The Circulation of Knowledge, Part Three of Six – Dustin O’Hara

Situated Knowledge and the Conditions for this Collaboration

Initially, we began doing research on land-use politics of the Santa Cruz region. This involved secondary research of local history archives – reading books, newspapers, maps, and photos. During this period, we were very open-ended and didn’t know exactly where things were headed.

The particulars of Santa Cruz’s political history involve a coalition of socialist-feminists, socialist-welfare, and environmentalists who found common ground surrounding issues of neighborhood environmental justice. There has been fighting within this coalition between those that hold a zero-growth position, opposing any and all development, and those that are open to select development projects, protecting revenue and jobs. In the late 1970s, the coalition won two of the seven seats on the city council. Within five years they would have all seven seats, temporarily dismantling the growth coalition that had many plans for developing the region to mirror southern California’s suburban sprawl. It is during this period that members of the coalition are credited for getting more land protected under their grant-writing then any other individuals in the history of the US. California agriculture –a $36-billion-a-year industry [2010] – became a critical political device in helping to establish an anti-development direction for the area that could simultaneously provide jobs and food security for the region. The coalition crafted tax laws to make land affordable for farmers and subsidized the cost of agricultural water.

We targeted neighborhoods that have community gardens and began walking along the streets, interviewing people we encountered. The interviews were recorded as audio files and later transcribed, along with photos. Eventually, we made postcards for a number of interviews and redistributed them into the neighborhoods where the interviews took place. The postcards directed people to a webpage on the Circulation of Knowledge archive website where they could listen or read the interviews that happened in their neighborhood. Additional material from the secondary research was also made available on the website.

Walking around the neighborhoods eventually led us to collaborate with one of the smaller neighborhood branches of the Santa Cruz county library system – the Garfield Park Public Library. The Garfield branch is one of the older libraries in the area; it was built with a $3,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation in 1914 and opened its doors in July 1915. We spent a week in the one-room library, documenting patrons reading and studying. Next, we installed a video projector and screen outside on the front lawn, showing the footage. While some might read the piece as being about surveillance, I was thinking more about bringing the hidden into view –about the dynamic relationship between patrons and textual practices, and about the library as system and civic institution that offers a set of conditions for negotiating knowledge. During the installation, we had conversations with the librarians, library staff, and patrons about the current state of the Santa Cruz county library system and more general conversations about the shifting role and function of public libraries. It was while working at the Garfield Branch that my theoretical focus shifted from questions of land-use politics to questions of cultural and civic infrastructure.

Garfield Park Public Library video Installation

During all of this, I have been a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, working as a teaching assistant for the university and making about $1,600 a month. My contract is based on a 20-hour week but in most cases the work comes closer to about ten hours a week. From the university’s perspective, teaching assistants represent cheap labor for managing the tens of thousands of undergraduates that currently pay about $12,000 a year in tuition and fees. I mention this in order to foreground the institutional context from which this project is inseparable.

Within higher education, there has been much rhetoric surrounding knowledge production. The notion of knowledge production –distinguished, in this case, from research – is a neoliberal project directly connected to privatization. While certain institutional expressions of intelligence and knowledge dominate and preempt others, the hierarchical authority of what counts as legitimate within a system of knowledge production is directly tied to the interests of capital. This directly reflects the notion of situated knowledge discussed in relation to the Beach Flats. By prioritizing profitable ends, one subscribes to a narrative of causation that is at odds with the tangential moment or encounter that does not provide immediate exchange value.

During the collaboration with the Garfield branch, the Bookmobile and outreach services came to my attention. I felt an immediate sense of connection to the Bookmobile. I wrote a proposal to the outreach staff, proposing a collaboration that would focus on collecting oral histories. Gale, the Outreach Director, invited me to the library office which is in a building they share with the water department. Initially, I was conceptualizing the project as an open-ended system for collecting and displaying regional histories that, as an architecture for collaboration, would be institutionalized through the university and public library as an undergraduate elective of some kind. As a framework, each point of contact was abstracted to a core set of functions. As a concept it made sense but in practice it did not account for the many layers and complexities of building relationships with people. The outreach staff was wise enough to see the problems with this initial proposal but open enough to let me come along with the Bookmobile and see for myself.

Very quickly I realized there would be virtually no way to “equip the Bookmobile with the necessary means of collecting regional histories” as I proposed in my original document. Instead what seemed to be happening was Daniel and I would show up a minute or two after the Bookmobile; at the stop we would hang out and chat with patrons as they waited their turn to look for books or to be served by the Bookmobile staff and whenever possible we tried to help with collecting or moving books around. At some point in the visit Eric (the Bookmobile driver), or some other staff member, would usually take a moment to introduce Daniel and I to a patron they thought we should meet. The encounter would usually involve swapping contact information to coordinate a later visit.

Dustin O'Hara interviewing Carmen, Mercy Housing coordinator.

After a couple of weeks of traveling with the Bookmobile and meeting patrons, we arranged our first one-on-one visits. Our fieldwork was punctuated by regular office meetings with the outreach staff to discuss the direction of the project. We began to conceptualize the project as a way to actively investigate Outreach by listening and engaging with the citizens they serve. It was close to this time that we realized that although thinking about the project as a tightly defined system provided a tangible sense of process, the system’s perspective was at odds, or at least had tension, with the dialogical process we were enacting. Additionally, any legacy of our efforts would best take the form not of a prescribed agenda of collecting and archiving regional histories but instead be a directory of local citizens and organizations interested in collaborating with future UCSC students. This would allow future collaborations to emerge on their own terms and reflect the evolving needs of the collaborators.

During these meetings with Outreach staff, we would address pragmatic and logistical issues such as which patrons would benefit most from our focus and the dynamics of those encounters. We effectively discussed the nature of Outreach by discussing the “direction” of the project. What has Outreach been? What is it becoming? They explained to me that Outreach did not always have a Bookmobile. Shortly after Catherine Steele came to direct Outreach in the early 1980s, the then current Bookmobile died and without reserved funds available to replace it Catherine ended up using a retired cop car. She replaced the backseat with a sheet of wood, and would stack the car full with boxes of books, driving out to the farm labor camps. It would be almost 15 years before they would acquire another Bookmobile.

Bob, who is now retired, had joined the library as a janitor in the 1980s and was eventually trained in circulation. I met Bob at his house, at a mobile home park on the east side of town. As we sat down to talk he offered me a small chocolate that was in the shape of a liquor bottle. When outreach finally got a new Bookmobile, the librarians offered Bob the position as driver.

…When the Bookmobile came up, one of the librarians … looked at me and said, ‘Bob this is your job.’ …so I became the Bookmobile driver. …When I got together with Catherine, it was Catherine’s strong vision that kind of set things into motion.” She “had a passion for making sure that books and learning got into the hands of the under served. (Holmes)

Bob explained that service was not only determined by fiscal need. In addition to serving the farm labor camps and lower income communities, they also served the more affluent rural communities.

One of the things I found, when we’d go to the [farm labor] camps… the middle acuity was just the same as the kids at summit road [a more affluent community]. And the only difference between those two sets of kids, it wasn’t money or demographics like a lot of people think, the difference was the skill set. And primarily a skill set they learned from their parents. Their parents had worked very hard to learn how to memorize, organize, and all those things, and just by copying the younger kids learn that. (Holmes)

Bob went on to explain that after some years of visiting the Beach Flats the kids began taking their parents down to the main branch and showing them how to use the library.

The Beach Flats community, one of many Spanish-speaking communities across the county, highlights the idea of situated knowledge. Both grounded in language and culture, there is a geography of embodied knowledge. The fact, that the Beach Flats has one of the most vibrant community gardens in the region reflects the knowledge and culture of the neighborhood. I write this sitting less then a mile away, in a neighboring affluent community whose wealth can be directly tied to Silicon Valley. Knowledge is situated within particular social conditions and, in so being, the circulation of knowledge is largely contingent on the politics of bodies of knowledge. Political and social continuity is directly affected by how and where encounters of knowledge happen. To this end, education –both formal and informal – is instrumental for group continuity over time. What complicates the dynamic is how certain knowledge and expressions of intelligence dominate others into fixed power relations. Inherent to the fact that much of this population falls within the domain of working poor, their needs have systematically been under-represented within California’s political discourse.


One comment

  1. Pingback: / Circulation of Knowledge Archive « up the hill & through the woods

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