Observation: Visitors, artwork, and technology at the Museum of Modern Art

In 2013 the Guggenheim hosted a James Turrell’s retrospective that transformed the iconic rotunda of the Guggenheim into Aten Reign, a large scale and site specific work using light, changing colors, air and space, and the curves of the museum itself. Turrell transformed the Guggenheim into a site for artful reflection for all who entered the space. Rather than an object to look at or a subject to contemplate, the experience of being in this transformed space was the work of art. “A lot of it is the idea of seeing yourself seeing, and how we perceive” Turrell has said of his work that lacks image, object, or “one place of focus” (Guggenheim).

During the length of this exhibition, there was no art on the walls of the Guggenheim’s spiraled hallway. Visitors were encouraged to lay on the ground of the lobby and gaze at the ceiling, which, using light and color, had been transformed into overlapping ovals of bright fluorescent hues. It was ethereal, magical, meditative, sublime. In an attempt to preserve the sense of bliss and encourage quiet, unmediated reflection, no photography was allowed in the space. 

Something I can say with complete certainty is that hearing a security guard shout into an echoing rotunda “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” every two minutes was not conducive to an ethereal, magical, meditative, or sublime experience. Something I learned during my visit to the Guggenheim that day was that visitors will do whatever they want. They will get the validation of their experience that they expect. They will share their experience no matter what.

This experience, six years ago, has stuck with me and prompted me to think about how the relationship between people and their smartphones has affected the experience of viewing art in a museum gallery setting. This experience, among others, has largely influenced my interest in museum studies, digital media, and tech theory. 


I used to always bring a journal into a gallery and take notes on the works I liked, the artists, themes, books I should follow up with. Now I take photos of wall texts, books I want to look into, and of other people taking photos in the galleries. Sometimes I feel weary and critical of my own increased use of technology in galleries, but recognize that people, including myself, want to personalize, document, and share their experiences. In Finding Augusta, Cooley discusses Michel Foucault’s conception of “speaking the self,” and that often “much of what we document of ourselves transpires at the nonconscious level of the proto-self, at the level of impulse” (Cooley, 2014). This interest in “speaking the self” extends into many, if not all, facets of our digitally connected world.

Prompted by this assignment to conduct an observation relating to information studies and our personal interests, I decided to do an observation at the Museum of Modern Art. My intention was to observe specifically how people use technology, specifically smartphones, in a museum gallery setting. 

Perspective, or, guiding questions for assignment

General questions to guide my inquiry:

  1. How do people engage with art in a museum gallery setting?
  2. How do people engage with technology  in a museum gallery setting (both their own devices or provided by the museum)?
  3. How does technology, specifically the use of personal devices, mediate a viewer’s experience with art in a museum gallery setting?
  4. What do people do with their personal devices? Social media, digital scrapbooks, text messaging, etc?
  5. How does the use of technology by others affect an individuals experience in a museum gallery setting?

Specific questions for observations:

  1. How many people who walked through the gallery used a photo to take a photo of a work of art?
  2. How many people used their phone for non-art related purposes, namely, communication?
  3. What other phone use did people engage in?
  4. How many people used a camera to take a photo of a work of art or the gallery?
  5. What other technology was used (either personal devices or provided by museum)

Observations and data

I sat between rooms 205 and 206 (marked on Fig 1) within an exhibition titled “1970’s-Present.” Immediately upon entering this exhibition space on the second floor of the museum, there were large paintings by Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, and Basquiat. Further into the gallery I found a place to sit, where I could observe visitors walking through the gallery in either direction. My focus was on visitors who walked into room 205 and then through rooms 205 and 206. 

Fig 1. Area I was observing marked in pen.

I used a worksheet to tally how people took photos of artwork in these gallery rooms with a smartphone, camera, or other device. Using a tally system I recorded how many people used their phone for communication (in some cases I couldn’t tell, in some cases I could see that people were texting, snapchatting, emailing, on Instagram, etc.). When I could, I recorded when people were using their phone for non communication or photographic purposes. The accuracy of these recordings were to the best of my observations as someone casually sitting on a bench in the gallery (I did not walk up to people or move to try to see anyone’s screens).

Fig 2. Worksheet/observations

Breakdown of tally (from Fig 2):

Phones used to take pictures33
Phones used for communication22
Other phone use5
Cameras used to take photos5
Other tech* seen
*Airpods, iPads, earpods

I realized while taking these observations that I did not include a section for audio guides. I added a section on my worksheet, but studying and observing audio guide use in the galleries could be an entirely separate set of observations and data that could easily include analytics from the devices.

A few things that stood out to me during these observations and while reflecting on the data:

  1. Within the scope of half an hour I had collected more data and notes than expected. I had intended to stay in the gallery for one hour but decided to end observing at half an hour.
  1. Almost as many visitors used their phones to communicate as take photos of the works, although visitors mostly used their phones to take photos.
  1. It was noticeable how many people idly held their phones in their hands. Rather than reaching for a phone from a pocket or bag to take a picture or send a text, the phone was constantly ready to be used. 

This last phenomena of visitors constantly holding their phone also points directly to our class discussion around Steve Jobs saying of the iPhone that it “fits beautifully in the palm of your hand.” This also relates to Foucault’s conception of “speaking the self” mentioned earlier, where we, as visitors in a cultural institution, see something that we react to (either emotionally, aesthetically, personally, etc) and find ourselves compelled to document and/or share. By focusing on cell phone use within the space of the gallery, I was in a unique position to notice a seemingly small detail that could have interesting implications in understanding how people connect to their technology in a museum setting.

Further research

Further research may include doing similar observations near works of art that are of higher profile. Had there been a place to sit and observe unobtrusively, I may have chosen to sit in the room with the Haring, Holzer, and Basquiat works. Immediately upon entering the 1970’s-Present exhibition, visitors are confronted with large scale, recognizable, and graphically engaging works by artists that are more recognizable than in the rest of the gallery. I am confident that different observations would have been recorded in that space given those particular works of art.

Further research that would be fruitful would be to understand what visitors do with their photos after they’re taken. If asked, “what are you going to do with that photo you just took?” Answers could range from, “I want to post it to my Facebook page,” to “I want to save this memory,” to “I am sending it to my friend who loves this artist,” to “I am working on a research paper.” I am interested in what the actual responses would be and their frequency. 


The conversation about technology in art and museum spaces is continuing to unfold as our lives and relationships become more and more mediated by technology. Much thought is being put into how museums and cultural institutions should relate to users and their lifestyles, many institutions have dramatically changed their photography policies in the past decade (Gilbert 2016), a direct result of the ubiquity of smartphones and visitors interest (and adamance) in documenting their experiences. As technology changes and evolves in ways that affect habits and our attachment to convenience and accessibility of social media, public institutions will need to grapple with how these developments affect their mission, rules, and expectations of visitors. 

Works referenced

Cooley, Heidi Rae. Finding Augusta: Habits of Mobility and Governance in the Digital Era. Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2014.

Gilbert, Sophie. 2016. “Please Turn On Your Phone in the Museum.” The Atlantic. Accessed October 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/10/please-turn-on-your-phone-in-the-museum/497525/ 

“Introduction to James Turrell.” The Guggenheim Museum. Accessed October 2019. https://www.guggenheim.org/video/introduction-to-james-turrell

Person, Place, Thing: A Lion, a Witch and a Wardrobe

The public library has played the role of a site of respite for my family, dependably familiar and inviting for us and countless others. This space, the children’s section of the library in particular, has inspired my venture into the study of information science. By entering the library, children and their caregivers are able to enter into a safe and cost-free place to engage and begin to form a relationship with literacy and community. 

My budding interest in information science enticed me to return to this city that I adore, New York, to study libraries and information science. An unfortunate but temporary consequence of this transition is that the vast children’s book collection we have accrued and weeded over the course of my daughter’s young life is currently spread out between three different storage locations for the time being. Even had we been physically close to our beloved books, my daughter and I our simply huge fans of browsing and borrowing to our hearts’ content, a habit we formed early on and continue to nurture. Since our very recent arrival to the city, we have slowly begun to explore a handful of libraries throughout the five boroughs. 

One of the contenders for a favorite children’s section is the marvelous and massive Main Branch in Manhattan, or, as it’s known by my daughter, “the library with the lion flag.” She’s not wrong. A single stone lion is, in fact, the library’s official mascot, and I have become very acquainted with this lion. What follows is a brief chronicling of my relationship to the NYPL children’s section: a lion, a witch, and a wardrobe.

A Lion

Patience, the lion, care of the NYPL website on the library lions

One lion accompanied by another, a pair of huge, imposing lions carved out of stone, oversee the masses below on New York’s Fifth Avenue, seemingly standing guard at the building’s scenic East-side entrance. A mirror image of the two felines is also replicated inside the children’s section, composed entirely of slate gray Legos. 

In my eyes, even their Lego incantations seem to emit an aura of nobility. Interestingly enough, they were given virtuous names, Patience and Fortitude, by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia amidst the Great Depression. The mayor’s reasoning was that these symbolic statues might inspire these qualities in the struggling citizenry during this challenging era. Today, visitors travel from far and wide to catch a glimpse or even a photo alongside this notable duo.

A Witch

The witch in this case uses her powers for good. Her role is more akin to that of Glenda of Wizard of Oz fame than that of the Wicked Witch or icy villain of Narnia. She is a public librarian. Like Glenda, the public librarian gently guides library patrons by listening to and interpreting their needs and providing a nudge in the right direction. Patience and fortitude are just as necessary for the librarian to embody as much as the next person. 

Librarians do not stand guard at the doors of the library as the large and lofty lions do, but they are also like guardians in many ways, for civic service is no easy feat. Often librarians today find themselves playing the roles of counselors, social workers, advisors, and are assumed to be experts on any number of bodies of knowledge. Though they are not human computers, they are rather exceptional figures in their own way. 

On a given day, the children’s librarian at any branch in the NYPL system could be leading a preschool story time for kids aged 3-5, which includes reading books, leading the group in song, engaging the crowd in some sort of hands-on crafting exercise, and otherwise expertly facilitating a bustling room full of toddlers and their caregivers, all within the span of an hour or so. Librarians plan programs, provide services, teach, listen, and so much more. How they manage to fit this all into one person’s job is as close to magic as something could get! 

The same, of course, could be said for librarians all over the country, from branches big and small. Their communities, however, are unique and individualized, and each library branch has their own special charms. I just happen to especially adore the NYPL Main Branch and its magical and benevolent witches, as have countless others before me. 

A Wardrobe

In a tiny corner of the children’s library in the central NYPL branch is a miniature puppet show station. With free play, the children can choose to alternate between the roles of puppet master and audience member as they please. The liminal spaces of the library provide a gateway to magical experiences, indeed, for people of all ages. In the first C.S. Lewis tale with its introduction to Narnia, the wardrobe functioned as a portal into a different world. It could also be said that books, in their many forms, can open up a gateway into new dimensions for anyone who takes the time to engage with them. 

Books can certainly be enjoyed from the comfort of one’s home, but there is something magnificent in the ordinary children’s room of a public library. From a child’s perspective, one can only imagine the magic and wonder that are evoked from hearing an entrancing story told by someone other than their guardian. The librarian themself might be just the point of entry needed to transport a child into the world of literacy. Their children’s room, when all works as planned, serves to act as a kind of magic wardrobe, transfixing and transporting young minds to new and thrilling environments.

Or so I would like to believe! As I have only begun my studies, I have much to learn, but if there’s one thing I am sure of, it is that we could all stand to use a little magic, patience, and fortitude in our lives. And thus concludes the short chronicles of NYPL kid’s services: a lion, a witch, and a wardrobe, as told by a mother and aspiring public librarian. 

Person, place, thing: Ada Lovelace, Brooklyn Public Library, Personal Computer

Person: Ada Lovelace 

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was an English mathematician and writer known to have written the first algorithm ever, way before computers existed. She worked with Charles Babbage (1791-1871), the inventor of the Analytical Engine, a project for a mechanical general-purpose computer. In 1842 Babbage asked Ada Lovelace to translate a review made by an Italian mathematician of his Analytical Engine. The result was the translated review plus a set of notes explaining how the machine could work and what kind of computing it could make. One of the notes was a detailed method for computing the Bernoulli numbers, a calculus of math theory, using the Analytical Engine. This set of instructions to be done by a specific machine to produce something more than a calculation is known as the first algorithm and because of it, Ada Lovelace is also known as the first computer programmer.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace, possibly by Alfred Edward Chalon

At that time it was not common that women were trained in maths or science as she was. Ada was the daughter of the famous English poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, Lady Byron who was also trained in mathematics. Her mother made sure that she got a solid science and overall education through private tutors so that Ada would keep away from the insanity she accused Lord Byron of. Thanks to one of her tutors, at a very young age Ada Lovelace met  Charles Babbage and despite the age difference, they worked as peers. Babbage recognized Lovelace’s analytic skills and outstanding intellect calling her “The Enchantress of Numbers”. 

Ada Lovelace’s contribution was not only the algorithm itself but in the set of notes, she also wrote about her auspicious vision of what the Analytical Engine could achieve.

The operating mechanism can even be thrown into action independently of any object to operate upon (although of course no result could then be developed). Again, it might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expressions and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent. (1)

Ada Lovelace was definitely ahead of her time. The first actual computer came to life around a century later and it, in fact, accomplished what she envisioned. 

Place: Brooklyn Public Library

Brooklyn Public Library Central Library is one of the most iconic buildings in Brooklyn. The construction of the building started in 1912 commanded by architect Raymond F. Allmirall but it didn’t open to the public until 1941. The structure is built to resemble an open book, with its spine facing Grand Army Plaza. The great entrance is ornamented with fifteen sculptures of famous characters from American literature like The Raven from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, Tom Sawyer from the novels of Mark Twain and Moby Dick from the novel by Herman Melville. The entrance also has two massive columns decorated with reliefs representing the evolution of arts and sciences. 

Brooklyn Public Library, Central Library, photo by Gregg Richards

My favorite collection within the library is the Brooklyn Collection, a collection of documents of Brooklyn from pre-colonial times to the present that includes books, photographs, newspapers, maps, atlases, directories, prints, illustrations, and posters among other media. In this collection, I could see the designs and photos of the construction of the subway station I use every day.

The Central Library consists of 352,000 sq feet organized in ten different departments and collections offering numerous programs and services. One of the services that I use the most is the Shelby White and Leon Levy Information Commons that offers a wide range of programming related to digital media and technology. There is an amateur recording studio equipped with and editing workstation that I used for recording an episode of a podcast. 

Reflecting about BPL’s services and collections takes me back to the text about Information Ecologies by Nardi and O’Day (1999) where they go beyond considering a library as a place for accessing information, focusing on the relationships within the ecology of the library, including the relationship between people, people, and their environment, and people and technology. 

Thing: Personal Computer

The access to information we have today wouldn’t be possible without two things: the internet and personal computers. Before turning into a mass consumer electronic device, computers were used by experts in scientific settings. The earliest example of a personal computer, meaning a computer made for a single user, dates from 1956. The LGP-30 developed by physicist Stan Frankel was meant to be used for science and engineering as well as simple data processing, the price of the LGP-30 was $55,000, a good price for that type of machine at that time.

In 1962 MIT Lincoln Laboratory engineer Wesley Clark designed the LINC, which was meant to function in a laboratory setting. Some end-users from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) participated in a workshop at MIT where they built their own LINCs and brought back to their own institutions. 

In 1965’s New York World’s Fair appeared Olivetti Programma 101, which was the first to be described as a desktop computer. 40,000 units were sold including 10 sold to NASA for use on the Apollo space project. The cost of the Olivetti Programma 101 was $3,200. Let’s jump to the year 1971 when the Kenbak-1 was released. This is considered the earliest personal computer by the Computer History Museum. It was designed by John Blankenbaker and the price was $750. 

The world would have to wait until 1973 to see a personal computer that looks somewhat like the computers we know today. The Xerox Alto had a graphical user interface (GUI) with windows, icons, and mouse. It also allowed users to print documents and share files. As per the software it had a word processor, a paint program, a graphics editor and email. From that moment fort the development of personal computers occurred rapidly and all the designs that came after the Xerox Alto were in one way or another inspired by it.

Xerox Alto, 1973, photo by Martin Pittenauer

End notes

(1) Menabrea, Luigi Federico; Lovelace, Ada (1843). “Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, with notes by the translator. Translated by Ada Lovelace”. http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/sketch.html


Brooklyn Public Library Website www.bklynlibrary.org

Computer History Museum Website https://computerhistory.org

Essinger, J. (2014). Ada’s algorithm : how Lord Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace launched the digital age. Melville House.

Meriwether, D. H. (2018). Ada Lovelace. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.pratt.edu:2048/eds/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=e89df074-5928-4a07-ac04-f9a65ce05cb7%40sessionmgr4006&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=88806839&db=ers

Nardi, B. & Day, V. L. (1999). Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart.First Monday, 4(5), May 3, 1999. https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/672/582

Striking out to find my way home: Catholicism and information

This world is filled with persons, places, and things, interrelated with other persons, places, and things and given meaning by the context surrounding them. In thinking through this essay, considering what person, place, and thing are relevant to the themes of this course, to the field of information, and my future career within it, what thoughts and memories kept recurring surprised me. Though memories of library visits, of librarians, of all the things I have accessed because of libraries, I recognize that these all pertain to my experiences as an information seeker and user, less to my future in the information field. In reading pieces like Ravi’s (2019) “Miss Manhattan” and studying the ever-shifting sands of the information field, its constant convolution, I shifted with this these ideas. In pushing beyond where my mind has gone before, I found myself coming right back home – Catholicism.

I am a Catholic. I go to mass. I receive the body of Christ. Person. Place. Thing.

Take away a single part of this and Catholicism falls apart. Ravi’s essay inspired me to critically consider their alternative approach to thinking about the relationship of persons to places to things, its delicate identification of these three concepts as congruently existing in modeled sculptures across New York (2019). If one is able to consider persons, places, and things in a way understanding of layers of interconnection, even congruence, between them, then Catholicism must be relevant here, at least in a personal context. As a religion, it is, in theory, intangible and unembodied, thus ineligible for consideration as a person, place, or thing. But as hours of lecture and class readings have taught me this semester, practice, not theory, defines purpose and nature. As such, Catholicism is practiced and becomes known to us, becomes something we live, touch, and exist in. Because of this, I believe it appropriate for discussion in this post.

As person, Catholicism clearly exemplifies Bates’ (1999) concept of the metafield, as defined in identifying the information field as one that encompasses others in its theory and practice. Catholicism, extant on every continent, represented in some form in every country, is a breathing example of person in that its presence is facilitated by bodies, proxied for by every baptized baby, every confirmed adult. Temporally and geographically, the Catholic Church and her followers epitomize the metafield brought to life, an overarching structure alive with billions of beating hearts. Considering Catholicism as person reminds us that metafield structures are not cold, dead things, and that information absent a human vessel is impossible.

As place, Catholicism complicates, not theoretically but narratively. As a religious practice, Catholicism has entrenched itself in landscapes around the world, from far-flung towns to the largest of urban centers. Close examination of how Catholicism reached so many places quickly reveals its “difficult heritage,” a concept meant to describe the marking of “atrocities perpetrated and abhorred by” the entity that committed them as “significant history” (Macdonald 2016). The complication lies in the idea of the institution of Catholicism “abhorring” its historical policies and actions. Schools, rectories, religious camps, and sacristies where priest abuse occurred for decades still stand, the reality of what happened in these places still largely unacknowledged and unrectified by the Catholic Church. Physical Catholic structures, like churches, monasteries, convents, were used to extend the power of the Church and those that supported her into populations that did not want them, to colonize entire continents. Again, the Catholic Church again relegates the reality of their actions to darkness. As so much historiography and truth-telling has demonstrated, the physical manifestation of Catholicism as geography engenders a difficult heritage almost everywhere it has gone – understanding Catholicism as place opens this heritage up to being worked upon, to being brought into its own salvation through the use of information.

As thing, Catholicism explodes in relevance. At the heart of this faith is the scripture housed in our Bible, which, even if it is literally believed to be authored through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is a just a book. Bolstering this text are pamphlets laid out in Church vestibules, ready for hungry eyes on Sunday mornings, Catechisms awaiting new students every fall, textbooks on theological morality, apologetics, and other Catholic philosophies. Catholicism’s entire existence is supported by its own production of information, cultivated over thousands of years. To invoke the language of Elfreda Chatman (1999), Catholicism as thing has been used to build a very large round in which every Catholic is expected to live forever. If there is anything to learn from considering Catholicism as thing, it is that the hard to reach and the information impoverished are not always those who are unaware or afraid of how information can be generated, accessed, and used, but also those are adept at these practices within their life in the round. Understanding this means we can address the invisible walls separating things like Catholicism from the rest of the world of information.

As centerpiece or backdrop, the persons, places, and things that make up Catholicism support or exemplify course themes of understanding the breadth of information science as a metafield, of understanding the use, misuse, or disuse of information surrounding history, and reaching information users who are hard to reach. On a personal level, the persons, places, and things that make up Catholicism represent who I am and why I want to work as an information professional.

I am a practicing Catholic, my journey within the Church pocked by the pitfalls that come with the rigors and rigidity of organized religion. Still, I do not walk away because I believe leaning in, listening, and filling gaps is part of my path as a Catholic. As I continue to study information science and understand this field, I have found that this belief in these things lends itself greatly to information work and filling gaps for those in the world we share. Considering Catholicism as person, place, and thing has demonstrated to me that entering the information field as a profession does not feel foreign – in many ways, it feels like coming home.


Bates, M. J. (1999). The invisible substrate of information science. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(12), 1043-1050.

Chatman, E. A. (1999). A theory of life in the round. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 50(3), 207-217.

Macdonald, Sharon. (2016). “Is ‘difficult heritage’ still difficult?” Museum International 67: 6–22.

Ravi, A. (2019, September 23). Miss Manhattan [blog post]. Retrieved from https://studentwork.prattsi.org/foundations/2019/09/23/miss-manhattan/.

Schwartz, Joan M. & Terry Cook. (2002). “Archives, records, and power: the making of modern memory,” Archival Science 2: 1–19.

Person, Place, Thing: Film, Politics, and Poetry in the Archives

Person: Katherine Groo 

I first heard of Groo, who is a professor of film and visual culture at Lafayette College, through her controversial Washington Post piece in December 2018 titled “FilmStruck wasn’t that good for movies. Don’t mourn its demise.” The essay was in response to the then-recent announcement and subsequent outrage that the popular movie streaming service FilmStruck (run by Turner and Warner Bros. and known for its arthouse titles) would be shutting down. In the essay, Groo writes bluntly, “FilmStruck was never a library or a film archive. It was a for-profit streaming platform that provided access to those who could pay for it.” Groo goes on to discuss actual film archives and libraries, including some that also function as (free) streaming services, such as the Internet Archive and Kanopy. She notes that cinema tends to produce many, many artifacts that are not seen as valuable enough for preservation, and suggests that instead of advocating for the for-profit streaming service with its selection of classics, FilmStruck fans advocate for funding for film libraries and archives or other models that will provide open access to a broader collection of movies. The essay helped me to understand what libraries and archives can and should do, by exposing the biases of a streaming service that is at first glance structured much like an archive. More recently, Groo published a book called Bad Film Histories: Ethnography and the Early Archive, in which she discusses her interactions with ethnographic film fragments from the first few decades of cinema. Like her FilmStruck piece, Groo’s book is a fascinating look at archival theories and practices from the academic perspective of a film historian. Despite the fact that she comes from a film background and is not a trained archivist, Groo’s thinking has grounded my understanding of my place as an archivist, working with historians, researchers, and other patrons. She takes the idea of the archive and asks readers to consider alternatives to old models of value-based preservation and profit-based access. Groo discusses how deeply things are shaped by how information professionals organize, name, and share resources. In her FilmStruck essay, Groo writes that history is never a “comprehensive body of works tucked away in an archive,” and that there are always new ways of understanding what we think we know that are not dependent on canonical bodies of work, made canonical by individuals and forces of society not necessarily documented with the works themselves.

Place: Interference Archive

My terrible posture in this picture (I’m in the green shirt) haunts me.

I was first introduced to Interference Archive, which is located in Park Slope, several years ago, and I have been volunteering there since. It’s a place that has shaped my idea of what archives can look like and how archivists can be community members and activists. Interference Archive is an entirely volunteer-run organization that collects archival materials related to social movements and makes those materials available in their open-stacks space. One of the most fascinating things about Interference Archive is their emphasis on accessibility to their materials. All of the collections, including things like posters, zines, buttons, books, and records, are available in their open stacks for any patrons to touch and interact with. For many people who have only interacted with archival collections through the barriers of academic or museum collections with all of their barriers, the openness at Interference is shocking. They also put on exhibitions and programs related to their collections or to relevant work being done by members of the community. The lack of institutional affiliation means that Interference Archive is able to have entirely independent programming. Their programs include workshops, speakers, film screenings, kids events called “radical playdates,” and many more types of events, expanding ideas of what role archives can play in a community. At Interference Archive, the collections are not behind barriers and used only for research; they are the totally integrated into present-day action. As an archivist, I want to think about how the work I am doing is best not just for the materials I work with, but for the people those materials serve. The Archive does not simply house political content and move on; its structure, goals, and events reflect the radical potentials of the materials they collect.

Thing: Lost & Found 

Another inspiration to me as an archivist that comes from outside the archives field is Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. Lost & Found is a project and publication based at the CUNY Graduate Center, with doctoral students in their Enlish program serving as researchers and editors. Focusing mostly on 20th century American poets, Lost & Found editors use archival materials to research their subjects, and to draw previously unpublished works, correspondence, journals, lectures, and writings in translation into publication for the first time. The series is published annually as a collection of chapbooks—previous issues include works from Audre Lorde, June Jordan, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Diane di Prima, and more—but research originally done for Lost & Found also frequently turns into book-length publications. The series’ founder, Ammiel Alcalay, says that the principle behind the series is for researchers to “Follow the person.” This is a pretty surprising position for many literary scholars to take—one that at first ignores the canonical context for a writer’s work in the form of literary “schools,” periods, or groups of associates—and instead focuses first on the hard evidence of an individual’s archival output. This series is so exciting to me as an archivist because it integrates scholarly research and archival work. It’s an example of how archivists can help open up new ways of seeing subjects and people.


Groo, Katherine. Bad Film Histories: Ethnography and the Early Archive. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Groo, Katherine. “FilmStruck wasn’t that good for movies. Don’t mourn its demise,” The Washington Post, 3 Dec. 2018.

Interference Archive.https://interferencearchive.org/

Lost & Found, The Center for the Humanities. https://www.centerforthehumanities.org/lost-and-found

Bringing a businessman, a library, and a movie into the information world

Imagining new contexts is an excellent way to capture the role of information in topics familiar to me. This article considers start-up founder Adam Neuman, The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and William Burrough’s cut-up film “Towers Open Fire,” a person, place, and thing that pre-date my information science career. Put in the context of information science, all three encounters have taken on new meanings.

By Jack O’Malley

Person: Adam Neumann

Adam Neumann was the CEO of WeWork. “Was,” is the word that hints at a fascinating business case that has recently evolved into a character study. As The New York Times summarizes, WeWork’s fall from a $47 billion private valuation to $7 billion after a botched IPO, which failed partly due to concerning revelations about Nuemann, “came with an even more astonishing exit package for Mr. Neumann: The 40-year-old could receive more than $1 billion after selling his shares to SoftBank and collecting a $185 million consulting fee.”1 A more critical article in The Atlantic paints a more vivid picture, writing that WeWork’s failure “has established Adam Neumann, who escaped from the wreckage a billionaire, as a figure of almost mythical monstrousness—like some capitalist chimera of Midas and Houdini.”2 

In a way, observers have invested themselves in classifying Neumann. Everyone wants to answer the question “where does he fit in our understanding of American business?” Yet, stories like these two gloss over the business itself, which employs thousands of employees and serves hundreds of thousands of tenants (or members). The obsession with Nuemann follows a classic error of thinking, which assumes a singular case has more to tell us than the norm. The space Neumann literally takes up in the news crowds out reporting about the fate of those who outnumber Adam Neumann by the hundreds of thousands. Even The Atlantic has trouble imagining creatively who WeWork might be for. “Most modern workers deal with the supply, transport, marketing, sale or investment of stuff,” they write, acknowledging the social force that made WeWork popular.3

Of course, many modern workers don’t sit at a computer. In the eighteen months that I was employed by WeWork, most of the WeWork staff at any given location were people of color making an hourly wage in exchange for manual labor. “Stuff” is often the labor of others. Inventing categories for Adam Neumann seems somehow to have erased many others. 

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library 

The Beinecke at Yale holds some incredible relics: James Baldwin’s papers, over 700 Japanese manuscripts, the Lewis and Clark exhibition maps, and (I once a heard a rumor) William Howard Taft’s trousers. These objects have real power that might convince you that Benjamin’s “aura” really does exist. Incredibly, if you request it, you can touch them. As a student, I thought the chance to be so close to knowledge was simply a privilege; coming to believe it is a right brought me to library science. I highly recommend a trip! 

The university keeps this unique space open to the general public and accepts requests from all researches interested in accessing the stacks. In fact, the librarians do almost everything short of handing out flyers on the corner to invite people to see their collection. They admirably emphasize diversity in their holdings, hold readings and award prizes, give tours, and display their most recognizable objects, like the Gutenberg Bible. Still, in the best way, it feels most true to stay that the librarians and curators just want everyone to stand closer to the books.4 

“Towers Open Fire” 

Best described as “really funky,” this William Burrough’s movie explores the theory of “cut ups” in a series of random images, not all pictorial, and a voiceover. The climactic moment … I won’t spoil! Watch it, show your friends, and see if you all agree on the climax. Burroughs argued that, although the arrangement is random, “in any case you will find that it says something and something quite definite.”5 In its own way, the rapid cutting internalizes user theory. Burroughs was emphatic about the egalitarian nature of the cut ups. I love it because the movie does not do any of the work we expect from a typical movie. In fact, it can feel like watching the movie is the only way to summarize it. Just as it doesn’t do any work, it doesn’t tolerate miscommunication, and the only assumption it makes about a user is that they hit play.

A few years ago, finding “Towers Open Fire” on YouTube made me feel that, yes, information truly is free! That excitement has given way, however, to anxiety about the long term preservation of the film. For instance, an Italian language film clip channel posted the video above, and, while I appreciate that I could find Burroughs work with a simple search, I do not want to trust a semi-anonymous YouTube user. In addition to concern for long-term preservation of what might look like nine minutes of b-roll, I’ve come to recognize another problem too. If there are preserved copies, why aren’t they as accessible as the one on YouTube? 

End Notes

1 Amy Chozick, “Adam Neumann and the Art of Failing Up,” The New York Times, November 2, 2019, sec. Business, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/02/business/adam-neumann-wework-exit-package.html.

2 Derek Thompson, “WeWork’s Adam Neumann Is the Most Talented Grifter of Our Time,” The Atlantic, October 25, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/10/how-weworks-adam-neumann-became-billionaire/600607/.

3 Thompson, “WeWork’s Adam Neumann Is the Most Talented Grifter of Our Time.”

4 “History and Architecture,” Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, December 20, 2018, https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/about/history-and-architecture.

5 William Burroughs, “The Cut Up Method,” Accessed November 5, 2019, https://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/burroughs-cutup.html.

Person, Place, Thing: Ian MacKaye, Grand Central Station, Directories

(Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Person: Ian MacKaye

Ian MacKaye is a DC native and founder of the independent punk and hardcore label Dischord Records.  Some may call him one of the founding fathers of the DC punk and hardcore scene because of his involvement in seminal bands Minor Threat and Fugazi, and the support he offered other DC musicians through his label.  Most notably, Ian MacKaye has archived the DC scene since the late 1970’s. By saving flyers, tapes, records, photographs, zines and other ephemera relating to the music scene, MacKaye took on the role of a community archivist as a teenager.  Much of his collection stemmed from saving every little bit that had to do with his own bands and label, and eventually he branched out, saving much of the materials encompassing the entire DC scene.

The act of saving may have started out as a hobby or a simple habit, but as MacKaye’s collection eventually grew it became admired, recognized and most importantly, it was deemed as useful.  MacKaye has been the subject of various documentaries and books, and much of his resources have been referred to, not only tell the story of his own projects, but to help shape the voice to the influential, underground, scene he helped found.  This is especially important in that he saved materials that many people didn’t think to save, and so without his collection much of the story would have been lost. In 2013, he was invited to speak at the Library of Congress on his role as a citizen archivist, which was impressive considering MacKaye has no formal archival training. He has continued on his mission and has begun to digitize not only the papers from his collection, but the music as well. Much of the formats of the 1980’s are fragile cassettes, which MacKaye has been repairing and restoring to improve their sound upon digitization.  Most recently he has had the help of Smithsonian archivist Nichole Procopenko to assist in the organization and proper storage of his collection. 

(Photo: Frank English)

Place: Grand Central Station 

Grand Central Station has a special place in many New Yorker’s hearts.  It’s a majestic building full of rich history and sneaky little easter eggs like the whispering gallery.  The building is a preserved gem of old New York, unlike its old counterpart on 34th street which saw its demise in 1963.  There are many areas in the building worth exploring, if one has the time; I almost always discover something new when I’m passing through, whether it be a new chandelier or a Vanderbilt acorn.  One of the most striking things about Grand Central aside from its aesthetics is its impressive flow of information. By observing the main concourse one can see people meeting their loved ones and scurrying toward their destinations.  Although the internal systems and infrastructure that run Amtrak, Metro North and the various freight lines are behind the scenes, the central brain of the main concourse is the four faced clock with the information booth inside. Here, information is exchanged quickly and efficiently, almost rendering the large timetables as unnecessary bystanders. Within seconds, the booth’s attendants can easily tell you which of the 124 tracks you need to be on at any given time.  

If you decide to skip the information booth the timetables are still reliable and easy to understand.  They are organized by the five lines of the Metro North, each with color-coded headers that correspond with the colors of the map.  The map design and the corresponding schedules are clean designs without a lot of clutter which makes them easy to read. This design is far less intimidating than the NYC Subway map. This is especially important for travelling visitors that will likely interact with the station during their time in New York. The placement of the central information hub and the timetables along the edges of the concourse provide for an organized system that allows ample room for people to get where they are going. Part of the charm of this station is the hustle and bustle of the people in the main concourse and it wouldn’t be as organized if there were no efficient information system to manage and maintain the crowds.

(Photo: Montclair History Center)

Thing: Directories

In 2019, directories seem pretty obsolete. Many municipalities stopped printing them altogether since most of what is needed can be found online.  However, I have found directories to be quite helpful when handling research requests at the archive. On the most obvious end, a directory is helpful when handling genealogical requests, as the directories can provide proof of residency.  Because these physical copies have not been digitized I am often referring back to them, so they are always at arm’s length. I find the directories to be extremely useful not only for genealogical requests but when researchers are looking for information on certain businesses. These tomes provide not only that, but an accurate snapshot of what a region’s commerce may have looked like at a specific time, as well as whether the region was more industrial, rural or urban.  They can also provide a timeline of how often the same names and businesses continued to appear. Another wonderful quality of the directory is that it’s easy to use, so you don’t have to spend a ton of time looking through it.

I attended a NJ History Conference this week and directories continued to come up within a fair amount of the research presented.  Many of the panelists were looking to old directories to find proof of female-owned businesses in the 19th century and for some, this was the only source where they could verify this information. The directories used by these researchers were also helpful in not only showing proof of a family’s business, but proof that these business owners also owned buildings and had tenants. Some of this is information one could easily verify with Census records, however having it confirmed in another source, one as neat as a  printed directory, can be the piece of information a researcher needs. So although these books are sometimes seen as door stoppers, I would say they still have plenty of value in research settings.  







Vanessa Castaldo
Info 601-05

A nanny, in the home, bearing knowledge

I currently work as a nanny on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My employers are white-collar workers, committed to their careers and to their children. Like many white-collar workers in NYC, they are not from New York, and their parents do not live in the city. In this role, I have participated in a hidden network of labor and information.  

A nanny playgroup in Riverside Park.

Person: Nanny 

This job has revealed to me an entire system of labor that is hidden in many ways. As Downey (2014) discusses in the context of information and technology work, the work that nannies do is underrepresented by employers. It is common for nannies to work “off the books,” meaning that the income is not reported to the IRS and nannies and employers can avoid paying taxes. There are many reasons for nannies to want to remain hidden: immigration status, loss of public benefits, more take-home pay, etc. As a result, many nannies work outside of labor laws like minimum wage, overtime, and sick days. 

Because there are few standards, there are a lot of nannies who are working for very little money. A nanny that I know, who is currently looking for work recently said to me, “a nanny’s worst enemy is another nanny,” describing the low salary offers that nannies are given. As Dwoskin, Whalen and Cabato (2019) discuss concerning content moderators in the Philippines, someone who is desperate may take a job with low pay because she needs the job. That makes it hard for other nannies to negotiate a better, commensurate salary. There are domestic workers unions and there is now a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in NY State that might aid in this problem of labor exploitation. Personally, I do not know any nannies that are members of the unions or who bring up the bill of rights to their employers. In many cases, nannies would be uncomfortable to bring this up for fear of losing their job. 

The work of nannies is also hidden because raising children is not typical work. Nannies do social, emotional, logistical, and educational labor in addition to physical labor. This work continues even when we are not physically at work.  

Place: Household 

The household is the physical workplace of a nanny. Working in the home immediately creates an intimate setting for the employee/employer relationship. I see my employers in their pajamas, I know their good and bad habits, etc. This intimacy brings a nanny into the family, which can be good and sometimes it is messy. A family member is happy to do favors, doesn’t mind when you are running late, and will answer your calls and messages after work hours. An employee, however, should be compensated for all the previously mentioned work, in addition to their salary.  

In this dynamic, the white-collar workers are entrenched in their careers and outsource the labor of home and child care to their nannies. While nannies are ostensibly being paid to care for the children, they are also caring for the parents in the chores that they do and the emotional labor of maintaining the home as a familial space. Nannies are often responsible for deciding purchases, cooking meals, supplementing love and support, and constructing family.  

Thing: Child-rearing knowledge 

In the case of career nannies, as they approach retirement, they will have raised upwards of 20 children in their careers. With this experience, and perhaps the experience of raising their own children, nannies bring a wealth of knowledge to their jobs. For first-time parents, it is often the case that they have no clue where to start to be parents. Parenting is not something that we can study in school, and having children is obviously independent of one’s ability and knowledge of parenting. Sleep training, potty training, learning to read, etc. can be intimidating to parents, but are essential to the growth of the child, and with their experience, nannies often take on these responsibilities. Nannies construct household systems in addition to relaying knowledge and skills to their employers. These household systems include children’s daily routines, nutrition, sleeping schedules, and housekeeping maintenance.  

Nannies bring traditional knowledge from their own cultures into the families that they work for. The nannies that work in my building are from all over the world, bringing with them their culture. From home remedies, to old wives’ tales, to cultural values, to folk songs and stories, this cultural knowledge is passed to the children, who then teach it to their parents. For non-native New Yorkers like my employers, they live away from their families and don’t have regular support or cultural knowledge from their parents. 

A nanny’s knowledge of raising children is unmistakably valuable. However, this value is not reflected in the status, rights, salaries that nannies receive. This recalls the questions from the beginning of the semester from Bates (2016) and Buckland (1991): “what is information?” and “who gets to decide what information is?” Cultural knowledge and personal experience are not valued as information. Children-rearing is seen in American culture as women’s work, which is still undervalued in society. In addition, the emotional work and knowledge of raising children is difficult to measure, making it less valuable in the eyes of capital. 


Bates, M. J. (2006). Fundamental forms of information. Journal of the American Society for Information and Technology, 57(8), 1033-1045. 

Buckland, M. (1991). Information as Thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. Jun1991, 42(5), 351-360. 

Downey, G. J. (2014). Making media work: time, space, identity, and labor in the analysis of information and communication infrastructures. Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. Cambridge: MIT Press, 141-165. 

Dworskin, E., Whalen, J. & Cabato, R. (2019) Content moderators at YouTube, Facebook and Twitter see the worst of the web – and suffer silently. Washington Post, July 25, 2019. 

Domestic Workers United. http://www.domesticworkersunited.org/index.php/en/ 

Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, New York State Department of Labor. https://labor.ny.gov/legal/domestic-workers-bill-of-rights.shtm