Bad-Ass Librarians

Timbuktu manuscript library: termites' work
Timbuktu manuscript by Leslie Lewis, (2011) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9hv7Lq

I just started reading the book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer. It chronicles the adventures of a group of determined librarians who rescued centuries-old handwritten Islamic manuscripts in North Africa. First, going house to house in small villages to collect and preserve ancient works from the depredations of dust, moisture and termites. Then later, pulling off a massive rescue to keep the assembled libraries of texts from deliberate destruction at the hands of Al Qaeda extremists.

I am lucky to have encountered many Bad-Ass librarians (including archivists, information scientists and Wiki-enthusiasts) in my adventures. I hope that some number among my readership. Their efforts at preserving and disseminating information have enriched my education and work life, as well as to satisfy my personal curiosity. I also continue to benefit from the easy accessibility of reliable information ensured by these data warriors.

Some vintage Bad-Ass Librarians:

5748745311_438c1ab5b3_b
Library confusion, 23/12/1952, by Sam Hood, State Library of New South Wales on Flickr Commons https://flic.kr/p/9KZPGt

 
I remember in 6th grade, I had an assignment to create a graph for a social studies project. My mom and I went to the main branch of the Johnson County Public Library. A reference librarian helped us locate and photocopy a table of data from a US Government publication that I could use to create my line graph. Later, in my undergraduate climate lab, we downloaded NASA satellite temperature data to analyze differences over land and oceans. I use Wikipedia daily, to explore unfamiliar topics or confirm knowledge only dimly remembered.

However, information is only as good as the paper it’s printed on, or as solid as the computer servers where it is stored. A careless (or deliberate) hand with a shredder or unplugged computer can reduce public access to data sets, effectively eradicating years of accumulated work. A few weeks ago, I heard that a group of volunteers in Toronto & Philadelphia were rushing to preserve scientific data now freely available on the internet, lest policy changes by the incoming US administration decide to remove those data sets from public view.

Data Rescue events organized by scientists and librarians were popping all over the place, including one in Ann Arbor, MI. When they put out a call for volunteers (all you needed was a laptop and charger, no tech experience needed), I signed up.

We had a list of federal government scientific data websites which were parceled out to teams of volunteers. A lot of the process was figuring out whether data was stored on “crawlable” or “uncrawlable” websites. Crawlable sites could be tagged with a special tool that would automatically upload a copy to the Internet Archive. Uncrawlable sites required figuring out other ways of downloading data (accomplished by more technically adept teams). One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to check off “completed” sites from the list (many of the websites were circular and labyrinthine), and how to communicate that information to the other groups so that we didn’t duplicate efforts.

That morning, I sat down with a group of students, librarians and community members I had never met before, got some bagels and coffee, and got to work. When I stood up 5 hours later, it felt like only a few minutes had passed, but we had logged hundreds of web pages.

Michigan Radio reported on the event, which logged 19,000 links to the Internet Archive’s End-of-Term project, and preserved more than 1.5TB of data from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It was satisfying to be part of a grassroots event that protected public data for continuing use by researchers, students and citizens, even if the Federal agencies make the decision not to host the information anymore on their servers. In a political landscape filled with rancor and uncertainty, it felt good to be able to actively contribute to a small act of resistance.

However, there is much more work to be done. For example, the USDA removed a database of information regarding animal welfare complaints from its website last Friday, drawing attention from animal welfare advocates. The work of the “guerrilla archivists” and Data Rescue volunteers has brought greater scrutiny to how government agencies under new political leadership limit access to previously public information.

For more news coverage of Data Rescue events, check out this list of publications.

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