Text of my talk at BLC Networking Day 2015 below:
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.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” …
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.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.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. 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.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.
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.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.