Living Online with Our Libraries

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated memory and cultural institutions’ ability to offer in-person presentations and programs, many information professionals are spending their time finding new ways to optimize the impact of online presentations and programs.

Brooklyn Public Library’s Center for Brooklyn History Reference Librarian Michelle Montalbano and Rhode Island School of Design Research and Instruction Librarian Emily Coxe offer us some insight into their experience with this now-virtual world.

In this colloquial yet engaging transcript, Montalbano and Coxe discuss the challenges with maintaining the “wow” factor in presenting archival pieces over Zoom, how they have adapted existing programs to a new format, the digital divide, potential benefits of online programming, and more!


Bios: 

Michelle Montalbano is a reference librarian at Brooklyn Public Library’s Center for Brooklyn History, where she handles instruction, outreach, reference, programming, and exhibitions, among other things. She received her MLIS from Simmons College in 2016. She has worked in publishing, digital archives studios, classrooms, bars, and restaurants, and she loves a good list. 

Emily Coxe is a research and instruction librarian at the Rhode Island School of Design. She received an MLIS from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2016. She has worked in commercial art galleries, media archives, public schools, and other unspeakable places.

Emily and Michelle met in 2012, a few years before starting MLIS programs simultaneously on opposite U.S. coasts. They have been comparing notes ever since. 

Note: This transcript has been edited for length and clarity, but most of the supportive and validating “yeahs” remain. Imagine laughter at all the appropriate places.


Michelle: 

I feel like it should be stated that we are in fact recording this on Zoom, brought to you by Zoom. 

Emily: 

As is everything in the last year. 

Michelle: 

Just to get the really boring, dry technical stuff out of the way. Do you actually use Zoom?

Emily

Yes, Zoom is the primary video conferencing software I use at work.

I wanted to give you props for your comparison of Zoom to Kleenex, because I use that same one when I’m explaining to students how JSTOR is not the only database, it’s the Kleenex of databases and they need to know there are other brands out there. Sometimes I even get into the weeds of trying to explain the structure of databases and how they contain smaller informational units and I’ll be pantomiming pulling tissues out of a box and going on about how this tissue is, like, Artforum and this tissue is October

Michelle:

I think everyone tried different platforms at some point. I remember there was a week when I had some Google Meets, and also Microsoft Teams meetings, and a few Zooms, like we were going for video conferencing software BINGO. But now it seems like we have returned to the tried and true.

Emily:

Yeah, you know, I’m not a big fan of software monopolies like this, but it’s definitely helpful to have a consistent thing that many people know how to operate.

Michelle: 

I’m sure this has come up for you as well, but we were also thinking a lot about equitable distribution of devices and access to the internet, though I think this is more of a public library concern maybe than for an academic institution. I lead workshops and virtual tours for college and grad students, and senior citizens too recently, which was cool, so a lot of our initial questions were around: Are students engaged with their devices, does everybody have a device, is internet connectivity at people’s homes going to support really active bandwidth usage, etc. Some initiatives have rolled out during the pandemic to expand internet access into neighborhoods–literally boosting the signal while we’ve been closed–since there are people who rely on coming into the library for their internet access. 

Emily: 

Yeah, that definitely hasn’t been as much of a concern in my work zone. Working at a private institution helps with that, though still not everyone has equal access to things. In March we sent our loaner laptops home with some students who needed them, for example. 

Michelle: This question applies to staff too. My own laptop died right before an important virtual program and I had to borrow a Surface Pro from work. And the Surface Pro didn’t have video capabilities.

Emily:

Oh no.

Michelle:

Which was specifically what I needed it for, so I had this small tablet device and a virtual camera, or whatever, a webcam, that was almost as large as the Surface Pro just balancing on top. It worked but it was a Franken-situation. 

Emily:

Cobbling together the technology to do certain things has been a sort of fun adventure for me. But I’ve always liked that sort of thing. I see how other people I work with find it incredibly frustrating.

Michelle

What have you cobbled together, what sort of workarounds?

Emily: 

In terms of physical equipment, there was a class where I used an overhead camera setup that our Special Collections crew thankfully already had. I’ve done similar things from home that weren’t so easy. This was an advanced typography class in our Graphic Design program. Essentially, what I had done with them in previous years was give them a tour of new magazines and our zine collection, pointing out interesting publications and their professor, who has a much stronger knowledge of typography than I do, would go around picking up things that she wanted to show.

And this is sort of getting to another question you’ve asked, which is, the Zoom version of this course was much more equitable in terms of student experience, because when we did it in person, we’re on this tiny balcony. And the professor was standing like 20 feet away from half the class holding a magazine and shouting about it. Being able to use the overhead cam to just let people see it on their own screen, I think was a lot nicer, actually. I could stop and zoom in on details on request, lay things next to each other to compare them, etc. And nobody had to yell.

Michelle: 

Totally. I mean, to answer the primary question [about maintaining the “wow” factor with digital programming] right off the bat, I’ve been using digitized versions of archival materials that I have been selecting and curating for the whole time I’ve been with the Center for Brooklyn History, so I have a sense of which are most compelling, and doing sort of photo mapping exercises, or like a really standard educational model of observations, inferences and questions that come out of interactions with these images. That kind of stuff was part of our in-person workshops, but again, it’s more equitably distributed now. And I think people can actually get more in-depth with their examinations of these materials, because they can literally zoom in, and they can spend more time looking at them on their own devices, right? And so I find that the conversations around the materials themselves are a lot richer. 

Emily

Yeah, I work with someone who has her own camera stand that she set up on what looks like a wire kitchen rack, with an iPad on the top rack that she’ll turn on to camera mode, and then stream that camera view into the Zoom so that she can show folding exercises and artist books and things flat on her desk, page through them, and you know, participants can see what the camera’s seeing from above.

Michelle: 

That’s so cool. I mean, that’s a necessary kind of innovation for demonstrations when you’d otherwise be doing hands-on work, right? Can you talk more about that? I love that. 

Emily: 

Yeah I’ve been really curious about what other people are doing. This person is a colleague who is really knowledgeable about artists’ books, book structures and paper folding techniques. I knew that she had been making videos and doing classes on these things with students, but I hadn’t seen any. And then we had a staff meeting recently, and she was kind enough to share with everybody a sort of a mini-exercise that she had been doing with classes. What she did was show us an artist’s book by Clarissa Sligh called Transforming Hate. After a little intro to the project, she asked us to grab a piece of paper, and just fold. We could fold whatever we wanted, but just do it, while she turned the pages and read the book to us. Her rig allowed us to see the pages as though we were looking through her eyes. It was probably only 10 or 15 minutes, but it was a really sort of wonderful, calming reflective experience. It was great. Being explicitly allowed to take your hands and do a separate activity, and let your mind sort of focus on the screen in a secondary way was really nice.

Michelle:

Uh huh, yeah. And I think too, maybe that’s another sort of secondary gain or hidden benefit of virtual meetings of all kinds, is that it is no longer frowned upon to be multitasking. Or, I guess it’s an open secret that we’re all doing it, but I think it’s allowed people to relax into the kinds of productivity that feel good, or to be able to be more engaged in better and deeper ways, because you do what you need to do.

Emily:

Yeah, or to take advantage of that impulse. I had to do a presentation on my summer research project and I included a series of gifs that were all of dogs swimming. I put a little tiny one in every slide corner, just to maintain a continuous thread of distraction, you know? 

Michelle: 

“How I spent my summer vacation.” That’s a great segue into talking about taking advantage of the multimedia range in all kinds of digital programming, because PowerPoints are sort of the original digital programming. I remember being completely blown away the first time I saw somebody embed a gif or a video in a slide presentation in grad school.

Emily: 

I’m trying to think about when the first time that I saw something like that was.

Michelle: 

Well you went to art school though, so it was probably much earlier than me.

Emily: 

Yeah, I was hanging out with some net art people in college, and I remember back when the awareness of powerpoint as a potential art form was coming to the surface for me. But it was also like, it wasn’t high, fine art-type intentions at the time, it was people who were into subverting Microsoft Office for their own Satanic purposes and inside jokes.

Michelle:

I mean, yeah, Microsoft is more like Microhard, so it needs to be subverted. 

Emily:

I want to show you this article by Shannon Mattern that came out last year in Art in America called “The Art of the Slide Deck.

Michelle:

I think we’re getting into territory around compulsory productivity too, right? And ways in which working from home has bled into all parts of our existence and the need to have firmer boundaries. But also a neurodiverse appreciation of the different ways in which people focus. There’s no one way of doing it.

So maybe let’s go back to basics for a sec. And talk about what kinds of virtual programming you personally have done, or your library as a whole has done? What have you been offering during the pandemic?

Emily: 

My library as a whole has cut back on programming through the pandemic. We have tried to maintain the level of instruction that we do across different library areas, and I think we’ve been succeeding in that. As an academic institution, we have this sort of captive audience, and the school as a whole has been doing a really good job with programming artist talks and career workshops and student life type entertainment stuff to that point that it seems like everyone’s time is pretty saturated. 

And so we as a library haven’t really been focused on providing, I guess, enrichment in that way for the community. It’s been mostly virtual one-or two-shot research workshops within classes. I definitely have been doing more faculty development than ever since the pandemic began. We had never done online education at RISD before, and so everyone had to pivot really quickly and dramatically to an online learning environment. The other big thing is–and I will probably touch on this again, because it’s been a huge thread through the pandemic in my library–is that before March 2020, most of our community didn’t utilize our online resources. 

Michelle:

Hmm, yeah, yep. 

Emily: 

And so, you know, we simply had a physical-resources-oriented community where the vast majority of people had never logged into their library account, never tried to access our databases, never used a VPN, and that includes faculty. And there’s nothing wrong with that at its core, because we have lots of other collections that had been doing their job, but all of a sudden, a lot of people needed to learn how to do it at once. So yeah, that’s been the focus.

Michelle: 

There are some parallels here, I’m sure you’re not surprised. Brooklyn Public Library and the Center for Brooklyn History have been really pushing the shift to virtual programming, adapting our service model as whole, which includes ramping up our virtual reference services. There are 59 branches of BPL, and there’s this step-based system for how open to the public they all are based on infection rates in the city, and so most have been hovering at like, grab-and-go. 

Emily:

Is it neighborhood by neighborhood? 

Michelle:

Yes. But the mayor and the governor haven’t been in agreement about the metrics by which we determine what’s dangerous and what’s not. I don’t think there are any branches that are open for what we call Step 4 service, which is that patrons can actually come in and browse and use computers and print things–that is not happening. So a fleet of librarians have descended upon our LibAnswers [Virtual Reference App] to answer chat reference questions, and this ranges from customer service, library card functionality issues, to more in-depth reference questions. So part of what I have been doing is offering instruction to colleagues on the breadth of our digital resources and how to use them. These include digitized newspapers, like historic newspapers that cover from 1841 to–actually this range just changed because my department has also officially merged with Brooklyn Historical Society, which is why we are the new Center for Brooklyn History. So also all of our online resources are also actively expanding with the merger…

Emily: 

Do you know how far back their collection goes? 

Michelle:

I got this email from my boss this morning. So this is breaking news, hot news. It looks like we go back as far as 1809 now, and 1999 is still the latest.

Emily: 

1999… The year history stopped.

Michelle:

It’s true. Y2K.

Before all of this, we were planning on doing a sort of road show. We were thinking about offering the same kind of instruction on a regional basis, but it would have been less in-depth, right? Like, I’m actually spending an hour, an hour and a half going over our key digital resources. And I have examples for how to search for a specific date or a specific headline or I use reference questions that I myself or my colleagues have answered and demonstrate live how to find the answer to the questions using all of the databases, and then have people practice themselves and then report back. It’s actually much more interactive and hands-on than a one-way, in-person lecture. 

Emily:

Yeah, interactive is a good word for it. I was thinking about the word intimate, because, like the example that I gave with the typography class, but also with a lot of these peer workshops, it seems a lot more intimate in a strange way, but I think it’s because of that interactivity. I mean, sure, you could be in a room together looking at the same projection, but in a strange way, everybody’s on a machine or a device that enables this way of all having a similar vantage point.

Michelle:

Yes, definitely that. And also, you’re making me question the longing for being in the same room together again, because maybe there’s something about the fact that we’re all beaming into each other’s homes that conveys a sense of shared intimacy.

Emily:

That’s a whole other tangent we could go on. 

Michelle:

Another extension of “conducting business online” means that, as I’m sure is true for you, I’m in, like, five meetings a day often. And I’m involved in projects that maybe I wouldn’t be otherwise, like with our marketing department, we are now building out the new Center for Brooklyn history’s website, which involves combining our two organizations’ collections, the real like meat of the tomato level, but also wireframing and discussing what needs to go in there.

 I think we also have covered the benefits of virtual programming pretty extensively. And I really like that this conversation has ranged into our experience of working digitally as well as the public facing programming that we’re doing because it’s all very of a piece.

Emily:   

Yeah, it all sort of blends. 

Michelle:  

And you’re right, I think this feels really intimate in ways maybe it wouldn’t if we were just having a conversation at a table in a conference room. It’s really weird because obviously I’m excited to get back to…[in-person programming] 

Michelle: 

You know, there was another program that was the culmination of a four-part series called Research Refracted, that was specifically centered on and targeted toward Black artists in Brooklyn, I was working on with colleagues of mine from Boston, that we had to shift to virtual at the last minute. Their piece of it was called Managing Your Own Archive. We had another collaboration with Weeksville Heritage Center on Tracing Your Roots and genealogy, particularly within the African diaspora, and the first installment of that series was with an archivist and a performance artist, the founder of Archival Alchemy, who does incredible work.

The first couple of those happened in person, but because the genealogy workshop and managing your own archive workshops were both digital, they  reached much wider audiences and involved folks from a lot more organizations. The flip side of that was that I really wanted to celebrate with all my colleagues after we’d accomplished all this and obviously we couldn’t, so that was a bummer, but the benefits certainly outweigh the drawbacks in this case. 

Emily: 

Yeah, collaborating is definitely feeling different. I meant to tell you about this earlier: last March, I had been working with folks from the RISD Museum,  Brown University, Providence Public Library and the RI Center for the Humanities to organize the Providence Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon, which I’ve been involved in for a couple years. We were planning to host it in the RISD Museum inside a Pablo Helguera project space that highlighted Latin American artists in the RISD Museum collection, part of Raid the Icebox Now. But I think it was March 19th or 20th, so we wound up pivoting to online at the very very last minute too, and it was oddly much better attended than the last several years as a result. We had not just locals, but people from all over who were doing homework for their own upcoming online Edit-a-thons, which was really cool, because we were able to get feedback and trade advice at the end.

Michelle:

I had asked a question we haven’t touched on yet about whether you’re tailoring programs specifically for a virtual format or whether you’re adapting your programming to the digital format, and an Edit-a-Thon obviously exists outside of the digital-only format, but seems to slot very neatly into it.

Emily: 

Yeah, it did work very neatly, I will say. Most of us who were facilitating were novices at Zoom at that point because we were only a few days into remote work, but aside from the inevitable hiccups you get as a Zoom user, it worked very well. And in a wonderful way, demoing online skills and splitting people into breakout groups and having group chats dovetailed really nicely with the whole ethos of the event. We were just sad that we didn’t get to do it in the glamorous museum space.

Michelle: 

I feel like taking exhibitions into an online space is maybe the sequel to this conversation. 

Emily:

That could be a fun one to bring more people in on. I hope institutions keep an awareness of the possibilities of having joint digital and in-person exhibitions, because the digital ones are so much more accessible. People can really take their time and dive into something online, whether it’s the works themselves or related ephemera or a mash-up of material. And it doesn’t have to be high-tech. 

Michelle:

Does RISD prioritize digital exhibitions? 

Emily:

The college last spring had to very quickly figure out a solution for the huge number of exhibitions that we have every spring for graduating students. The graduate student exhibition is sort of the pinnacle of their 2-3 year programs and it’s exposure for them too. And all the undergrads have degree project exhibitions, that’s usually a highlight of everyone’s spring. We thankfully have a small team at the school that is dedicated to putting up exhibitions and was able to work with the museum on setting up digital platforms. 

Michelle:

What kind of digital platforms did you end up using? 

Emily: 

The RISD Museum has built this awesome digital publishing platform, and they’re supposedly going to be releasing it openly, although I don’t think that’s happened yet. It’s called Ziggurat. They have been building multimedia, public domain exhibition catalogues that are very cool. And they’re multimedia, so there can be images, text, audio and video embedded in them. Simone Leigh’s project for Raid The Icebox Now is a great example. And that’s the core technology they used for the online exhibitions.

Michelle: 

I’m familiar with Omeka from my work, which is also open source and community supported. But yeah, I really wanna see more of that. As we continue to recognize the benefits of engagement with digital platforms, the ability to have this real close contact with multimedia formats and create these more interesting exhibitions in a single space. I’d like some “key takeaways” from this time to be prioritizing more digital access, and I love that an open source community supports that.

Emily: 

These projects obviously require a lot of work, too. Especially open source – it’s not typically plug and play. Even Omeka isn’t, I hear from many librarians! So you have to have the people and the time to make it happen. And that’s not something to take for granted.

Just to plug one of my current pet issues, open publishing, open educational resources and open pedagogy are these incredibly wonderful growing movements in academic libraries and academic institutions and I think that there’s a lot of room to grow in the art and design education world specifically. Typically open textbooks have been pretty heavily focused on STEM fields and social sciences and I’ve been trying to get together some folks at RISD who would be willing–including the people who designed this online publication platform–to publish things openly that everybody can access that originate in RISD and the knowledge of people here that other people can take and use without paying for it. Extricating some of this stuff from the for-profit models that it has naturally over the years grown into. We’re increasingly aware that they can be restrictive and that they inhibit growth and inhibit–as much as I hate this word–innovation. 

Michelle

You’re making some really astute points about the for-profit, proprietary models, there’s also a lot of planned obsolescence in those models, so in terms of innovation, if there’s a whole community of thinkers who are working under the hood on a piece of software, that means it will be continually updated and adapted to a growing range of situations, whereas something that is proprietary is likely to become stale if there isn’t more money thrown at it.

***

Emily: 

You asked me a question about doing programming specifically with the digital environment in mind vs. adapting existing programming. I feel like I have absolutely adapted my existing strategies for remote teaching, but that’s been a real growth experience for me. Like a lot of early career instruction librarians, I have not had a lot of pedagogical training, and a lot of what I know was learned on the job. In a weird way, it feels like being part of a college that is all at once transitioning to digital teaching has made me feel more solidarity, and we’ve been able to talk and share resources in a way that I personally was a little intimidated to do before this. But I’m also beginning my arc out of the ‘early career’ stage and feeling more brave, which could be part of it. 

Michelle: 

Right. The assumed disadvantage of being early career isn’t necessarily the case, and also the difference in technological proficiency and ability sort of leveled the playing field too I bet. 

Emily:

Yeah, I have a few faculty who come to me as tech support pretty reliably at this point, and that gives me perspective one everyone’s different strengths. 

Michelle: 

I think, too, I find myself landing in a place where I think we’re better instructors because of this shift. I think it’s made me slow down and focus on the iterative process of teaching. I’ve really gone back to the beginning, to the types of lessons that I want to offer, my methods, and I think because we’re forced to reexamine everything we’ve been doing really, I’m doing that from top-to-bottom with the way that I’m instructing. I’m thinking here too about removing nerves around public speaking too. 

We’ve been forced to examine so much that I have been realizing that there are ways that I can improve, ways I can demonstrate the resources better, planning more in detail, refining the types of questions that I ask. I didn’t use breakout rooms until way too late into the game, and it was when I was doing a workshop for teachers (of course), and I had to ask them how to use it. It was like thanks, we’re all learning from each other here. 

Emily: 

Yeah, there’s a level of generosity I’m seeing. I had been working as an instruction librarian for about 3 years when the pandemic hit, and I’d definitely settled into some teaching methods and strategies that felt comfortable. I should note here for the ARLIS audience that I work at an institution that has a really tiny instruction team, so we don’t operate the same way that big academic library instruction teams do, we don’t do the same sort of assessment for or use the framework in the same ways. A lot of our strategies are more informal, we don’t have the same sort of culture of data collection and I appreciate that, personally. We also don’t have the technology setup to do sort of structured, top-down technology workshops you might see at big academic libraries. So discussion and group exploration and little activities were my favorite way to approach teaching, but when we transitioned into the remote environment, I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t working. 

Michelle: 

I’ve found the same. You can’t really elicit conversation as easily in a digital environment. To what do you attribute that? 

Emily: 

You and I have maybe a different audience when it comes to this, because when I started doing my online instruction, I had classes of students who were not there of their own free will. I had been invited into their virtual classroom by their teacher, and these students had been through a lot, packing up their lives and moving away from school. I think especially earlier on, I’d come into a Zoom room and most people would have their cameras off and be clearly unengaged. That didn’t really bother me, I felt a lot of sympathy for what I was hearing people had gone through. Some things seem to have stabilized since then. 

Michelle: 

I have led a couple of workshops for high school students about neighborhood history, and that is what was coming to mind when you were talking about this, the blanket of silence when I was trying to facilitate more Q&A discussion. But yeah, students and teenagers in particular have taken the brunt of this seismic shift in our daily lives, and I have from the beginning adopted a policy that nobody is being forced to participate or turn their camera on, it’s all engagement at the level of comfort that feels right. And I also think it’s perfectly fine to engage in the chat.

Emily: 

I think making use of the chat is a really excellent way to do this, if you’ve planned it in. I’ve definitely had to adapt my engagement strategies, whether that’s chat, or breakout rooms, or doing an activity on your own for 5-10 minutes, I found that works a lot better than verbally posing a question to a grid of faces and blank squares and just waiting to see if anybody cares. There’s an interesting social dynamic that happens in person, if you sit there silently long enough waiting for somebody to answer, there’s somebody in that class who’s gonna feel the need to say something.

Michelle:

Yeah! But that’s completely eliminated when you’re each at your own homes. 

*** 

Michelle:

What are some of the coolest ways you’ve seen people take advantage of Zoom? 

Emily: 

It’s been really interesting to participate in more interactive workshops myself. Doing them in Zoom has been really eye-opening for me, and I generally take strategies back to my own teaching from them. One that was great was a Library Carpentry workshop that I took through the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. I wanted to learn how to use Open Refine, which is really cool for anyone who does a lot of Excel spreadsheets and data wrangling. 

Michelle:

Yeah, in my past life I did a lot more digital librarianship stuff, and in the expanded range of projects that I’ve taken on during the pandemic, I’m also working on some straight up metadata cleanup and exercising my Excel function knowledge, and it’s really fun. 

Emily: 

Sometimes when I’m doing that stuff I realize that I might be in the right field.

Michelle:

Yeah, it’s like the flow state that’s available to librarians. 

You bring up a really good point about the range of learning opportunities we have access to with this digital advent too, it’s not just about what programs we’ve been offering and what professional development we’ve been leading, but what we’ve taken advantage of as well. 

Emily: 

A lot of us have been able to take advantage of those opportunities, but as so many wise people have already said about this pandemic, it’s also true that if you’re not maximizing, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s a huge privilege that for me at least comes along with being a childless white collar employee.

Michelle:

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Just in awe of parents with children at home, while also rejecting the guilt that creeps up around this. Like since I don’t have children, I’d BETTER maximize my existence, because I have no excuse not to–which is also a pretty gendered line of reasoning, I will say. In any case, I feel like you don’t have to immediately clench with guilt if you haven’t been optimizing. I think what I have mostly taken advantage of are the recorded panel discussions and lectures that are all over the place while I’m making stuff, which I’ve been also doing a lot more, and that’s actually to give myself a break and not because I’m optimizing.

Emily: 

There’s something I was thinking about earlier today, related to the general question of how to engage people with materials in the digital environment. It seems like people can be wowed in person with primary sources and archival materials and cool tangible ephemera, even if they’re not directly related to that person’s interests, because there are these artifacts, and they have this object value, you’ve got to wash your hands or put on gloves, it’s got this sort of glamor to it. And what I’ve found teaching online is that it’s much more important to make a direct connection to the class or the students’ actual priorities and areas of interest. Because if you’re just showing random stuff, even if it’s your rarest item, it’s not as likely that it will be exciting, but if I’m talking to a class of students and they’re working in a specific area and I show them something that has a clear connection to their interests or priorities, then I have them. 

Michelle: 

Yeah, you are 100% right on that. One of my upcoming student workshops is for an urban archaeology class, and we’ve been doing some more intensive planning on Zoom to talk about what her coursework is about, and I’m engineering the resources, materials and the workshop so that it fits with what the students are thinking about right now, definitely. 

Emily: 

There’s also an increased sense of the value of our attention, especially since we’re staring at a screen all day. It definitely seems to me, working in an expensive private institution with a big reputation, that students these days are much more aware of what their time is worth than I was in college, and they’re much more focused on maximizing the ROI in college classes. Even more so in this pandemic environment where access to everything is throttled. 

Our college archivist has been showing students this amazing material, posters and petitions and student newspapers, that document the history of student activism at RISD starting around the sixties. The issues they face today are all there: racial justice, antiwar activism, tuition hikes! That stuff really hits home in the classroom. But I think it also helps students place themselves in a lineage of activism.

Michelle

I’m really glad you brought that up, and I think your point too about some of the wow factor–maybe even like 60% of it–was coming to the archives in person. Often one of my first questions when students, particularly college students, arrived was “Has anyone ever been to an archive before?” and a lot of them had not, right, so they’re just like “Wow, what is this place?” And I have materials pre-selected for everyone to go through, and I talk about safe handling techniques and yes, there are some white gloves around and yes, there is glamor in the atmosphere and the historicity of the place. My tours ended downstairs in our morgue, and everyone loves that, just on its face. The seed of the collection is the Brooklyn Daily Eagle photo morgue, a journalism term for subject-organized photographic materials that you’d be able to pull out to run alongside a story, and so not only is the name of the place cool, but the space itself is in our sub sub sub basement and has a bunch of our materials. I had been in the habit of letting students go and look in the files and drawers after going over safe handling, etc. and letting them see what they find and enjoy the magic of discovery. I’ve been trying to work a little bit along those lines with just a Dropbox folder of materials, and many of those have been selected to, as you say, place the students in a lineage of antiracist activism, etc. Here’s a folder, take some time in breakout rooms to see what’s in there, and show us what you find. Show and tell never gets old. 

Emily

It’s true, the framing has to be a little different now. I was just perversely picturing going online with a class and asking “So have you ever been to an institutional repository before?” to total silence. Awareness of place is a lot more natural in the flesh. Teaching information literacy can help, but there are also other ways to work with students on reading digital spaces.

A friend of a friend developed a virtual bar website, a little clunky, but you could make your own bar and invite people in. And I was thinking about what it would be like to teach a class in the bar instead of Zoom. Fewer tools and a totally different vibe. Maybe conversation would flow better?

Michelle:

I feel like we notice bad design but we don’t necessarily notice good design. If you’re in a well-designed and comfortable digital environment it’s just sort of like amniotic fluid or something. But if it’s bad, you can’t help but notice it. 

Emily:

I love bad design though. This is a much bigger conversation but I don’t think all friction is bad. It can be very helpful in building muscle, like literally and metaphorically. 

Michelle: 

Yeah, foodtimeline.org, for example. Terrible design, GREAT website. Also a late librarian’s labor of love!

Emily:

What are you talking about? That website is perfect. So pure.

Michelle:

It’s one of my favorites, not despite but because. But, to your point earlier, the virtual bar website is like digital space that’s a specific analog to a physical space. Not necessarily a one-to-one but something that “captures the feeling” of what it’s like to be in a beloved physical space. 

Emily: 

And what are the capabilities that you have in that space that maybe you don’t in others? In the virtual bar you can grab the little box your face is in and move it anywhere on the screen, maybe just to the bottom left or something, away from other people.

Michelle:

You were doing a lot more just virtual hangs early on in the pandemic, right? 

Emily:

I’m still participating in some from time to time, but they do tend to be more activity-oriented and less like “here we are.” 

Michelle: 

Yeah, I feel like tracing the evolution of our virtual hangouts is a way of measuring how we feel about the pandemic as a whole or something. We’ve grown accustomed to this mode of engagement so now we have to go beyond simply hanging out at our computers together. 

Emily: 

Or maybe there can be a return to it, you know? I’ve definitely spoken about the phenomenon of feeling burned out and then going back over the hump and being okay again. I feel like that’s happened maybe 3 or 4 times for me with hanging out online. I’m definitely in a space right now where I could just chill in a Zoom room with some friends that I wanted to see and it wouldn’t be something I needed to face my burnout to do, but that may not be the case in a couple months again.

Michelle:

Yeah, I can relate to coming up against burnout and then trying to find antidotes to that, and I feel like what I’ve been missing the most is the ability to hang out in a room with a friend for an extended period of time and just make something together, do something quietly companionable, so maybe that’s where Zoom comes back around for me, maybe it’s the activities. 


Zoom came back around for us as we recorded this conversation too. Comparing notes about our experiences during this shift to digital was a lot of fun, and a great opportunity to clarify our thoughts around not only digital programming, but also what it’s like when an entire institution goes virtual all at once, the pros and cons of working remotely, texting before calling, when to listen to podcasts when you’re not commuting, lorem ipsum generators, and more.


Sources: 

http://qqml-journal.net/index.php/qqml/article/view/634

https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=Programming-Through-the-Pandemic-covid-19

RISD museum public domain digital publication: https://publications.risdmuseum.org/raid-icebox-now

Publishing platform developed locally called Ziggurat

RISD grad show, same platform:

https://publications.risdmuseum.org/risd-grad-show-2020

Art of the slide deck by Shannon Mattern: https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/artists-using-powerpoint-critique-rhetorical-strategies-tan-lin-tony-cokes-david-byrne-1202676971/

Meant to mention this nice slideshow on digital equity I just saw from Ray Pun: https://sites.google.com/view/bakerlectures/baker-diversity-series/spring-2021-lectures?authuser=0

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