Rivers: a playlist

My daily view of the Charles River

My daily view of the Charles River


I live by a river now, and some dear friends just had a new baby named River, so I made a playlist of songs in my library with “river” in the song title. Not a bad set of tunes:

Big River Johnny Cash
Blood Red River Beth Orton
Bottom of the River Delta Rae
Buffalo River Home John Hiatt
Come To The River The Jayhawks
Crystal River Mudcrutch (Tom Petty’s jam band)
Down By the River Neil Young
Drank Like A River Whiskeytown
Ev’ry Wind (In The River) Taj Mahal
Going To The River Robbie Robertson & Galactic (Fats Domino cover)
Green River Creedence Clearwater Revival
Harlem River Blues Justin Townes Earle
How Deep Is That River Mason Jennings
In The Mississippi River Mavis Staples
Kaskaskia River Sufjan Stevens Sufjan Stevens
Let The River Run Carly Simon
The Lonesome River Bob Dylan Feat. Ralph Stanley
Meeting Across the River Bruce Springsteen
Moody River John Fogerty
Red River Shore Bob Dylan
Ride Across The River Dire Straits
Ride The River J.J. Cale & Eric Clapton
River Indigo Girls (gorgeous cover of Joni Mitchell classic)
River Joni Mitchell
River Man Nick Drake
River Song Tom Rush
River’s Invitation The James Cotton Blues Band
Riverman Andrew Duhon
The Rivers Of Babylon [Live] Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris (magical – trust me)
Two Rivers Jeff Beck

Some notes:

  • Glen Worthey once commented that most of my playlists include some lesser-known Dylan tune. I guess Lonesome River qualifies.
  • If you have never listened to the Steve Earle/Emmylou Harris version of Rivers of Babylon, do it now. Thank me later.
  • I discovered Andrew Duhon in a small club in New Orleans several years ago. If you like singer-songwriters who straddle the folk/country/blues borders, you’ll dig this guy.
  • I was surprised there’s no Lucinda on this list. She sings about rivers, just never put “river” in a song title I guess.

Infrastructure and Culture: A job talk

Below is the text, with some of the slides, from the job talk I gave as part of the interview process for my current job as Director of Libraries at MIT. I have shared it with a few folks who seem to have found it helpful in preparing for similar job talks, so I hope that sharing it here is helpful to others. I also have found it helpful to look back at it myself from time to time – I see it as sort of the “platform I ran on”, and I want to make sure I honor the commitments made herein.

Shaping scholarly communication: Infrastructure and Culture

Shaping scholarly communication: Infrastructure and Culture

Good morning and thank you all for coming out this morning to hear my talk. It is a tremendous honor to be here and to be in consideration for the job of Director of the MIT Libraries.

As I think you know, I have been asked to talk about the future of scholarly communication and generally how I would see myself influencing that future as part of the MIT community. But since this may be the only chance some of you will have to meet me in the day and a half that I am here, I wanted to fill in some of the details about who I am and how and why I ended up here this morning.

You know from my CV (pdf) that I am currently the AUL for Public Services for Stanford Libraries, responsible for the humanities, social science, and area studies libraries, plus special collections, plus direct user support in digital humanities and social science data. Those of you who paid close attention to my CV will have noticed that my path to a career in academic libraries has been a bit unconventional.

Because I paid for college with an ROTC scholarship, my first job after graduation was as an active duty army office. I was stationed in Germany during the tail-end of the Cold War and it was during that time that I gained invaluable experience as a leader, especially during my time as a company commander. At the end of my tour in Germany, I applied for and was accepted into an Army program that sends selected army officers to graduate school in exchange for a commitment to teach at West Point. So I got a master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Maryland, then spent 3 years teaching leadership and sociology to cadets at the US Military Academy. By the time those 3 years were up, it was clear to me that a career in higher education was going to be a better fit for me than an Army career; so I resigned from the military and began a PhD program in Sociology at Stanford. As a graduate student at Stanford, I worked part-time in the library in the Social Science Data center. During that time I came to really see the critical role that the library and librarians played in the research and teaching life of the campus; and I very much enjoyed being a part of that.

While I was in the final stages of writing my dissertation – and therefore spending even more time in the library — several of my librarian colleagues encouraged me to apply for the Social Sciences Librarian position that was open at Stanford at the time. By then I had learned enough about libraries and librarianship, that it was clear to me that a career in academic libraries would be an extraordinarily good fit for my combination of leadership experience and scholarly training. More importantly, I believed that the work I could accomplish within research libraries would likely have a greater impact on the future of scholarship than the work I might have accomplished as an individual scholar.

That has absolutely turned out to be true for me. My career at Stanford has allowed me to assume positions of increasing responsibility since that first library job as well as the opportunity to participate in the profession at a national level. A job as director of libraries at a major research university like MIT is very appealing to me as a next step in my career and as an opportunity to continue to influence the future of libraries and scholarly communication at what I consider a crucially important time for both.

I am convinced that the decisions that are made now, and the directions we take, especially at institutions like MIT, will have profound implications for the future of scholarly communication and therefore on the influence that scholars and scholarship can have on addressing the world’s greatest challenges.
Which brings us to the substantive portion of my talk.

I’ve been asked to talk about the role research institutions like MIT have in shaping the future of scholarly communication, with an emphasis on how I might influence local and national discourse, and how I might lead the libraries and the press to have maximum impact. And, I’ve been asked to do that in 30 minutes.
It is a big topic, or set of topics, and I certainly have more than 30 minutes worth of thoughts on it. Some of what I want to say will necessarily be at a fairly abstract level, but I will try to provide some examples which I am happy to address in more detail during the Q&A time.

Frankly, I’m also hesitant to offer detailed plans for MIT because I believe that a new leader should spend a considerable amount of time learning about a new organization, its culture, its strengths and aspirations before initiating any specific strategies for that organization. There are also a number of topics that I think are crucial to the future of libraries and scholarly communication, but that I won’t address directly in the scope of this talk – I hope you will feel free to ask me about my thoughts on learning spaces, MOOCs, information literacy, big data, shared print collections, the role of social media in marketing the library and the press, and any of the other topics that I don’t directly highlight in the next 30 minutes or so.

What I will talk about is how institutions like MIT, and specifically the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press, play key roles in shaping the future of scholarly communication by providing an infrastructure and a culture that supports the creation, dissemination and preservation of knowledge.

My plan is to explain what I mean by infrastructure and culture, explain where and how I think choices about infrastructure and/or culture, particularly in the context of libraries and university presses, affect scholarship and the future of scholarly publishing, and provide examples of ways I have tried, and would continue to try, to influence discourse and organizational effectiveness via infrastructure and culture.

When I talk about infrastructure, I’m referring to not only physical settings but also to the digital infrastructures that are increasingly important to research and learning. And when I talk about culture, I’m primarily talking about organizational culture – the assumptions, values, and norms that make up an organization’s personality and that guide (or should guide) the decisions an organization makes – not just about what to do, but also how work is accomplished and by whom.

Bikes outside Green Library, Stanford

Bikes outside Green Library, Stanford

As a sociologist I see infrastructure and culture as not separate domains, but as very much interrelated. For example, Stanford is a biking campus, not just because we are in California, with its culture of healthy living and environmental consciousness, but also because we have a very large sprawling campus and we enjoy generally excellent weather all year round.

Infrastructure and culture are mutually reinforcing aspects of a healthy, effective organization. And as a leader, ensuring that infrastructures are reflective of and supportive of a clearly articulated culture is one of my key responsibilities.

I also think it is important to note at the outset that I do not believe that libraries have ever been merely neutral repositories of information; nor do I think they should be. Great libraries are always more than infrastructure, they are more than warehouses they are definitely more than merely a Netflix for books.
Great libraries embody the cultural values of their communities and their parent organizations; and they promote the values of democracy, diversity, openness, and the idea that education is a public and social good.

MIT strikes me as a place that openly strives to create infrastructures that match your particular culture and values; and as a place where the libraries and the press are expected to play leading roles in advocating for change in scholarly publishing practices and higher education consistent with MIT values. That is one of the key factors that makes this opportunity so attractive to me.

For example, it is no coincidence that DSpace – an infrastructure designed to promote the preservation and open dissemination of scholarship, was developed at MIT – an institution with a culture that promotes open access to the scholarly record and that includes preservation as part of its mission. I won’t name names, but many institutions lag behind MIT in providing access to the research they produce. In some cases, it is because they have the cultural will, but lack the infrastructure; at other universities, the infrastructure exists, but the institution lacks a shared cultural imperative. It seems clear to me that the tight coupling of culture and infrastructure has been a key factor in MIT’s unique and early success in disseminating its research and teaching to the world.

DSpace at MIT

DSpace at MIT

MIT established itself as a bold and effective leader in the open access movement when it developed DSpace over a decade ago, and again when faculty passed an Open Access policy in 2009.
(Let me note here that I am aware that within the broad support for open access as a concept there are valid concerns across campus about how to balance openness with current realities of tenure and promotion and the pressure on humanities graduates especially to revise their dissertations into a first book that university presses will be wiling to publish.)

It is clear to me that the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press play a vital role in providing the kinds of physical and digital infrastructures that facilitate world-class scholarship and teaching and that encourage and support innovations in research and pedagogy.

The next leader of the MIT libraries and the MIT press will clearly have a unique opportunity and responsibility to continue the legacy of leadership and excellence, and to influence the discourse on open access – both locally and nationally.

My sense of the open access landscape is that the movement has reached the point where it is time to take stock of the many innovations, experiments, successes, and failures in this space. MIT strikes me as especially well-positioned to lead such a conversation.

Open Access: What's next?

Open Access: What’s next?

Developing sustainable models for open access publishing requires an understanding of the complex interactions between the ways scholarship is produced, reviewed, published, rewarded, marketed and disseminated – and the ways all of those things are changing.
Essentially, I see this as a sort of systems engineering puzzle – the exact kind of problem that folks from MIT are especially well qualified to solve.
It is time to pull together all the key players – scholarly associations, librarians, publishers, funding agencies, and scholars – to develop a systematic inventory of what we know about open access efforts to date, and what remains to be learned. I would love to see MIT host a set of productive conversations on open access, with the explicit goal of chronicling what we know so far, and charting a direction for continued development of infrastructures, policies and practices based on documented successes and best practices.

Moving from experimentation to sustainable models for Open Access, especially models that move beyond journals to include monographs as well as new forms of interactive, multimedia narratives, will require steady and coordinated change across all parts of the scholarly communication system.

Change in this space will also require new radically collaborative funding models – such as the model suggested by a recent white paper produced by K|N Consultants that calls for all higher education institutions to contribute to a centrally managed fund that would be used to support partnerships among scholarly societies, research libraries, and other institutional players for the production, access and long-term preservation of new and evolving forms of research output. Full disclosure, I am was a member of the Board of Directors of K|N consultants – in part because I think bold strategies like the one they propose need to be part of the conversation.

Encouraging and hosting a systematic and collaborative meta-analysis of what we currently know about open access is one specific way I would want to leverage the expertise, culture, and reputation of MIT to influence discourse and progress in shaping the future of scholarly communication. In other words, lets gather the available data, from all parts of the ecosystem, and analyze it so we can make smart decisions about how to move forward.

Finding ways to promote and sustain open access to and broad dissemination of scholarly research is not only consistent with the core values of librarianship and with the mission of MIT, but it also conveniently has the potential to offer some relief from the very real budget pressures most academic libraries and their host institutions are all too familiar with. Flat or declining collection budgets, combined with rising serials costs – especially in the sciences – have driven most libraries to look very carefully at the value of their collections and to focus on maximizing the return on investment on the materials we acquire.

Journals, photo by Wayne Vanderkuil

Journals, photo by Wayne Vanderkuil

Now, while I am very much in favor of maximizing the use and impact of our collections, I am also an advocate for explicit efforts to ensure that use and popularity are not the sole determinants of what sorts of materials libraries collect. I believe that libraries need to collect and university presses need to publish diverse literatures, on niche topics and by authors from underrepresented groups not just so that our individual collections reflect a stated commitment to diversity; but also to ensure that diverse voices get published and are therefore available as part of the collective scholarly record we leave to future students and scholars.

I also think it is important to recognize that the books we collected in the past, and kept, preserved, and digitized are now available for innovative new kinds of research – such as this project on the evolution of Brazilian Portuguese.

Graph of evolution of Brazilian Portuguese, courtesy of Cuauhtémoc García-García

Graph of evolution of Brazilian Portuguese, courtesy of Cuauhtémoc García-García

The data for this research – provided to the Stanford research team by Stanford librarians — consists of the digitized texts of Portuguese language books in HathiTrust & Google Books –from our own collections and those of our peers. Here’s the thing — Our pre-colonial Brazilian literature doesn’t really get much use, and it is a good bet that the majority of the tens of thousands of texts that make up the data for this study have less than impressive circulation records. For me this project, and other examples of research that depend on rarely used materials, stand as cautionary tales about relying too heavily on use statistics and narrowly defined return on investment metrics for decision-making and assessment. We have to be cognizant of the fact that current and future scholars will make use of our archives, our collections, and our data in ways we cannot now imagine.

Creating a culture that values diversity and the long-term value of library collections and services requires new and innovative ways of assessing and demonstrating impact. With this in mind, I started a pilot project last year, with one of our digital humanities librarians, to investigate an alternate way of assessing the value of libraries and librarians. In this project, we used text-mining techniques to quantify and analyze mentions of Stanford libraries and librarians in the acknowledgements sections of published monographs. We have dubbed this our “measuring thanks” project, and our early findings are quite encouraging and informative. For example, we have found that the two library services most often mentioned by name in acknowledgements are special collections and interlibrary borrowing. We have also found that the majority of authors who acknowledge a library actually acknowledge more than 1 library or collection—pointing to the importance of creating collaborative collections and discovery environments to make access to dispersed but related collections even easier for future scholars.

Developing new ways of demonstrating the impact of our services and collections is a way of promoting a culture that values assessment, but also recognizes that the true impact of libraries and librarians is often delayed and too idiosyncratic to show up in most of the standard ROI style assessment tools currently in use.
So while I am a fan of assessment and data-driven decision-making, I think it is critically important that we make sure the data we are using captures the full story of our impact. As a social scientist with experience teaching and consulting on statistics and research methods, I’m committed to making sure that the assessment tools we use in libraries are the right ones, that the data we collect measures what really matters, and that we use methods appropriate to the decisions we want to make.

In addition to providing an alternate, potentially more meaningful benchmark for library impact and value, one of the other things I love about the “Measuring thanks” project is that it has provided us with true stories that help us connect the work we do with actual scholarly products.

Ensuring that all members of our staff understand how their own work and the work of their colleagues contributes to the research and teaching missions of the university is one of the main goals of the Library Concierge Program – a project I developed for Stanford Libraries in 2012.

Stanford Libraries Concierge Program, with feedback

Stanford Libraries Concierge Program, with feedback

The Concierge Program ensures that all our library staff have a good understanding of the array of resources and services we have to offer – from print and digital collections across many disciplines, to multi-media training, to digital humanities support, to data management planning and more. The Program consists of structured opportunities for all library staff – from subject liaisons to cataloguers to shelves, even many of our long-term student workers – to learn about what their colleagues in other parts of the organization are doing, so that we could all act as ambassadors – or concierges – for the full range of resources, services and expertise the libraries have to offer. The program is explicitly designed to break down the silos across the library, the university press, and our academic computing services and to promote more open exchange of information and expertise among all members of the libraries.

I’m happy to say that the program has been a huge success – I offer these 2 quotes as partial evidence, supporting by a more quantitative evaluation reported in a case study published in the open access Journal of Creative Library Practice. As the quotes suggest, library staff report that they have a better understanding of the bigger organization and how & where their particular job fits in the big picture. And ultimately, the success of the program is revealed through the impact on scholars, who, as the 2nd quote illustrates, are able to make more productive and efficient use of the resources we make available to them.

The final topic I want to touch on is the work I have done as an advocate for increased diversity and inclusion in the library profession generally, and specifically in library technology.

As some of you know, I am active on social media – I’ve used twitter and my blog, as well as various speaking opportunities to try to raise awareness about the lack of diversity in librarianship and I have played a leading role in two major recent events – a day-long forum on diversity in academic libraries at the Digital Library Federation Fall forum, and a 2-day summit on Leadership, Technology, and Gender in April of this year.

And last summer, I asked our university librarian to issue a public statement in support of anti-harassment policies (or codes of conduct) at library, technology, and higher education conferences. Together, we encouraged our staff to participate only in those conferences that had clear and public anti-harassment policies and to advocate for the adoption of such policies at conferences in which they participate. As a result, Stanford librarians, backed by the strong public stance made by the library leadership, played key roles in the adoption of codes of conduct by several major national and international organizations, including the Association of Digital Humanities Organizations, the Music Library Association, and the Association of Slavic Eastern European & European Studies. I am told that the Coalition of Networked Information is working on such a policy, in response, at least partially, to advocacy from Stanford. I am proud to have played a key role in ensuring that these spaces are safer and more accessible to those who may have otherwise felt less welcome.
OK – to summarize, I was asked to talk about the future of scholarly communication and how I might influence discourse about that future, and how I would lead the MIT Libraries and Press. I hope that what I have shared about the work I have done and the values and passions that motivate me have made it clear what kind of leader I have been thus far and how I would seek to lead if given the opportunity here at MIT.

I believe that scholarship is ultimately a conversation, and my vision of libraries and university presses, is that they are natural hosts for those conversations – creating spaces — virtual, physical, & cultural spaces –where those conversations are facilitated, recorded, published and made available to be used and revised and expanded in ways we can’t yet anticipate; but which we none-the-less must aspire to capture and preserve for future generations.

Infrastructure + Culture = Conversations

Infrastructure + Culture = Conversations

I’m proud of the work my colleagues and I have accomplished at Stanford, and of the influence I have had on broader conversations about issues of importance to the library profession and to the future of scholarly communication.

And … I am ready and eager to assume a more active and a more prominent role in leading and influencing the future of libraries and of scholarly publishing. I am attracted to MIT because of its unique blend of values, scholarly intensity, and commitment to solving real world problems.

By all accounts, the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press are poised to meet the emerging challenges presented by new methods of research, new forms of publication, and changing expectations for access to information. MIT strikes me as a place where people see challenges as opportunities, and where faculty, students and staff alike seek to leverage the full force of MIT’s intellectual resources toward finding solutions to real problems. MIT has already taken a lead in addressing the very real and pressing challenge of finding sustainable models of providing open, equitable & meaningful access to the growing flood of scholarly information, data, and technologies. I would welcome the opportunity to build on MIT’s legacy of strong and principled leadership on these issues as a member of this community and as director of the MIT Libraries.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you and I very much welcome your questions.

no crystal balls

Below are my remarks from the Look into the Crystal Ball: Future Directions for Higher Education and Academic Libraries panel at ALA, sponsored by ACRL University Libraries section. I think it was recorded and will be available somewhere. Google that in a few days if you want to hear the whole thing.

~~~~~~

There are no crystal balls – the future is notoriously unpredictable and it is certainly not linear.

I think the events of just the last few days make that clear – at least to me. On the same day that the Supreme Court issued a historic ruling for marriage equality – something many of us simply couldn’t allow ourselves to hope for in our lifetimes – our President gave a eulogy for a pastor who was murdered in a heinous act of racial terrorism that also claimed the lives of 8 members of his historical black church in Charleston SC.

Yesterday was a day of both celebration and sorrow.

I believe Dr. King was right — the arc of the moral universe is long and it surely bends towards justice; but it does so in fits and starts; and it includes times like this marked by progress and by pain. In the span of a few days we have seen history being made and we have seen history tragically repeat itself. Three black churches have burned in the south in the last 5 days.

So I’m even less inclined than I usually am to try to predict the future, or to describe how libraries ought to react to future trends.

As my friend and colleague Francis Kayiwa says – if we could predict the future, I hope we’d all play the lottery and then use the winnings to build great libraries.

That said, just as many us work towards social change even though we can’t predict the path or timing; we can and should work towards the kind of future research library we want.

I am less interested in how libraries can respond to changes in higher education and much more interested in how libraries and those of us who work in them can create the change we believe in.

Let me respond to some of what my colleagues have talked about and bring up a few other topics:

Most of my colleagues on the panel stressed the coming wave of online education and roles librarians can play to support faculty and students in online courses. Sure, libraries and librarians can do all the same things around online education as we do for face to face education; but to me a big challenge of online education that only libraries can address is one of preservation – of the massive amounts of data being generated by the multi-institutional experiment in online learning that is at the heart of edX and other online education ventures.

I’m also less interested in helping faculty find open resources for their online courses than I am in pushing to make more and more scholarly content and educational resources open in the first place, so finding resources that can be used in open education is easy for everyone.

As more university presses land under the purview of the libraries, we have real opportunities (obligations?) to work together towards our common cause of providing access to scholarship. Together we can and will figure out sustainable models for funding the production and dissemination of scholarly research.

My fellow panelists also talked about the need for librarians to help students find the “right” information by providing curated sets of resources. Again, yes librarians can help students make sense of a deluge of information through curation …

But it would be so much better if we could develop discovery environments that put intuitive curation and filtering tools in the hands of users, so they could do their own curating. Let’s give them the power and the choice.

[Here I gave an extemporaneous shout-out to the Code4Lib article Bess Sadler and I wrote about building feminist values of choice, empowerment & transparency into our discovery environments.]

Along with that – I want to put real resources into developing truly effective virtual browsing capacities – instead of mocking scholars who tell us that browsing physical stacks is important part of their research process; let’s figure out how to recreate and enhance that experience in a virtual environment. Let’s get to work creating a virtual browsing enviroment that allows a scholar to browse collections regardless of format or physical location.

On library instruction I agree with my panelists that there is an ever more important role for librarians, and want to stress the need for us to work in the realms of data literacy and critical thinking.

I also think librarians are uniquely equipped to help students and our communities understand that the issues we are grappling with as a society have histories.

I think librarians’ single most important contribution to the future will be to equip our communities with the history, the context, and the data to understand and solve the big problems of our times – persistent racial and ethnic injustice, climate change, global poverty, and staggering and growing degrees of income and wealth inequality to name a few.

Let me be very clear, I am calling for activist librarians who will be the change we want to see in the library world, in higher education, and in our communities.

We have a particular expertise, a perspective, and a set of values that goes well beyond merely supporting and advising faculty – we need to lean in and claim our seat at the table when the future of higher education is debated and decided.

In some cases we need to take our cues from the new generation of activist and radical librarians and archivists who are already doing this kind of work.

I hesitate to name names because I will inevitably leave folks out who are doing great things; but I have to single out Bergis Jules & Ed Summers who are creating and analyzing an archive of #CharlesonShooting tweets. Others among us contributed to efforts to develop a Ferguson syllabus and resource guides, a Ferguson archive, and a Charleston syllabus. Former Stanford colleagues developed a GIS application to track Mass shootings in America after the Newtown shooting.

These are examples of curation, education, publication and yes activism all rolled up together.

There are more examples and more people who rarely get asked to talk about the future of libraries, but who are making that future every day. My twitter pals, you are the future of libraries and I see you. I see you.

Joy playlist

I put together a playlist for our recent MIT Libraries and MIT Press leadership retreat. My unofficial motto since I got here has been “Let’s do great things, and have fun doing them.” In addition, our awesome Associate Director for Research and Instructional Services, Tracy Gabridge, has added “do it with joy” to the charter for some of the projects she is managing. So the playlist for our retreat was based on songs with the word “Joy” in the title.

I had this playing as folks arrived for the retreat and at the breaks, and offered a $50 gift certificate to the MIT Press Bookstore for the first person who guessed the theme.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pride and Joy

Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pride and Joy

  1. Joy Against Me!
  2. Joyful Girl Ani DiFranco
  3. Road To Joy Bright Eyes
  4. My Joy (7″ Mix) Depeche Mode
  5. Joyful Noise Derek Trucks Band
  6. Joy Iron & Wine
  7. Joy Lucinda Williams
  8. Tears Of Joy Lucinda Williams
  9. Joy Phish
  10. Pride And Joy Stevie Ray Vaughan
  11. Joy To The World The Supremes
  12. Joy Teddy Pendergrass
  13. Let’s Dance to Joy Division The Wombats

EnJOY!

feminism and the collective collection

Text of my talk at BLC Networking Day 2015 below:

title slide: feminism & collective collection

title slide: feminism & collective collection


I guess I should start by explaining my title a bit.

Here’s the deal – In April of this year, a paper I co-authored with Stanford colleague Bess Sadler, titled Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery was published in code4lib journal. It got a lot of great feedback and in general was pretty well-received. So of course, I joked on twitter that I clearly needed to title everything I wrote now on “feminism and …”

So when I was asked to give one of the keynotes today for the Boston Library Consortium Networking Day, I had no choice but to talk about “Feminism and the collective collection.”

I’m kidding, of course, well mostly kidding.

I’m talking about the collective collection because that’s sort of what we are about as libraries right now – not just at the BLC, but every research library I know of is looking for ways to leverage partnerships with others to supplement their own collections. And almost every vision for the future of research libraries includes a call for increased collaboration – especially in areas of print and digital archiving, resource sharing, and collection building – in other words the same kinds of collaborative projects that are at the heart of the work of the BLC.

rosy the riveter socks

rosy the riveter socks

And I’m talking about feminism because I’m an old feminist.

(This is where I showed off my new Rosie the Riveter socks).

I was a sociologist before I became a librarian; and in my sociology training in the mid-90s I discovered the work of some of the great black and queer feminists of our time: bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Jack Halberstam, Audre Lourde, Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, and many others. Their work certainly influenced my sociology and my politics, but also my approach to librarianship.

In fact, about 2 years ago I wrote explicitly about bringing a queer and feminist agenda to libraries – all in the context of a firm belief that without an explicit feminist and queer agenda, the work we do in libraries will reflect the same inequities, biases, and discrimination that are still too prevalent in our society – and I think this is borne out in the demographics of our profession, and in some cases in our services, and in our collections.

I’ve also written before about the fact that everyone has an agenda, and that I subscribe to the feminist ideal that instead of seeking some mythical objective, neutral stance; one should simply be transparent about one’s positionality, theoeretical lens, and yes – one’s agenda.

So, it isn’t just that I bring a particular set of values and theoretical perspectives to librarianship, but also that I am convinced that libraries are not now nor have they ever been neutral.

In fact, far from being merely neutral repositories of knowledge, libraries at their core are actually pretty progressive.

In fact, a few years ago a Chicago blogger called out libraries as explicitly socialist — I’m not sure if anyone has gotten him to fess up to whether or not he intended the article to be a parody piece or if he was serious.

But in truth, we are actually all about collective ownership and free distribution of goods – which is kind of the definition of socialism.

What could be more socialist and value-laden than the idea that community members ought to have free access to books, computers, experts and other sources of information and the means to use that information?

The library as an institution is a downright radical idea.

So is it really such a stretch to apply feminist principles to our work? Especially our collective work?  Obviously I don’t think so, and I hope by the end of this talk some of you will agree.

Of course, there are many kinds of “feminisms”, so let me be explicit again about the fact that the kind of feminist thinking and agenda that animates my work is heavily influenced by black feminist thought and by intersectional feminism, and not so much by the straight, white corporate feminism exemplified by the whole Lean In movement.

So what are the essential tenets of black feminist thought?
Black feminist thought argues that sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, and plenty of other forms of oppression are interlocking and intersecting forms of oppression and have to be examined and understood as such if we have any hope of trying to dismantle existing systems of power and privilege.
Black feminist thinking also compels us to “decenter” straight, white, western, male knowledge and ways of knowing and to place formerly subjugated and marginalized forms of knowledge at the center of our analyses.

What would that mean in practical terms for libraries?
An example might be to imagine a library classification system that put the experiences and perspectives of black women at the center. In such a classification system the works of James Joyce, for example, would appear under a subject heading of “White men fiction”; and Toni Morrison’s novels would simply be categorized as “Fiction”.

Of course, there are some of us who already think of them that way … but our catalogs reflect the white male centric model.

And here is a pretty stunning example of the ways in which default library practices serve to center whiteness:

This is WorldCat’s relevance ranked list of items returned for a search on the subject of “African American Women Fiction” …

African America Women - fiction

African America Women – fiction

Yes, that’s right —

The Help, a novel written by a white woman about a white woman’s story of the experiences of black women, is the #1 item in a relevancy ranked list of titles in WorldCat with the subject heading “African American Women Fiction”.

I’m interested in leveraging feminist thinking as a way to decenter whiteness, and to ensure that our work promotes diversity, inclusion and social justice – not just in terms of gender, but with attention to the intersecting axes of race, class, sexuality, ability and other forms of inequality, exclusion, and marginalization.

I am motivated by a concern/fear is that we are so focused on collaboration as a rational and practical response to budget pressures and/or the very real need to free up shelf space that we rarely step back to look at collaborative ventures as opportunities to enact the values that matter to us.

Let me stop here and remind you all how new I am to the BLC – I recognize that it is entirely possible, I hope even likely, that there are ample examples of BLC work – either collectively or at some of our individual institutions – that does reflect and promote progressive, even feminist values. I hope you will share those examples once I’m done here.

Some of the core feminist values that I think align well with core librarian values are values like community, inclusion, advocacy, equity, and empowerment.  These are the kinds of values that allow us to leverage our collective activities in ways that might resist and push against the biases and unconscious patterns of discrimination that have left us with collections that are too white, too male, and too western; and with classification schemes and technologies that center whiteness and that reflect and perpetuate inequalities, stereotypes and discrimination.

Again, this is not to say that all of our collaborations are hopelessly oppressive and wrong and bad  — obviously we do great work together and some of our collective efforts already reflect and advance feminist values.

I actually think that the rise of borrow-direct style resource sharing is not only a boon to our scholars, but is also a nice example of individual empowerment, community, and inclusion. By providing more choices directly to our scholars, we are empowering them and providing them with a more diverse set of resources than any of us could provide through our individual collections alone.

So I’m not saying that we aren’t already pursuing initiatives that reflect our values, But what I want to do is nudge us to think about an even more activist approach to our collaborative work.  And to do that, I’ll try to provide a bit of context for why I think an activist approach is warranted.

Before I do that, we have to talk a bit about “neutrality”.

There are those who think libraries and librarians ought to avoid activism, that we should suppress any political agendas, and simply passively and “neutrally” provide our users with the resources and services they want.

I use air-quotes around the term neutrality, because I don’t think neutral is possible, and I certainly don’t believe that any of our social institutions can credibly claim neutrality.

The problem with attempting “neutrality”, perhaps especially with respect to collections, is that there is nothing neutral about the context in which we are making collection development decisions, or in which our students and faculty are making their reading decisions.

Moreover, the collection development decisions we make, at our individual institutions and collaboratively, have profound impacts on who and what is represented in the scholarly and cultural record.

We have to be willing to acknowledge that the decisions we make about what books and journals and archives we collect are inevitably biased, based as they are on some combination of individual and collective human judgements, and on popularity. It doesn’t take a sociologist to tell you that we all bring various forms of conscious and unconscious biases to the decisions we make — including the decisions we make about collections.

Beyond acknowledging the potential for individual bias, we also have to recognize that systemic biases exist which affect access to the resources necessary for a writer to publish her work, and to have that work marketed and recognized as authoritative. I want to talk about some of those systemic biases and how they create a skewed context for our collections development work.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates says: “there are ways that our reading is shaped and limited by the biases of the dominant literary gatekeepers”. In his essay, All the sad young literary women, Coates describes the ways gatekeepers like publishers, book reviewers, and book sellers favor works by and about men – especially white men. And since book reviews – especially favorable ones – can impact a books popularity and sales; gender and/or racial disparities in whose books get reviewed will impact whose books sell well, and therefore who gets a contract to write a second book, or a third.

And I would submit that, like it or not, libraries act as gatekeepers too … we are complicit in this when we don’t take active steps to counteract the biases that affect scholarly publishing and user preferences.

So, what kinds of biases are there in the world of publishing and books? I have a few examples.

A group called VIDA has been providing breakdowns of book reviewers and books reviewed in major literary publications by gender for the last few years.

Let’s look at what they have found.

This graph shows the gender breakdown of books reviewed by the New York Review of Books over the last 5 years.

Gender and NY Review of Books

Gender and NY Review of Books

In general the 2014 VIDA counts show some improvement in the gender balance of authors reviewed, many of the major mainstream publications are still far from gender balanced in their reviews.
Looking at this data from The New York Review of Books, for example, we see that they have improved from female authored books representing only 16% of the titles they reviewed in 2010 to a review list that was nearly 1/3 female authored books in 2014.

Racial disparities are even more dramatic.

To determine self-identified race of women whose literary works were reviewed by major publications, VIDA attempted to contact women authors whose work has appeared in the journals they cover, and asked them to self-identify their race/ethnicity based on standard census categories.
While the data they collected is still incomplete, the results are stark … starkly white one might even say.

As an example, here is the breakdown of women authors reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement over the last 5 years. The purple bar is all the white women – 88% of the female authors reviewed are white.

Women of color - Time Literary Supplement

Women of color – Time Literary Supplement

Here’s the graph for the Boston Review. Again, the large purple bar is the white women – the other tiny bars are small categories of women of color.

Women of color - Boston Review

Women of color – Boston Review

Graphs for The Atlantic, Harpers, London Review of Books, The Nation, The New Yorker, etc. etc. etc. look remarkably and depressingly similar. All dominated by the purple bar of white women.

Some more data to consider:

Here is an excerpt from a recent article on the 2015 NY Times summer reading list.

NY Times Summer Reading List: Peak Whiteness

NY Times Summer Reading List: Peak Whiteness

Although the NY Times summer reading list recommendations are usually pretty pale, this year the list achieved peak whiteness — not a single book written by a person of color.

Let’s hope none of our library colleagues are basing their summer reading recommendations on such a biased and white-washed list.

Finally, lets look at awards.

Novelist Nicola Griffith has compiled data on gender and major literary awards.

She concluded that books about and/or by women are far less likely to win big awards that books by and about men.

This chart show the breakdown of Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction over the last 15 years.

Gender and Pulitzer Prize for fiction

Gender and Pulitzer Prize for fiction

Note that exactly 0 of the last 15 Pulitzer Prizes for fiction went to books written by women about women. 8 of 15 went to books written by men about men or boys, 3 went to books by women about men or boys, 3 went to books by women about both men and women; and 1 went to Middlesex. In 15 years, not a single book written wholly from the point of view of a woman character was considered worthy of the Pulitzer.

The National Book Award, the Hugo Award, The Man Booker prize all show similar patterns where books by and/or about men far outnumber books by or about women among award winners.

OK – so all these sources of information about books – reviews, recommendations, awards, even our own classification systems are pretty clearly white and male centric. Books by and about men and white women are more likely to be reviewed, recommended, awarded and seen as relevant than books by and about people of color.

How should that information influence our collection development practices – especially our collective practices?

For me, these data demonstrate  exactly why we need a feminist agenda for our collections and our collaborations – we need explicit feminist values as a corrective to the lack of diversity in publishing, reviewing, and other gatekeeping venues.

If we rely passively on big publishers, trusted reviewers, and reader popularity to build and promote our collections, then the collective collections we build and preserve for future generations will quite simply be biased and skewed towards white male authors and topics. If we are willing to admit that we are developing collections within a publishing context that does not adequately represent nor promote the actual diversity of our culture and society; then it seems to me we ought to be willing to commit to actively seeking to inject the values of diversity and inclusion into our collective collections work.

In other words, in order to ensure that our collections truly do reflect our stated commitment to diversity, academic librarians must actively and aggressively collect resources by and about underrepresented groups. Relying on patron driven acquisitions programs and circulation data alone will almost certainly result in a less diverse collection now, and an even more biased version of the scholarly record preserved and made available to future generations.

So what can we do and how can we leverage our collective resources and collective will in the service of inclusive values?

Here’s where I want to turn the traditional question and answer time around;

I’m not a big fan of the “sage on a stage” style Q&A after a keynote, where audience members are supposed to ask questions of the all-knowing speaking and long comments subtly disguised as questions are discouraged.

I’m as interested in the thoughts and comments and ideas that a talk might inspire as I am in the questions.
So instead of stopping to invite you to ask me questions, I want to pose some questions for us all to explore together:

With that in mind, here are some prompts based loosely around the theme of what would a feminist agenda for our collective collections look like?

  • What might our resource sharing initiatives look like if we made diversity a priority – alongside of or even instead of cost-savings?
  • What kinds of interfaces, or policies might we design if we wanted to explicitly use borrow-direct to shift the center of our collections, such that works by people of color were highlighted, and promoted?
  • Could we collectively use demand driven acquisition not just to ensure we are only buying items that will be used; but instead use DDA and PDA explicitly and intentionally to free up resources (staff time and collection dollars) to collect items outside the mainstream?
  • If we prioritized community building and the common good, would we be less worried about free riders in our collaborative projects?
  • If our goals for the collective collection were diversity, access, and empowerment for all our users, would that change the nature of our partnerships?
  • If diversity were a goal, for example, would we stop looking for “peers” from similar institutions to collaborate with and instead look to partner with libraries whose users, history, and context are very different than our own; in the hopes that their collection profile might also be different from ours?
  • What could we do collectively about our metadata as a corrective to the ways our current classification schemes marginalize some works and center the works by and about western white men?
  • Would feminist values compel us to consider the role we play in patronizing and supporting small and independent presses that might be more likely to produce works by and about people of color, queer people, indigenous people, and other marginalized populations?
  • Are our interests so well aligned that we should we be working with such presses to find new sustainable business models?

These are just some of the questions we might tackle if we were to look at our collective projects through a feminist lens.

Welcoming the Massachusetts Black Librarians Network to MIT

Today I had the great honor and pleasure of welcoming the Massachusetts Black Librarians Network to MIT for a luncheon event hosted by MIT Libraries.

It was a wonderful event, full of great conversation, inspiring people, and really terrific ideas about how to advance equity, inclusion, diversity and social justice in and through libraries.

Below are the remarks I made to open the conversation.

~~~~~

Barbara Williams asked me to share a few thoughts to kick off a conversation about how we can create a culturally relevant profession, and I do have a few things to say on that topic.

What I want to be able to say is that libraries, and by extension those of us who work in and for them, are arguably the most culturally relevant social institutions of our times. Full stop.  

But I think we all know that libraries and librarians suffer from a strange kind of image and PR problem.

On the one hand, the vast majority of people in any public opinion poll rank librarians high on all kinds of positive dimensions – especially helpfulness and trustworthiness.

And people generally love libraries, but often nostalgically and not so much when we start talking about funding needs.

But even with all the positive sentiment about libraries and librarians,  there is a profound lack of understanding about the range of what libraries and librarians really do.

In fact, the night before I flew here for the interview for this job, my wife and I were out to dinner with friends and I was expressing some nervousness about the presentation I would be giving as part of the interview process. One of our friends actually asked me: “What do you have to do in your talk, recite the full Dewey Decimal System?”

We can chuckle at that, but uneasily I hope, because we all know that libraries and those of us who work in them bring tremendous value to our communities through a range of activities, resources, services and expertise.

In a time when information and misinformation is shared and used and misused at dizzying speeds; and at a time when our country is increasingly polarized in its views about everything from climate change to whose lives matter; libraries and those of us who work there are more relevant than ever.

We can and do provide the spaces (physical and virtual), the resources, and the expertise to host productive, informed and inclusive conversations about the topics and issues that our communities care about. And I believe we have a special responsibility and the special expertise to provide access to the information and the tools people need to understand current events and to contribute to solutions to the big problems of our day.

So one of the challenges for us in asserting our cultural relevance is in updating the image of libraries and librarianship to include the full range of what we do and how we can empower our communities. We also all know that another challenge is that our profession is a painfully homogenous one demographically.

The challenge of recruiting and retaining librarians of color is one I think about all the time, and frankly I don’t have a magic solution. I hope that our conversations today touch on both the supply and demand sides of the problem.

On the demand side, there is no doubt in my mind that racial bias – conscious and unconscious – seeps into the recruiting and hiring practices of libraries. And I suspect sadly that many of you know better than I do that once in the profession, people of color do not experience workplaces as welcoming as our values say we are.

On the supply side, we need to make the profession attractive and rewarding to young people of color — which maybe goes back to the issue of making our cultural relevance more obvious.

So when i think about promoting the cultural relevancy of libraries and of those of us who work in them, I think about updating our image; I think about reminding library leaders like me of our responsibility to uphold the values of librarianship with respect to diversity, inclusion and equity; and I think about finding ways to excite people about what they can do as a member of our profession.

The once and future librarian

I had the pleasure of participating in a Faculty symposium on the future of academic research libraries hosted at McGill University today. The event was live-streamed, and the video is now availablewill be available from McGill Library soon – I’ll add the link here when it is up. I encourage you to watch the full video, because the other talks and the question and answer session was terrific.

Below is the text from my portion:

It is an honor to be here and to be included in this panel of really smart insightful people who care deeply about the future of higher education and the future of academic research libraries.

I have to be honest though, it is not really very good timing for me. The thing is, earlier this week we buried my brother-in-law, Alfredo “Freddy” Cordero Jr. — A sweet kind soul, whose life was both harder and shorter than it should have been.

And I wondered whether I should mention something so personal in a talk like this, but I’m a long-time feminist who believes that the personal is political is professional … and back again.

So this weekend, while I was writing this talk, my wife was writing a eulogy for her brother.

And that certainly felt like a very strange and uncomfortable juxtaposition, until I realized the extent to which our grief and grieving served to crystallize just how important and precious the past can be, and likewise how fragile and uncertain the future.

That certainly feels like a good perspective to keep in mind as we talk about the future of research libraries.

And if you’ll indulge me one more connection – Freddy grew up in Bridgeport Connecticut, which is the largest and also one of the poorest cities in Connecticut.

The Bridgeport Public Library plays a vital role in the lives of Bridgeport’s residents, and its motto is “A gathering place for the entire community”, and its mission statement includes the assertion that “we believe that libraries can change people’s lives and are a cornerstone of our democracy”.

I think all libraries (public and academic research libraries) can and should aim for the same impact —
to be an inclusive gathering place, to change lives, and to advance democracy.

In the case of academic libraries, we are and should always be a safe, multi-disciplinary, information-rich gathering place for members of our communities.

We do and should always aspire to have transformative impact – on students of course, but also on faculty – by providing expertise, tools, resources, and services that inspire new kinds of research questions and that serve as catalysts for experiments in new forms of pedagogy.

And we do and should always take seriously our role in producing informed citizens who participate in their own governance through the democratic process.

There are lots of ways to think about the future of libraries, and plenty of questions to tackle within that topic:

  • what will the right mix of print and digital resources be in 5 years, in 10 years? (the correct answers to that one are “I don’t know” and “it depends”)
  • what should a physical library look like as more and more resources are available and used in digital rather than physical format?
  • what’s the next big technical breakthrough that will transform how people discover and access information?

These are all great questions that highlight important ways to think about the future of libraries. And I’m glad my colleagues on this panel are going to address most of them.

The topic I’m going to talk about is the kinds of expertise that will be needed in the great research libraries of the future.

And I want to suggest that the expertise that will ensure that the future academic library continues to be a central part of the research and teaching life of a university is similar to the expertise librarians already bring to the table – we just might need more of it.

Now, I have to take a short and I suppose slightly dangerous detour to define what I mean by librarian.

Urban Dictionary definition of Librarian

Urban Dictionary definition of Librarian

It is tempting to use this urban dictionary definition of Librarian, but let me at least add to that definition.

I want to talk about the human capital inherent in library organizations – the distinct expertise, skills, perspectives, and values that people who work in libraries contribute to the academy. And I use the term Librarian to describe those people – the people who work in the library organization and contribute to the core missions of the library.

To refer to a broad range of people who work in a library as librarians – regardless of their job title or credentials – is actually fairly controversial, so let me be clear about one thing. I use the term in this more inclusive way not to devalue the library degree or those who hold it in any way at all — I use it rather to value the range of degrees, skills, talents and experiences needed to make information accessible for current and future scholars.

And I do this because I chose to believe that professional respect is not a limited resource; and I believe a more expansive understanding of who a librarian is and what academic librarians do to advance research and teaching is critical to a robust future for libraries and for higher education.

OK – back to this idea of the once and future librarian – my bottom line is that the future of libraries depends on librarians – a diverse, highly skilled, values-driven set of people who collaborate across and within institutions to support, create, and inspire the very best of current and future scholarship and teaching — And who do so with from a distinct and important perspective.

Let me talk a little about my own journey into librarianship as a way of highlighting some of the ways I had to learn to think differently as a librarian — ways of thinking that make librarians key to not just collecting, preserving, and providing access to scholarship, but to producing and shaping it as well.

I moved to Stanford in the late 1990s, after 3 years on the faculty at West Point, to pursue a PhD in sociology, with the sort of vague intention of pursuing a regular faculty position when I finished.

But Stanford and Palo Alto are expensive places to live, so I immediately got a part-time job working in the library and I worked in the libraries throughout my graduate career.

By the time I finished my PhD I was recruited into a full-time position in the libraries as the social sciences librarian, and for me that turn made sense. I realized I could have greater impact on scholarship & on the future of higher education and scholarly communication thru a career in libraries than I could have as an individual scholar.

As I made the transition from preparing for a career as an individual scholar to a career in librarianship, I found that being an academic librarian require a change in perspective.

My academic background was and is very useful; but being an effective librarian has required more than subject matter expertise, it has required a change in perspective.

New perspective as librarian

New perspective as librarian

In the most general sense, I would say that the librarians I have worked with operate at a different level of analysis than do most individual faculty members. So, for example, as a PhD student, you are expected to become an expert in a discipline, with a solid grasp of the seminal works and main journals of your field.

As a librarian, I needed to think in much more multi-disciplinary ways. And as I built and maintained collections in several disciplines, I couldn’t afford to select for individual authors — I had to learn the publishing landscape for each discipline so I would know which publishers were strong in what fields; who published quality journals at reasonable prices, and who published monographs in fields that were most active at my university.

I learned how important metadata is … to just about everything libraries do. And I started thinking less about specific books and articles and more about the scholarly communication ecosystem as a whole – and how it was changing and should change to support new modes of scholarship and to allow for open access to the scholarly record. And, I had to start taking a much longer view of both the past and the future.

It is this distinct set of perspectives that means librarians have been working on and thinking about issues like open access, metadata, data privacy, and digital preservation for much longer than most in the academy .. and certainly for longer and with more rigor than most outside the academy.

This was never more evident that when Google Vice President Vint Cerf made big news by talking about how worried he is that the digital documents and images we are all creating now will disappear as software and hardware becomes obsolete. When news about Vint Cerf’s fear of a digital dark ages reached the library community, our collective reaction was best summarized by Dorothea Salo – one of librarianship’s most insightful voices.

Salo took to twitter to explain that librarians had been thinking about digital preservation for a long time already — and that Cerf needn’t worry because we had already built digital repositories, and workflows, and access systems for preserving digital artifacts.

We teach personal digital archiving classes, we create standards, and we have built the capacity to not just store, but to truly archive – for the long-term – the digital artifacts of our culture and of scholarship. That’s our job and its the kind of thinking and work that is a distinct strength of librarians. We think about the long-term future of the past, so that scholars and students can use it in the present.

At many universities, libraries and librarians have been supporting digital humanities research, GIS and data visualization, technology-enhanced pedagogy, and sound data management practices for a very long time. Today’s librarians have expertise, skills, and perspectives that are absolutely critical to the changing research and teaching needs of today’s faculty and students. And any vision for the future of research libraries needs to include ways to highlight and maximize the contributions of library experts to research and teaching.

Since it is free, I will leave you with some specific advice:

One major challenge for most academic libraries I know is a lack of awareness of the expertise that libraries and librarians have to offer. Every library survey I have seen – from multiple universities – shows that over 80% of faculty and students at any given university are very satisfied with their libraries and their librarians.

That’s great of course; but those same surveys (plus plenty of anecdotal evidence) reveal that high percentages of faculty and students are likewise unaware of the full range of services and expertise their libraries and librarians have to offer.

So my first bit of advice is that you should ensure that your vision for the future of research/academic libraries prominently features librarians – both symbolically and literally. Design spaces and services that showcase the full range of expertise of your librarians.

And no, I don’t simply mean ensure that the reference desk is visible from the entrance. If you want a truly great library, you have to design spaces that emphasize that librarians have expertise in a huge range of areas vital to scholarship and teaching – from data and metadata, to digital preservation, to publishing, to online learning, to software development, text-mining, project management, and yes even reference.

Ensure your library is designed to make library experts visible and accessible to scholars and students. Include in your designs plenty of information and technology rich environments for faculty and students to collaborate with library experts.

My second bit of advice is that you recognize that the best future we can imagine (for higher education or for libraries) is likely to come from more diverse and inclusive conversations than the ones we usually have.

And I mean more diverse along all the usual axes of diversity that we think of – race, class, gender, sexuality; and some that we sometimes forget – conversations that include a range of neurodiversity, and that include people with different physical abilities and disabilities.

And when we are having local conversations – about the future of our own academic institutions and our own libraries; we still need to be very deliberate about including as many voices as possible.

For example, if we really want to understand how students use library spaces; and what’s missing from library spaces that students find frustrating; I think we would do well to talk to the library support staff who work the late evening shifts.

If we want to understand how our print collections really get used – and here i’m talking about the full range of uses, not just what gets officially checked out —we ought to talk to the library staff who re-shelve the books and keep the stacks maintained and in order.

But of course, my whole point is that the future of libraries is about much more than finding the right balance between print and digital; or designing the right kinds of study and collaborative spaces for students — those are important parts of it; but I challenge you to imagine a future library where every scholar and every student has the maximum opportunity to work with experts in the library who bring unique skills and knowledge that could jumpstart new research and transform learning.

I said at the beginning that the future is incredibly fragile, uncertain and nearly unpredictable. But the one thing that I am certain of about the future is that it will be better through radically inclusive collaboration.

Never neutral: Libraries, technology, and inclusion

Below is the text from the OLITA Spotlight talk I gave at the OLA Super Conference (#olasc15).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I want to acknowledge from the outset that this talk has been heavily influenced by a number of people who have shared their work and their thoughts with me over the years. I’ve been privileged to learn from them, in some cases formally through their publications and in some cases through conversations on twitter or even in person. These aren’t the only folks whose work and thinking influences me, but they are the key people I think of when I think of critical work on the intersections of libraries, technology, higher education and social justice.  These are their names – a mix of students, librarians, scholars, and technologists. Again, this is not a comprehensive list of the people whose work inspires me, but they are my top 7 right now on these topics.

Let me also acknowledge that I’m well aware that the fact that I am a white woman working at an elite private US university gives me access to a platform like this one to talk about issues of bias and exclusion in libraries and technology. But there are plenty of folks who have been and continue to talk about and write about these issues, with far more insight and eloquence than I can, but who don’t get invitations like this for a variety of reasons. And the sad truth is that what I say, as an associate director at Stanford Libraries or as Director of MIT Libraries, often gets more attention than it deserves because of my title; while folks with less impressive titles and less privilege have been talking & thinking about some of these issues for longer than me and have insights that we all need to hear.

So next time you are looking for a speaker, please consider one of the names listed above.

If you read the blurb describing this talk, you know that a fundamental tenet that undergirds this talk, and frankly undergirds much of the work I have done in and for libraries, is the simple assertion that libraries are not now nor have they ever been merely neutral repositories of information. In fact, I’m personally not sure “neutral” is really possible in any of our social institutions … I think of neutral as really nothing more than a gear in your car.

Title slide for Never Neutral talk

Title slide for Never Neutral talk

But what I mean when I say libraries are not neutral is not just that that libraries absorb and reflect the inequalities, biases, ethnocentrism, and power imbalances that exist throughout our host societies and (for those of us who work in academic libraries) within higher education.

I mean that libraries are not neutral in a more direct and active way.

For an exceptionally compelling take on libraries as not just not neutral, but as instruments themselves of institutional oppression, please read “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression” by my friend and colleague nina de jesus.

nina argues that “Libraries as institutions were created not only for a specific ideological purpose, but for an ideology that is fundamentally oppressive in nature.” It is a bold argument, convincingly made; and I urge you to read it. As a bonus, the article itself is Open Access and nina elected to use only Open Access sources in writing it.

So I start with the premise that it isn’t just that libraries aren’t perfectly equitable or neutral because we live in a society that still suffers from racism, sexism. ableism, transphobia and other forms of bias and inequity; but libraries also fail to achieve any mythical state of neutrality because we contribute to bias and inequality in scholarship, and publishing, and information access.

Let me step back for a minute and own up to a few of my own biases – my library career thus far has been solely and squarely within large academic libraries; so my perspective, my examples, and my concerns come out of that experience and are likely most relevant to that sector of libraries. But, I hope we can have a conversation at the end of my talk about what the differences and similarities might be between the way these issues play out in large academic libraries and the way they play out in all kinds and sizes of libraries. I’m also definitely speaking from an American perspective, and I look forward to hearing where and how cultural differences intersect with the ideas I’ll talk about.

OK – so libraries are not neutral because we exist within societies and systems that are not neutral. But above and beyond that, libraries also contribute to certain kinds of inequalities because of the way in which we exercise influence over the diversity (or lack thereof) of information we make available to our communities and the methods by which we provide access to that information.

I have a whole other talk that I’ve given on how the collection development decisions we make impact not just how inclusive or not our own collections are, but also what kinds of books and authors and topics get published. The short version of that talk is that when we base our purchasing decisions on circulation and popularity, we eliminate a big part of the market for niche topics and underrepresented authors. That is bad for libraries, bad for publishing, and bad for society. But that’s another talk. This talk is about library technologies.

But before we get into technology per se., I think a word about our classification systems is necessary, because the choices we make about how our technologies handle metadata and catalog records have consequences for how existing biases and exclusions get perpetuated from our traditional library systems into our new digital libraries.

Many of you are likely well aware of the biases present in library classification systems.
Hope Olson – one of the heroes of feminist and critical thinking in library science – has done considerable work on applying critical feminist approaches to knowledge organization to demonstrate the ways in which libraries exert control over how books and other scholarly items are organized and therefore how, when, and by whom they are discoverable.

Our classification schemes — whether Dewey Decimal  or Library of Congress — are hierarchical, which leads to the marginalization of certain kinds of knowledge and certain topics by creating separate sub-classifications for topics such as “women and computers” or “black literature”.

Let me give a couple of examples of the effects of this.

3 books about gays in military

Call numbers matter

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 has been given a call number corresponding to “Minorities, women, etc. in armed forces”.  In my own library at Stanford University, 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 — a collection of stories by people with a passion for military men.  Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t have books about gay military porn stars or about those who love men in uniform. I am saying that there is nothing neutral about the fact that the history of gay & lesbian service members is categorized alongside these titles, while the history of “ordinary soldiers” (that’s from an actual book title) is shelved under “United States, History – Military.”

Another example is one I learned of from my friend and colleague Myrna Morales, and you can read about it in an article I co-authored with her and Em Claire Knowles. In that article, Myrna writes about her experience doing research for her undergraduate thesis on the Puerto Rican political activism that took place in NYC in the 1960s, with a special interest in the Young Lords Party.

Here is how Myrna described her experience:

I first searched for the YLP with the subject heading “organizations,” subheading “political organization,” in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Here I found no mention of the YLP. I was surprised, as I had known the YLP to be a prominent political organization—one that addressed political disenfranchisement, government neglect, and poverty. A (twisted) gut feeling told me to look under the subject heading of “gangs.” There it was—Young Lords Party. This experience changed my view of the library system, from one impervious to subjectivity and oppression to one that hid within the rhetoric of neutrality while continuing to uphold systemic injustices.

I suspect that this kind of experience is all too common for people of color and other marginalized people who attempt to use the resources we provide. I’ll go so far as to wonder if these sorts of experiences aren’t at least partially responsible for the incredibly low proportion of people of color who pursue careers in librarianship.

So our traditional practices and technologies are not neutral, and without active intervention we end up with collections that lack diversity and we end up classifying and arranging our content in ways that further marginalizes works by and about people of color, queer people, indigenous peoples, and others who don’t fit neatly into a classification system that sets the default as the as western, white, straight, and male.

Of course, the promise of technology is that we no longer need rely on arcane cataloging rules and browsing real library stacks to discover and access relevant information. With the advent of online catalogs and search engines, books and other information items can occupy multiple “places” in a library or collection.

But despite the democratizing promise of technology, our digital libraries are no more capable of neutrality than our traditional libraries; and the digital tools we build and provide are likely to reflect and perpetuate stereotypes, biases, and inequalities unless we engage in conscious acts of resistance.

Now when most people talk about bias in tech generally or in library technology, we talk about either the dismal demographics that show that white women and people of color are way underrepresented in technology, or we talk about the generally misogynistic and racist and homophobic culture of technology; or we talk about both demographics and culture and how they are mutually reinforcing. What we talk about less often is this notion that the technology itself is biased – often gendered and/or racist, frequently ableist, and almost always developed with built in assumptions about binary gender categories.

For some folks, the idea that technologies themselves can be gendered, or can reflect racially based and/or other forms of bias is pretty abstract. So let me give a few examples.

Most librarians will agree that commercial search engines are not “neutral” in the sense that commercial interests and promoted content can and do impact relevancy. Or, as my colleague Bess Sadler says, the idea of neutral relevance is an oxymoron.

Safiya Noble’s work demonstrates how the non-neutrality of commercial search engines reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes, despite the fact that many assume the “algorithm” is neutral.

What Noble’s analysis of Google shows us is that Google’s algorithm reinforces the sexualization of women, especially black and Latina women. Because of Google’s “neutral” reliance on popularity, page rank, and promoted content, the results for searches for information on black girls or Latina girls are dominated by links to pornography and other sexualized content. Noble suggests that users “Try Google searches on every variation you can think of for women’s and girls’ identities and you will see many of the ways in which commercial interests have subverted a diverse (or realistic) range of representations.”

Search technologies are not neutral – just as basing collection development decisions on popularity ensures that our collections reflect existing biases and inequalities, so too does basing relevancy ranking within our search products on popularity ensure the same biases persist in an online environment.

But it isn’t just search engines. In an article called “Teaching the Camera to see my skin”, photographer Syreeta McFadden describes how color film and other photographic technologies were developed around trying to measure the image against white skin. Because the default settings for everything from film stock to lighting to shutter speed were and are designed to best capture white faces; it is difficult to take photos of non-white faces that will be accurately rendered without performing post-image adjustments that sacrifice the sharpness and glossy polish that is readily apparent in photos of white faces.

Teaching the camera to see my skin

Teaching the camera to see my skin

Finally, in an example of a technology that betrays its lack of neutrality by what it ignores, Apple’s recently released health app allows users to track a seemingly endless array of health and fitness related information on their iPhone. But strangely, Apple’s health app did not include a feature for tracking menstrual cycles – an important piece of health data for a huge percentage of the population. As one critic noted, Apple insists that all iPhone uses have an app to track Stock prices – you can’t delete that one from your phone — but fails to provide an option for tracking menstrual cycles in its “comprehensive” health tracking application.

I hope these examples demonstrate that technology does not exist as neutral artifacts and tools that might sometimes get used in oppressive and exclusionary ways. Rather, technology itself has baked-in biases that perpetuate existing inequalities and exclusions, and that reinforce stereotypes.

So how do we intervene, how do we engage in acts of resistance to create more inclusive, less biased technologies?

Note that I don’t think we can make completely neutral technologies … but I do think we can do better.

One way we might do better is simply by being aware and by asking the questions that the great black feminist thinkers taught us to ask:

Who is missing?

Whose experience is being centered?

Many, many folks argued – rather convincingly to my mind – that the dearth of women working at Apple may have contributed to the company’s ability to overlook the need for menstrual cycle tracking in its health app.

So we might also work on recruiting and retaining more white women and people of color into library technology teams and jobs. There is much good work being done on trying to increase the diversity of the pipeline of people coming into technology – Black Girls Code and the Ada Initiative are examples of excellent work of this type.

I also think the adoption of strong codes of conduct at conferences like this one and other library and technology events make professional development opportunities more welcoming and potentially safer for all – and I think those are important steps in the right direction.

But in the end, one of the biggest issues we need to address if we truly want a more diverse set of people developing the technologies we use is the existence of a prevailing stereotype about who the typical tech worker is.

I want to turn now to some research on how stereotypes about who does technology, and who is good at it, affect how interested different kinds of people are in pursuing technology related fields of study, how well people expect they will perform at tech tasks, and how well people already working in tech feel they fit in, and how likely they are to stay in tech fields.

First a definition – Stereotypes are widely shared cultural beliefs about categories of people and social roles. The insidious thing about stereotypes is that even if we personally don’t subscribe to a particular stereotype, just knowing that a stereotype exists can affect our behavior.

Second, a caution – much of this research focuses on gender, to the exclusion of intersecting social identities such as race, sexuality, or gender identity. The research that talks about “women’s” behavior and attitudes towards technology is usually based on straight white women .. so keep that in mind, and recognize that much more research is needed to capture the full range of experiences that marginalized people have with and in technology.

That said, there is a huge body of research documenting the effect of negative stereotypes about women’s math and science abilities. These kinds of stereotypes lead to discriminatory decision making that obstructs women’s entry into and advancement in science and technology jobs. Moreover, negative stereotypes about women and math affects women’s own self-assessment of their skill level, interest, and suitability for science and technology jobs.

Barbie "Math is hard"

Barbie “Math is hard”

In a not yet published research study of men and women working in Silicon Valley technology firms, Stanford sociologists Alison Wynn and Shelley Correll looked at the impact of how well tech workers felt they matched the cultural traits of a successful tech worker on a number of outcomes.

First they developed a composite scale based on how tech employees, men and women, described successful tech workers. The stereotype that emerged was masculine, obsessive, assertive, cool, geeky, young, and working long hours.

Their data show that women tech workers are significantly less likely than their male counterparts to view themselves as fitting the cultural image of a successful tech worker.  While that may not be a surprising finding, their research goes on to show that the sense of not fitting the cultural image has consequences.

Because women are less likely to feel they fit the image of a successful tech worker, they are less likely to identify with the tech field, more likely to consider leaving the tech field for another career, and less likely to report positive treatment from their supervisors.

The bottom line is that cultural fit matters – not just in the pipeline, as women decide whether to major in STEM fields or to pursue tech jobs – but also among women who are currently working in technology. In other words, stereotypes about tech work and tech workers continue to hinder women even after they have entered tech careers. If we want to ensure that our technologies are built by diverse and inclusive groups of people, we have to find ways to break down the stereotypes and cultural images associated with tech work.

How do we do that?

If we want to look to success stories, Carnegie Mellon University is a good example. At Carnegie Mellon they increased the percentage of women majoring in computer science from 7% in 1995 to 42% in 2000 by explicitly trying to change the cultural image of computer scientists. Faculty were encouraged to discuss multiple ways to be a computer scientist and to emphasize the real world applications of computer science and how computer science connects to other disciplines. They also offered computer science classes that explicitly stated that no prerequisites in math or computer science were required.

For libraries, we can talk about multiple ways to be a library technologist, and we can emphasize the value of a wide variety of skills in working on library tech projects – metadata skills, user experience skills, design skills. We can provide staff with opportunities to gain tech skills in low-threat environments and in environments where white women and people of color are less likely to feel culturally alienated.

RailsBridge workshops and AdaCamps seem like good fits here, and I’d like to see more library administrators encouraging staff from across their org’s to attend such training. At Stanford, my colleagues Bess Sadler and Cathy Aster started basic tech training workshops for women on the digital libraries’ staff who were doing tech work like scanning, but who didn’t see themselves as tech workers. Providing the opportunity to learn and ask questions, in a safe environment away from their supervisors and male co-workers gave these women skills and confidence that enhanced their work and the work of their groups.

Another simple way we can make progress within our own organizations is to pay attention to the physical markers of culture.

In a fascinating experimental study, psychologist Sapna Cheryan and colleagues found that women who enter a computer science environment that is decorated with objects stereotypically associated with the field – such as Star Trek posters — are less likely to consider pursuing computer science than women who enter a computer science environment with non-stereotypical objects — such as nature or travel posters. These results held even when the proportion of women in the environment was equal across the two differently decorated settings.

We need to pay attention to the computer labs and maker spaces in our libraries, and we need to pay attention to physical work environments our technical staff work in. By simply ensuring that these environments aren’t plastered with images and objects associated with the stereotypes about “tech guys”, we will remove one of the impediments to women’s sense of cultural fit.

So let me try to sum up here.

I’ve argued that like libraries, technology is never neutral. I’ve offered examples from search engines to photography to Apple’s health tracking app.

I’ve talked about how the pervasive stereotypes about who does tech work limit women’s participation in tech fields, through both supply and demand side mechanisms.

The stereotypes about tech workers also contain assumptions about race and sexuality in the US context, in that the stereotypical tech guy is white (or Asian) and straight. Sadly, there is significantly less research on the effect of those stereotypes on black and Latino men and women and queer people who are also vastly underrepresented in technology work.

Let me offer some parting thoughts on how we might make progress.

To borrow from the conference theme, we need to think and we need to do.

We need to think about the technology we use in our libraries, and ask where and how it falls short of being inclusive. Whose experiences and preferences are privileged in the user design? Whose experiences are marginalized? Then we need to do what we can to push for more inclusive technology experiences. We likewise need to be transparent with our patrons about how the technology works and where and how the biases built into that technology might affect their experience. The folks who do work in critical information literacy provide great models for this.

We should think about how libraries and library staff reinforces stereotypes about technology and technology work. Subtle changes can make a difference. We should drop the term “tech guy” from our vocabulary and we should ditch the Star Trek posters. I’d like to see more libraries provide training and multiple paths for staff to develop tech skills and to become involved in technology projects. We need to pay attention to the demographics and to the culture – and remember that they are mutually reinforcing.

We also need to remember that we aren’t striving for neutral, and we aren’t aiming for perfectly equitable and inclusive technology.

While neutral technologies are not possible – or necessarily desirable – I believe that an awareness of the ways in which technology embodies and perpetuates existing biases and inequalities will help us make changes that move us towards more inclusive and equitable technologies.

Librarianing to Transgress: Closing Keynote ACRL OR/WA 2014

Below is the slightly edited version of the closing keynote talk I gave at ACRL OR/WA 2014.

Great conference, really cool people, gorgeous setting.

_________

The theme for ACRLORWA14 is Professional identity and technology: Looking forward, so I figured I would start with a little about my own identity.

When I think about professional identity, the sociologist in me kicks in and I think of identity as part and parcel of our social location and as very much tied up in the kinds of characteristics that are so central to social interaction in our culture: gender, race, social class, sexuality.

Title slide, closing keynote ACRL OR/WA 2014. Librarianing to Transgress

Title slide, closing keynote ACRL OR/WA 2014. Librarianing to Transgress

So to situate myself in terms of my identity and how that affects my perspectives — personally professionally and politically– I am a queer white woman from a working class background with a Latina wife. I am a feminist who’s politics are liberal, bordering on radical. And of particular relevance to my thoughts on the role of academic libraries and librarians, I believe in the possibility of education as the practice of freedom as articulated by bell hooks in her 1994 classic, Teaching to Transgress; which is the source of both the image here and the title of my talk.

You might also notice that I like to use the word librarian as a verb, so the 6 word story library identity version of Who I am is:

Queer butch feminist, librarianing for justice

When I was first asked to give this talk, I was told that folks might be interested in me expanding on some online comments I had made at the time about the responsibilities of large research libraries (like Stanford, I suppose) to lead technological change that is attainable for all institutions. Since many of the folks here are from smaller libraries, it makes sense that you would be interested in a talk that articulates a shared technological future that would be realistic and sustainable across types and sizes of libraries.

But that isn’t what I’m going to talk about.

I’m going to talk about something different, because between the time I was asked to give this talk and now, several things have happened that have convinced me that the need for a future based on shared technology is far less urgent than the need for a future based on empathy and shared humanity.

By shared humanity, I simply mean a sense of and commitment to the idea that all lives matter, that all people are deserving of justice, equity, & dignity, and that all voices need to be heard in the conversations that shape our future.

I want to use this opportunity to talk about the bigger issues and themes around shared humanity, equity, & social justice that I think should be motivating the work of librarians now more than ever; and I’ll try to include some ideas and examples of ways technology can be leveraged to help us create and share resources and facilitate conversations and connections in our communities in ways that might move us all closer to a sense of shared humanity. As a bonus, I’ll even try to relate what I say to the conference theme of professional identity.

Let me go back to the bell hooks allusion from the title of my talk and give you one of my favorite quotes from Teaching to Transgress: 

“To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences.”

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

 

That notion of dialogue as education and the idea that authentic, messy, hard, critical conversations can break down barriers and create spaces for empathy and opportunities for us to experience our shared humanity is what has motivated most of my career in higher education and in libraries, and it is certainly what is motivating my talk this morning.

The key message I want to share in this talk is that librarians – in part because our identities are tied up in a specific set of professional values – are especially well suited to provide the spaces — physical, virtual, and metaphorical spaces — where our communities and our students are equipped, inspired, and supported in having difficult dialogues about hard social issues.

So, as I said, a number of things have happened between the time I agreed to give this talk and now that make it nearly impossible for me to imagine giving any kind of talk that doesn’t foreground issues of social justice and equity.

Let me be explicit about some of the events I am talking about.

#Ferguson happened.

On August 9, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot & killed by a police officer in Ferguson MO. In the weeks, now months, since Michael Brown’s death, the residents of Ferguson, and others, have engaged in nearly non-stop vigils, protests, and rallies to call attention to police brutality and to racist policing. The excessively militarized response by police to the mostly black crowds gathered in Ferguson, especially when compared to the far less harsh responses to the mostly white college students who rioted and set fire to vehicles during a pumpkin festival in West Virginia last weekend, have fueled a sense of – a recognition of – the deep & persistent racial divide in this country.

Another key event, closer to home – at least professionally – is the $1.25 lawsuit brought against 2 female librarians for speaking out about sexual harassment and for identifying by name a man who’s repeated creepy behavior towards women at library conferences is so well known that women routinely warn one another not to be alone with him. The lawsuit, and the online discussions, most of which are happening under the twitter hashtag #TeamHarpy, have spurred conversations ranging from sexual harassment, to codes of conduct at library conferences, to the problems with “rock-star librarians”.

Another controversy that has raged on social media this summer is #GamerGate – which has more recently moved from blogs and twitter to mainstream newspapers like the New York Times and The Washington Post. Gamergate refers to a controversy in the gaming industry that theoretically started out as calls for ethical standards in game reviews but that soon warped into some of the sickest sexism and misogyny on the internet, including death & rape threats credible enough that several prominent women in the gaming industry have been essentially forced into hiding to protect themselves and their families when their home addresses were revealed online.

These recent events  have me thinking even more than I usually do about issues of race and gender and power, and other forms of oppression and inequality. In terms of this conference and its theme, I am convinced that when librarians think about identity and communities, we need to pay special attention to gender, race, class, sexuality, and other intersecting axes of difference and inequality – and we need to be prepared to equip our students to understand these issues and to navigate difficult conversations about inequality, sexism and gender bias, institutional racism, and privilege.

Which brings me to the other big event of the summer — the firing of Steven Salaita in August from a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

For those not familiar with the #Salaita story, Professor Steven Salaita was offered a tenured faculty position at UIUC, only to be terminated from that position (before he even began) because of the “uncivil” nature of tweets he posted regarding the actions of the Israeli government in Gaza. Salaita’s termination has been met with harsh criticism by those, like me, who believe his firing for “uncivil tweeting” violates the principles and values of free speech and intellectual freedom.

Many scholars have joined boycotts of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, refusing to speak there or otherwise engage with the university until Salaita is reinstated, and many of the departments within the University itself have gone public with votes of “no confidence” in the administration and board of trustees. (Note: Those so inclined can add their name to the list of LIS scholars and practitioners who support Salaita. Kudos to Sarah T. Roberts for her work on this.)

On the other hand, a number of university administrators (e.g. University of California at Berkeley) have used the Salaita situation as an excuse to issue campus-wide calls for “civility”, arguing that free speech must always be balanced with an obligation and expectation of courteousness and respect. As you might expect, critics of these top-down “civility codes” note that calls for some subjective measure of courtesy could easily be used to censor academic freedom and stifle debate on some of the very issues that are most pressing and simultaneously most controversial in our society.

So, in the wake of #Ferguson, and #TeamHarpy and #GamerGate, and the Salaita firing; I found myself incapable of writing a talk about shared technology when all I can think about is the need for librarians to leverage our skills and our knowledge and our values and our identities and yes, our technologies to help our students and our communities develop a sense of shared humanity and empathy, in the fragile hope that we might make some progress.

Why librarians? And how would we do it?

For me the answer to “why librarians?” is because of our values – we are one of the few professions that boldly proclaims diversity, democracy, social responsibility, intellectual freedom and privacy as core values.

(As an aside, I always feel like I need to remind us that our values state that we “strive to reflect our nation’s diversity”, but that at 88% white we either aren’t striving very hard, or maybe we kinda suck at it….but that’s a whole other talk).

I very much believe that libraries ought to be the places on campus where community members, students especially, feel the most free to talk about difficult topics, to express the full range of opinions and yes emotions, on the highly charged topics that are part of their social world. College is a time when young adults are forming and reforming their identities, and they need spaces where it is safe to try on opinions and ideas and feelings about the world and their place in it.

I love the fact that libraries are often that place and I think libraries should be that place.

One advantage many of us have as librarians on a college campus is that we are adults with lots of information and expertise and knowledge to share with students, but we mostly don’t have much authority over them, especially in the sense of grading them. That produces a kind of setting, and the possibility of a kind of relationship where students can be intellectually and emotionally vulnerable in front of us and with us. That is a big part of what I mean when I say we are especially well suited for creating spaces for the kinds of dialogues that bell hooks tells us will help us all cross boundaries and establish some sense of shared humanity.

But for me, it isn’t just about creating those spaces & opportunities for transformative learning experiences, but it is also about providing access to the information and the tools to understand current events and to evaluate the many increasingly polarized views on events like #Ferguson or #GamerGate or the conflict in Gaza.

So let me get to the how by sharing some examples of ways librarians and others have leveraged technology to pull together and share information on current events, thus creating not just the space for dialogue but also the context for learning through dialogue:

My first example comes from the Stanford University Libraries – in December of 2012, right after the Sandy Hook school shooting, our geospatial center staff began collecting data on mass shootings in America. They compiled quantitative and descriptive data about mass shooting incidents since 1966, and produced maps and charts and a dataset intended to aid in our collective understanding of mass shootings in America. All of their work, the dataset, the maps, and the charts are available under a creative commons license for all to use. To me, this is a great example of librarians & libraries creating resources to help our patrons make sense of a complicated, tragic and emotional topic.

Ukraine exhibit, Green Library, Stanford University

Ukraine exhibit, Green Library, Stanford University

A less technical example also from the Stanford University Libraries is our commitment to current events displays – like our recent info display about Ukraine. Our Slavic and East European subject specialist put together a set of resources to provide some context to students about Ukraine – these resources included a map of the territorial evolution of Ukraine, the languages of Ukraine, basic demographic and economic data about Ukraine, and a selection of books for students who wanted to explore the topic in more detail. We have addressed other recent current events via blog posts, twitter, and book displays.

In response to events in Ferguson, librarians and archivists at Washington University in St Louis are building a community sourced digital archive of “photos, videos, stories and other content related to protests, unrest in Ferguson”. They are using existing technologies – Omeka and ArchiveIt – to collect and provide access to relevant content; and social media to raise awareness of their work and to solicit contributions to the archive.

It is interesting to me that as far as I know, they are doing this with existing staff and resources. The Sloan Foundation funded two earlier crowdsourced digital archives, the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane (Katrina) Digital Memory Bank.

There is a great piece by Courtney Rivard, about the different responses to the September 11 archive and the Katrina archive in terms of quantity and type of items deposited. Basically, much more content was deposited in the September 11 archive, and much more content from a more distant perspective. In both the materials collected and in the media September 11 was seen as a national event, and victims were quickly anointed as national heroes; while Hurricane Katrina was seen as a more local event, with victims labeled with far less charitable and not so subtly racist, terms.

It will be very interesting to see how response to the Ferguson archive compares, and whether materials deposited will be primarily local and first hand photos, videos and stories; or whether it will generate a broader national response and therefore a larger and more diverse archive. Even crowdsourced archives are not created in some neutral race-blind vacuum; and today’s social biases impact future scholars and the kinds of archives they will have access to.

Data collection isn’t neutral either.

The FBI collects a whole bunch of data on crime – arrest and crime incident reports from every local police force are consolidated at the national level and arrest data is available by age, race & sex of the arrestee for 28 different categories of offenses – including, of course, shooting a police officer. But there is no national database to tell us how many people are shot by police officers, nothing to tell us the age, race, and sex breakdown of who gets shot by police officers; nor anything else about the circumstances.

There are a several interesting civilian attempts to put together data on police shootings. For example, the blog Deadspin has a project where they are asking volunteers to help them populate a google docs spreadsheet by conducting google searches for police shootings for every day from 2011 to 2013.

D. Brian Burghart, a journalist and journalism instructor at University of Reno, Nevada is using Freedom of Information Act requests and crowdsourcing to create a database of all deaths through police interaction in the United States since Jan. 1, 2000. His website fatalencounters.org has maps, spreadsheets, crowd visualizations and lots of info about how he is collecting and verifying the data.

For me the obvious question is could/should librarians be developing these kinds of resources? I think so.

One final example of the kind of crowd-sourced resources that developed in the aftermath of Ferguson was a set of teaching materials and resources, mostly under the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus. There are actually many such resources, but not surprisingly my favorite was developed by group calling themselves Sociologists for Justice. Their syllabus provides a list of “articles and books that will help interested readers understand the social and historical context surrounding the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and allow readers to see how these events fit within larger patterns of racial profilingsystemic racism, and police brutality.”

I wonder how many faculty on our campuses might have been looking for just such a set of resources as they struggled with how to facilitate productive conversations in their classrooms in the aftermath of Ferguson?

I know of a few librarians who created resource guides about Ferguson – Washington University at St. Louis has one, and the law library at SUNY Buffalo has one. There may well be others that I don’t know of, but what I didn’t see was librarians coming together to crowdsource some great research guides for our communities the way other educators came together quickly to create #FergusonSyllabus.

That would be the kind of collective action I mean when I say I am calling on librarians to use simple, existing technologies to produce, uncover, promote, and inspire deep dives into highly charged topics.

OK – I’m going to wrap it up soon, but some concluding thoughts first.

We are librarianing in messy, polarized and yes, still sexist, racist, homophobic times.

Despite tremendous progress up through the 1990s, the gender revolution has stalled – white women still make .78 to every dollar a man makes, and black and brown women make even less than that. #GamerGate, #TeamHarpy and far too many other examples – including a Pew report released yesterday – remind us that women are harassed and threatened and assaulted, online and off, at horrifying rates. And Michael Brown’s death, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and too many similar stories remind us that we are not living in the race-blind world many thought would come after the great civil rights victories of the 60s and 70s. Racism is real, and there are troubling and persistent racial disparities in wealth, income, education, health, and homelessness; as well as often wide racial differences in perceptions and opinions about important events. For example, 71% of African American residents of Ferguson believe Darren Wilson should be arrested and charged w/ a crime for killing Michael Brown. The same percentage of white residents think Wilson should NOT be arrested and charged.

These kinds of polarizing views and perspectives can make it very hard to talk about race. In fact, one alternate title for this talk was going to be “What’s a nice white girl like me have to say about race & librarianship in the wake of Ferguson?”

But/and we as a society have to talk about race and gender and other highly charged topics if we are going to have any hope for progress. And to my mind, the college students we work with just might be the best hope we have for making progress on issues not just of equity and social justice, but on a host of other big challenges we face – things like climate change, energy, global health, and poverty.

I think our focus as librarians ought to be on how to best equip our communities, especially our students, to understand and make progress on addressing these challenges.

I think one of the most effective and the most uniquely librarian-y ways we can do that is by creating spaces (real and virtual) where the free exchange of ideas and thoughts and feelings, with all of the accompanying “uncivil” messiness and anger and passion, is accepted and encouraged. I think we can and should work together, using sharing technologies, to fill those spaces with data and history and context to inform and enrich those conversations. It is through dialogue in safe spaces that barriers are broken down and empathy begins to develop.

Ultimately, I believe that unless and until we as a society develop a greater sense of our shared humanity and greater empathy for the many different kinds of people we share this planet with; the technologies we create and use, regardless of our best intentions, will reflect and then perpetuate the same racist, classist, sexist inequities that continue to persist in society.

Bottom line: worry about humanity first, technology later; and keep on librarianing.

______
There are many more examples than the ones I mentioned of librarians and others doing exactly the kind of work I am calling for, and I very much hope folks will share those examples in the comments or elsewhere. One excellent example that I am embarrassed to have left out is the weekly #critlib twitter chats. To learn more, check out the #critlib Chats Cheat Sheet.

What #teamharpy is all about to me

Two of my colleagues are being sued for $1.25 million by someone alleging that his reputation has been damaged by their tweets and blog post which refer to his reputation for sexual harassment.

I find the lawsuit chilling, and I have joined many others in signing the petition calling on Joe Murphy to drop the lawsuit. Feel free to add your name.

I also am horrified and heartbroken when I think about the incredible financial and emotional burden of this lawsuit on the defendants, so I have donated to their defense fund. I hope others who are able to do so will donate as well.

To build a robust defense against the lawsuit, the defendants need witnesses willing to publicly testify as either primary witnesses, witnesses of an event, or character witnesses. If you are willing and able to do so, I encourage you to submit your name as a witness and help build a defense against this lawsuit.

So that’s what #teamharpy is about to me — two colleagues who are being sued for speaking their truth and who need our help and support. For me, right now, it is that simple and that urgent.

 



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