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Board Member Spotlight: Abby Smith Rumsey

Abby Smith Rumsey

CASBS board of directors chair Abby Smith Rumsey is a cultural and intellectual historian who writes and lectures widely on analog and digital preservation, online scholarship, the nature of evidence, the changing roles of libraries and archives, and the impact of new information technologies on perceptions of history, time, and identity.

Rumsey gained widespread attention in 2016 with her book When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping our Future, on how technology is shaping knowledge production in the digital age. The book’s insights and thought leadership emerge from decades of focus on the creation, preservation, and use of the cultural record in all media. Rumsey served as co-director and director of the Scholarly Communication Institute at the University of Virginia (2002-2014), Director of Programs at the Council on Library and Information Resources (1997-2005), and managed programs relating to preservation of and access to cultural heritage collections at the Library of Congress (1988-1997). She served as an advisor to the American Council of Learned Societies’ Commission on the Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as senior advisor to the Library of Congress’s National Digital Information Infrastructure Program, devising strategies to identify, collect, and preserve digital content of long-term value. Currently she serves on the Harvard Board of Overseers Committee to Visit the Harvard University Library, the Stanford University Library Advisory Committee, and the board of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.

Among other things, in 2020 Rumsey participated as an expert panelist in CASBS’s ongoing webcast series, Social Science for a World in Crisis, in an episode focused on the dilemmas posed by digital technologies. And in November 2021, she became CASBS’s board chair, succeeding Mariano-Florentino (Tino) Cuéllar.

We caught up with Rumsey to learn more.

CASBS: We would be remiss if we didn’t get your insights on the crisis in Europe. You have a PhD in Russian and intellectual history from Harvard University. How has this academic grounding helped you understand the Russian war on Ukraine?

Abby Smith Rumsey: Putin justifies his invasion with the bogus historical claim that Ukraine as an independent nation and unique culture does not exist and has never existed. This is a blatant falsification of the facts. For centuries large parts of present-day Ukraine were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Ukraine has been a sovereign state since 1991. It may be hard for Americans to grasp the power of Putin’s territorial claims, which date back over 1000 years. But aren’t we, too, using historical origins stories to advance political aims? Aren’t we using the competing genealogies of 1619 vs 1776 as tools in our battle for ownership of America’s future? Putin is, in effect, claiming that conquering Ukraine is vital to Make Russia Great Again.

After you earned your doctorate, you chose not to pursue a career in the academy, but instead work in cultural heritage institutions. What influenced this decision?

ASR: While doing my doctoral research in the USSR as a Fulbright scholar, I routinely was denied access to files from the seventeenth century. I understood that the Soviet regime had to control access to information not only about the present, but especially about the past. They created their own reality. During my year living there I witnessed how natural—even necessary—it is to trust in fictions. I’ve been studying how that happens ever since. It starts with the stewardship and/or censorship of cultural and documentary evidence. I lucked into a job at the Library of Congress just as the Iron Curtain fell and found myself working with Former Soviet Union nations to retool their information policies. Then digitization and the internet came along, and the Library was in the thick of that as well.

You worked with former Soviet bloc governments and organizations, including Ukraine, to open up access to their libraries and archives. Has Ukraine fully digitized their most valuable historical and cultural heritage archival materials? Do you expect they’ve taken all steps necessary to protect cultural materials that cannot be digitized?

ASR: I worked in Kyiv in the 1990s to assist major archives and libraries with digitization projects. I don’t know the status of Ukrainian preservation projects now, but it is safe to say that no country, including the U.S., has secured its valuable heritage. Every time we experience a flood, earthquake, loss of power, or civic unrest, we see stark evidence of how little America, the richest country in the world, has secured its own heritage. For us, I think, it’s because we can’t quantify the return on investment in preservation. For the Ukrainians, it’s a lack of resources, not commitment to its heritage. By the way, the 1990s were a time of economic distress for the country. It was the first time I stayed at a hotel, reputedly the best in Kyiv, which had no hot water. We had only a few hours of heat and running water each day, always when I was out at work. This was March, still winter in Kyiv.

We’re told you’ve just completed a new book manuscript. What can you tell us about it?

ASR: I wrote my book, Memory, Edited: Taking Liberties with History (forthcoming, MIT Press) to offer insights about why and how America fights about our history at this juncture of rapid and uncomfortable change. We turn to the past not only to understand the present, but to legitimate competing visions of the future. In America that looks like the fight over 1776 vs 1619. I know how this dynamic works in Russia and the former Eastern Bloc countries. My book, which I finished at the end of 2021, focuses on Russia and Eastern Europe. It is now tragically relevant.

What are your favorite non-intellectual pursuits?

ASR: I love simple things that mute the reading/writing parts of my brain—playing the piano, walking without a destination, cooking something I’ve never attempted before. Being deeply mediocre at the keyboard is a special pleasure. It gives me a glimpse into what great composers and musicians really do. And I make a few beautiful sounds from time to time.

You joined the CASBS board in 2019. How did you initially gain awareness of the Center and what played into your decision to become involved with it?

ASR: I’ve known CASBS by reputation for decades, when it was known as the center you go to research and/or write your great book. I came to know it better after I moved to California and my husband, David Rumsey, and I began our collaboration with the Stanford Library to build the David Rumsey Map Center. I met [CASBS director] Margaret Levi through the Map Center. She is the how-and-why I became involved.

The CASBS board convenes twice per year on the CASBS hill. Among other things, board members spread themselves across several tables and eat lunch with CASBS fellows. Do you take anything away from these interactions?

ASR: Pleasure! It’s a big brain massage. I’m surrounded by a range and depth of expertise otherwise inaccessible to me. Each encounter deepens my sense of CASBS’s unique value.

You became chair of the CASBS board in late 2021. The change in CASBS board leadership comes just ahead of the upcoming change in CASBS directorship, the first in eight years. Can you share any thoughts you have on this transition?

ASR: Fortunately, CASBS is in a position of strength because of Margaret’s transformational leadership. We have set an agenda for CASBS in the 21st century that will advance the social sciences by recruiting a more diverse cohort of fellows—not just demographically, but also breaching more disciplinary barriers and offering more flexible time frames to accommodate more professions. We soon will break ground on a building designed for new modes of work. Each scholar will continue to have their own office, of course. Now they will have purpose-built collaborative working space as well. Finally, Stanford’s new school of sustainability will offer CASBS scholars an opportunity to engage in humanity’s greatest challenge of the coming century.

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