October is Archives Month and this year the UCSF Library is celebrating with an entry of the Library Conversations series. We sat down with two Library staff members to discuss everything from books to new technology to childhood aspirations, and everything in between.
This week we chat with Archives & Special Collections Digital Archivist Charlie Macquarie. We discuss history and the future, water, and collaboration.
Charlie works to digitize the Archives & Special Collections’ holdings and build its digital collections.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION:
READ THE TRANSCRIPT:
Charlie: What I said was, before the recording got turned on, I’m from Carson City Nevada. But I was actually born in Berkeley, California and the Bay Area and that my grandparents actually met each other at UCSF but it wasn’t called UCSF then it was called, uh, University of California Medical Center and believe.
Kemi: Oh wow, that was a while ago then!
Charlie: Well it wasn’t called UCSF until to say like the 80s or something like that.
Kemi: Okay, yeah…unbeknownst to me. [Laughs]
Charlie: Well, now you know.
Kemi: Now, I know.
Charlie: I mean Polina, Kelsi, and David know that history better than I do, but, anyway my grandfather went to dental school here and my grandmother worked as a dental technician.
Yeah dental technician in the dental clinics. So they met each other, the rest is history.
Charlie: As they say…
Kemi: And so came Charlie.
Charlie: …and so came Charlie [laughs] to become the digital archivist.
Kemi: What did your parents do..or do they do?
Charlie: My father is… they’re both retired, they both kind continue to do a lot of work but now just don’t get paid for it.
My father is a civil engineer and my mother is… I guess you would call her an urban planner and/or a landscape architect. She went to basically landscape architecture school. At UC Berkeley actually…
Kemi: Yes, I’m very familiar with their program.
Charlie: I do owe a lot to the UC interestingly enough, so she went to basically landscape architecture school I think but most of her work was to do with planning both…well urban planning but a lot of her work actually took place in very unurban places, rural places really more so.
Charlie: Yeah. OK. Nice.
And they yeah they’re retired so they kind of do that work now, but really just like I said on a volunteer basis.
Kemi: And what did you want to be when you grew up, as a child.
Charlie: Well you mean apart from that brief time period where I wanted to be a fighter pilot [Laughs] or a train engineer, that was the other thing that I wanted to be for a long time.
Kemi: Oh, nice.
Charlie: Uhhhh, I think it really fluctuated honestly because I did spend a lot of time as a child wanting to be those kinds of things. ‘Cause I liked those kinds of machines but then I think they got further along, I think honestly the idea of writing really appealed to me. I was an English major in college and I really liked writing. Well, sorry, that’s not exactly true. I think I felt sort of in awe of writing or impressed by writing and I felt like it was cool and interesting and also really hard.
Charlie: So that’s why I think I need to qualify saying that I really liked it. I did like it but it was really hard. And I think as part of that it seemed special, like it seemed like where ideas came from and that felt special. So anyway, I think as part of being an English major and part of being someone who came to a point where I kind of like ideas and thinking about new ones that kind of stuff, the concept of being a writer seemed appealing.
Kemi: Yeah. That’s interesting ’cause I’m a very visual person. Um, but when I come up when I come up with ideas I write them out first before I draw anything, so, yeah.
I think it’s…and I find… and actually one of the things that I was eventually going to get to with my job is that I still find it’s a really good way to try to understand what I’m doing. Like I was just writing a blog post which I initially didn’t want to write [laughs] it just seemed hard but then it got to be really good because the post is all about using a technology called optical character recognition to try to extract text from scanned documents and in writing it down, it really became so much clearer what we were trying to do and where the problems were. And I like that process of my job of understanding… of examining how these different kinds of technologies work, these different kinds of computing technologies work and beginning to sort of understand what’s going on and then try to basically, I guess translate it into my words and my thoughts so that it makes sense to me.
Kemi : Yeah.
And I like… and I like that about this job as a digital archivist because so many of our technologies are pretty much presented as magic to us, you know?
And obviously that’s not the case. They’re highly engineered objects which should function on things like physics and stuff.
And so I find it really comforting to get a chance to really examine how they actually work and what’s actually going on. I think it…I don’t like things that just kind of work and you don’t get to understand why or how, so.
Kemi: How would you describe what you do to an eighth grader?
Oh man, I think, I usually talk about the difference between physical documents and digital stuff so I would probably say you know if you’re an eighth grader, right, you have a history class so you have a concept of the idea of history and what it is. Well, how do we know that stuff, right? None of us were there. So one of the ways that we understand history is that we go back and look at the physical evidence which came from that period. You know, something like, for example the Constitution just because that’s an easily whole document because a lot of people in this country know it that is.
Charlie: We have the actual physical document with all the signatures on it and it’s at the National Archives or I guess actually in their museum wherever at the National Archives. But it’s there, you know, if we have an argument about some historical thing about the Constitution we go back and look at the document. And so I say, you know, archives work with those documents, we keep the documents and the other kinds of documentary evidence of our history.
Or I guess collected history or whatever kind of history we’re trying to document. It’s usually pretty easy to get people to understand. Like, oh yes most of the activities that I do now involve some kind of a computer. If it’s my phone, if it’s my computer, if it’s my parents computer, if it’s stuff that we do involves computers now so what I do is do that same job of preserving that historical documentation like the Constitution but I do that for all that stuff that we’re making on computers.
Kemi: Yeah. Would you say that digitization is like a frontier of accessibility.
Charlie: I think in some ways it is and in some ways it isn’t. I certainly think it has a lot more capacity for that. I think it does feel important to remember that like any technology digital technology is just come with their own new sets of accessibility problems. Right? I mean just cost is one.
But they do think that the potential for increased distribution with digital stuff because it just can be copied so easily is really incredible, actually and I think it’s also an area where I guess I have to say that I think it’s interesting to see. It’s interesting to examine it as a site where increased possibility also leads to really intense efforts at the control by people who or by anyone who wants to exercise quote ownership over something.
So I think with our…and I do think archives are extra good for this though because very many of the things that are in archives, we have a little bit better argument to say that this is not really a copyrightable work. And we can copy this and we can disseminate it widely. But I do think it’s interesting to see the way in which that ability for a super easy copying leads to some really really stringent efforts on behalf of corporations to keep us from doing that copying both legally and um, technically.
Kemi: What brought you to digital the digital archiving world?
Charlie: Honestly I think what…first thing came into the archiving world and I think that was because I was just…I was interested in history already and to work in archives felt like honestly, like a kind of a weird almost voyeuristic thing that you just would never get to do. In most cases, you know. To get to just read through, as an example, someone’s letters.
Charlie: Like when would you ever get, you know? It’s so intensely intimate and almost weirdly so. You know, I think..that’s still is actually a thing which sort of weirds me out a little bit about this work is that however it all has developed that there is some idea that eventually if you’re a famous person you will take all your stuff and give it to some other institutions so that people can just read all of your thoughts.
All of you’re the most private and personal thoughts. And that’s really odd but also really fascinating.
Charlie: So that’s kind of what brought me to archives generally. And also I just think that it felt really interesting and kind of thrilling to get to examine the stuff if you will, of history ’cause I find it kind of complicates. I just feel like it gives me a more fulfilling, a less linear concept of time generally to kind of understand why things are the way they are now I guess or just to help you kind of construct the present moment, so I was just drawn to that. As as primary, you know, as the documentation of that kind of stuff.
And then I think being drawn to that in this contemporary moment means that you also obviously inevitably have to think about what about the digital stuff making now? And so honestly I wasn’t particularly drawn to computers or digitally focused work but it just seemed so clear that for archives to continue as a field this was expertise that we needed to develop.
Kemi: Right, right.
Charlie: So it seemed like someone had to do it and a lot of the more interesting work of my colleagues was all done by people who were involved in digital stuff. So I kind of headed in that direction.
Kemi: Yeah. And you know, just thinking about what you’re saying right now, you know, books to me are, um, they represent like an ancestral spirit for libraries I think across the board and not just the physical book but what they mean, right.
The meaning behind them, which is knowledge, access, information. I think that, um…and It sounds like with digital archiving there is kind of a new wave of that.
Charlie: Yeah. I think one thing that I always liked about this is not just archives. I think this is libraries in general.
One thing that I really like about that space where physical intersects digital as kind of like a border or whatever that kind of work that libraries have done on the border of physical and digital I think, is so interesting because, you know, now digital technologies are obviously just completely a part of all of our lives. Everyday.
And…but most of the narratives around those kinds of technologies are highly capitalist, highly commodi..like all about making profit off of technological innovation. And I’m not sure that’s inherently evil but there’s like a certain set of oppressions that are just always going to come along with that. And in a lot of ways I think they tend to be bound up in that concept of this commodification of information.
Charlie: And I feel like that goes along with the narrative of kind of like startup culture. These computer companies that did all this innovation, blah, blah, blah. But one of the first like interoperable computer readable data standards was developed by libraries, like libraries have always been involved in this kind of information work, this kind of this kind of, you know, creation and manipulation of digital information.
But I think they offer a totally different paradigm and it comes along with its own problems. But I think that libraries do offer something which is kind of a counterpoint to that, like highly capitalist innovation culture of many, many of the technologies and the corporations that have colored our understanding of digital technology.
Kemi: Yeah, and I mean now that I’m behind the scenes of the library ’cause for so long I’ve been a patron and not, you know, a worker of the library I see, um, now that the library, um, is not just about information and the acquisition of information which you’re saying some of these kind of capitalistic entities are about acquisition particularly so, um, for their own gain.
Um, now I see libraries as, um, very strongly as a educational institution, right so they facilitate learning.
Kem: I think that’s a huge difference, right. And to be able to facilitate learning you have to have a level of democratization and like accessibility and inclusivity, um, to do that. Yeah,, that’s interesting.
Charlie: Yeah I think that’s true. Yeah,… I think that yeah, I think education is maybe another kind of project like that, you know…
Kemi: Yea, yeah, definitely.
Charlie: Like libraries, one that can be at least education as we conceive of it, the United States at this moment sort of still [laughs] there are some edges of that.
Yeah, a democratizing project.
Kemi: Um, speaking of books, um, what books are you reading right now?
Charlie: Oh yeah. I had to think about this question ’cause I always forget.
Well, I mean I know a book I’m reading right now, what books I’m reading right now but I always like…I don’t know what my favorite three books are which is a good question. But anyway, right now I’m reading a really good…well a number of things but especially pertinent to this is I reading a really good book called “How to Have Theory in an Epidemic” by… I guess you would call this person a probably kind of like a medical humanist or perhaps kind of like an anthropologist of medicine named Paula Drakler, I think her name is pronounced Drakler and it is… “How to Have Theory in an Epidemic” is all about…it’s about the AIDS epidemic and specifically it’s about the cultural constructions of knowledge around the AIDS epidemic.
And basically the sort of battle for how we understand the AIDS epidemic. From a scientific point of view and from a more cultural “activisty“ point of view and where those things come together because I think one of her arguments basically is that in the AIDS epidemic these things were thrown into collision with each other much more than they really ever had been previously.
Charlie: So It is a really good laboratory for examining how we build up ways of understanding things when it’s very difficult for any one approach to be taken as given. So basically she’s talking about how, um, scientific understanding and scientific ways of building knowledge was thrown into like very direct, sometimes conflict and sometimes collaboration with cultural and activist understandings of knowledge and how both of those had to kind of develop ways to inform each other and define the conversation moving forward.
Charlie: And so I think it’s really fascinating because it’s such a fascinating critical examination of how we conceive of understanding things It’s really good.
We have it here in the Library I check it out, that’s where I got it from.
Kemi: [Laughs] And I’m going to jump in and ask you if you, um, if can list three of your all time favorite?
Charlie: Yeah I was thinking about that too and that’s hard.
Kemi: Yeah, that is a hard question.
Charlie: I think one of my favorite books is “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Kemi: That is an awesome book. Yes, agreed.
Charlie: And I don’t even need to explain why it’s my favorite, clearly, since you agree. I think another one of my favorite books is probably a book called “Cadillac Desert” by someone named Marc Reisner. And that is a book that is basically about the way in which the contemporary Western United States is built and on the movement of water in really like pretty extreme ways.
Either by storing it in vast vast quantities in behind dams but also by moving in vast vast quantities either to irrigate crops or to allow people to have drinking water and how it’s a little bit of a fool’s errand to believe that, that can just continue in the same way. So I think that is a really compelling and well written and important book for anyone who lives in the western United States.
Kemi: Yeah. Interesting, when you first said that I thought when meant like the natural movement of water.
Charlie [00:19:15] Yeah no, it’s about the human movement of water.
Kemi [00:19:16] Yeah. OK.
Charlie [00:19:17] It’s great. It’s incredible. And then, what, I had a really hard time thinking of a third one. There are many things which feel like they don’t exactly count as books, I don’t know, like one of the things which I was thinking that there’s this essay by Ursula Le Guin the science fiction author or actually it’s interesting ’cause I know that, I feel like she’s given all these speeches about how the term science fiction author was used to marginalize her [laughs].
But, um, basically Ursula Le Guin the author who, uh, she wrote an essay called a Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be which is probably long enough to be a very short book. And it is incredible. I just think it is such a beautiful and compelling and well thought out examination of just different kinds of societies and what kind of society contemporary California has become and how that relates to, well, basically how that kind of relates to like Indigenous California.
Kemi: What are some of the challenges in your field?
Charlie: Well honestly I think the largest challenge is that getting people to understand how many resources are going to have to be devoted to digital preservation. If we really want to try to preserve something because I think… I feel like maybe this… I think this often sounds a little bit whiney but I still think it’s true.
I think that the general public does not really understand. I think the general public sort of gets that we understand who we are because of history and because of very many of these basically documents, this documentation which we can refer to to build that history. But I think that people really don’t understand how relatively easy it was to keep that documentation around and previously made how it is actually pretty significant that you can just throw a box of papers in your closet and it’s basically going to be there in 100 maybe even 200 or 300 years. And it’s going to be fine. And if you still speak the language you can read it.
And I think people are just beginning to understand how vastly different digital information is than that. And what I think they still don’t quite understand is that I don’t, I don’t actually know that it’s quite so difficult to preserve digital information. I think that’s totally doable but what I think has not quite been grokked yet is that it’s going to require, if you do it, is going to require an immense amount of money and of resources. Basically, electricity most of which comes from fossil fuels these days. And so getting people to understand that is I think really difficult. ‘Cause honestly I think most of the technological problems are, you know, I can’t solve them. [laughs]
Kemi: Me either. [chuckle].
Charlie: But they’re totally solvable I mean, you know, for people who are computer scientists or who are, even just computer scientists coupled with creative thinkers. Actually I like to think that I can provide the creative thinking half of it just not a computer science half. These, uh, yeah I mean these are totally solvable problems, you know.
But I think part of the whole issue is that, you know, cultural difficulties like deciding we’re going to devote resources to preservation of information. It might also not be that important honestly, you know. So basically, just that if we want to, if we want to make this decision that there are certain things that we want to preserve I think having people understand what that takes.
Kemi: Right. So what brought you to the library and why fo you stay here?
Charlie: Yeah, that was a good question too. Well, so I like the UCSF Library and definitely I think one of the reasons why I was interested in this job is that, um, I could kind of tell I think even from the beginning that there were some great people here and having that coupled with the fact that we are as libraries, or sorry as academic libraries go we’re a pretty small one.
And so, I feel like there’s a lot of freedom in getting to decide, oh I want to work on a project with Ariel or, I want to, you know, collaborate a little bit more with Geoff thinking about like the data side of some of this. And so, I really like having that freedom and I think that that is a really nice thing about UCSF that not all academic libraries have. That since we’re small there’s a lot of opportunity to…means there’s a lot to do but it also means that I think you have more opportunity to just basically kind of go knock on someone’s door and then start to do a little bit more work with them.
Kemi: Yeah, yeah.
Charlie: And diversify your online knowledge and learn a lot honestly. And also, I think that makes our abilities to serve a lot stronger.
Kemi: Are you ready for some rapid fire questions? Bay or desert?
Kemi: Physical or digital?
Charlie: I can’t answer that one. Sorry.
Kemi: [Laughs] No…no Answer, okay cool.
Charlie: [Laughs] Wait, well, can I say something that’s not?
Charlie: They’re both, they’re both…the physical is digital and the digital is physical.
Kemi: Yeah. I had a feeling you were going to give me that answer.
Kemi: Indoors or outdoors?
Kemi: Collect or share?
Kemi: Color or pattern? And for those who are listening don’t know, uh, Charlie is a very colorful and pattern inclined dresser.
Charlie: Yeah. I think color.
Kemi: Past or future?
Charlie: Ugh, again! Actually past.
Can I, can I actually say… there’s a there’s a really… ’cause I wrote an essay, a creative essay recently and there was a quote that I wanted to reference.
Actually I learned about this quote from that essay by Ursula Le Guin and on “Non-Euclidian View”, and there is this really beautiful quote from Milan Kundera in a book which I think he’s writing basically about kind of like the various, like, Fascist histories of the place that he’s lived he has this really beautiful quote that says I think basically, quote, “people are always yelling about how they want to change the future. But it’s not true.
The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past however is full of life. Something like waiting to provoke us and irritate us. The only reason people want to control the future is to change the past.”
Kemi: Wow! On that note, what a great way to end.
Charlie: There we go.
Kemi: Thank you so much Charlie, this has been fun!
Charlie: Bam, bam boom! Thank you, Kemi!