Connecting Communities Digital Initiative: Introducing Olivia Dorsey

We are pleased to announce that Olivia Dorsey has joined the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) as a program specialist. Olivia comes to CCDI from the Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud (CCHC) initiative at the Library. We interviewed Olivia about her role in CCDI, her experience in digital history and genealogy, and the opportunities she sees with digital initiatives at the Library. Olivia was featured in a recent New York Times article, “Descendants Trace Histories Linked by Slavery.”

Olivia Dorsey, Program Specialist at the Library of Congress. Olivia is working on the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI)..

Olivia Dorsey, program specialist at the Library of Congress. Olivia is working on the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI). Photo courtesy of Olivia Dorsey

CCDI is supported by a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation to Of the People: Widening the Path. This four-year program encourages creative uses of the Library’s digital collections to center the histories, lives and experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. With CCDI, Olivia will work to design, coordinate, and assess this new Library initiative.

Welcome to CCDI, Olivia! What is your role with the initiative?

Thanks! I’m working as a program specialist. That basically means that I’ll spend time designing and coordinating various aspects of the program, supporting our fellows and grantees, and assessing our program’s impact. Much of my work will also involve working with Library staff and developing external partnerships to build connections and identify resources for our fellows and grantees. I’ll work closely on all of these things with CCDI program director, Marya McQuirter, and other CCDI staff.

Why were you interested in working with CCDI? What sorts of opportunities do you think this work offers for the Library of Congress and users?

When I first heard about CCDI, I knew I had to get involved in some way. I was thrilled to see that the Library was making such an effort to connect with communities of color and to highlight historically underrepresented perspectives. I thought this was a great opportunity to make the Library more approachable, and I wanted to do something to support these efforts and the individuals and organizations who would work with our materials.

The goals of the initiative also resonated strongly with my personal work. Outside of the Library, I use technology to tell the stories of my Black ancestors and to help others do the same with theirs. I do this work to honor their memory and their experiences. I remain ever curious about how we can use technology to make our history more accessible. I want not only to show that our history exists, but also to share it in interesting and accessible ways.

This work offers the Library the opportunity to help people discover where they fit in history by connecting them to the stories that make up  their communities. We have to continue to explore and share the histories of people of color in order to reclaim the narrative. Without the inclusion of those voices, you are only telling half of the story of this country.

CCDI is the part of the Mellon-funded Of the People initiative that focuses most on using digital collections. How do you think imaginative uses of digital collections can help us center the histories, lives, and experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color?

By thinking beyond traditional forms of research, we have the opportunity to deepen and expand the ways we engage with historical materials. In the context of technology, the possibilities are endless. Digital community archives can empower community members to preserve and share their histories in an effort to deepen and correct the mainstream narrative. Machine learning algorithms have the potential to help us connect the dots between disparate records. Crowdsourcing and curation efforts led by genealogists can help individuals find information about their ancestors more quickly.

Creative uses like these can push the bounds of what we know about these histories and bring renewed interest to their records. It opens the door for world-building and can help us commune with the thoughts and experiences of those who came before us. Just think about what you can learn about a community by digitally overlaying maps over time or rendering 3D models of buildings that are long gone! Or by interacting with their words and placing them alongside our own. Instead of just reviewing a physical record, these approaches can help us imagine what life was like for our ancestors and follow the reverberations of their joys and sorrows to the present.

You’ve worked previously to use technology in innovative ways, and you are active in digital history and genealogy. How do those experiences inform the work you’ll do with CCDI?

I work in the digital history and genealogy space in an effort to reclaim and elevate the histories of Black people and to acknowledge the experiences of individuals who just wanted to live normal lives. Technology is just the medium I use to share and expand what is known about those histories.

For me, this work means recovering the humanity and history of Black communities. I am driven by the desire to honor my ancestors’ experiences by acknowledging that the fullness of their experiences have shaped me and have impacted the world we live in today. In my work at the Library, I’m thinking about the everyday people who don’t necessarily come from academic environments. What might they find interesting about the Library’s materials? How can we make these materials more welcoming and more accessible to them?

At its core, my work is concerned with people. Technology can help us do so many things, but it can never replace the varied and complex perspectives of others. I plan to bring this “people first” perspective to my work in CCDI. As we explore materials related to communities of color, we have to remember there are names and lived experiences behind these records. It doesn’t matter if you’re crunching data or reviewing physical records, you need to respect the individuals represented in the materials.

You’re no stranger to the Library of Congress, having recently worked as an innovation specialist on the Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud (CCHC) initiative. What did you find interesting about that project? How does that work connect with the initiatives you’ll be working on in CCDI?

In the CCHC initiative, my team and I wanted to better understand how researchers accessed and transformed collections data from the Library’s collections. We worked closely with three researchers who explored Library materials using computational research methods. Computational research involves using processes like machine learning and artificial intelligence to process large amounts of data. These methods may help a researcher do things like visualize collections materials or discover relationships between those materials.

Working with the researchers provided insight into the information and support they need to perform computational processes on the Library’s digital collections. We learned a ton! One thing we learned was that researchers need to know about collection curation and digitization decisions to better understand the materials they are working with. Sometimes, all of the items of a collection have not been digitized yet. If a computational researcher doesn’t know this, they may not account for those items in their work. We connected the CCHC researchers with Library staff, which enabled them to have a more detailed understanding of the Library’s holdings. I also led a working group made up of Library staff, who helped provide guidance on accessing collections and recommendations for supporting computational researchers.

I hope that the CCDI initiative will allow the Library to build upon some of the questions my team visited in CCHC: What lost narratives can we raise to the surface? What does it mean to use these technologies to explore the Library’s collections? How else can these technologies offer new perspectives to old materials? Who has the power to use these technologies?

I’m looking forward to exploring how we can use digital collections to surface narratives and perspectives from communities of color to enrich our understanding of the Library’s digital materials and our nation’s history, and develop new relationships with our cultural heritage peers.

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