Connecting Communities Digital Initiative – Introducing Brian Foo

We are thrilled to introduce Brian Foo, who recently joined the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) as a Senior Innovation Specialist. You may recognize Brian from his previous work on Citizen DJ. He served as a Library Innovator-in-Residence in 2020. In his role on the CCDI team, Brian will work closely with CCDI grantees to support their outreach efforts and the technical aspects of their work.

We interviewed Brian to learn more about his new role, how he imagines the Library can reach new audiences, and how understanding the barriers to Library collections and the Library’s systems can support researchers and creatives.

A photo of Brian Foo, who is a Senior Innovation Specialist on the CCDI team.

Brian Foo is a Senior Innovation Specialist with the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative. [Photo by Brian Foo]

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

Thank you, I’m so excited to be here!  As a Senior Innovation Specialist, I see my role in two parts: the first is to support and amplify the work of CCDI’s grantees. I hope to do this through deep technical and creative collaborations and consultations with grantees to ensure they meet or exceed their goals and reach their intended audiences. The second part of my role is to identify barriers and limitations that the grantees encounter as they implement their projects. I will then work with staff across the Library to collaboratively address those barriers and limitations through incremental change of Library systems, processes, and policies.

What interested you about working with CCDI?

When I read the goals of CCDI, I was struck by how much they resonated and aligned with my personal and professional work and approach. In particular, I was drawn to the goal of adding and amplifying stories of historically underrepresented communities through innovative uses of technology and the Library’s collections. I have spent my career as an artist and library professional exploring the different aspects of this topic. However, in my previous positions, amplifying underrepresented communities was an implicit or unofficial goal largely driven by personal goals or staff initiatives.  To be able to perform this work at our nation’s library in an official capacity was an opportunity I could not pass up.

As a previous Innovator-in-Residence at the Library, how will your previous experience with Citizen DJ inform your approach to working with CCDI’s grantees? How does your work on that project connect to your work on CCDI?

My time as an Innovator-in-Residence (IIR) at the Library was a transformative experience for me personally and professionally. I’m excited about the opportunity to provide similarly transformative experiences to other artists, scholars, educators, and cultural heritage professionals. As a previous IIR, I understand how large, complex, and often intimidating the Library collections are to individual creators. I would like to use this experience to clarify and demystify Library collections, systems, and policies for grantees. I also look forward to cultivating and building upon the amazing network of staff that helped my project succeed.

The logo for Citizen DJ, an application that Brian Foo developed while he served as an Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress.

Citizen DJ is an application Brian developed as a 2020 Innovator in Residence.

Citizen DJ sought to connect Library materials with new audiences using the language and artform of hip hop, a global music culture originally founded as a medium of protest, empowerment, and documentation by Black and Latinx youth in New York City. I think this is where my project connects with the goals of CCDI.  While hip hop has grown exponentially over the decades and has become a bridge between communities of all colors and backgrounds, it remains a tool for social change and amplifying voices of marginalized communities of color.  In my new role, I would like to continue exploring how to use technology and Library materials in creative ways that speak directly to communities of color. This would mean expanding the Library’s modes, mediums, and methods of outreach and engagement.

You are no stranger to remixing and re-using Library materials to create projects of your own. CCDI’s program also focuses on the remixing and reusing of Library materials. How do you think imaginative uses of digital collections can help the Library reach new audiences?

This is an aspect of CCDI that I am very much looking forward to! Providing a platform for talented and creative voices from historically underrepresented communities will fundamentally help the Library reach new audiences. I think that when many Americans hear of the Library of Congress, they picture a place for elite scholars or researchers—not necessarily a place for them. But if they see surprising or imaginative uses of the collections by creators from their communities, it may help break that perception. My aspiration is that when anyone—an amateur artist, a student filmmaker, or an aspiring writer—from anywhere in the country is looking for inspiration or source material for their projects, they think of the Library of Congress, their library, first.

What is the potential for pairing technology with creative storytelling approaches that center Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and/or other communities of color?

There is a long history of communities of color re-purposing technology to tell the stories they want and doing it how they want.  I explored this during my residency through the history of hip-hop technologies: in the 70s, the earliest DJs repurposed the record player as an expressive tool via turntablism and the scratch. In the 80s and 90s, samplers and synthesizers were manipulated to merge soulful samples and futuristic synth tones. In the 90s and 00s, audio cassettes, CDs, and MP3s were repurposed to create an entire mixtape culture that allowed aspiring rappers and producers to sidestep mainstream radio. And the list goes on. Technologies are often built with a white audience in mind usually at the expense of communities of color. We can start to see the effects of this in today’s emerging technologies like voice or facial recognition, generative AI, or virtual reality. My goal is to work closely with grantees to critique, repurpose, and reclaim technologies to empower their work and unique voices.

Your role on the CCDI team is focused on the technical dimensions of grantees’ projects. How will understanding the Library’s technology ecosystem be significant to this work? What opportunities do you think this could provide for the initiative and the Library long-term?

My understanding of the Library’s technology ecosystem, which includes Library systems, policies, processes, and staff, will be critical to CCDI’s work. In addition to helping grantees navigate the Library’s technology ecosystem to implement their projects, my role will also document the grantees’ journeys through this ecosystem. I’m particularly interested in looking for barriers that either exclude potential candidates or prevent current or future grantees from achieving their project goals. I’m committed to working collaboratively and constructively with staff across the Library to effectively remove these barriers so that

What else are you passionate about? Do you have any hobbies you’d like to share?

I always try to have a side project going at any given time.  I find it’s healthy to have creative projects that don’t have any deadlines or reporting lines! My projects usually have to do with a particular topic or skill that I want to learn or develop—or it might just be for fun. Another reason I’m excited to be here at the Library is because it seems like staff tend to have all sorts of interesting hobbies, obsessions, and side projects. My current obsession is designing and building my own electronic music instruments. I’m always up for chatting about fun ideas and experiments!

CCDI is part of the Library’s Mellon-funded Of the People: Widening the Path initiative. This four-year program provides grants to individuals, organizations and institutions to create projects using the Library’s digital collections and that center one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color. Learn more about CCDI here.

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