Building a Postcolonial Knowledge Commons

In responding to COVID, how should research libraries use the opportunity to tackle the ongoing crisis of postcoloniality?

What’s next for the digital humanities? And how might they be part of changing our collective futures? As universities across the country reach the end of this unprecedented year, Public Books and Digital Humanities at MIT present a four-part series examining the role of the digital in the life of scholars and societies. In this moment of global reckoning around issues of virological, ecological, historical, and moral concern, some of the field’s top thinkers here ask how digital media and methods continue to challenge, harm, sustain, and liberate—and they show how investigations into the relationship between the digital and the human have only just begun.

Stephanie Ann Frampton

During the past year, it occurred to me that I have never experienced a moment in my career—neither as a historian nor as a research librarian—that has not been described as crisis. The entirety of my career as a historian has been situated in the “crisis in the humanities.” The various “crises” in research libraries, academic publishing, and the humanities have been so protracted that, in the context of COVID-19, it seems they are something more like a condition. But what is the nature of this condition, if not one of crisis?

The most lasting impact of COVID-19 for research libraries will be on how we think and contextualize narratives around crisis. Since last March, my workdays as a research-library administrator have been filled with genuine, time-sensitive crisis management. Topics demanding attention have included managing a facility shutdown (and then partial reopening); vetting and adjusting a suite of insurance coverages (liability insurance for the organization, health and life insurance for staff); and securing CARES Act funding to avoid having to furlough staff.

Simultaneously, I was leading an organization during a moment of national and international attention to racial justice and systems of inequity and violence too long borne by our Black colleagues and colleagues from other marginalized communities.

As I reflect on the state of research libraries, I see the present condition as one of postcoloniality. Indeed, the long-standing fissures in the institutions of scholarly production are related to this temporal and geographic context. Within research libraries, our mental maps, collections, and operations have for centuries been dedicated to operating and stewarding a knowledge-management apparatus created by and sustaining modernity: archival management and record keeping, print books, and scholarly journals. This knowledge-creating, knowledge-certifying, and knowledge-preserving system has led to exponential growth in human knowledge and ways of knowing.

But this singularly powerful knowledge regime, inspiring as it is, cannot and should not be bracketed off from less inspiring elements of modernity, including imperialism and colonialism. “We inhabit a moment of crisis, which is at the same time a moment of possibilities,” explains anthropologist David Scott, in Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality.1 “The old options are widely felt to be unattractive but new ones have yet to define themselves.”2

How, then, should the new options be defined? In responding to COVID-19, how should research libraries use the opportunity to tackle the ongoing crisis of postcoloniality?

It is tempting, in research libraries, to attribute the existential pressures in the field to the massive shift to digital frameworks. However, scholars working across disciplines have produced a wealth of scholarship to contextualize the digital revolution within a longer history of communications. In so doing, they have made it difficult to fully embrace a thesis of radical rupture between our digital moment and prior communications regimes.3 The relationship of digital archives to physical archives, then, may be defined not by disruption, but by continuity.

Sociologist Andrew Abbott noted in a 2017 talk that transformative innovations in knowledge technologies have developed with “monotonous regularity” for centuries. In fact, when it comes to technological change, “Our experience today is not in the least unusual.”4

And yet, there does appear to be something momentous at hand. Abbott himself concluded his lecture by claiming that no less than the “20th-century knowledge project” has reached exhaustion and needs to be rethought. It is clear that the edifices and institutions of scholarship are being remade. Even Abbott—a stalwart defender of a continuity thesis—recognizes that “we are in a new world,” and that the current moment calls for “radical change.”

These sentiments echo pathbreaking work done by anthropologist David Scott to clarify our current condition. “The new question for postcoloniality,” Scott observes, “turned not so much on the old idea of colonialism as a structure of material exploitation and profit (the question for anticoloniality) as on the idea of colonialism as a structure of organized authoritative knowledge (a formation, an archive) that operated discursively to produce effects of Truth about the colonized.”5 Indeed, Scott places knowledge production and knowledge management at the heart of the imperial project.

But if Scott (and, in a way, Abbott) are right, how can we break the continuity of coloniality? How can we build something new, in this time of new crisis?

In responding to COVID-19, how should research libraries use the opportunity to tackle the ongoing crisis of postcoloniality?

The Center for Research Libraries—of which I am president—was founded in 1949. A major cooperative effort on the part of the research-library community to build and steward international collections, the CRL today represents a major research collection of over 6 million analog items and over 60 million pages of digital content, representing all world regions.

I cannot help but note that CRL’s creation in 1949 makes its history coterminous with the decolonizing projects of the 20th century. As we move forward at CRL, foregrounding a postcolonial framework is essential. Such a framework is necessary not only to accurately understand our context but also to ensure that we move forward in ways that align with our organizational and professional values of diversity, equity, and inclusivity in service to the public good.

At CRL, we—like so many others in the world of research libraries, archives, and museums—are engaged with three fundamental questions:

  • How shall we foreground values of diversity, inclusivity, and equity in our collections and services and in how we collaborate?
  • How do the principle of open access and the push to create an open knowledge ecosystem change our approach to collective collecting?
  • How do we responsibly steward analog collections in a digital ecosystem?

These questions, and how we answer them, will have long-standing effects on our scholarly record, cultural heritage, and research. To ethically address these questions, it is essential for us to pay attention to—and be mindful of—our postcolonial context. For instance, building research collections that center voices and stories at risk of being marginalized or lost is essential to a vibrant and effective curatorial effort.

Yet appreciating postcoloniality requires more than diversifying our research collections. Too often in the past, research libraries, museums, and archives adopted an extractive approach to acquiring and building international collections. Going forward, we need to create and steward collections within global networks of collaboration that are mindful of systems of inequity and that provide increased agency, power, and leadership to colleagues in the global South.

A postcolonial frame is likewise essential if the open-access movement is to advance in ways that realize its early promise and advance its deepest values. At present, there is growing awareness that the open-access movement to date has privileged a European and global North perspective. The movement must amount to more than the removal of paywalls to the research products of the global North for an audience that includes the global South.

Finally, we need a stronger appreciation for print as one of many communication technologies—one that retains efficacy, particularly in the global South. A rash push to digital formats, without an attendant appreciation for this, risks perpetuating long-standing inequities in the global knowledge commons.


Opening the Anthropocene Archives

By James Lee

The genuine crisis of COVID-19 has helped me better contextualize and understand the previous narratives of crises that have informed my career. Seen in this new way, those former crises seem both smaller and larger than before.

I see the stresses on research libraries as being part of a postcolonial condition, rather than a crisis—as it has no defined beginning or end. This condition, though marked by crisis, is one that is filled with extraordinary possibility. 


This article was commissioned by Stephanie Ann Frampton and Carolyn Dever. icon

  1. David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism After Postcoloniality (Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 215.
  2. Ibid.
  3. See, for instance, Ann Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (Yale University Press, 2011); Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge University Press, 1979); Anthony Grafton, Codex in Crisis (Crumpled, 2008); Andrew Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance (Yale University Press, 2010); Leah Price, What We Talk about When We Talk about Books: The History and Future of Reading (Basic, 2019); Andrew M. Stauffer, Book Traces: Nineteenth-Century Readers and the Future of the Library (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021); Stephanie Ann Frampton, Empire of Letters: Writing in Roman Literature and Thought from Lucretius to Ovid (Oxford University Press, 2019).
  4. Andrew Abbott, “The Future of Expert Knowledge” (lecture presented to the second meeting of the DFG Research Network, November 30, 2017).
  5. Scott, Refashioning Futures, p. 12.
Featured image: The Wroclaw University Library in Poland, founded in 1811, is home to thousands of historical prints and medieval manuscripts, as well as rare maps, liturgical texts, and original sheet music. The library has undertaken the project of digitally preserving these works and making them available online for the first time. Photograph by j_cadmus / Wikimedia Commons