As Vice President for Library and Digital Services, she provides a conduit between the center’s scholarly work and the public that stands to learn from it.
Brooke Phillips Andrade ’99 is Vice President for Library and Digital Services at the National Humanities Center, where over the last 13 years she has also served as the Director and the Digital Asset Manager. The center, located in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, is an international leader in the study of the humanities and is the only independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan institution of its kind.
Here, Brooke talks about her work — and how her Ravenscroft experience inspired her passion for the humanities.
Throughout the course of history there have been conspiracies floated without any grounding in factual information. The difference now is that it’s amplified because it’s so easy to share. Things go viral. … We want people to have access to factual information so they can think critically to make decisions.
— Brooke Phillips Andrade ’99
Andrade works to curate the center’s Loeb Classical Library collection, which she says is “a must for any scholar of Latin and Greek.”
You have described your role as “a conduit between knowledge creators and knowledge seekers.” Can you elaborate on this?
The scholars at the National Humanities Center create new knowledge. They write books that are completely innovative, always. [Becoming an NHC scholar] is a very competitive process. We like to say it is more difficult to get into the NHC as a scholar than it is to get into Harvard as a student. But they don’t always know how to find the primary sources to support the information that they need to create that new knowledge. We fill the gap. We supply them with things that they are either asking for or things that they didn’t know they needed.
The National Humanities Center believes that the humanities are critical for participation in civic life, in democracy. We are trying to advance humanistic knowledge by having these scholars and supporting them in their research — and we also take that knowledge and translate it for a public audience so [the public] has access to it as well.
Does your job feel like detective work sometimes?
Yes! I have always enjoyed logic and puzzles. I like reference because it requires intense focus and takes you down many different rabbit holes and almost always is rewarding. It is like digging for gold.
Our library truly has changed scholars’ work. My favorite example of this: We had a scholar studying the 1977 International Women’s Year. There was an Associated Press photograph of two women, and the caption said that they were arguing. The scholar didn’t think it made sense.
I was able to find an interview about that picture, in which it turns out the two women were actually very friendly. They were making a joke about having a conflict. The newspaper grabbed that photo because it was more interesting and told an antifeminist narrative, “Oh, they’re catfighting.” That new information changed the scholar’s book.
Andrade makes a presentation to National Humanities Center fellows.
What are your thoughts on the current state of “facts”? Is the manipulation of information and conspiracy theories new?
No, it isn’t new. It’s interesting: throughout the course of history there have been conspiracies floated without any grounding in factual information. The difference now is that it’s amplified because it’s so easy to share. Things go viral.
It’s really, really important to ground information in primary sources whenever possible. So to that end, one of the projects that takes up 50% of my time right now is updating and expanding our digital library of contextualized primary sources about the United States, the story of the United States.
What other work is a priority for the National Humanities Center right now?
Search engines are moving toward a single-answer model. We know that people only look at 10 search results and if there’s a knowledge panel — the little box beside the search results — most people will only click on that. We are highly concerned. We want people to have access to factual information so they can think critically to make decisions. So, in addition to expanding the library, we are working on ensuring that our information rises to the top. We are doing that in very innovative ways through something called linked data.
Fifty percent of my job is recruiting scholars and cultural organizations to create materials and then harnessing our tech folks here to publish them in a way that makes them connect to Wikipedia and get to the top. It is so important.
Andrade and colleague Sangeeta Desai discuss their data rescue work at the NHC’s environmental humanities conference.
Another thing that is happening now that is really important is called reparative metadata. [Library professionals and scholars] have realized that because the field of librarianship and archives has been very much a white, cis, straight profession — 82% — means that there is a bias in how we organize information.
That isn’t just harmful because people can’t find themselves in their libraries, which is not good, but it actually affects scholarship. If you can’t find in the archives information about anyone but white men, you’re only telling one story.
There are people working really hard to create new access points in collections of information, making sure that the names of people that were really important are now findable. You can actually type their name in a library catalog and find their collections.
You are always learning something new. When (or where) did your motivation to take learning to another level occur?
Ravenscroft really did make me who I am today. They made me love humanities, literature and art. I don’t think everyone gets that experience at every school.
I started reading very early, and it was a happy place for me. Marcia Jones was my English teacher at Ravenscroft — I feel like she really challenged us to think critically about the world around us through literature. She always had those through lines. You are reading about this in the book, but it always relates to what is happening in the world.
I started taking Latin in fifth grade at Ravenscroft. Hardy Fredricksmeyer’s passion for Latin helped me to see the beauty in it and to realize that grammar and composition can be beautiful, as in the love poems of Catullus and learning about the golden line.
More importantly, Dr. Fredricksmeyer challenged me because he said, “I hold you to a high standard because I know you can do this.” That is a way to give critical feedback but still maintain that relationship of trust. It always inspired me to do even better. I loved Latin and Greek because of him. Again, it put so much beauty in my world.
Beauty is very important to me — and I don’t mean physical beauty or even visual aesthetics. I mean the feeling of reverence that you get reading something beautiful, seeing a beautiful painting, listening to music. It is different for everyone; there isn’t a wrong way to experience that.
Why do I work for this place? Because I believe the humanities are necessary for people to be able to think critically about this world. And beauty is really tied up in the humanities, always.
Andrade and NHC President and Director Robert Newman enjoy a fellow’s public lecture at the center.
The National Humanities Center provides a wealth of scholarly resources across a number of humanities-related topics for use by researchers, educators and students. Here are a few highlights Andrade shared.
America in Class
This is a collection of scholar-edited, contextualized primary sources, lesson plans and essays for secondary, community-college and four-year college educators. The collection receives hundreds of thousands of hits each year.
Responsible Artificial Intelligence Curriculum Design Project
This project, a collaboration with Google, involves developing curricula for college students around ethical artificial intelligence. This year, more than 2,000 undergraduates across the country will take courses in literature, philosophy and music to explore AI through a humanistic lens.
A Crisis of Caring: The Humanities and Our Health and Beyond Despair: Theory and Practice in Environmental Humanities
The NHC also hosts conferences and summits that put humanists and the public in conversation with each other — another way to advance the important work the center does. Enjoy video clips of presentations made at each of these conferences.