Digital Libraries and Social Justice

by Charles Henry

November 3, 2016

This summer, CLIR announced funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the initial planning phase of the Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME). This project’s impetus is the tragic violence and loss of life currently afflicting the Middle East and North Africa regions, accompanied by rampant looting and destruction of priceless objects of plastic art, rare books and manuscripts, and architecture. In planning to construct a virtual library populated by digital surrogates of the cultural legacy of the Middle East, we aspire to provide greater security for those artifacts at most risk by creating electronic records with appropriate metadata and high resolution imagery that can be easily traced by provenance and history and, if stolen, tracked across borders. While the immediate objective is helping to secure the region’s cultural and intellectual record, we also fervently hope that in times of peace the DLME becomes a teaching and scholarly repository of great depth and scope, open to the world as a public good.

Reflecting on the exceptionally complex circumstances that inform the DLME, a previous blog described the project as a technological effort that has the potential to support tenets of social justice if it is designed thoughtfully and empathetically. But what do we mean by a digital library designed to be an agent of a humanitarian political philosophy?

The idea of social justice dates back millennia, with discussions of the topic found in the philosophies of the ancient eastern Mediterranean, the Qur’an, later Spinoza and Hume, and more recently informing the works of John Dewey and John Rawls. Not surprisingly, social justice as a concept has evolved to include a spectrum of arguments that ponder social, economic, and political stability, incorporating equality as a defining principle, as well as legal rights and liberties. Deliberations concerning a state’s obligation to provide education, health care, shelter, and other services appear more frequently in writings over the last century.

Within this rich milieu of ideas, there are two general features I would like to emphasize in regard to digital libraries. One is a process, the other is an emerging condition. The process of dialog, or conversation, is integral to social justice. Like any encompassing system of thought, social justice entails a wide range of notional differences, but generally it describes the preferred relationship of an individual to a state or society—society meaning a reasonably ordered community with shared institutions and a shared culture—and the society’s obligations to the individuals that constitute it. In social justice writings there is often an explicit assumption that individuals are in part social as well as independent agents with degrees of autonomy. In this respect the process of defining elements of social justice is a discourse, a negotiation between an individual’s actuation and a society’s or state’s responsibility.

The second aspect of social justice relevant to digital libraries can be found in some of the writings of Baruch Spinoza. A harbinger of the Enlightenment, he was one of the first to interpret social justice as a means to promote and advance human capacity. Capacity can be understood as a measure of the knowledge we can accumulate or contain and our attendant ability to understand and utilize that knowledge. This combination of a process of a dialogic exchange and the condition of increased proficiency and aptitude seems to me at the heart of a digital library and the individuals and communities it supports.

This tenet of social justice seems inherent as a core value of a well-tempered digital environment and a principle for designing robust, flexible, digital libraries like the DLME. The rich content typically maintained in our virtual libraries, made subject to idiosyncratic inquiry, designed increasingly to afford results well beyond the simplicity of key word searches—semantic engines, pattern recognition, text and data mining, distant reading—these and other emerging applications expand our reach and enrich our existential context, weaving us into a wider epistemological scheme.

Capacity can be understood as an evolving condition that emerges from the dialog parcel to establishing and maintaining social justice when we consider the attributes, organization, and taxonomies of content typical of a twenty-first century digital library. The content that is made accessible, searchable, and reusable is often described as representative of our cultural heritage. Cultural heritage—defined as the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations—is unequivocally socially constructed. Individuals interacting with this organized knowledge effectively engage in a dialogic negotiation. Our private interests and beliefs both inform and are recontextualized by the accepted norms of description, values, domains of discourse, and custom that characterize a social order that coheres within the vast content of our virtual libraries. This is a vital conversation, intrinsic to advancing our understanding of self and community.

The interplay between one’s self and the larger society by means of a digital library also creates a more organic symbiosis at other levels of expression. While we tend to elevate individuals for their extraordinary achievements, new insight and discovery is far more often an aspect of community wherein intellectual pursuit that is reasonably unfettered from traditional bounds and methods is prized. Think of the remarkable achievements—art and literature, music, the advancement of science—that occurred in Athens, Vienna, and Baghdad. More recently, we can look to Bell Labs in the twentieth century as smaller-scale experiment that produced a staggering number of new technologies by encouraging cross disciplinary interaction in a series of buildings that helped dissolve the walls and traditional professional fences that can inhibit collective curiosity. A thoughtfully architected digital library should thus accommodate the individual as well as provide space for collaboration that is not contingent upon traditional demarcations of study, or confined to parochial fences that can bound ethnicity, geographical location, nationality, or creed.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that we—both as individuals and communities bound by social contracts—unavoidably inhabit the machines we build. The algorithms that formulate the results of inquiry are informed by our interests, biases, and presumptions. The organization of knowledge contained in our digital environments is similarly constructed within the present context of our collective understanding. When an individual accesses that knowledge and begins to explore, she is entering a vast world of information predicated in part on collectively approved associations and conformities, an example of the more subtle dialog that characterizes the digital environment writ large.

By acknowledging these properties and relationships inherent in the use of a digital library, we can gainfully utilize them and, when necessary, transcend them. While our built digital environment consists of substantive materials such as plastic, silicon, glass, and plasma, and its contents are often surrogates of tangible, physical objects, our interaction with them is perhaps an ontology of its own, a procedural dialog that contributes to the evolution both of the user and the knowledge engaged. Such a relationship should epitomize fairness, for what is more fundamental to achieving the idea of social justice than fairness? While we reckon that absolute fairness is probably not attainable, building a digital library that promotes equity of access, performs impartially, can be queried in ways that are both playful and stochastic, is nonjudgmental, and learns is a reasonable proposition. We, as individuals and as collective denizens of this small world, gain.

These are the conditions that will frame the Digital Library of the Middle East, for which we will contribute service and expertise under the leadership of our colleagues in the region. It may be the DLME will provide a model for future regional digital libraries that in time can be networked into a global enterprise of astonishing capacity, both in the volume of its content and its affordance of deepening understanding, a grand library susceptible to questions small and breathtaking, for the first step to enriching capacity is often, is it not, in any language, and from any position of self and circumstance, a question?

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