A queer, feminist agenda for libraries: Significance, relevance and power

Bess Sadler and I are slated to present a paper on Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery at the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference here at Stanford next month. It has been really interesting to think about how to present these ideas to a primarily non-librarian crowd. Bess is doing most of the real work, but I promised to try my hand at providing some context in an introduction. This is super drafty, so comments very welcome.

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Libraries have never been neutral repositories of knowledge. This will likely strike many, particularly scholars working in feminist and/or queer theory traditions, as a not particularly novel or insightful claim. I expect that most will readily concede that libraries surely reflect the inequalities, biases, ethnocentrism, and power imbalances that exist throughout the academic enterprise. What may not be as obvious is the degree to which libraries contribute to bias and inequality in scholarship; and conversely the amount of power and responsibility libraries and librarians have to promote a more inclusive version of the scholarly record.

Libraries exercise considerable influence over the diversity (or lack thereof) of scholarship primarily through choices we make in fulfilling our primary missions of collecting, preserving, and providing access to information.

Collection development decisions have profound impacts on who and what is represented in the scholarly and cultural record. The decisions we make about whose archives to collect and preserve, and what books and journals to buy, are inevitably biased, based as they are on some combination of the judgements and interests of individual libraries and librarians, and on those same librarians’ sense of the tastes and needs of our patrons. Besides the obvious impact on the kinds of resources available to current scholars, our collection development decisions also impact the marketplace for scholarly publications. Libraries have historically represented a significant market for scholarly books coming out of university and academic presses, so budget-based decisions that reduce the numbers and types of monographs we purchase are likely to influence the kinds of authors and topics that presses are willing to publish.

Libraries collect — and therefore publishers publish — books by authors and about topics that are deemed to be novel and important, and that are expected to be heavily used by others. But those evaluations don’t happen in a vacuum. Like nearly every evaluative decision humans make, decisions about the quality and value of research and writing are riddled with biases and are made through lenses of power. These decisions then become self-perpetuating through a vicious cycle by which publications are judged by the reputation of the publisher and by how many major research libraries hold a copy of the publication. But conscious attention to collecting more diverse literatures, authors, topics and archives will only get us so far towards a more inclusive and feminist agenda for libraries.

As Hope Olsen’s work on critical feminist approaches to knowledge organization demonstrates, libraries also exert tremendous control over how books and other scholarly items are organized and therefore how, when, and by whom they are discoverable. As an example, librarians determine the primary subject classification of a book, which in turn determines the book’s call number and physical placement in the library stacks. Hierarchical classification schemas marginalize certain kinds of knowledge and certain topics by creating separate sub-classifications for topics such as “women and computers” or “black literature”.

books on gays in military

Shelved together in Green Library. One of these things is not like the others

The power of library classification systems is such that a scholar browsing the shelves for books on military history is unlikely to encounter Randy Shilts’ seminal work Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the US Military, because that book is sub-classified under the subject “Minorities, women, etc. in armed forces”.  In my own library, that means the definitive work on the history of gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces is literally shelved between Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star and Military Trade, “an edgy, enlightening, and richly entertaining collection of voices with a passion for servicemen”.  Over in the military history section of the stacks, you won’t find any books devoted to the service of gays and lesbians. You will however, find exactly 4 pages on “gays in the military” in A People’s History of the U.S. Military: Ordinary Soldiers Reflect on Their Experience of War, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan (emphasis mine). The scant 4 pages on gay military service literally starts at 1993, as if gays didn’t serve until Bill Clinton noticed them.

In our presentation, we argue that without an explicit feminist and queer agenda, these same processes of exclusion and marginalization will play out in our digital library and online discovery environments.   A queer feminist rhetoric and agenda for the future of library discovery would leverage technology to promote the feminist and queer values of plurality, participation, advocacy, ecology, embodiment, and self-disclosure. These qualities are described in Shaowen Bardzell’s “Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining an Agenda for Design”.
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This is where Bess will take over and actually talk about things like hacker rhetoric, online archives and discovery tools, assumptions of neutrality in relevance algorithms, the importance of having diversity in the coding community, etc.

6 Responses to “A queer, feminist agenda for libraries: Significance, relevance and power”


  1. 1 AmyK August 20, 2013 at 8:20 pm

    So, how do you address the problem that so many queers buy, catalog and perpetrate this system? How have we, in our desire to “order knowledge” been co-opted by the powers that be? Sandy Berman was our late, great hero. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanford_Berman

    • 2 Chris Bourg August 20, 2013 at 9:03 pm

      I account for it by being a sociologist ;-)
      Patriarchy, institutional racism and homophobia, etc are never the product solely of individual actions. Just as women have participated in patriarchy, so too have queers participated in our own oppression and exclusion — in libraries, archives and everywhere else. But it isn’t simply a case of false consciousness or internal homophobia — it is because the system itself is rigged; and one of the ways it is rigged is that it appears to be neutral. How well known an author is seems like a neutral way of evaluating whether we should collect her archive — but if queer authors have been ignored for centuries by readers and mainstream publishers, then queer authors will never be as well-known.
      It takes a consciously activist agenda to upset the system — and that’s a hard thing to ask of librarians at a time when jobs and job security is scarce. But I think we address the problem of queers, and women, and people of color participating in their/our own marginalization by attacking the problem on as many fronts as possible at once. Talking about it, writing about it, raising awareness among all librarians is one tactic. Asking how our new tools can be designed to enhance and encourage diversity rather than hinder it is another tactic. Building transparency and choice into our discovery environments is really important – so that users see that relevancy ranking is not neutral.


  1. 1 Learning to See by Listening to Others: On Discrimination in Libraries Trackback on January 22, 2014 at 8:26 am
  2. 2 Libraries need a feminist agenda…but which one? | Sense & Reference Trackback on December 19, 2013 at 12:50 pm
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