race, food, bikes, gender

Another reminder that green/feminist movements are as marked by gender and class as right wing politics…

I’m seeing correlations between slutwalk discourse and this little trail of articles dealing with race/food politics/gardening/environmentalism/cycling. While I’m fascinated by discussions of food and health and environmentalism as a socialist project, for a while now I’ve had a little voice in the back of my brain saying “Dood, where’s race in all this? Can we talk about ethnicity a little bit more? And not in a ‘Mysteries of the Orient’ Food Safari way?” I stumbled over The Doree Chronicles’ post ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Eating: How the Food Culture War Affects Black America’ on Tumblr, then traced its references back. This post read as a sort of snippet of idea, in the context of a general Tumblr blog dealing with all sorts of things the author found interesting. Tumblr shits me a bit as this sort of backtracking is unnecessarily complex, but I guess that’s a consequence of personal sites which encourage a ‘collector’ approach rather than a ‘writerly’ approach.

From that little post linking food politics, race, ethnicity and the bike movement, I found Erika Nicole Kendall’s post ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Eating: How The Food Culture War Affects Black America’ on the Black Girls Guide To Weight Loss site. This post framed the discussion within a broader discussion of race and gender and weight loss as a health issue.

This post led me to Janani Balasubramanian’s piece ‘Sustainable Food and Privilege: Why is Green Always White (and Male and Upper-Class)’ which linked the bike movement talk to race and gender and environmentalism and food politics. I like this piece for the way it links gender to food production, and I like the question:

Can Pollan not drive home the point that Americans need to cook more often without guilting American feminists?

I’m really not up to speed with food politics’ talk, but I feel as though all this talk is echoing some of my reservations about slutwalk, and some of my thoughts about food politics. It also reminds me of some things I’ve read about the civil rights movement in America in the 60s, where the peace movement in particular was also quite sexist. In that context, the ‘free love’ discourse was a double-edge sword. While the pill gave women contraceptive control of their sexuality and bodies, there was also an attendant shift in the way many men began thinking about these women as ‘sexually available’. I wonder if we should perhaps be a little sceptical of a new women’s movement (or new stream in a broader feminism) that lauds heterosexual freedom in such uncomplicated ways. Because of course the pill didn’t function the same way, ideologically, for lesbian women that it did for straight women.

I feel as though we’re also revisiting issues raised (and continually raised) by women of colour from that period and recently. For those women race was a far more pressing concern, organising their activism in a way that gender did not. And these women were very critical of ‘mainstream’ feminists for not interrogating their own privilege. Or, more simply, for not noticing that everyone signing books in the wimminz bookshops was white.

I’m of course thinking about bell hooks and Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, but I’ve also heard Australian Aboriginal women like Marcia Langton make similar arguments. I haven’t found it, but I’d be certain there’d be some cool stuff written about ‘bush tucker’, the Northern Territory intervention (where government pensions are ‘retained’ specifically for buying food), gender and equity. I’m also certain that there’d be some really interesting stuff by migrant women writers in Australia (and elsewhere) about food, gender, class and social (as well as bodily) ‘health’. Someone has to have taken the bike movement to task as well? I mean, if I’m banging on about it on Faceplant when people say stupid things like “There is no excuse not to ride distances under 10km”, then surely someone else has made the same points more cleverly?

I’ve just had a quick look but I CAN’T find that interesting study a Victorian university group did recently where they found that if women felt safe cycling in a city, then the numbers of cyclists in that city over all were higher. I was telling this story to some hardcore environmentalist/sustainable energy types at a party the other week, and they were all “Oh shit, I’d never thought of that!” And I was thinking ‘That’s because you’re over-achieving, able bodied, young, male engineers living in well-serviced cities who dismiss feminism as ‘something for women’.’ But I didn’t say that out loud. Instead I laboured through a gentle (and brief) point that environmental movements have to be socially sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable. I wanted to talk about how birth control for women in developing countries is directly related to environmentally sustainable development in those same countries, but I didn’t.

I think there are also some really important points to be made about ‘food security’ for children in poor communities and families in big cities, and how food security is directly related to educational and social achievements, and how getting enough to eat (let alone eating ‘well’) is directly related to justice and equity in relation to gender and race and all those other lovely identity markers. I don’t know much about this at all, but I heard an interesting Health Report podcast about this and started thinking about the relationships between organic gardening, social justice, ethnicity and economic power. And goddamn bicycles.

To sum up this messy, ill-informed, poorly researched and unsubstantiated introduction to my mess of thoughts, I direct your attention to Tammi Jonas, who’s trekking through the American wilds with the Jonai clan in glorious 70s campervanning style, writing and thinking about food and family as she goes. Her progress is written up at Crikey, but I quite like the posts on her blog. Tammi is all over these issues.

I’d also suggest some time with Cristy Clark who’s exploring ecotarianism in real-family settings (ie, her own), and of course do drop in at Progressive Dinner Party to see related issues taken up. If you’re especially interested in kids and food, then PDP’s Head Cook Zoe is a good source, not to mention the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, which is all about kids, food and well-being.

Hippity hop: In which I get jiggy

Last Monday I did my first hip hop class. I went to a studio we’ve been using for our solo jazz practice and late night dances, and I went because I was curious, but mostly because I like going to the studio. The studio is run by a young man and his friends, and it’s in the guts of the city, in the Chinatown bit. They run lots of classes and workshops (almost all in street dances like hip hop or house or locking), see lots and lots and lots of students through the door, and are generally treated as a sort of drop-in social space as well as a class venue. Most of the students are ‘Asian’, and many are international university students. ‘Asian’ is one of those difficultly broad terms, and I don’t think it’s that useful in this context: these kids are from all over China, Hong Kong, South-East Asia, Japan, Korea and beyond. A lot of younger kids use the studio space – younger as in high school – and it really feels like a well-used space.

I always enjoy going there. There’re always people bustling about, and the reception desk is planted right in the middle of the room, directly opposite the lift doors, so you’re greeted immediately as you enter the room. People are always friendly. I’m getting to know people there, and it’s really nice to get a friendly “Hi Sam!” as I arrive. It feels like an energetic, creative space. But not in one of those desperately hip ‘art’ spaces. This is functional creativity. Functional in that this music and these dancers are part of these kids’ everyday lives, and dancing isn’t just a ‘hobby’ that they do one night a week.

There are regular classes, but the studio (which has three separate practice spaces as well as the main foyer space) is used for casual ‘jams’, which you pay for with a gold coin donation (presented as a ‘donation’ for upkeep of the studio), and there’s always music running in that jam space. The ‘jam’ is really a practice, a bit like a tango practica, where you go to test out what you know and are learning, not in a workshop or class environment, but in a more social space. This isn’t ‘social dancing’, though, the dancers are focussed and really experimenting with movement.

Dancers use the studio as an inbetween or meeting place before going off to the ‘battles’ down in a public piazza somewhere on Friday nights (this is real street dance) or out for a night clubbing. Uni students drop in between lectures, and high school girls turn up in their uniforms after school and before dance class to practice. Dance crews also use the space to meet up and touch base or to practice. The idea of ‘crews’ as a real thing is new to me. I’ve seen them in films: a group of dancers who work together in competitions or battles. But I’d thought they were exaggerated or made up for films. But they’re not. The nearest equivalent in lindy hop is a dance troupe, with all the attendant friendship and peer support functions. But crews feel less contrived and more organic, based on creative similarity, friendships and shared values rather than a formal dance school promotional function.

I first met the owner and venue when we used the space for a late night dance. I was working with a guy who was running the late night event and was also involved in the hip hop scene. He knew the studio through hip hop classes and the local scene. It was really wonderful to walk into a studio that felt like a living, breathing social space. Most dance studios feel a bit lame or a bit empty, socially. The dances people practice are formalised by their position as ‘commodity’ and they’re definitely a ‘hobby’ or ‘career’ rather than lifestyle. But at the hip hop studio, the dancing is tied in with all the other parts of people’s lives – music, fashion, media (particularly digital media), eating, drinking, socialising. LeeEllen Friedland talks about this continuum of cultural practice. But, really, this studio and dancing are just points in everyday life.

That first event we ran at the studio went off wonderfully. The dancers who turned up really liked the feel of the venue. We were very happy with the studio manager and with the layout and feel of the venue. This isn’t a cold, professional studio or a dirty, dingey bar like most late night venues. It made the dancing wonderful.

Isn’t it strange to think like that? I can’t explain, really, why it made such a difference. But I found DJing really exciting, and as a punter I had a BRILLIANT time. But a space made place really makes for excellent social dancing.

Anyway, we needed a place for our solo practice, and while we’ve tried a few other places, I pushed for us to use this studio as an experiment at least. It’s not the cheapest venue (I pay $30 for 2 hours at a church hall near me that has no mirrors or sound system, I’ve paid $20 per hour at a clean, well-lit place with mirrors, a good floor and sound system), but it has good mirrors, good floors, decent sound proofing, and feels great.

When we finish practicing, it’s hard to just leave. There are people who’re interested in what we’re doing. Interested just as part of being polite and sociable, but also interested in a creative sense. I’ve already had a few exciting conversations with hip hop people where we’ve compared moves that we have in common. Mine are a hundred years old. Theirs are brand new. But they’re the same. It’s thrilling.
This studio feels like Herrang. At Herrang, which runs for about 4 weeks (give or take), there’s always someone dancing or practicing or talking about dancing or music. You can join in with strangers, and the whole place feels alive with music and dance and rhythm. It seeps into your pores. The studio feels like that. And this is exactly what swing dancing – lindy hop, balboa, blues, charleston, all of it – really needs. A vibrant cultural, social space where dancers hang out and experiment and socialise. But not in a forced way. In a natural way that results from shared interests and a welcoming space. It’s tricky with jazz dances, though, as these are dead dances. They’re not connected to popular music and culture anymore, so it’s harder to find them, to make them part of your everyday.

At any rate, it’s not a surprise that I ended up doing a hip hop class. I had a spare afternoon/evening, and just felt so comfortable at the studio, I figured I’d just turn up and see what happened. There were two classes on, and I really didn’t plan which one I’d do. I guess I’m lucky it was hip hop and not breaking. There was ‘girl hip hop’ and ‘hip hop’ on. The girl hip hop studio was full of teenage girls in school uniforms practicing to girly rnb. That class was taught by the teacher I know, a bloke. I paid for my class, and settled on the couch as I was a bit early. When I went to join the class as it started, I was directed, “No, no Sam, you do the Hip Hop class” by the teacher. I was ‘Sure, whatevs’ and changed studio. I asked another teacher/dancer as I passed the registration desk “What’s the difference?” and she replied “It’s pretty girly. You’d like hip hop more, I reckon.” I’m sure that’s because I am built like a brick shithouse, not at all girly, and not sixteen. I don’t exactly scream sexed up nightclub dancing.
I’m glad I did do the ‘hip hop’ class. There were just two of us in there with the teacher. I was the only girl, and they were both Chinese, the teacher in his twenties, the other student in his late teens or possibly early twenties. I was the tallest, the whitest, the femalest, the oldest. Which was pretty much as I’d expected.
The class was FUN but also challenging, and a real culture difference.

Firstly, the music was on all the time, and it was quite loud. I’m used to lots of talking in classes, but that’s not how we worked. Spoken instructions were few and shouted over the music. I was kind of relieved to have so much music in the room. I don’t know any modern music, and hip hop is so far from my usual musical listening, I really needed a crash course in its rhythms and structure. Thankfully, it’s like simplified jazz, structurally, but has a different feel.

At first I stood a little behind the teacher (who had his back to us, with the other student to his right hand side, in a row). Because I’m used to standing behind the teacher to shadow what I see them doing. But almost immediately I was told to “Look up! Look at yourself in the mirror!” This was a revelation. This is the difference between partner dancing and solo dance. I was there to present myself, so I had to see what I was doing to assess my own skills. Many of the movements we did involved very clear hand and finger gestures. Our arms had to end at the end of our fingers (in clenched fists, in flowing sweeps, in sharp chops), and I needed to see myself in the mirror to be sure I was doing this all properly. I moved up beside the teacher.

He began the class by explaining how movements worked, but as he realised I could pick up the movements from what he was doing, and as the other student was much more advanced than me, he stopped explaining, except when I needed something clarified. If you’ve done a lot of dance classes, you can follow along with the choreography and movements really without thinking about it. You move with the other people in the room, turning when they turn, sinking when they sink and so on. In those moments thinking is actually a real problem. You don’t want to have to think your way through each movement before you do it. You want to just do it. I’m not a talented dancer, and I’m quite a slow learner, but all this lindy hop and solo stuff has taught me how to know how to move my body at least a little bit.

So learning the choreography wasn’t too complicated. I could get the rhythms quickly (they were much, much, much simpler than lindy hop or jazz stuff), I could turn when I should, I could face the right direction. But watching myself, I thought “This is what ballet dancers look like when they start lindy hop.” I looked like I was floating, like a really upright, ungrounded ballet dancer. And I’m usually pretty grounded in my lindy hop. But hip hop required a lot more in the ground. You get this look by bending your knees, but hip hop – this type of hip hop – requires a lot of shoulder action and a very different type of bounce.

I know, in my brains, they’re the same principles of biomechanics, but it was really difficult to figure out what the teacher was doing to get that look while also learning choreography. I realised that I had to control my hips and core, and hold them very stable and still. Instead, I had to use my shoulders, arms and upper body in much more definite, bigger ways. I had to sink down into the floor by bending my knees, but without sticking my arse out. I had to hold my chest and shoulders in a way that held my bust still and stopped it bouncing.

It was a matter of at once learning a different dance aesthetic, and also dancing ‘like a man’ rather than ‘like a woman’. I’ve had similar issues learning to lead, if I’ve been interested in leading ‘like a man’. It’s very interesting to see how gender is played out through which parts of your body you emphasise. It’s not at all genetic; this is a learned thing.

I also found that some of the movements involved hyperflexing of the joints, especially at the shoulders and elbows. This is something professional dancers learn. It’s something we try to avoid in lindy hop, because it’s about hyper-straight arms, and lindy likes right angles. But hyperflexing is something a lot of Asian kids do, in part because of genetics, but also because of cultural factors. I am very tight in my arms and shoulders, because I sit on my arse all day and type. It’s also a very anglo thing to do – to carry tension in the upper body like that. So I had to at once learn to release and relax my upper body to allow liquid, extended range of movement in my arms, but also to engage my core and upper body so that I could also do sharper, more abrupt, more ‘masculine’ movements.

After an hour I was queen of sweat.

I found I could do most of the things we learnt, except a couple of moves that were almost exactly the same as ones we do in lindy hop/jazz. We learnt a step very like a camel walk, except beginning with the toes pointed up and weight on the heel, rather than toe down, with the weight on the heel. This really melted my brain, especially as we were doing a flowing, released arm movement at the same time. I just couldn’t get it right.

But this really taught me some things: I do those ‘standard’ jazz movements without thinking about what I’m doing. I’m not conscious of my body and muscles in an active way. So I’m really not dancing very well. I’m actually doing habitual motions. Being aware of what you’re doing, and moving muscles independently and in groups in a conscious way is central to being able to dance well, to respond quickly, and to adjust to suit the music and partner. So having to learn a very similar movement really made me aware of the weaknesses in my dancing.

It was really interesting to see how those combined steps (flowing arms, sharp, syncopated footwork) reflected the music: flowing melody, grace and balance coupled with abrupt, sharp lower body movements. I had to rethink my habitual dance movements, but also the gendered movements and muscle use which I was utterly unconscious of. Our movements are marked by gender and culture, ethnicity, age, class, experience. It’s in our interests, as social animals, that these movements become unconscious, so that we ‘fit in’, and give the ‘right signals’ to the people around us.

If you think for example, of how someone who sits too close to us on the bus makes us feel, then you kind of get the idea. That’s just a tiny example, but the way someone holds their body while sitting in a public, shared space, tells you about how they think and act about shared space (especially crowded shared space), and how they use muscle tension to delineate shared space. I mean, to be even clearer, if I want to crowd out someone on a shared bus seat, I ‘land and expand’. I sit down with control, but gradually relax my muscles so I gradually take up more space. This makes my seat mate feel ‘crowded’, so they move over. This even works on male suits in peak hour.

I think that my being aware of these issues is a disadvantage most of the time. It’s better to stop thinking and to let your body figure out what to do. If you have to think your way through every single movement, you’re going to be slow and your movement will look ‘unnatural’ and make people feel uncomfortable.

Finally, then, I have to say that this class was wonderful. I felt very welcome, and I liked the way the class was quite quickly paced and felt ‘all business’. We didn’t fuck around with fake jokes, we got on and danced, all the time. I liked the way the other student modelled respect for the teacher, so I knew how I was supposed to act. I also liked the way we could relax these relationships when we got outside the classroom. Out there it was all rowdiness and comparing movements and excited, adrenaline-charged, dance-high loud talk. And not just from me.

I’m definitely going back for more. Though I suspect this will be a long, challenging road for me. Perhaps I should buy some music?

women talking about their own bodies and how this issue was trolled or women dancers wearing high heels and talking about it

My attention was caught yesterday by a thread on Yehoodi about a blog post by Sarah Breck titled Why women should wear heels. Sarah took down the original post and replaced it with another, but I’ve just had another look and seen that the post is back up again. My post, here, is about the way this issue fits into a bigger story about how dancers control their online, public image.

A brief long time line:

  • Sarah writes Why women should wear heels about women wearing high heels while dancing;
  • there’s some comment on that blog post in the comments section;
  • Manu links to the post in a thread on Yehoodi;
  • Yehoodi readers click through to Sarah’s blog post and read it;
  • there’s a heap of commentary in the yehoodi thread;
  • the people clicking through from yehoodi comment on Sarah’s post in the blog’s comments;
  • Sarah’s dance partner and boyfriend Dax (who co-writes the blog featuring the original post) defends Sarah’s argument in the comments section of Sarah’s blog post;
  • some people write posts on their own blogs linking to Sarah’s post (taint what you do, ann mony, short girl blog);
  • Sarah deletes her original post;
  • Sarah writes another post on the issue called “altho I guarantee every follow I have seen wear tennis shoes and heels always look better in heels and that should be reason enough”;
  • Dax writes a post called Why Men Should Wear Heels (How Wearing Slick Leather Shoes Made Me A Better Dancer);
  • there’s more to-ing and fro-ing on their post on this topic;
  • I read @ryanswift’s tweet linking to his tumblr post linking to the yehoodi thread;
  • I gabble a bit about it on twitter late last night after dancing;
  • I have bizarre dreams about shoes last night;
  • I decide to read up on this issue today, write a few drafts of this post, then write this post;
  • I think about @ryanswift’s implication that women dancers’ decision to wear heels (or not) should/is influenced by historical evidence of what women dancers wore in the ‘swing era’;
  • I think about the Harlem Hot Shots and how they wear whatever they like (including heels), but don’t look like Sarah (or the other women in her post) dancing in heels;
  • I think about the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers wearing sneakers and heels at different times in different contexts;
  • I think about a comment in Malcolm X’s bio about women at the Savoy arriving in nice heels then changing into sneakers to dance seriously;
  • I do the half hour blocks of exercises my physio gave me to strengthen my abs, glutes, hip joints, knees, etc so that I can relieve pressure on my calf muscle which I’ve recently torn because I overwork my calves dancing on the ball of my foot in flat shoes;
  • I resolve never to wear heels, ever again, because they are tools of the patriarchy and because I am out to fuck up The Man. Also, because my physio would give me that ‘are you on crack?’ face;
  • I think about all the Women’s History Month posts I’ve done lately, and particularly about the heels in the white dancers’ clips, and the flats in the black dancers’ clips, and I think about how heels make you look as though your toes are always pointed, and I think about how pointed toes and straight legs embody culturally specific ideals of feminine beauty;
  • I write this post.

I think Sarah has the right to retract her statement. Though good luck to her – retracting comments from the intertubes is pretty much impossible. I might include the content from both of Sarah’s posts (which I’ve just copied and pasted at 1.55pm Sat 26th March 2011) in another post, but I’ll think about it carefully before I do. If I do reproduce her posts, I’ll engage with her arguments carefully, as I think she’s making a knowledgeable contribution to a discussion about women and dance.

I was disappointed to see Sarah take down the original post, as I think she has a perfect right to express her opinion. I also think that opinion is worth exploring, as Sarah is an excellent dancer, and a big name, influential teacher. She teaches other women how to dance, and she provides an influential contribution to dance discourse. I’d have preferred she didn’t take down her post, as it disturbs the narrative ‘flow’ of this wider discussion (there are a bundle of other blog posts from other people as well as the Yehoodi thread already), but then that’s really my problem, not hers. The absence of her post is itself a statement: she wanted to disassociate herself from that public statement, perhaps, while she might still stand by her original point.

I also understand why she might like to take the post down. Manu’s original link to her post seemed a little trolly (and was the second link he’s recently made to an inflamatory statement of traditional gender roles, not counting the segment on the Yehoodi talk show), and and this sent people to Sarah’s post in a fairly antagonistic frame of mind. Sarah didn’t really get the better end of this (desperate metaphoric) stick, and there were some firey comments and discussions.

As I read it, the debate on Yehoodi and in responding blog posts (taint what you do, ann mony, short girl blog) seemed to be polarised between conservative blokes valorising traditional, patriarchal notions of femininity and leftish women firing up and attacking Sarah’s comments. I’m not sure Sarah has that much experience with online debates (going by the style of her writing and her responses to comments), and suddenly being at the centre of what was becoming a shit storm would have upset me. And I’m used to shit storms on dance discussion boards. So, frankly, I think her decision to take down the post was probably a good one. It’s her blog, she’s the boss, and frankly, she has a right to say ‘fuck that shit’ and opt out.

I can’t help but think of the (currently raging) debate surrounding Dilbert author Scott Adams’ scary, misogynist blog post which was brought to my attention by Kate Beaton (of Hark a Vagrant) on twitter. Incidentally, I like the way Beaton’s discussion of being a woman comic author in her tweeting prefaced my reading about the Scott Adams issue: I approached this as a talk about comics authors. You can read his original post here and follow that post to the discussion on Feministe, where things get mighty angry (and Adams chimes in in the comments). Scott Adams wrote the post, sparked a furore, then took down the post. He wrote a post which was doing its best to support and promote scary gender politics and roles.

Sarah’s post, though, while it might also have been promoting conservative gender identities and roles, was not aggressively misogynist, woman-hating bile. It was the measured opinion of one woman posting a comment in a public forum. Yet her writing style was gendered (just as Scott Adams’ was): she is unaggressive, non-confrontational, quick to appease and conciliate. Her male partner chimes in in the comments to defend her. Scott Adams’ style, in contrast, is aggressive, confrontational and fairly unpleasant. Different genders, similarly gendered public talk. Or, perhaps, just as interestingly, Adams’ uses the gendered language of the ‘official’ public sphere: assertive statements, aggressive arguments, attacks and defenses rather than collaboration and cooperation.

In principle, I have some real problems with the content of Sarah’s post. I disagree quite thoroughly. But I am actually very interested in her opinions and discussion: I’ve been thinking about high heeled shoes and women dancers, and I want to read more on this topic. Scott Adams, however, spews vile hate-talk that discourages me from engaging with that discussion.

Sarah is somewhat disadvantaged by her writing skills. The original post has lots of problems, simply as a piece of writing. And the most immediate consequence of this is that it makes it difficult for Sarah to communicate her points clearly and effectively. Another consequence is that Sarah’s status as a knowledgeable dancer and teacher is implicitly destabilised by her writing. While those of us with half a brain realise that being a good dancer and teacher is not at all related to being a good writerer, the weaknesses of her writing imply weaknesses in her logic and argument.

I think there are weaknesses in her argument, but these are unrelated to her writing and – more importantly – thinking skills.

This recent event also reflects a wider issue that’s been in the back of my mind for a while. The last year or two has seen a leap in the number of blogs written and maintained by high profile international dancers. Most of these dancers are what I think of as younger American ‘rock stars’. Rock stars in the sense that they have a modicum of celebrity: well-known, high-profile, fashionable with some dancers, younger, often American. Most of them have had their websites designed and implemented by only a very small number of web nerds, and all have implemented various social media tools.

This is where things get really interesting. I’d argue that these websites have included social media tools – blogs, Faceplant plug ins, twitter feeds, etc – not as part of a carefully planned media strategy, but as a response to a general trend in website design. Yes, social media tools do raise your profile, and do ‘get you out there’. But as with all public relations tools, exposure is a double edged sword. If it were me, I’d vet my contributions to broader discourses very carefully. In fact, I’m not sure I’d even post personal blog posts on my official ‘business’ website – the website promoting my professional persona. I would use my twitter feed fairly prosaicly: updates on my travel and appearances at international and local events, perhaps. I’d also be very careful about my links.

Word of mouth is the most powerful and important promotional tool in international lindy hop. It can make or break a reputation. But a good PR strategy is about knowing how to limit talk as well as encourage it.

This leaves me with some questions.

Firstly, what responsibility should the web designers who produce these multi-media/cross-discourse sites take for their implementation? In any other industry, I’d say “none.” But many of these designers are also members of this community. Should they not take some sort of responsibility for not making sure their clients’ understand how to use their sites, not only practically, but also discursively?

I’ve talked about my own experiences with these sorts of website designers in the post ‘Am I being paranoid or is this dodgy?’, and I think my concerns about aggregated content bare revisiting. Particularly as Manu has also (trolling again?) drawn attention to www.swingdancepro.com, in another Yehoodi thread. Now perhaps Manu is seeing the same sort of trend I have, perhaps he’s just trolling, looking to stir up some debate (and activity) on Yehoodi. I suspect it’s a combination of the two.

Secondly, how should high profile dance teachers use their websites, and how should they manage their online profile? Blogs are useful because they personalise a teacher, and encourage readers (and dancers) to regard the authors as appealing human teachers worth learning from or employing. I’d also imagine a lot of teachers would like to expand on the issues they only touch on in class. They’d like to use blogs as platforms for developing their ideas. I only wonder if they all have the skills and experiences to manage the results of engaging in public talk like this. There are very few blogs written by dancers (high profile or otherwise) which are well-written, carefully thought out actually worth reading regularly. But this is true of the blog world generally: most of us are just spilling out ideas willy-nilly. Grammar, logic and organised though be-damned!
How should these same high profile dance teacher bloggers manage comments and discussion on their sites? If it were me, I’d moderate very carefully, and I’d delete comments that don’t meet my carefully-thought-out-worded-and-publicised comment policy.

I do have more to say about this, particularly in reference to another recent online discussion sparked by Nick’s frank post about working conditions for international teachers, but I’m feeling a bit crook, so I won’t.

digitising public collections – a long talk

This post is going to be a bit of a mishmash of thinking I’ve done in my classes this semester (I’m looking at digital archiving and organising information digitally), my previous work during my PhD (I was interested in how communities of users employ a range of digital tools to complement their face to face activities), my sessional teaching in courses on audience studies (I taught students how to do audience research, particularly online) and some of the reactions I’ve had to public chitchat about digitising public collections. All my knowledge about digital archiving in practice is theoretical, but for the stuff I’ve learnt during assignments. When I talk about the literature in the information management discipline, I’m talking about the literature as it’s been presented to me in my courses. So it’s a pretty subjective overview reflecting course requirements rather than the field as a whole. Which is a pretty interesting comment on the role of course syllabi in structuring and reflecting our understanding of a discipline, yeah?

I decided to write this really long post in response to a number of really annoying things I’ve read online. Firstly, Marcus Westbury made this comment on his blog and in his Age column:

THE perception at election time is that politicians can get ahead only by rolling out the pork barrel and spending up big. But while we’d all love more money for the arts, there are a lot of things that could make us all culturally richer for not much more than the cost of political will, taking the lead, changing some rules and tweaking a few settings.

So, in the spirit of trying to get some actual ideas into the vacuum that is this election campaign, I’ve knocked up a list of suggestions for pollies wanting to do — or be seen to be doing — something useful on the cheap.

He continues

3. Put our national cultural collections online

It’s a no-brainer. Our museums, galleries, orchestras, opera companies and state theatres are sitting on rich cultural archives that could be shared online tomorrow. But the confusion of rights makes it difficult, and they often err on the side of caution, meaning these vast resources are lost in red tape. We need the 21st-century equivalent of public lending rights on the national broadband network. It’s the cheapest education and most effective audience development opportunity there is. We’re spending a fortune on infrastructure, so we’d be mad not to do it.

This comment really bothered me. It reveals a lack of familiarity with Australian public institutions’ digital activities, not to mention the practical reality of digitising collections. I understand that Marcus is suggesting a solution to the challenges of managing IP online (which do slow down digital library activities) – “the equivalent of public lending rights on the national broadband network” – but I am also fairly sure that this doesn’t recognise the fact that information management specialists are already onto this challenge. I had a three hour session on it last week, and I don’t envy the people who are actually involved in unravelling IP for public institutions’ online and other digital activities.

Digitising national collections isn’t cheap, nor is it simple. I’m going to explain why a bit further on in this post.

I was also alerted to this this UK Telegraph article by Colvinius on twitter, which is about a slightly different topic – archiving popular online culture. I can’t really address that in this post as it’s already too massive, but I’m not keen on the implication that public institutions aren’t paying attention to online culture. I mean the Library of Congress is kind of already onto that and they’re not alone – even the NLA is into that action.

Digital archiving? Digital preservation? Digital collections?

Firstly, when I say ‘digital archiving’ or ‘digital preservation’ and ‘digitising collections’ what am I talking about? This semester our work has made a fairly arbitrary distinction between digitising items for long term preservation as digital items, and digitising items for improving community access to these items (whether online at home, in schools or public libraries, on mobile devices or whatever). The differences between preservation and access occur at many points in an item’s journey from physical object to digital file, and then in its storage and access. In the simplest terms, though, a digital preservation project aims to digitise items and then store them for long periods of time and a digital library or gallery project digitises items so as to make them accessible now.

Users? Or, why are we doing this again?
In both cases an ‘audience’ is imagined for the collection, though the term ‘user’ is employed, and complex user personas and use scenarios are developed to aid the design and implementation of the digitisation project. In digital curation, however, the user is positioned as a ‘designated user community’ so as to manage the fact that we cannot actually address the needs of any and all potential users in the future. This is where I’ve found a sticking point: I’d like to design systems that are agile and flexible, able to respond to the needs of potential users. This, however, is in conflict with the fact that much digital preservation work is founded on projects or models developed for use within the scientific or engineering community, digitising their data.

The most important digital preservation model – the Open Archiving Information Scheme – was actually developed to manage the vast quantities of data produced by space research. So the user community – the designated user community – with this sort of data and research was an elite group of highly institutionalised research scientists and engineers dealing with a particular type of scientific data. No flexibility there. In fact, there are, of course, all sorts of positivist connotations about ‘data’ and ‘research’ here: data can be ‘captured’ objectively by skilled professionals working in laboratory-like environments and then ‘stored’, untouched by this process, for long periods of time until it is ‘retrieved’ at a future point in time. Problematic, much?

This raises all sorts of problems for people researching with real, live, actual hoomans (and the word ‘humans’ is actually used in much of this literature, in part to distinguish them from computer users, but still – it’s an amusing distinction, yes?). Particularly those of us working in the humanities area. We know that data cannot just be ‘collected’ as though it were little chunks of rock lying about in ‘the field’. We know that our ‘collecting’ is actually a series of complex interpersonal interactions shaped by our own lived experiences. We know there are power dynamics at work here, and that ‘data’ isn’t some sort of coherent, unit of information, that it is instead a more dynamic map of human relationships and practices that just doesn’t hold still.

Information management literature likes to draw a distinction between ‘data’ and ‘information’. Data is – and this is stated explicitly – objective units of ‘fact’. Information is created in the human interaction with these facts. There is no allowance – despite some fringe ‘theory’ literature – for the idea that all data is actually ‘information’. This notion of data as an object to be stored has been important to library and museum management for a very, very long time. After all, if objects don’t have an intrinsic, objective value and meaning, why would we bother to store them so carefully for so long for some future generation we can’t ever know? This sounds like quite a long diversion from my point. And it is. But I think it’s important to introduce it here because it informs the whole digital library and digital preservation process. So let’s get back to that stuff.

What do I mean by ‘items’? Basically, I’m talking about the stuff in public (or private) collections: books, posters, costumes, china, maps, records, photos, reel-to-reel film and so on. The physical items in a collection. A collection can include ‘born-digital’ items like websites and digital audio files, but I don’t want to talk about them here. Which is a shame, as that’s the point of that second article I quoted up there at the beginning of this post. Ah well.

Items are digitised in a number of ways, including these few examples:

  • taking digital photos with a camera
  • scanning items with a digital scanner (whether flat bed or otherwise)
  • creating digital recordings of analogue sound recordings (ie turning the sound recorded on a vinyl record into a digital audio file, and then ‘capturing’ the physical recording media – the vinyl record itself – using photography)
  • creating digital versions of audio-visual files (ie turning a film recorded on reel-to-reel film into a digital file, and then capturing the physical items associated with that recording (can cover, etc) with other devices)

Whose user?
Who is the ‘user’, then? This is tricky one, and even the literature in the field has trouble with it. While some of the authors in this area are approaching a cultural studies – a feminist, humanities-type – understanding of user which equates to our much-debated ideas about audiences, for the most part there is little rigorous attention to the way ‘users’ are imagined and then built into the design process by information architects. Who are the people who design and then build archiving systems (whether they be for the short or long term). In all this year, I’ve not heard one comment from any of my lecturers or in any of the literature addressing the role of our own identities in our development of user personas. It’s not been addressed even when I and others in the class have suggested that any user persona we develop is in fact more revealing of our own identities than any ‘real’ user (no matter how well substantiated with research). I’ve found this incredibly difficult to deal with.

To my mind, the design of a website or a poster or a database reflects the ideas and values and ideology and physical experience of the people who made it, and it also reflects the way they imagine the people who will use that system or item. My ideas here are informed by my experiences with cultural studies, media studies, hell, even semiotics and the fundamentals of textual analysis. This concept is a very basic prerequisite for thinking and writing about culture in media, communications and cultural studies literature. I’ve taught it a million times to a zillion students. I can’t even begin to contemplate not believing this. It’s the foundation for much of my thinking about power and privilege and broader social relations. So I’ve found this semester quite frustrating. But let’s return to my original discussion.

Organising items or data systems and controlling language
This all means that a database is not a neutral or objective system or structure. It is not only a reflection of ideology (and culture), it is also continually remaking and restating this culture and ideology. We’ve demonstrated this in class when each of us has come up with quite different architecture for the same database proposal. I think this is why I find the discussions about library and museum management of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture so interesting. It’s in this literature (which I sought out myself) that I’ve found discussions about how databases and other library systems articulate race and class and power. The best example of this is the ATSILIRN alternative thesaurus.

In the simplest terms, indices or thesauri are controlled languages for describing items. When you enter information about an item into a database, you have to fill in fields like ‘title’, ‘author’, ‘year created’, etc. You could, potentially put any old information in there. The other week when we were discussing indexing I heard my first in-class comment from a lecturer about how language changes over time and how a word used by me today mightn’t mean the same in 50 years time. It was almost a discussion about cultural specificity, but there was no discussion of power or any self-reflexivity. But most database designers recognise this (though they might perceive it as ‘error’ or as aberration) and so try to control what can be entered into the fields. You can do this by adding constraints like only allowing numbers to be entered, or only allowing one of a number of options in a drop down menu to be selected. But you can also use specific indices or thesauri to control the words that are entered into the database. If, then, there are only five words specifying race in your thesaurus, and all of them created by and reflecting 19th century Anglocentric discourse, you can see where Dodson is coming from when he writes

We have been referred to and catalogued as ‘savages’ or ‘primitive’ while Western industrial peoples are referred to as advanced and complex (Mick Dodson, 1993, quote from the ATSILIRN).

Standardisation
I’ve wondered away from my initial point in quite a serious way, here. But it’s important to discuss this stuff, because all databases managing the records of library and museum and other collections employ controlled vocabularies of some sort. They might be in the indices and thesauri, but they are also in the metadata – the information about data – that is used to organise items within a archiving system. There are various types of metadata, and they gain their value from being standardised. Standardised metadata systems are really lists of fields which have been agreed on by various communities (usually in a formal sense, after intense negotiation, as in the case of Dublin Core).

I was super excited when I heard this – an enforced interpretive repertoire! (you can read about interpretative repertoires in Potter and Whetherell’s work, particularly the 1987 book Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour The collaborative meaning making Stuart Hall talked about was actually codified and institutionalised here! I’d been used to thinking about these sorts of systems as evidence of ideology – or as things that could be analysed for ideology. But we don’t talk about this in class at the moment, and I daren’t even raise it, simply because the concepts require quite a bit of background information. If anything, my frustration here is perhaps evidence of how difficult it is to articulate this sort of theoretical and critical work in everyday language. Irony, much?

So, to this point, I’ve discussed ‘items’, the way users are imagined, and controlled languages in information management. How does all this relate to digital libraries and digital preservation? And exactly what does digitisation of a collection involve?

The Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) has a very handy guide to digitising small collections. You can see as you browse through this excellent guide, that digitising a collection involves a little more than just digitising a bunch of things and then wacking them up on the internet. The digitising process – where you make digital files of each item – is about one third of the entire project. The larger part includes planning, budgeting and then organising the digital collection. Even a small collection includes thousands of digital items, all of which have to be organised within a (series of) databases. Even if your digital collection is not intended for public use on a regular basis, it will still require complex data management tools. Luckily, there is OAIS, which is a standardised (it even has its own IOS standard). Unluckily, OAIS is complicated and not exactly simple to implement. Perhaps more usefully, there is the Digital Curation Centre’s Curation Lifecycle Model, which allows you to develop an overall plan for long term digitisation and preservation. It’s also quite complicated.

I wrote a paper this semester about the challenges of digital preservation for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The most pressing of these (which apply to all collections) are:

  • handling delicate or culturally sacred material items
  • securing permissions to handle and then digitise and store digital records of these items
  • creating an architecture that will organise these individual records and files
  • acquiring and then maintaining the hardware necessary for storing such large amounts of data (ie having good server centres with reliable electricity, cooling and physical facilities)
  • having really good internet access to facilitate introduction of items to the archive and then maintaining the collection and supporting use of the collection
  • having sufficient funding to cover all aspects of the digitising process
  • having access to suitable skilled personnel to do the digitising, organising and maintenance of the collection

All these things are challenging for remote communities facing other quite serious social issues. But they are also challenges for librarians and curators working with smaller collections in regional institutions or within larger institutions.

In the most basic terms actually fairly complicated terms, digitising a collection for preservation involves:

Digitisation of a collection: Planning

  • planning and scoping the project can take a long time. You have to know what you have to digitise, what condition it’s all in, and what your resources are.
  • If you don’t have much money (and no institution in Australia has the money to digitise its entire collection), you have to start planning some serious fund raising. If your collection is attached to a large private enterprise or company, you’re in a much better place than a large public collection.
  • You have to start thinking about acquiring the technology and skills to do your own digitising, or you have to source a suitable external body to do it (which is something most collections do these days). The technology is super expensive, and the hours required for digitising are massive.
  • You have to discover and plan the appropriate standards for file formats for the digital records you produce. What file format will be useable ten years from now, let alone fifty? The questions at this stage continue and continue…

Digitisation of a collection: preparation

  • This is where you start ascertaining the state of your collection and beginning necessary conservatorial and preservation processes. Some items are physically very fragile and need to be handled by professionals in safe conditions. Their preparation for the physical act of digitising can take a long time. Some are damaged by the very act of digitising. Check out Pinknantucket’s blog for some super cool discussion of this stuff.
  • It’s also during this phase that you start checking out the permissions and intellectual property rights associated with items in your collection. Who owns them? Who can use them? There are some loop holes in Australian copyright law that allow public institutions like libraries and museums to digitise or copy items without permission. But you have to be very very sure you understand these laws or you can cost yourself a massive amount of money in legal fees later on.
  • You also have to find out whether you have permission to digitise all the items in your collection. Are you holding items on behalf of third parties? Do you have permission to digitise them, let alone make them available for future use by other parties? This is particularly relevant for items belonging to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. One of the largest challenges here, is that many collections possess items for which they don’t have ownership details. The forcible removal of Aboriginal people from their lands and subsequent government policies of removal of children from families contributed to the mis-identifying or un-identifying of items in public and private collections. If you don’t have a suitably qualified person on your staff to aid the identification of your items, you can’t even begin to approach gaining permission for digitising or use. But this is also important for other community groups and individuals. Is it appropriate to digitise very personal, private stories without permission? Would artists approve the changing-of-form which digitising involves?
  • You should also be thinking about whether open access to everything in your collection is a good idea at all. I’m not convinced that complete access is a good idea. Michael Gurstein raises some interesting questions on this.

Digitisation of a collection: acquisition

  • This is where we actually start digitising. Digitisation is a complex, demanding, labour and resource intensive process. It’d not just a matter of taking a photo of an item with a digital camera. The equipment is very expensive and requires particular skills to use. The digital files produced must be of a very high standard, and of an appropriate format. They must have longevity (ie won’t be unusable in ten years) and they are usually very large files. It’s also at this point that we see the difference between digital archiving and digitising for access. One single photo, for example, must also be reproduced in a number of different formats for public access – a smaller file for thumbnails in a catalogue, a high resolution image for sales to the public, a high resolution image of the item accompanied by colour matching tools and measuring tools and so on. Each of these files must also be tested for errors and accuracy – the colours must be perfectly matched. The scale carefully noted.
  • Creating metadata. This is where the digitising process gets complicated. You can’t simply wack a digital item ‘up on the net’ or into a box for use or preservation. All the thousands and thousands of files must be organised – for preservation, for maintenance, for error checking, for migration (where files are transformed to new formats as technology and file formats are superceded, or as publicly accessible catalogues are produced) and so on.
    This organisation is enabled by attaching metadata – information about the data object – to the digital item itself. This can’t just be one long list of details, it has to be an organised system of sets of information, all attached to one digital file. There are different sets of metadata – different sets of ‘rules’ or lists of fields for information about the item – and they can’t be applied randomly. It’s important to use standardised metadata (rather than just ones you make up yourself) for two main reasons: to allow interoperability (where your system can work with other systems – within your institution or with other institutions’) and access (either public access or access within your institution to facilitate maintenance).
    OAIS outlines a complex system for managing this organisation of the the digital files and attendant metadata. There are different types of metadata: submission information (where the digitisation process is recorded and attached to the file, noting things like file format, camera type, photographic angle, etc), descriptive information (which records all manner of things, but can also include descriptions of the original item from its author, historians or other people), technical information (regarding the file format, technology required to access the file – eg a Word .doc file will require a copy of Word to run it) and so on. Copies of the technology required to use the file may also be included as metadata. Most digital preservation systems favour open source software formats so as to avoid the IP challenges associated with this process – so using a Word .doc file is problematic.

Digitisation of a collection: Ingest

  • This is where you actually start putting your digital files into your archiving system. At this point you create a whole new set of metadata to record this stage of the process. It’s really important to create metadata as it will not only help you find your item in the archive later, it’ll also help you open it and then share it.
  • Metadata records permissions, technical information and also descriptive information. The ingest process creates metadata that is about the administration of the item within the system. It’s actually the really big and most important part of a digital archiving process. This is where the big thinking, planning and skill part happens.

Digitisation of a collection: maintenance

  • So once you’ve got your digital archive, you need to maintain it.
  • You’re going to need clever, well researched disaster recovery programs (eg what will you do if your data centre is flooded? Where do you keep multiple redundant copies of your data? What if electricity becomes too expensive for your institution to handle in the future?).
  • You’re going to need to migrate your data regularly to make sure it’s accessible. This is a problem with data in the earlier space missions – it’s stored on technology that we no longer know how to use or have the hardware to use. You need to not only migrate your data across software, but also record this process so that you have records of when data changed form and how. More metadata
  • You’re going to need ongoing funding. More of it. So you need to continually seek out funding for the maintenance of your collection.
  • You’re also going to need to manage the IP of your collection. Has copyright lapsed on an item? If so, do you still have the rights to store it or use it? Has the IP for an item changed hands, moving between generations? What are the wishes of the next generation? Has an item now become publicly usable – can you now make an item publicly available as per the wishes of its creator? If you’re managing ATSI items, how does sorry business (ie the management of items in regard to the passing away of associated persons), sacred and secret status and cultural significance affect the metadata and permissions associated with an item?
  • Repatriation and ‘returning’ items. If you do have ATSI items in your collection, how will you manage the repatriation of those items to the original owner? If you are asked to return an item to its traditional owners, how will you deal with the digital records of the item?
  • Disposal: some items must be disposed of at a certain date. This is the case with items under military or official secrets acts, personal records such as medical records and other issues. How will you handle data destruction? Do you have a schedule for these sorts of events?
  • Ongoing community access. How will your archive accommodate access to and use of the collection? Is your archive intended solely to preserve items for perpetuity? If so, why? Who are the end users you’re preserving these items for? How, when and if will you allow copies of your collection for general access? What are the terms upon which your digital collection can be used? If you are a public institution, what is the mandate of your organisation – who is your user community? This becomes an issue when you’re funded by public money and required to represent the interests of the community which funds you. Are you federally funded? State funded? Commonwealth funded? How should you make your archive available for use? What constitutes use?

All these issues are very complicated. As you can see, it takes a lot of time, money and effort to create and maintain a digital collection. The types of metadata you use will depend on the goal of your work: are you preserving for the long term? Are you interested in broader community access? In my course a distinction is made between digital preservation and digital libraries for immediate access. This distinction affects metadata strategies. To my mind, a sound digital preservation project allows for interim use as well as long term preservation.

But the challenge here is that digitisation strategies are relatively new, requiring serious institutional changes and are being developed as we go along (though you can read about NSW State Library digitisation policies here). We had a talk from a representative of the NSW State Library this semester, and he noted that for the most part they were figuring out how to do things as they went along. Though there are international standards for a range of aspects of the process, they had to figure out how to do things like manage work flows and labour; how to handle the digitisation of physically fragile items; and how to prioritise digitisation of a massive collection. In the last case, his comment was that they digitised first the items or mini-collections which attracted the most public or private sponsorship. Simply put, the items they’d digitise first were those private beneficiaries and donors considered most important. We were all aware of the difficult power and taste issues at work there.

He also made an interesting point about the way digitising was shaping the organisational structure of the NSW State Library as a whole. The vast resources required for digitising were re-working work flows and allocation of resources throughout the entire library. Digitisation was effecting the culture and goals of the organisation as a whole.

Australia’s national and state institutions’ digital activities today
Australia has actually been very foresighted in its approach to digitising cultural heritage. The National Conservation and Preservation Policy for Movable Cultural Heritage was composed in 1995. The National Library has a well-respected and quite comprehensive digital preservation policy. The National Museum also has a digital preservation policy. In fact, most national and state institutions have digital preservation policies, in part motivated by policy documents like the National Conservation and Preservation Policy for Movable Cultural Heritage Policy. I’d be curious to see the government policies for these things and to see how they’re being fulfilled (or not) today.

I’ve been really surprised by just how active our various national and state institutions are in terms of digitising and engagement with online communities and culture. The Collections Australia Network (CAN) is not only facilitating and documenting digital work by Australian cultural institutions both large and small, it is also engaged in collaborative projects overseas (with CHIN in particular). A whole range of Australian institutions are involved in digital online public access projects like the flickr commons project which works with a third party facilitator, but also with national collaborative projects like Trove.

Trove is a very interesting project because, while it administered by the National Library of Australia, it draws on the collections of a great many Australian institutions and projects. You can use Trove to search hundreds of collections and catalogues. This interoperability is facilitated by badass metadata. Simply, Trove and other tools (including the wicked mashups with google maps around the place) are enabled by hardcore metadata. And controlled vocabularies. These standardisation tools provide common languages for collections, allowing this sort of exciting collaborative work. Which is yet another reason for following the time consuming, frustrating and expensive digital preservation models like OAIS.

One of the impressive things about Australian collections online is their willingness to take up, experiment with and then move on from online projects. Picture Australia, for example, was an innovative gateway to the image collections of Australian institutions. But it will soon be dismantled in favour of (or integrated into) Trove as its technology and services are made redundant.

I’m particularly interested in the way a number of Australian digital collections employ ‘crowd sourcing’ for intellectual, technical and practical labour and community participation. Various institutions employ crowd sourced ‘tagging’ for items. No controlled vocabularies there. The Australian Newspapers Digitisation Program is particularly exciting. Basically, the NLA scans Australian newspapers then puts the files online. Here, volunteers edit the scans, correcting mistakes in the scanning. This is a truly amazing cooperative project, where a national collection works with people in the broader community to make their collection not only online but also usefully online.

Beyond these few examples, most large Australian institutions also maintain a lively online communicative space. I follow a range of organisations on twitter, from CAN to the Powerhouse Museum. Most also have blogs or regularly updated websites with comments and places for people to ask questions (there’s an interesting discussion about the Powerhouse Museum’s 80s exhibition social media strategy here). The National Museum is particularly accessible, not only making items available online, but also providing useful, skilled advice to complement the items themselves. And DINOSAURS!

I could go on on and on. But I think it’s worth noting that point that it’s not simply a matter of wacking stuff online. Sometimes access to a collection means providing assistance in using online AND face to face services. This seems particularly important in regards to the National and State Archives which are very important institutions for individuals trying to find out about their families. They’re used not only by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people tracing families, but also by migrant and refugee people. In these cases online access simply isn’t as useful on its own as it is in cooperation with skilled, culturally sensitive librarians and archivists – real, live people.

I think I’ll leave this with the comment that our museums, galleries, orchestras, opera companies and state theatres are NOT sitting on rich cultural archives that could be shared online tomorrow. No matter what the state of IP and copyright legislation.

interesting reading

An interesting article about governance and the importance of independence for archivists and librarians.
And one about Australian indigenous knowledge and libraries.
It’s bits of research like this that give me the strength to continue my course, despite the terribly poor scholarship of some of the assigned readings. Information management is actually interesting.

dictionary of sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney is a pretty good resource, if you can navigate it. I remember seeing a job going with them a while ago – either as a research position through its host uni, or through the tool itself as an information management person.
It could be really awesome. I’ll use it a bit more and see what I think. The home page has some usability problems, though.
….this is my life, isn’t it? Every site I see, I’ll assess for usability. Geez.

kindergardeners rock spaghetti architecture

Kindy builds good skills.

This film is interesting for the discussion of iterative design processes. This is something we talk about in class – the importance of building prototypes over and over and over again during the design process. This has also been the hardest part of learning to design things, for me. In the beginning of the semester I tended to spend half, if not three quarters of the allocated design time in class talking and thinking and writing about my design. And then I’d try making or doing the design and realise that, actually, it’s more useful to talk less and to play more.
I think that a PhD does this to you: it trains you to think about doing things, rather than to actually do them. Which of course is the inverse of learning to dance. You’ll never dance fast or well or interestingly if you just stand there thinking about it. I think that learning jazz routines on the social dance floor, in ‘real time’* has been the single most important part of my education, ever. Of all time.
It’s taught me to work with other people. It’s taught me to observe – to watch and listen. It’s taught me that to make shit, you have to do shit: you can guarantee that you will NEVER learn a routine if you just stand there and look at it. But if you try, you automatically improve your abilities a zillion percent. And even if you don’t get the routine (which most of us won’t), you will learn how your body works. And understanding how your body works is absolutely the most important part of dancing. Or building things.
Learning jazz routines on the social dance floor also teaches you that counting out steps is ridiculous. It’s a silly enforcing of a rigid organising system on something which is far more exciting and slippery. Jazz – in ‘real time’ (ahahhahaha) is bound by phrases and bars and so on, but it is also slippery and busts out of those boundaries with improvisation all the time. If you only learn routines by numbers, you will never learn how to bust out of boundaries and improvise. And improvising is everything that dancing is. Without it, you might as well be… writing pages of the dictionary out by hand. It’s far better to learn a jazz routine by listening to the music and understanding musical structure (and hence choreography and dance structures) by moving your body and using the music as the organising principle.
Off the dance floor, improvisation and iterative design processes teach you the limits of your materials (how strong is a piece of spaghetti), the importance of collaborative design and learning (and you can’t learn to work with people in theory – you can only learn by doing) and the sheer joy of working within a time frame and feeling the adrenaline surging.
I know I’m an adrenaline junky. But I just think life is so much more fun when you give yourself a little jolt of the organically manufactured good stuff.
*I pause here to laugh a lot about the ridiculousness of this idea: dance is always in real time, or else it just doesn’t exist!