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—Charles Henry

Of late we have been understandably immersed in the current moment. The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetime, a disruptive force that is unnerving in that it is both inexorable and unpredictable, a silent threat that becomes visible only through the consequence of its often-lethal abrading, physically and psychologically, of our human fabric. It will influence our society, our politics, and our culture for many years to come; it is already demanding profound alterations in the way we see ourselves in the world and how we see the world itself.

A natural pathogen, the virus will be contained in time. As the air clears in a figurative and literal sense, we will begin to understand what has transpired and collectively explore methods and means to address the disruption and to work together to mitigate future calamity and loss. For over 60 years CLIR’s programs have received wide support because they bring coherence, predictability, and stability to the working environment of higher education and cultural institutions. CLIR has accomplished this by building communities of practice and encouraging interdependence, by funding practical strategies and systemic thinking for new challenges, and by promoting the development of thoughtful, ethical policies that encourage the respectful acknowledgement of many voices. This is illustrated by examples of recent and emerging work.

Building communities

Many of CLIR’s projects are managed to construct and maintain communities of practice and promote interdependencies.

  1. Building cultural networks. We reach across GLAM communities to encourage wider accessibility to and more sophisticated use of our cultural heritage, broadly defined. Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives is a salient example, which we hope to enlarge upon post-crisis.
  2. Providing safe spaces for storytelling. This nascent project will provide the cultural heritage, academic, and professional communities with a safe space for sharing experiences, obstacles, and ideas through personal narratives and group discussion to create transformative solutions for the empowerment of all, and will serve as an anonymized archive for ideas and proposals to strengthen professional culture post-crisis.
  3. Working with marginalized communities that are often more decisively threatened. We will continue our partnership with the HBCU Library Alliance and seek funds that will support cataloging and digitizing content critical to a more sophisticated understanding of our national history. Outreach is also underway to several indigenous peoples organizations across North America.
  4. Engaging interdisciplinary communities to work on wickedly complex challenges. The global digital library Pangia is an example of community-building at scale. The Digital Library Federation and its Forum will remain a major national platform for the exchange of ideas and innovative technologies in support of accessible, well curated, and reusable data pertinent to climate change, epidemiology, and other topics.

Developing practical strategies and systemic thinking for new challenges

Programs in this category inculcate the importance of system thinking and whole-greater-than-the-parts envisioning.

  1. Building knowledge systems. Developing technical platforms that explicitly allow the federation and cost effective and efficient aggregation of open content. The Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME) epitomizes system thinking at a global scale.
  2. Advocating and constructing sustainable models for essential digital resources. This includes the large digital library projects, and a new effort we are working on with ACLS, NEH, and the Mellon Foundation to explore new infrastructures and funding models to maintain information content over time, as much of essential academic knowledge today is fragile and susceptible to loss.
  3. Advocating for and implementing projects that are international and global in scope and participation. CLIR Global is leading the development of new partnerships and projects across the planet. Our affiliates exemplify these priorities: IIIF, IIPC, Open Repositories, JISC.
  4. Working to mitigate threats to our cultural heritage, whether natural threats or anthropogenic ones. The DLME and Pangia are exemplary of this, as is Recordings at Risk.
  5. Developing online descriptive and educational resources to more broadly communicate with our constituency and the world, as we become a teaching resource. The DLF Digital Library Pedagogy Working Group is an example. CLIR is also working with selected Postdoctoral Fellows in Data Curation, a unique cohort of expertise, to envision a new curriculum focused on data access and sustainability.

Promoting the implementation of thoughtful, ethical policies and procedures at institutions

  1. The Leading Change Institute trains professional librarians and information technologists for advanced leadership within their institutions and professional circles, promoting policies that enhance the workplace through thoughtful, ethical application, encouraging innovative solutions, and a more encompassing understanding of higher education.
  2. The DLF Working Groups, which include Records Transparency, Privacy and Ethics in Technology, and the Committee for Equity and Inclusion, continually assess the educational workplace, articulating policies and procedures in service to a just and equitable society.

On these foundations we will continue and enhance our programs in service to rebuilding communication, infrastructure, policies, and practices for our constituencies as the crisis resolves, as it now falls to us to compose a different future. While we will retain some recognizable aspects of our traditional ways of doing business, we will also identify new models of service provision, funding, and functional dependencies. Later this year, CLIR, with selected partner institutions, will convene an interdisciplinary national task force with diverse institutional representation that will register the changes and challenges experienced during the pandemic, explore means and methods of addressing these challenges, and recommend specific responses to a world undreamed of a short time ago. From this, fresh affordances will be identified to help us interact with a much-altered environment, though an environment that, by working together, we can imbue with inclusive accommodation and promise.

All of CLIR’s projects and programs exemplify the belief that open, accessible, and well-organized knowledge is a human right. This is a core principle that animates our resolve and confers the proposition that we are joined as a common humanity.


Charles Henry is president of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).

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