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Don’s Conference Notes: The NISO 2023 Miles Conrad Lecture

by | Mar 5, 2023 | 0 comments


By Donald T. Hawkins

The Miles Conrad Award is NISO’s highest honor. It was established in honor of G. Miles Conrad whose work in the 1950s led to the founding of NFAIS, one of NISO’s predecessors. The recipient of the award presents a lecture at each NISO Plus meeting.

Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble

The 2023 Miles Conrad lecturer was Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble, Professor of Gender Studies and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She is an internet studies scholar, whose work is both sociological and interdisciplinary, focusing on the ways that digital media intersects with issues of race, gender, culture, power, and technology. She is the author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (NYU Press, 2018), a best-selling book on racist and sexist algorithmic bias in commercial search engines, and she has written and spoken widely on issues of discrimination and technology bias. In 2021, Dr. Noble was recognized as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow (also known as the “Genius Award”) for her ground-breaking work on algorithmic discrimination, and in 2022, she was the inaugural recipient of the NAACP-Archewell Digital Civil Rights Award. Dr. Noble holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Library & Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a B.A. in Sociology from California State University, Fresno where she was awarded the Distinguished Alumna Award for 2018. 

Dr. Noble said that her talk is a provocation for our field and discussed decolonizing standards. We tend to rest on relationships that often are unseen, not acknowledged, and ignored. We remember the text-based internet, in which we had to do rudimentary searches on the commercial web. Now we have a much more sophisticated understanding of technologies, protocols, and interoperability. The public knows little about the structures and organizations of these systems. They trust that the people behind the scenes will use the right sources to curate the best results of a search. For us, studying what the public is engaged with is very important. We are working in a field that has not made political commitments entirely clear. We have ideas about access, but institutions have histories about opening up scientific knowledge to some people, but precluding access to information by others. 

We know that early efforts such as Vannevar Bush and his Memex machine were very important: The projects of early scientific librarians and info scientists occurred with the Manhattan Project during World War II. Scientific knowledge moves around depending who has access to it. We are still dealing with the effects of colonization and the occupation of indigenous people’s lands. What does it mean when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)?  What would it be like to live in a world where people do not live under oppression? The American public wants to live in a world where everyone has rights, which gives us a different way of thinking about our projects. 

We live in a moment where we have unprecedented global inequalities, but where scientific knowledge is so important. We must understand what a high quality of life means when we share and are interconnected with interests around the world. We also have new conceptions of things like climate change. Communities becoming unavailable changes the way we look at science and is an example of decolonizing it. We also have concerns about equal educational access and must think about how to make educational equity equal to all students. Much information is behind paywalls where only members of subscribing organizations have access to it. What is our role in opening access to knowledge? The most searched for information in searches is health-related (in the US, but not Canada, the UK and countries with socialized medicine).

We have spent hundreds of years organizing whatever we can, ordering the world to determine a superior class of humans. We are contending now with not only standardization of people but the making of models we can use to organize human beings; for example, models for facial recognition, credit worthiness, future success in college, and whether we should get a loan. Machine learning is ingesting so much data that it is organizing us. 

We need to think about the underlying socializing of information. Our field has much to offer and should be in the forefront of working with the knowledge of what we have inherited and what we can contribute to. 

Are there business models that publishers, libraries, etc. can use to make information accessible to the world and introduce new ways of thinking about the future we want? We do not have a static orientation to our world but are living in a moment where there is much organization of power. Who gets to organize knowledge and information?  We have an opportunity to be an example of how we think about DEI and find a way forward in our world, so we need a different vantage point on information. What does it mean that we are saving everything? Our curatorial function needs a refresh. We must acknowledge the incredible power we have to transform our world. 

Read our full report on NISO Plus 2023 HERE!


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