“From Access to Integration” Summary Session

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November 10–second day of the conference. Summary Session led by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Program Director, Core Exhibition, Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, and University Professor, New York University

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett began the “From Access to Integration” summary session by saying that this conference was a worthy, fitting and appropriate way to celebrate the Center’s ten-year anniversary. Later, she added that we could have done the whole conference online, but we didn’t, because face-to-face interaction still has enormous value. “We don’t want to create a robotic field of knowledge,” she said. “The experience of us here should be a reminder to us that ‘online’ is not a substitute for everything we ever did face-to-face.”

The goal of the conference was to explore ways in which we might create a global resource for enhancing knowledge of Jewish history, and Kirschenblatt-Gimblett  said that she came away from the event “quite optimistic.” But identifying next steps and future directions is a daunting task, and it was one that she thought should be shared with several of the panelists and all of the conference participants. She invited all to participate in this discussion of ways to address the issues raised in the two-day meeting of the minds.

The first issue Kirschenblatt-Gimblett raised was the major shift in the culture of repositories. “There must be historians in this room who remember the days before digital access, and they tell wonderful archive war stories,” she said, and then shared one of her own. She remembered that when she was doing research in the ‘70s, in an archive that will remained unnamed, “there was an archivist whose specialty was torture”—someone who would say, “I found something wonderful that’s perfect for your project,” and then abruptly end the conversation without releasing the material or any other information.

Even to this day, there is still in some quarters a reigning “culture of withholding,” and there are still those researchers and scholars who guard what they believe to be badges of honor associated with mining material in inaccessible archives—as though it is a competition over who has found the most arcane material in the most accessible places. Controlling access has been the archivists’ power. Changing from the power of the archivist to a culture of open access “is not just a shift. It is a tectonic shift,” Kirschenblatt-Gimblett said.

Günter Waibel, who spoke in the evening session on the first day of the conference, made a valuable distinction between talking about “what we want to accomplish” and “how, exactly, we’re going to accomplish it.” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett took up this distinction and defined the “what” as the goals to digitize as much as possible and to maximize access. But she also said that she’d like to push her colleagues beyond this particular “what.” Is there something additional to take us beyond access/integration and toward what might be completely transformative? 

There are some serious challenges. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett identified one as the obsolescence of the technology. It happens very quickly. Technology is a “moving target.” Something she said she didn’t hear too much during the conference was the challenge of resistance—essentially, a situation where the resources and tools are moving so quickly that they are outpacing scholars’ abilities to use them. From her own experience in her department, she has found that scholars want as little technology as possible. They don’t have the time or inclination for the learning curve that is required to do much more than get the material “fast and easy.” There is a lot of work to be done to build the capacity in the scholars for making the best possible use of these tools and resources.

Kirschenblatt-Gimblett  identified what she called the “takeaway” of the conference. “The takeaway is that data does not equal knowledge,” she said. There are many steps from data to knowledge or data or meaning. “Our mission is to create a global resource for enhancing knowledge of Jewish history”—and that does not mean only the aggregate of data or information. Scholars are the key. Investing in them and their capacity to make full use of technology resources is a high priority. And much of the discussion of partnering, collaboration and integration has focused on partnering with institutions on projects. That’s different from the range of scholarship. (When scholars teach, they’re making new scholars. It isn’t as though teaching is somehow separated from scholarship.) 

She stated that integration means, on one level, taking a lot of disparate projects and resources and somehow bringing them together. The focus of this conference was “the potential of integration: increasing awareness, networking, collaborating and establishing uniform standards.” The next step is to form an association or program to create a global resource, however it may be configured. That process of integration should be twofold: on the one hand, bring everyone together, and on the other, strengthening the smaller projects so that they don’t get swallowed up or find themselves without resources to leverage.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett then returned to the word “transformation.” What does the word mean here? What is the transformation that we’re after? If we were to take the definition for granted, our efforts would be producer-centered, or coming from those who are creating these databases and tools, and focusing on the transformative effects of digitizing more and more materials and providing greater and greater access. But that mission is just the tip of the iceberg; digitization and access can’t be the full picture of what “transformation” means.

And is that enough—to be transformative? If so, what is it transformative of? What is, precisely, to be transformed? Where is the tipping point from quantitative (more and more, better and better, access) to qualitative? Kirshenblatt-Gimblett reminded conference participants of the importance of putting these questions not only to colleagues sitting in the room, but also to the scholars who are supposed to benefit from all of these developments.

She said, “If we were to look specifically at institutions—archives, libraries, museums and universities—and see how this works, these new technologies, particularly in relationship to their wonderful collections, actually change the [institutions’] function, culture, relationship to constituents. And there can be an exponential effect.” She added, “We should consider it in two regards. We have considered it in regard to the digital end of the spectrum, but not the bricks-and-mortar end of the spectrum. What is the role of the bricks-and-mortar library in the age of the digital resources accessible from anywhere?”

The bricks-and-mortar library serves several roles, in Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s point of view. If we dismantled libraries, we would lose the face-to-face interaction with people who really know their materials. It’s not just about what you can teach yourself online. “Libraries have always been social places, and they have continued to have a social role. Nothing you can do online will replace encountering a special collection in its analog form.” 

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett then raised another question: In what ways does the meeting place between technology and scholarship produce not only new knowledge, but also new forms of knowledge? When we talk about the field of digital humanities and the intersection of new technologies and scholarships, can we talk about where it is going? Can we look at both the collection side and the scholarship side to discover transformative potential?

She then invited panelists Günter Waibel, Douglas Greenberg and Anne Kenney to join her for the rest of the summary session. Other conference participants also shared their questions, thoughts and insights in a lively question-and-answer conclusion.

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