RECOMMENDED: Caring About Access

Tim Sherratt (University of Canberra) has posted the text of his portion of a panel discussion at Digital Directions 2016 in Canberra. Sherratt’s post begins with a reminder that:

…we can’t take the meaning of words like ‘open’ or ‘access’ for granted.

They are what we make of them.

I’m a historian and hacker. I don’t steal credit card details, I use digital tools to open cultural heritage collections – to see them differently, to feel differently.

He goes on to describe an example of harvesting data — in this case, parliamentary proceedings — and discovering that two years of data were missing, which led him to investigate further:

First, search interfaces lie. We have to develop our critical capacities to be more aware of what we are not being shown and why. And second, this problem only became visible because I was hacking their database, because I went beyond what was offered by their website, because I wanted more.

Access is not something that cultural institutions bestow on a grateful public. It’s a struggle for understanding and meaning. Expect to be criticised, expect problems to be found, expect your prejudices to be exposed. That’s the point.

Hacking can have a negative connotation to some, but Sherratt points out that the type of hacking he engages in can lead to deeper connections with archival data:

If cultural institutions want to celebrate their website hits, celebrity visits, or their latest glossy magazines – well that’s just fabulous. But I’d like them to celebrate every flaw that’s found in their data, every gap identified in their collection – that’s engagement, that’s access. We need to get beyond defensive posturing and embrace the risky, exciting possibilities that come from critical engagement with collection data – recognising hacking as a way of knowing.

Sherratt’s work is a must-read for information professionals concerned about access to cultural heritage. He closes with a reminder that “caring” has dual meanings, “both looking after, and giving a shit,” and that caring about access can have real, positive effects:

Innovation can be measured in more than shiny apps, or cool new visualisations. By struggling with access to our past we can imagine new futures.

Sherratt has written widely about issues of access to cultural heritage, including in a post we previously covered in the dh+lib Review, entitled “Hacking heritage: power and participation in digital cultural collections.”

dh+lib Review

This post was produced through a cooperation between Elizabeth Gibes, Arianne Hartsell-Gundy, Jason T. Mickel, Anna Newman, Kelley Rowan, (Editors-at-large for the week), Caitlin Christian-Lamb (Editor for the week), Sarah Potvin (Site Editor), and Caro Pinto, Roxanne Shirazi, and Patrick Williams (dh+lib Review Editors).