Black culture is regularly marginalized in institutional libraries and archives. This phenomenon has been replicated virtually with the introduction of digital technologies and social media, and is in stark contrast with how Black users drive digital trends. For the past decade or more, a growing community from technical, academic, and cultural backgrounds have built a new discipline of study around research and practice in this space (the Black Web) so that Black culture online could receive the same—or better—attention and care (memory work) being given to physical materials.

Archiving the Black Web, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), is the first convening of its kind in this emerging field. Over two days, panelists and participants engaged in a series of discussions that highlighted current initiatives, considered nuances in our experiences, and built comradery amongst a lively cohort of scholars, technologists, activists, archivists, and librarians. The program addressed many of the core issues in virtual, community-based, and human-centered memory work, an area of increasing interest for libraries, archives, and cultural organizations.

Conference Themes

Most of the sessions focused on the practice of digital archiving and on Black people’s unique experiences online. Erasure of this community in the history of the early web inhibits a full understanding of how intimately Black people shaped the current digital landscape. From prominent bloggers turned public intellectuals to content “challenges” and Black Twitter, the Black Web nurtured what are now considered hallmarks of virtual connection and meaning-making. Telling stories from the African diaspora through digitized and born-digital content is an extension of this legacy and a reclamation of narratives too often co-opted and distorted for profit and virtue signaling.

Other sessions explored examples of the Black Web’s impact on lived experience in many contexts, including:

  • Afrofuturism—There will be Black people in the future, so we collect, document, preserve, and conserve our existence for their benefit;
  • Black feminism—We recognize that asserting the value of our cultural material is an act of personal, collective, and political power. We commit to a “Black feminist ethics of care” in which our approach to archival practice and community engagement is “the antidote to violence”;
  • Restorative history—Digital archives are counternarratives that challenge hegemonic erasure;
  • Social justice—Virtual Black communities can grow and support each other in shared struggles without physical limitations.

In these ways, the potential of the Black Web cannot be contained or commodified.

Session Highlights

I was particularly struck by two panels “Contemporary Issues in Documenting Black Lives: Black Newspapers, Black Data, and Black Digital Archives” and “Fight for Power: Activism in Action Online and Documenting Local Community Organizing Efforts”.

In the “Contemporary Issues” panel, Kim Gallon, Tonia Sutherland, and Paulette Brown-Hinds considered how uncritical pursuits to make all information universally available (a symptom of vocational awe) and rising reliance on data analysis in decision-making (data culture) further racial inequity within archival practice. In the quest to fill collection gaps, the best interests and desires of marginalized communities often get sidelined, and the exchange between community and institution is transparently transactional. This phenomenon is common enough among institutional archives that community members may prefer storing materials in garages and attics, rather than in these purpose-built, well-resourced facilities where control over content and the narratives around them is lost both physically and abstractly. Similarly, data from and about these communities can be manipulated to reify the biases of researchers, scholars, and policy makers, evidenced by the exploitative aspects of social policy research and humanitarian aid and subsequent movements for data rights in these environments. Thus, self-determination at the individual and collective level becomes all the more critical to preserve the original context of the material as well as the material itself.

During “Fight for Power”, Tara Conley, Sarah J. Jackson, Teressa Raiford, Tai Carpenter, Asha Ransby-Sporn, and Yusef Omowale explored online platforms as community organizing tools, sites of accountability, and grassroots communications networks. Use cases vary widely, including protestors relying on Twitter to avoid violence during actions, civilians recording live video of human rights abuses, and crowdfunding sites allowing hyperlocal organizations to attract resources internationally. The conversation also addressed the stakes of laxity, with Sarah Jackson reminding us of last summer’s Etsy arrest (in which a protester was identified and charged in part by tracking down the Etsy record of the shirt she wore in someone else’s photo). Here too, self-determination is imperative. Ransby-Sporn noted that activists and protestors “are taking real risks that have real consequences” like violent attacks and incarceration. She continued, “Documentation is not neutral” and consent is mandatory. Teressa Raiford discussed how data and surveillance can be strategies for justice. In lieu of protest selfies, Raiford shared that she asks protestors to capture content that challenges dominant narratives being controlled by arbiters of the status quo.

Final Thoughts

Each panel is worth watching on repeat at least twice, but I’ll end with some of my main takeaways.

  • We should embrace authenticity. Individuals always bring their lived experiences to their work, but adapting to COVID-19 has blurred the line between our personal and professional lives to an unprecedented degree. Strict adherence to a conventional sense of professionalism only benefits a select group, but we can access more authentic, relational connection with our communities by treating each other as whole people and our work as part of a larger ecosystem. The ethos of Archiving the Black Web exemplified this fact.
  • Research alone is not activism. And even further, neither is the resulting scholarship alone. Archiving the Black Web presented many examples of how these pursuits can be complementary, but we have to remain mindful of that distinction.
  • The value of applied research is in its impact. In addition to surveying the landscape, applied researchers need to consider how their results can move discourse beyond diagnosis to the level of action. In this way, the research process becomes a strategy for empowering community members to make change. Teresa Raiford’s request for academics spoke to an ongoing challenge: “I think that if academia wants a relationship with organizers, don’t just research what we’re doing right now. Help us document it and create information, so that we can give it to our community.” Thus, the work of applied researchers is to co-create and co-execute projects with target communities and then to give back what we’ve discovered in a manner that is accessible to and actionable for them.
  • Researchers need to think critically about our positionality. Predominantly white organizations take up significant space in the discourse around higher education, libraries and archives, and cultural institutions. And they attract resources to the same extent. How can we be the most conscientious stewards of this privilege and access? By passing the mic and letting thought leaders and practitioners speak to the issues that affect them most. By supporting these individuals with resources and platforms to engage meaningfully with research findings, no matter how uncomfortable that might be. By committing to a diverse and inclusive workplace that values multiple perspectives in how we propose, design, complete, and communicate about projects. And by devoting strategic goals and necessary levels of funding and staff time to all of the above.

Follow Archiving the Black Web on Twitter for the release of session recordings and announcements of the next events, and catch up on the conversation at #ATBW2021.