Close the library

I trust that my peers directing libraries across the country and across the world are trying to do the right thing in an unprecedented time, with incomplete and ever-changing information and directives from above, and in a situation that we were largely not trained or educated for.  I offer the following notes in support of directors trying to make the right decision. These are rough and incomplete notes, so if this doesn’t address something you think is important, please feel free to address it yourself.

In the early morning hours of Friday, March 13, I made the decision to close the libraries, and suspend all in-person services, including any service that could not be done remotely. In retrospect, I wish I had made that decision earlier, and avoided putting my staff through the unthinkable anxiety of trying to plan for limited services and inequitable demands. I ultimately got support from above to close totally, and I was prepared to keep arguing until I got that support, and/or to close the libraries without that support and deal with the personal/professional fallout later. I am grateful that I did not have to do that, and I realize there’s all kinds of privilege at work in the willingness to do so.

Later, we can all share details of how we operationalized the planning and preparation for all this, but suffice it to say that the MIT Libraries’ staff were nothing short of amazing. For the last week and a half, they took care of each other and took care of business and operational planning with creativity, compassion, and urgency. Knowing they were doing all the things freed me up to work at the MIT-level.
Some local context that might be helpful is that the libraries are not considered Emergency Essential services at MIT, so for example, during snow closures we shut down. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the late Anne Wolpert, my predecessor, for making that so. With that context, I was able to make the argument that “None of us want to be in the position of insisting that staff who are not considered essential come to work anyway. If they are not in roles considered essential, they did not sign up for this.”
Some libraries are considered Essential services, but/and I hope leaders will see that what is Essential in some kinds of emergencies, may not be essential in a global pandemic where our best chances as a global community of mitigating the impact is to immediately practice social distancing.
There are many folks who laudably want to keep the libraries open for equity reasons to support those students who have no access to computers, wifi, or textbooks except for at their libraries. I get that, but making some students use shared spaces and resources while other students can safely participate in remote classes from well-equipped and safe homes is not equitable either. For schools that can, I hope they are getting laptops and wifi hotspots in the hands of every student who needs them, whether they are staying on campus or going elsewhere. For students who simply don’t have the resources to participate in remote education, give them all the exceptions. I encourage library directors to insist that our institutions not use the presence of libraries as a reason to hold all students accountable to the same standard of performance and participation. The inequities in higher education and in society will be on full display for the duration of this thing, and my personal and professional opinion (as a library director and a sociologist) is that using libraries to mask those inequities is bad for individuals, institutions, and society. Someone will write a paper on that someday, with references; but for now I encourage colleagues to advocate for process and policy solutions, not “libraries as bandaids” solutions.
Also, pay everyone anyway. And tell everyone that their job on Monday is to take care of themselves and their loved ones. This is a time for creative compassion.

Libraries in a computational age

(After a year long hiatus from external speaking engagements, I accepted an invitation to speak in Madrid at an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Madrono Consorcio.  Below is the text of my talk.)

It is a privilege to be able to speak with you and to share with you my thoughts on the future of libraries, and some of what we are doing at MIT to reimagine what a research library can and should be and do in a computational age.

I am particularly happy to be talking to you on the 20th anniversary of this consortium, which is committed to the same kind of sharing and collaboration across libraries and universities that we will need to do even more of now and into the future.

I think that the best ways research libraries can meet the challenges of the future, and support our universities in educating students and producing research that will allow us to face the future and solve some of the big global problems that are looming is by working together and sharing our experiences.

So let me follow my own advice and share my experience at MIT and tell you a bit about our context.

MIT is probably best known as one of the world’s leading technology and engineering schools. We are ranked #1 in the world, but paradoxically only #3 in the USMIT has just over 1000 tenure-track faculty, nearly 5000 undergrads (almost ½ women), and 7000 graduate students. Faculty and students are spread out over 5 schools – Architecture and Planning; Engineering; Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences; Management; and Science.

Probably more important than the facts and numbers, MIT is known culturally for at least 3 things: a hands-on approach to learning, openness, and a relentless pursuit of innovation.

The hands-on approach (learning by doing) is reflected in the MIT motto – mens et manus; mind and hand. There is a very real emphasis at MIT on learning by doing – reflected both in the project-based teaching approach across the curriculum and by fact that 90% of MIT undergrads participate in a research project before they graduate.

Openness is a also a very important part of our culture and widely-shared value at MIT. We are one of the few private universities in the US with an open campus, including libraries that are open to all visitors. We are also committed to openly sharing our educational and research materials with the world.

MIT created Open Courseware in 2000, “a simple but bold idea that MIT should publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.” To date Open Courseware has over 2 million visitors/month, and hosts 2400 courses.

In 2009, MIT passed one of the first campus-wide open access policies in the US, passed by a unanimous vote of the faculty. MIT turned to the libraries to implement the policy, and because of a commitment to provide adequate staffing and resources to collecting faculty research, we now share 45% of MIT faculty journal articles written since 2009 openly with the world through our OA repository.

The 3rd important component of MIT culture is that it is a place obsessed with innovation; across the curriculum. MIT is where gravitation waves were detected, and where Guitar Hero was invented.

MIT’s most recent innovation was to reinvent itself and how we think about computing across the curriculum and in every discipline. This year, MIT launched a new college of computing – a $1 billion effort that will eventually add 50 new faculty to MIT. The goal of the new college is to address the global opportunities and challenges presented by the prevalence of computing and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) by infusing computational thinking throughout every department and discipline AND to ensure computer science, and especially machine learning and AI are informed by work in other disciplines – especially social sciences and humanities.

I give you all this background about MIT because to my mind MIT is a perfect place to develop a bold and ambitious vision for the future of research libraries. I came to MIT in 2015, after many years working at the Stanford libraries, and I could see right away that this was a place that was ready to think about libraries as more than books and buildings.

We do have books and buildings of course. We operate 5 libraries on campus, a reading room for distinctive collections, and a storage annex. We have a collection of 2.3 million print items. We get over ½ million visitors to the library spaces/year (that figure is growing slightly in recent years. 87,000 of our 2.3 million physical items were checked out last year, and like most academic libraries, the circulating of print is declining.

Use of our vast digital collections is significantly higher and growing. There were over 80 million searches on our online databases last year, and 2.3 million downloads of the open access articles we disseminate via DSpace@MIT.

While I know that the size of our library at MIT may seem large to many of you, compared to the US research universities that are widely considered our peers (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford), MIT has a small library – at least by the traditional measures of size of print collection, or budget, or staff. Harvard has a physical collection 10 times ours (22 million) and a staff of 700, compared to our 160. Yale, Princeton, and Stanford all have collections over 10 million and staffs of over 300. (Note: I am well aware that size is relative, and that by almost any measure, MIT and the MIT libraries are extremely well resourced. I add the HYPS comparison because I find many folks assume MIT Libraries are roughly the same size as those peers.)

We are small(ish) but mighty, and we are mighty in ways that are relevant to current and future research and that align with MIT’s core missions: open scholarship, and computational and algorithmic access to collections.

Our vision is to be an open, interactive and computational library.

Let me back up a bit now, and tell you how we arrived at that vision, and hopefully convince you that a focus on openness, interaction, and machine access to collections is a good direction for the future of research libraries more generally.

Shortly after I arrived at MIT, Provost asked me to lead convo across campus about what the future of libraries should be. So I convinced him to create a task force on the Future of Libraries. I volunteered to co-chair the task force, and we ended up with 30 members; mostly faculty from all across MIT – engineers, computer scientists, business school faculty, historians, biologists, etc. Importantly, the task force also included staff from libraries, the MIT Press and central information technology.

Membership ranged from folks who relied heavily on library collections and librarians in their teaching and research, to faculty who claimed at the start that they “never used the library”.

I asked this group to think about the future of libraries as a kind of research question. I wasn’t interested in how well the current library was serving their needs, and how we might improve or expand that a little bit. I was asking them to think critically about what a research library can and should be in a digital age, and now a computational or algorithmic age.

The report from the group is online, but want to share highlights here.

The first conclusion was that although the initial digital turn in libraries was not yet complete, we were already on the cusp of a second, potentially  more profound one. The first, original digital shift in libraries was print to digital plus print, and was brought about by the internet, google, and e-books/journals.

In that first digital turn, the library went from being a place where individuals came to find physical books and journal articles (and manuscripts, and images, and lots of other stuff) so that they could read those books and articles themselves, to libraries being a service that individuals use to gain online access to journal articles, and e-books, and digital images and manuscripts and more so that they can read and use those things on their own digital devices.

Slide with text “print … to digital” and image of person taking book off full bookshelves, and image of a tablet device showing a digital bookshelf

Although this was a HUGE shift, it did not open up access to scholarly content the way many of us hoped it would. In large part because of the market power of many large commercial publishers, the advent of online journals did not democratize access to knowledge, and the potential for the rise of the internet and of online information and scholarship to create information equality has been stunted. None the less, the first digital turn in libraries and scholarly communication did make research and reading arguably more efficient for those who had access.

In describing the next evolution of libraries, the MIT future of libraries task force emphasized not only the technological shift, but also the importance of combining this shift with a renewed commitment to open science and open scholarship. What is the next shift? It is an evolution of libraries from service to platform, and is from not just digital and physical; but also to computational.

The Future of Libraries task force described this by calling for the libraries to operate as an open global platform. A platform is something scholars and patrons build on, and it is a way of thinking about libraries as not just physical and digital repositories of content; but as vehicles for interacting with content and tools and expertise to both consume information and to create new knowledge in many forms – text, images, data, maps, multi-media, interactive and dynamic. And for a library as platform to be truly effective for current and future patrons, it must be committed to openness and to serving a global community.

“The MIT Libraries must operate as an open, trusted, durable, interdisciplinary, interoperable content platform that provides a foundation for the entire life cycle of information for collaborative global research and education.”

Future of Libraries TF, 2016


One of the key features of the library of the future – the library in a computational age — is that it should be a library accessible by machines and algorithms, not just by people. In a computational age, we have to realize that humans are not our only patrons. In fact, I have argued before that we would be wise to start thinking now about machines and algorithms as a new kind of patron  — a patron that doesn’t replace human patrons, but has some different needs and might require a different set of skills and a different way of thinking about how our resources could be used.

Drawing of a robot, holding a book, with thought bubble of “I love reading”


When I think of AI and machine learning in the context of libraries, I think of computer programs and algorithms that can extract and derive meaning and patterns from data, make predictions and inferences about and with new data, and in doing so, solve problems at scales not possible by humans only.

I said earlier that the MIT Libraries vision is to be an open, interactive and computational library. Let me explain those a bit:

  1. Open is about more than open access – it is about being a library that is open and inclusive of a range of ideas, and types of knowledge.
  2. Interactive means that we collaborate with scholars as partners, because in a computational world our understanding of how information is organized, how data is managed, and where and how bias creeps in becomes even more important than ever
  3. Computational is about ensuring our collections are accessible in formats optimized for text mining and other computer analyses; and that patrons can design and code their own ways to access and analyze our collections.

The computational part of this vision is what I think is really interesting, and where libraries can play a unique and important role in a this age of AI. There are several ways to think about the roles of research libraries in a computational age:

We all know that there are problems with bias in algorithms, and especially in terms of the data used to train algorithms. When the data used in computational research is not diverse, not inclusive, and/or is described in ways that reflect societal prejudices and inequalities then those problems and biases will be reflected and amplified in the findings, conclusions and applications of that research. Librarians know better than most people how information is collected, assembled and organized; so we know where things can go wrong. Library folks who understand data and metadata, can help ensure scholars are aware of the shortcomings of the data they use, and can help mitigate those impacts.

We can also use machine learning in our own work. One of the most interesting applications of machine learning is in assigning subjects to books. MIT Press is using a machine learning learning tool called Unearth to ‘read’ all of the books it publishes and extract subjects that human readers might miss.

We can also do what libraries have always done and be a centralized, accessible, and inclusive resource for our communities. We can provide centralized access to computational tools and resources as a way to equalize access to machine learning across our campuses. Some libraries might do this by providing AI labs in the library, with access to hardware, software and training tools to get students starting in using machine learning and AI. We might also maintain online libraries of training data and basic algorithms that students can use and modify as they learn.

But IMO, the most important thing that libraries can do is work to ensure that the knowledge and research products we already collect, curate, and disseminate are openly available and that the scholarly record is as diverse and as inclusive as possible. Because it is the combination of truly open access to lots and lots of content – text, data, code, images – analyzed with powerful computational tools and methods where really interesting things can happen. New findings and understandings and new discoveries in sciences and humanities have thus far mostly occurred when we build on prior knowledge, and make new and creative connections between facts, data, knowledge and insights. Computational access to open collections of knowledge means that can happen at a speed and a scale that most of us can’t even really imagine. Certainly, the choice of topics and problems, the interpretation and application of results requires human imagination – but machine learning tools can speed up the process and, when combined with open access, equalize the ability of people to make use of the knowledge we have already accumulated.

The connection between open science and computational analysis is why this topic is so exciting and important to me. One of the recommendations of the MIT task force on the future of libraries, was that MIT convene another task force – this one on open access and open science. I am co-chairing that task force now and we released draft recommendations in March 2019, and expect to release final recommendations and a report this fall.

As our task force has engaged faculty and students across MIT in the cause of open science, we have emphasized that open access to research is good for research and is critical to enhancing our ability to collectively solve big global challenges. That is a compelling and true argument, but the argument that seems to resonate most strongly at MIT is when we explain to scholars that locking their work behind publisher paywalls means that their research will likely be left out of the scholarly conversation and the progress of science; because those conversations and that progress is increasingly computational. Researchers who are looking for data to use for machine learning and computational analysis are looking for data that is easily and openly available. Publishers want to sell not just reading access but also computational access to scholarly content; but I believe the integrity of science depends on educational institutions maintaining control over their own scholarly output – disseminating and preserving it in institutionally owned and operated repositories.

Imagine the progress we could make as a society if the output of researchers was openly and computationally available in interoperable repository platforms operated by and for the academy? (Here is a good place to put in a hearty personal endorsement of the Invest in Open Infrastructure initiative.)

It is possible that the most important thing libraries can do in a computational age is to continue to fight for open science and open scholarship – based on academic values and served via academy-owned infrastructure.

The combination of open + computational + academy-owned is the future that I think libraries are uniquely well suited to pursue, and that I think is what our universities and our communities need us to pursue.


Dear ____ ,

Thank you for the kind invitation to speak at ________, but I am afraid I will have to decline.

I am taking a hiatus from all external commitments, including speaking engagements, for at least a year, so that I can concentrate more fully on important work here at MIT.  Given the topic, I think _______ or _______ (names of relevant folx who don’t usually get these invites, but should) might be excellent choices for a keynote at your event.

Best of luck,



Copy, paste, send.

Open as in dangerous

Below is the modified text of my keynote talk at the 2018 Creative Commons Global Summit. Video also available.

Sticking with the goal of talking about things I know, I figured I might start by talking a bit about why open access is important to me, a bit about the history and more importantly the future of OA at MIT, and then spend some time unpacking this “open as in dangerous” title I chose for my talk.

Working towards more open access to the scholarly record is a pretty core part of my professional motivation and identity. I took my current job because of my desire to work on open access issues, and in a rare (and admittedly crude) attempt at artistic creativity, I dyed only one egg this easter.


Open access easter egg

In the early days of the open access movement in libraryland, I think many folx came to open access via the scholarly communications financial crisis – the ballooning costs of journal subscriptions from commercial publishers who rake in 40% profit margins has crippled library budgets; and that has prompted many library administrators to embrace open access as a potential path out of this crisis in scholarly communications (#NotAllScholCommies).

I have to be honest that has not been my primary motivation. I have been privileged to work at Stanford Libraries and MIT Libraries – two elite and relatively well-funded institutions; so I have had the luxury of embracing OA from an admittedly moral and idealistic perspective, and a better science perspective. Echoing what Katherine Maher and others said yesterday, I’m also trying to be very conscious about the fact that working on open is a passion and an avocation for me.  It is not an economic imperative as it is for many individuals and institutions, and it is not a matter of survival as it is for many in severely under resourced parts of the world.

I pursue open access for the simple reason that I am convinced that when more people around the globe have free and open access to research and to the scholarly record, we do better science, and the world is a better place. It is a better place because individuals who have access to knowledge can live more informed and empowered lives; and it is a better place because societies and communities in which more people have access to research will be better and quicker at solving big challenges – challenges like ensuring everyone has access to clean water, adequate food, decent health care, and quality education. Challenges like climate change, clean energy, ethical application of algorithms and more.

When Jennie Rose Halperin interviewed me a few days ago for the Creative Commons blog, she asked a bunch of great questions about the future of the open movement, and part of what I said was

There are compelling stories to be told about the harms of information scarcity and knowledge monopolies, and there are equally compelling stories about ways in which open access to knowledge and culture helps us solve big (and small) challenges across the globe.


At MIT we collect those stories from people who use our open access collection.

We have plenty of stories from students who don’t have access to paywalled research, but who find what they need in MIT’s open access collection. We also get comments from just regular people, citizen scientists, who want to read and learn about something in our collections.

And we get comments like this one from a professor in Mexico who would otherwise have to pay out-of-pocket to access the literature he needs to enable him to educate the next generation of engineers in Mexico:

My job is to teach physics and subjects related to electrical engineering in the University of Morelos. I am so grateful you gave me the opportunity to learn more about this subject. Thank you very much, because of this I can provide food and lodge to my wife and to my sons.

And stories like this from a program officer at the Asia Foundation who was able to use an article in our open access collection to support work on water governance in the Ganges river basin.

We’re currently working … to improve transboundary water governance over the next two years. This piece is quite critical in proving the connection between civil society intervention and better water governance. TAF does not have institutional access to this particular journal, and finding it openly available is immensely helpful.

I want to spend a few minutes talking about MIT and what we have done and are hoping to do to increase open access to research and educational materials.

This is a slide I call “Chris Bourg’s totally incomplete, highly biased timeline of the Highlights of OA Leadership at MIT.” All of these happened before I got there, so this is not bragging, not even #HumbleBrag.


I’m just going to highlight a few items on this timeline, mainly as a way to highlight the work and vision of some remarkable women who I think should get more recognition and visibility.

I have to start with the Ann Wolpert article. Ann was my predecessor as Director of Libraries at MIT and just 8 months before she passed away, she published an article in New England Journal of Medicine titled “For the sake of inquiry and knowledge: The inevitability of open access”.

I don’t know which metaphor is most appropriate, but this seemed like a shot across the bow of the commercial publishers, and a maybe gauntlet thrown down for fellow library directors. It certainly was a mic drop. Especially this last line:

 “There is no doubt that the public interests vested in funding agencies, universities, libraries, and authors, together with the power and reach of the Internet, have created a compelling and necessary momentum for open access. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be inexpensive, but it is only a matter of time.”

In 2009, MIT passed a Faculty OA Policy, by unanimous vote of the faculty,

“Each Faculty member grants to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nonexclusive permission to make available his or her scholarly articles and to exercise the copyright in those articles for the purpose of open dissemination.”

They turned to the library to implement the policy.  And the library was ready because …

In 2002, DSpace was released. DSpace is an open source repository software package currently used by over 1000 org’s worldwide for creating open access repositories for scholarly and/or published digital content. This project was led by another incredible woman and leader in libraries and OA, MacKenzie Smith, then the Associate Director for Technology at the MIT Libraries, now University Librarian and Vice Provost of Digital Scholarship at UC Davis

MIT gets a little credit for Creative Commons, since MIT Professor Hal Abelson was one of founding directors.

In 2000 OpenCourseWare launched, with the simple but bold idea that MIT should publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.

In 1994, Muriel Cooper introduced the idea of  Information Landscapes. If you don’t know who Muriel Cooper is, then she is probably one of the most amazing women you have never heard of. Cooper was a pioneering designer (she created the iconic MIT Press colophon) and a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab.

In one of the final talks before her death, at a TED 5 conference, she presented a demo of a dynamic, interactive, computer-based information landscape.

“In an information landscape, the user appears to fly effortlessly through the infinite zoom of a textual space, reading along the way, creating connections and making meaning.”

The information in Cooper’s information landscape was imagined to be open and accessible.

In the 1980’s, some MIT folks, notably Richard Stallman, were involved in some free software stuff: GNU, Free Software Foundation, and MIT License.

You can probably go back further to find MIT folks talking about access to knowledge, but I’ll stop with this seminal 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush, in which he challenged his fellow scientists and engineers to turn their postwar attention to the task of “making more accessible [the] bewildering store of knowledge.”

Fast forward a few years, and the amazing staff at the MIT Libraries recently developed and promoted an opt-in license that allows any MIT author to take advantage of the same OA policy and license available to faculty.

We have over 27,000 journal articles in our OA collection – representing nearly 50% of the articles written by MIT faculty published since the OA policy was enacted. And, any day now, we will pass 10 million downloads of those articles.

And while we are justifiably proud of most of our history with respect to open and our role in open movements, we think we can do more, and we want to do better.

And here I feel a tremendous and sobering responsibility to acknowledge MIT’s involvement in the events around Aaron Swartz’s arrest and prosecution, and his tragic suicide. While the narrative of MIT’s involvement, both the reality and the misperceptions, is complicated, I think it is safe to say this is a part of MIT’s history that we are not proud of, and our failure of leadership motivates us to do better now. To quote the MIT Report (colloquially known at MIT as the Abelson Report):

“In closing, our review can suggest this lesson: MIT is respected for world-class work in information technology, for promoting open access to online information, and for dealing wisely with the risks of computer abuse. The world looks to MIT to be at the forefront of these areas. Looking back on the Aaron Swartz case, the world didn’t see leadership. As one person involved in the decisions put it: “MIT didn’t do anything wrong; but we didn’t do ourselves proud.”

So we are asking ourselves, what else can MIT do to advance open access to research and teaching materials?

And it started with an Institute-wide task force on the future of research libraries, and the report issued by that task force in 2016.

The report on the future of research libraries described a vision for research libraries firmly rooted in the library’s role in disseminating scholarly research to a global community of potential readers.

There are so many good pull quotes in that report. This one is the most direct and succinct:

“The Task Force asserts that the MIT Libraries should be leaders in … advancing more radically open systems for the discovery, use, and stewardship of information and knowledge.”

Here’s another one I like:

“For the MIT Libraries, the better world we seek is one in which there is abundant, equitable, meaningful access to knowledge and to the products of the full life cycle of research. Enduring global access to knowledge requires sustainable models for ensuring that past and present knowledge is available long into the future.”

One of the specific recommendations of the future of libraries task force was that MIT convene another task force – this one with a dedicated focus on making recommendations about how to further the MIT mission of disseminating research and teaching. I am co-chairing the MIT Open Access TF with Hal Abelson.  We are looking at many possibilities, and we are not yet ready to make even preliminary recommendations, but some themes are emerging

One theme is that open access to published journal articles is great, but the landscape is so much bigger and the potential impact is greater when we look at an expansive set of knowledge and scholarship that includes books, data, computer code, educational materials, lab notebooks, research protocols, and maybe even failed research.

We are also wrestling with how to create stronger incentives for openness for authors, publishers, funders and institutions; and we recognize that real progress on openness will require the right networked infrastructure, which can only, or should only, be built through global collaborations.

Those are some of the same themes that emerged at a recent summit we held at MIT devoted to identifying grand challenges in scholarly communication. The domain experts who participated in the summit spent significant time talking about the importance of opening up and preserving an expanded version of the scholarly record – one that includes many formats and forms of knowledge. We also talked about the challenges of incentives, infrastructure and collaboration.

And keynote speaker Anasuya Sengupta, co-director of, challenged us to use the open scholarship movement to decolonize knowledge and the scholarly record. A video of her keynote, as well as keynotes by Kate Zwaard of the Library of Congress, and Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, are available on the Grand Challenges website.

In all of these efforts to push the boundaries of open scholarship, we have tried to be cognizant of the tensions, trade-offs, and potential dangers of open.

And that brings me to the title of this talk: Open as in dangerous.

Several months ago, I had the privilege of joining Lawrence Lessig, Jonathon Zittrain, Joi Ito, Ethan Zuckerman, Amy Brand, and several other scholars and creators at an informal dinner discussion about what’s next for Creative Commons.

It was a wide-ranging, heady, intense, and, if I’m honest, rather sobering conversation. Folks around the table, prodded by Lessig and Zittrain, talked not just about Creative Commons, but broadly about their hopes for an open digital commons; and they talked about their concerns for individual privacy and autonomy in our increasingly digitally mediated and commercially surveilled society.  We talked about many things, but what really stuck with me was how much of the conversation was about the increasing tension between the ethos of open, and the value of privacy.

On the one hand, these Creative Commons advocates, and open culture luminaries, expressed a continued desire for a world where scholars, artists, musicians, and creators of all kinds openly share their work and ideas with one another. These were folks who have, to some degree, dedicated their lives and their careers to the idea that culture and knowledge will thrive and grow via openness and through the participation and inclusion of people all across the globe. So of course they talked about how to make more things more open.

But/And, they also talked about their desire for privacy and control over their own information, from the data our Fitbits track to the digital trails we leave, knowingly and unknowingly, on social media sites, through online shopping, through our knowing and unknowing use of internet of things devices, and so on.

And this was before we knew what Cambridge Analytica and Facebook had done with all our data and our friend’s data.

So when Ryan asked me if I wanted to speak at the Creative Commons Summit, I knew I wanted to talk about Open as in dangerous.

And I wanted to talk about open not just as a feature of the internet and scholarship, but also at a personal level.

At a personal level, open as in dangerous is about loss of privacy, and loss of agency.  And for marginalized people especially — a very real danger of being open on today’s internet is the danger of being targeted for abuse, and harassment, for rape and/or death threats, and the danger of being doxxed.

It turns out that social media is not all rainbow poop emojis and cute puppies.

And yes, individuals can and do make choices and have tools for dealing with trolls and maintaining privacy and safety — but the very fact that these dangers  are unevenly distributed, and they are unevenly distributed in patterns that match existing systems of oppression means that the open commons we all dream of and labor to create and support is riddled with inequality and oppression. And that sucks.

Others have documented the dangers of shared and open data — dangers experienced disproportionately by those already most marginalized and disempowered.

You surely expected a librarian to give you a reading list, right? These are all must read books about the dangers of big data and algorithms.

In one way or another, each of these books reminds us that some of the same tools and infrastructures that maximize sharing and open participation, especially where data is concerned, also maximize our exposure to collective and targeted danger.

Another danger of open is that it can result in loss of context – in her talk at our grand challenges summit, Anasuya talked about knowledge and ways of knowing as existing on a continuum from embodied (or tacit) knowledge to disembodied (or formal) knowledge. As embodied knowledge becomes disembodied – as it is written and captured and extracted and shared – local, personal, and tacit context is often lost.

This is too often amplified when knowledge and other forms of expression are made open. This is part of the danger Tara Robertson, now at Mozilla, warned libraryland about when she raised the red flag on Reveal Digital’s plan to digitize and make open the archives of On our Backs.

On Our Backs was the first women-run erotica magazine and the first magazine to feature lesbian erotica for a lesbian audience in the United States. The very real issues of whether the women whose images appeared in On our Backs gave anything like informed consent to have their images freely available on the web some 30+ years later is also about decontextualizing these images and the choices these women made. As one of the women told Robertson “I meant this work to be for my community and now I am being objectified in a way that I have no control over. People can cut up my body and make it a collage.”

Another danger of open scholarship is that it can (and will if we don’t actively intervene) re-inscribe global information inequity. At the most basic level, we have to think carefully about the implications of open access being primarily a movement for faculty at elite institutions in the global north. As scholarship from the global north becomes more open and more ubiquitously available, there is a real danger that current inequities in prestige, impact, and citation patterns will be exacerbated and open access will serve to re-colonize scholarship.

Let me wrap this up on a more hopeful note though, or at least a more defiant one.

First, I’ll turn to Rebecca Solnit, who reminds us in Men Explain Lolita to Me, that art and culture and books are inherently dangerous, but in a good and radical way.

 “Photographs and essays and novels (and I’ll add scholarship and science) and the rest can change your life, they are dangerous. Art shapes the world … if there is no one book that saved me, it’s because hundreds of thousands did.”

Second, I turn again to my friend and colleague Anasuya Sengupta. In her keynote at our grand challenges summit, she offered up a post colonial manifesto for digital knowledge:

“At the heart of a post colonial manifesto for digital knowledge is the act of making explicit multiple forms of embodied knowledge and the authorities that either legitimize or delegitimize them. It is also the act of making explicit the ways in which power and privilege are embedded in our ways of knowing.”

I hear this as a call for openness in the content and in the process and in the messy inequities of it all.

Creative Commons and the OA movement have been closely intertwined from their inception — In 2002, Creative Commons launched the first set of Creative Commons licenses, and in that same year the Budapest Open Access Declaration declared that “An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good.”

Perhaps a coincidence, but that’s the same year I started my career in libraries.

Sixteen years later, we have to acknowledge that realizing the potential of that unprecedented public good is a perpetually unfinished project.

And there is a way in which that is a good thing. Because we have the chance, the responsibility, to keep getting it better – by baking in respect for privacy, agency, and informed choice; and by making explicit not just multiple forms of knowledge and culture, but multiple ways of making and legitimizing knowledge and culture. And especially by actively, intentionally, and collaboratively centering the voices and the work of those who have been and are marginalized.


some thoughts on preprints for NAS Journals Summit

I was invited to be a discussion leader for a panel on Preprints: Challenges and Opportunities at the National Academy of Sciences Journals Summit, but a nor’eastern prevented me from attending. I am grateful to Diane Sullenberger, Executive Editor of PNAS for reading my remarks. Discussion leaders were asked to talk about preprints from their own perspectives, and to offer questions/thoughts for discussion. These are my remarks:

I wish I could use this weather situation as a way to claim preprints would prevent these sorts of storms, but the best I can assert is that a healthy, abundant, open, preprint culture might, and in some cases does, provide access to the research and information and data needed to make better predictions of extreme weather events like the nor’easter that is stranding me in Cambridge this week.

With apologies to whoever is reading this and has to awkwardly assume my identity for 5 minutes, my name is Chris Bourg and I’m the director of libraries at MIT. I’m also a sociologist, a member of the SocArXiv Steering Committee, and co-chair of the MIT Ad Hoc Task Force on Open Access to MIT’s Research launched in July 2017.

My thoughts on pre-prints reflect all of those perspectives.

As a librarian, especially at one of an increasing number of universities with a strong Open Access policy and culture, pre-prints provide an important and powerful mechanism by which we facilitate the collection, dissemination, and preservation of our scholars’ intellectual output and our institution’s history and legacy. Preprints are part of the scholarly record and represent an important stage in an increasingly integrated research lifecycle.

As a sociologist and member of the SocArXiv steering committee, I would like to share my own experience posting my 2003 Stanford sociology dissertation on SocArXiv. I never officially published anything from my dissertation on the impacts of gender mistakes (now known as mis-gendering) on interpersonal interaction. So in the first dozen years since I wrote it, it was read by few, and cited only once. In the 18 months since I posted it on SocArXiv it has been downloaded well over 5000 times. Having a disciplinary preprint repository like SocArXiv allowed my dissertation to reach her readers, in a way that the Stanford Libraries and ProQuest’s paywalled dissertation collection simply didn’t.

The MIT perspective is also one that values preprints and preprint culture. Specifically, the current Open Access Task Force has as its charge to “lead an Institute-wide discussion of ways in which current MIT open access policies and practices might be updated or revised to further the Institute’s mission of disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible.” While the Task Force is still in the early stages of developing our recommendations, and vetting them with the full MIT community, many of our discussions focus on the role of preprints. For the MIT faculty on the task force, they see preprints as a way to quickly and openly disseminate research, and they see that as consistent with MIT’s mission and with the goals of scholarly research.

Finally, as MIT has ramped up its commitment to advancing machine learning and artificial intelligence, some of our faculty are applying machine learning algorithms to the journal literature. For example, MIT Professor Elsa Olivetti and her colleagues have developed a machine learning system that analyzes research articles and extracts the materials recipes contained in those articles. In a world where research articles are used as data to be interrogated and analyzed, ensuring that preprints are available in open repositories becomes more important than getting research published and wrapped in the containers of traditional journals. One could argue that machine readers care more about content than about impact factor, or copyediting, or version of record, or many of the other advantages we tend to associate with final published articles.

The question I would offer for discussion is the question of the relative value and efficacy of preprints versus final published journal articles in an era of machine learning.

Below are answers I sent in response to anticipated questions:

  1. Are you saying that preprints should replace/kill journals?

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? No, I don’t think preprints should kill journals, but I do think they should make them stronger. I think journals can add significant value to preprints, especially in putting sets of research articles and ideas into conversation with one another. I also think that journals reach certain (human) readers well, and will perform that function for some time. Good journals add value to the content in preprints – peer review, editorial input, reach to targeted audiences, etc.  Bad journal don’t add value to preprints, so I’m not sure it would be such a bad thing if a strong preprint culture leads to the demise of journals that aren’t adding value.

    1. What is the likelihood that MIT policies may evolve to not support journal publication?

None of the conversations I’ve been in with the MIT OA Task Force have included anything about recommending a move away from journals. Speaking personally, not for MIT, if we (we = academia) were to start a scholarly communications system from scratch, based on first principles, I’m not sure we would create journals – I’m even less certain that we would create journals published by commercial for-profit publishers. But as a sociologist, I’m well aware that the social structures – which include for-profit and not-for-profit journals — that have grown up over centuries to support scholarly communication are slow to change. The success of MIT Press in offering open options for books and journals has me optimistic about the role of university presses and other non-profit publishers in maintaining and advancing a healthy journal culture that complements a healthy preprint culture.


For the love of baby unicorns: My Code4Lib 2018 Keynote

I was honored to give a keynote at the 2018 Code4Lib conference on February 14. The livestream is already available (keynote starts at 1:26, and the conference hashtag was hopping.

First, a confession, I am not a big fan of keynotes in general — the whole idea that one person would stand in front of the group and spew some special wisdom and/or inspiration to the crowd is a little too sage on the stage for me. And I feel especially self-conscious in front of this crowd, since I have never coded for libraries. In fact, the last time I wrote anything resembling code was 15 years ago and it was SPSS code to run statistical analyses on my dissertation data. I’ve never coded for libraries, and I’m pretty sure my current career trajectory means I never will … and we can probably all be grateful for that.

So, I’m not a big fan of the whole keynote thing and I have virtually no expertise or experience in the kind of work most of you do. But, the fact that you all pick your keynote speakers via community voting tells me that some critical mass of code4libbers must want to hear something from me. Plus, I figure we have to support democracy wherever we find it these days.

But I’ve struggled a bit about what I could talk about it — my approach to keynotes is to try to figure what I might be able to bring to the specific audience that they might not get from each other or from some other speaker they might have selected.

But ever since I got to MIT, that means folks expect me to explain gravitational waves or quantum physics of artificial intelligence. And I’m willing to fake it in a room full of my fellow directors, but I won’t try that here.

Or maybe you want to hear me tell you about how MIT Libraries is going to build an “open global platform” of abundant, equitable, interactive access to information — but to be honest, I can only talk about it as a metaphor.

Its my colleagues Heather Yager, Helen Bailey, Matt Bernhardt, Osman Din, Mike Graves, Jeremy Prevost, Richard Rodgers, Andromeda Yelton and Solh Zendeh are actually going to do the building and can talk about it. Heather is MIT’s AD for Digital Library Services, and the rest of those awesome folks are our Digital Library Engineering Team — oh and by the way, we are hiring a Department Head for that team, and I’m especially keen on increasing the number of people of color and white women in library tech, so if you or someone you know might be interested, let me know.

Anyway, I do have some things to say, because what I came up with is that I do bring to librarianship a sociological lens and a feminist perspective, and I have done a few talks on bias in technology and lack of diversity and equity in libraries.  And it is tempting to give a ranty ALL CAPS keynote about all the problems of lack of diversity in tech and lack of progress on creating welcoming and inclusive cultures, but I’ve done that; and plenty of other people have as well.

Plus, I just came from the ALA midwinter conference, and my friend Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Junot Diaz, who was one of the headline speakers, did the ranty thing way better than I could.

And girl howdy, he did not hold back. For example – he implored us to recognize that “A profession that is 88% white means 5000% agony for people of color, no matter how liberal and enlightened you think you are.” He also said we need to have “a fucking reckoning” about the pain we cause, and that we need to do some hard work on decolonizing our organizations and our professions. And y’all, he ain’t wrong, and what goes for libraries, goes for library tech too. But I figure y’all already know that, or if you don’t then another liberal white lady, even an obviously queer one like me, preaching repentance one more time is not going to make much difference.

I feel like we have been talking for a very long time about lack of diversity in tech, and in library tech, and we’ve critiqued the culture and we’ve adopted codes of conduct (yay), and we do better at getting diversity in our speaker line-ups …  progress has been made, but not nearly enough; not on gender, not on race, not on creating truly inclusive cultures in library tech where members of marginalized groups are recruited, retained, mentored, promoted, and genuinely provided with equitable opportunities to contribute, thrive and lead.

And from what I understand, code4lib is actually a community that does many things right. In this community, people feel included, they feel safe/r, sexism, racism, transphobia, ableism and the like are not tolerated. In fact, I sense that many folks from marginalized groups consider the code4lib community and conference to be a kind of haven. And that’s great, except that it isn’t ok that folks need a haven from their own work organizations.

So I thought instead of a ranty keynote with lots of examples of the problems, I would share some solutions — some from recent research I’ve been reading, some are based on stories I’ve heard, and some of what I’ll say is just me trying to use the privilege I have as a library director to say some things that others maybe don’t feel as safe saying, or don’t have access to the kind of platforms I do for saying it.

I’m going to start with the assumption that we all agree that lack of diversity is a problem, and that we want cultures that are welcoming and inclusive.

And I should also throw in the caveat that there will be things I say that are primarily meant for the white guys in the room. For some of you, this may feel a bit like preaching to the choir, but I hope instead that it feels like equipping the choir.

Also, I’m focusing primarily on inclusive cultures, because as much as we want to throw our hands up and claim diversity is a pipeline problem, the retention data tells us that we have problems with toxic work cultures and unfair practices driving women and/or people of color and/or LGBTQ folks out of tech as well. I highly recommend a report I just read called the Tech Leavers Study, put out by the Kapor Center for Social Impact. The report contains some really sobering stats on the degree to which unfair treatment, discrimination, stereotyping and bullying in the workplace are the reasons why people from marginalized groups leave tech work:

  • among people who leave tech jobs, unfairness or mistreatment is the leading reason; people are 2x more likely to leave because of unfairness or mistreatment than because they have been recruited by a better opportunity
  • women of all backgrounds experience & observed significantly more unfair treatment than men
  • LGBTQ employees were most likely to report bullying, and to experience public humiliation and embarrassment
  • In short, unfairness, discrimination, and crappy treatment drives turnover; and it suck more for underrepresented people of color and LGBTQ folks
  • AND 57% of folks who left tech would have stayed if their prior employer had addressed workplace environment and had created a more fair and inclusive culture.

So lets dig in and talk about things we can actually do to improve those cultures, and move the needle on diversity and inclusion.

There are individual things we can do, workgroup things we can do, and leadership things.

At the individual level, it is actually not enough to simply not be a blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic jerk. That’s a start, but it is not enough.

The more subtle forms of stereotyping, discrimination, and harassment take their toll, and are shown to lead to lower retention in tech jobs for marginalized folks.

One thing men can do, and white people can do in mixed race interactions, is stop mansplaining, and stop whitesplaining. Just stop.

Stop doing it in person, and stop doing it online. What I mean is simply this — if you have some power and privilege in a situation (and if you are white and/or a dude, chances are you do have some privilege; if you are a white dude, you definitely have power and privilege), then for the love of baby unicorns please refrain from giving your unsolicited advice and opinions to others. Practice some restraint. Just try to sit on your hands for a minute and entertain the idea that maybe you don’t have to jump in.

Don’t be the guy who reads the blurb for Safiya Nobles’ new book Algorithms of Oppression and decides on the basis of a couple of hasty google searches that her research is faulty, that he has proven it, and that he needs to inform twitter.

And don’t be the guy who responded to the article Bess Sadler and I wrote about Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery a few years ago by tweeting that only people who don’t know anything about building search tools would write an article like that. Those of you who know Bess know that she knows a thing or two about building search tools, and has spent a minute or two actually doing exactly that.

I’m sure it often feels like other people really need to hear what you have to say about a topic, but if you are a white guy I’m going to ask that you consider all the evidence we have about how women and/or people of color are talked over, ignored, and shut out of conversations; and think about the fact that the airtime you take up may be the airtime that could have gone to a woman and/or a person of color; and maybe you could just decide you don’t have to weigh in on everything. and you definitely don’t have to explain things to women and/or other marginalized peoples.

But what you can do, and research shows that this works to break down stereotypes, is to publicly vouch for the people you work with who are members of a marginalized group. This is something anyone in leadership or other positions of power can and should do, and it is something men can do for women colleagues and something white folks can do for colleagues of color. Vouching for someone means you talk up their accomplishments and skills, especially in a group setting that is predominantly male and/or white. Use your power and privilege to vouch for others. It is the opposite of mansplaining.

Vouching for someone might look like this “Hey Tom, have you met my colleague Safiya? She is an expert on algorithmic bias in search engines, and has just published a book based on years of research” or “This is Bess, she has tons of experience in developing open source search tools, and was instrumental in the initial development of Blacklight.”

Another thing individuals can do to improve the culture and make tech more inclusive and welcoming is to be an active bystander and ally. If you see something, say something. If other men are talking over women, jump in and say “Hold on dude, I really want to hear what Cathy was saying.” If a white person repeats something a person of color said and is getting credit for it, say “That sounds a lot like the idea Bergis suggested. I would really like to hear more about it from Bergis.”

There are some things we can do in our workgroups too.

Just like all politics is local, all culture is local.

Or at least, lots of the visible manifestations of culture are local. There is research that shows that workplaces that are plastered with stereotypically “tech or nerd guy” cultural images – think Star Trek – have negative impact on women’s likelihood of pursuing tech work and of staying in tech work in general or in that particular work environment. Replace the Star Trek posters with travel posters, don’t name your projects or your printers or your domains after only male figures from Greek mythology, and just generally avoid geek references and inside nerd jokes.  Those kinds of things reinforces the stereotypes about who does tech; and that stereotype is the male nerd stereotype.

I also want to urge you all to pay attention to the kinds of informal socializing you do at work and in those liminal spaces that are work/social – if all the guys go to lunch together and not the women; then maybe stop doing that. And if the guys go to lunch and talk about women, then really, really, really stop doing that.

If there’s a core group of guys who go out for beers after work just because you’re all friends, that’s kind of OK; but if you also talk about work and make decisions then it is definitely not OK.

Be more aware. Be accountable to each other for being inclusive. And if you keep inviting people and they keep saying no, don’t keep inviting them and expecting them to suddenly say yes, and don’t shrug it off and say you tried; try something else instead. Try asking whether there is something else more folks would want to do. Consider that there might be a better time for informal team building that would work for everyone. And if the idea of giving up your beer time with your buddies seems like a bridge too far … then at least admit that might mean that you value your all-dude happy hour more than you value an inclusive work culture.

So now that I’ve told you to give up your Star Wars posters and your bro-time; the rest of this – the organizational level suggestions — are going to seem easy.

At the organizational level, a recent report from the Kapor Center for Social Impact called the Tech Leavers Study found that individual diversity and inclusion initiatives are not nearly as effective at increasing the retention of women and/or people of color and/or LGBTQ folks in tech as a comprehensive, integrated approach.

A comprehensive approach includes:

  • Top level commitment to D&I, including stated values and goals, and an approach that treats diversity as a strength – leadership needs to truly understand that diversity isn’t just nice to have, diverse teams are better, more effective teams.
  • Training in a range of topics, including unconscious bias training, bystander intervention, understanding micro-aggressions, preventing sexual harassment, how to be a trans ally, etc.
  • A commitment to gathering data, and looking at the data. All kinds of data — Hiring data, retention data, internal promotion data, and survey data designed to uncover feelings of inclusive or exclusion across demographic groups.
  • Developing and maintaining confidential channels of communication so that issues of bias and discrimination can be expressed and handled.
  • Commiting to auditing management practices – hiring, promotion, compensation, and internal work assignments.


One of the really, really important findings about diversity initiatives is that training alone is not very effective. In fact, in some circumstances, unconscious bias training alone can backfire – because white folks get resentful, and marginalized folks are put in the spotlight and scrutinized.

OK, so I’ve made lot of suggestions, and I didn’t put any of it on slides; so let me summarize, plus I promise to send the text, with links to some of the studies I cited by end of the week.

So to sum up, if you really want more inclusive library tech:

  • Instead of mansplaining, vouch for women and people of color, and use your privilege to intervene when you witness micro aggressions and silencing
  • Pay attention to small group culture – ditch the Trekkie posters and such, and be intentionally inclusive in social activities
  • Take a comprehensive approach to diversity & inclusion that goes beyond 1 shot training and includes clear leadership, data, accountability, and communication channels
  • And I’ll suggest, monitor progress on diversity and inclusion the way you would monitor progress on any technical system or technology project. Check progress regularly, pay attention to data, and be transparent.

I’m actually really excited about the potential for new library technologies and technical approaches that will empower users, open up access to more collections, and allow for transformative uses of library content. But if we don’t make a commitment to progress on our diversity and inclusion challenges, then I really believe that the tools and technologies we create will not be as good or as useful to the range of users and uses we should be serving.

I dislike traditional Q&A’s almost as much as I dislike traditional keynotes. So if anything I said inspires a thoughtful comment, go ahead – I don’t need to stand up here and be the person with all the answers. And if you want to ask a question entirely unrelated to what I talked about, go for it.

The only thing I ask is that we make sure that women, people of color, all the queers, and other marginalized folks who want to speak get the first shot at the mic.


Debating y/our humanity, or Are Libraries Neutral?

Below are my prepared remarks for the ALA MidWinter President’s Program, billed as a debate on the question of Are Libraries Neutral? I was on the Hell No side. Please be sure to also read Emily Drabinki’s remarks — she was a designated commenter and she slayed.

There will apparently be a video available later, which will be great because some of the questions were amazing, and there were some really incredible people who told brave truths.

(There was also the dude who chastised the debaters by claiming none of us talked about libraries as institutions or organizations. I basically responded with “yeah, actually I did. I guess I could read it louder if you want.” Too snarky probably, but at least I didn’t actually flip any tables.)


Merriam-Webster and the OED both define neutrality as:

“The state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict, disagreement, or war.”

Neutrality is about not taking sides.

Now my opponents are likely to use a different definition of neutrality, and may try to convince you that to be neutral is to equally support all sides.  But … well, they’re wrong.

I’m going to argue that libraries are not now, have never been, and cannot be neutral by addressing 3 levels of analysis:

  1. Library as a social institution
  2. Librarianship as a profession
  3. Libraries as organizations

In the interest of time, I’m not going to talk about whether librarians as individuals can or should be neutral, other than to say that one of the most robust findings over decades of social science research is that individuals are prone to multiple types of bias across a wide range of contexts and in nearly every kind of decision-making. Humans are not neutral, and neither are librarians, archivists, or other library workers.

But I want to start by talking about Libraries as social institutions.

A library is a social institution that provides access to a pool of information resources for a given community. The very notion that shared, consolidated community resources ought to exist is not a neutral idea.

In 2011, a Chicago paper ran an op-ed, possibly tongue-in-cheek, but none-the-less relevant, that equated libraries with socialism:

“I can’t think of a more egregious example of government-sponsored socialism than the public library. Unproductive citizens without two nickels to rub together are given access to millions of books they could never afford to buy on their own — all paid for with the tax dollars of productive citizens. …why should the government pay for people to read books and surf the Internet for free?”

A library as an institution represents a decision about how a community spends its resources and those decisions are never neutral – they are value-laden and they reveal what the community (or at least the powerful actors in that community) thinks is important. Decisions like how much funding a library gets, who should have access to the library, and even where the library is located are not neutral decisions.

And I can’t talk about the lack of neutrality in the very notion of libraries as social institutions without acknowledging the fact that the origin of public libraries in the US is inextricably tied to the fact that the history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism, slavery, and segregation.

For more on this argument, I recommend an article titled Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression, by nina de jesus.

In the US, Libraries were created to spread knowledge and culture and to educate citizens in support of a new nation, a new democracy  — a nation conceived via the displacement and genocide of indigenous peoples, and a nation that was built on the backs of enslaved black people.

Libraries as social institutions have never been neutral.

Let’s turn to librarianship as a profession.

We are over 85% white as a profession, in a country where non-hispanic whites make up only 63% of the population. A profession doesn’t become so disproportionately white by chance, and there is nothing neutral about that fact that our profession, and most of our organizations have remained stubbornly white for decades, despite changing national demographics and despite all our rhetoric about how much we ‘value diversity and strive to represent the diversity of the communities we serve’

“Professionalism” itself, and how we define and defend it in librarianship, is not a neutral concept. It is rooted in white, middle class, heteronormative and able-bodied ideal-types

My 2 colleagues describe and explain this better than I can, so please read their articles:

Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias; by Angela Galvan

White Librarianship in Blackface; by April Hathcock

And if you want to fully explore the topic of whiteness in librarianship, I recommend the Library Juice Press book: Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science.

Turning to libraries as organizations, I’m going to talk about collections and about programming.

The pro-neutrality folks are going to argue that a neutral collection is one that includes items reflecting all sides of contentious issues. But the idea that our collections should be inclusive of all or many points of view – even those points of view that some members of our community find repellent — is not a neutral stance.

According to the 2016 General Social Survey:

  • 51% of people would favor removing a book written by a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States from their public library.
  • 35% favor removing a book that argues blacks are inferior
  • 25% favor removing books by communists
  • 17% favor removing books by homosexuals

How does a library remain neutral on these questions?

One side says keep the book, another side says remove it.

You can’t have and not have the book simultaneously – you have to take a side. As far as I know, none of us work in Schrodinger’s Library.

A library that includes books by anti-American Muslims, communists and homosexuals is not a neutral library. Likewise including racist and/or homophobic books in your collection is not a neutral decision.

AND , you can’t just include everything and claim neutrality – because doing so means you are taking the side of those who say include them over those who want certain books and authors removed from libraries.

Not only does including multiple points of view not equal neutrality, but we also make collection development decisions within a context and a publishing landscape that is riddled with systemic bias.

In an essay titled, All the sad young literary women, Ta-Nehisi Coates, describes the “ways that our reading is shaped and limited by the biases of the dominant literary gatekeepers”. Publishers, book reviewers, book sellers, and yes libraries and librarians favor works by and about men – especially white men.

Some examples:

The NY Times summer reading list for 2015 was all white authors (I haven’t checked the 2016 or 2017 list); and None of the pulitzer prize awards for fiction in this century has gone to a book by a woman about women (for more data on bias in book stuff, see

We also know that the search tools and other technologies we use are not neutral.

Two books you have to read on this topic are:

Our classification systems are also not neutral.

We use subject headings that center the straight, white, male, European experience; and are often racist and dehumanizing.

And a quick note about programming …

Let’s talk about Nazis, and whether libraries have to provide a platform for Nazis and white supremacist ideas in order to maintain some mythical claim to neutrality?

I hope others will tackle this topic more fully, but let me simply say that allowing those who deny the humanity and basic dignity of others to coopt the legitimacy of our libraries and our profession to spread their hatred and intimidation is not in any way a neutral choice.

I’ll end with two relevant  quotes.

First, from historian Howard Zinn, who wrote in Declarations of Independence: Cross examining american ideology:

“Indeed, it is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts.”

And, to close this out, I’ll share a favorite quote from the black, bisexual feminist poet and activist, June Jordan, who said,

“poetry is a political act, because it involves telling the truth.”

I submit to you that if we believe that libraries have any role to play in supporting and promoting truth, especially in today’s post-truth culture, then our work is political and not neutral.

This story has no ending … that’s the point

A few days ago, a man I didn’t recognize hung around after a conference session, while I talked to a few colleagues. He was doing that thing where you hover around the edges of a conversation because you want to talk to someone, but not about whatever they are already talking about. In other words, you want to interrupt without interrupting. So, after my colleagues dispersed, he approached me, introduced himself, and said he “needed” to talk to me about a conversation we had had on twitter.

I didn’t remember him or the conversation, but he was happy to jog my memory. It happened 6 weeks ago, and was about library neutrality and the efficacy of “dialogue” with nazis (in libraries). In the twitter exchange, he had argued that libraries should “neutrally” welcome nazis, because of some higher goal about advancing dialogue. My final contribution to the twitter conversation was a response to his response to my colleague (below), where I asked him if he thought challenging the validity of women is an effective way to advance dialogue.


Him: I will not agree that is a valid question… Me: Do you find that questions women’s validity advances dialogue?

He said that he wanted to talk to me because this still bothered him and he needed to tell me that his response to her had nothing to do with gender. I will admit that as a sociologist with a pretty good background in gender, I’ve rarely, if ever, found such a statement to be true or helpful. I’m guessing that anyone who is paying attention to how gender frames virtually every social interaction is skeptical of after-the-fact “it had nothing to do with gender” claims. (Someone did convince me once that my eye doctor really did have a legit medical reason for asking asking sex on intake forms, but I digress…).

Back to the unexpected, weird, uncomfortable conversation. In the moment, it was not clear to me what he wanted – but it felt a bit confrontational for sure. I was done with the conversation with him 6 weeks ago, and was not interested in continuing it in person just because he needed something and wanted to talk to me right then. He tried to revisit the argument about neutrality, and tried to explain why he thought my colleague’s question was invalid. I told him I didn’t really want to rehash the conversation. Nevertheless, he persisted.
Finally I said something like “If you are really interested in trying to achieve neutrality, then in the face of mountains of evidence that women and people of color are constantly interrupted, talked over, invalidated, and dismissed in in-person and online conversations, then maybe as a white man you could sit back and be quiet instead of confronting women online and questioning the validity of their statements.” That seemed to get him thinking, and he did thank me for explaining that to him. And then I thanked him for initiating the conversation, even though I was not the least bit grateful about having a conversation I never wanted to have. Why? Because some weird combo of professional courtesy norms and gendered norms apparently made me feel like reciprocal expressions of gratitude were called for.
I have no idea whether he got whatever he needed and/or thought I owed him from this interaction, but I do know that I’m now left having revisited a conversation I would have preferred to have left alone, and wishing I had avoided it, and wondering if I’ll ever figure out how to avoid these unwanted conversations with men who “need” to talk to me …

on Charlottesville

I hate that making statements reiterating mine and my organization’s condemnation of bigoted violence has become a routine part of my job. I share below the email I sent to the MIT Libraries staff this morning, in case it is helpful to others looking to make a statement in their organization.


By now you all know what happened in Charlottesville this weekend – Nazi white supremacists marched on the UVa campus, inciting deadly racist violence.

While some insist that there are “many sides” to condemn, and that there is a debate to be had (in libraries and other public institutions) about the nuances of free speech; I believe it is my responsibility to state as clearly and unequivocally as I can that libraries should never support, condone, or provide space to organizations or individuals who promote hatred, bigotry, and racism.  At a time when white supremacists have been re-emboldened, libraries cannot hide behind a myth of neutrality. Reasonable people can have difficult conversations and can disagree about the best tactics for combatting racism; but there is no room in this profession or in this organization for the kind of rhetoric and actions on display by the white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville this weekend. As an organization, we must condemn white supremacy in all its manifestations.

There will be a “Cambridge Stands with Charlottesville” unity rally today at 5:30 at the Cambridge City Hall.

I’ll be there.

In solidarity,



a ‘what if’ story about a dissertation opened up too late

I posted my 2003 Stanford dissertation, Gender Mistakes and Inequality, on the open access pre-print server SocArxiv in July of 2016 and it has been downloaded over 2000 times to date (it got out of the gate strong too). Prior to that, it had been cited once, and I assume read (maybe) by my committee and the few friends I begged for feedback. I never submitted it to a ‘real’ journal, so it was available in print at Stanford Libraries and behind the ProQuest paywall only.

Here’s what I think would have happened if I could have deposited it (or an earlier  working version of it, even) in SocArxiv all those years ago:

  1. I could have gotten feedback from folks other than my committee and fellow grad students. My favorite part of my dissertation is the nascent queer theory part, but there was no one in the Stanford sociology department whose work was even close to the same ballpark as queer theory then. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and my committee wasn’t telling me.
  2. Related to #1, I like to think that with the chance at more diverse readers I would have revised some of the cringe-worthy parts of the manuscript that are not trans-inclusive at all. My advisor, a well-known gender scholar, does not do any work that really questions the gender binary; so even though my dissertation is all about what happens when we are ‘wrong’ about someone’s gender, it still hews pretty closely to binary and non-mutable conceptions of sex and gender. That sucks and I’m embarrassed by that. If an early version of this had been on a SocArxiv, maybe someone would have told me about the sucky parts and I could have made those parts not suck.
  3. If it were widely and openly available early on, maybe I would have realized that it had a potential readership; and maybe I would have prioritized revising it for submission to a ‘real’ sociology journal. That, in turn, could have gotten the ideas and the findings into the literature way earlier.

I know some folks are concerned that grad students and junior scholars are ill-served by incentives to publish working papers in open access repositories like SocArxiv because they might be embarrassed at criticism of ideas and work that is not fully vetted and not ready for prime-time. My experience is the opposite – I would have welcomed a more open and diverse audience, criticism and all, of my dissertation. As it is, I’m embarrassed by parts of it that I fully believe would have been caught and corrected/revised if it had been available openly to a wider audience early on.

So, yeah, I fully support the proposal to open up ASA section paper awards; and so should you.

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