Karen Li-Lun Hwang

Asian/Pacific/American art and artists WikiEditathon at MoMA with Jennifer Tobias, Nina Kuo, Ann Matsuuchi, 2015. Photo by Lia Chang.

Karen Li-Lun Hwang, Fellow, Metropolitan New York Library Council and 2016 Harold T. Pinkett Minority Student Award Winner

Hometown: San Francisco, California
Current City: Brooklyn, New York
Race/Ethnicity: Asian

Karen Li-Lun Hwang, a graduate of Pratt Institute in New York, is the 2016 recipient of the Society of American Archivists’ Harold T. Pinkett Minority Student Award. Established in 1993, the award recognizes minority graduate students of African, Asian, Latino, or Native American descent who, through scholastic achievement, manifest an interest in becoming professional archivists and active members of SAA.

As a student, Hwang focused on making minority narratives more accessible to the public through linked open data and through her work with community archives. She has worked with the Asian American Arts Centre in New York City to create a digital archive to advance Asian American art and with community archives in Brooklyn, such as Interference Archive. She believes that “without the ability to apply methods for discovery on the internet, mainstream histories would promulgate and advance at the expense of specific narratives told from within community archives.” Her work with the Linked Jazz team at the Pratt Institute and the “We Won’t Move”: NYC Tenant Movements Exhibition at Interference Archive in 2015 has established a practice of bringing together resource materials from heterogeneous collections to offer more nuanced portraits of history. (From Society of American Archivists)


What attracted you to a career in archives?

My work in archives began with the Asian American Arts Centre (AAAC) as the project manager for establishing a digital archive of Asian American contemporary artists and art based on AAAC’s history in arts promotion. Materials in the digital archive were selected from thousands of artist files collected by the director Robert Lee over the decades. I came to this position with a background in art history, community and education work, and experience as a web and database designer, not as an archivist. At first, the idea of the digital archive struck me as similar in its considerations to record creation for databases in general, but I soon came to recognize the immense intellectual work needed to formalize an arrangement and describe the materials in a manner sensitive to their genesis as a collection. I feel I was particularly fortunate to be drawn to the archives profession by this digital archive project. Working closely with Robert Lee to ensure the digital archive reflected the organization’s mission and accounting for its function as a living document for an organization that was still in operation allowed me to understand the possible role of the archive as situated, as a powerful means to engage with and amend the corpus of our historical record. This realization continues to motivate me in my work.

How does being an archivist of color influence your practice?

I think for many people of color there is often a disconnect between reality as we experience it and the way we encounter it formalized. It isn’t simply an issue of our histories being handled cursorily. Even when included in the larger historical narrative, narratives of color tend to be molded to conform to larger frameworks, and sometimes become almost unrecognizable or can even represent a dangerous appropriation, appended to a context with more privilege. In this way community-based archives, present an opportunity to “tell the story a different way”, to diversify the narratives represented by allowing contexts to also unfold to the public from within, opening up primary sources and other materials to new interpretation by end users. This belief in the power of archives has led me to investigate how we as archivists and librarians can work to promote a level of equality in the potential discovery of resources by end users. This not only includes developing and adopting technologies that meet user information-seeking behavior, but also–on the side of the narratives, histories, and communities being documented and archived–working towards more flexibility in descriptive practices and greater potential for self-description and self-identification in the available choices, while still operating in the realm of standards to maintain interoperability for resource discovery. These are the kinds of questions I am currently exploring as a research fellow with the Metropolitan New York Library Council, with a focus on the implementation of Semantic Web technologies, such as linked open data, to cultural heritage materials, an extension of my past and current work with the research group Linked Jazz.

Karen L. Hwang moderating “Constellations, Cognitive Maps and Data Visualization: Keywords for Radicals” event at Interference Archive, 2016

What was your most memorable experience from the 2016 SAA Annual Meeting?

A few weeks prior to the annual meeting in Atlanta, both Gailyn Bopp (the other 2016 Harold T. Pinkett Award recipient) and I received an invitation from SAA to participate in the Association of Research Libraries/SAA Mosaic Fellows Leadership Forum. At the forum, I was able to meet and exchange ideas with the Mosaic Fellows in a small setting–peers with whom I may not otherwise have had the opportunity to speak–as well as benefit from candid talks by experienced archivists who are committed to diversity and inclusion in our field and to mentoring new generations of archivists of color. This one-day forum set the tone for my conference experience, and the conversations I had and friendships will carry forward in the years to come.

What is something that excites you about the archival profession?

Even though much of my current work relates to new technologies and archives, I am always excited to sit down and immerse myself in the physical processing of collection materials. On one level, the intellectual work needed to provide access to materials in a way that is substantive and meaningful—delving into the contexts surrounding a collection–appeals to me. And on another, the pure sensual aspect of the materials (How does the paper smell and feel? What typeface is being used or what does the handwriting look like?)—all add to the journey of understanding the context in which a collection was created.

I am going to cheat here and add a second answer to this question: the collaborative spirit. Through my involvement with the Brooklyn-based collective Interference Archive, I’ve come into contact with and forged alliances with progressive-minded librarians and archivists throughout New York City who share a belief in the power or archives to promote counter-agendas. That there are so many volunteering collaboratively, grouping ourselves around what we feel needs to happen—whether Interference Archive fighting for social justice or members of SAA pushing for greater inclusion in our field—is really inspiring.

Do you have any hobbies or special talents?

Taichi, cooking, hiking, amateurish knitting, programming, performing on occasion in parades.

Presenting Linked Jazz at a plenary session at the Music Library Association Annual Conference, 2016


M. Cristina Pattuelli, Karen Hwang and Matthew Miller. “Accidental discovery, intentional inquiry: Leveraging linked data to uncover the women of jazz.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (2016), doi:10.1093/llc/fqw047.

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