutral’ and there is no doubt that the power structures that led her to feel under-documented, support this.

Being aware of our privilege is a huge step toward change, this was highlighted across the board at DCDC but was also recently subject of #ArchiveHour in October. I am increasingly aware of my position within the field, taking on frank advice from those well-informed and trying to take this into my work experience. Liz Jolly pointed to similar issues in the profession. The British Library are increasingly aware that their staff does not represent the ethnic diversity of the population so an awareness for the need of collaborations across the sector is a stark change that needs to take place. Jolly made clear that 95% of information professionals self-identify as white, if you are male (21% of the profession) you are twice as likely to gain a management role. Together with Hughes-Watkins, both DCDC keynotes reflected the need to redress the balance against minority and disabled communities, talking frankly about the sector constructing barriers with language and design of reading rooms.

Both Jolly and Hughes-Watkins emphasised what I found the key theme of DCDC to be: while discussion around digital preservation, archiving and access was high on the agenda, each speaker came back to Jolly’s idea that digital transformation must be people-centred.

We need to get out more.

This was not only discussed in reference to those who we represent, but also to engage with one another in a more productive way and to share the joint issues that blight the field.

This was best reflected by panel two on digital inclusion. Hearing from the MIRRA Project, the Postal Museum’s Mail Rail project and a Liverpool Hope University project targeted at individuals with learning difficulties reflected that the GLAM sector need to move out of our conventional responsibilities, working together with all our potential users. The Mail Rail project is the archetype of making experiences accessible for those with sensory and physical disabilities deliver more, even than the original experience itself. The Postal Museum’s creation of a virtual reality dome was arrived at after nine steering group sessions that considered and actioned the participant’s opinions. This is vital in what Hughes-Watkins and Jolly were referring to; the Postal Museum managed to assess their perspective and move the policy toward a more transparent and productive locus.

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Jo Pugh of The National Archives presenting at DCDC19.

We need to be reflective practitioners.

As a new professional, this was enlightening and empowering to hear and I think it is vital that, starting out, these perspectives are immediately available to us. As well as our approach to digital preservation, there were some helpful links and future ideas from DCDC about just getting started:

The key conclusions by most speakers focused on making any kind of progress, concentrating on the individuals behind the work we are undertaking and being aware of our own personal and professional positions.

Thomas Wales, Archives Assistant, Churchill Archives Centre and Digital Training Officer, ARA Section for New Professionals

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