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Public Knowledge

Infrastructure is invisible—that is, until it breaks.  In the jarring state of everyday life not existing as we expect it to, we become painfully aware of our dependency not only on the infrastructure that undergirds our day-to-day routines, basic goods, and commonplace interactions, but also on the often unseen people who operate and participate in these systems for our benefit and convenience.  

In 2020, much of the knowledge infrastructure in the US—the human and technical scaffolding that supports our ability to create, preserve, and access the scholarly and cultural record—experienced its own kind of breaking.  Teachers and students hastily reconvened in online classrooms while managing the distractions of shared living spaces.  Community organizers and archivists postponed neighborhood events and pivoted to collecting oral histories over FaceTime.  Our knowledge infrastructure, and our dependence upon it, became visible to us in revelatory ways, and called our attention to those who have sustained it for us for so long.  

Making apparent and lifting up this critical knowledge infrastructure motivated 2020 grantmaking in Public Knowledge (PK), and will continue to drive the program’s support of the people and organizations that build, repair, and sustain the various technological systems and human networks that connect us to deep knowledge and recorded communal experience.  Such grants include those awarded to the sixteen community-based archives selected from PK’s annual open call for proposals, as well as support for Florida International University’s efforts to incorporate community-centered practices to digitize and preserve collections at eight local cultural institutions.  

Grants that aim to strengthen and build networks for knowledge-sharing resources, services, and collections were also a focus for the PK team in 2020.  These projects enact what Todd Presner, chair of the digital humanities program at the University of California in Los Angeles calls an “ethic of participation and curation” centered in the ideal of “participation without condition,” and include efforts at the Library of Congress and the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center that bring together artists, students, researchers, and community members to remix and activate their institution’s archival collections in pursuit of social justice. 

AWMF-AR-2020-PK-2.jpgArchives Research Center at the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library. Photo: Atlanta University Center.

Grantmaking can sometimes be best conceived as an appreciation of and advocacy for those “doing the work,” whether inside or independent of an institutional context.  In this way, projects that support the innovative maintenance and sustainability of technology, tools, and infrastructure demonstrate Cornell University information sciences professor Steven Jackson’s call for “subtle acts of care” and repair that allow us to “love, and love deeply, a world of things” ¹ that are essential to engaged knowledge work.  Through grants to Washington State University to support the longevity of a collaborative curation platform for Native American collections, and to scholarly presses to sustain the production, distribution, and discovery of long-form digital publications in the humanities, PK strengthens its commitment to this caretaking.

Although many of us are eager to leave an unusually difficult 2020 behind, we in PK want to use this time to think ahead to 2021 and beyond, and to ask how we can best support the craft of continuous building and its extensions—repairing, recovering, reconstructing—in ways that promote commitment to knowledge, and to transformative effect.  As a Mellon Foundation program reinvented and renamed after two decades of operation as Scholarly Communications, PK recognizes that strains on the knowledge infrastructure in 2020 have afforded us an opportunity to pivot our grantmaking activity away from support for a predominantly scholarly knowledge system, and toward a new public knowledge infrastructure—a vibrant, inclusive, and nimble one that connects us all and endures for years to come.

Notes

Top photo:  Interference Archive, a community archives grantee based in Brooklyn.

1. Steven Jackson, “Rethinking Repair,” in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, ed. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot (MIT Press Scholarship Online, September 2014).

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