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Saturday, June 10 • 1:30pm - 3:00pm
Dear Metadata: Speculative Imaginings For Collection Data

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What if a researcher could search a collection by texture? Inspired by critical making experiences with library collections, DEAR METADATA uses speculative design to connect conversations in data visualization and metadata critique. Workshop participants will gain hands-on experience working with objects and metadata in collections, incorporating justice principles to consider how metadata practices shift power to prioritize both sensorial and political power structures. Together, we will collectively imagine new futures while engaging in critical discourse about metadata’s current role in our search and discovery experiences.

Metadata structure and curate how we navigate our collections, allowing us to browse, filter, and search using shared knowledge organization schema. In doing so, metadata problematically encode assumptions and norms around the material properties of objects in collections. Within library and information sciences (LIS), critiques of metadata vocabularies (Drabinski 2013, 2014, Freedman 2008) have led to an unsettling of the terms and formats that describe library collections. Beyond academia, numerous artists have used cataloging information from institutional and curated collections as a creative medium. Notable examples include The Library of Missing Datasets (Onuoha 2016), The Index of the Disappeared (Ghani and Ganesh 2004-ongoing), and Five Eyes/Hyperstacks (Bridle 2015). This body of work highlights the nature of structural and institutional power supported by metadata.

While these pieces critique the current state of data and power within collections, there is also a growing body of work that speculatively imagines new futures of metadata. Giorgia Lupi, an information designer whose data-driven designs relate intimately and sensorially to her own life, posits: “We are ready to question the impersonality of a merely technical approach to data and to begin designing ways to connect numbers to what they really stand for: knowledge, behaviors, people.” The rise of critical data studies and creative interventions into data formation (Lupi’s Dear Data, 2016 and “Data Humanism Manifesto”, 2017) have suggested alternate ways that we might engage with the practice of building, visualizing, maintaining, and living with our datasets.

This turn toward designing data intentionally - considering context, audience, and form - is of particular importance for LIS professionals, archivists, and educators who engage with collections beyond the traditional book-object.
For example, how do cataloguers use traditional metadata to catalog a pigment, a block of concrete, or a woven conductive circuit (all examples from Fisher Fine Arts’ Materials Library at the University of Pennsylvania)? What information is readily translated, and what is missing in the records that document and render this type of object findable? The modes of inquiry proposed by Lupi and speculative designers offer us methods for not only understanding what is currently missing (and for whom), but beginning to build speculative schema that offer different ways of interfacing with collections.

Participants will gain an understanding of how to build out data from a material and values-based perspective, using tactics from participatory and speculative design. Working with library metadata as a creative medium, participants will explore how this contextual or administrative information mediates the conceptualization, browsing, and search of collections. They will learn tactics for re-designing data, using examples from arts- and materials-based collections. They will ask questions such as, what echoes, smells, and textures might be missing from our metadata? What other practices of searching and discovery might be opened up, and what new modes of inquiry could be fostered, if a researcher could filter by texture, or if manuscripts were tagged by images of their marginalia? At its core, working deeply and creatively with metadata will help us all gain a better understanding of how metadata structure and curate our experience of a collection as a user. By the end of the workshop, participants should have a working understanding of the current limitations of metadata, practical hands-on experience with speculative design, and the necessary skills to apply this type of innovative and creative inquiry to their own research and exploration.

Intended participants for this workshop are library and information science professionals, material culture scholars, and speculative thinkers, as well as anyone who is curious about how libraries make their collections accessible (or inaccessible) through metadata. We are particularly interested in engaging practitioners who want to fully interrogate an object and its cultural, political, and tactile significance, as those elements are largely left out of existing metadata and collection interfaces. A potential secondary audience includes those interested in this workshop from a pedagogical perspective, noting the way that speculative design has long been employed to interrogate the otherwise unexamined material and systemic realities of our world. We encourage participants interested in working with collections of diverse materials, topics, communities, and spaces that expand beyond the “traditional” archive. Most importantly, we ask participants to bring their own senses of intentionality, curiosity, and wonder to a conversation that will be both critical and creative.

avatar for Emily Esten

Emily Esten

Curator of DH, University of Pennsylvania

Cassandra Hradil

Digital Humanities Specialist, University of Pennsylvania, Penn Libraries and Price Lab for Digital Humanities

Saturday June 10, 2023 1:30pm - 3:00pm EDT
PS 309 (Design Center)