I had a fantastic time at WILU 2016 in Vancouver, not least because it was in Vancouver. What a beautiful place, and the University of British Columbia campus is exceptionally beautiful. If you know me, you know I’m training to run the New York City marathon, and it was a gift to be able to put in some miles along Spanish Banks and up and down the stairs to Wreck Beach. I was most struck by the presentations that showed what people are doing with the new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. I’ve been a bit of a skeptic, but learning how the Framework contextualizes feminist pedagogy for Sharon Ladenson and the use of primary source materials for Martha Attridge Bufton told me that whether or not threshold concepts are true, the document they helped inspire is proving useful. I was also struck by the consistent following of protocols at every session and conference event that acknowledged the land we stood on as the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ speaking Musqueam people. This certainly isn’t something that we do in the United States, even though we are always standing and speaking on unceded territory, and I’d like to think more about why this is absent from mainstream U.S. discourse, and even the left communities I am involved in. The final panel of the conference addressed “indigenizing instruction,” and I could have listened to each of the panelists for an hour apiece. So much to discuss! I hadn’t heard Kim Lawson of the Xwixwa library speak before, but wanted to hear more from her about the role protocols related to acknowledging indigenous history, hospitality, and land claims play in the construction of knowledge in collective spaces. Next time!

I was so honored and pleased to be invited to give the opening keynote address.  My talk was titled “Intersections with Power: Critical Teaching and the Library Catalogue.” I drew on much of what I’ve written about in this article. I’ll post a link here when the video of the talk goes online. In the meantime, here is the text:

Good afternoon! I’d like to begin by thanking George Tsiakos, Shawna Perlango and the program committee for inviting me to join you today. It’s such a pleasure to be back in Vancouver. I was here in April for the Gender & Sexuality in Information Studies colloquium, co-hosted by Library Juice Press/Litwin Books and Simon Fraser University. I was one of the organizers for that one day event, so have recent experience with how much work it takes to pull off an event like this one. I am grateful for the labor of George and others for the work that went into making today a day when I could stand here in a forest in western Canada. What a gift.

It is also a gift to be invited to talk about whatever I want. Such freedom! When I sent George a short abstract for today’s talk, he said it all looked fine, except that the committee just wanted to be sure I would be talking about instruction in library use. That is, after all, the ostensible reason we’ve all made this trip to Vancouver. My interest as an instruction librarian is in the tools that we use, and so that is what I want to talk about today. I’m not a cataloger, but I use the work of catalogers every day. Cataloging and classification is at the core of the library project, the difference between a big pile of books and a collection I can browse, and search, and retrieve from. I see my position as a teaching librarian as standing between that catalog and the students I serve. It is our task to engage the catalog critically, and to teach our students to learn how to use it too. That might feel a bit retro, like old-time bibliographic instruction that has no place in a time of linked open data and algorithmic retrieval. Who uses the catalog anymore, anyway? Well, I think librarians do, and I think out students do also. And more than that, I think that teaching the catalog can itself be a kind of critical intervention in teaching about information retrieval and use of all kinds. Even more, I think teaching the catalog can be a way to teach about power, dominance, hegemony, and resistance more broadly. That’s a big claim, and one that I look forward to unpacking with you over the next forty minutes or so.

As teaching librarians, it is our task to introduce our students to knowledge organization structures that enable inquiry and curiosity in the library. For many of us, teaching these systems also means teaching languages and logics we might otherwise contest. We teach students that controlled terms allow you to retrieve all books on a given topic in an OPAC, but we are also critical of the idea that there is one correct way of describing something, and everything else is wrong. We teach students that materials about gay men and lesbians can be found in the HQ 76 section, but we are critical of the idea that homosexuality is a “social problem”. This, to me, is a central conundrum of teaching in libraries: In order to help students to effectively access information resources held in our collections, I have to teach them how to use systems I’d simultaneously like them to challenge. We are not the only people in the university facing the tension between assimilation into existing structures of power and the desire to transform those structures. I’m thinking here of current debates around “diversity and inclusion” that contest a simple enfolding of people of color into white hegemonic spaces. David James Hudson, April Hathcock, and others have argued that diversity initiatives that are simply about hiring people of color risk simply reproducing white ways of knowing and being, leaving structures of white supremacy intact. Charlotte Roh has explored similar tensions in scholarly communications, arguing that the concentration of white people at every stage of the publication process—including editors, peer reviewers, and publishers—means that publishing will remain white, even if a nominally more people of color are included as authors. These always strike me as intractable problems. Sure, we need to change the system, but what about people of color right now? How do we make positive change for real people living right now, while also addressing systemic and structural problems that work against equity and social justice? I actually think teaching students to use the catalog can help us get there. In part, that’s because the catalog is a text with material implications. It orders and describes things according to a single logic, and because it does that, we can see quite easily, once we train ourselves and our students to look, the ways that what might appear natural, normal, and fixed once and for all, is actually subject to change. As librarians, we make and remake systems of power every time we select, acquire, classify, catalog, and teach to search and retrieve. That’s quite a lot of power to hold in our hands, and I think it’s important that we think about how that power works, conceptualize it and critique it so that we can use our librarian powers for good.

I want to talk a bit more about cataloging and classification, two functions of the library that I see at the core of everything we do. And as I talk, I’d like us to think together about how libraries function as a kind of analogue for all kinds of things in the world that take masses of things and people and produce order out of them. I flew here from New York yesterday, connecting through Toronto. When we arrived in Toronto, we were sorted: Canadian and U.S. passport holders to the left, “others” to the right. There were stories about power in that moment, about who counts as suspicious and who is assumed to be a friend, but the airport might also claim that the sorting was for some neutral reason, about efficiency and negotiated agreements. Both can be true: in can be simultaneously easier for everyone to sort passengers in that way, and also kind of messed up to do so.

In libraries, as at the airport, ordering systems are essential. Without them, a library is just a pile, a mass, a chaos, a jumble of books that we would each need to pick through one by one were it not for the magic of the catalog. Classification schemes and controlled vocabularies are ways in to a collection, carving it up in order to make it accessible, much the way maps make land navigable, so we aren’t charting a new path every time we go out for a walk. In the library, our ordering systems reflect the ways that some of us perceive the world, sorting knowledge into the categories we see outside of us. And because these systems become the field against which other kinds of knowledge are made—as people search, find, retrieve, and the build new knowledge—they have great influence over the kinds of things that it is possible to know. This separates our ordering schemes from the loose groupings of rocks and marbles and baseball cards in my eight year old’s drawers. Our ordering schemes are coupled with power. They matter a lot. They also enact a fantasy that there is a single, stable order that we can apply to the stuff that comes out of our heads. This fantasy of a single way of seeing is in tension with other ways of understanding knowledge that I find both more personally resonant ,and more useful in a teaching context. Framing knowledge-making with a queer theoretical perspective troubles ideas ideas about the world that privilege fixity, stability, and a single point of view. Thinking and teaching from a queer perspective offers us a way to both teach students to navigate fixed structures while simultaneously revealing those structures as subject to resistance and change.

As I’m talking about the work that libraries do, I want us to think about other contexts where elaborate and normalizing classification structures enable access to some things while foreclosing other possibilities. I’m thinking about medicine, where we often have to describe a set of symptoms in a particular way in order to get the care we need. Or the DMV, where we have to demonstrate certain kinds of capacities and produce certain kinds of forms so that we can gain the right to drive. Or airports, where knowing the patterns of law regarding shoes and liquids and quart plastic bags are necessary we want to make it to our gate on time. I didn’t have to take off my shoes at security in Toronto, but I did have to put my suitcase in a bin. It was confusing, and I was glad I had two hours. I hope we can talk together about some of those contexts and how this analysis might apply.

I’d like to begin with a quick refresher on the basics of cataloging and classification in case some of you, like me, haven’t thought much about technical services since library school. So, the project of a library is to collect the sum of human knowledge, to organize it, and to make it accessible to users. If we think about it, that is a fantastic project, truly wild in its scope. Let’s collect everything, and fit it all into a single ordering system.

That ordering system consists of two parts: classification and cataloging. Classification is the process of grouping like things with like things, collating materials so that you can go to one part of the shelf, find a single book on women’s history, and find all the other books on women’s history in the same location. Classification makes the library shelves browsable. Cataloging is the way that those items are described using a controlled vocabulary. Librarians select and standardize a language so that all books about marijuana–whether you call it grass, weed, blunts, ganja, whatever–are pulled together in the catalog. This is what makes a library collection accessible. Without cataloging and classification, a library is just a random pile of books. I use a lot of different kinds of metaphors to think about these knowledge organization structures: they are wedges, doorways, ladders, steps. They’re what makes it possible to climb a mountain, gain purchase on the side of an egg. Classification and cataloging help us access the sum of human knowledge.

These systems reflect a set of values that librarians hold dear, values that we might want to contest in other areas of our life and work. In the library, we value ORDER. Order has two parts.

First, librarians value FIXITY. Once a book is placed somewhere, we don’t move it. Once we label a book with a subject heading, we don’t change it. We want knowledge to stay in one place. I see this as the reality of labor conditions, of what work it’s possible to do in a time of shrinking cataloging departments and outsourcing of search and retrieval to vendors. The context of a corporate cost-saving university means more generic metadata than ever. And even if every library had a thousand catalogers, its difficult to imagine a scenario where we could constantly be updating thesauri and reorganizing collections while keeping up with the influx of new materials.  We value fixity in part because of efficiencies, the ‘bad kinds’ required by the neoliberal university, and the good kind that mean we aren’t inventing the wheel every time we go out for a bike ride.

Second, librarians value CONTROL. Every item in a bibliographic universe is subject to bibliographic control, no matter where it comes from or how different it might be from the dominant vocabularies and categories in our system of control. Everything must be disciplined into our classification structures, and named using our controlled vocabularies, if it is to exist in our collections at all. That’s part of what makes the library work: it produces no outside. In libraries, nothing escapes capture by our knowledge organization schemes.

This all sounds rather grim and nasty, but the will to dominance is accompanied by the idea of hospitality. This is the idea that classification and cataloging structures are flexible enough that any item can find a home inside of them. After all, we require you to find a home here, but we also make a home for you here. A good knowledge organization system is a hospitable one. It’s why people prefer the 21 class divisions of Library of Congress to the 10 divisions in Dewey. With 21 potential places to pull and grow and stretch, you’re sure to find a home there where finding a place inside Dewey can be much harder. Think about the 000s in Dewey, how much libraries have had to stretch them to make computers and jet planes and robots fit. Still, even the most hospitable system requires that knowledge be disciplined into the existing structure.

So what’s the problem? Well, these systems are made by people, and guess who those people are? They are people who usually have power to make decisions about what goes where and what we name it. That results in some problems with the order of things, which we’ll talk about next.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s [1]. Sanford Berman, a U.S. librarian working at the University of Zambia, found that his Zambian users had a very different relation to the term Kafirs than U.S. users did: simply descriptive in the U.S. context to U.S. catalogers, Kafirs was virulently racist in Zambia. The idea that language has meaning only in context, an idea articulated abstractly in fields like philosophy, comparative literature, and anthropology, was made very materially evident: subject headings, often cast by catalogers as a kind of pure, objective language, are not; where and when and by whom subject headings are used makes all the difference in terms of meaning.

Berman’s insight—one shared by other catalogers, including A.J. Foskett, Steve Wolf, and Joan Marshall in the 1970s and KR Roberto, Jenna Freedman, Amber Billey, Violet Fox, and other today—was one that changed the cataloging landscape in the United States for good. Mobilized by petitions to the Library of Congress, missives in library journals and newsletters, and organized responses within ALA—the first program of ALA’s Task Force on Gay Liberation was called “Sex and the Single Cataloger,” a session about the trouble with headings for gay and lesbian materials—librarians since the 1970s have made it their business to critically read subject headings for bias, arguing, often successfully, for changing subject headings to ameliorate bias and altering classification structures to “fix” the ideological stories told by the classification scheme.

Librarians have convincingly made the case that Library of Congress Classification (LCC) and Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) fail to accurately and respectfully organize library materials about social groups and identities that lack social and political power. Librarians have worked to correct incorrect classification decisions and have argued for the expansion and correction of subject headings. The critical cataloging movement has addressed the problem of bias in these structures primarily as a functional problem: materials are cataloged incorrectly, and could be cataloged correctly with the correct pressure from activist catalogers. This project has meaningfully pointed out the trouble with classification and cataloging decisions that are framed as objective and neutral, calling attention to the fundamentally political project of sorting materials into categories and then giving those categories names.

Let’s look at some examples of what these dominant knowledge organization structures do to those of us sit outside or against structures that Sandy Berman has called “parochial, jingoistic Europeans and North Americans, white-hued, at least nominally Christian and preferably Protestant in faith, comfortably situated in the middle- and higher-income brackets, largely domiciled in suburbia, fundamentally loyal to the Established Order, and heavily imbued with the transcendent, incomparable glory of Western civilization.”

1. Classification requires physical objects to live in one and only one place on library shelves. This can result in some strange separations. For example, David Wojnarowicz was an artist, poet, writer, filmmaker, and AIDS activist in New York City in the 1980s. He is an iconic figure in LGBTQ communities known for his incendiary art and writings that confront sex and race and class and the abandonment by the state of people sick and dying from AIDS. Listen to the opening words of the book: “Sometimes it gets dark in here behind these eyes I feel like the physical equivalent of a scream. The highway at night in the headlights of this speeding car speeding is the only motion that lets the heart unravel and in the wind of the road the two story framed houses appear one after the other like some cinematic stage set…” In the library classification, Wojnarowicz’s book, Memories that Smell Like Gasoline, is shelved in RC 607, the section for immunologic diseases. All the complexity and wildness of his life and art and political work is reduced to his illness when he enters the library.

2. Classification decisions reflect ideological decisions. Let’s look at subclass HQ: The family. Marriage. Women. We see the grouping of Family, Marriage, and Women. There are apparently no men in families. We see which sexualities get marked and which don’t. It’s very hard to search for heterosexuality, but these deviant sexualities are very clear to see. Men and women date in HQ 801, but homosexuality is more like bestiality than it is dating. And maybe there’s a political argument about that, but it’s interesting to see what the ideology reflects.

3. Cataloging, or the assigning of subject terms, makes some things objects of study and others not. Let’s look at the authority record for Women-United States. We see all kinds of women listed here, but we don’t see white women. They aren’t marked. So, how do we search for whiteness? We can search the subject heading “Women, White” and retrieve materials that explicitly address whiteness. But all those books that are about a universal ‘woman’ who is white but not marked as such? Those still masquerade as about women generally. One of my first experiences as a teaching librarian was working with an African American women’s history class. After discussing the fact that in the library one has to search for African American, Black, Afro-American, and even Negro Women to retrieve all relevant results—one has to literally work four times as hard—a student asked how to retrieve all the books about white women. My boss at the time said, “Just search for white women!” While cheerful, that is only part of the story. Only some people are marked in the world and it’s the same in the catalog. And that’s a reflection of the world we inhabit.

4. And recently, librarians pushed the Library of Congress to eliminate the subject heading ILLEGAL ALIENS on the grounds that it is dehumanizing and pejorative. But this was a case where even the correction was incorrect. Library of Congress catalogers decided to replace ILLEGAL ALIENS with NONCITIZENS, a word that describes people by what they are not. How different would it be to use language like, for example, PEOPLE FACING TERRIBLE CHOICES PRODUCED BY STATES THAT WILL DENY THEIR ROLE IN PRODUCING THOSE CONDITIONS. Or even UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS, the language critical catalogers were pushing for. And then, of course, U.S. Republican Congressmen fought back to keep the language of ILLEGAL ALIENS in the catalog, a reminder that any decisions we make in the library are also subject to control by forces larger than us. I think that’s a different paper, and one that one of us ought to write next.

The work activist catalogers do is vital and important, and has done much to remove aggressions, micro and macro, from our catalogs. But no matter what language we use, we are always fitting things in to classification and cataloging structures that demand fixity and control. There’s that conundrum again: We can change the insides of our systems all we want, but that doesn’t change the way the system works. It disciplines and orders things into fixed structures of control. It is harder, I think, to imagine our way into a new set of ladders, bridges, grids, or maps that would reflect the range of ways of knowing and being that we’d like to see centered in our classrooms and collections.

So, what to do? We’re such a prescriptivist profession, always looking for answers for what to do. I think that’s because we’re doers. And while I’m hesitant to offer answers—I mean, who am I to tell you what to do?—I’d like to offer a queer way of thinking about knowledge organization structures that I think can help us rethink the stable, fixed categories and systems of naming that characterize library knowledge organization schemes and strategies for navigating them.

First, a quick and dirty primer on queer theory. Queer theory, like library classification, is preoccupied with questions of identity and difference. What sits together and what sits apart? Identity is a word that means how the self understands itself, and how it relates that self to others. We all have multiple and intersecting identities: I am a librarian, a runner, a woman, a white person, a lesbian. Some of these identities are coupled with power in relation to structures of gender, race, class, and others. The intersections of my identities with power produce my experience of and perspective on the world in particular gendered, raced, and classed ways. Identity is not simply about my internal experience, though. Identity is also social and socially constructed. By this I mean that my identity, when articulated to others, enables me to enter social life. I understand myself to be an instruction librarian, and when I tell others that I am an instruction librarian, I connect with them if they share this identity. And then we get together as instruction librarians, and talk about instruction librarian things.

In queer theory, we think about identity as socially constructed, contingent, and contested, and I’ll talk about each of those briefly next.

1. Identity is socially constructed. From a queer theory frame, gender and sexuality are not immutable characteristics that you are once and for all, but instead are created as we live in a world that requires us to define these things in certain ways. I don’t see an a priori reason why genitalia should determine so much of our social existence, but we can’t deny that it does. The first question asked of new parents is, is it a girl or a boy? There are laws in place about who can use what bathroom based on gender identity. That means everyone is required to have one in public. One could imagine a world where this wasn’t true.

2. Identities are also contingent, or the way we experience and describe them depends deeply on context. When I came out to my mother, I told her I was a lesbian, but we all called ourselves queer back then, and I told the butches I was interested in that I was femme. Who we’re talking to makes a big difference in terms of how we describe ourselves.

3. Gender and sexual identity are also contested and negotiated. They are never settled questions. One of my favorite Judith Butler quotes comes in handy here, from her article Imitation and Gender Insubordination: “To claim that this is what I am is to suggest a provisional totalization of this I. But if the I can so determine itself, then that which it excludes in order to make that determination remains constitutive of the determination itself.” In other words, to claim a name is to produce something outside of that name: I am a lesbian, and therefore not this other thing. It’s a setup of a kind, because now there is this excess identity that I can lay claim to, or that others can. I imagine someone else might say, Oh, I am a lesbian too, but not the kind that Emily is, and now we have an identity that is contested. Concretely, I think of the movement to legalize gay marriage, which has led some of my friends who identify as queer to get married. For me, queer has always meant a resistance to normative categories like “married.” So in the contemporary moment, queer takes on something quite different from what it meant to Queer Nation when they claimed an politicized the word in 1990.

So if identity is constructed, contingent, and contested, how can we square it with structures that fix things in a single location once and for all? Queer theory locates the trouble with library classification and cataloging systems in the project of fixity itself: as we attempt to contain entire fields of knowledge or ways of being in accordance with universalizing systems and structures, we invariably cannot account for knowledges or ways of being that are excess to those systems. We have room for men or women, or even transgender people. But we have less room for identities that fall outside of these divisions, for ways of enacting gender that we might not even be able to imagine yet. Our systems are hospitable in that anything is welcome and, indeed, required to find a home. But this hospitality requires that anything that enters our libraries will be disciplined into the structures that we have already built.

These queer theoretical perspectives on classification and cataloging challenge the idea that a stable, universal, objective knowledge organization system could even exist; there is no such thing if categories and names are always contingent and in motion. So when we attempt to correct classification and cataloging–move David Wojnarowicz books to a part of the classification that better reflects what matters to him, or move books about transsexuality out of the classification section for pathologies and into the classification section for social understandings of gender–these are simply examples of other instances, our own, of categorical production, doing the same kind of work that LC classification and cataloging decisions do, and just as subject to critique from different contingent positions. They do not, however, change or challenge the hegemonic fantasy that lies at the heart of the knowledge organization project in the first place.

In fact, the political focus on correcting classification structure and subject language solidifies the idea that the classification structure is in fact objective, and does in fact tell the truth, the core fictions—from a queer perspective—that allow the hegemony of a universalized classification structure to persist. When gay and lesbian materials are classified under Sexual deviance, the knowledge organization structure tells one kind of true story: gay men and lesbians are sexually deviant, a dominant ideological truth reflected in, for example, the systematic denial to gay men and lesbians of the social goods acquired by those with normative sexuality through marriage. A user confronting the perhaps initially shocking and upsetting placement of materials here might be encouraged to think critically about the classification and cataloging structure; after all, if LC thinks about gay men and lesbians this way, what else does it get terribly, consequentially wrong? Such incorrectness reveals ruptures in the otherwise seamless objectivity that the classification pretends to. Erasing the rupture, smoothing it over by correcting it, erases the evidence of dominant ideology and the resistance to it that are essential components of the classification and cataloging project.

Despite these problems, though, we can’t do without classification and cataloging. The alternative is a big pile of books that we each have to look through one by one. There is no other way “in” to the mass of knowledge. It has to be organized somehow. So we might change the language or the categories to center the things that we value the most. I’m sure many of us would do a better job. If we’re going to make that giant pile of books accessible to people, we’ll have to build a way in. But whatever way in we build, the structure will reflect the ideologies of the builders.

I’ve talked a lot about cataloging and classification, and I’d like to bring us back now to our lives as teaching librarians. What do we do when we are equipped with a critical reading of knowledge organization schemes? How might we intervene as teachers to mitigate the problem of fixed and controlled bibliographic systems, and why would we?

The problem of bias in cataloging and classification has most often been addressed as a technical problem. Radical catalogers like Sandy Berman, KR Roberto, Jenna Freedman, and others continue to lobby for changes to Library of Congress subject headings, adding language for minority knowledges and changing terminology that is outdated or offensive. Hope Olson and Mike Waldman, among others, have argued for local cataloging and classification tools that reflect community norms, allow user tagging, or randomize citation order in catalogs to upend the emphasis on subject ‘sameness’ in our collections. Amber Billey and others are busily trying to convince me that linked open data offers a way out of the conundrum of controlled terms because identity is based on webs of association rather than singular terms and categories. But all of these are technical solutions to a social and political problem, one that we might productively teach about as we work with students in the classroom, at the reference desk, and in consultation as they endeavor to find what they are looking for in the haystacks we manage.

We can exploit the ground laid by queer theory for understanding classification structure and subject language as discursively produced, and invite people who use our catalogs and indexes into that discourse. A queerly informed teaching librarian has the potential to transform these moments in the library use process into another point where the ruptures of classification and cataloging structures can be productively pulled apart to help users understand the bias of hegemonic schemes. For example, a user seeking information about identities that are not listed in LCSH but related to identities that are named—for example, genderqueer versus transsexuality, or aggressive versus lesbian—could be led to the general point in the classification where related materials could be found and engaged in a discussion of why the knowledge they come seeking by name is invisible in the structure. Such a reference interaction would both usefully direct the student to relevant materials and exploit the contextual clues offered by LCSH. Librarians who are themselves engaged with a queer approach to knowledge organization can teach the user how to understand what she sees when she searches the OPAC—and what she does not see—as directly related to the structure of the knowledge organization system she searches against.

When we talk to people who want to find things in our collections, we can point them to the problems and help them strategically negotiate around them to find what they need. It is, after all, useful to know that materials about queer lives are reduced to general headings like gay men, both in order to find things, and to think about ways that such a reduction happens in other parts of social life. The OPAC, after all, is not the only place where gay men run into trouble. We might not feel that language represents us well, but knowing how to manage our needs in the face of systems that were not built for us is the kind of work most of us have to do all the time. In the library, we have to learn how to do that critically as we go about our business of making knowledge. Rather than thinking of the problem of integrating different ways of knowing into our catalogs as a technical services problem, I think of it as a public service problem, one that librarians can be aware of and then teach students about, at the reference desk and in the classroom.

So that is my claim. And I’m sure some of you are thinking, yes, all well and good, but who uses subject headings anymore? How many of us start our research at the library catalog? Don’t we all just Google? Even I sort of just google. So I want to close with a brief discussion of how Google works differently to retrieve things. It doesn’t use the kinds of classification structures that we use in libraries, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t using something. The difference is, we can’t tell how it’s organizing things. How does google organize information? By what principles do you retrieve what you retrieve? Google will tell you broadly that retrieval is based on :

“by their content”

“by other factors”

“programs and formulas”

“based on these clues”

“relevant documents”

We know, but we don’t really know. The organizing structures are privatized corporate algorithms, and we can’t “read” those algorithms the way we can the Library of Congress Subject Headings and Classification. Safiya Noble has done vital work on the ways that Google algorithms consistently return pornography or racial stereotypes when people search for information about black women and girls. She challenges us to think hard about the ways that information retrieval is biased, the way digital tools tell very old stories about which lives matter. Despite the magic of the internet and its big open feeling, the problems of information organization along hegemonic ideological lines will persist, but will be less and less apprehendable by users like me and you. I think the next story we need to figure out how to tell each other is what ways of being and knowing algorithmic retrieval obscures. But that is a different talk, and maybe one we’ll have now.

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