Radical Change as Radical Inclusion: Digital Youth as Metadata Makers

An Exploration of Community Archive Practice


Drafting is an exploration. Today I upload a draft for a proposal I began a few weeks ago that is due later this summer. I’m attempting to explore a line of inquiry grounded in public library and digital heritage practice within the context of a project designed to probe the knowledge domains of traditional Ernest Hemingway (EH) scholars, historians, and informal local historians in EH’s birthplace town, where Hemingway is both brand and “banned”, icon and invisible. I’m trying to define inclusive practice as applied radical change theory (RCT; Dresang, 2009) in the context of a complex, multiple-stakeholder learning ecology that has implications beyond local digital heritage access, representation, and control. In particular, I describe how RCT may be used to make visible to library and archive practitioners that “theory” has real-world application with potentially transformative outcomes.

I admit I indulge the personal. As one who drew on Dr. Eliza Dresang’s theory in the landscape of youth information behavior, I see this as a natural extension of a conversation that began with my dissertation investigations into teen lived literacies in informal learning environments (Comstock, 2012). In that, I made a conscious note to return to Dresang’s call for application in practice: what she wrote as a need for “proof of concept” (Dresang, 2009). While I can in no way classify my attempt as “proof”, I can only claim that the conversation continues. I draw specifically on her principles of “interactivity, connectivity, and access” as these relate to representation of digital heritage resources in the very practical world of public library digital archive practice.

Of course, application of theory requires grounding in the real-world, and this paper draws on the very concrete context of a Secretary of State Illinois State Library-funded  digitization project, “Hacking Hemingway: Cracking the Code to the Vault” where the Oak Park Public Library with its partners the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, School District 97, and LYRASIS are collaboratively selecting, digitizing, and representing childhood and teen ephemera, writings, scrapbooks, letters, and photos of Ernest and his “twin” sister Marcelline to be included in the Illinois Digital Archive and (in turn) the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Ernest Hemingway as a literary icon is questioned, however, by asking Oak Park teens to re-vision Hemingway through the lenses of their own lived experiences as teens in Ernest’s hometown via objects of his sister Marcelline, mother, school friends, and young self. “Hacking Hemingway” is, indeed, an inquiry, asking, “Who owns Hemingway? Who humanizes?” (Comstock, Tarullo, & Battaglia, 2015). More interestingly, “How?”

The answer to that may rest in the “why”:  the project seeks to take the ideals of open access digital archiving to its next iteration:  students as digital curators in ways beyond selection to play that engages critical thinking and information technology fluencies. Given the need for robust digital learning that emphasizes participatory, inquiry-based approaches, the project is designed to arc the learning continuum from tweens and teens to expert scholars.

The “how”, then, rests in one word: metadata. Radical change theory is one way of understanding text-metadata as co-narrative. Applying radical change theory to “radical user orientation” archival theory suits the zeitgeist of a now emerging “critical maker” movement where counter narrative is described as participatory cultural change with the power to construct, deconstruct, make, and break. This has particular power for those of us who work with youth and young adults in informal learning environments such as libraries, museums, archives, and learning labs. To code is described in the public library as a skill, as play, and—sometimes—as collaboration; a way of thinking, learning, doing. But to encode is a political act. There is a danger, a threat to established ways of knowing when we expand “access to” and “creating with” digital heritage objects to defining how others have access to or create with. That is the power of metadata and digital heritage. Authority control is inverted to controlling authority. What might happen when RCT is applied in this way to a literary icon in his home town; how might Hemingway be represented, not just for a single online exhibit, but over time or across generations?

The line between museum informatics and public library in 2015 is permeable, with the pivot on engaged experience (Huvila, 2008). We can subtly shift the emphasis from “participatory archive” to “archiving of participation” when we consider metadata as co-narrative that requires archiving in and of itself as representational cultural understanding.

Youth engaging with culture as actors not consumers is an emerging area of research (c.f. iConference 2015 where we discussed next steps).  At the University of Coppenhagen, Denmark, there is serious study into “…the meaning of aesthetics in everyday expressive life and the meaning of aesthetics in children and young people’s encounters with art and culture” (Junker, 2015).  Youth and teens’ participation should not be limited to selection of an object for a static exhibit,  but include the representational knowledge—the metadata—of that object over the life of that object across time.  Of course the benefits of standardized metadata schema are multiple and practical. Yet, the time has come where it may “be more important to capture as much relevant information as possible than to strictly enforce a formal descriptive scheme” (Havila, 2008) and metadata schemas be “child driven” (Beak, 2014).

Museum informatics and digital library development inform how we act as stewards—not for or of—but with complex communities.  “Recent scholarship has begun to conceptualize digitization as a social phenomenon in itself, suggesting that digitization projects embed traces of their cultural and historical circumstances,” (Lischer-Katz, 2015).

Eliza Dresang’s radical change theory is apt when taking text “meta”, extending the conversation to the radical notion of youth as metadata makers.

References thus far, drafting:

Beak, J. (2014). “A Child-Driven Metadata Schema: A Holistic Analysis of Children’s Cognitive Processes During Book Selection” Theses and Dissertations. Paper 449.

Comstock, S., Tarullo, L. & Battaglia, E. (2015).  “Hacking Hemingway: Cracking the Code the Vault, a Collaboratory”, iConference, University of California, Irvine, Newport Beach, CA.

Dresang, E.T. & Koh, K. (2009). Radical Change Theory, Youth Information Behavior and School Libraries. Library Trends, Vol. 58, No. 1, Summer 2009 (26‐50).

Huvila, I. (2008). Participatory archive: towards decentralized curation, radical user orientation and broader contextualisation of records management. Archival Science, 2008, 8 (1), 15-36. (Springer).

Junker, B. (2015). Position paper for Digital Youth Research Network Workshop, iConference, University of California, Irvine, Newport Beach, CA.

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