Archive for the 'LGBT' Category

On Orlando and my first tattoo

I sent this email to all the MIT Libraries’ staff today.

Friends,

This weekend, I made my first trip to Provincetown. I lived in the Bay Area of California for nearly 20 years, and I’ve been to the famous Castro district of SF many, many times. I have been to countless Gay Pride parades, and I’ve even been to my share of gay bars and nightclubs. But in between being in those spaces, I tend to forget how it feels to be in a place where there are other women who look like me, where Diane and I can hold hands in public without a second thought, and where the full diversity of the LGBTQ community is celebrated. Walking around P-town on Saturday felt unexpectedly nurturing and empowering.We ate well, we walked on the beach, we shopped. I bought a “Love conquers Hate” t-shirt for a friend’s toddler.

Then on Sunday morning I woke to the news that 49 people were murdered and dozens more injured at a gay nightclub in Orlando FL. Most of the victims were Latinx members of the LGBTQ community for whom gay nightclubs like Pulse served as safe havens in a world still plagued by homophobia and racism. Suddenly, being in one of the most gay-friendly cities in the country felt simultaneously comforting and absolutely terrifying. Since hearing the news, I have cycled through feelings of sadness, horror, fear, and rage.

I have also been touched by stories of incredible courage, compassion, and love. I am willing myself to believe the t-shirt slogan – I want to trust that Love conquers Hate. Sunday afternoon, I decided to go ahead and get the peace symbol tattoo I’ve been thinking about for years; but decided to get it in the rainbow colors of the Pride flag. It is on my forearm, where I can see it; because I know that I need to remind myself to sow peace in the face of conflict, to practice love in spite of hate.

I wish there were words I could share that would make this latest tragedy easier to deal with; but I don’t think there are any. I do know that being kind and gentle and loving to ourselves and to each other feels all the more important right now. So the best I can do is encourage us all to practice extra acts of kindness – random and intentional – in the coming days and weeks.

As always, I am honored to be part of this organization and to count you all as my colleagues.

Peace to you all,

Chris

 

Intersectionality and bathroom panic

This is a true story.

The scene: Public park in Mountain View CA, circa 2013. Lots of families, adult and kid soccer games, some weekly medieval cosplay gathering, and a middle-aged dyke (me) who needs to pee.

I head for the women’s restroom and a nice white lady with a stroller yells to me: “Don’t go in there! There’s a MAN in there!”

I shrug and head on in. The “man” must be in the other stall. Whatever. I do my thing.

But when I exit the stall, I find myself washing my hands next to a tall, gangly, young black kid in a soccer uniform. He was tall, probably 5’10 or so; but his babyface, his goofiness, his slender build — all of it told me he was probably about 12. He looks at me and gets super embarrassed, almost says something but is totally flustered. I say – “yeah, this is the women’s room; but no worries.”

I make sure I walk out with him. Luckily the scared white lady has wandered off by now. The kid jogs off to his soccer game, I wish him luck. He is, I am certain, hoping I will shut up because the last thing he wants is to be teased by his friends for going into the women’s restroom by accident. And I am absolutely certain that is what happened here – a goofy, tall, distracted boy walked into the wrong restroom. He used the stall, he even washed his hands. No harm done.

Lately, I’m haunted by nightmares of a different outcome. What if instead of me being the next person to head to the bathroom, the nervous lady had warned someone who got equally worked up about the prospect of a MAN in the restroom? What if they gathered some of the men in the park to “protect them”? What if the nice white lady had decided to call the police to report on a MAN in the women’s restroom? We all know what happens when black or brown boys are confronted by angry (white) men “protecting” their women.

Gender policing restrooms won’t keep anyone safe from actual predators intent on doing harm to others; but it will put already vulnerable people (transgender people, non-white people, gender nonconforming people) at higher risk of violence just for trying to pee.

 

feminism and the collective collection

Text of my talk at BLC Networking Day 2015 below:

title slide: feminism & collective collection

title slide: feminism & collective collection


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

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

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

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

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

rosy the riveter socks

rosy the riveter socks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The library as an institution is a downright radical idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

African America Women - fiction

African America Women – fiction

Yes, that’s right —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at what they have found.

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

Gender and NY Review of Books

Gender and NY Review of Books

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

Racial disparities are even more dramatic.

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

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

Women of color - Time Literary Supplement

Women of color – Time Literary Supplement

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

Women of color - Boston Review

Women of color – Boston Review

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

Some more data to consider:

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

NY Times Summer Reading List: Peak Whiteness

NY Times Summer Reading List: Peak Whiteness

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

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

Finally, lets look at awards.

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

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

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

Gender and Pulitzer Prize for fiction

Gender and Pulitzer Prize for fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never neutral: Libraries, technology, and inclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title slide for Never Neutral talk

Title slide for Never Neutral talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 books about gays in military

Call numbers matter

The power of library classification systems is such that a scholar browsing the shelves for books on military history is unlikely to encounter Randy Shilts’ seminal work Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the US Military, because that book has been given a call number corresponding to “Minorities, women, etc. in armed forces”.  In my own library at Stanford University, that means the definitive work on the history of gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces is literally shelved between Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star and Military Trade — a collection of stories by people with a passion for military men.  Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t have books about gay military porn stars or about those who love men in uniform. I am saying that there is nothing neutral about the fact that the history of gay & lesbian service members is categorized alongside these titles, while the history of “ordinary soldiers” (that’s from an actual book title) is shelved under “United States, History – Military.”

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

Here is how Myrna described her experience:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching the camera to see my skin

Teaching the camera to see my skin

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

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

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

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

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

Who is missing?

Whose experience is being centered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbie "Math is hard"

Barbie “Math is hard”

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

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

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

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

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

How do we do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let me try to sum up here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Librarianing to Transgress: Closing Keynote ACRL OR/WA 2014

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

Great conference, really cool people, gorgeous setting.

_________

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queer butch feminist, librarianing for justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

#Ferguson happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why librarians? And how would we do it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukraine exhibit, Green Library, Stanford University

Ukraine exhibit, Green Library, Stanford University

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

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

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

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

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

Data collection isn’t neutral either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dressing” for the cause #libs4ada

Librarians (and our friends) are amazing. In the first day of the #libs4ada Ada Initiative fundraising drive, we blew our original goal of $5120 out of the water.

Donate to the Ada Initiative

In all the excitement, I issued two “stretch” challenges:

  1. If/when donations reach $8192, I will post a photo of myself in a dress selected for me by my very fashionable daughter.
  2. If/when donations reach $15,000, twitter librarians can select a dress which I will wear for 10 minutes at the upcoming DLF Forum. Who knows? Maybe we can even “sell” selfies with me in said dress as an additional fundraiser.

So, if you think #ButchInADress might be fun/amusing/terrifying, give generously.
Y’all rock.

Chris in a dress

Young butch in a dress, Chris Age 4

my queer butch playlist

My buddy ButchWonders recently posted 20 Songs that Make Me Feel Butch, and it is a great list … but nothing really resonated.

She challenged me to come up with my own list, and I came up with a few before I realized something important. Ever since I got my truck, which is where I listen to most of my music these days, every song makes me feel butch. When I’m driving along in my pick-up truck, looking like I do … I could be singing along to The Spice Girls* and I’d still feel butch.

That said, there are some songs that are queer/butch/genderqueer anthems for me:

The entire Transgender Dysphoria Blues CD by Against Me! is in a class by itself on this list, with the title cut and Black Me Out as my 2 favorites.

The rest in no particular order:

LucyStoners by Amy Ray
Lola by The Kinks
Turn the Page by Bob Seger
Dude Looks like a Lady by Aerosmith
King for a Day by Green Day
Walk on the Wild Side by Lou Reed
Rebel, Rebel by David Bowie
Androgynous by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts

Other great genderqueer song suggestions most welcome.

(* Thanks to Suzy for The Spice Girls suggestion)

Sitting and thinking: Some post #libtechgender panel thoughts

Born, Julius. [Portrait of Baby Sitting in Chair],  University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History; crediting River Valley Pioneer Museum, Canadian, Texas.

Born, Julius. [Portrait of Baby Sitting in Chair], University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, crediting River Valley Pioneer Museum, Canadian, Texas.

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts in the aftermath of the #libtechgender panel at ALA Midwinter, and I’m still not sure if it is time for me to write yet. Part of me wonders if maybe I need to “sit and sit and sit and think” a bit more. Privilege and marginalization are complicated things. Trying to be a decent ally, for me at least, means never being quite sure if/when I should speak up and when I should shut up. All I can do is hope that when I speak and I should have shut up, or when I’m silent and I should have spoken up, someone will call me on it and I’ll have the humility and decency to listen and to try to make it right. So here goes …

On the one hand, I’m thrilled that there was talk of structural oppression, of white privilege, of the dangers of essentializing womanhood, and of not just gender and technology but of the gendered and racist nature of technology itself. My co-panelists Myrna Morales and Cecily Walker spoke with eloquence and passion about the kinds of substantive issues that we have to grapple with if we hope to make any headway on inequalities of and in technology and librarianship. And Myrna reminded us all that there are people and organizations (like the Community Change, Inc. and the South End Press) that have been doing movement work for a while now and that we need to learn from. Like I said in my remarks, I will never fully understand how much courage and commitment it took to be the only people of color on that panel. My love and respect and gratitude for Myrna and Cecily is endless.

On the other hand, it sucks that the threads about intersectionality and structural oppression kept just floating out there and dying, and the conversation kept veering back to personal stories and simple solutions about how individuals can behave in less sexist, racist, homophobic ways. Of course it is good for people to learn how to be less personally sexist, racist, and homophobic (oh — and also to be less freaking clueless about non normative gender presentations); but we have to move beyond that. We have to. If we don’t figure out how to tackle the structural issues that create and sustain white supremacy and heteronormative patriarchy, we will never see any real progress.

And on that whole issue of storytelling …

Like I said at the panel, and like others have said, storytelling has its place and can be a tool for healing and teaching. But enough is enough. The marginalized folks on that panel, and on twitter afterwards, made impassioned pleas for us to please move beyond the storytelling in sessions like these. And here’s what I don’t get – most of the well-meaning straight white ciswomen I know actually do want women of color, trans women, queer women, and other marginalized people to participate in these discussions and feel welcome. So I cannot fathom why when the marginalized people in the conversation say “let’s move beyond storytelling”, those same well-meaning straight white ciswomen would respond with “but I like storytelling. Please let me keep the storytelling.” Fuck that.* That right there was your chance to “sit and sit and sit and think”. And I know that smacks of silencing – but it is a different kind of thing when my silence is sometimes what is needed to try to reduce the harm done to those without the privileges I enjoy. Being silent so my sisters of color, my trans sisters, my disabled sisters, can have a voice is damn sure OK with me. In fact, I know it is something I need to practice more often.

And finally there is the whole issue of how respectfully the panelists were when we disagreed with each other. Yes, we were respectful. And for some of us, that came at a pretty high cost. I know I’m personally wondering whether I’m willing to bite my tongue so often next time. Sitting silently while others talk about gender in ways that exclude me and my sisters of color and my trans sisters is a soul-sucking experience. My hesitancy to call anyone out personally and publicly lest I look like a bully (angry dyke or mean AUL, picking on junior librarians), bumps right up against my intolerance for heteronormative, racist crap being promulgated as feminism.

To try to end on a nicer note (gender socialization is strong), I want to say how much I appreciate those straight white cisgendered women and men who are “sitting and sitting and sitting and thinking”. I’m not going to name names, because I know I’ll leave someone out by accident. I hope you know who you are. Your willingness to be humble and vulnerable, and to do your own homework, is cool; and helps me remember to do the same.

* Sorry about the language. I really am trying, but I just haven’t come up with a good clean substitute for “Fuck that” yet. I’m open to suggestions.

Gender issues panel

So I agreed to be on this panel about Challenges of gender issues in library technology that is happening in an hour or so. To be honest, I’m more than a little nervous about it. In between the time I said yes to the panel and now, ALA issued a Code of Conduct (Yay!), and there were some reactions. I really hope the panel doesn’t end up being just a big debate about the Code of Conduct. The challenges facing libraries in terms of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and a whole host of other problems that are cause and consequence of a profession that is nearly 90% white and over 80% female are complex and go way beyond codes of conduct. I hope the conversation is as complex and wide-ranging as the issues are. The structure of the panel is such that each of the panel members gets 3-5 minutes to say something about the issues, then we open up for questions. Since I have been known to ad-lib a bit, here’s what I intend to say:

I come at this topic from a slightly different angle – I’ve never worked directly in library technology (or technology at all for that matter); but I did spend 10 years in the Army before my library career, so I do know something about working in a male dominated profession with a distinct kind of masculine culture. In addition, much of my PhD work in sociology centered on gender and sexuality, and I’ve done a bit of research on leadership and organizational diversity. Finally, I’m a senior leader at a pretty big research library – where we consider ourselves leaders in digital library innovation and where we aspire to leadership in terms of promoting gender equity in library technology.  I’m proud to say that we are working towards creating an organizational environment where everyone can thrive both personally and professionally. We aren’t there yet, I doubt we or anyone else will ever get there, but we have done some effective things that I’m rather proud of.

As many of you know, the Stanford University Libraries issued a statement last year encouraging our staff to attend only those professional conferences that had anti-harassment policies or codes of conduct. More importantly, we encouraged our staff to exercise leadership in their professional organizations by advocating for and helping create codes of conduct for conferences that did not yet have one. The story of our stance is a deceptively simple one – it started when I asked some of the women who work in library technology jobs at Stanford what the leadership team at Stanford could do to support them. One of the first and most consistent things these folks suggested leaders could do was to support codes of conduct so that all people might feel safer and more welcome when attending important professional development events. So that’s what we did.

And again, I’m incredibly proud of the stance we took, and of the fact that Stanford librarians have indeed been instrumental in promoting codes of conduct for several library & library-related conferences.

But as important as codes of conduct are, they are only one piece of what needs to be a persistent, multi-faceted approach to ensuring that not only white women and women of color, but also all people of color, trans people, queer people and other marginalized and under-represented people are recruited, mentored, retained, and supported in our profession.

We are a painfully homogenous profession – librarianship is overwhelmingly white and female, and library technology is overwhelmingly white and male. Gender bias and imbalance is a problem; but so too is racial underrepresentation. Librarianship didn’t just end up so white by accident, and it won’t change without radical and active interventions.  And I think we need to stop throwing our hands up and declaring it a “pipe-line” problem, and we need to throw our collective professional weight and expertise behind addressing those structural pipe-line problems.

And no, I don’t have specifics right now; but I know that there are people who have been working on this and who have experience and expertise to share, but whose voices we have not prioritized or amplified.  We need to do our research and we need to listen and learn.  And I trust that if we made social justice a true priority of librarianship – and not just one of our core values that we trot out from time to time – we could make some headway on creating & sustaining a more diverse workforce across libraries and library technology. But honestly, at some point we probably need to stop talking about it, and start listening and then start doing.

Best Gender Mistake Stories

I get called “sir” fairly regularly, and get told I’m in the wrong bathroom almost as often. My pal Butch Wonders and I have even written some friendly advice for those who might innocently mis-gender someone.  Here I want to offer some of my best gender mistake stories (all of which involve bathrooms – which are ground-zero for gender-policing):

Most Infuriating:

I was at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in DC. It was the middle of the day on a weekday, so the place was nearly empty – except for the staff member at the reception desk. After wandering around the museum (which I recommend highly — although those of you who are not conventionally gendered in your self-presentation may want to pee ahead of time), I went into the restroom. While in the stall peeing, I hear someone come into the restroom, loudly calling “Hello? Hello?”. Since I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in there, I answer “Yes?”. She responds, angrily and loudly, “This is the women’s restroom!”. I respond (while still trying to finish peeing in peace), “Yes, I know. I’m a woman.” I hear a heavy sigh, then “Well there are some ladies who need to use the restroom, and they are concerned.” Note that I am in a stall peeing, that I am dressed nicely for work, that I’ve just spent 45 minutes looking at art, and that I’m about 5’4″ — even if I was in the “wrong” restroom, I’m not sure what the concern would be about. At any rate, I exit, wash my hands and start to leave. By this time the staff member is back at her desk. As I leave the building she says to me in a pretty huffy tone “It was a completely understandable mistake!” I said to her “At first, maybe; but your insistence that I was the one who was wrong was rude.”

I’ve said before that I absolutely understand when people think I’m a dude. But I will never understand the logic needed to assume that a short person with boobs and hips who tells you she is a woman and who is sitting in a stall peeing is actually a man in the wrong restroom and a legitimate cause for concern. If she and the other ladies were legitimately afraid, I’m thinking calling the police or other security would make more sense than following me into the restroom and confronting me. This was not about fear, this was about discomfort with non-normative gender presentation.

Most Embarrassing:

I’m at a community theater production of some old musical (“Bells are Ringing”, I think) with my wife, to see a colleague who is in the production. The crowd is mostly older than us (and I’m no spring chicken). At intermission, I go to the bathroom. While in the stall, I can hear an older man saying “Don’t go in there, there is a man in there!”, and I know awkwardness is about to ensue. I go to wash my hands, at a sink visible from the door to the restroom, and the older gentleman steps into the restroom (which has now been vacated by all but me), and aggressively tells me “This is the women’s room!” I respond as politely as I can (I’m frankly a bit shaken up by now) “I know, I’m a woman.” He pauses for a long few seconds as he looks me up and down to confirm my statement for himself, before telling me “Well, your attire had some of the ladies very concerned.” (Note: I was wearing pants and a sweater – very manly, concerning, pants & sweater, apparently). As I exit the restroom, I see that there is a line of older women waiting to use the restroom; and a crowd gathered waiting for “the man” to exit the women’s restroom. Despite the fact that I did nothing wrong, I was mortifyingly embarrassed. I’m not really sure why this situation was more embarrassing than infuriating, but it has something to do with the number and age of the people who watched the whole thing go down.

Most Humorous:

As soon as I walk into the bathroom at a local public park, an older woman starts talking to me in Korean (I think) and pointing to the “Ladies” sign on the door. I smile, nod, and go into the stall to do my thing. She is waiting for me at the sinks, and continues berating me and pointing while I wash my hands. So I pull my t-shirt tight against my chest and point at my boobs. Light bulb goes off, and we both laugh out loud. Boobs are part of our universal language, apparently.

I have a bunch more stories, but these are the highlights. For those of you worried about making a gender mistake, I really do encourage you to read Post-Gender-Mistake Etiquette: Friendly Advice From Women Who are Often Called “Sir”.

But my advice also boils down to:

  1. Don’t worry about someone’s gender unless it is relevant (and it is rarely relevant).
  2. Trust someone’s assertion of their own gender – including which bathroom they go into.

Enter your email address to follow Feral Librarian by email.

Join 8,747 other followers

Follow me on Twitter


%d bloggers like this: