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.


2 Responses to “For the love of baby unicorns: My Code4Lib 2018 Keynote”

  1. 1 Peter Murray February 18, 2018 at 9:32 pm

    Chris — I’ve isolated your keynote talk as a separate video on YouTube. The URL remains the same, I believe (; you can remove the _keynote starts at 1:26_ reference.

    Thanks for an inspiring talk!


  1. 1 The Week in Libraries: March 16, 2018 | 1 eBooks Trackback on March 16, 2018 at 2:35 pm
Comments are currently closed.

%d bloggers like this: