Archive for the 'Library stuff' Category

Libraries, technology, and social justice

Here’s the text of the talk I gave at Access 2016. I reused some stuff from earlier talks, but there’s some new stuff in here too. There is a video of the talk too.

(argh. I spelled Bethany Nowviskie’s name wrong on the slide in my talk. I hope she doesn’t notice.)


Thank you for inviting me to this beautiful location and to this fantastic gathering. I want to give a special shout-out to James Mackenzie and the program committee for inviting me and for taking care of all the logistics of getting me here and especially for answering all my questions.

When I am asked to speak at conferences, I try to remember to ask a set of questions that include:

Do you have a code of conduct?

Do you have scholarships for people who might not otherwise be able to attend?

Are you making efforts to ensure diversity in attendance and a diverse line-up of speakers, panelists, presenters?

Access was a YES on all 3.


Fredericton is a very beautiful place

And Fredericton earned bonus points on the secret private criteria I use, which is “is it in an interesting and beautiful location?”

So it was really a no-brainer and I am thrilled to be here; and to have a chance to talk to and with all of you.

I want to start by saying that I’m so glad that Dr. Maclean acknowledged that the land on which we gather is traditional unceded territory.

The importance of acknowledging that we work on lands that are the traditional territories of First Nations people is something I am learning from my Canadian colleagues and from my Native American colleagues. It is, I think, a much needed way of showing recognition of and respect for aboriginal peoples.

I will say though, that it is a practice that is not as widespread in the US – yet.

But there is some movement in the US among colleges and universities to wrestle with their racist pasts; to acknowledge the role of slavery, and the mistreatment of native americans in their founding and early success.

Dozens of American universities – including Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Georgetown, and UVa — are in the process of publicly acknowledging their ties to slavery, including their dependence on slave labor; and these schools are beginning the work of trying to find paths to restitution, if not full reparations.

And this is not unrelated to the topic of my talk.

If I recall correctly, the abstract of this talk proclaims that libraries aren’t neutral, that technology isn’t neutral; and that we can and should leverage both in the service of social justice.

I figured I should spend at least a bit of time unpacking the claims that neither libraries nor technologies are neutral.

And one place to start for libraries – for academic libraries – is to acknowledge that our parent institutions are not and never have been neutral.

My point of reference is US colleges and universities, but I suspect the general theme is true in a Canadian context as well.

American colleges were originally built as exclusive institutions for well-connected white men; and in many cases American universities were actually built literally on the backs of enslaved African-american labor. Many of our institutions were built on land taken from native peoples; and almost all of our colleges and universities excluded in practice if not also in policy, women, non-white men, queer people, and other marginalized populations.

We start from these histories of exploitation, appropriation, enslavement, and displacement. And I believe we have a responsibility to acknowledge that we give our labor to institutions with often troubled histories with regard to the treatment and acceptance of women and non-white men. And even acknowledging that is a political act – but/and ignoring that past is also a political act. There is no neutral here.

In the US context I think it is important to give credit to the students – predominantly students of color — who came together on campuses across the country last fall, and continue to come together, to demand that universities own up to the systemic racism that exists in higher education and across the US, and to insist that we take steps to reduce discrimination and promote social justice.

Many of you likely heard about the high visibility student protests at the University of Missouri, and at Yale University; but in reality students and community members at hundreds of colleges across the nation took up the call and protested and demanded action from their own schools.

At MIT and at colleges all across the country, students have called our attention to ubiquitous and blatant incidents of racial and sexual harassment, they have demanded that we hire more faculty from underrepresented groups, and they have called for faculty and staff to be educated on unconscious bias.

In short, they have said – it isn’t enough to welcome students from marginalized groups to our campuses with words and policies; we must take concrete action to create welcoming, inclusive, and integrated communities. And in some cases, they have called on us to leverage the academy and its resources to address society level failings.

So what does that mean for us?

Well, that’s exactly what I want to talk about today – as folks who work in and around library technologies, how can we leverage our work in the service of social justice?

First, what is social justice and what does it look like?

I’m going to cheat a bit with the answer to what does social justice look like and cite a couple of things I’ve written or co-written in the past:

In an article titled Diversity, Social Justice & the future of Libraries that I had the honor of writing with Myrna Morales and Em Claire Knowles, we defined social justice as:

“The ability of all people to fully benefit from economic and social progress and to participate equally in democratic societies.”

If you believe like I do, that equitable access to information and to the tools to discover, use and understand that information; is a core enabling feature of a truly democratic society; then it is easy to see that libraries are crucial to social justice.

What would a social justice agenda look like in a library?

I was asked several months ago in a joint keynote I gave with my colleague Lareese Hall, now dean of libraries at the very prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, what a queer feminist agenda for libraries would look like, and I think that answer stands for a general social justice agenda too:

“A … feminist and queer agenda in an academic library would be one where the collections and services are not centered on the experiences of cis-straight, white western men; where the people who work in the library truly do reflect the diversity of the communities they serve; where the staff and patrons are empowered; and where the tools, systems, and policies are transparent and inclusive.”

For this crowd, at this conference; I want to talk about tools and technologies.

First, let me run through a few examples to illustrate what I mean when I say technology is not neutral; and really to convince any skeptics that technology itself – not just the users of it – is often biased.

Let’s start with search technologies. 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

But of course, declaring one thing as more relevant than another is always based on some subjective judgement – even if that judgment is coded into an algorithm many steps away from the output.

Or, as my colleague Bess Sadler says, the idea of neutral relevance is an oxymoron (this is a line from our Feminism and the future of library discovery article).

And of course, you can’t talk about bias in search tools without talking about the fantastic work of another one of my library sheros: Safiya Noble.

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

So rather than show you those results, I encourage those of you who might be skeptical to do some of those searches yourself – google Asian girls, or latina girls, or black girls or native girls. And then Imagine being a girl or woman of color looking for yourself and your community on the web.

Or, just imagine you’re a tech worker

We know that the stereotype of a “tech worker” is young, male, nerdy … and the google image search verifies and reinforces that.


Google image search for ‘Tech worker” is pretty much all dudes

And labels matter – look at the different images you get when you search for “Librarian” vs. “Information scientist”


We all like to think that library search tools can do better – and they can; but only when we are intentional about it.

Another example of technology that isn’t neutral comes from cameras and photo editing software.

Photographer Syreeta McFadden has written about how color film and other photographic technologies were developed around trying to measure the image against white skin.

The default settings for everything from film stock to lighting to shutter speed were and are designed to best capture “normal” faces – that is faces with white skin. What that means is that 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.

And how many of you heard about the Twitter Bot that Microsoft created that became a crazy sexist racist idiot in less than 24 hours?

Last Spring, Microsoft unveiled a twitter bot named Tay; programmed to tweet like a teen. What could go wrong, right?

Tay is backed by Artificial Intelligence algorithms that were supposed to help the bot learn how to converse naturally on twitter. But what happened is that the bot learned quickly from the worst racist sexist corners of twitter – and within 24 hours Microsoft had to shut the experiment down because the bot had started tweeting all kinds of sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic garbage. Again, use your google skills to find them, I’m not sharing them from the podium.

For me the Microsoft experiment with a machine-learning twitterbot is a stark example of the fact that passive, mythical neutrality is anything but neutral. And sure you can blame it on the racist creeps on twitter, but creating technology that fails to anticipate the racist and sexist ways that technology might be used and exploited is not a neutral act. And I would venture to guess that it was a choice made by people who are least likely to have been the targets of discriminatory crap on the internet.

My bigger point here is that while crowd-sourcing and leveraging the social web are hot trends now in tech, I want to encourage us to think hard and critically about the consequences. Basically, I think we need to be very aware of the fact that if we crowd-source something, or if we rely on the social web or the sharing economy; we have to at least try to correct for the fact that the crowd is racist and sexist, and homophobic, and discriminatory in a whole bunch of horrifying ways.

There are all these great new services, that are part of what we call the Sharing economy that eliminate the “middle-man” and let people sell services directly to other people – to share things like rides and rooms with strangers. So there are ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft and services like Airbnb, where you can avoid hotels and hotel prices and stay in someone’s spare bedroom.

Stories abound in the US of Uber & Lyft drivers refusing to pick up passengers in minority neighborhoods, or canceling rides when they learn that a passenger is disabled and requires accommodations or assistance.

But I find the case of Airbnb especially interesting, because they are trying to fix their racism problem with both policy and technology.

So here’s what happened with AirBnB – first there was an experimental study out of Harvard about a year ago showing that renters were less likely to rent to people with black sounding names; then there were several reports of renters cancelling bookings for black guests; only to then rent to white guests for the same time period.

Honestly, this shouldn’t surprise us – the amount of social science evidence confirming that people act in biased ways in a huge variety of settings is overwhelming. What is interesting is that AirBnB is trying to do something about it, and they are being unusually transparent about it; so we might learn what works and what doesn’t.

First, they are having everyone who participates as a renter or a host sign a community agreement to treat everyone with respect and without bias. And there is some evidence that community compacts introduce some mutual accountability that has some positive effects, so that’s a good start. They are also providing training on unconscious bias to hosts and highlighting the hosts who complete the training on their website – which is a decidedly not neutral way of driving more renters to hosts who have completed the training.

What’s really interesting is that they are also working on technical features to try to eliminate instances where hosts claim a room or house is booked when a black renter makes a request; only to then immediately rent for the same time period to a white renter. Here is how they explain it: With the new feature If a host rejects a guest by stating that their space is not available, Airbnb will automatically block the calendar for subsequent reservation requests for that same trip.

They are also adding new flagging tools so people can report discrimination and hate speech.

And they have a team of engineers, data scientists, and designers who are looking for other ways to mitigate discrimination and bake some anti-bias features into their platform.

Would it have been better if they had anticipated the racist behavior enabled by their platform? Sure. But now that they are trying to make corrections, and to use technology to do it, I think there might be a real opportunity for us all to learn how we might leverage technology in combatting discrimination.

So, I’ve given some examples of how technology itself is not neutral. My point with these examples is to convince you 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.

How do we do not just try to mitigate the bias but also actually bring a social justice mindset to our work in library technology?

How do we promote an inclusive perspective, and an agenda of equity in and through our tech work?

First, we do everything we can to make sure the teams we have working on our tools and technologies and projects are actually inclusive and diverse.

And that is admittedly hard; but we do know some things that work. And by know, I mean there are actual scholarly studies that produce some evidence of practices that for example, discourage women from pursuing tech careers or applying for jobs. If I told you of a couple of simple things you could do that have shown they would remove some social barriers to women pursuing tech careers, would you be willing to do them?

(I stopped and waited until most of the room nodded their heads yes)

OK – here goes.

First things first – Don’t be this guy.


Don’t be the guy who says: “Always code as if the guy who ends up maintaining your code will be a violent psychopath who knows where you live.”

Don’t share advice like this; and don’t talk like this or joke like this.

This is some of the most horrendous advice about anything I have ever seen – or at least the worst I’ve seen about coding. And quite frankly I am certain it was written by someone who has a blind spot about the fact that women have to worry about being doxed by violent psychopaths just for being on the internet; or being stalked, attacked and too often killed for ignoring the advances of strangers, or for confronting cat-callers. Queer and trans people are also overwhelmingly more likely to be victims of violent crimes; especially trans women of color.

So using, even in jest, the specter of a violent psychopath, to encourage good coding practices is not just a crappy thing to do – it also reinforces a culture that is hostile to women and to other marginalized groups.

And I know we don’t want to admit it, but technology has a culture problem – even in libraries. Remember those search results for “tech worker” – they reflect the predominant image of who works in technology.

So what are some ways we can make technology work more inclusive?

I want to talk about 3 ways:

  1. change the image of the “tech guy”
  2. change the work environment
  3. watch your language (but not in the way you might think)

First, let’s talk about the “tech guy” image.

Some colleagues of mine at Stanford, sociologists Alison Wynn and Shelley Correll, have done some very interesting work looking at how well people who are already working & succeeding in technology jobs felt they matched the cultural traits & stereotypes of a successful tech worker; and how that sense of a match, or in the case of most women, the sense of a mismatch, effects a number of outcomes. (I don’t have a citation for this study, because it is still under review for publication. Because Shelley is an old friend, I knew about the research and got to read an unpublished version; which she gave me permission to reference in talks, but no citation. Scholarly communication is broken.)

First they developed a composite scale based on how tech workers, men and women, described successful tech workers. Ask people to come up with some adjectives to describe a “successful tech worker” and not too surprisingly the stereotype that emerged was masculine, obsessive, assertive, cool, geeky, young, and working long hours. In other words, The “Tech guy” stereotype is wide-spread and well-known.

And as we would expect, their data show that women tech workers are significantly less likely than their male counterparts to view themselves as fitting that cultural image of a successful tech worker.  Where it gets interesting though is that 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.

Reminder that their sample was men and women currently working in tech jobs in silicon valley tech firms. So successful women in tech see themselves as not fitting in; and as a result are leaving the field.

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.

And that brings us to the Star Trek posters – which is somehow always the most controversial part of talks I give on this topic.

But let’s get to the research — 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 or video games– 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.

The Star Trek posters and other seemingly neutral nerdy dude paraphernalia we use to decorate our communal tech spaces serve to deter women – and I expect some of it deters men from marginalized groups as well.

So, to sum up – we can make tech more inclusive if we stop using the term “tech guy”, if we try to promote images of tech workers that aren’t just geeky, obsessive dudes who work long hours, and if we get rid of the Star Trek posters in our communal & public spaces.

And I know some of you are thinking “but I like my Star Trek posters”, but I hope your commitment to diversity wins out over your devotion to your Star Trek posters. Because increasing the number of women in tech is hard, and we have very little research to guide us; but we do know that the Star Trek stuff makes tech work less appealing to women.

And finally, watch your language.

Research also shows that certain words in job ads discourage women from applying. Research shows that women are less likely to apply for engineering and programming jobs when those ads have stereotypically masculine words like “competitive” or “dominate”. Women are less likely to apply and are more likely to feel that they wouldn’t fit in or belong when words like that are part of the job description. This is a case where technology can help – there are text analysis programs that can tell you if you are using gendered language in your job ads and can suggest more neutral language.

But again, this just points to the fact that if we want our technology to work towards diversity, inclusion and equity; we have to intervene and design it explicitly to do so.

That’s one of the lessons learned by a set of researchers who trained a machine learning algorithm on Google news articles then asked the algorithm to complete the analogy:

“Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to X.” The answer came back: “Homemaker.”

In fact, when asked to generate a large numbers of

He is to X as She is to Y analogies, the algorithm returned plenty more stereotypes:

  • He is to doctor as She is to nurse
  • He is to brilliant as She is to lovely
  • He is to pharmaceuticals as She is to cosmetics

The corpus of text the machine learning algorithm learned on was itself biased and filled with stereotypes and stereotypical associations.

But again, there are ways to de-bias the system using human intervention.

In this case, a team of researchers flagged associations the algorithm had made that were gendered and added code instructing the algorithm to remove those associations. The algorithm could be taught to recognize and remove bias.

OK – I started off with the notion that libraries aren’t neutral and technology is not neutral; and I’ve talked about lots of examples of technologies that aren’t neutral either in their design or in their execution or both. And I’ve offered some research to help bring more diversity to our library technology teams, in the hope that more diverse and inclusive teams building our technologies will lead to design choices that favor social equity and justice.

But let me be clear – I don’t think increasing the percentage of women, and men of color in our technology departments is a magic bullet and I certainly don’t think we need to wait until we are more diverse to start thinking about how to leverage our technology work to promote social justice. I think we need to increase the diversity of our libraries, in technology and throughout the profession – but numbers aren’t the only answer.

I have some general ideas about how we might build library technologies for social justice and I’ll share them quickly because I want to hear your ideas.

First, I think we need to consciously think about social justice principles and try to build them into every step of our work. For me social justice principles are feminist principles – transparency, participation, agency, embodiment. We should also ask who is missing from our work, or from the personas we develop. And if the answer is women; then we need to dig deeper and ask which women? Too often we think adding white women fixes our diversity problem.

If we really want to work on tech projects that promote social justice in our communities then we need to talk to our most marginalized community members. At my institution, that would be the racial and ethnic identity student groups, the queer and the trans students, the Muslim students. If we reach out to these groups specifically and try to find out what they need, what they struggle with in the library and more generally at our institutions, we might realize that there are technology projects that would help.

And in all of our work, I think we get closer to social justice the more we practice the art of truly listening to each other and to our communities.

I also want to promote an ethic of care and empathy which is something 2 of my favorite humanists have recently written about: Bethany Nowviskie, executive director of DLF wrote about this in a piece titled “on capacity and care”; and just this weekend Kathleen Fitzpatrick, president of the Modern Language Association wrote about a new project she is calling “Generous thinking.” I recommend both to you.

And in that spirit of listening, it is time for me to wrap this up and to hear from you. I hope you will feel free to say whatever you want, to make comments of all kinds, no need to phrase it in the form of a question. A conversation among all us is much more interesting than me answering questions. So I’m ready to listen now. Thank you

Talking at Harvard about Libraries and Social Justice


Text of talk I gave at Harvard University recently as part of the Strategic Conversations at Harvard Library series.


Thank you so much for inviting me to talk with you today. It is customary at invited talks to say what an honor it is to be invited, but in this case that’s really true. This Strategic Conversations series has quite a reputation, and I am a bit intimidated by the slate of speakers and topics you have invited over the years. I truly am honored to be a part of this.

The truth is, ever since being invited to speak here some months ago, I’ve been having some feelings that go above and beyond the usual stress about giving a talk to a roomful of peers that likely includes plenty of folks who know more about whatever topic I decide to talk about than I do.

I’ve been having some special feelings of doubt and imposter syndrome about talking at Harvard.

I mean, its Harvard.

What has been popping up in my head on and off since I got the invite is that people like me don’t give talks at Harvard.

I suspect that may sound odd — after all, my CV is full of elite private universities a lot like Harvard; including the Harvard of the South — Duke — and the Harvard of the West –Stanford.  Although, as best I can tell so far, MIT is a different beast and despite our proximity, really doesn’t consider itself the Harvard of anything.

But let’s just all be honest, in the American (and maybe the global) psyche there is no place that carries the kind of reputational weight that Harvard does – especially for the vast majority of people who are not deeply entrenched in the nuances of higher education and therefore would not necessarily know that actually MIT is ranked #1 overall in  world rankings and Stanford beats almost all of the Ivies in certain disciplines (cough – sociology – cough). Sorry – had to get that part in there … But I digress.

My point is that Harvard, and all that it represents and symbolizes, always seemed to me like a place other people went to, other people worked at, and certainly other people gave talks at. Those other people, in my mind, were the kind of people born into a lifestyle and a family where going to Harvard, working at Harvard, speaking at Harvard was normal. Now I know that not everyone at Harvard comes from the kind of white upper middle class background that most of us associate with Harvard; but it is a powerful cultural association that has at least some basis in reality.

Anyway, the lifestyle and background we typically associate with the Harvard type is definitely not my background. Now I’m not going to spin a tale of woe about some horrid upbringing, but I do want to just be up front about who I am and where I’m coming from. 

My grandparents are from small towns in Virginia and North Carolina; only 1 of the 4 graduated high school. Neither of my parents went to college. But they worked very very hard to make it possible for me and my 2 older sisters to go to college.

Still, when I showed up at Duke University 30+ years ago (with my tuition payed for by an Army ROTC scholarship), and I parked my beat up 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon among the new BMWs and Mercedes, and next to the Porsche with license plates that read “Busch” (owned by one of my new hallmates; Susie Busch, heir to the Anheuser-Busch fortune), I can’t say I really felt like I belonged there.

And when I walked into my new dorm room, with my clothes in garbage bags because I spent my graduation money on a new-fangled boom box instead of luggage, a vaguely familiar man with large ears and red hair greets me

“Welcome to Duke. I’m Ted Koppel; Deirdre’s father.”

Deirdre was apparently going to be one of my roommates that disorienting freshman year. But far from making me feel at home, Ted’s well-intentioned welcome just reinforced for me that I was entering a world that belonged to other people, not to me or people like me. I was being “welcomed” and given a chance to live and study amongst folks like Deirdre Koppel and Susie Busch for a few years, but this world belonged to those from very different socio-economic and family backgrounds than mine.

That feeling of being out-of-place and not quite belonging  came back over a decade later, when I showed up as an Army veteran and single parent foolishly starting graduate school at Stanford University.

And nearly 2 years into my job at MIT, I still pinch myself a few times a week because I sometimes can’t quite believe that a kid like me — a 1st generation college student whose dad worked a 2nd job stocking produce shelves at a grocery store — really is the director of the libraries at one of the most prestigious colleges in the world.  That feeling of not quite belonging still crops up from time to time.

I tell you all of that only partially because admitting to those feelings, and admitting that giving a talk at Harvard really triggers them; helps me put them aside and give you the best talk I can; but also because the topic I chose – how libraries are responding and can respond to student demands for social justice – has a lot to do with how we might help more and more students (and staff and faculty) who are from backgrounds and social groups who have not always been welcome on our campuses feel included and feel like they belong.

Several years ago, I had the great pleasure of hearing a talk by Beverly Daniel Tatum, the then president of Spelman College. Spelman College is not just a historically black college, but it is a historically black college for women of African descent.  I still remember the “a-ha moment” I had when Dr. Tatum described how important and powerful it is for young black women to be on a campus that was literally and intentionally built for them. It was at that moment that I could see how most of our campuses are literally not built for people from marginalized communities — our campuses were not built for people with disabilities, our campuses were not built for transgender students or any students who fall outside a gender binary, and our campuses were not built for students of color.

In fact, many of our colleges and universities were not only not built for people of color, but were actually built by and at the expense of enslaved African Americans.

Right now dozens of universities – including Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Georgetown, and UVa — are in the process of publicly acknowledging their ties to slavery, including their dependence on slave labor; and these schools are beginning the work of trying to find paths to restitution, if not full reparations.

I believe that if we want to make progress on making our campuses more welcoming to marginalized students, we have to acknowledge our histories of exploitation,  appropriation, enslavement, and displacement. We have to acknowledge that we labor in institutions with often troubled histories with regard to the treatment and acceptance of women and non-white men.

We work for institutions that were founded as exclusionary places, and in many cases remain exclusionary – if not in official policy, then certainly still in culture.  Our colleges and universities were mostly not built for anyone who was not a well-connected white male with considerable cultural and social capital.

While higher education has a progressive recent record of increased openness; histories and legacies matter. Moreover, we cannot ignore the very real current ways in which we fall short of being truly diverse and welcoming communities; just as we as a nation must come to grips with the ways in which the life chances, opportunities and lived experiences of people of color are not equal to those of white people.

And here I think we have to give credit to the students who came together on campuses across the country last fall to demand that universities own up to the systemic racism that exists in higher education and in our nation, and to insist that we take steps to reduce discrimination and promote social justice.

I am talking not only about the high visibility student protests at places like the University of Missouri, and at Yale University; but also about the actions of students and community members at hundreds of colleges across the nation; including at places like Harvard and MIT.

Students have called our attention to ubiquitous and blatant incidents of racial harassment, they have demanded that we hire more faculty from underrepresented groups, and they have called for faculty and staff to be educated on unconscious bias. And they have insisted that we affirm that Black Lives Matter.


Black Lives Matter banner, Stanford University Law School

In short, they have said – it isn’t enough to welcome students from marginalized groups to our campuses with words, we must take concrete action to create welcoming, inclusive, and integrated communities. And in some cases, they have called on us to leverage the academy and its resources to address societal failings.

So how (and why) should libraries respond to these calls to action? And more generally, how can libraries and the library community as a whole advance diversity, inclusion and social justice?

Maybe best to start with the why.

For me, one obvious answer to “why libraries and 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.

Our spaces are interdisciplinary gathering spots, and we have the expertise and the organizational mission to provide access to the information and the tools students and other community members need to understand both historical patterns of exclusion and oppression and to make sense of current events and controversies.

And while I reject the notion that libraries are or should be neutral, we can and should be inclusive in our services and our collections. By doing so we can provide much needed credible context for evaluating news and issues in this increasingly polarized political and social environment. We can and should and are at the forefront of equipping people with the critical thinking skills needed to make sense of a real time global news cycle, competing opinions, and ubiquitous data.

Another important answer for me to the question of why libraries should be involved in promoting social justice and responding to students and others on issues of diversity and inclusion comes from the nature of the role we play on campus.

We are smart, caring people, who are dedicated to helping students succeed; but we are some of the only adults on campus who generally have no real authoritative or evaluative role over students. We aren’t going to grade them.

This makes the library a place where students might be especially free
and comfortable asking questions, experimenting with nascent ideas and thoughts, and making mistakes.

Libraries can operate as essentially judgement-free zones for our community.

When we also ensure our libraries are welcoming places where all students feel a sense of belonging; we can leverage those characteristics to advance social justice on our campuses.

I guess it is obvious that I really do believe that libraries and those of us who work in them can and should be leaders in promoting diversity and inclusion on our campuses.

And I suspect that plenty of you do as well.

The motivation and the intent is there, but sometimes the question of what to do and how and where to start seems overwhelming.

I’m not suggesting I have the answer to that, but I do want to share with you a framework that I have been using to try to organize my thinking and ultimately the work we do at MIT and in ARL on these issues.

So let me show you a model I’ve been kicking around at MIT, and so far in just one other public forum – I showed a hand-sketched version to a crowd of library students at Simmons last spring.

What I’m trying to do with this model is to suggest that it might be useful to think about a diversity & social justice agenda in libraries as being manifest within and through different communities; and to think of these communities as concentric circles.


A framework for social justice work in/through libraries

I think of the boundaries between the communities as fuzzy and porous – with plenty of overlap. And actions in each circle affect and are affected by actions at the other levels.

As with most actions, this models starts with the individual at the center.

At the individual level, examples of things we might do to advance diversity and inclusion goals might include:

  • Learning to recognize and avoid micro-aggressions and unconscious bias
  • developingInclusive interpersonal communication skills, learning techniques for bystander interventions
  • inclusive and equitable treatment of peers, supervisors, subordinates, and student employees,

At the Workplace level, I think it is useful to think about policies, practices, and organizational culture:

  • develop and promulgate best practices in hiring & retention practices,
  • training and learning opportunities for staff
  • generally includes all the things we might do to Develop inclusive organizational climate/culture

These first 2 circles are really about making sure our own house is in order even as we also try to work in our broader communities.

Within our local communities (on our campuses, for MIT and Harvard in the Cambridge/Boston community):

  • being really intentional about representing and promoting marginalized communities in our services, programs, and resources
  • here we really have to be intentional to correct for histories of not very inclusive collecting; and for the fact publishing and book reviews and literary awards also lack diversity and are usually dominated by the works of straight, western, white males.
  • we can evaluate our policies and practices to see if they are in any way unintentionally exclusive or not welcoming to some populations of students or community members
  • we can do directed outreach and advocacy to student and staff affinity groups – which is a great way to find out how welcoming we really are and how we might improve
  • we can work to ensure our community/local archives reflect the diversity of our communities and we can ensure our collection and archival practices are developed in concert with members of the communities

Within the professional LIS communities, we also have plenty of work to do:

  • sharing of best practices and lessons learned
  • mentoring and networking outside your own workplace
  • conferences, presentations, publications
  • advocacy for professional standards
  • one of the most pressing things we need to do at this level is make some progress on diversifying the profession — we are still at 85% white as a profession and the MLIS student population isn’t much more diverse.

In our Global communities, there are also a number of ways to advance a social justice agenda:

  • promoting open access is a social justice issue
  • making collective collection development and preservation choices to ensure full spectrum of scholarship and of human experience is collected and preserved.
  • advocacy, policy work (ex. Marrakesh Treaty)

I find this model helpful, because there are multiple ways to engage these issues, and there is work to be done at all levels of community. And I sometimes find we get stuck focusing on a single community or level; and for me this model helps move us to a more holistic approach. The model really is very much a work in progress, so I’ll be anxious to hear your feedback.

But I think I promised via my title and abstract that this presentation would not be all theoretical, but that I would also talk a bit about what we are doing at ARL, and what we are doing at MIT to try to make some progress and to engage more fruitfully in conversations on our campuses and in our communities.

At the ARL level, the cornerstone of our efforts around diversity and inclusion has traditionally been a set of recruitment, retention and leadership programs.

These include the flagship program – the Initiative to Recruit a Diverse Workforce. The IRDW provides tuition assistance, leadership training, and mentoring to MLS students from racial and ethnic minority groups. Since 2000, the program has supported approximately 200 MLS students, and over 75% of participants do end up working in academic libraries.

ARL also sponsors the Career Enhancement Program – which provides MLS students from racial and ethnic minority groups with internship experiences in ARL libraries; and the Leadership and Career Development Program is an 18 month program designed to provide leadership training to mid-career librarians from racial and ethnic minority groups. And there are special programs to recruit members of racial and ethnic minority groups into music librarianship and into archival jobs.

These programs are well regarded and generally quite successful – successful in the sense that the vast majority of individual participants rate the programs very favorably and consider the programs important or very important to their career in librarianship.

But … since 1999, the percentage of non-white librarians in ARL libraries has increased only 4% – from 11% to 15%. Over that same time the percentage of non-whites in the US population has grown from 29% to 37%; and non-whites made up 42% of the college student population in 2012, and that figure continues to grow (credit to the incomparable Mark Puente at ARL for these data).

Put another way, we are a really white profession – whiter by far than the communities we serve.

So while I absolutely agree with my colleague and hero, Mark Puente, the Director of Leadership and Diversity Programs at ARL, that we have to consider what the demographics of librarianship and of the ARL workforce might look like if these programs didn’t exist; we also have to acknowledge that we remain a very, very white profession that does not reflect the diversity of our communities.

And while I don’t think numbers are everything or that representation should be our only or even necessarily our primary goal, I do think having a more diverse profession matters. I think our role in campus diversity conversations and in social justice efforts in our communities is to some degree hindered when as organizations and as a profession we are so lacking in racial and ethnic diversity.

So one of ARL’s goals in the next 12-18 months is to review our diversity programs – with an eye towards making sure they remain well supported; and looking for ways to amplify the most effective elements of our existing efforts while simultaneously beginning to think about ways we might intervene earlier than the MLS stage to attract members of marginalized groups into librarianship.

We at ARL are also taking a hard look at the ways in which the structure, requirements, application process, and expectations of our diversity programs actual reflect, reinforce and perpetuate the “whiteness” of the profession.

I recommend to you an article from the online open access peer-reviewed journal In the Library with the Lead Pipe called White Librarianship in Black Face: Diversity Initiatives in LIS by my dear friend and colleague April Hathcock at NYU. 

In the article, April asserts that “Our diversity programs do not work because they are themselves coded to promote whiteness as the norm in the profession and unduly burden those individuals they are most intended to help”

It is a harsh criticism, but one I think we have to take seriously. We have to be willing to question the model of diversity programs that are designed to attract underrepresented minorities to “our” profession and our libraries and then mentor them so they “fit” in.

What student protestors have been telling us is that rather than focusing on teaching marginalized people how to fit into cultures and organizations that weren’t built for them; maybe we need to spend more time changing our cultures and acknowledging our histories.

With that in mind, another big priority for the ARL Diversity & Inclusion committee right now is to execute a very deliberate pivot in our focus – to pivot from focusing primarily on programs designed to recruit members of underrepresented groups into libraries and archives; and then train “them” on how to succeed in “our” institutions and “our” cultures; to a deliberate focus on preparing and equipping library leaders – the directors like me – to create and sustain diverse, inclusive, and welcoming cultures and practices.

This is really, really important. Because I believe that we absolutely mean well in libraries and on our campuses; we are a generally liberal open-minded, accepting, tolerant bunch and for the most part we genuinely believe that libraries and higher education are welcoming places for members of marginalized groups.

But if we look at the demographics, and we really listen to what students from marginalized groups are saying; we have to be willing to admit that we may not be as welcoming as we think we are; and we probably aren’t doing all we can to make progress.

So, specifically ARL has introduced programming at our ARL meetings – these are the semi-annual gatherings of the directors of the top 125 or so research libraries in North America and Canada.

At our meeting last fall, we had someone from Project Implicit lead us in an interactive workshop to help us recognize and try to counteract our own unconscious biases. At our recent spring meeting, the most popular session was all about how to engage in uncomfortable conversations around social justice issues on our campuses.

 And this Fall, we are hosting the 1st even ARL Fall Forum devoted entirely to Libraries and Archives as Agents of Social Justice.

We encouraged library directors to invite those senior leaders within their libraries and in their universities who are working on social justice and diversity issues at their campuses.

And of course, individual ARL Libraries are doing any number of things to address diversity issues and to engage with student activism around social justice. The staff at ARL collected info from ARL libraries last spring documenting some of their activities – which ranged from archiving social media, web sites, and other materials related to student protests; hosting events within library spaces; recommitting to intentionally diversifying our collections; and providing workshops for staff on topics like microaggressions and how to be an ally.

So again, activities at multiple levels of engagement in that model of concentric communities I showed earlier.

I am new to ARL, but I can tell you that I sense an energy around these topics and a real hunger amongst the leadership to equip themselves and their staff to make a difference.

Before I wrap up, its only fair that I talk a little bit about what MIT is doing to engage with diversity, inclusion, and social justice work.

And first, let me just say that MIT Libraries has an active and very effective committee for the promotion of diversity and inclusion that pre-dates my arrival. In fact, lunch with that committee during my interview for this director job was one of the key factors that ensured that when MIT made an offer, I was ready to accept.

So we do have an active committee that arranges speakers and workshops, and sends out a weekly resource email with readings and local events of interest. They also convened the set of conversations that led to our recently released Diversity statement that you see here.

One of the overarching themes of what we are trying to do around these issues at the MIT Libraries is that we are consciously trying to inject a focus on diversity, inclusion, and social justice throughout the library – in every department, at every level, pertinent to every job and every staff member. To that end we added a section to everyone’s annual performance review where the employee can describe ways in which they sought to promote the organizations’ values of diversity and inclusion in their work and in their interactions on the job.

While that move has not been easy or entirely non-controversial; it has sparked some really great conversations and led to the formation of a task force within our collections directorate focused on Creating a Social Justice Mindset. One of the powerful things that is coming out of that work is a commitment to incorporating and expressing our values in everything we do – including our budgeting, our license negotiations, our access policies. We see open access as a social justice issue, and we believe a more equitable world is one in which there is abundant, meaningful access to information in all communities across the globe.

Our recent move to put our collections budget under the oversight of our scholarly communications program was explicitly about our commitment to using our collection dollars in ways that reflect and transmit those values.

One final example of something we are sponsoring through the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press that is literally about engaging in and promoting campus conversations on diversity is our new MIT Reads program.

 MIT Reads is an all-MIT reading experience that aims to build community and foster understanding. Our goal is to bring the campus community together through the act of reading; with a theme this year of diversity & inclusion. For our inaugural reading, we are partnering with LBGTQ@MIT and the Gender Fluidity Group and we are reading Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, a black transgender activist. Throughout the fall, we will schedule community discussions about the book and the topics raised. The MIT Press bookstore is selling copies of the book at much reduced prices and we have several copies on reserve in the libraries of course.

There is so much more going on at MIT, the staff of the libraries are doing amazing work in these areas and they inspire and challenge me daily. But I think that is probably enough from me.

I hope I’ve provided some food for thought, and for discussion, on how and why libraries can engage in promoting diversity, inclusion, and social justice on our campuses and in our communities.

I really look forward to your comments and to a discussion. You can, of course, ask questions, but I can’t pretend to be the only one with answers; so feel free to share comments and stories even, especially if they aren’t really questions. Let’s talk.












a dissertation finds her readers

By now, I hope y’all have heard of SocArXiv, a new open social science archive. I think it is one of the most promising new projects in open access scholarship right now. Of course, I’m a bit biased, being on the Steering Committee and all. But the fact that this was started by social science faculty who immediately reached out to the library community for collaborators, is a big part of why I find this whole endeavor so promising. This isn’t one of those “build it and they 1 will come” archives. This is a “they built it and want us to partner with them” archives.

But a funny thing happened on the way to open social science. When SocArXiv did a soft launch on the OSF platform, I uploaded a few of my own papers. I posted an OA article from Code4Lib that I wrote with Bess Sadler (Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery). I also posted an unpublished manuscript (Bowling with Veterans) that I had submitted to a top-tier sociology journal in 2000 or 2001. It got rejected back then, but in a very gentle and helpful way.  I got 2 incredibly supportive and helpful reviews, and a letter from the editor with strong encouragement to submit to a more specialized journal (military sociology is still not very popular in mainstream sociology). I revised it some, but then abandoned it to finish my dissertation. It’s a good paper, and I was happy to finally have somewhere to put it.

But the really interesting thing is what happened when I published my 2003 dissertation (Gender Mistakes and Inequality) on SocArXiv.

It got read. A lot.

In fact, it has been downloaded 160 times so far,2 making it the most dowloaded paper on SocArXiv right now. Before SocArXiv, I’m not sure anyone outside my committee and a few generous colleagues had read it.3 It has been cited once, albeit by a colleague who was just a year or two behind me in graduate school, so it was pretty easy for her to discovery it.

I actually like my dissertation, and I used to wish I had gotten it published in the traditional way some time closer to when I finished it. But I was a year into my new career in academic libraries by the time I finished the dang thing, and I just never did find the time or energy to revise it to make it suitable for journal submission. But lo these many years later, my dissertation has found her readers. 4

Aside from the ego boost, I actually think this is a great example of the power and usefulness of open access archives. I hope those folks who have downloaded it find useful ideas to build on in it. That was really all I ever wanted–for my dissertation to be useful. But to be useful, it needed to be read; and to be read, it apparently needed SocArXiv.


  1. “They” being shorthand for faculty, who we are often told don’t want OA, or don’t care. Obviously some don’t; but some do. Coalition of the willing and all that.
  2. I know reading and downloading aren’t the same. Whatever.
  3. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t “peer reviewed”. It was reviewed by an all-star committee (Ridgeway, Tuma, Olzak, Jost). Karen Cook and Shelley Correll also read drafts and gave me feedback.
  4. Why yes, I am invoking Ranganathan
  5. And yes, I did just gender my dissertation. But I might be mistaken.

lots of folks like to discover

Modified Text of talk I gave at Ivy Plus Discovery Day at MIT. 

(Note that I tidied up this text while watching the DNC last night, so blame Pat Spearman, the Collins brothers, and Michelle Obama for any errors.)


I love that this gathering is Discovery Day, not search day, and not find day. Because, to paraphrase that sort of famous Roy Tennant quote from way back in 2001 “Only librarians like to search, everyone else likes to find … and lots of folks like to discover”.

And that’s where the title for this talk comes from, so thanks Roy!

Lots of folks like especially to discover things they didn’t know they were searching for and didn’t know they wanted to find.

I know it isn’t cool for librarians to talk about serendipity anymore; but I think it might be time for librarians to make serendipity cool again. More importantly, I think it is time for librarians to take serendipity seriously.

I want us to take serendipity seriously for at least 3 reasons:

  1. Because some scholars really think it is important to their work
  2. Because facilitating real serendipity through and in our discovery environments, is one way we could actually contributing to more equitable and open access to information and to learning and research
  3. Because serendipity is fun


Some other time, I’ll unpack and explain what I mean about # 2 there – the equitable open access part of discovery.  For this talk, I want to concentrate on the  that discovery and serendipity are important and fun.

I’m going to assume you know what fun is, and what important means,  and what discovery is; but let’s define serendipity, or better yet, let’s just let the OED do so (I would link, but paywall):

From Oxford English Dictionary: Serendipity = The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery.


And of course, you can’t talk about serendipity without talking about browsing. Over and over, we hear faculty –usually but not always, humanities faculty — talk about the importance of browsing precisely because of the sense that browsing facilitates serendipity. Often these defenses of browsing and serendipity seem to be part and parcel of a concern over the loss of space for physical collections and the lamentable fact that on every college and university campus I know of, a higher percentage of physical library collections are in off-campus, non-browsable storage every year.

But I find that when we really listen to faculty talk about the value of serendipity and browsing to their work, it really is not just nostalgic luddite longing for a mythically comprehensive physical library of yore.

What I’m increasingly hearing, especially here at MIT and in the context of the conversations we have had as part of our Task Force on the Future of Libraries, is an excitement about and a yearning for a new kind of online discovery environment that does more than replicate physical browsing but actually capitalizes on the promises and affordances of technology to facilitate even greater serendipity and to make browsing even more productive and even more fun.

[Interesting side-note: the faculty I’m hearing from at MIT don’t actually use the terms browsing or serendipity. They talk instead very explicitly about wanting tools that will point them to things they don’t know that they don’t know.]

What we are hearing are scholars who want us to build tools, or facilitate the building or deployment of tools, that will allow them to see connections to their work and their teaching and their interests that they cannot see now. They want to discover articles and books and data and images and maps and primary sources and teaching objects and people on the fringes of their own areas of focus, but that are otherwise kind of in their blindspots. They want to make happy & unexpected discoveries; and they want it not to be by accident, but to be because the library has provided the tools, the data, and the metadata to make it so. [One of the many things I love about MIT is how many faculty and students really do seem to get the important role the libraries play in creating and maintaining metadata and infrastructures to provide discovery and access to content.]

And it is important to note, that these are faculty and researchers at MIT we are hearing from; and they are mostly NOT humanists – they are primarily engineers and scientists.

I don’t know about you, but the idea of developing and/or deploying and supporting discovery environments and tools that create and inspire entirely new kinds of serendipity and browsing sounds pretty exciting and fun.

And, it sometimes feels like it is way past time to do it.
When I talked about this to a group of women alumni from MIT, one woman in the audience was quick to tell me about work done 20 years ago at MIT on this very topic. (Yes, that was a bit of serendipity for me, brought about not by technology but by in person interaction.)

In 1994, the famed designer and scholar of design Muriel Cooper, who founded the MIT Media Lab’s Visual Language Workshop, gave a presentation at something called TED5 – which may have been the precursor to what we now know as TED talks, I haven’t verified that yet – but anyway at this talk in 1994, Muriel Cooper wowed the audience with her concept of “information landscapes”.

And here I’ll quote from a 2007 text titled “This stands as a sketch for the future: MURIEL COOPER and the VISIBLE LANGUAGE WORKSHOP”.

In that text, David Reinfurt describes Cooper’s information landscapes as

immersive three-dimensional environments populated not by buildings but by information… In an information landscape, the user appears to fly effortlessly through the infinite zoom of a textual space, reading along the way, creating connections and making meaning.

Unfortunately, there is no video of the 1994 talk, but after Cooper’s death some of her students made a video about the Information Landscapes concept, and I want to show you a bit of it.

(I only showed a few minutes of the video at the talk – I started it at about the 5:00 mark. You should watch the whole thing, and definitely stick around to the very end for a delightful bit of Muriel herself).

I love the contrast between the dated feel and sound of the voiceover and the truly prescient ideas about a 3-D information space full of advanced, user-controlled data visualizations and multiple ways to link and organize concepts. Muriel Cooper sadly passed away less than a year after presenting these ideas at TED5 in Monterey; and while her students and others have continued to do amazing work on immersive technology and data visualizations, Muriel’s vision of an information landscape hasn’t really penetrated the way we search for, find, and discover information and knowledge.
I have to say it is a little sad to me that 2 decades later, our best library search environments look like this:

The rest of the search world, even best in class like Google and Amazon, aren’t really that different:



The library search community went through its phase of trying to be more like Google and Amazon – for good reasons, our patrons wondered impatiently why we weren’t more like them– and now I’d say we are mostly pretty close.  At least in all the basic structural and conceptual ways:

  • one search box to rule them all
  • results displayed in a linear list that is ranked on some meaningful dimension
  • the goal is to find items, 1 at a time; not concepts, not relationships

Why is that? Why are we still searching in 2-D, linear interfaces for items rather than for concepts?

I think a big part of the reason is because it works well enough. And in fact, it works really well for finding stuff we know we want.

And here is where it is really important to point out that what the Task Force on the Future of Libraries heard from library staff about discovery was very different from what faculty and students told us. The MIT Libraries staff made it abundantly clear that the most common struggle our patrons have is with finding a known item – that is the most common kind of question we get and I’m pretty sure it is what our data tell us is the most common kind of search in our catalog.

So how do we reconcile this seeming contradiction?

People want to find what they want and they expect library search tools to be just as good as Google at helping them do that.

But/and, when asked to describe an ideal discovery environment of the future, scholars – at least the MIT folks we have heard from (and folks I talked to while I was at Stanford) – imagine something much more exploratory, more relational, more immersive, more inspiring, and more playful than what any of us have right now. It is as if they trust that the tools that allow them to find what they know they want are good enough and will always be good enough; so when they think of a future they want something they can’t do now (to be fair, that is what we asked them to think about).

To be clear, I don’t think they want this hypothetical immersive and playful and serendipitious environment to completely replace the utilitarian search tools they have at their disposal right now. They are happy to keep using the combination of tools they use now when they need to find what they need to find.

But that means that we in libraries have I think felt kind of compelled to keep trying to give them what they want right now, while not really having the resources to try to develop the kind of information landscapes Muriel Cooper imagined more than 20 years ago.

It is a difficult dilemma, with no easy answers. And it is even more complicated by the fact that the corpus of stuff we in academic libraries are trying to help people discover and access is part of a scholarly communication landscape that is far more complicated than it needs to be and that is, in large, shaped the way it is because so much of it is controlled and disseminated by commercial players whose interest aren’t always aligned with the mission-driven interests of academia (I digress — that’s actually a whole other talk I should give sometime).

And to highlight something we all know — we in academia and in libraries don’t have unlimited resources. So I think we need to be smart about partnering with those commercial players whose visions do align with ours and whose resources and partnerships can help us move closer to a new kind of discovery without having to abandon what works well enough right now.

Back in the early 2000s, I was involved in a project at Stanford Libraries, where we partnered with a start-up called Groxis on developing a visual search tool called Grokker.

It was a really fun project and a promising tool that generated a fair amount of buzz in the library world and in the search world. Grokker basically organized your search results into circles or bubbles by concept; so if you searched for “jaguar”, for example, you would get a bubble with items about the luxury car; another bubble with items related to the animal; and another with stuff related to the English heavy metal band Jaguar – which is a great example of how tools like this can help you discover things you didn’t know you didn’t know. I had never heard of the heavy metal band Jaguar until I got involved with the Grokker project.


Unfortunately, this is the best image for Grokker I can find – from a 2004 Stanford Libraries newsletter. And I can’t demo it; because the company and the product pretty much disappeared after a hostile take over of the board by members who apparently wanted the company to abandon the education market in favor of a seemingly more lucrative corporate focus. That didn’t work out so well for them, and searching for any evidence of Grokker or Groxis now leads to a few articles and blog posts (mostly by librarians) and lots of dead links.

But – working on Grokker and testing it with faculty and students at Stanford gave us/me a sense of the possibilities of new ways to search. There were, of course, the usual concerns with new things like this – if the content included isn’t “comprehensive” in a way that matches the user’s expectations, then they tend to think it doesn’t work.

BUT – lo these many years later, I still remember that nearly every person I talked to who tried Grokker described it as fun and spent considerable time playing with it.

Fast forward over a decade later, and we at MIT Libraries are poised to give our community the chance to play with something that looks a bit like Grokker but is actually even more intriguing – and that’s Yewno.

Yewno’s ‘search’ is powered by machine learning, computational linguistics, and semantic analysis; and its interface combines data visualization and concepts from neural networks to create a discovery experience that is closer than most to the way the human mind actually works. It doesn’t quite achieve the fully immersion landscape feel of Muriel Cooper’s vision, but it goes beyond what Grokker did to provide a more interactive visual journey through information about a concept. At the risk of sounding like a Yewno commercial, I’ll quote from their promotional material:

Unlike traditional search, which strives to provide the singular correct answer as quickly as possible, Yewno enables the connection of multiple concepts and information.

This is a tool that aims not to be better at search, or to help people find what they are looking for more efficiently. This is an environment that aims to help people discover and to learn about what they don’t know they want to learn.

I think we will learn a lot about discovery and about new ways of navigating information from Yewno. My secret hope is that some really brilliant MIT student or faculty member will play with Yewno, be captivated by the idea, decide that the interface is lame, and build something based on the same idea but better.

My dream discovery environment is one that provides the experience of browsing and interacting with books and articles in print and online simultaneously – I don’t know what it looks like exactly, but I imagine a virtual or augmented reality environment that simulates the best tactile (and emotional) experiences of browsing in a physical library with the vast resources and accessibility of digital resources and the efficiency of online browsing. Imagine if you really could browse the collections of all the great libraries at once  – their physical books, their electronic resources, even the books that are currently checked out – from wherever you are; and your mind and body would feel like you were “in a library”.

And my dream discovery environment is playful and fun. Discovering something you didn’t know you wanted is fun. Finding what we are looking for is certainly satisfying (and not finding it is frustrating), but realizing some new connection you hadn’t thought to eplore, stumbling on some piece of information that adds a new dimension to your research or takes you down an unplanned but totally productive path – those kinds of discoveries are fun. There is joy in that kind of learning while researching.

I guess the big take away for me is that what I have heard from our community compels me to try to shift my focus from satisfying immediate user needs by continually improving the tools at hand to making progress and supporting progress towards a discovery environment we can’t yet imagine (because most of us are not Muriel Cooper) but which provides fun, intuitive, maybe immersive opportunities for discovery.

Some closing provocations:

Let’s consider what we might do, even in and with our current tools, if we took seriously the faculty who say they want to make happy and unexpected discoveries in the library – even, especially, in a library that is primarily digital.

What if we decided that the set of current tools for searching and finding are just fine, and we freed ourselves up to work on discovery?

Are there ways we can do that by promoting and supporting and partnering with organizations and people who are trying to create entirely new information systems and landscapes?

Are there ways we can do it by promoting fun and serendipity in our own existing tools and environments?

What can we do to learn more about what works and to spur our own and our communities’ collective imaginations about what discovery could be?

On Orlando and my first tattoo

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


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,



Introducing uncomfortable conversations at ARL/CARL 2016

I had the great privilege of introducing Darren Lund at the 2016 joint meeting of ARL and CARL this morning. Dennis Clark encouraged me to post my introduction, so here it is:

Hi, my name is Chris Bourg and I am the Director of Libraries at MIT. I also serve as the chair of the ARL Diversity and Inclusion Committee. It is my pleasure to introduce this program titled, Opening an Uncomfortable Conversation on Social Justice and Privilege and our speaker, Darren Lund.

Following Brian’s lead from yesterday, I think its important to admit that inviting Darren to speak on this topic is part of an agenda – and not even a hidden one.

One of the key priorities of the Diversity & Inclusion committee has been to execute a pivot of sorts – to pivot from focusing primarily on programs designed to recruit members of underrepresented groups into libraries and archives; and then train “them” on how to succeed in “our” institutions and “our” cultures; to a deliberate focus on preparing and equipping leaders – us – to create and sustain diverse, inclusive, and welcoming cultures and practices.

Maybe on some of our campuses, and in our libraries, issues of social justice and of privilege have long been topics of productive discussions and progress. Maybe. But lets be honest, on many of our campuses and across the country, we have engaged in conversations about privilege, about social justice, and about whiteness only when tensions boil over and when those who have long been marginalized gave voice to their impatience via actions at places like Yale, and Missouri, and even my own alma mater – dear old Duke. These conversations are uncomfortable and hard, but they are necessary – and I think they will happen and are happening whether or not we as libraries and library leaders are engaging in them.

But of course, we must engage in these conversations, we must do the work, individually and collectively, to be able to engage productively in these conversations; not just so that we might make some progress within our own organizations and within libraries and archives more generally; but also because libraries could and should be the ideal spaces where members of our communities can engage freely in difficult dialogues about inequality, privilege, and social justice.

Told ya I have an agenda … or more accurately, the Diversity & Inclusion Committee has an agenda …

And having Dr. Lund talk to us this morning is all part of advancing that agenda — While you have a brief bio of Dr. Lund in the program, I want to highlight a few things.

Darren is a professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary where his research examines social justice activism. When he was a high school teacher in Red Deer, Alberta, he help found a student action project called Students and Teachers Opposing Prejudice, which lasted for 20 years. He also created the award-winning Diversity Toolkit at the University of Calgary. To translate for us, think of the toolkit as the best Libguide on diversity you’ve ever seen (during his talk, Darren says his kids call it the most boring website ever – which still might make it the best LibGuide ever). He has published more than 300 articles, chapters, and books (I’ll talk to him later to make sure they are openly available in his universities IR). He is a scholar-activist, and I am delighted that he is here to talk to us this morning.

Please join me in welcoming Darren Lund to the podium.

diversity, inclusion, social justice and libraries: proposing a framework

Text from an invited talk at Simmons School of Library and Information Science, 4/14/16

(Updated 4/17/16 to add footnotes to give credit where due)
(Updated 4/18/16 to add another footnote for clarity)


When Dr. Em Claire Knowles asked me to speak here tonight, I knew I had to talk about diversity, inclusion and social justice. It is because we share a commitment to engaging those topics that I even know Dr. Knowles – and if you will indulge me, I’d like to ease into this talk by telling a short version of how I came to know Dr. Knowles because I think it illustrates one small way we can try to resist the structures and pressures in our profession that work against diversity, inclusion & social justice.

About 3 years ago, while I was an Associate Director at Stanford Libraries, a colleague at another elite big research library asked me to contribute an article on diversity to a special journal issue on the future of libraries.

I had just met Myrna Morales, who was then here at Simmons, and is now working on a PhD in Library & Information Sciences at UIUC, at a Leadership, Technology, and Gender conference, so I asked her if she wanted to co-author the article with me. I knew that Myrna had experiences, insights, knowledge, perspectives, and a voice that was different than mine; and that together we could write something better than I could write on my own.

To my delight, Myrna immediately said “sure, but can we ask Dr. Em Claire Knowles to write with us too?” The result is a really terrific piece – much fuller and richer and more inclusive than I could have imagined.

(It really is a great article, OA version available.)

A lesson for me in this story is that I got asked to contribute that article because I am part of this really exclusive social network of leaders in big research libraries. I get to go the meetings where I meet the kinds of people who are editing journals and books and are offering opportunities like this to each other. And that’s how lots of professional opportunities happen – not just publishing opportunities but job and service opportunities too. Networks are really important ways people become aware of and are able to take advantage of such opportunities. And our networks are usually not very diverse or inclusive. Widening those circles and those opportunities doesn’t happen without some intentionality.

So I want to talk about issues of diversity, inclusion and social justice – and I use that rather wieldy 3 part phrase on purpose, because I’m trying to be clear that I’m not talking about the kind of watered down diversity talk that includes every possible kind of difference – from personality traits to what sports team you root for.
I’m also not talking about the kind of “respect for diversity” where well-intentioned people claim they treat everyone the same – they say things like “I don’t care if you are white, black, brown or purple. I treat everyone the same.” I guess people mean well when they say things like that, but it trivializes the experiences of actual people of color by lumping them in with imaginary purple people.


This is what purple people look like.

So when I’m talking about diversity and inclusion, I’m talking about groups of people with histories of oppression and current experiences of discrimination – non-white people, poor people, LGBTQI people, immigrants. I’m talking about diversity along axes of power and privilege – race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social class, ability.1 I’m talking about differences that carry with them patterns of real social, economic, health, and life expectancy  consequences.

In terms of what I mean by social justice, I’ll use the same definition that Myrna, Em Claire, and I use in our article – “social justice refers to the ability of all people to fully benefit from social and economic progress and to participate equally in democratic societies.”

And a final piece of context — I am one of those people who truly believes that libraries and those of us who work in them are forces for social good. I believe libraries and archives are key cultural institutions, crucial to democracy and critical to the health of our local communities, our nation, and frankly to a sustainable global community.

There are many reasons I think this is an exciting and important time for libraries and archives; and why I think having a focus on diversity, inclusion & social justice in our work is critical. The media remind us constantly that we are in a time of increasing political polarization.  We are also seeing increased attention to issues of racial injustice and inequity, including the very recent task force report out of Chicago that validates allegations of racist policing there. But attention and progress inevitably brings backlash – not just on racial issues, but on LGBTQ rights as well.

And all of this is happening at a time where we have seen an exponential increase in the amount of information available to any individual and the ease of getting to that information. To my mind that means those of us who work in libraries and archives have this opportunity, really a responsibility, to provide access to information; as well as the tools and skills to critically evaluate that information in ways that promote diversity, equity, and social justice. I think we also have a responsibility to be active about insuring that we are collecting, preserving and providing access to information and materials about, by, and for members of marginalized communities.

So socially, it is a critical moment in time for those of us in libraries to talk about issues of diversity and social justice. In fact, I would urge us to center diversity, inclusion, and social justice in our work.

Also, selfishly, it is a really great time for me to be talking about this topic because we are actively trying to figure out what it means to say we value diversity, inclusion and social justice at the MIT Libraries.

I came in to this job at MIT, about a year ago, as someone who has been very public about having a social justice agenda for libraries, and as someone who cares about and wants to do the work to increase the diversity & inclusion of our libraries and archives.

I’ve blogged lots on these topics, but usually either in a theoretical kind of way or – in the case of the my most viewed blog post ever – in a very factual, statistical, this is how not diverse we are as a profession kind of way.

How not diverse are we, you ask? We are 88% white as a profession. In context that means we would need to double the number of Latino/Latina librarians to reflect the US population, and more than triple the number of African American librarians. Note that those estimates are based on current demographics. But since the US population is actually becoming more not less diverse, while LIS is holding steady …. well, let’s just say we have some work to do.

But as a library director and as newly appointed chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee of ARL, it is time for me to move from just talking or just naming the problem into action plans. It is time to start to articulate how a diversity, inclusion, & social justice agenda might actually be manifest in and through a library.

So I want to share with you all a proposed framework for enacting diversity, inclusion and social justice in libraries and library work. This is very much a work in progress, so put your thinking caps on – I want your best feedback!


I can’t think without my whiteboard.

(Yes – this is a photo of my whiteboard. I like to think that makes it artisanal.)

What I’m trying to do with this model is to suggest that it might be useful to think about a social justice agenda in libraries as being manifest within and through different communities; and I am thinking about these communities as concentric circles.2 The arrows are supposed to indicate lots of bi-directional influence between communities; and the dashed parts of the circles are meant to indicate that the boundaries between communities are blurry and porous. This is meant to be a model, and models always oversimplify the realities they represent.

My hope is that by offering a framework like this, individuals leaders, and organizations can find examples and ideas for action that will promote diversity, inclusion, and social justice within and through these concentric (and overlapping) communities. Here I just want to riff on this theme and jot down some examples for each circle. This model needs lots of refinement, and the examples need fleshing out – but I figure sharing it in this state means I can get feedback.

At the center of the communities is the workplace – which for us is the individual library/archive. Here I’m thinking about actions that promote diversity, inclusion and social justice within the library. Examples of actions and things to focus on at this level might include:

  • Workshops on unconscious bias, micro-agressions, inclusive interpersonal communication styles, and bystander interventions
  • Developing policies and practices to reduce bias in hiring
  • Commitment to hiring and retaining staff from underrepresented minority groups in numbers that reflect local and national demographics
  • Leader actions, policies, and structures that contribute to an inclusive organizational culture
  • Inclusive and equitable treatment of peers, supervisors, subordinates, and student employees

In terms of the next circle – local communities – I think this circle could include the local geographic area (city, county, state), the parent institution, the local government context, and of course – patrons. Some of the ways we might manifest a commitment to diversity, inclusion and social justice in our local context might include:

  • services, programs, and resources that reflect the diversity of our communities; especially those groups in our communities that might be most marginalized
  • policies and practices that show respect for and understanding of the needs of ALL our patrons and potential patrons
  • outreach and advocacy specifically developed for and with marginalized populations within our local communities
  • working with community members to collect local literatures and to archive distinctive local histories (see digital library matters by Cecily Walker for a great description about how to do this with respect and responsibility)

Looking at LIS communities, I think this is where we can try to influence the profession and can work to increase the diversity of our workforce. LIS education fits in to this circle too, but I’m hoping people smarter about that than I am will fill in some examples and ideas for that arena. Ideas here might include:

  • sharing of best practices and lessons learned (this is a practice we are trying to start with ARL)
  • mentoring and networking outside your own workplace
  • working for inclusive conferences (speakers, organizers, topics, atttendees), publications, service opportunities and other LIS opportunities and activities
  • advocating for codes of conduct at conferences
  • advocating for social justice topics at conferences and in publications
  • developing action plans for recruiting underrepresented minorities into library and archives work
  • pushing for focus on diversity, inclusion, and social justice topics throughout LIS curriculum and for diversity in LIS faculty

The outer circle represents the ways in which libraries can be forces for the promotion of diversity, inclusion, and social justice at the level of the global community. I truly believe that because of the nature of our work, libraries and archives can be forces for social justice in the world. Below are just a few examples of ways we can do this:

  • promoting and supporting open access publishing
  • working collaboratively to collect and promote books, articles, music, videos, etc. by and about people from marginalized groups
  • working collaboratively to preserve and document social justice movements and the histories of underrepresented minority populations
  • supporting, promoting, and/or developing tools and resources that reflect the values of diversity, inclusion, and social justice
  • speaking out on issues where the rights of marginalized people are restricted
  • advocating for policies that increase access to information for all (an example here is the joint support of library associations for ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty)

There are loads more examples that might fit into each circle, and there may be additional circles (for example, I’m not sure where community of vendors who serve libraries and archives fit in this model). Like I said, this is a very rough first stab at a framework that I hope is helpful for others.

In addition, I’m really hoping that this way of organizing conversations and strategic planning within my library will provide a common framework and some clarity about how we might move from talking to action. I also hope that a framework like this might give individuals a way to think about how and where they can insert themselves into diversity and inclusion work in their daily work, in their communities, and in the profession. I think sometimes we think about all the many ways we might do social justice work and it can be overwhelming and paralyzing. Maybe this framework can help us be deliberate about where we want to or can focus our individual and/or organizational efforts at any given time; because I don’t think any of us can do it all.

Which brings me to how I want to wrap this up.

I know it is common at these kinds of talks to end with some advice – especially since there are so many MLIS students in the audience. But I’m not a big fan of advice-giving (and I really suck at advice-taking), so instead I’ll just share with you some things that are true for me.  I also want to note that these are themes that others who are working to promote diversity, inclusion and social justice in and through libraries have also said are true for them.3

  • I need allies and I need friends and I need safe places/groups where I can vent and refuel and take a break.
  • I need to make time and space for self-care and for healthy work-life balance.
  • I need to remain teachable, non-defensive, and open to feedback.

And on that note – I would love to hear from you all.

1. I don’t mean this to be an exhaustive list of the various identities and attributes along which real, consequential discrimination and oppression can and do occur. For example – religion, gender expression/identity, and age also constitute axes of historical and contemporary power and privilege. There are likely others — I apologize that my lack of clarity made it seem like these other categories of discrimination did not matter to me.
2. Thanks to Ethan Zuckerman for the concentric circles idea. Ethan has been pushing us to think about the MIT Libraries’ communities in this way through his service on the Future of Libraries Task Force.
3. Thanks to Rachel Fleming for the nudge to include important of self-care, etc. in my talk.

whiteness, social justice and the future of libraries

The wonderful Mark Puente of ARL invited me to join Miguel Figueroa of the ALA Center for the Future of Libraries, and Elliott Shore, executive director of ARL on a panel about the future of libraries at the ARL Leadership Symposium (#ARLDivLead16). We were each asked to talk for just a few minutes about important trends, and/or our vision for the future of libraries.

Essentially, I said that I hope we will create the future we want for libraries, and that the future I want is one where we confront our whiteness problem and where libraries fulfill their promise of being forces for social justice and equity in their communities.

I also tried to be clear that while programs like the ARL diversity recruitment and retention programs are SUPER important, it is not up to librarians of color to solve the whiteness problem in librarianship – that’s on us white folk.

Below are my notes, but I didn’t really use them. Note also that there are precious few specifics in these notes, because 5-7 minutes doesn’t leave room for too many definitions and examples.

My notes:

My take on the future of libraries and archives boils down to two things that I think are imperative and intertwined:

  1. We need to actively create the future we want, rather than passively respond to trends, expectations, and neoliberal pressures to act more like a business
  2. We need to be forces for social justice and equity in local, national, and global context

And then there is a 3rd thing — which is really the 1st thing and the fundamental thing. And that is that if libraries have any hope of remaining relevant and of fulfilling our original radical mission of providing unfettered access to knowledge for everyone, then I think we need to deal with our whiteness problem.

So, in term of actively creating our future –

I am less interested in how libraries can respond to changes in higher education and much more interested in how libraries and those of us who work in them can create the change we believe in.  I think it is a mistake for libraries and librarians and archivists to continually look externally for trends and signals and signposts. I want libraries to be trend-setters, not followers.

We have a particular expertise, a perspective, and a set of values that goes well beyond merely supporting and advising faculty and students – we need to lean in and claim our seat at the table when the future of higher education is debated and decided.

I think open access advocacy is an area where libraries have led and can continue to lead. I think we have the opportunity to lead in terms of not just data management planning, but in developing best practices around open data and data privacy.

I think that in any local context there will be opportunities for the libraries to lead on issues of particular importance to their communities.

In terms of being forces for social justice and equity, I think librarians’ single most important contribution to the future will be to equip our communities with the history, the context, and the data to understand and solve the big problems of our times – which include persistent racial and ethnic injustice, climate change, global poverty, refugee crises, and a rise in religious and ethnic intolerance nationally and globally.

I also think librarians and archivists are uniquely equipped to help students and our communities understand that the issues we are grappling with as a society have histories.

A big part of my vision for the future of libraries is of libraries as inclusive 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.

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 and explore the full range of opinions and ideas on the highly charged topics that are part of their social world. For many students, college is a time when they 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.

We can and should provide access to the information and the tools to understand current events and to help students critically evaluate the many increasingly polarized views on issues like climate change, immigration, race relations, police brutality, terrorism, etc. etc. ….

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 are usually not in a position of authority or evaluation over 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.

And that brings us to librarianship’s whiteness problem —which is a demographic and a cultural problem.

Demographically, y’all probably know the statistics:

Librarianship is 88% white, the US population (2013 figures) is 62% white, with a projection for 2060 that white people will make up only 40% of the population.

The college student population likewise far more diverse than librarianship – National Center for Education Statistics says college student population will be 58% white in 5 years time. And even though programs like the various ARL diversity programs represented here are making a difference – only 71% of 2012 MLS students are white compared to 88% of current credentialed librarians – we still have a whiteness problem. What kind of message does it send to our patrons (or potential patrons), to current and future librarians, and to society at large when we claim to value diversity; but we remain so painfully white?

And librarianship and its practices are likewise steeped in and centered on whiteness  – from the persistence of racist and dehumanizing LC subject headings, to the way we let popularity and/or various societal gatekeepers influence our collection development decisions. The NY Times summer reading list for 2015 was all white authors. None of the last 15 pulitzer prize awards for fiction has gone to a book by a woman about women. And the top hit on OCLC WorldCat for the subject of African American Women Fiction is The Help.

So, the future I want for libraries is for us to deal with our whiteness problem. And to end on a slightly upbeat note – I think we tackle that problem on at least two fronts. One is to continue to support and expand on the awesome and beautiful work of programs like these to support people of color and other marginalized and underrepresented people in careers in libraries; and the other is to educate and motivate those us in leadership positions to start to work on the structural and systemic issues. And here I am optimistic about the efforts of the ARL Diversity & Inclusion Committee to keep these issues on the agenda at every ARL directors meeting and to push for increased awareness and sharing of best practices around promoting diversity & inclusion in and through our libraries.

For further reading:
Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship by Angela Galvan
White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS  by April Hathcock
Diversity, Social Justice, and the Future of Libraries by Myrna Morales, Em Claire Knowles and Chris Bourg

Related blog posts of mine:
The Unbearable Whiteness of Librarianship

feminism and the collective collection

Librarianing to Transgress

The radicalism is coming from inside the library

The Radicalism is Coming from Inside the Library

a conversation with Chris Bourg and Lareese Hall

Social Responsibility, Democracy, Education and Professionalism
ACRL/NY 2015 Symposium
December 4, 2015


While there has been a rise in (the visibility of) critical and radical librarianship in recent years, much of the work and thinking has been grass-roots in nature, with precious few library directors  explicitly embracing activist agendas for their own organizations and/or for the profession. In this talk, the Director of the MIT Libraries and the Architecture and Art Librarian for the MIT Libraries (both feminists, one radical) will share their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities that arise when the new director of a major research library arrives with an explicit social justice agenda, grounded in queer and feminist theory and politics. Where and how does that agenda become manifest within the library organization? What are the opportunities and limitations of top-down activism in a research library setting? If radicalism flows from top-level administrators, does it cease to be radical? Can a hierarchical organization be radical? Does a heightened emphasis on diversity and social justice creates a new kind of elitism?

Please note that these are the answers we prepared to the questions posed – but that we didn’t follow the script exactly (and didn’t get to all of the questions even). We did, however, fist bump. Twice. There was an impromptu question that neither of us can recall the exact details of and great questions after the talk. So, you are getting a sense of the conversation, but the people in the room absolutely added to the conversation that we started here.

Lareese Hall (LH) Introduction (a.k.a. Why are we sitting at a table?)

Thank you to Gina and Carrie and everyone for all their hard work putting this symposium together and thanks to all of you for joining us this morning. Chris and I had many conversations in preparation for this talk and decided that the conversations we were having were worth sharing. We talked about activist librarianship, the role of social media, inclusion and exclusion, bell hooks and lots of other topics and decided that a good way to focus and to frame a conversation to start the day would be on the idea of having a queer, feminist, and radical agenda from within an academic library. What would that mean, we wondered, from our different vantage points within the organization. So what we are going to do for our talk is start with opening remarks from each of us and then we will ask each other a series of questions. We shared the questions with one another prior to today and will answer as many as we can before we open the floor up to questions from you. All of the questions that we are asking one another (even ones that we don’t get to today) and our answers will be posted online on Chris’ blog.

And with that, I’ll hand it over to Chris for her opening remarks.

Chris Bourg (CB) Opening Remarks

I’m still a little overwhelmed with the new job and a big move, so I’ve actually been pretty disciplined about saying NO to speaking invitations – but the theme of this symposium made it hard to resist. But even with the temptation of a great theme and wonderful slate of presenters, I told the organizers that I would say yes only if I could do something besides the traditional solo keynote. I have to be honest about the fact that I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with the whole keynote thing where one chosen person gets on stage and dispenses special wisdom and inspiration to a room full of peers, and then answers questions like some all-knowing oracle. So I have recently made a personal commitment to use the speaking invitations I get as an opportunity to present together with one of the many smart, creative colleagues I know whose ideas I think others should hear. Which means y’all get to hear from Lareese Hall and from me, and I get to use this as an opportunity to reflect in a new way on what it means to try to bring a particular kind of values-based leadership to the job of Director of Libraries at MIT.

Rusty sign with "CON TXT" written on it, spotted near abandoned train tracks

Rusty sign with “CON TXT” written on it, spotted near abandoned train tracks

And that’s the context for this talk, which will really be a conversation. I’ve been talking about librarian values like democracy and social responsibility for a while now; and I definitely tried to bring a social justice perspective to my work as an AUL at Stanford. But – it really is a different ball game to be the director with an activist agenda and a set of values that flow from intersectional feminism and queer theory/politics. On the one hand, “WooHoo power and authority to do things!”; but on the other hand – using traditional organizational power to push an agenda maybe isn’t very feminist.

Another important piece of context for this conversation is a reminder that all library leaders bring an agenda to their work. One of things feminism taught me is that no one is neutral. But I do think there are unique opportunities and challenges to having a director who is transparent about their values. It might be scary for some that the radicalism is coming from inside the library, but I think it is exciting and empowering too. Of course, my view of what we’re trying to do at MIT is necessarily limited, so its great to chat about this with Lareese, who brings her own really smart, creative, and fun perspective to librarianship.

LH Opening Remarks

Thanks Chris.

It is wonderful to be here and to have this conversation that explores core values in academic and research librarianship. When Chris invited me to give this talk with her my first thought was, “no.”

Another old sign, with NO, and a crossed out E.

Another old sign, with NO, and a crossed out E. We both like old signs apparently.

And from there I went back and forth with “how can you say no to your new boss” and “why are you so stubborn?” I was thinking “no” because I tend to not want to engage in conversations on a stage from a position of perceived expertise and even though I have expertise in some things I have no desire to share it this way. I was also thinking about a post on Truth Out titled “Activist Tourism and the Progressive Mainstream” by Dan Falcone which is an interview with Jared Ball where he talks about many things – including what he framed as “self indulgent adventurism” and “activist tourism” (which is a phrase attributed to Dayvon Love – a member of the Baltimore based Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle). I am interested, obviously in the values stated as the framework for this symposium but I am very wary of library social media activism that lives online but doesn’t make its way into libraries and the way we frame and perform our work. It’s too easy, I think, to agree and not do much more than that or to agree or disagree and feel that you are engaged. I am not sitting here and saying that I am the most politically active and engaged person in the world, far from it, but this is the evolution of my thinking, and I wanted to share that. I told Chris at one point that I didn’t want to say anything that was tweetable and that I just wanted people to listen and engage in place. But this is ridiculous, on some level, I realize that. So, why did I say yes? So I could tell you all that. And because I tend not to go to library focused events and try to engage with people outside of the profession to look at librarianship from a new perspective. But since I rarely go to library symposia and conferences, I also realized checking in from time to time is a new perspective.

I recognize the need to hear a variety of voices and to engage in this conversation not just with myself but with people in my library and within the profession.

I hope our conversation on this stage and as a collective group of interested and engaged professionals makes us question and helps to make sense of our own agendas and activism – whatever they may be.

And now I’ll start with a question for you Chris…

LH to CB: How does a queer and feminist agenda become activated within an academic and hierarchical library organization?

CB: I sort of wish it was as simple as touching our rings and shouting Wonder Twin Powers activate!, but alas it seems to be a bit more challenging.

I also wish I could tell you what a fully realized feminist agenda would look like in an academic library, but I don’t know if any of us know yet. There are amazing feminist librarians and archivists and support staff and others kinds of feminist workers working in some great progressive libraries all over the country – and all over the world – but all seem to working under the constraints of the bureaucracy and neoliberalism that rule in higher education today.

That said – I think an activated feminist and queer agenda in an academic library would be one where the collections and services are not centered on the experiences of cis-straight, white western men; where the people who work in the library truly do reflect the diversity of the communities they serve; where the staff and patrons are empowered; and where the tools, systems, and policies are transparent and inclusive.

AT MIT so far, I try to convey a feminist and queer agenda in a lot of ways, but maybe primarily, so far, through communication. I’m not super overt about it – I’m not sending emails with the subject line “Chris’ Big Queer Agenda”, but my queer and feminist values impact the kinds of things I chose to talk about, and how I talk about them.

There have been some concrete things that have been activated by a feminist agenda at MIT Libraries already – things that are feminist, but are also just sort of radically inclusive and part of a social justice agenda –  like no unpaid interns, and including support staff in leadership council meetings, retreats, and search committees.  And that is for me a way to try to break down the hierarchy a bit – opening up some of the decision-making venues to more people, and people in different places in the organizational hierarchy. Trying to blur boundaries and make labels and categories less restrictive is resonant with my understanding of queer theory and a queer agenda.

CB to LH: What about you? What kind of agenda do you bring to your work? How much and how does your boss’ agenda and/or your library director’s agenda matter to you?

LH: This is a great question. This entire talk made me go back and do lots of research and pick up texts and ideas I hadn’t looked at for some time. My first thought is to explain what I think an agenda actually is before I tell you what mine is. An agenda, in this context, is simply something you are passionate about and believe. You structure your actions (consciously or not) to support and pursue that belief. You can have more than one agenda and at times they can conflict and they should be questioned by you and by others.

To answer the second part of the question – about how much my boss and/or library director’s agenda matters to me, I’ll say that it depends. It matters that they have an agenda or a passion for something and that it is obvious what it is and that it is genuine (as much as I can know such a thing). I don’t need to agree with it. A healthy organization embraces different ideas and approaches and agendas – but a director’s agenda has to grow and evolve, as does mine. And I want to see that. So if the director’s agenda is inflexible or impossible to understand, unkind, unthinking, racist, classist, sexist, ageist, homophobic, and generally hateful (to paraphrase and borrow loosely from the rules from the AfroPunk festival) then it matters a great deal.

This question made me think about how I don’t fully articulate my agenda (1) because no one asks and (2) because it is not a neatly packaged thing. Simply put, I bring a creative research agenda to my work. This agenda is not purely academic and is intentionally abstract and oriented to exploring ways to make significant social and cultural change. This is influenced by my own personal beliefs and gets filtered through the culture of the organization. My beliefs don’t change based on this organizational hierarchy, but how they work within the structure of the organization is totally dependent on my own analysis of the institution and on the institution and the library’s stated mission and vision. I believe in the potential for libraries (research or otherwise) to be the interdisciplinary heart of their communities and institutions. My agenda is subversive and rebellious and is one that seeks to establish a critical consciousness about the existence and importance of art, design, creative thinking, and idea testing in our work. It is an agenda that is engaged, confused, galvanized, and entirely my own. And I bring part of it to my work but my work, as in my library work, is only a part of my life’s work. My first two higher education experiences – Oberlin College and Goddard College – shaped me as a person – creatively, culturally, intellectually, and politically and they continue to do that. They helped shape my agenda – that I wouldn’t call just an agenda but really my DNA. But to put it simply, my agenda is feminist, humanist, grassroots, non hierarchical, and grounded in the potential of making and art.

LH to CB: Is there a place for grassroots activism from within the library and what if that activism isn’t something you, personally, support?  In other words, what if the folks in the library are equally vocal or active in a community that does not fit into your politics?  How do you as the director manage that and how do you lead?

CB: Interesting question, and I am going to push back a bit by noting that I get asked some version of this whenever I give a talk where I’m explicit about having a feminist agenda; but that I’ve never heard anyone ask that question of the hundreds of library directors who have a more conservative or a neoliberal agenda. Just sayin’.

But to answer you, part of my feminist agenda for libraries is based in pluralism – which does mean that I’m likely to support activism that doesn’t fit my personal politics; as long as it supports the basic values of librarianship and the values of MIT. So I’m having a hard time thinking of an example of grassroots activism that I wouldn’t support purely because of my personal ideological objections.

Much of what I mean by activist librarianship is a call for us to use the tools and expertise and resources we have to provide people in our communities with quality information to navigate the world, and to understand current events. So I would hope that librarians from all across the political spectrum would do that with attention to inclusiveness and rigor.

But there are some core values that aren’t really negotiable —for example, we are coming out soon with an MIT Libraries policy that not only will all conferences we host have a code of conduct, but that we encourage our staff to only attend conferences that also have a code of conduct.

CB to LH: How do you handle situations with colleagues and/or students or faculty where there is conflict based on deeply held values?

LH: Carefully. Carefully and quickly. I like to just get to it, work it out, and then move forward. I worked in non-profits for many years – attending community meetings, working with public and private entities, trying to negotiate development projects with private developers and city officials, at public hearings – basically it was perfect training for figuring out how to deal with and navigate conflict about things that people approach with passion. It also teaches you that conflict is not about you, it’s not always personal (or you can’t think of it that way if you want to or need to work through it). The first thing I always do is make sure to acknowledge the discomfort – my own, my perception of someone else’s discomfort/annoyance/anger – and be sure that we are having the same experience and conversation. Sometimes you feel conflict when there is none – no sense in dwelling in that place if you don’t need to so you acknowledge it and ask. And then see how we can work through it by figuring out what we both want/need to happen and see if we can come to some sort of compromise.

I listen a lot and I find value in listening to the language that people use and to work from where they are – not what I think or where I am. This is how I approach reference and working with students and faculty anyway.

I also try to keep the conversation on the task or question at hand but like any reference encounter, the question/conflict may not be the real issue. And I work to figure out what the issue is. I am not going to change someone’s mind in that moment, probably, just like they won’t change mine. But I think of it as a learning opportunity for everyone involved.

LH to CB: How do you create a feminist radical culture (or change a culture) that is clear enough for those who need and want direction, and broad enough for those who don’t (need or want) direction?

CB: I think in the case of MIT, maybe because of the strong engineering culture, the harder part of that struggle is to get the people who want really clear direction to be comfortable with more freedom and more ambiguity.  I know that is hard for many folks, especially if there has been a culture where the leaders lay out the strategies and goals for everyone, and priorities are set and agreed on in advance; and roles and responsibilities and boundaries are clearly proscribed. But a part of my feminism, and maybe this is where the queer theory agenda sneaks in too, is to insist on flexibility, to push against proscribed roles and encourage experimentation and boundary crossing. And I think we are probably going to need to provide people with some training and support to feel comfortable operating with less direction than they might be used to … and to be honest, still trying to figure out what that might look like.

An interesting and kind of meta – example of this tension is the obvious emphasis we have put on promoting diversity and inclusion – something that pre-dates me, but is getting clear and regular emphasis from leadership now. We have a very active library Committee on the Promotion of Diversity and Inclusion, we always ask job candidates for professional positions how they would promote diversity and inclusion in the job, and we have added a section about promoting diversity and inclusion to our performance evaluations. BUT, there are folks who very reasonably want to know what the standards are and how that will be measured? They want clear directions; but instead of dictating how we will measure it, I think we need to come up with that as an organization – I think it would be much better if individual work groups came up with shared norms within their groups about what it means for them and their coworkers to promote diversity and inclusion. So for example – I would encourage folks to find out from their co-workers what makes them feel included and agree on some group norms.

CB to LH: What does feminist leadership at MIT Libraries look and feel like to you? To your colleagues (to the extent that you know this)? What do you hope it looks like?

LH: First, I would never try to answer for my colleagues but I don’t think I have had that conversation directly with colleagues at MIT before.

I believe leadership comes from every level of the organization, not just from the top. It is leadership that is cultivating a fearless organization of individual and creative thinkers. I would hope this kind of leadership would create genuine opportunities for dissecting, rethinking, and rebuilding the society, profession, and organization.

I would hope there would be room for curiosity and creativity and discomfort and existing outside of the norm.

I would hope staff would be encouraged to develop as individuals as well as professional and that goal setting and measures of success would be personalized and not institutionalized. I would hope that professional development would be encouraged based on strengths and interests – with attendance at conferences and in classes outside of traditional librarianship.

I often think about higher education and how an academic library has an opportunity to model a true progressive agenda, to try things in ways that other departments cannot. It goes back to the idea of being the interdisciplinary heart of their institutions/communities.

I would hope that it looked like utopia and that it was something we never actually achieved but continuously worked towards on a daily basis.

Creative leadership is about being both future thinking and present. About everyone connected to the bigger picture, to the world, but also to themselves.

LH to CB: What does feminist leadership look like? What has it looked like at MIT thus far and what do you anticipate for the future?

CB: For me, it is trying to always ask “Who is missing?” – whether that is at the table where decisions are made, in the collections, in our services, in our marketing swag, etc. I also ask, and want to encourage everyone to ask, who and what is being centered here and how can we re-center this project, this service, this whatever, so that it is more inclusive, and maybe more challenging (but in a good way) for people – including our own people.

It is also about an ethic of care and caring, articulated so well by Bethany Nowviskie. It is about trying to create a space where it is OK to be your whole self at work, as you care to. It is about creating an organization where you don’t have to pretend you don’t have a life outside of work, and where we care about each other as full fellow humans. Perhaps surprisingly I learned that kind of leadership in my years in the Army — in the Army leaders are legally responsible for the health, welfare, and morale of the soldiers under their command; and I try to bring that sense of being responsible to the people in our organization to my work now too – but hopefully in a less paternalistic and more feminist, caring-as-empowerment, way.
[At this point we had a slide on the screen with a modified version of a bell hooks quote that has been a touchstone for me since I first decided to pursue a career in academia. The original quote is from Teaching to Transgress.

Modified bell hooks quote, from Teaching to Transgress

[Modified bell hooks quote = “The academy library is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom library, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education librarianship as the practice of freedom.”]

Feminist leadership for me is very much about continuing to be motivated by that bell hooks quote – because that promise, that the academy (or the library) isn’t paradise, but that there are spaces within our work where we can create a bit of paradise, is why I do this work. That is the sentiment that underlies the way I think about bringing a feminist and queer agenda to libraries. The “queer” part is about rejecting boundaries and classifications and imagining (and insisting on the possibility) of a radical new idealized future where people, and our behaviors, and our desires, and our ways of being, defy categorization.
 It is about embracing the promise of libraries as great forces for social justice and equity, while recognizing the limits of libraries as neoliberal institutions. It is about encouraging a culture of open minds and hearts; where we recognize that the boundaries we labor within (and sometimes create and enforce) are socially constructed and should be questioned and, when necessary, transgressed. It is about seeing our work as contributing to a more free and just and equitable community and world. I choose to believe that librarianship can make those kinds of contributions in the world, and I want to lead in such a way that the folks who work at MIT Libraries believe that too, and have the opportunity to make it real.


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