Collections as Data & Information Literacy

The Collections as Data team is pleased to share a guest post by John Russell and Allyssa Bruce. In October 2017, John taught Humanities Librarianship in a Digital Age for Library Juice Academy. The second week of the course focused on The Santa Barbara Statement on Collections as Data, asking the students to reflect on what it means to think about humanities collections as data (or sources of data) and to respond to the statement generally. Allyssa was one of the students in the course and she noted a connection between the statement’s principles and the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. The following post is an initial attempt by John and Allyssa to think through the connections between information literacy and collections as data.

Collections as Data & Information Literacy

John Russell (Penn State University) and Allyssa Bruce (Kansas State University)

The Santa Barbara Statement on Collections as Data proposes a set of principles aimed at cultural heritage institutions building digital collections. A number of the principles encourage us to expand how we think of collection access by suggesting inclusion of instructional material and documentation that “helps others find a path to doing the work” (principle 6). That the Santa Barbara Statement makes such a close connection between the collection and instruction aspects of librarianship is an exciting development and something worth exploring more. As we engaged with these principles, we came to appreciate that they speak to information literacy efforts and intersect with the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. While we believe that it is generative and beneficial to read the entirety of the Santa Barbara Statement through the ACRL Framework and vice versa, in this space we will just tease out how to think through one frame, Authority is Constructed and Contextual, in terms of the Statement’s principles.

One of the core tenets of Collections as Data is ethics. Our collections are one way in which cultural heritage institutions express relationships with information creators and information users. What we choose to include in our collections and how we choose to describe those materials lends institutional authority to particular perspectives, reinforcing the status of some creators and users over others. The Santa Barbara Statement frequently appeals to the ethical commitments we have to our users, advocating for community-driven development and access (principle 5), respecting the rights and needs of creators and users, and greater transparency about inequities inherent in our collections, how they are described, and how they can be accessed (principle 3). These principles ask institutions to pay attention to who collections are developed for, whose perspectives are represented, and who is able to access collections. By centering ethics, the Santa Barbara Statement encourages greater openness about our digital collections and foregrounds concerns about authority.

The Santa Barbara Statement calls for a rethinking of data documentation, turning our README files and codebooks into sites where provenance, ethics, and, we contend, information literacy can intersect (principles 3, 4, and 6). When we make our ethical commitments visible through documentation, we are allowing users to better assess both how authority can be constructed as well as how these collections obscure or incorporate other viewpoints and voices. Our more ethical collection documentation is also an instructional tool and we should see documentation as another opportunity for living out our professional commitments to information literacy. In fact, taking these principles seriously illuminates a path for pedagogy that frames our digital collections as something with which students can critically engage by assessing strengths and gaps, especially in terms of missing narratives. Additionally, documentation and the pedagogical approach that follows can help more novice users unpack different forms of authority and their inherent limitations.

Central to the ethical core of the Santa Barbara Statement and the “Authority is Constructed” frame is understanding the situation in which information is created and in which it will be used. Both support the view that information is embedded in social contexts; this acknowledgement empowers critical evaluation of the information resources that we include in our collections. The statement explicitly warns about, “what is hidden or missing in the histories [collections] are perceived to represent”, and asks that institutions, “be mindful of these absences and plan to work against their repetition” (paragraph 4). This call for contextual awareness about digital collections provides a natural entry point for students and librarians to explore information literacy as outlined in the ACRL Framework. The Santa Barbara Statement principles provide a frame for students to evaluate collections and use their own developing disciplinary expertise to engage with the ethical realities of library collections and the ways in which those collections manifest authority.

Seeing principled collection documentation as instructional also helps clarify the ways our collections can connect with our instruction program. Knowledge of the Santa Barbara Statement principles can help with instruction based on digital collections, creating a baseline that can be used to assess digital sources. First, students can use the principles as a way to evaluate collections and work through questions such as:

  • Whose voices/perspectives are most prevalent in the collection?
  • Whose voices/perspectives are missing (that are relevant to the subject matter)?
  • Who can access these collections and why?

As students advance in expertise, they can build on these initial questions and begin thinking about how to amplify certain perspectives or otherwise try to imagine what kinds of sources would help complete (or make more ethical) the collection in question; they can also consider how these factors inform the creation of research questions. More advanced engagement could involve having students formally work with institutional collections to identify sources and create ethical and principled data collections.

The Santa Barbara Statement presents principles that are centered on the ethical responsibility cultural heritage institutions have in contextualizing their data collections. When collections are accompanied with documentation that provides information describing provenance, ethical issues, data collection methods, and instructional material, cultural heritage institutions directly address issues of authority by ensuring that users can understand data collection contexts. Additionally, this documentation supports students learning information literacy by helping them to consider what perspectives are present, whose are missing, how access is connected to privilege, and what the answers to these questions imply.