Safiya Umoja Noble received the 2023 Miles Conrad Award from the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) and delivered the annual Miles Conrad Memorial Lecture at the recently held NISO Plus conference. Noble, who earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in library and information science at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), is a professor of gender studies and African American studies at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA). A 2021 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and 2022 recipient of the inaugural NAACP-Archewell Digital Civil Rights Award, she has written and spoken widely about the problem of bias in internet content and search results and is the author of the book Algorithms of Oppression.
Her lecture, “Decolonizing Standards: A Provocation,” included a review of her work and a call, or “provocation,” for the information science field to remake information and knowledge services for greater equity and access, focusing on the needs of communities being harmed by current systems and methods. Concluding, she noted that the Miles Conrad Award is given for lifetime achievement. However, having reached the same age as Miles Conrad when he passed away, she said that she feels nowhere near having compiled a lifetime of achievement and looks forward to continuing her contributions to scholarship and society—as he certainly would have done had he survived.
I spoke with Noble shortly after her lecture, and this is an edited and abridged version of our conversation.
Safiya Umoja Noble
Photo credit: Stella Kallnina; Source: digitaljustice.ucla.edu/safiya-u-noble (used with permission)
Dave Shumaker: Dr. Noble, thank you for speaking with me today. To start off our conversation, I noted that you began your Miles Conrad lecture by reviewing your career. I’d like to go further into that. You started out in advertising and marketing. So what led you to the field of library and information science?
Safiya Umoja Noble: When the economy began its downturn in 2006, my field, multicultural advertising and marketing, was one of the first to feel the effects. I had always wanted to go back to grad school, so it seemed like the right time to pivot and plan for the future. When I was leaving industry and getting into academia, I was stunned at the disconnect between the two sectors’ views about technology, the tech sector, and media. I wanted to reconcile the way media buying and search results optimization were done in industry with the way academia talked about search as liberating and making web content easier to find. I applied to the UIUC LIS program because I was living in Champaign, and I was aware that UIUC was top-ranked, and there were a lot of interesting people there, with a wide variety of interests. So I thought it would be a great place to do interdisciplinary work. Once I started the Ph.D. program, I realized that there weren’t a lot of people working on things like feminist technology studies, or critical race theory, or ethnic studies—things I knew a lot about, because of my 15 years doing communications to ethnic communities, LGBTQ+ communities, and women. That led me to expand my studies beyond the LIS program.
Shumaker: And since then, have you seen change in the LIS field and academic community?
Noble: I don’t think the field has diversified at scale. It still has only a couple dozen Black Ph.D.’s. The field has struggled with talking about gender, race, and sexuality issues, and we still have a lot of work to do. You can look at the lack of diversity in information schools, and that says a lot about where we are relative to other social science and humanities fields that have been more open. I’ve told students who struggle with the lack of representations of people of color, or because of the issues being taken up, that this field is still doing the kinds of integration that others were doing in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.
Shumaker: In past work, you’ve emphasized public policy responses to the problems of racism and sexism that you identified in Algorithms of Oppression. In closing your lecture, you encouraged NISO to continue its initiatives for improving inclusivity. In addition to institutional actions, what are your recommendations to individual librarians who might want to change or develop their practices?
Noble: There’s a tradition of librarians being at the forefront of engaging their communities around hard issues. That’s really important, and librarians sometimes don’t know that this tradition exists. For example, there’s the role that librarians played after 9/11 when the attorney general tried to force them to report on patron borrowing. Librarians, including those at my alma mater, UIUC, refused to participate. They recognized the broad threat to democracy and to the right of people to read anything they want. This follows a tradition of librarians refusing to ban books or keep ideas from the public that political forces think are subversive. So librarians take really consequential actions in their work, and any librarian can link to this history.
We’re living in a time now when public librarians are face-to-face with crises of poverty, divestment from education, mental health, and other social services. They’re making choices whether to exclude people or create safe spaces for them. The Los Angeles and San Diego public libraries have been models of the role libraries can play. That also includes advocacy to city councils and state legislators about the needs of the community. Librarians are well-positioned to understand those needs and to be effective and trusted advocates to policymakers. So there’s a role for librarians institutionally and as individuals. We should be strengthened and heartened by the history of social justice in the field.
Shumaker: Does the librarians’ teaching role play a part?
Noble: The role librarians have taken on, teaching information literacy, critical information literacy, and media literacy, is important. Librarians have also tried to stay on top of the rapid changes in technology, and that’s important too. But the problem is that the allocation of resources to libraries has been abysmal, so librarians have a very heavy lift. The question is, are we investing in our academic libraries at the same rate we are in the Google apps and infrastructure that are now running universities? The IT backbone is being ceded to corporations, which creates even more challenges for librarians teaching information literacy. These are advertising companies, and they’re shaping the knowledge and educational environment. Public librarians have an even tougher situation, with fewer resources and with different expectations from the academic environment. Ultimately, policy change and resource investment are needed to shift the burden off of librarians. We’re not going to be able to help the public sort through disinformation and understand the difference between propaganda and science one librarian at a time.
Shumaker: Now I’d like to ask a question that flows from your book, Algorithms of Oppression. In it, you present a damning indictment of search engines, Google in particular, and their ranking algorithms. Do you feel that Google or any of the others have responded to that? Has there been any progress?
Noble: I know for a fact that engineers at Google read my work. I know they’ve related to it as a big set of “tickets” to open up and start working on. I’ve seen many results change, but I’ve seen other results equally as “damning” as those I presented in the book. What most companies do is to downrank troubling results or results that are giving them PR headaches. Unfortunately, the way commercial search engines are designed, it’s very difficult to get at the root logic of racist and sexist representation. It’s difficult to pinpoint the problems with algorithms that have been built up over 2 decades. Google’s own search software engineers will say they don’t know how the search algorithms work. And now, they’re interfacing with machine-learning algorithms. So we’re going to continue to see problems as long as we depend on a platform that is optimized for advertising clients. We’re always going to have problems with that model, and we shouldn’t relate to it as a neutral knowledge portal. It might give us some things, but it has profound limits, and I don’t think we’re going to see substantive change.
Shumaker: What about the effects of social media?
Noble: The public now understands much more about the subjective nature of social media, thanks to the work of my colleagues who have studied and written about it. There have been many global human rights and civil rights crises that have emanated from social media practices—including the use of Facebook in human trafficking and using apps like WhatsApp to engage in genocide. People are writing about that, and advocating, and litigating, and that’s very important. Social media has been used to aid the rise of authoritarian regimes and threaten Western liberal democracies. We’ve seen that these platforms are designed to make money at all costs—even the cost of societies, and governments, and vulnerable people around the world. The consequence, though, is that people have taken their eye off of Google and others, like YouTube. We should not take our eye off what it means to have search companies, and the many types of companies that Google or Microsoft own, engaging in all types of dangerous practices. Search is just one of them. For example, Microsoft owns dangerous visual recognition and surveillance technology. And Amazon knows so much about us from the kinds of products we search for. So we have a lot of issues to study, and advocate for, and keep our eyes on.
Shumaker: One of the themes you touched on in your lecture was the nature of global information systems. I’m intrigued by this, but I have a hard time envisioning what an international information regime might look like that really respects Indigenous knowledge and the many, varied cultural concerns of different communities. What’s your vision of that regime or how it may emerge?
Noble: Indigenous knowledge and information systems are incredibly instructive. They give us the opportunity to re-examine the presumptions we have in the U.S. about information organization. For example, in many Indigenous systems, you have to earn the right to different levels of knowledge. Knowledge is not a freely available commodity in the way that we think about it in the West. We have these sayings like “Information wants to be free” or “Access to knowledge is a right for everyone.” What that does is flatten knowledge and wisdom. It leads to the idea that information about anything should be available to anyone, which leads to the situation where everyone has access to how to 3D-print a gun or get a recipe for making a bomb. That defies logic about what’s good for the community. It’s the orientation that knowledge is an individual acquisition, rather than a communal practice situated in a community. This is what colonial powers have failed to understand, and it’s what I was trying to get at in the lecture by asking what it means to decolonize standards—to decolonize how we think about what knowledge and information are and what their stakes are. Have we had a good run with the people who have had their say over the past couple hundred years? Is it time to pivot? Is it time to hear different voices, from different communities? These are the questions.
Shumaker: Before we wrap up, let’s talk about the future. What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to working on? In your lecture, I believe you mentioned a new book?
Noble: On the back burner, there is a new book that’s mostly in my mind so far. But I’m most excited about a new research center at UCLA and my colleagues in it. It’s the UCLA Center on Race & Digital Justice. Take a look at the About page: There’s an incredible team of women who are leaders in this country around the most pressing issues of civil rights and digital justice. I’m super, super excited to be a part of this team that has just launched. So that’s the thing that gets me excited when I wake up in the morning!
Shumaker: It’s been a real pleasure to talk with you. Before we go, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Noble: I think sometimes, awards like this can make it seem like solving problems hinges on one person. But this award really represents the work of not only my team and the UCLA Center on Race & Digital Justice, but others that I’ve worked with at UCLA. It takes so many people to bring about change and raise new ideas. I’m grateful to my colleagues and students at UCLA, in gender studies and elsewhere, as well as the many librarians who have read and collected my work. It’s our support of each other that enables all of us to do our work. I’m very grateful for that.