We Are Called to Labor Activism in the Digital Age for the Work of Remembering

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Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm, elected in 1968 as the first Black woman to US Congress wrote: “Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt” (Page 92, Unbought and Unbossed, Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition).  When I think of erasure in digital spaces—be it redaction, deletion, censor, displacement—I hear Chisholm, I hear Virginia Woolf on the books missing from the bookshelves because women were not allowed to write them, and I remember the stories shared with me of archives lost and archives never made.  Things never made are never there to erase. For the things made, so many do not survive long enough to become digital, and are thus erased before their digital birth.

Working with libraries and archives means regularly experiencing erasures, for the things never made and the things made that did not survive, or that are killed to ensure they did not survive. A concrete example of this comes from the Florida Digital Newspaper Library, which builds upon collective microfilming programs to microfilm and now digitize newspapers for preservation. With the many decades of work, so many of Florida’s newspapers—historic and current—are preserved, with over 140,000 issues representing over 2.5 million pages online. The online and physical materials cannot sufficiently speak to what is absent, to that which has already been erased. The Winter Park Advocate was an African American newspaper from Winter Park, Florida. The single issue that is known to have been microfilmed includes a note that the text is illegible. Other issues are not known to exist. As explained by Julian Chambliss, Professor of History at Rollins College:

Owned and operated by African Americans residing in Hannibal Square, the African-American district in Winter Park, The Advocate was a weekly that began publication in May 1889. The Advocate provided a forum for community news that included social, political and economic concerns. Heavily reflecting the political landscape of the time, the paper was a strong voice for the Republican Party in a time of resurgent white rule driven by southern Democrats. As such, the stories and opinions in the pages of The Advocate represent a critical primary source documenting the transformation of Florida in the 1890s. Although most of the The Advocate was thought to be lost, significant fragments of the paper can be found in the Winter Park Public Library and in the Winter Park Scrapbook (WPS) located in the Olin Library Archive and Special Collection at Rollins College.  (Advocate Recovered, “About”)

The Advocate Recovered, by Julian Chambliss

Chambliss led development of The Advocate Recovered, a critical making digital humanities project which digitized, transcribed, and created a contextual website around the fragments recovered in the scrapbooks. Importantly, The Advocate Recovered is included in the Florida Digital Newspaper Library alongside the illegible single issue from microfilm, with The Advocate Recovered speaking to what has been lost and creating space and presence through the fragments that remain. This critical making work both recovers aspects of the lost newspaper and marks the absence and erasure for what is not there, making a place and space so that the erasure is made visible. 

For things made and saved, limited resources for cataloging, describing, and making materials findable create gaps that allow for materials to be functionally erased even when they exist. Inclusion of The Advocate Recovered in the Florida Digital Newspaper Library allows it to speak with the others and to be represented. What if Chambliss had not sought out ways to have the newspaper represented? What if the Florida Digital Newspaper Library had declined to include The Advocate Recovered? The fragments and context would be there, but they would be disconnected in the digital world. The lack of connection is also a manner of erasure. Without connection, the fragments would still have been erased from the larger library and collection scope, obscuring and distancing in the digital realm.

The connections for this work to prevent and resist erasure are technical, and they are also human. People make possible the technical connections. In the digital era, people are too often obscured with narratives of technological essentialism and false techno-utopianism, where the technology will save us. In the digital era, as with the eras that came before, we are the ones who create, utilize, and connect technologies and methods to counter erasure. Working in libraries and archives, I am concerned with the erasures done to things. I am more concerned with the erasure and allowance of invisibility done to people, where too often work and labor go unseen or unacknowledged against the pervasive discussions of technical solutions and the new normal. Technologies can be wielded for our collective benefit against erasure, but only if people are present to do so. Issues of erasure illuminate the necessity of labor activism to ensure people are not erased from processes, and to ensure necessary work that enables us to remember are not allowed to be silenced.

The loss through erasure distances and disconnects us from our pasts, and thus from our present and our possible futures. As William Faulkner reminds, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” To prevent erasure—spanning across and beyond deletion, destruction, and disconnection—means to put in place the conditions to be able to remember, and thus to be able to build from memory to speculate and dream of possible futures.