Analysis & counterpointsOpen access to scholarly knowledge

Open access to scholarly knowledge in the digital era (chapter 4.1): Libraries, museums, and archives as speculative knowledge infrastructure

This article is chapter 4.1 in section 4 of a series of articles summarising the book Reassembling Scholarly Communications: Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access.

Bethany Nowviskie, author of the first chapter of the archives and preservation section, advises that Afrofuturism has shaped her understanding of digital libraries, archives, and museums as twenty-first-century knowledge infrastructure. Afrofuturism1 is a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science, and history that explores the intersection of the African diaspora culture with science and technology.

From this understanding, Nowviskie presents in her chapter five spectra along which she believes digital cultural heritage and open science platform-builders must more consciously and collaboratively design enabling knowledge infrastructure.

A question and two assertions

A question at the heart of Afrofuturism is: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out create a future?” Afrofuturism’s answer to the question of how to imagine possible futures is a defiant yes, but Nowviskie alerts that victims of the transatlantic slave trade are not the only communities marginalized by archival absence.

She argues that we must enable the independent production of community-driven, future-oriented speculative collections by our varied and often marginalized constituencies, by designing new knowledge representation systems that challenge Western, progressive, and neo-liberal notions of time as an arrow and regularly ticking clock.

Two assertions by Afrofuturist thinkers may usefully direct our response to contemporary challenges and opportunities in digital library interface and systems design: the first is that the fundamental marker of liberty is found in a people’s ability to build knowledge infrastructure, and the second is that cultural heritage objects are active technologies.

Five spectra for 21st Century knowledge design

Nowviskie offers a list of questions and concerns for future-oriented and liberatory digital library design, figured as spectra along which responsible creators of user interfaces and open-access infrastructures might more consciously position their work.

She advises that these are only five among many possible vectors for design thinking that might more fully open twenty-first-century knowledge infrastructure to broader community ownership, richer scholarly application, and more creative, speculative ends.

Enlightenment versus Afrofuturist structurings

Popular and even scholarly imagination of library organizational schemes rests in an Enlightenment-era crystallization of singular, dominant understandings. But new possibilities for locating intersections and melding of multiple taxonomies and inheritances are emerging through approaches leveraging linked open data and topic modeling.

In an era of climate data denial, derogated scientific and scholarly expertise, rising white supremacy, and so-called fake news, is it not also our responsibility to construct libraries that reflect and prop up those structures for knowledge sharing, truth-seeking, and enlightened liberalism that the academy has long evolved and optimized, namely the forms and methods of our sciences and disciplines? If so, how can indigenous knowledge and resistant or lower status premises also be made central to digital library design? How might we honor and elevate grassroots, marginalized viewpoints structurally, without providing platforms that simultaneously open themselves to political disinformation campaigns and to ideologies of violence and oppression?

Historico-evidentiary versus speculative orientation

Prototyping exercises that address the basic temporal and evidentiary alignment of our libraries could help us produce improved discovery interfaces and richer platforms for argument, storytelling, and display. The fundamental questions are these: do our digital libraries present their contents as fact, or as fodder for interpretation? Do they adequately indicate gaps and absences, and allow for their exploration as a force? Do they allow us to look backwards and ahead?

To answer these questions in the form of prototype designs requires us to delve beyond the interface layer in digital knowledge infrastructure and into the fundamental nature of our archives. It has been argued that archival description should be liberatory, seeing the record as always in the process of being made, the record opening out of the future. When designing our libraries, we should also pay attention to the “archival imaginary”: those absent documents that traverse contradictions and offer counterbalances to dominant legal, bureaucratic, historical, and forensic notions of evidence.

Assessment versus the incommensurate

These questions lead us to the hyper-measured condition of contemporary digital libraries. Comprised of counting machines and situated in the neo-liberal academy, how could our digital knowledge platforms and systems be otherwise? Measurement is not going away, but well-designed and well-supported metrics can help us refine those systems and suit them better to the people who must inhabit them.

The challenge for systems and interface designers is to build in ways that enable humane and ethical quantification of behaviors and objects that are by nature deeply ambiguous and even too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words. These include users’ complex interactions with digital cultural data and those instances themselves: both digitized and born-digital information – records that are continually remediated as they are delivered or displayed

Transparency versus surveillance

Patron records have emerged as among the most closely guarded and assiduously expunged datasets librarians hold. Twenty-first century digital knowledge infrastructure design must keep privacy concerns paramount, and must also respect individual and community agency in determining whether historical or contemporary cultural records should be open to access and display. But an added challenge is to shield while also opening up. What interface designs can serve to make these deep structural decisions and commitments apparent?

Local versus global granularities

The fundamental paradox of the Anthropocene is that humankind is both infinitesimally small and fragile, and a grim, global prime mover. How do our digital library systems help us to bridge that conceptual gap, so crucial to fashioning futures that use both scientific data and empathetic understanding to their fullest extent?

We require design experimentation, at all levels of our open knowledge infrastructure, that addresses the relationship of big-data processing to small-data interpretation. Can our platforms for discovery more clearly link small narratives to massive datasets? Can we design tools that help users understand visualization not as an impartial algorithmic result but as a dialogic process, an act of interpretation (one of many possible acts) that will always, necessarily, be shaped by the unique course of its own creation?

Next part (chapter 4.2): Preserving the past for the future – whose past? Everyone’s future.

Article source: This article is an edited summary of Chapter 132 of the book Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access3 which has been published by MIT Press under a CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons license.

Acknowledgements: This summary was drafted by Wordtune Read with corrections and further edits by Bruce Boyes.

Article license: This article is published under a CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons license.


  1. Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.
  2. Nowviskie, B. (2020). Libraries, Museums, and Archives as Speculative Knowledge Infrastructure. In Eve, M. P., & Gray, J. (Eds.) Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access. MIT Press.
  3. Eve, M. P., & Gray, J. (Eds.) (2020). Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access. MIT Press.
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Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and education professional with over 30 years of experience in Australia and China. His work has received high-level acclaim and been recognised through a number of significant awards. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. He is also the editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (, and teaches in the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) Certified High-school Program (CHP).

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