Creative Technologist and 2018 Papamarkou Chair Tahir Hemphill Looks Back on his Year in the Archives

This is a guest post from Tahir Hemphill, the 2018 Harissios Papamarkou Chair in Education at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. The Labs team first met Tahir – a creative technologist, educator and radical archivist – when we invited him to speak at our Collections as Data: Impact conference about his work teaching data literacy at the Rap Research Lab. In this post, Tahir looks back on his year as the Papamarkou Chair and his capstone event playtest, a day long event at the Library featuring discussion and demos by practitioners whose work has relevance to the application of VR/AR and emerging media to humanities research, education and engagement.

Tahir Hemphill

Tahir Hemphill. Photo courtesy of Tamika Galanis.

I can’t believe it’s been 1 year since I was selected to be the Harissios Papamarkou Chair in Education at the John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress. For these past 12 months my daily operation has been to become intimate with the world’s largest library and to apply my creative research approach to showcasing the many ways its collections relate to us, the American people.

Containing more than 167 million items on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves and a staff of 3,105 people, on a material, historical, and political level, I’ve come to understand The Library itself as an object.

In every moment each object in The Library’s collection undergoes physical change; in every moment The Library’s staff transforms; and both are catalyzed when the public enters the building to engage with them. In this state of impermanence, comprehension of the entire collection is a luxury, if not completely impossible.

As artist in the archive, my goal has been to pressure the idea of The Library as a neutral space, and to complicate its role as a public monument and holder of public memory. As researcher, my interests are centered on the process of archiving the subjective. As education chair, my focus has been on The Library’s role in the interaction between electronic and traditional artifactual knowledge. These interests crystallized in the form of playtest, the day long series of demos and presentations I hosted at The Library.


Part of the playtest event was the opportunity to participate in an emerging media salon and engage with creators first-hand. Photo courtesy of Jared Nagel.

A social sculpture, this first edition of playtest was deployed to encourage some of the essential debates our democracy needs to be having about the future of knowledge, information and storytelling.

While still basking in the brilliance of all the theory and practice that each speaker shared, I’m also amped because of the warm feels I get when I am in service to my friends, chosen family and extended community. I made this video to capture a bit of our playtest vibe.

On my daily walk to work I pass between the Supreme Court of the United States and the United States Capitol Building. In light of how close in physical proximity my creative work space has been to this year’s unprecedented political drama, it was a DOPE experience designing a system to fill it with the energy of so many critical makers who have work focused on complicating questions of identity, race, gender, class and place.

In pursuit of this goal I’ve also gotten dusty in the archive and created three data sets that will provide source material for and inform my studio projects in 2019-2020:

1. A Visualization of Authority shows the changing political landscape by identifying the use history of a given Library of Congress Subject Authority Heading.

2. Courtesy of some teamwork with the Library of Congress law librarians, Rap Lyrics as Criminal Evidence will ask when and how one person’s lyric becomes another’s crime, and provide an interactive means of exploring the dynamics of that bias.

3. Transcriptions made of African American blues, spirituals and work songs from the Lomax Family Collections at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress are ripe for computational analysis. Enslaved Africans did not have the option for piety, so We Are What We Sing will interrogate the false dichotomy between the content of music that is sacred vs profane through a semantic analysis and re-recording of selected songs.

As we wrap up 2018, I’ve been discussing a plan with Library of Congress Labs which includes establishing a pipeline between our community of critical creative technologists and The Library.  If you have five minutes, I’d love it if you would respond in the comments to this question - For every subject of knowledge in the world there is a librarian at the Library of Congress who is knowledgeable in it. Tell me which Divisions and/or Objects at the Library you’d like to be in conversation with. I want to hear from as many people as possible.

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