This is a transcript of the Feb. 6 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on Working, we’ve been talking to people employed in fields threatened by the Trump administration’s agenda. For this episode, we spoke with Laurie Allen, assistant director for digital scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania’s libraries. Though her training in librarianship had her working the reference desk for years, she since shifted over to more data-centric scholarship. Recently those efforts led her to help spearhead the Data Refuge Project, an attempt to download and securely preserve federal climate and environmental data. We’re talking about information about sea levels and temperature changes. Stuff that the new administration would probably rather not share with the rest of us if they’re collecting it at all.
In this episode, Allen talks us through the Data Refuge Project but she also goes into how and why she became a librarian in the first place, how she helps students raised on Google process and understand the information they’re studying, and what a typical day is like in the library, and a lot more.
What is your name and what do you do?
Laurie Allen: My name is Laurie Allen, and I’m a librarian.
Brogan: Cool. What kind of librarian are you?
Allen: I think of myself these days as a digital scholarship librarian, which is a new kind of librarian.
Brogan: How is that new? What’s new about it?
Allen: Generally, digital scholarship is collaborating with faculty and students in the creation of scholarship in new forms. In the academic world, scholarship mostly is books and articles but increasingly in the digital world, a work of scholarship might be an interface. It might be a data set. It might be a workflow. It might be a collaborative art installation that has pieces from community members and as well as scholarship. Really, it’s multimodal scholarship, if you think about libraries as being the long-term home for sharing the collected knowledge of our communities or our society. If we’re going to be storing and sharing these new forms of multimodal scholarship, we need to understand how they’re made, how they can be saved. As I’m sure we’ll talk about, saving and storing and creating long-term access to digital materials is just a really complicated problem. A lot of the work that I do in my department is experimenting with various ways of thinking about how long can knowledge last in different forms.
Brogan: One of the ways that you’re really leaning into the values that are at the heart of librarianship is through this data preservation project that you’re engaged in right now. Can you tell us—what’s it called again?
Allen: Sure. It’s called Data Refuge.
Brogan: Data Refuge, and what is it?
Allen: Data Refuge is a really distributed collaborative project that is moving quickly in response to the change in U.S. administrations. The goal of Data Refuge is to create safe copies of climate and environmental data that’s currently housed on federal websites. To make sure that those data remain available to communities as trustworthy copies and that we don’t lose those facts that are currently being housed on Department of Energy, EPA, Department of the Interior, Agriculture, NOAA, NASA. Right now, we’re focusing on climate and environmental data but I’m also really happy, one of the reasons I’m here in D.C., is to talk about broadening our efforts beyond climate and environmental data.
Brogan: How did this project start in the first place?
Allen: It started at a few different places simultaneously. One really key collaborator is this project called the End of Term Archive. That’s actually been around for three administration changes. The End of Term Archive is a project in collaboration with the Internet Archive and others to harvest government websites before they disappear. The fact that government websites disappear, and that’s just a thing that happened, I think we haven’t really attended to how weird that is. That shouldn’t really be happening, but it does. It happens every four years. It happens much more often than that but it happens at a huge scale every four years. Recognizing the huge amount of work that the Obama administration had done to make public data available and also just how much more our society relies on data for all sorts of things.
Data is just another kind of evidence. There’s no magic to it. It’s just information that we use to described people or places and I think it gets mythologized as being magically more real than other kinds of information when we call it data. I think information about communities in whatever form is vital to everything that those communities do and need to do. This project feels so important in part because the environment is changing so quickly. We just need all the information that we’ve gathered, so many researchers and scientists and buoys on the ocean are feeding data into our federal systems, and to let that data, which we need so vitally to act on immediately, disappear, seems just terrible.
I think of things like air-quality measures as they affect kids with asthma in particular communities. Looking at those relationships is hard if you don’t have the air-quality measures. It’s hard to advocate for cleaner air if you don’t actually know what’s coming into the air. I obviously really care about changes of the ozone layer too. I feel like this project is much bigger than my own interest and urban communities taking advantage of their own data. The program in Environmental Humanities at Penn has a group of fellows or graduate fellows, and they raised this issue: “Hey, wait. What are we going to do when all these open data go away?” They came to the library and they began to plan what we thought of at first is a hackathon, and really grew from there into this creative codeathon that we hosted at Penn, January 13 and 14. That was how our energy got started.
At the same time, folks at the University of Toronto who had lived through the Harper administration, which was really antiscience in a lot of ways. That really did destroy quite a bit of scientific data and evidence. The folks at the University of Toronto, knowing that that had happened and knowing how much their own research, and the research in their communities, relied on federal and on U.S. environmental and climate data began an effort on their own. There were a couple of fellows from the Environmental Humanities program who went to their event in Toronto, and then, we brought a couple of them down to our event. We’ve been working closely. What they did at their event was send things to the Internet Archive. We’d basically feed the Internet Archive.
Brogan: Just this nonprofit site that preserves as much of the internet in as many copies as it can, right?
Allen: Yes. Basically, the Internet Archive has a huge range of collections. One collection that it has, which is often referred to as the Wayback Machine and it’s very cool. Everyone should go check it out. The Wayback Machine is a way to look at the internet as it existed in the past. You can pick a website and pick a date, and go look at what that website looked like on that date.
Brogan: Sometimes even on that time?
Allen: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. They don’t get everything, however. They don’t get everything for all kinds of reasons. The End of Term harvest is deigned to really pick up as much as possible from federal websites. That said, federal websites are giant. The event at the University of Toronto is designed to feed the Internet Archive more and more pages that were just focused on the EPA, so that it would really get those. Not to get too technical, but data that is housed on federal servers, then is offered up through federal websites, isn’t always crawlable by the Internet Archives machines. Sometimes you go to the Wayback Machine and you go to a page, and the page isn’t there. Sometimes you go, and the page is there but the part where there was a search box is empty. The Wayback Machine can’t grab a whole search mechanism.
Brogan: But that’s not because the data is not publicly available, it’s just because the way the website is set up, right?
Brogan: There’s nothing illegal, nothing untoward about going on these sites and just pulling all of the data off if you can figure out how to do that?
Allen: Yeah, exactly. Right, if it’s federal government data and it’s on federal websites, and it’s open, we can legally get it. We’re basically queering the database and they provide ways to get the data. That’s why it’s on a public website. It’s so that people can get it. Just downloading all of it is not illegal at all. That’s what we’re doing. We’re downloading it, we’re checking it, we’re verifying it. We’re passing librarian eyes over it, as well as others.
Brogan: What does that look like for you?
Allen: We have this whole workflow. Basically, you get a bunch of developers together and they pick a website, or a data source, really. They download as much as they can, and then they pass it along to a scientist or a researcher, or maybe another technology person, depending on how big the dataset is to check it. To make sure, “Hey, could a scientist understand this? Does it make sense on its own?” because we have to imagine that the original website’s going to go away.
Brogan: Because they could pull the numbers in and would garble it, or screw up the—
Allen: Exactly. Or the easiest example is you give someone a spreadsheet with abbreviated column headings and then you don’t give them the information what the column headings mean. That happens.
Brogan: OK, right. Because that information was on the original page but it’s not in the dataset [inaudible].
Allen: Exactly, yeah. We want to make sure that the dataset has all of the stuff that you would need to make sense of it. It goes to another set of eyes. They take a look at it, say, “Yes, both this is what it says it is and it’s everything I would need in order to understand it.” Then it goes to a librarian or digital preservation person who does some digital preservation to it to make sure that the actual bits themselves don’t change. Now that we’re sure they are what they say they are.
Brogan: It’s about securing the data against [inaudible], things like this?
Allen: Exactly, yeah. They use a protocol called Bagit, developed by the Library of Congress, so we call them Baggers. They basically wrap up the data. What we would love to do is unpack it and make it really beautiful, but right now, we’re just making sure we have it secure. From there, it goes into the Data Refuge storage and then eventually we make a record for it, in our instance, online, so we people can see it.
Brogan: The Data Refuge storage, that’s with Internet Archive or is that on your library servers?
Allen: No, we have storage space. Right now, it’s on Amazon. We’re just storing on Amazon servers.
Brogan: In the cloud, has it worked?
Allen: Well, yes. In warehouses owned by Amazon. Yeah, exactly. We’re storing it and replicating it, and all that. Then, making it available for anyone to download and reuse and copy, but that part’s not quite in the Internet Archive. The only stuff that’s going in the Internet Archive is the webpages.
Brogan: OK. Sounds like right now, there is a special sense of urgency to this.
Brogan: Can you just say a little bit more about why you feel like you just have to jump on this and gun for it right now?
Allen: Yeah. Well, climate change is real. That’s a big part of it. The fact that we started with environmental and climate data, we know that data is at risk. I think when we first started, maybe this would just be insurance and it wouldn’t be really a problem, but it seems pretty clear that it will be a problem. Partially, I mean if they cut EPA staff to a third of its current size, there just won’t be people to keep those servers running. This data is so, so vital to so many communities. When city planners are making decisions about how to zone various areas, if they don’t know what sea level is going to look like in 15 years, you just don’t know where to build roads. There’s some really practical things. We’re worried. I think we’re taking action quickly, but responsibly right now in the library community and in the much broader . . . There’s a huge number of volunteers who have nothing to do with libraries who are just contributing because they need this data in their work.
Brogan: Given the urgency of this process right now, are you finding that you and your colleagues, and your collaborators, have to make tough decisions about what gets saved?
Allen: I wish that we were making tough decisions but I think right now, we send a survey out to the Union of Concerned Scientist and to others, the survey’s still on our website saying, “What is the data that you need for your research?” We had scientists identify data that was really important to them and we talked with a lot of people about what makes data particularly vulnerable. What are the factors that are going to make this data vulnerable. The folks in Toronto have done such a great job with the EPA so we started continuing with the EPA, and then, picking up NOAA, which is what we heard from Union of Concerned Scientist folks like that was the agency that seemed—
Brogan: NOAA is the ...
Allen: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We heard from a bunch of scientists that datasets in NOAA were ones they were particularly concerned about. We’re getting those, but honestly, this effort, there’s so much that there’s so many people working on this, which isn’t to say we don’t need more. We really do. It’s huge. We have a spreadsheet right now that has something like 1,800 uncrawlables. Uncrawlables, meaning things someone has identified as not being crawled by the Internet Archive, as not going to be in the Internet Archive, so 1,800. Some of them, we don’t really need. Some of them are pointing to things that we already got in some other way, but a lot of them are actually going to take one-at-a-time attention. We’re just hoping we get as much as we can before things start disappearing.
Brogan: Do you have sense of when things are going to start disappearing?
Allen: I certainly don’t want to make any predictions. I hope things won’t disappear for a long time. I think there are some things that there are corporate interests in keeping. We know that industry needs particular kinds of data and we don’t have reason to be particularly concerned about those. There’s some data that is already produced in collaboration with either another country or a university or something like that. For those, again, we’re hopeful that those other parties will pick up, if the funding from the U.S. government isn’t there. I don’t know, every day feels like a surprise. I don’t know.
There’s already this directive that’s not about environment data but this directive that basically no federal funding can go to any mapping or geospatial data production that shows disparities [unintelligble]. There’s a bill in the House to make sure that federal funding never goes to show to that. It’s mind-boggling to me.
Brogan: It’s also about how data is created and not just about what’s out there. Do you find yourself thinking about that, about how to make sure that information keeps getting created or are you just exclusively focused on preserving what exists?
Allen: No. I think the fact that this project came from the program in Environmental Humanities fellows and the faculty there. Their work has been so closely tied to communities where there is not enough data. I don’t know what I can do to encourage people to keep producing data but certainly, I work in a university library. There are so many people who are working on this problem, who have been for years working on the problem of how to save and share, and make available data. There are companies, there are nonprofits, there are library consortia. This is an issue. It’s not an issue in the mainstream media but it’s certainly an issue in the library community. I think this work, I think the more we can tie it together with those efforts, which have been making huge strides, but very quietly—I will say not as quickly as we now see they need to be. That’s the task now. It’s like speed up all of these amazing efforts that have been really responsibly moving forward and at the same time get what we can in a responsible way right now.
Brogan: What’s the end goal here? Assuming you’re able to pull all of the data that you want to pull, what’s next?
Allen: I think, honestly, as much as I care about access to information, and it’s my career, I care deeply about it. I think the more people understand and own their own data and information, the more people are connected to the sources of data that describe them, describe their communities, that’s what we’ll ensure, that it keeps getting made. I want this project to lead to people banging down their library doors and saying, “I need access to this data in this form for my community so I can do this with it.” Not necessarily their libraries, their government, their municipal . . . I think getting people more connected to the facts that represent them, getting them more engaged with making sure that those facts really do represent them and their communities.
Again, also the research community, obviously the scientific and research community, making sure that they have channels to share their information in ways that don’t rely on federal, environmental, and government websites.
Brogan: Part of the goal, then, if I’m understanding right, is to do part of what you’ve always done, which is not just to preserve information but also to give people better, more powerful access to it.
Allen: Yes, absolutely. That’s the goal, yes.
Brogan: What will that look like, you think?
Allen: I’m excited about the fact that I don’t know. I’m so focused right now on making the data as accessible as possible and I think the world of researchers and scientist, and tech people, and communities that will use it, and transform it, and make sense of it. I don’t know. I don’t know how it’s going to end up but I know that if we make it as available as possible and we get as many people as possible excited about it, it will be a lot of things.
* * *
Brogan: When I think of libraries I think of book-lined shelves, but it sounds like that’s not the kind of library work you’re doing.
Allen: That’s certainly true. I haven’t been the kind of librarian who works mostly with books for quite a while. That said, the more I work in the digital world, the more closely tied I see that it is to especially older and rare materials. The way that we, as libraries, approach understanding medieval manuscripts is really, really useful for understanding new ways of sharing knowledge. Early book history is this moment in history where there was information being produced really rapidly by lots of different people and different forums, and their result is contention. We, in libraries, have to deal with that. I end up learning the more I get deeply into the digital world, the more I actually have come to work closely with the folks who deal with the very, very old things.
Brogan: You work in a university library, how much of what you’re doing, what you’re focusing on, is driven by the research, the inquiries of the faculty, students, there?
Allen: The vast majority of our work at the Penn Library is to collaborate with the faculty and students at Penn, and the research that they need. That said, libraries have a kind of commitment to the world of information to being stewards, good stewards, of knowledge. As a librarian at Penn, I’m responsible to and for the community at Penn and their information needs, but as a librarian I’m responsible to a broader history.
Brogan: It’s about the work of preservation, more generally.
Allen: Exactly, yeah. Thank you.
Brogan: What in your life made you want to commit to librarianship, to these ideals of preservation in the first place?
Allen: So funny. Librarianship really felt like a calling to me, honestly. I didn’t notice it at all. I was a student worker in the library in college. I had no thought I might want to be a librarian, and, I don’t know, I wanted a job around smart people, around academia, and I didn’t want to pick a thing and do that for the rest of my life. I don’t have a research agenda. As I get older, I think I’m developing one, but as a 22-year-old, I didn’t have a thing that I said, “I want to contribute this.” It’s very easy for me to get excited about new ideas. It felt like librarianship was this way that really brilliant people could bring me their ideas and I could learn just enough about them to help to contribute, and then, I didn’t have to write the papers. I became a reference librarian. That was part of it was just like—
Brogan: Your first training was in reference librarianship?
Allen: As a reference librarian, yeah. Then, the other part was, I was a philosophy major and I studied the organization of knowledge as a kind of . . . The way that we organized the world is the way that we understand the world, and so libraries also, they were a little bit a secret power source. They described explicitly the way that we organized what we think we know. Among some library reserves that I’m on, there was a conversation about the fact that there’s no subject heading for intersectional feminism. When we assigned subject headings to a book that is about intersectional feminism, which is a thing, we have to say that it’s either about black women or it’s about feminism.
We can say that it’s both and have the reader infer that maybe it’s about intersectional feminism, but the fact that the category intersectional feminism is not acknowledged by the Library of Congress subject headings means to some extent that our system is saying it’s not real. Libraries make those decisions explicit. This is a real thing in the world and a book is going to get shelved here because it’s about this thing and this thing exists. That’s a decision that libraries have to make because they have to shelve things that we can be a little sloppier about in the rest of our lives. Those two things, being around smart people without having to write papers and organizing information.
Brogan: If I understand you right, librarians are the secret legislators of the world.
Allen: I wish.
Brogan: If only. What kind of training did you do though? Did I assume a master’s of library science?
Allen: I did, yes. I went to Simmons in Boston. I did master’s in library science. I did a lot of digital library courses—Candy Schwartz, fantastic professor. I knew by the time I left that I wanted to be an academic reference librarian. I actually graduated from library school in 2002, which is right when Google, the search engine, really took over the world. I think mine was the last class in library school at Simmons to do the search engine comparison assignment because after my class, it’s Google or better.
Brogan: This assignment was you had to look at Yahoo versus Google, versus, I don’t even remember.
Brogan: AltaVista, Ask Jeeves.
Allen: Yes, exactly. We had this assignment to do this comparison of all these search engines and pick the best one. It was like, “OK, we can stop giving that assignment. It is Google.”
Brogan: During the times that you were then jumping into librarianship as a career, as a practice, the whole way that people went about doing research was changing, the way that people were accessing information was and is, in fact, still. Even if Google is still the primary search engine for most people, the ways that it works, the ways that we access information, the ways that we process it, are shifting so rapidly now. What’s it been like to be working in this field amidst all of that change?
Allen: Fun. It’s a really fun job. I am really, really grateful that I worked at Penn when I first got out of library school. I worked at the reference desk in the main library for two hours a day during a time when the reference desk really was still a place where, even though Google was around, I mean there just wasn’t as much in it as there is now. I am so glad that I had that experience with a million reference questions a day and just getting practice. Having conversations with people as they try to understand what it is they’re looking for. What kind of information would help them answer their question? That’s my training, which I feel really lucky for because I think that skill, the kind of understanding, what kind of information do I need? Who might have written something that would help me answer this question?
Is it a really hard part of life and it’s fun moment to interact with people in. I’ve never worked as a librarian when the field hasn’t been changing rapidly. To some degree, I have some change fatigue in that. Like, “Yup, still changing rapidly.” Every minute I’ve been a librarian, it’s been rapidly changing and it’s been 15 years.
Brogan: At what point along the way in those last 15-some years did you make the shift from work at the reference desk to work on digital efforts, digital preservation?
Allen: It feels very much like a continuum. Like it wasn’t a huge shift. I started as a general reference librarian and then I began to specialize in social science data. I went to a one-week training camp to learn about the census, after the 2000 census, to learn about how to make sense of it and all that sort of stuff. I became social science data librarian at Penn so I worked basically helping faculty and students. Especially those who didn’t have a lot of experience using data, get access to often-contextual information for their research. Then I moved to Haverford, which is a small college. I had a more leadership role there and my old boss at Haverford, Terry Snyder, when she got there, she said she wanted to start a digital scholarship department.
She really felt like the future of libraries is in special collections and digital. Digital scholarship meaning, creation of new kinds of things with faculty, thinking about new kinds of scholarship that are made together with libraries. She asked me if I wanted to lead up the new section in our library for digital scholarship and build out what that would be. I think she knew she wanted it to be digital, to be engaged with the internet. I think she and I shared the perspective that keeping the scholarly question at the center, at the heart of digital scholarship, was the only way for libraries to engage with it. She and I had a really shared commitment to making sure that digital scholarship at our library was always going to be starting with and drawing from the scholarly question at the heart.
Brogan: When you’re working on these questions of digital scholarship with people, whether you’re looking at census data or, I don’t know what else, do you have to learn a lot about the thing you’re helping people research and work on, and manipulate? Or is it enough to just know where the archives are, what they might contain and so on?
Allen: I think it really helps. The more you know about the content that you’re trying to find or make use of, the more you understand the way that a particular discipline organizes itself or the way that information flows within a particular community, the easier it is to find things. I used to think of it as like faculty members have all the content expertise so they actually have to have very good search skills because they don’t need to do very much searching. They just know who probably wrote something about that, and then, they can just go get that. Librarians don’t have to have super-deep content expertise because we’re pretty good at searching. We’re pretty good at taking a huge landscape of stuff we don’t know very much about and identifying what probably is the most important stuff, and looking at the right places. We’re pretty good at searching and that sort of thing.
Ideally, for students, they get a little bit of both. That’s part of learning to be hopefully, ideally, part of learning to be a good citizen is getting to know some things about the world that are just true. Like some content knowledge and some expertise about how information works and who produces it, and where it comes from. I know the older I get, the more I know some stuff. As a librarian, my expertise is in the way that it’s organized and—
Brogan: How to learn more stuff.
Brogan: It’s not just about what you know, I guess.
Allen: Yeah. How to learn more stuff and why it’s easier to learn some kinds of things in some ways, and other kinds of things in other ways, like how to make a decision about where to start.
Brogan: Given that you’re probably dealing more and more with young people who are raised just with Google, do you have to convince people that you’re potentially going to work with that you have something to provide, that there might be things that they’re going to find on their own?
Allen: No. I think there was a moment that that used to be a thing. I feel like, at least in my experience—and I have no idea how generalizable this is—at least in my experience, there was maybe in 2007, ’08, ’09, people were like, “Oh, we won’t need librarians because everyone can find all the information themselves.” I don’t know anyone who feels like they can comfortably find all the right information right now. I don’t need to do a lot of convincing of people that curating, that’s a word that’s become so fashionable now because we are all overwhelmed by how much is out there and so, so much of the work is in figuring out how to narrow your sources. How to identify the collection of things that you care most about and that you want to draw from.
It used to be that students were like, “I don’t need librarians,” but I don’t even run into that anymore. People are like, “Oh my God. You have some idea for how I can feel a little bit more comfortable with this monster landscape of information I can’t manage? Yes, please. What can you tell me?”
Brogan: It’s about helping people find a signal and all those things.
Allen: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
* * *
Brogan: What is a typical day like for you when you’re setting out to help people find their way through the information that they’re dealing with?
Allen: Before this Data Refuge Project started, it was often a lot of meetings. Meetings with faculty or graduate students as they approach a project, someone who knows that they want to try something new in their research. They want to try a new method. We’re often having to develop new software because software developers are trying to solve commercial problems. These aren’t commercial problems. A lot of it is like what’s the open-source software that we might be able to use to change in some way.
Brogan: You’re not just helping people find or process information, you’re also helping them figure out how to store and preserve information?
Allen: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. The creation part is the biggest part of my job. The shift in my work has been that I no longer am primarily helping people find information. I’m now helping people create new information. The more I get into this work, the more I see that those two are actually always connected. You look for things because you’re trying to make something and you make something because you want other people to look for things. I guess I would say libraries have always been productive spaces. They have always been spaces where people make things. Yeah, a lot of what I do is build software.
Brogan: Well, it comes back to what you said earlier. I think that the way we organize information says a lot about the way we understand the world. Libraries in that sense, presumably, are contributing to our ways of seeing.
Allen: Sure, and are affected by our ways of seeing.
Brogan: What’s the workplace like, though? What kind of environment? Are you doing all this work and you’re in these meetings? Presumably you spend a certain amount of time in front of a computer screen? Where are you doing all of these?
Allen: In the library.
Brogan: But not in the stacks.
Allen: No. I have an office. Many of my colleagues are in a big office nearby that has workspaces. We have a bunch of student workers who work in there as well. Meetings are usually table, whiteboard-screen, big-screen, which I have in my office, or we get some group-study room. In fact, I might be missing a meeting right now that involves actual rare materials, digitized materials or originals, that will be or have been digitized. Yeah, in the library. I have a lovely office.
Brogan: What are the workplace dynamics like? Do you spend a lot of time talking when you’re not in meetings to your colleagues or people just button-down, staring at their—
Allen: No, I have an awesome, awesome community of collaborators in the library. My department, the digital scholarship department, currently has nine people in it. Two are digital humanities specialists, which means that they work together with the Price Lab for Digital Humanities and the library on supporting Digital Humanities explicitly, and I won’t get into what that is but their work is awesome. It’s a really fun place to work. I think one of the reasons people like being librarians is because it is so—we’re all on the same team, ultimately. Everyone who works in a library is pretty much in it because they want to do this thing, to make information, like evidence, more readily available, more widely used. The only bad thing is that we’re also self-righteous.
Brogan: [inaudible] values ...
Allen: No, it really is.
Brogan: That drive everyone.
Allen: Yeah, it is. It’s actually wonderful. I have so many friends who work in academia, who are faculty. That seems nice, too, but I wouldn’t trade this. It’s so fun.
Brogan: Historically, the gender dynamics of libraries have been strange. A lot of the majority, I think of, generally of the kind line workers and people doing the real everyday work in libraries have been women. The managerial side of things is typically male. Does that dynamic still ring true to you these days?
Allen: I’ve only had a few jobs in libraries and my bosses—so I’ve only had, like, a few bosses—mostly they’ve been women. It’s a really, really white field. I’ll say that and I think that it is damaged by its whiteness. It would be a much richer profession if it were less—
Allen: Yes, homogenous. I will say that, yes. People trust libraries and they trust librarians. I think that means that the harm that libraries can do when they are unwelcoming spaces is much greater because there’s so much trust in these institutions. To be spaces that are unwelcoming because you don’t see anyone who looks like you, because—not just who looks like you, that the experiences of people of color, of basically none upper-middle-class white women and men are really missing from libraries. As these incredibly trusted institutions, there’s actually more harm done, I think, when the library is not on your side because the library’s so good.
There’s something I do love working in libraries and I love them, and I believe in them. I also believe that there is a lot of work to be done in holding them to the standards that they espouse. Yeah, as I said, I have been really lucky to have a few. I mean, I’ve had three women bosses who were my direct supervisors who’ve been just fantastic mentors. Yeah, I think that library leadership is often really male-dominated in a lot of places and I won’t say more than that.
Brogan: If an ordinary nonlibrarian, maybe even nonscientist wanted to pitch in, in these kind of data preservation efforts, if they wanted to participate, are there things that you need? Are there things that people can do that they could help the work you’re doing?
Allen: Absolutely. I think we have a couple of things on our website that describe—feeding the internet archive, for instance. There are parts of agencies, and agencies that have not yet been fully crawled by the internet archive. I really don’t want to undersell how deeply important that is because that’s the context. That’s the way that the current administration has described the information people need. That’s one thing. It’s just taking a piece of an agency and feeding the internet archive. You could just go to the Wayback Machine and contribute there or the End of Term Archive has a way to do that. Right now, there aren’t big sites haven’t come down so there’s still work to be done there.
We have events in 15 or 20 cities, and at every event, there’s a lot of work for people who are scientists who are librarians who are developers but also people who aren’t. The structure of these Data Refuge events, the collaboration that we built with these other organizations, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative. These events, they’re hard to put on their work but they have room for everyone. I think there’s that work. There’s also just getting to know people in your community who use these data and advocating. There’re the events. There’s feeding the Internet Archive and then, we’re really, really working hard on some tools that will allow people to contribute in a distributed way that you don’t need to go on an event and all that.
Though we love the events because they’re fun and they bring people together to talk about the issue of environmental and climate data, which even though it wasn’t my thing before is really a fascinating intersection of the physical world and the information world.
Brogan: It’s interesting that you stress the importance of an event in the real world when you’re dealing with real physical data that exists primarily on the internet. Do you think that these kinds of material interactions with one another around this seemingly immaterial stuff helps us remember that it is real and that it describes real change?
Allen: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. I think that the problem of environmental—and I’ve learned so much of this from my colleagues in the Environmental Humanities group—the problem of climate change, the environmental catastrophe that we’re currently living through, is going to require really broad participation. It’s going to require new alliances. People staying in their lane is what made this problem happen that we don’t think at multiple . . . I mean they actually just had a conference called “Time Scales,” where we did a little exhibit about data and datum. It was called “Datum.” It was about dates and datum.
This notion of time scales, people are not used to thinking across geologic time and data time, but we have to. We actually have to think together across disciplines, across communities. These events help that. I also think as a person who works at the intersection of the humanities and technology, a lot of the time, I really believe that social justice theorizing and technology folks need to look at one another more frequently, and learn, and take ownership over learning a little bit more of each other’s world.
I think these events are an opportunity to recognize that these are real people who do . . . The people who program computers are not like a different kind of person. They’re just other people sometimes. Same is true for the people who . . . The fact that there are scholars in the room talking about how to describe this problem and they’re just talking about it like regular people. That’s one of the things that happens at every Data Refuge event, is people spend time talking about the long trail, about how can we think long-term about this problem.
Brogan: Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Allen: Thank you.
Brogan: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. I’m Jacob Brogan. This was a special episode for me because I was raised in the library world, raised by librarians, and I am really grateful that we had this opportunity to talk to Laurie. We would love hear your thoughts about the podcast. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. On that note, we actually want to thank Jessica Bennett of the L. Douglas Wilder Library at Virginia Union University who wrote to us and recommended that we speak with a librarian or archivist. She was right, and I’m glad we did it. I hope that more people write to us and recommend things. We’ll try to do them whenever we can.