- Convene a conversation of community stakeholders about how to address the systemic issues of bias and racial inequity within our current collection description infrastructure.
- Share with libraries the need to build more inclusive and equitable library collections.
- Develop a community agenda to help clarify issues for those who do knowledge work in libraries, archives, and museums; prioritize areas for attention from these institutions; and provide guidance for those national agencies and suppliers.
In this post, I’m going to fill you in on the Reimagine Descriptive Workflows convening we held in June. Our virtual meeting took place in June (22 – 24 in North America, 23-25 in Australia & New Zealand). Fifty-nine people from the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand attended the meeting, which was designed and co-facilitated by Shift Collective.
Prior to the convening, the project team met twice with the advisory group, who helped shape the following goals for the event:
- Create a safe space to share and connect honestly as humans
- Lay the foundations for relationship building and repair
- Building a basis for reciprocal relationships between communities and centers of power
- Inspire radical thinking to rebuild a more just metadata infrastructure
- Start building a concrete roadmap for change in the sector and keep conversation going
The project team identified potential participants through a consultative process and via self nomination. We prioritized attendance for those who had demonstrated leadership working in the area of “just descriptions.” We also prioritized the attendance of BIPOC colleagues, as well as others with lived experiences as members of underrepresented groups. All participants were offered a stipend to acknowledge and partially compensate in recognition of the valuable time, labor, and expertise they would bring to the event.
The Reimagine Descriptive Workflows meeting was held, as so many are in these times, via Zoom. Recognizing that virtual meeting fatigue is real (and that our group included participants from the middle of Australia all the way to the east coast of North America) we met between two and three hours each day. For meeting organizers this presented a challenge – how to structure the time together so that people could connect with one another as humans and build connections and trust, but also produce concrete outputs that would help move the conversation forward.
In order to help foster connections and build community, Asante Salaam (who I think of as the Shift team’s Minister of Culture!) helped to create a unique set of “cultural infusions” for participants, bringing in artists, musicians, a chef, and a poet and fostering conversations to give us an encounter with local flavor and culture from just some of the communities we were connecting with. It was not the same as being able to share a meal or gallery walk with others, but, for me, her efforts created a communal experience that supported the opportunity to connect with others outside of the official convening agenda.
To help establish the space we would share for three days, the meeting hosts put forward the following Agreements.
- Share the space, step forward/step back
- Listen and share bravely
- Listen for understanding
- Sense and speak your feelings
- Use “I” statements
- Discomfort is not the same as harm
- No Alphabet Soup (don’t use acronyms and insider language without explaining it)
- Be kind to yourself and others
- Take care of your needs
Although we were together as the full group at the beginning and end of each day, and for our “cultural infusions,” most time was spent in smaller groups of five to six people, each supported by a guide. The guides took notes on behalf of the group and offered timekeeping support and gentle moderation when needed. Notes were kept in Miro (an ever-expanding online whiteboard and collaboration space). Here is an example of one of the discussion groups’ Miro board at the conclusion of the convening. Thanks to Shift team member, Tayo Medupin, who put a lot of effort and artistic touches into the design of these boards – it made me feel like I was in a distinctive space as opposed to a characterless virtual room.
Composting, weeding, and seeding
The topic for the first day was “Composting: What is driving us forward?” During this day we worked through prompts such as… Why is taking this journey together meaningful? Where is our abundance, and what assets should we bring with us? What stories and experiences of positive change will we build upon? What must be acknowledged?
On day two, the topic was “Weeding: What is holding us back?” Here, participants were given time to draw a map or diagram of what a just, anti-racist and equitable descriptive workflow would look like. Prompts included calling out systemic, technical or procedural, social, cultural or personal blockers that might exist to implementing that workflow.
Between the second and third days, Tayo Medupin, together with other members of the Shift team, worked her Miro magic, collecting notes from the various discussion groups and mapping them to eleven Design Challenges. On the final day of the convening the small groups explored the topic “Seeding: Opportunities for change?” and adopted a Design Challenge, using the time to explore questions related to the challenge. Because of the limited amount of time we had to spend together, the small groups were only able to dig into a few of these.
Reimagine Descriptive Workflows design challenges
[Note: These are in draft form and have received little review. We are sharing to give a sense of meeting outcomes.]
ARE WE DONE YET?
Insight: We’re trying to catalog and describe a world which is dynamic, fluid, complex and evolving over time in a cataloging culture that rewards the singular, definitive, and static.
Opportunity: How might we create the conditions for / support a move towards a cataloging culture that embraces the long-term view, valuing and rewarding evolution, deepening, enrichment and progress over the concept of ‘complete’?
STOP AND LEARN (CONNECTING WITH COMMUNITIES)
Insight: We’re trying to slow down and involve communities in our workflows in equitable ways within a cataloging culture that pushes us to speed up and to spend and value time / resource in ways that can be at odds with slowing down and equitable collaboration.
Opportunity: How might we create the conditions for / support a move towards a cataloging culture that demonstrably values community engagement by making it accepted and even expected to slow down and invest our time and money in this way?
IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL
Insight: We have been and will be trying to create just metadata description across multiple generations. We are currently riding a wave of socio-political interest and prioritization that may or may not last.
Opportunity: How might we create the conditions for / support the foundations for a resilient (anti-fragile) system of actors and activity pushing towards just metadata description that will be able to survive the generation to come?
Insight: We are trying to redress hundreds of years of white supremacist colonial describing at scale in a system that is judged and valued on the legacy descriptions and language we can still see right now.
Opportunity: How might we create the conditions for / support a move towards a mutuality of understanding about where we are in the journey and what road is left ahead?
Insight: We are trying to work towards a just, equitable, anti-racist, anti-oppressive approach, but are we working within a common understanding of what this means and should/could look like in the sector?
Opportunity: How might we create the conditions for / support the creation of share visions and definitions of ‘good’ held by those working towards just description?
Insight: We’re often trying to make changes within organizational structures and cultures that can feel resistant or challenging to change.
Opportunity: How might we create the conditions for / support individuals, teams and collectives to help shape and reshape the cultures of our core institutions to ready them for this long and hard period of change?
Insight: We’re trying to change a huge legacy system often in our silos, in isolation, experiencing scarcity and without the clout of a network of others also making strides in the fight.
Opportunity: How might we create the conditions / support the growth of a thriving and resilient network of people, groups and organizations sharing the energy, bravery, resource, ideas, information and rest needed for the sector to transform?
POWER TO CHANGE
Insight: We’re trying to change a huge legacy system in our own ways but many of us in our work, teams, institutions and sector do not feel we have the power and agency to make the necessary change
Opportunity: How might we create the conditions / support the growth of a sector where everyone feels the power and agency to drive forward the necessary change?
LIBERATING THE LIBERATORS
Insight: There are pockets of the future in the present in smaller institutions and in individuals who are pioneering just, anti-oppressive approaches, but they are often hampered by scale, visibility, recognition and reward.
Opportunity: How might we create the conditions / support the growth and progress of our system liberators to help them to create and scale the changes and cultures we need to transform us?
Insight: We’re trying to create just, equitable, anti-racist and anti-oppressive descriptions within a structure and worldview of describing which is conceptually unjust, inequitable, racist and oppressive.
Opportunity: How might we create the conditions for / support a radical rethink of the very concept of cataloging and metadata description, to lay the foundations for an approach that will better serve us for the next 200 years?
Insight: We’re trying to create just metadata description in a culture that doesn’t currently prioritize, demand, embrace or leave space for external feedback.
Opportunity: How might we create the conditions for / support a move towards a cataloging culture that demands, priorities and creates room for external / community feedback?
Thanks and gratitude
An important output of the Reimagine Descriptive Workflows project was the construction of a novel online convening that helped to support a brave space for productive and honest conversations about the challenges and solutions around inclusive and anti-racist description. This convening was the mudsill, setting the stage for everything to come. For seven hours of meeting, many, many more were put into the planning.
First and foremost, we want to thank our advisory group, which has really been at the heart of this project. We are grateful to this amazing group which not only brings their substantial professional perspectives but also their network connections and their lived experiences in this space. This group devoted heart and dedication, doing this work on top of their very busy professional and personal lives. Stacy Allison-Cassin, Jennifer Baxmeyer, Dorothy Berry, Kimberley Bugg, Camille Callison, Lillian Chavez, Trevor A. Dawes, Jarret Martin Drake, Bergis Jules, Cellia Joe-Olsen, Katrina Tamaira, Damien Webb.
We were gratified that nearly every person who was invited to the meeting not only accepted our invitation but came to the meeting and shared experiences and ideas. Convening attendees added so much by contributing, preparing, and being present. They made this so much more than another Zoom meeting. Audrey Altman, Jill Annitto, Heidy Berthoud, Kelly Bolding, Stephanie Bredbenner, Itza Carbajal, May Chan, Alissa Cherry, Sarah Dupont, Maria Estorino, Sharon Farnel, Lisa Gavell, Marti Heyman, Jay Holloway, Jasmine Jones, Michelle Light, Sharon Leon, Koa Luke, Christina Manzella, Mark Matienzo, Rachel Merrick, Shaneé Yvette Murrain, Lea Osborne, Ashwinee Pendharkar, Treshani Perera, Nathan Putnam, Keila Zayas Ruiz, Holly Smith, Gina Solares, Michael Stewart, Katrina Tamaira, Diane Vizine-Goetz, Bri Watson, Beacher Wiggins, and Pamela Wright.
Many thanks also to the team at Shift Collective that helped to design and facilitate the meetings: Gerry Himmelreich, Jennifer Himmelreich, Lynette Johnson, Tayo Medupin, Asante Salaam, and Jon Voss. An OCLC team also contributed to the planning and implementation: Rachel Frick, Bettina Huhn, Nancy Lensenmayer, Mercy Procaccini, Merrilee Proffitt, and Chela Scott Weber.
Finally, a big thank you to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for co-investing alongside OCLC. This seed funding made this convening possible.
The eleven Design Challenges barely scratch the surface of everything that was covered at the meeting. The project team still has hours of transcripts and other meeting outputs to dig through. We’ll be using those outputs to construct a draft Community Agenda, as we promised at the outset of this project. We will make that draft available for broad community comment before publishing. We will also be using the Community Agenda to structure conversations with library leaders and other stakeholders – we believe it is important in socializing this work to get a sense of how those with power and access to purse strings see their role in implementing this work. And, of course we will be doing work internal to OCLC to consider our own role in the vision that this community has created.
As we consider our next steps, we are taking seriously our responsibilities as stewards of this conversation. Although preliminary feedback from the meeting was overwhelmingly positive, many attendees expressed a yearning to be able to connect, or continue to connect and learn from one another. We are considering how best to nurture that seed so that it can grow.
Thanks to Marti Heyman, Andrew Pace, Mercy Procaccini, and Chela Weber who reviewed and improved this blog post.
Merrilee Proffitt is Senior Manager for the OCLC RLP. She provides community development skills and expert support to institutions within the OCLC Research Library Partnership.