The Radicalism is Coming from Inside the Library
a conversation with Chris Bourg and Lareese Hall
While there has been a rise in (the visibility of) critical and radical librarianship in recent years, much of the work and thinking has been grass-roots in nature, with precious few library directors explicitly embracing activist agendas for their own organizations and/or for the profession. In this talk, the Director of the MIT Libraries and the Architecture and Art Librarian for the MIT Libraries (both feminists, one radical) will share their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities that arise when the new director of a major research library arrives with an explicit social justice agenda, grounded in queer and feminist theory and politics. Where and how does that agenda become manifest within the library organization? What are the opportunities and limitations of top-down activism in a research library setting? If radicalism flows from top-level administrators, does it cease to be radical? Can a hierarchical organization be radical? Does a heightened emphasis on diversity and social justice creates a new kind of elitism?
Please note that these are the answers we prepared to the questions posed – but that we didn’t follow the script exactly (and didn’t get to all of the questions even). We did, however, fist bump. Twice. There was an impromptu question that neither of us can recall the exact details of and great questions after the talk. So, you are getting a sense of the conversation, but the people in the room absolutely added to the conversation that we started here.
Lareese Hall (LH) Introduction (a.k.a. Why are we sitting at a table?)
Thank you to Gina and Carrie and everyone for all their hard work putting this symposium together and thanks to all of you for joining us this morning. Chris and I had many conversations in preparation for this talk and decided that the conversations we were having were worth sharing. We talked about activist librarianship, the role of social media, inclusion and exclusion, bell hooks and lots of other topics and decided that a good way to focus and to frame a conversation to start the day would be on the idea of having a queer, feminist, and radical agenda from within an academic library. What would that mean, we wondered, from our different vantage points within the organization. So what we are going to do for our talk is start with opening remarks from each of us and then we will ask each other a series of questions. We shared the questions with one another prior to today and will answer as many as we can before we open the floor up to questions from you. All of the questions that we are asking one another (even ones that we don’t get to today) and our answers will be posted online on Chris’ blog.
And with that, I’ll hand it over to Chris for her opening remarks.
Chris Bourg (CB) Opening Remarks
I’m still a little overwhelmed with the new job and a big move, so I’ve actually been pretty disciplined about saying NO to speaking invitations – but the theme of this symposium made it hard to resist. But even with the temptation of a great theme and wonderful slate of presenters, I told the organizers that I would say yes only if I could do something besides the traditional solo keynote. I have to be honest about the fact that I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with the whole keynote thing where one chosen person gets on stage and dispenses special wisdom and inspiration to a room full of peers, and then answers questions like some all-knowing oracle. So I have recently made a personal commitment to use the speaking invitations I get as an opportunity to present together with one of the many smart, creative colleagues I know whose ideas I think others should hear. Which means y’all get to hear from Lareese Hall and from me, and I get to use this as an opportunity to reflect in a new way on what it means to try to bring a particular kind of values-based leadership to the job of Director of Libraries at MIT.
And that’s the context for this talk, which will really be a conversation. I’ve been talking about librarian values like democracy and social responsibility for a while now; and I definitely tried to bring a social justice perspective to my work as an AUL at Stanford. But – it really is a different ball game to be the director with an activist agenda and a set of values that flow from intersectional feminism and queer theory/politics. On the one hand, “WooHoo power and authority to do things!”; but on the other hand – using traditional organizational power to push an agenda maybe isn’t very feminist.
Another important piece of context for this conversation is a reminder that all library leaders bring an agenda to their work. One of things feminism taught me is that no one is neutral. But I do think there are unique opportunities and challenges to having a director who is transparent about their values. It might be scary for some that the radicalism is coming from inside the library, but I think it is exciting and empowering too. Of course, my view of what we’re trying to do at MIT is necessarily limited, so its great to chat about this with Lareese, who brings her own really smart, creative, and fun perspective to librarianship.
LH Opening Remarks
It is wonderful to be here and to have this conversation that explores core values in academic and research librarianship. When Chris invited me to give this talk with her my first thought was, “no.”
And from there I went back and forth with “how can you say no to your new boss” and “why are you so stubborn?” I was thinking “no” because I tend to not want to engage in conversations on a stage from a position of perceived expertise and even though I have expertise in some things I have no desire to share it this way. I was also thinking about a post on Truth Out titled “Activist Tourism and the Progressive Mainstream” by Dan Falcone which is an interview with Jared Ball where he talks about many things – including what he framed as “self indulgent adventurism” and “activist tourism” (which is a phrase attributed to Dayvon Love – a member of the Baltimore based Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle). I am interested, obviously in the values stated as the framework for this symposium but I am very wary of library social media activism that lives online but doesn’t make its way into libraries and the way we frame and perform our work. It’s too easy, I think, to agree and not do much more than that or to agree or disagree and feel that you are engaged. I am not sitting here and saying that I am the most politically active and engaged person in the world, far from it, but this is the evolution of my thinking, and I wanted to share that. I told Chris at one point that I didn’t want to say anything that was tweetable and that I just wanted people to listen and engage in place. But this is ridiculous, on some level, I realize that. So, why did I say yes? So I could tell you all that. And because I tend not to go to library focused events and try to engage with people outside of the profession to look at librarianship from a new perspective. But since I rarely go to library symposia and conferences, I also realized checking in from time to time is a new perspective.
I recognize the need to hear a variety of voices and to engage in this conversation not just with myself but with people in my library and within the profession.
I hope our conversation on this stage and as a collective group of interested and engaged professionals makes us question and helps to make sense of our own agendas and activism – whatever they may be.
And now I’ll start with a question for you Chris…
LH to CB: How does a queer and feminist agenda become activated within an academic and hierarchical library organization?
CB: I sort of wish it was as simple as touching our rings and shouting Wonder Twin Powers activate!, but alas it seems to be a bit more challenging.
I also wish I could tell you what a fully realized feminist agenda would look like in an academic library, but I don’t know if any of us know yet. There are amazing feminist librarians and archivists and support staff and others kinds of feminist workers working in some great progressive libraries all over the country – and all over the world – but all seem to working under the constraints of the bureaucracy and neoliberalism that rule in higher education today.
That said – I think an activated feminist and queer agenda in an academic library would be one where the collections and services are not centered on the experiences of cis-straight, white western men; where the people who work in the library truly do reflect the diversity of the communities they serve; where the staff and patrons are empowered; and where the tools, systems, and policies are transparent and inclusive.
AT MIT so far, I try to convey a feminist and queer agenda in a lot of ways, but maybe primarily, so far, through communication. I’m not super overt about it – I’m not sending emails with the subject line “Chris’ Big Queer Agenda”, but my queer and feminist values impact the kinds of things I chose to talk about, and how I talk about them.
There have been some concrete things that have been activated by a feminist agenda at MIT Libraries already – things that are feminist, but are also just sort of radically inclusive and part of a social justice agenda – like no unpaid interns, and including support staff in leadership council meetings, retreats, and search committees. And that is for me a way to try to break down the hierarchy a bit – opening up some of the decision-making venues to more people, and people in different places in the organizational hierarchy. Trying to blur boundaries and make labels and categories less restrictive is resonant with my understanding of queer theory and a queer agenda.
CB to LH: What about you? What kind of agenda do you bring to your work? How much and how does your boss’ agenda and/or your library director’s agenda matter to you?
LH: This is a great question. This entire talk made me go back and do lots of research and pick up texts and ideas I hadn’t looked at for some time. My first thought is to explain what I think an agenda actually is before I tell you what mine is. An agenda, in this context, is simply something you are passionate about and believe. You structure your actions (consciously or not) to support and pursue that belief. You can have more than one agenda and at times they can conflict and they should be questioned by you and by others.
To answer the second part of the question – about how much my boss and/or library director’s agenda matters to me, I’ll say that it depends. It matters that they have an agenda or a passion for something and that it is obvious what it is and that it is genuine (as much as I can know such a thing). I don’t need to agree with it. A healthy organization embraces different ideas and approaches and agendas – but a director’s agenda has to grow and evolve, as does mine. And I want to see that. So if the director’s agenda is inflexible or impossible to understand, unkind, unthinking, racist, classist, sexist, ageist, homophobic, and generally hateful (to paraphrase and borrow loosely from the rules from the AfroPunk festival) then it matters a great deal.
This question made me think about how I don’t fully articulate my agenda (1) because no one asks and (2) because it is not a neatly packaged thing. Simply put, I bring a creative research agenda to my work. This agenda is not purely academic and is intentionally abstract and oriented to exploring ways to make significant social and cultural change. This is influenced by my own personal beliefs and gets filtered through the culture of the organization. My beliefs don’t change based on this organizational hierarchy, but how they work within the structure of the organization is totally dependent on my own analysis of the institution and on the institution and the library’s stated mission and vision. I believe in the potential for libraries (research or otherwise) to be the interdisciplinary heart of their communities and institutions. My agenda is subversive and rebellious and is one that seeks to establish a critical consciousness about the existence and importance of art, design, creative thinking, and idea testing in our work. It is an agenda that is engaged, confused, galvanized, and entirely my own. And I bring part of it to my work but my work, as in my library work, is only a part of my life’s work. My first two higher education experiences – Oberlin College and Goddard College – shaped me as a person – creatively, culturally, intellectually, and politically and they continue to do that. They helped shape my agenda – that I wouldn’t call just an agenda but really my DNA. But to put it simply, my agenda is feminist, humanist, grassroots, non hierarchical, and grounded in the potential of making and art.
LH to CB: Is there a place for grassroots activism from within the library and what if that activism isn’t something you, personally, support? In other words, what if the folks in the library are equally vocal or active in a community that does not fit into your politics? How do you as the director manage that and how do you lead?
CB: Interesting question, and I am going to push back a bit by noting that I get asked some version of this whenever I give a talk where I’m explicit about having a feminist agenda; but that I’ve never heard anyone ask that question of the hundreds of library directors who have a more conservative or a neoliberal agenda. Just sayin’.
But to answer you, part of my feminist agenda for libraries is based in pluralism – which does mean that I’m likely to support activism that doesn’t fit my personal politics; as long as it supports the basic values of librarianship and the values of MIT. So I’m having a hard time thinking of an example of grassroots activism that I wouldn’t support purely because of my personal ideological objections.
Much of what I mean by activist librarianship is a call for us to use the tools and expertise and resources we have to provide people in our communities with quality information to navigate the world, and to understand current events. So I would hope that librarians from all across the political spectrum would do that with attention to inclusiveness and rigor.
But there are some core values that aren’t really negotiable —for example, we are coming out soon with an MIT Libraries policy that not only will all conferences we host have a code of conduct, but that we encourage our staff to only attend conferences that also have a code of conduct.
CB to LH: How do you handle situations with colleagues and/or students or faculty where there is conflict based on deeply held values?
LH: Carefully. Carefully and quickly. I like to just get to it, work it out, and then move forward. I worked in non-profits for many years – attending community meetings, working with public and private entities, trying to negotiate development projects with private developers and city officials, at public hearings – basically it was perfect training for figuring out how to deal with and navigate conflict about things that people approach with passion. It also teaches you that conflict is not about you, it’s not always personal (or you can’t think of it that way if you want to or need to work through it). The first thing I always do is make sure to acknowledge the discomfort – my own, my perception of someone else’s discomfort/annoyance/anger – and be sure that we are having the same experience and conversation. Sometimes you feel conflict when there is none – no sense in dwelling in that place if you don’t need to so you acknowledge it and ask. And then see how we can work through it by figuring out what we both want/need to happen and see if we can come to some sort of compromise.
I listen a lot and I find value in listening to the language that people use and to work from where they are – not what I think or where I am. This is how I approach reference and working with students and faculty anyway.
I also try to keep the conversation on the task or question at hand but like any reference encounter, the question/conflict may not be the real issue. And I work to figure out what the issue is. I am not going to change someone’s mind in that moment, probably, just like they won’t change mine. But I think of it as a learning opportunity for everyone involved.
LH to CB: How do you create a feminist radical culture (or change a culture) that is clear enough for those who need and want direction, and broad enough for those who don’t (need or want) direction?
CB: I think in the case of MIT, maybe because of the strong engineering culture, the harder part of that struggle is to get the people who want really clear direction to be comfortable with more freedom and more ambiguity. I know that is hard for many folks, especially if there has been a culture where the leaders lay out the strategies and goals for everyone, and priorities are set and agreed on in advance; and roles and responsibilities and boundaries are clearly proscribed. But a part of my feminism, and maybe this is where the queer theory agenda sneaks in too, is to insist on flexibility, to push against proscribed roles and encourage experimentation and boundary crossing. And I think we are probably going to need to provide people with some training and support to feel comfortable operating with less direction than they might be used to … and to be honest, still trying to figure out what that might look like.
An interesting and kind of meta – example of this tension is the obvious emphasis we have put on promoting diversity and inclusion – something that pre-dates me, but is getting clear and regular emphasis from leadership now. We have a very active library Committee on the Promotion of Diversity and Inclusion, we always ask job candidates for professional positions how they would promote diversity and inclusion in the job, and we have added a section about promoting diversity and inclusion to our performance evaluations. BUT, there are folks who very reasonably want to know what the standards are and how that will be measured? They want clear directions; but instead of dictating how we will measure it, I think we need to come up with that as an organization – I think it would be much better if individual work groups came up with shared norms within their groups about what it means for them and their coworkers to promote diversity and inclusion. So for example – I would encourage folks to find out from their co-workers what makes them feel included and agree on some group norms.
CB to LH: What does feminist leadership at MIT Libraries look and feel like to you? To your colleagues (to the extent that you know this)? What do you hope it looks like?
LH: First, I would never try to answer for my colleagues but I don’t think I have had that conversation directly with colleagues at MIT before.
I believe leadership comes from every level of the organization, not just from the top. It is leadership that is cultivating a fearless organization of individual and creative thinkers. I would hope this kind of leadership would create genuine opportunities for dissecting, rethinking, and rebuilding the society, profession, and organization.
I would hope there would be room for curiosity and creativity and discomfort and existing outside of the norm.
I would hope staff would be encouraged to develop as individuals as well as professional and that goal setting and measures of success would be personalized and not institutionalized. I would hope that professional development would be encouraged based on strengths and interests – with attendance at conferences and in classes outside of traditional librarianship.
I often think about higher education and how an academic library has an opportunity to model a true progressive agenda, to try things in ways that other departments cannot. It goes back to the idea of being the interdisciplinary heart of their institutions/communities.
I would hope that it looked like utopia and that it was something we never actually achieved but continuously worked towards on a daily basis.
Creative leadership is about being both future thinking and present. About everyone connected to the bigger picture, to the world, but also to themselves.
LH to CB: What does feminist leadership look like? What has it looked like at MIT thus far and what do you anticipate for the future?
CB: For me, it is trying to always ask “Who is missing?” – whether that is at the table where decisions are made, in the collections, in our services, in our marketing swag, etc. I also ask, and want to encourage everyone to ask, who and what is being centered here and how can we re-center this project, this service, this whatever, so that it is more inclusive, and maybe more challenging (but in a good way) for people – including our own people.
It is also about an ethic of care and caring, articulated so well by Bethany Nowviskie. It is about trying to create a space where it is OK to be your whole self at work, as you care to. It is about creating an organization where you don’t have to pretend you don’t have a life outside of work, and where we care about each other as full fellow humans. Perhaps surprisingly I learned that kind of leadership in my years in the Army — in the Army leaders are legally responsible for the health, welfare, and morale of the soldiers under their command; and I try to bring that sense of being responsible to the people in our organization to my work now too – but hopefully in a less paternalistic and more feminist, caring-as-empowerment, way.
[At this point we had a slide on the screen with a modified version of a bell hooks quote that has been a touchstone for me since I first decided to pursue a career in academia. The original quote is from Teaching to Transgress.
[Modified bell hooks quote = “The academy library is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom library, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education librarianship as the practice of freedom.”]
Feminist leadership for me is very much about continuing to be motivated by that bell hooks quote – because that promise, that the academy (or the library) isn’t paradise, but that there are spaces within our work where we can create a bit of paradise, is why I do this work. That is the sentiment that underlies the way I think about bringing a feminist and queer agenda to libraries. The “queer” part is about rejecting boundaries and classifications and imagining (and insisting on the possibility) of a radical new idealized future where people, and our behaviors, and our desires, and our ways of being, defy categorization. It is about embracing the promise of libraries as great forces for social justice and equity, while recognizing the limits of libraries as neoliberal institutions. It is about encouraging a culture of open minds and hearts; where we recognize that the boundaries we labor within (and sometimes create and enforce) are socially constructed and should be questioned and, when necessary, transgressed. It is about seeing our work as contributing to a more free and just and equitable community and world. I choose to believe that librarianship can make those kinds of contributions in the world, and I want to lead in such a way that the folks who work at MIT Libraries believe that too, and have the opportunity to make it real.