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A photo of Brian Carpenter, a member of the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Advisory Board.
Brian Carpenter is a member of the CCDI Advisory Board. Image courtesy of Brian Carpenter.

CCDI Advisory Board Member Spotlight: Brian Carpenter

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The Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Advisory Board advises CCDI staff on program administration, supports initiative outreach activities, and helps the Library imagine ways that it can deepen connections with Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color. Its members include nine professionals ranging from senior scholars to leading librarians, archivists, and early-career professionals in Libraries, Archives, and Museums.

Brian Carpenter is the Curator of Indigenous materials at the American Philosophical Society (APS) Library & Museum.

In this interview post, Brian shares his previous experiences of working with the Library, shares some of his experiences working with Indigenous communities, and offers perspectives on how libraries and archives can make their materials more accessible.

Had you interacted with the Library of Congress prior to joining the CCDI Advisory Board?

Yes, I’ve had the good fortune to work with people at the Library of Congress, mainly through the American Folklife Center (AFC), ever since I started at the APS in 2008. My first project was to digitize the APS Library’s thousands of hours of audio recordings throughout North America. I found that some of those collections were directly related to materials at the AFC. That set in motion a lot of sharing of information between APS and AFC, which has continued ever since. That also led me to learn from key earlier initiatives like the Federal Cylinder Project from the 1980s, which was one of the earliest examples of a non-Native institution working directly with Native nations to reconnect archival materials with them.

Lovejoy, Morgan, and Carl Fleischhauer. Dancing to Wax Cylinder Recordings. United States Nebraska Macy, 1983. Photograph. (Omaha Powwow Project Collection / American Folklife Center)
Lovejoy, Morgan, and Carl Fleischhauer. Dancing to Wax Cylinder Recordings. United States Nebraska Macy, 1983. Photograph. (Omaha Powwow Project collection (AFC 1986/038) / American Folklife Center)

You’ve led projects to digitize, catalog, and transcribe materials—for example, recordings of Indigenous languages. How can these digital collections help build meaningful relationships with researchers and communities?

In thinking about this, it helps me to start by keeping at the front of my mind that people have relationships already with collections that are from or about their communities. This is true even if it’s something they haven’t seen before. Sometimes the relationship is very direct: “That’s my grandma on that recording,” or “That’s my uncle in that photograph holding a quilt that my aunt made.” And so on. Or the relationship may be more generally in relation to shared heritage.

When collections are easier to access because of digitization and the improved cataloging that often accompanies it, community researchers can renew and energize these relationships. And for Indigenous peoples, who have so often been presented as a subject matter, treated as objects of study, there is also a need to reclaim these relationships and reassert themselves not as the topic of these materials, but as the active and present constituency.

The Library of Congress can use digital collections as a way to continue to reorient its perspective. While it’s true that digital collections are a way of bringing communities into the institution’s collections, we can misunderstand the situation as the library having the main relationship with the materials and then bringing communities into the fold. A different way to look at it is that it’s an opportunity for the library to enter into the presence of the inherent relationship between communities and the materials to which they’re related. In that way, the meaningful relationships that the library can build are as a positive contributor to something already there.

Toelken, Barre. Salish beadworker Adelaide Parker Matt at her ranch near Arlee, Flathead Indian Reservation, Montana. United States Arlee Montana, 1979. Arlee, Montana. Photograph. (Montana Folklife Survey collection (AFC 1981/005) / American Folklife Center)
Toelken, Barre. Salish beadworker Adelaide Parker Matt at her ranch near Arlee, Flathead Indian Reservation, Montana. United States Arlee Montana, 1979. Arlee, Montana. Photograph. (Montana Folklife Survey collection (AFC 1981/005) / American Folklife Center)

In your collaborations with Indigenous community members, what would you say are top priorities when it comes to library collections and services?

In terms of materials in the collections, language is always a top priority. When there are materials in the collection that are in or about a community’s heritage language (or languages), that’s almost always what community members or community entities we’re working want to prioritize first. Photographs are another very high priority. They have a more immediate impact and a wider appeal than written materials. They can really bring people together and share stories.

Regarding library services, a common emphasis that researchers from many Indigenous communities bring up the need to have clarity about what they can do with digital materials they obtain. A lot of the uses communities have in mind might not relate to publication, which is what rights information from libraries usually touches upon. Communities might want to put in it in their own archives, share copies locally, and so on. Even if there are no barriers to this at a particular institution in terms of policies, Indigenous community members may have a very reasonable expectation that they will encounter barriers of some kind, because of the long history of barriers to access and use of collections at institutions generally.

Matthews, Maureen Anne. Charlie George Owen and Margaret Simmons viewing Hallowell's photographs. Canada 1996. Photograph.
Matthews, Maureen Anne. Charlie George Owen and Margaret Simmons viewing Hallowell’s photographs. Canada 1996. Photograph.

Which collection or service at the Library of Congress really resonates with you? Is there anything you’d like to explore more?

I am a big fan of the Prints & Photographs collection. Just about anything I can think to type in there leads me to lots of fascinating images from which I can learn all sorts of new things quickly, as well as find great rabbit holes to follow and new directions I wouldn’t have thought about.

The map collection is a part of the Library of Congress I’d like to delve into a lot more. Maps were one of my favorite things to look at as a kid, from atlases to fold-out roadmaps. In my job, when it comes to maps, they perplex me a little bit, because I’m at a loss of how to convey their content. It can be unexpectedly hard to say what a map is about. Absence of details also emerge in comparing maps. Colleagues preparing an exhibition at the APS on maps in early U.S. history came across a couple maps of Tennessee from the 1820s and while one showed Cherokee settlements, the other did not show any. It wasn’t that those people weren’t there anymore, but that they had been omitted for strategic reasons.

Given the vastness of the Library of Congress map collection, I’m really interested in seeing more examples of what maps can show and not show at the same time, and imagining the possibilities of what insights people can bring to them through CCDI.

What have Indigenous individuals and groups taught you and/or the APS about technology and library collections and services that you have implemented or hope to implement?

Some of the most consequential changes of this kind are actually to very basic and boring-sounding things. For example, early on in our digitization of audio collections, when tribes would request digital files, we’d send them out a set of files that all had technical filenames that only mean something to a cataloger, but are meaningless if you’re looking at them in isolation. So, people would get a bunch of files that said, for example, “APSdigrec_4567, APSdigrec_4568,” and so on. My colleague, Tim, would call people a few months after they received the files and ask how things are going. Often, they would tell him that the files had just been sitting on someone’s computer unused because no one could tell what they were. We heard this same scenario related to us several times from different places, so we switched to sending files that had things like the names of collections and the titles of the things. We had to come up with a manual way of doing that. It’s pretty boring sounding stuff, but this change made a massive difference because it eliminated a really mundane pinch point that was getting in the way of everything else that these community members wanted to do.

Another example surrounds the habit of libraries and archives often have of putting different kinds of formats in different places. I can think of one case at the APS where there are these amazing photographs from Ojibwe communities from the 1930s, audio interviews done in the 1990s with community members talking about those photographs, and written transcripts of those interviews. These things are all obviously related, right? Well, the digital access system put them all in separate areas because they are different formats and different collections. That didn’t make any sense at all to the community members wanting to access these things and, say, move from an image to the audio discussing that image, and then to the transcript, and then jump from the text to another image in a different collection that’s mentioned there. We hope to implement some solutions that work for other similar scenarios.

It shows that the digital setting can dissociate related things like this more than bring them together, but there can also be possibilities for overcoming this and associating things in ways that reflect a sense of how the materials are related to each other that comes from people who are themselves directly related to the materials.

CCDI is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path program with support from the Mellon Foundation. This program provides fellowships and grants to individuals and institutions for projects that innovate, imagine, and remix Library materials to highlight the stories and perspectives of Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color from any of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and its territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands). Learn more about CCDI here.

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