For this month's departmental reading group, we read Jacqueline Wernimont's "Listening, Care, and Collections as Data," published in the Journal of Critical Digital Librarianship. Wernimont's invited paper discusses a data sonification project from Eugenic Rubicon, an ongoing project seeks to connect histories of eugenic sterilization in California institutions to contemporary conversations about reproductive, disability, and racial justice by making this data and histories visible, accessible and interactive. The paper documents an experiment to explore a subset of data regarding sterilization of Hispanic communities through haptic and sound interaction. Wernimont reflects on the development and presentation of the experiment, raising important challenges for humanizing stories of reproductive injustice and engaging sensitive collections.
For our team, this subproject generated rich conversations about digital performance, collections as data, and approaching projects dealing with histories of violence. We noted the longstanding connection between eugenics and statistics, and efforts by other institutions to eliminate or exclude access to data collected with the attempt to harm communities. While intrigued by the interest in sonification, we agreed with participant concerns regarding the experiment's attempts to balance creative approaches to data with scholarly and community contexts necessary to fully understand the dataset. Especially in this case, where the project data dealt with histories of the body, we wished that the experiment had more fully explored how physical interaction with data reflected those histories.
Wernimont's paper highlighted two key calls to action for our team:
- How can we make sure that ethics of care extends throughout a project's development and outreach? Both Wernimont and our team were concerned for how data collection and remediation can cause community harm. We discussed different collaborators who could be brought on in projects like this, such as community, sensitivity, and trauma consultants who could assist in foregrounding these questions. We also discussed opportunities for working with ethical review boards on campus to establish similar frameworks for digital projects working with sensitive data.
- What are the distinct goals for data within a project? As Wernimont mentions, ethical uses of data can often be at odds with aims for transparency and accessibility. We attempt to have frank discussions with project teams about project objectives like visibility, accessibility, and interactivity, describing and detailing them to have key indicators of what goals a project may have to meet those objectives.