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“Conditions of (In)Visibility: Cultivating a Documentary Impulse in the Digital Humanities,” Keynote address by Roxanne Shirazi at Florida State University Library’s Invisible Work in the Digital Humanities Symposium, November 18th, 2016

Abstract: On November 18th, 2016, Roxanne Shirazi delivered a keynote address at Florida State University Libraries’ symposium on Invisible Work in the Digital Humanities. Her presentation, titled “Conditions of (In)Visibility: Cultivating a Documentary Impulse in the Digital Humanities,” addressed the way that focus on a final product, rather than an iterative process, obscures the labor and laborers necessary to create that product. Shirazi used a broad theoretical and basis to support her arguments, drawing heavily on art history and sociology. Her final suggestion to the Digital Humanities community is to cultivate a culture of documentation and criticism around DH projects that allows for a broader and more generous acknowledgement of labor. 

Roxanne Shirazi is the Dissertation Research Librarian at CUNY. Her work focuses on outreach and guidance to graduate students in the process of conducting their dissertations, especially with the processes involved in depositing work in the University’s repository. Her current research projects reflect on topics as diverse as digital archives and digital curation, librarianship as a feminized profession. This keynote address was the final speaking event at Florida State University Libraries’ two day symposium on Invisible Work in the Digital Humanities, which took place November 17th-18th at the Robert M. Stozier Library on FSU’s main campus in Tallahassee, Florida. (Note: I watched the recording of this event on Youtube, as I was unable to attend due to distance and scheduling).

The symposium as a whole was focused around issues of expectations in collaboration, partnership, and labor in digital humanities projects, exploring questions of whose labor is centered and acknowledged in these collaborations, and whose is devalued, and when. Structured slightly differently than average conference, the symposium included break out discussion sections, where attendees met in small groups to discuss the speakers’ presentations, and potential items and places for further action and intervention. This “action component” of the symposium allowed for the potential to take concrete steps in creating solutions to the issues voiced by the speakers. Shirazi’s presentation was the final keynote address in the symposium; she spoke after Mark Algee-Hewitt and Cheryl Ball’s keynotes the previous day.

Shirazi opened her keynote with a metaphoric image, by reading a passage in sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s forward to the book Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World. The passage described a dress hanging for sale in an American department store. She explained that the dress is made of hundreds of components–the cotton sowed, grown, harvested, and processed in India, by workers exposed to pesticides and dangerous labor conditions, for example; the cloth woven in China, then assembled in pieces in factories elsewhere; combined with zippers or buttons manufactured around the globe. The dress, Shirazi explained, still quoting Hochschild, is a finished product, but its display with tags and without context obscures its creation as the work of tens, maybe hundreds of hands, of many machines, and as a product that was shipped across the world, making invisible the extensive and disparate labor that created it. Hochschild’s image in fact defines invisible labor for Shirazi; she asked us to put this idea of the globalized product of the dress in conversation with our notions of collaboration in the DH field. Her final slide in this section is pictured below, and reads, “Product/ Project/ Process,” as a kind of thesis statement for her keynote.


Leaving us with this image, Shirazi went on to describe the life work of documentary photographer Lewis Hine, best known for his influential images of child laborers that were instrumental in the passage of child labor laws in the 1910s. After an overview of the historical context of his work, Shirazi described Hine’s early emphasis on portrait style photos of laborers, that brought their eyes into focus. His later work showed laborers interacting with their technologies, focusing on the interaction between human and machine, and showing the laborers comfort and mastery over this technology by focusing on their hands. Eyes and hands: Hine’s documentation humanized laborers, making them visible to audiences that had power to change their conditions.

This lengthly explanation of Hine’s photographic work is all to illustrate the importance and degree of influence that documentation has. Hine’s images are iconic in labor history. We would certainly know much less about the lives and work of these laborers in the Progressive Era and the Depression (critical moments in the history of labor, and more broadly in American history) if Hine’s work was focused elsewhere.

Shirazi continued by attempting a connection between Hine’s photographic work and the image of the globalized dress. She first defined “invisible labor” for us, using a broad sociological perspective that can be simply summed up: invisible labor is work that is unvalued. She went on the describe what it might mean for work to be valued: living wages in exchange for the work, of course, but also authority, status, and wellbeing, as well as the recognition and validation of ones work.

Shirazi finally concluded that in DH, we might attempt to value our and our colleagues work more by rendering it legible to others. She first approached this topic from the perspective of archiving–can DH projects workflows remain interpretable long after the product has finished?–as she stressed that “DH is a site of struggle for the future of the academy,” that will be relevant to many looking to study the history of higher education in this time. If we turn our focus to the process of a project, and document it with process/labor-oriented values in mind, the work of the final product will be revealed. She recommended of course the expansion of documentation that DHers already do, but more interestingly, create a culture of review and criticism of others work in the field to a much greater extent than we do now, and allow these pieces to explore and revel work.

I was grateful in general for Shirazi’s presentation–these are terribly important issues to discuss in the current political climate. I would have liked her to directly address exploitative/unequal labor practices that may be at play in creating DH projects; she didn’t explicitly discuss how these have the potential to be called out or morphed by documentary practices. Of course labor practices in DH are not even close to being as destructive as those described in Hochschild’s image of globalized labor creating the department store dress, I am interested in the ways that DH and libraries continue to replicate unequal and undemocratic work practices, even as they stress collaboration and democratic learning.

I regretted that I couldn’t attend the symposium to listen to colleagues discuss potential workflow solutions that would include or cultivate this culture of documentation. Increasing critical and documentary practices in DH certainly seems vital to at least scholarly communication, and at most creating and maintaining a democratic work environment. However, it does seem to leave participants in the field with even more work on their plates. Can these ideas be integrated into existing workflows?