Posted May 31st 2018 at 8:49 am by
in Alternative Futures

Reflecting on the Speculative Futures of Libraries and Archives workshop

On May 1, 2018, the five of us delivered our first offering of a workshop we co-created called The (Speculative) Futures of Libraries and Archives. A joint effort between staff from the MIT Libraries and MIT CoLab, the workshop was intended to explore three questions: What is the role of a library or an archive in tomorrow’s world? What will it mean to collect, store, access, and curate knowledge in five, ten, twenty years? How will we, as individuals, and as an MIT community, relate to knowledge and artifacts of knowledge?

The workshop was oversubscribed, but if you missed it, you can check out Sofia’s amazing tweets of the entire workshop here.

Caption: Lawrence Barriner II and Alena McNamara introduce the workshop.

Over the past four weeks, we’ve done a little reflecting on the workshop using the following questions:

  1. What made you, individually, want to put on this workshop?
  2. How do you think it went?
  3. Where do you think this (define “this” however you want) could go in the future?

Below are each of our answers to these questions and contact info for some of us in case you want to get in touch. And a HUGE shoutout to adrienne maree brown & walidah imarisha for their inspiring, path-making work in this area (Octavia’s Brood, the Detroit Sci-Fi Generator, emergent strategy) that inspired us to create the workshop.

Sofia Leung

After attending Lawrence and Grant’s IAP workshop this past January, I have wanted to explore all the potential ways that workshop has inspired me. One of those ways was this workshop that I hoped would come to fruition and it has! I was super excited that Alena and Lawrence were willing to lead us in this endeavor. The original IAP workshop has already expanded my thinking on how to approach my work and research. Applying many of the same strategies to the work of the Libraries is especially relevant because of the Task Force on the Future of Libraries Report.

I think it went super well! I was impressed by the general interest in this topic, as I thought it would be something mostly librarians, archivists, and other library workers would find interesting. I think we tried to bring a lively, inviting atmosphere and it encouraged our participants to stay engaged throughout.

I see this workshop spiraling out into a lot of different areas, particularly as a sparking creativity exercise. The workshop could be repurposed for a variety of fields and as a way to get people thinking more broadly about their work. It could help get folks out of thinking ruts around particular problems and get them thinking about what’s really possible. I hope to continue using it in my work, especially in helping me to reimagine what white institutions can look like if we remove the myths, everyday limitations, and structural racism that holds up these institutions.


Alena McNamara

In putting on this workshop, I wanted to combine my love for speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy), my interest in collectively shaped futures, and my love for libraries and archives. I also wanted to collaborate with these awesome people–our meetings were consistently great, both productive and personally satisfying.

The workshop exceeded my expectations! We had an excellent mix of people, which always makes for interesting conversations. Our participants were initially a bit wary of the creativity portion, but once we got there, everyone created awesome things and seemed to have fun doing it. Their ideas brought out fascinating and important aspects of how people interact with libraries/archives now as well as how they might in the future.

Since information technology is so intertwined in our society today, it’s hard to really think about how we interact with it and incorporate it into our lives. Speculative fiction and speculative futures allow us to consider just that, getting out of the box to consider interactions between humans, societies, and technology. Libraries and archives, as sites for interaction with scholarly (and other) information and knowledge–as well as its preservation and curation–via technologies such as classification systems, finding aids, and algorithm-driven discovery, fit neatly inside that. They have a particular set of cultural valences now and a wide potential scope for the future, so they’re a really interesting case study for this kind of work.

I’d love to run the workshop more times in other contexts. This iteration focused on the MIT Libraries / academic libraries–how can it be adapted? How could we shape it into a model for others to use? One of the pieces of adrienne maree brown’s work that resonates with me particularly is that everyone needs practice envisioning possible futures so that we can all see ourselves as having a hand–and a stake–in shaping the future that does come about. I want everyone to see themselves having a hand in shaping the future of libraries and archives and through that, I hope, the rest of the world too!


Greta Kuriger Suiter

I was delighted to be asked to participate and loved that archives were included. Really, anything to do with archives or art or creative thinking, I’m in! I went in with an open mind and felt that I had a say in the direction it went and felt very included and welcomed and saw myself as a valued collaborator (which I appreciate so much!). The planning went well and the workshop was fun and thought provoking. I’m curious to know how much the presentation part connected with the audience and if it influenced their writing later in the session or their thinking about libraries and archives.

I think one could easily tailor the subject for any audience. For me, thinking of colleagues in libraries and archives as the audience, I could see participating in this workshop again with a theme of archives and libraries broadly like we did, or just archives, or just libraries, or even just a subset of these. I think it is a good outreach activity, but could also work well to build teams and understanding within a department. For a department setting, it might be helpful to make the exercise quicker and more focused so it could be done during a meeting. I could see it being helpful in my work to build empathy, understanding, and confidence in exploring new ways of doing things, especially when it comes to working with collection donors, reference interactions, providing access to collections, and collection description.

I see the social justice aspects to it and I think tying that in and making it a DISJ (Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Justice) event for library staff could be a good way to frame it as staff training. I agree with Alena’s thought that “One of the pieces of adrienne maree brown’s work that resonates with me particularly is that everyone needs practice envisioning possible futures so that we can all see ourselves as having a hand–and a stake–in shaping the future that does come about.” (Emergent Strategy is now on my reading list!)


Anna Boutin-Cooper

When Alena told me about this speculative workshop brainchild and asked me if I wanted to participate, I enthusiastically agreed! Not only was it a great experience planning the workshop itself, thanks in no small part to my awesome fellow collaborators, but it was fulfilling work. Being able to brainstorm for ourselves the future of institutions for which we care so deeply was freeing – freeing to be able to get past the daily grind that is any job, really, no matter how important the work. This is the kind of work that I want to be doing – helping others dream their own futures, and realize the power and freedom inherent within that imagining.

I think the workshop itself went exceptionally well – a testament to the shared vision we created during the planning process. We had a great turnout of folks from across the Institute and beyond, and though everyone seemed a bit tentative at the beginning, our world-building exercise helped to create simply amazing narratives, full of creativity. It was a joy to be a part of, and I see potential for future iterations of this sprawling out widely. Though I’m relatively new to the concept of world-building, and the strategies we used in the workshop, I think it would translate incredibly well to a variety of contexts, moving both within and beyond the libraries/archival landscape. I want others to be able to feel the freedom that comes with imagining the future, informed by context but without constraints, wherever and however we can.


Lawrence Barriner II

I wanted to put on this workshop for three reasons. 1. In my role as Program Director for Community Media at CoLab, I’m constantly trying to learn about how media and stories can help people shape change in their places and spaces. 2. Back in January, I met some amazing folks from the MIT Libraries (Sofia, Alena, and Grace) through an IAP workshop I co-taught with one of my favorite collaborators (hey Grant!). I wanted to work with them and see how sci-fi could help advance their work. 3. It’s increasingly important to me that we, as a species, learn how to do collaborative ideation (ht adrienne maree brown’s detroit sci-fi generator). This workshop was an opportunity to practice and build my own muscles to support it.

I think the workshop went really well! We had a full room and a range of participants: students (including at least one from Harvard), professors, librarians and archivists (from MIT, Harvard, and other libraries, too), and even the Associate Director of the MIT Media Lab! I loved collaborating with the librarians and archivists (s/o to Alena, Sofia, Greta, and Anna!) and I got my mind blown about the world of archives and libraries pretty much every time we had a planning meeting.

I think the best part for me was hearing people’s takeaways in the last few minutes of the workshop. My two favorites were (paraphrasing here) one person who said something like “I loved talking about the question ‘What is knowledge?’ I got my idea of knowledge expanded today,” and another person who said “Who gets to shape the world is so important! I’ve never thought about that before.”

And speaking of the shaping the world… there are so many possibilities for future of this work. Given that the had a waitlist, one possibility is to just offer it again. I’m also excited to share the stories and artifacts that were produced (stay tuned for the zine!) and see how the stories might shift the conversations happening on MIT campus about (a) the MIT’s Open Access Initiative and (b) what is knowledge, who makes it, who has access to it, and how is it archived, curated, and distributed. Finally, I’m looking forward to putting together a toolkit (at some point…) so that other people who want to run workshops like this can do so in their own contexts.


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