Contributing Editor Interview

Featured Researcher Spotlight On: Dr. Tonia Sutherland

Dr. Tonia Sutherland discusses her research agenda, her writing process, and more in this LibParlor interview.


Dr. Tonia Sutherland is assistant professor in the Department of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Sutherland’s work critically examines the analog histories of modern information and communication technologies; addresses trends of racialized violence in 21st century digital cultures; and interrogates issues of race, ritual, and embodiment in archival and digital spaces. Sutherland is the author of Digital Remains: Race and the Digital Afterlife (forthcoming). She is a faculty affiliate of the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies.

This interview has been edited and shortened for the website column. Click here to read the full interview.

Your research looks at technology and culture, focusing on digital culture, archives and recordkeeping, critical race and digital studies, data in/and society, critical information studies, technology and the arts, and community and cultural informatics. Can you talk about how these interests formed and developed for your research agenda?

Absolutely. I started off in librarianship doing Children and Youth Services where I did things like baby storytime and reader’s theater–my background is in theater–and it quickly became apparent to me that if I was going to remain in the field of librarianship, that I would need to get an MLIS. I applied to the University of Pittsburgh to their online program and started working on my degree.  There was an option to do an internship, and so I reached out to the folks at UMass Amherst because they had the W.E.B. Du Bois papers there.

I thought it would be really interesting to see the original papers of such a prominent Black scholar.  It was not the first time that I was interested in scholarship around race, but it was the first time that I sort of put my interests in race scholarship together with my interest in librarianship, and those two things came together in the archives. It was February that I was doing my internship so I was encouraged to put together an exhibit for Black History Month on Du Bois. They said “You can tell whatever story you want, let this narrative speak however it wants.” And so I learned a lot about constructing narratives, and I learned a lot about the power of archives–what is and is not there and how things do and don’t end up there.

I earned my MLIS, and after five years as a practitioner decided I also wanted to teach librarianship and archivy, so I enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh. One of the assignments in my introduction to archives class was a literature review, which I had never been asked to do during my master’s program. So I thought, “OK that should be easy enough, I’ll do a literature review on all of the literature that’s out there on archives and the performing arts.” Well, it turns out there wasn’t much at all. And my review turned out to be five pages worth of “This is what’s here” and five pages worth of “Why isn’t there more?” And that became the crux of my dissertation, looking at the relationships between archives and performance.

I came into my doctoral program with a general interest in archives, with a background interest in race, and a really strong interest in communities and cultures.  Through the course of my program, and through the course of narrowing down the questions that would become my dissertation questions, I realized that I had a much stronger interest in the intersections of race and archives and in gaps and vagaries in the archival record–the stories that archives do and don’t tell, the stories they can and cannot tell, in narrative, and particularly the narratives that emerge from archives.  I also had an increasing interest in technology, especially at that time around performing arts, because the thing that I found in my dissertation research is that it’s mostly using things like digital tools and databases that archives are actually involved in capturing and preserving the performing arts (the is a great example of this).

So that was my dissertation. And then I did a postdoc, which was this great kind of really “big thinking” project. The idea was to take all of these disparate kinds of tabular data about people all over the world going back about four hundred years, create a beautiful algorithm, and then a miracle would occur. On the other side, you could ask new questions of this data that you wouldn’t be able to before because the data would have been cleaned up and normalized by the algorithm, and all of the attendant metadata would also have been normalized.

I was brought in as an archivist to help with the metadata, and the other scholars on the project sort-of didn’t understand that a cell-level metadata approach wasn’t going to work. They wanted cell by cell metadata for every single spreadsheet. And they thought that if they had that metadata, then of course the metadata would allow everything to talk to everything else.  That experience opened up for me a real interest in critical data studies because here’s this group of scholars–historians, political scientists, economists, etc.–who have come together to share all of their data in the hopes that there are new ways that they can talk to each other. And for all of the data that they were collecting there was really no representation from South America, the Caribbean–really, the Global South. There were a handful of really interesting and important data sets that had been collected from the African continent and some great work on China, but I thought, well you can’t call this global because you’re getting only parts of the globe, and you’re talking about it as though you have uncovered global scale secrets when you’re leaving out entire cultures, entire parts of the planet–and entire ways of understanding the world, too. And so that really was my first foray into critical data studies.

I walked away at the end of the postdoc with a strong interest in gaps and vagaries in the archives, and also in data, particularly how it does and doesn’t serve communities of people. I realized that archives are now really starting to deal a lot more with data themselves, and I was starting to think more and more about the digital in ways that I hadn’t necessarily before.

I finished my doctorate in 2014. In August of that year, Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, and two years earlier while I was a doctoral student, Trayvon Martin was also killed in Florida. During that time, I had reason to spend a lot of time on the Internet, between job searches and all of the data and other digital work I was doing for my postdoc. So I was constantly encountering these online depictions of the violent deaths of black men.

I finished up my MLIS, around the time  Hurricane Katrina hit in the fall of 2005. And so in August 2014, and during the time after that, pictures of Mike Brown, the images of his dead body in the street, called up for me. They reminded me a lot of the pictures of Katrina. The bodies that were floating in the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, the lower Ninth Ward, and I just thought, “Why is it that we as a culture, as an American culture, feel so comfortable displaying dead Black people’s bodies on television and on the Internet?” So here I am a Black woman with Caribbean roots who grew up in the Northeast. I had accepted a tenure track job in Alabama, and I was culturally completely out of my depth. The South was a new thing for me, and I had sort of come into my new faculty position with this interest in digital afterlives like “what does it mean for a person to die but then still be alive online?” Or if not to still be alive online, to still sort of have this afterlife that’s happening online?” And my research sort of just went down that path from there.

So, to answer your original question, the Science and Technology Studies research is related to   my critical concerns about data, technology, and communities. The interest in Community and Cultural Informatics has to do somewhat with how people perform their cultures. And then overall I have a very strong and abiding interest in gaps and vagaries in the archival record which manifests in Critical Archival Studies — what are the things that archives are doing right? And what are the things that we maybe aren’t doing as well? What are the ways that people and communities are hurt by violences in the archives? Are there ways that these gaps and vagaries and silences disrupt or create or contribute to narratives about cultures, about communities, and about people? So all of those interests come together in “the record,” and usually around issues of race and culture and representation.

Can you describe what the process of writing your book Digital Remains: Race and the Digital Afterlife?

Yes. I’m still writing. Thinking about the book started toward at the end of my doctorate, through my postdoc, and then through the years in Alabama–thinking about race and representation, particularly around death  and the digital. I don’t think that it is any secret that the three years that I spent in Alabama were pretty hard on me. And so I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and that was sort of the way that I dealt with the personal struggles that I was having just with the institution and with some of the things that happened there. It was just a really tough time. And it was so present in my brain and my mind and in my heart that the only way that I could process it was to write about it.

And so I wrote Archival Amnesty and I wrote Making a Killing. They were written as companion pieces, and they both came out of that idea of this digital afterlife. What does it mean to be black and dead in digital culture? And what does it mean for people to then take your image or take any part of you that remains and give it a new life of its own?

The book project started from, “What is it about the digital that allows for this weird afterlife?” We are leaving behind all kinds of digital traces and remains: our metadata, our texts, our emails, our high scores on Candy Crush, our passwords, you know, our medical records. All of this is now digital detritus, digital remains, and we don’t get any say in what happens to it after we die. We don’t get any say in what happens to photos of us that go online. And now that we know that the internet is forever, and that things go viral–it’s different than it was when things were just analog.

So the process has been hard. It’s been heart hard. There are days when I’m looking at lynching photos and just weeping, and I have to put it down and go swimming or walking and get away from all of the death. You know there are stories that come up around the right to be remembered. One very personal story that I’m including in that chapter was how my family dealt with my cousin’s death. She was 18 when she died, and she had a Facebook page. My family are Caribbean immigrants, and her parents didn’t know what a Facebook page was, much less that she had one, what to do with it, how to contact Facebook after she died. But she now has a remembering page, Remembering Sara Sutherland. It was a very personal way for me to understand some of the issues at play here and some of the concerns that digital remains raised that we have just not even begun to contend with.

“…but every day it’s deep breath and then, dip a toe into what it means to look like me and die. What does it mean to look like me and die?”

I feel like writing a book is just like writing a dissertation or a thesis. It’s a very sort of solo kind of endeavor. But I also feel like I’m in community with strong thinkers and supportive scholars. And you know my colleagues here at Hawai’i are fantastic, my family is very supportive, but every day it’s deep breath and then, dip a toe into what it means to look like me and die. What does it mean to look like me and die?

You are an Affiliate for The Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies. Can you talk a little bit about what work or collaborations you’ve been doing in that group and how it has informed your research and teaching?

Absolutely. The Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies is probably one of the most important collaborative groups I’ve been a part of in my academic career. The work that the scholars who are a part of the Center are doing is all around critical and digital studies, around digital media, around data, and all of it has a race component, acknowledges the race overlay. It’s inspiring to see the work that my colleagues are doing. It’s fantastic to have the Center as a mechanism to collaborate and to share work, and to think together–to think collectively and collaboratively around these issues. There are so many strong scholars in this group, and we are an agenda-setting group as well.

Collectively, we would like to be the first group that you think of when you think about critical race and digital media. And I will also say that when this group gathers, it is really an empowering space not only because we’re thinking about the same things but because we have built for ourselves a community of scholars of color. We can have conversations around race without having to legitimize critical race theory as a valid thing, or argue that our methods are valid, or that our approaches to the research are valid. All of us have had experiences where we go to present or get to talk somewhere, and someone says “Well you know I don’t know why you’re making this about race” or “But that happens to white people too” or “You know, I think you’re being unfair in saying that there’s an anti-Blackness element or component to this” or that “There’s an anti-Asian or anti Asian-American sentiment being expressed here.” Or whatever the case may be. And so it’s just nice in that space to have a shared set of assumptions, to have a knowledge base, to be part of a group that is already well-versed in the literature around critical race theory, intersectionality, feminism, gender theory, and all of the critical intersections where we might typically find ourselves struggling to get purchase in a broader research community. Because there’s always that push back.

I would like if everyone had a basic understanding of critical race and feminist theory and queer theory and gender theory.  It would be a lot easier to have these conversations, and those conversations would be more generative and more productive. So being a part of the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies also offers a space where those conversations are possible, where it’s actually possible to go beyond the “Well what about..” Or “I disagree because you’re talking about Blackness” or “Anti-Blackness isn’t a thing” or “People made up racism” or whatever the arguments are, and I’ve heard all of them. To be able to begin from that place and move from the understanding that yes, we all have the same set of knowledge and we’re all operating from the same shared readings, even though we come from completely different fields. It’s just that it’s a beautiful thing to be able to start from a level higher in the conversation and to go from there.

Recently you’ve written about social media communities, specifically the Black Travel Movement, providing liberatory spaces for marginalized populations to form communities, provide support, and share experiences of marginalization and oppression. In the LIS community, groups like We Here provide spaces for library and archive workers and students of color to build community and support each other. Do you see similar types of online liberatory communities formed/ing in academia and archival work more specifically?

I’m finding that there are all kinds of online spaces that people are creating for themselves that serve this function, and it’s really interesting, because you know so many of them are built around an identity characteristic. The Black travel community was one that really interested me, especially living in the South. I think the most interesting finding from that study wasn’t just about the liberatory spaces that people are creating for themselves. These spaces that they’re creating as autonomous and that then become liberatory because of that autonomy. And you know, I’m not advocating for segregation, but there is something really powerful about creating spaces that you sort of intend to be safe spaces and then actually being able to be free in new ways in those spaces because they are safe spaces. And I see more and more–especially as our political climate continues to shift and change (and the Overton window moves)–I see more and more groups like this popping up especially online. The next thing that would be interesting to know is how or what happens when these people leave these spaces, what things from these spaces do they bring with them into their offline world or into a broader online existence. And that’s not something I have an answer for, but I’d be so happy to read that research.

Do you see areas of information sciences education generally and Archival Studies curriculum specifically that should be emphasized, researched, or discussed more than they are now?

In Alabama I can say that the faculty there have really taken it up as a personal mission to inject social justice into the curriculum– into every single course and into the classroom. Here in Hawaii, one of the things I think we’re starting to do really well is train people who have a really strong understanding of Oceania, of the Pacific islands, of the relationship between Asia and the Pacific and the information needs and practices of the Native Hawaiian community.

I think that we are starting to turn slightly toward community engagement in the field, and that’s encouraging to me because I think we have to be better about listening to communities who are telling us what they need, and we need to be more aware and nimble when students come in who really want to go back and serve their own community.

LIS educators get a lot of feedback from our stakeholders that students aren’t prepared technologically. And that’s frustrating because as we know, technology shifts and changes every single day. So I think we need to be better about teaching people how to think about technology in the broad sense. Maybe more of a critical technology studies [approach].  Something that will allow people to think about the ways that technology works in the world, some of the uses of technology, introduce students to different kinds of technologies that are like broad genre technologies like “These are technologies that are content management systems.” “These are technologies that are databases.” “These are how those things work together” not “This is how you use Fedora” because we could stop using any of those specific tools tomorrow, and the broader skill is to be able to understand the function and the purpose and maybe have some some basic savvy in terms of programming.

Thank you so much for your time!

Featured image [CC0], via Pexels

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