Archive of Hate: Ethics of Care in the Preservation of Ugly Histories
Digitized collections promise to make our cultural heritage radically open. But what if that cultural heritage is full of hate? As Tara Robertson writes of digitization, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
In 2017, digital publisher Reveal Digital began developing a collection of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) newspapers called Hate in America: The Rise and Fall of the KKK in the 1920s. Unlike most digitized collections published by library vendors, which are typically made available only to paying customers, Hate in America will become openly available online once a funding threshold is reached. Research libraries who purchase this collection broaden the reach of historical materials, not only to their own research community, but to the public as well. If made freely available online, however, these materials — intended to foment hate in the 1920s — could easily become tools of contemporary communities of white supremacy.
Libraries that consider supporting Reveal Digital’s collection of KKK newspapers, therefore, face an ethical dilemma bigger than any single purchasing decision. When we bring such historical materials online, we expose ugly truths of our history, yes, but we must do so while limiting potential harm.
Historically, librarians have privileged an ethic of access as a foundation of democratic civil society. The American Library Association (ALA) centers free expression and free access to ideas in both its Code of Ethics and Library Bill of Rights. Without unfettered access to ideas, the thinking goes, citizens are ill-equipped for civic engagement. Intrinsic to this ethic of access is the principle of neutrality. A neutral library does not adopt any political stances, providing free and open access to all content.
Pragmatic limits to neutrality exist, to be sure. Research libraries spend a lot of money on collections — more, in fact, than on salaries and wages. But not even the most well-resourced institution can afford to buy everything, so deciding to buy one collection means deciding to forego others. Still, our professional code of ethics asserts that we must not exclude content from our collections because some people (including ourselves) might find it offensive.
Increasingly, however, librarians argue that libraries not only cannot be neutral but, in fact, never were. During a talk given at Access 2016, Chris Bourg, Director of Libraries at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reminded her audience that “American colleges were originally built as exclusive institutions for well-connected white men; and in many cases American universities were actually built literally on the backs of enslaved African-American labor. Many of our institutions were built on land taken from native peoples; and almost all of our colleges and universities excluded in practice if not also in policy, women, non-white men, queer people, and other marginalized populations.” Furthermore, adhering to neutrality does little more than offer librarians an out to ignore harm, maintaining the status quo without moral reproach.
Although more and more librarians are critiquing the principle of neutrality — and, by extension, uncritical applications of an ethic of access — for the most part this critique has not been felt in our various statements of professional values. The Guidelines for Association for Library Collections & Technical Services (ALCTS) Members to Supplement the ALA Code of Ethics are an exception, asserting that libraries should both “provide broad and unbiased access to information” and “establish a secure and safe environment for staff and users.” Even these guidelines fall short, however. Protection from imminent harm is necessary but insufficient. Intersectional feminist values require that libraries create physical and virtual spaces that are not merely safe, but welcoming and inclusive for people on the margins. Instead of trying to remain neutral, librarians should embrace a feminist ethic of care, one that protects people’s dignity as well as their access to information.
An ethic of care posits other necessary conditions for the flourishing of democracy, in addition to access to a full range of political thought. In Circles of Care, Berenice Fisher and Joan Tronto define care as “everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world so that we may live in it as well as possible.” A caring democracy creates conditions for its citizens to feel safe in the world. According to Tronto, caring for others and — crucially — caring with others results in trust. When trust exists in civil society, information flows more freely because vulnerable people feel safe enough to share their lived experience and contradict assumptions of those in power. Without trust, without more diverse perspectives shaping the historical record, as April Hathcock points out, “just because work is open doesn’t mean that it will be found, valued, or validated.” Bethany Nowviskie also applies a care ethic to the cultural heritage sector, exhorting us to create caring digital platforms. To do so, we must “expand the co-creating audience” to include cultural heritage workers, researchers, and engaged members of the public.
How, then, do we balance an ethic of access with an ethic of care in the case of Reveal Digital’s Hate in America collection of KKK newspapers, as well as other online collections of hate speech? There’s no question as to the research value of such materials, and libraries should preserve and provide access to them. For example, in “How Social Media Spread a Historical Lie” Jennifer Mendelsohn and Peter A. Shulman cite The American Standard, a pro-KKK newspaper available in Reveal Digital’s collection, in order to controvert a meme claiming that the Klan marched at the 1924 Democratic Convention in an event known as the “Klanbake.” They show the “Klanbake” meme for what it is — a popular right-wing attempt to cast the Democratic Party as the party of the Klan (and, thus, the “real” racists). In so doing, they resist this extremist narrative’s entrance into mainstream thought.
Reveal Digital’s crowdfunded business model opens up the historical record for interrogation beyond a privileged few. But the design of the Hate in America collection does not consider how to limit potential harm. We must recognize that viewing white supremacist propaganda might be difficult for white viewers but traumatic or harmful to people of color. As hate crimes continue to rise, often committed by white men radicalized on militant hate sites, we must also take seriously the potential for contemporary white supremacists to retrieve, alter, or reproduce historical hate speech for their own ends. Materials made freely available could—and likely would—be shared in private online forums to foment hate or adopted as models for nudging right-wing extremist thought into the mainstream. Indeed, Shulman was struck by similarities between Breitbart headlines and those of 1920s KKK newspapers he viewed while browsing Reveal Digital’s collection.
So the question remains: If we provide online access to historical hateful materials, how do we do so responsibly? We say responsibly because responsibility is an aspect of care. Reveal Digital is not solely responsible for the KKK newspaper digitization project. They consulted a review panel of 24 librarians regarding digitization priorities. Of 10 potential projects, KKK newspapers garnered the highest level of interest by far. Libraries committing funding and source material to the project also helped to bring the collection into being. We all—publishers, librarians, and researchers—share responsibility for the consequences, good and bad, of making historical materials full of hate openly available.
Guided by an ethic of care, we can only responsibly provide access to white supremacist cultural heritage by building with, not for people of color. The KKK newspaper collection should never have left the drawing board without inviting anti-racist activists, critical race theorists, historians of race, and librarians of color to the table. Together with Reveal Digital staff and editorial board members, they should have been there to grapple with whether and how this content would be made available online.
Perhaps the collection would only be accessed by using a public library computer or logging in with institutional credentials. Perhaps users would be required to register and electronically sign use policies. Perhaps content warnings would help users to determine if they want to proceed with viewing potentially traumatic materials. Without working closely with people of color, we don’t yet know what a caring digital platform looks like in the case of KKK newspapers, or even if one is possible.
As it stands now, however, the Hate in America collection fails to enact an ethic of care, so we call upon our readers to raise their voices to Reveal Digital. The online collection will not be made openly available until a funding threshold is reached, anticipated in 2019. Researchers and librarians, you can advocate for change to the access model before the collection becomes public. Libraries, you can withdraw or withhold commitment until Reveal Digital leaders engage librarians of color, race scholars, and anti-racist activists in dialogue about how to balance access and care.
Librarians are overwhelmingly white. We alone cannot determine how to provide online access to historical hate speech against people of color. But we can use our power to insist on bringing the right people to the table to create caring digital platforms for remembering America’s enduring culture of white supremacy. Otherwise, we remain complicit in amplifying hateful voices and quieting vulnerable voices within our civic discourse.