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Digital Experimentation and the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative

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Last week, our colleagues from the American Folklife Center described how decades of work at the Library of Congress lay the groundwork for the Of the People Community Collections Fellows initiative.

Library of Congress Innovator in Residence and “Citizen DJ” creator Brian Foo, February 27, 2020. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.
Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

Of the People will also support the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative, aimed at finding and sharing stories from communities of color through technological innovation. Amazing things can be done at the Library when we invite people to push the boundaries of technology to unlock new ways of seeing and experiencing the Library’s collections. Generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and centered in the Library’s Digital Strategy Directorate, the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative builds on years of experimentation and innovation with technology to further open the treasure chest.

Over the next four years, the initiative will engage with people across the country through grants to community organizations, internships, and artistic and scholarly residencies at the Library of Congress. This initiative is designed to support new approaches to the digital collections of the Library of Congress, America’s Library, and bring these collections together with the stories held in communities throughout the nation. This initiative will allow us to engage with community archives and museums, public libraries, and classroom where people are looking back at the stories that shape American history and shining lights on the experiences of people of color, and on the people, movements, and truths that enrich our shared understanding of that history.

Since 2017, the Library’s  Innovator in Residence Program, has helped the Library re-imagine creative engagement with our collections through technological innovation. Like the Innovator in Residence program, the Artist/Scholars in Residence for the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative will provide opportunities for intensive time to re-imagine the ways that technology and Library materials can be used to connect with Americans.


Example: Creating a crate of free to use sounds with Brian Foo’s Citizen DJ

Screen capture displays thousands of sound clips for browsing within the CitizenDJ app.

“In hip hop, there’s a term called “crate digging.” In addition to being alchemists–in the sense that they create something new from existing resources– DJs are also excavationists. Half of their time is spent “digging” for the obscure and the rare sonic gems hidden in a sea of crates in the basements of record shops and thrift stores. The DJ’s reputation and craft are built on how large and diverse their library of sounds are and how adeptly they can recall the right palette of sounds to mix together in the right moment.” Excerpt from Designing for the (Citizen) DJ

Brian Foo designed the Citizen DJ interface to build on the feeling and function of crate digging in order to make a national “crate” of sounds available for hip hop musicians and performers. His goal was to make it as easy as possible to discover, listen to, and access large collections of sound, making it possible for the first time in the Library’s history to browse thousands of clips in a matter of seconds and support artists wanting to infuse their compositions with samples from history.


Example: Reckoning with Machine Learning in Benjamin Charles Lee’s Newspaper Navigator project
Screen capture of the Newspaper Navigator app shows visual training model for machine learning algorithm used on images of sailboats from the Chronicling America collection.

Benjamin Charles Germain Lee, a computer scientist, has always been fascinated and sensitive to the ways computation can help and harm the humans represented in cultural heritage collections. As Innovator in Residence at the Library, he used machine learning methods to extract millions of images from the Chronicling America Historic Newspaper Collection to create Newspaper Navigator, a database and application that encourages users to search the newspapers by visual similarity. In this library of images, anyone with access to a web browser can train a machine learning algorithm to retrieve images they want to see. The project shows users the possibilities and limitations of image recognition. Lee also published a “data archeology,” in which he investigated the effects of algorithmic bias and digitization through a case study of four images of W.E.B DuBois in reproduced in Black newspapers from the Chronicling America collection.

Four side by side images of a portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois
An image analyzed in the Data Archaeology paper published by Benjamin Charles Germaine Lee. The same image of W.E.B. Du Bois reproduced in 4 different digitized Black newspapers in Chronicling America from 1910. Note that the combined effects of printing, microfilming, and digitizing have led to different visual effects in each image, ranging from contrast to sharpness.

“In tracing the pages’ [digitization] journeys, I unpack how each step in the pipelines, such as the imaging process and the construction of training data, not only imprints bias on the resulting Newspaper Navigator dataset but also propagates the bias via the machine learning algorithms employed. I investigate the limitations of the Newspaper Navigator dataset and machine learning as it relates to cultural heritage, from marginalization and erasure via algorithmic bias to unfair labor practices in the construction of commonly-used datasets. I argue that any use of machine learning with cultural heritage must be done with an understanding of the broader socio-technical ecosystems in which the algorithms have been utilized.” Excerpt from “Compounded Mediation: A Data Archaeology of the Newspaper Navigator Dataset”


Example: Supporting Visual Conversations in the Classroom through Courtney McClellan’s Speculative Annotation
Logo for the Speculative Annotation experiment from current Innovator in Residence Courtney McClellan.

Inspired by the work of artists such as Wendy Red Star and her interests in civic engagement and visual literacy, 2021 Innovator in Residence Courtney McClellan is creating a tool allowing students and educators to interact directly with items from Library of Congress holdings. “Speculative Annotation” uses creative notetaking and artistic mark making to allow students to explore and respond to historic artifacts actively, providing scaffolding for educators such as lesson plans and personalized annotations from Library of Congress curators.

As part of McClellan’s research and design process, she has worked with Library of Congress staff to identify photographs and manuscripts and discussed the application with K-12 classes.

“I am visiting classes in order to speak with students and teachers about what kind of tools might spark curiosity and deeper engagement with the collection. These visits include brainstorming and annotation exercises. Ultimately, students will be giving feedback throughout the development of this application, which will premier in the early summer of 2021.”  Excerpt from Excerpt from “Speculative Annotation in the Classroom: A Conversation with Educator Ashley Wood and Innovator Courtney McClellan”

These are just a few of the experiments that might inform the work of the Scholars or Artists in Residence who will join the Connecting Communities Digital  Initiative. But, don’t let these limit your imagination!  Keep an eye out for Calls for Applications later this year!

Note: The name of the digital strategy aspect of the Of the People program has been changed to the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative. This page has been updated to reflect the change.

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