Sourcery: “Disruption,” Austerity, Equity, and Remote Access to Archives

I’ve spent the last 24 hours thinking about and responding to Mark Matienzo’s recent post about Sourcery and its response on social media. I’ve enjoyed engaging in the concerns Mark raises and I’ve learned a lot from the conversation it has spurred. Everything Mark wonders and worries about in connection with Sourcery are things we are actively questioning ourselves. It’s the reason we held a series of workshops with the archives profession this past fall and it’s the reason we’re working with a set of institutional partners to pilot Sourcery while it’s still under active development — so that we can address these questions and concerns in conversation with the community and have those conversations inform the functionality of the application.

These conversations, however, have demonstrated to me that there’s a bit of a misperception circulating, not so much about the app itself, but about the way in which we aim to develop it, a misperception that’s born, I think, more of a learned skepticism of Silicon Valley and university austerity politics than it has to do with a real look at the way in which we’re actually going about things. 

The first thing to say is that we don’t begrudge archivists their skepticism. We share it. A decade that’s seen democracy undermined by social media and labor undermined by “gig economy” apps has made us justifiably skeptical of technology. Likewise, a decade or more of austerity budgets has made archivists justifiably skeptical of “external” “solutions.” But Sourcery is not “external” to these concerns: Greenhouse Studios is based in the library of a state university and staffed by unionized librarians and faculty members. We’re well familiar with austerity budgets, believe me. And we’re not promising a “solution.” What we want to do is engage the field — both researchers and archivists — in a conversation about how some of the technologies of the past decade might be retrofitted to expand access to archival sources. 

Sourcery is not a stealth operation to undermine or “disrupt” archival labor or paid researchers like Uber was a stealth operation to undermine taxi drivers. If it were, we wouldn’t have released a roadmap and half-baked app to the community for comment and reflection in a series of workshops, talks, and pilot projects with institutional partners. (We are very much still in our “planning” phase.) Informed by nearly 20 years of building open source, not-for-profit, community-based software systems for libraries and scholarship, our purpose (and the explicit terms of our funding) has always been to engage the community in a process of conversation and co-creation around alleviating the (sometimes cross-cutting!) pressures of archivists and researchers and then to build something that responds to those pressures. Some may disagree, but I don’t think that just because a technology has been used badly by some means that it’s necessarily bad. Certainly Uber has used peer-to-peer technologies in some very bad ways. But GoFundMe has used peer-to-peer technology in some very good ways (the broader SNAFU that is our healthcare system notwithstanding). Our aim is to work with all the relevant groups to make sure we do the good things and avoid the bad things.

If we haven’t made that clear, that’s on me. This post certainly isn’t intended as defense against unwanted critique or tough conversations.

At the same time, it does offer a challenge to archivists. Just as its incumbent on us to understand the challenges archivists face and to work to meet those challenges in our outreach and our software, the tough conversations must also include an acknowledgment of the fact that the current systems for getting remote access to documents isn’t very good and that it hasn’t kept up with either the possibilities of the available technology or the needs of diverse researchers. The process for requesting remote assistance hasn’t really changed since the advent of email and the simple web forms of the mid-1990s (although the pandemic has complicated that picture). We should acknowledge that existing systems of remote access to non-digitized sources create confusion for researchers who need to learn a new system for every repository they encounter. They create disjointed reference workflows for archivists that can be hard to monitor, allocate within teams, track, record, and report. And their failings cause more visits to the reading room than are probably strictly necessary or desirable for either archivists or researchers. By no means do we want to replace the necessary, sustained, intellectually fruitful in-person exchanges between archivists and researchers and the mutual journeys of discovery that take place in the reading room. But we do aim to replace the unnecessary ones.

Here it’s crucial to point out the perhaps under-appreciated fact that in-person visits are available to only a small subset of the researching population — that is, those with the money and flexibility to make a trip. The same is true of the informal networks whereby friends-of-friends and colleagues’ grad students go get stuff for scholars. Travel and professional networks are a privilege of the rich and well-connected, graduate student labor is often exploited for these purposes, and the “gift economy” whereby junior scholars do uncompensated service on behalf of more senior scholars is insidious. Whether intentional or not, current systems that place an enormous premium on the in-person visit end up providing access on extremely unequal terms. Emily Higgs correctly pointed out on Twitter that Sourcery is responsible for the ill effects of its service, whatever its good intentions. It’s likewise true that—given the possibility of change—the archives profession will be at least partly responsible for the ill effects of the status quo, whether it ever intended them or not. Sourcery runs the risk of creating new inequalities, for sure. But sticking with a status quo that privileges the in-person visit even when it’s not strictly necessary — a status quo that privleges rich scholars and ones with fancy connections and ones with grad students to exploit — runs the risk of perpetuating old inequalities. Not doing something to address the situation is an affirmative choice. That something doesn’t have to be Sourcery … but we should be honest that some things should change.

I’m seriously not trying to call anybody out. I’m just saying that researchers, archivists, digital humanists, software developers, and their funders and administrators need to work together if we’re going to expand access in ways that neither create new inequalities nor perpetuate old ones. That’s the conversation we want to have, and I know the archival profession wants to have, and I’m glad Sourcery is causing it.

Briefly Noted for November 24, 2020

I just finished Alan Mikhail’s God’s Shadow, an excellent history of the Ottoman Empire told through the lens of one of its greatest leaders, the Sultan Selim, who ruled the most powerful empire in the world (outside of China) in the 16th century. It provides a much appreciated rebalancing of early modern European history away from its usual focus on the rise of the West. My only quibble is that it sometimes veers into confusing more important with more good, i.e. of painting the Latin West as racist and imperialist while breezily sidestepping the vigorous, military expansionism of the Ottomans as enlightened, magnanimous, and without ethnic prejudice. Surely there was plenty of cruelty and violence and debasement of “the other” on both sides of the Mediterrean 500 years ago.

We have an amazing, talented group of graduate student assistants at Greenhouse Studios this year. Check out their self-authored introductions on the Greenhouse Studios blog.

The Sourcery project, in partnership with colleagues at Northeastern University Library, just wrapped up a series of workshops on “Remote Access to Archives and Special Collections.” These brought together archivists and researchers over five weeks to talk about the challenges and opportunities for remote and electronic access to archival collections presented by the current COVID-19 crisis (and, indeed, before and after it). It was a lively, sometimes contentious set of conversations, which really drove home how little researchers and archivists have done to really understand where each other are coming from. We’ll be posting a white paper with findings from the meetings in the coming months. Stay tuned.