Why Study Archives, Maps, and Infrastructures?


As I mentioned in my previous post, I want to do a better job of identifying what useful skills students can develop in my classes. And by “useful” I don’t mean simply “marketable” — but that is indeed part of it. I think even “critical” and “creative” skills, like “critical thinking” and “the ability to develop a solid literature review,” can be translated into competencies that a hiring director would valorize.

So here are the “applicable critical skills” and “practical skills” that students can develop in my fall classes, Archives, Libraries + Databases and Urban Media Archaeology.

Why learn about archives and libraries and databases if you have no interest in being a librarian or archivist or database manager? 

  • Well, because we’re all archivists and librarians now. This is not to discount the tremendous knowledge and expertise possessed by our trained archivists and librarians, or to ignore the invaluable contributions they make to our institutions, both big and small. Rather, I’m suggesting that the sheer volume of data that passes across our various screens requires that each of us develops an information management strategy. We have to develop filters to determine what deserves our attention; determine when and how to preserve and delete; devise strategies by which we can easily retrieve stored material, etc. And given the rate of data-flow, we usually have to make these choices instantaneously and automatically. But we really should “de-naturalize” these processes and consider what ideologies and epistemologies are built into our automated info-management systems.
  • Because all institutions and businesses face data-management challenges, and, ideally, the folks in charge will make smart, creative decisions informed by historical precedent and an appreciation of the many critical (political economic, ethical, accessibility-related, etc.) issues at stake.
  • Because there’s a database behind pretty much every transaction or movement you make. Databases let you through the transit turnstile; they turn the traffic lights green; they determine your medical bills; they allow you to orient yourself on Google Maps and buy things online; they define you as a student, a citizen, a taxpayer…
  • Because our institutions of information management play a key role in defining what is meaningful (consider what’s “meaningful” to the NSA, or to your doctor); what’s worth preserving or deleting (which, in turn, determines what constitutes tomorrow‘s historical record); what should be made accessible or inaccessible, when, where, and to whom.
Paul Otlet, Elements and Ensembles, Mundaneum Mons; via Idea Collider
Paul Otlet, Elements and Ensembles, Mundaneum Mons; via Idea Collider 

What useful skills do we develop in Archives, Libraries + Databases? Well, this is a seminar, so most of our labor involves reading and discussing and writing (although students do have the option of completing a creative project for their final). But the things we read and talk about do have plenty of potential applications in the “real world”; here’s how we might translate those applications into contemporary resume-language. We’ll learn to…

  • Assess different models of knowledge organization and data management — for government, business, education, the arts, etc. — and consider the epistemologies they embody
  • Consider the usability and intelligibility of various knowledge-management systems for a variety of user-groups
  • Investigate various collection development strategies, classification schemes, and approaches to preservation — both those that are in common use, and alternative, experimental approaches
  • Examine how our information-management institutions have to evolve to accommodate rapidly evolving media formats and uses; and new user groups
  • Appreciate the myriad uses to which archival and library material is put — in academic research, in public scholarship, in management, in governance, in media-making, in the fine arts, etc.

Now, what about Urban Media Archaeology? Why learn about mapping and urban history and infrastructure — three of our central themes in the course?

  • Because we would do well to recognize that our “new” media aren’t quite as new as we think they are — and that their patterns of development frequently follow paths laid out by older technologies. I talk more about the methodological value of historical infrastructure studies in my “Deep Time of Media Infrastructure” talk, which I’m currently developing into a book chapter for an edited collection.
  • Because knowing about how our infrastructures work makes us better able to serve as advocates for reliable, equitably distributed resources. I say more about this in my recent “Infrastructural Tourism” article.
  • Because mapping is used widely in the academy, throughout the “Big Data” fields, everywhere in social media, etc. We need to understand what it means to use mapping as a method in these various domains, and what it means to “spatialize” — or GIS-ify — so much of our existence.
Modeling Entity Relationships
Modeling Entity Relationships

What practical skills do we develop in Urban Media Archaeology?

  • We practice data modeling and familiarize ourselves with basic database design
  • We take a peek into the software development process and learn about best-practices in open-source tech development
  • We look into the professional practice of cartography, explore basic GIS, and consider how map-making might serve as an important skill in various fields
  • We practice various forms of design prototyping, considering how the prototype-as-medium serves different purposes at different stages of a design process, and for different stakeholders
  • We practice design critique and iteration: we consider how to develop appropriate criteria to critique design projects-in-progress, practice effective means of providing feedback to others, and implement others’ critiques in iterations of our own work
  • We consider strategies for multimedia storytelling
  • And all throughout the semester we implement effective strategies for project management and documentation

I hope it’s apparent that these skills are applicable in a wide variety of fields and scenarios.

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