Archive for the 'Library stuff' Category

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

Abstract

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.

 

Digital Library Matters: DLF Liberal Arts College Pre-conference

Text of my part of the DLF Liberal Arts College pre-conference keynote that I gave with the amazing Cecily Walker. Her part is here, and linked in context below.
There are also community notes from our talk, and an active twitter stream (#dlflac).

I am delighted to be here, and to have the chance to talk to you this morning with my colleague from the Vancouver public library, Cecily Walker.

Funny story – I really just met Cecily last night at a sports bar. Seriously – we had never met in person before last night. But lest you think I am in the habit of just meeting people in sports bars and asking them to share a keynote with me, I’ve actually known Cecily online for years. I’ve long admired her work – especially the way she reflects on the work she does and the way she encourages the rest of us to think more critically about the work we do.

On twitter and on her blog, Cecily’s reflections have compelled me to reconsider what it means to be me, doing the work that I do. She has prodded me, perhaps unknowingly, to think more carefully about how my work and my relationship to librarianship is situated in my personal and professional identity and in the complicated intersections of race, gender, sexuality, power, gender identity, ability, and other statuses that continually define and redefine my identity and situational privilege.

Cecily is one of those friend/colleagues who makes me think and makes me laugh — my very favorite kind of colleague — and I’m really happy and honored to be co-presenting with her this morning.

What we plan to talk about this morning is our shared and our individual perspectives on Digital Library Matters – which is a title we use to signify that we will talk about digital library matters, but also about how and why digital libraries matter; and why we are both advocates for doing work that matters and of thinking carefully and critically about why our work matters on multiple levels.

I’m going to talk a bit about why I think libraries, digital libraries, and the librarians, archivists and others who do the work of libraries matter so much now. Then Cecily is going to talk about her experiences doing digital library work at the Vancouver Public Library on projects that matter to her and to her community. Then I hope we can have a conversation on digital library matters, and how y’all think about what matters and why and how in the work you do – or aspire to do.

I have to start with a couple of caveats:

First – I’m actually not a fan of keynote talks.

I’m becoming increasingly disenchanted with the whole concept of one special choosen person spouting wisdom and inspiration to a roomful of peers; then answering questions from the stage like some wise oracle. But I decided to say yes to this invitation on the condition that I could invite a colleague to co-present with me; because I knew that would give me the opportunity to hear more about Cecily’s work and how she approaches that work. And because I want more of us to hear what she has to say. I’m also hoping that doing this together will inspire something more like a conversation than a Q&A at the end.

My second caveat is that this might get personal.

The last several talks I’ve given have been a bit more personal than usual — in March, I gave a talk just days after a beloved bother-in-laws funeral. This June I gave a talk at ALA just days after the Charleston shootings, and an intro to a panel at RBMS on the very morning that the Supreme Court declared my marriage was legal across the country. Those events and my feelings about them definitely ended up in my talks.

As I long-time feminist, I’ve long believed that the personal is political, and as someone who came to librarianship because it is a values-based profession, I also believe the personal is professional and vice-versa. So personal and political events tend to find their way into my work – including and perhaps especially into talks I give. Let me be clear, I offer that as an informational warning only, NOT as an apology.

Probably the most significant thing going on for me personally and professionally is that I recently made a move from being an associate university librarian at Stanford University, where my portfolio was all humanities and social sciences – at a school with large and very strong programs in both – to being the library director at an institute of technology – actually at THE Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And something very strange is happening — in meetings all over MIT I frequently find myself looking around the room and thinking “oh, I’m the only humanities person here.”

Now the thing that is strange about that is that I’m not actually a humanities person — I’m a sociologist. I haven’t taken a humanities class since my sophomore year in college and that was more than a few years ago. And frankly I didn’t do very well in it, if I recall correctly. My education, my training, my research, all of my degrees are in sociology – and quantitative sociology at that.

But there is something about being situated in a science, engineering and technology school, amongst so many engineers and “real” scientists, that has given me an even deeper appreciation & affinity for the humanities, and for a humanistic perspective that incorporates the skills of engrossment and empathy, as DLF’s own Bethany Nowviskie describes in her recent talk about “capacity and care.”

But the humanities don’t need me to represent them or defend them or save them – although funding cuts have forced many humanities departments and advocates into defensive postures.

I expect many of you have seen the clever defense of the humanities proclaiming that while science can tell you how to clone a T-Rex, humanities can tell you why you might not want to.Science v Humanities

Not to diss too much on the good folks from the school of humanities at the University of Utah who created the poster, but I think we can understand the value of humanities in a more nuanced way than this.

First of all, science can’t actually tell us how to clone a t-rex. I checked with colleagues at MIT, and they assure me that we don’t really know how to do that yet.

But more importantly, it takes science, engineering, social sciences & humanities to tell us the kinds of impacts technology and technology enabled innovations will have on society, on the planet, and on individuals.

I have to take a minute here to brag about both my new and my old schools.

The Times Higher Education World University rankings just named MIT, Stanford, and some other school just up the river from MIT as the top 3 universities worldwide for Arts and Humanities Education.

In some ways, what I loved most about this was not the the ranking itself, but was what MIT’s president Rafael Reif, an engineer, had to say about it —

Humanities and Arts teaching are central to guiding MIT students in their growth as human beings who understand the power of science and technology, are alert to its impacts on society, and are prepared to be bold, thoughtful leaders of constructive change.

And then listen to what Melissa Nobles, the Dean of the School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences at MIT, had to say: “The world’s problems are so complex they’re not only science and technological problems. They are as much human and moral problems.”

Dean Nobles goes on to say that the big challenges facing us today are so complex that our only hope of progress is through collaboration across skills, disciplines, and perspectives.

To me it is clear that this is true of digital library matters as well.

We need all kinds of people contributing to the work we do – people with technical chops, people skilled and trained in the methods and values of librarianship, people with humanities training and insights, and maybe even a few folks like me with social science backgrounds.

And, although I wish I could say it goes without saying, I know that it doesn’t, so I’ll say it – we also need people of all genders, races, abilities, socio-economic statuses, and nationalities. If we want to do work that contributes to a fuller, richer, more varied understanding of our world, then we need inclusive and diverse teams collaborating on that work. Full stop.

And I think this is critical precisely because I do believe that our work matters. I am convinced that libraries, maybe especially digital libraries, matter more than ever in the age of … well, in the age of now.

Some of you may recognize that I am deliberately invoking the subtitle of John Palfrey’s recent book about the future of libraries – Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More than Ever in the Age of Google.

Jiffy with Bibliotech

the cutest dog on the internet recommends Bibliotech

If you haven’t read it yet, Jiffy and I certainly recommend it. In addition to being the cutest dog on the internet, with his own hashtag #DailyJiffy, he is an exceptionally discriminating and well-read fellow.

Back to the book – in BiblioTech, Palfrey makes the grand argument that communities need public libraries; and colleges and universities need academic libraries now more than ever, because … well, because technology.

If I understand it correctly, his argument is that technologies (google, digital books, mobile computing, MOOCs, etc.) don’t replace traditional libraries and library functions but that they actually create new demands and new manifestations of long-existing library missions and functions.

To be fair, that isn’t his whole argument, and he does us all a solid by making it quite clear that one of the main goals of his book is to make it very clear to those who control library funding, and that libraries serve and will continue to serve crucial social functions, and that therefore libraries need and deserve copious financial support.

AMEN – I am not about to argue with that.

But/and, I think it is important to also proclaim that libraries (and archives) matter now more than even not just because of google and technology; but also because of the very real and urgent social and human problems and challenges facing our nation and our world.

Libraries matter because humanity

Libraries matter because humanity

I’m talking about problems like ridiculously large wealth and income gaps that keep growing, which means we have both crippling poverty and hunger in various parts of the world while in the US we also have an increasingly powerful 1% with growing wealth and growing influence on the economy, on government, and on our shared future.

I’m also talking about problems like the fact that we are witnessing refugee crises so tragic and so massive that many of us can barely comprehend the scale of human suffering we are witnessing.

I’m referring to challenges like the fact that we don’t yet know how we can ensure that there will be enough food and clean water for the estimated 9.6 billion people who will occupy the planet by 2050.

We likewise haven’t figured out yet how to provide quality education to the billions more people who need and want it, people who the next generation will count on to solve the wicked problems we leave them with.

So I am less concerned with what it means to be a librarian in the age of Google — instead the questions that motivate me are:

What does it mean or what could it mean to be a librarian or an archivist or a digital library developer doing the work we do in the age of #BlackLivesMatter?

How do make sure our work matters in a time when the need to confront climate change has never been more urgent nor the science more politicized?

What is the role of digital libraries in this particular moment in time when desperate refugee families risk and lose everything fleeing violence while a leading US presidential candidate says that if elected,he will send them back, while he woos voters with the promise that he will build a big beautiful fall to keep “illegals” (some of whom, he begrudgingly concedes might be decent people) out of our country?
I warned you this might get political.

How do we make sure we are doing work that matters when news of the latest mass shooting in the US comes at us before we have even made sense of the last one – as if we could actually make sense of news like this.

What does it mean – what could it mean – to be doing the work we do at a time like this?

I believe – I chose to believe – that libraries, and yes, even technology – can be forces for social good in this world. Not that they are existentially good – but that they can be. BUT only when intentional, critical, deeply value-laden (NOT neutral) choices are made in how we define, develop, and deliver the set of things we call Digital Libraries.

We are in the process of developing a bold new vision for the MIT Libraries, and it will certainly include the notion that our libraries ought to provide safe, interdisciplinary, inclusive, ecumenical gathering spaces – physical and virtual – where community members have access to scholarly resources and to experts to support their research and learning goals and their personal growth and well-being. My vision is for spaces and environments where community members have access to all kinds of resources – books and journals, or course; but also data, maps, images, newspapers, films, and the tools and expertise that provide the context that might help us make sense of the world around us.

I see libraries, digital and physical, as platforms for equipping all of us to be more informed global citizens, able to participate effectively in the public sphere. And not to be too much of a downer here, but the wicked challenges we face as a global society require all of us to participate at our fullest capacities- together.

This is what I mean when I say digital libraries matter now more than ever. This is also why I couldn’t imagine giving this talk by myself – I don’t really DO digital library work.

But I have had the great privilege to work with many people who do extraordinary work leveraging technology to bring context and meaning to grand challenges & big issues.

And I have had the privilege of getting to know incredibly talented and passionate people via social media – people like Cecily.

I told y’all at the outset why I asked Cecily to join me up here today; so now it is her turn to tell us why she said yes.


Go now and read what Cecily said – it is powerful and important and amazing.

(Did you read it? Told ya it was great, right?)


As we wrap up here, instead of y’all asking us questions, we’d really rather hear your reactions, your comments, and we have some questions to ask you:

    What are examples of work you’ve done, or want to do, that matters?

How should we collaborate across our different kinds and sizes of libraries – with different ideas about what matters, and different resources? How can DLF help?

How can we do work that matters, that we care about, without becoming too enmeshed and running the risk of suffering emotional burn-out at the individual level, and/or contributing to the devaluation of librarianship as a feminized, caring profession? In other words how can we balance capacity, community, and care?

Discussing RBMS 2015

I blog almost all of my talks, but had not planned on blogging my remarks from RBMS 2015 this summer because I was just the discussant; I didn’t give a talk talk. But the organizers told me they like having something to link to, so here’s my best recreation of what I said, based on pretty good notes.

This is my first RBMS, and I have a few confessions to make:

My first confession is that I honestly would rather be with my wife right now than with you all. No offense really, but our marriage just became legal in all 50 states and I want to celebrate with her. It is cool though, that I could drive from here in Oakland back to my wife in our new hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts and our marriage would remain valid the whole way for the first time in history. So, that isn’t the confession I was planning on making today, but it is true and it is heartfelt.

My real first confession is that I’m not an archivist, I’m not a rare books librarian, I’m not a manuscripts librarian. I’m not even a humanities scholar or faculty member or any kind. Heck, I’m not even really a librarian according to some definitions.

I’m just a library director … which means I do none of the actual work that ensures that rare books and manuscripts are collected, preserved and made accessible; but I do control lots of resources that make the work possible; and I care deeply about that work.

My second confession is that I’m actually more comfortable in the audience than on the stage – when I’m in the audience, I can do what I do best – snark on twitter about the presentations. Honestly, that’s kinda my thing – I go to conferences and I get snarky on twitter. My favorite snark topics – and most conference presentations provide plenty of fodder for these – are lack of diversity on speaking panels or in collections, uncritical adherence to neo-liberal thinking in library “innovations”, and a general lack of attention to issues of power, privilege, and positionality. I have to say thus far, RBMS has given me very very little to snark about. It’s a bit disorienting.

In all seriousness, lets give it up for the program committee
Y’all did a tremendous job in putting together a great set of speakers who prodded me, and I hope some of you, to think critically about the work we do and its meanings in and to the communities we serve and represent. And it is no small thing that this program was definitely not the usual cast of white dudes talking about the collections and archives of other white dudes. Well done!

Some of the big themes I’ve heard thus far I think will also be reflected in this plenary. We’ve talked a lot about “amateurism” and volunteer labor — this idea, perhaps we could call it a trend, of people who are not professionally trained archivists or librarians doing the work of building, organizing, and providing access to archives. Our two closing plenary speakers this afternoon are not archivists, but have built and are building archives of real significance to the broader research community. They are also leveraging technology and new ways of collecting and organizing materials in concert with traditional archival materials and methods.

Other themes I’ve heard include the tension between slow, caring work with and for archives; and the need for speed and efficiencies. Themes of passion versus the illusion of neutrality have likewise emerged. I’m sure there are other themes that will come out and that will produce a great final discussion.

Our speakers for this closing plenary include a Stanford professor who I know fairly well, and whose project was the inspiration for the Library Concierge Program I started while I was with the Stanford Lbiraries; and a fellow “outside librarian” whose work I have long admired and who I am delighted to finally meet in person.
~~~
Then I introduced Gordon Chang and Rick Prelinger. They both gave great talks. The discussion was also lively and thoughtful, and included what I am told was the first RBMS instance of panelists live-tweeting each other during a session and then expanding on the twitter conversation from the stage. A true multi-modal and multi-media plenary session.

So, that’s it – my first, but I hope not my last, RBMS.

Infrastructure and Culture: A job talk

Below is the text, with some of the slides, from the job talk I gave as part of the interview process for my current job as Director of Libraries at MIT. I have shared it with a few folks who seem to have found it helpful in preparing for similar job talks, so I hope that sharing it here is helpful to others. I also have found it helpful to look back at it myself from time to time – I see it as sort of the “platform I ran on”, and I want to make sure I honor the commitments made herein.

Shaping scholarly communication: Infrastructure and Culture

Shaping scholarly communication: Infrastructure and Culture

Good morning and thank you all for coming out this morning to hear my talk. It is a tremendous honor to be here and to be in consideration for the job of Director of the MIT Libraries.

As I think you know, I have been asked to talk about the future of scholarly communication and generally how I would see myself influencing that future as part of the MIT community. But since this may be the only chance some of you will have to meet me in the day and a half that I am here, I wanted to fill in some of the details about who I am and how and why I ended up here this morning.

You know from my CV (pdf) that I am currently the AUL for Public Services for Stanford Libraries, responsible for the humanities, social science, and area studies libraries, plus special collections, plus direct user support in digital humanities and social science data. Those of you who paid close attention to my CV will have noticed that my path to a career in academic libraries has been a bit unconventional.

Because I paid for college with an ROTC scholarship, my first job after graduation was as an active duty army office. I was stationed in Germany during the tail-end of the Cold War and it was during that time that I gained invaluable experience as a leader, especially during my time as a company commander. At the end of my tour in Germany, I applied for and was accepted into an Army program that sends selected army officers to graduate school in exchange for a commitment to teach at West Point. So I got a master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Maryland, then spent 3 years teaching leadership and sociology to cadets at the US Military Academy. By the time those 3 years were up, it was clear to me that a career in higher education was going to be a better fit for me than an Army career; so I resigned from the military and began a PhD program in Sociology at Stanford. As a graduate student at Stanford, I worked part-time in the library in the Social Science Data center. During that time I came to really see the critical role that the library and librarians played in the research and teaching life of the campus; and I very much enjoyed being a part of that.

While I was in the final stages of writing my dissertation – and therefore spending even more time in the library — several of my librarian colleagues encouraged me to apply for the Social Sciences Librarian position that was open at Stanford at the time. By then I had learned enough about libraries and librarianship, that it was clear to me that a career in academic libraries would be an extraordinarily good fit for my combination of leadership experience and scholarly training. More importantly, I believed that the work I could accomplish within research libraries would likely have a greater impact on the future of scholarship than the work I might have accomplished as an individual scholar.

That has absolutely turned out to be true for me. My career at Stanford has allowed me to assume positions of increasing responsibility since that first library job as well as the opportunity to participate in the profession at a national level. A job as director of libraries at a major research university like MIT is very appealing to me as a next step in my career and as an opportunity to continue to influence the future of libraries and scholarly communication at what I consider a crucially important time for both.

I am convinced that the decisions that are made now, and the directions we take, especially at institutions like MIT, will have profound implications for the future of scholarly communication and therefore on the influence that scholars and scholarship can have on addressing the world’s greatest challenges.
Which brings us to the substantive portion of my talk.

I’ve been asked to talk about the role research institutions like MIT have in shaping the future of scholarly communication, with an emphasis on how I might influence local and national discourse, and how I might lead the libraries and the press to have maximum impact. And, I’ve been asked to do that in 30 minutes.
It is a big topic, or set of topics, and I certainly have more than 30 minutes worth of thoughts on it. Some of what I want to say will necessarily be at a fairly abstract level, but I will try to provide some examples which I am happy to address in more detail during the Q&A time.

Frankly, I’m also hesitant to offer detailed plans for MIT because I believe that a new leader should spend a considerable amount of time learning about a new organization, its culture, its strengths and aspirations before initiating any specific strategies for that organization. There are also a number of topics that I think are crucial to the future of libraries and scholarly communication, but that I won’t address directly in the scope of this talk – I hope you will feel free to ask me about my thoughts on learning spaces, MOOCs, information literacy, big data, shared print collections, the role of social media in marketing the library and the press, and any of the other topics that I don’t directly highlight in the next 30 minutes or so.

What I will talk about is how institutions like MIT, and specifically the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press, play key roles in shaping the future of scholarly communication by providing an infrastructure and a culture that supports the creation, dissemination and preservation of knowledge.

My plan is to explain what I mean by infrastructure and culture, explain where and how I think choices about infrastructure and/or culture, particularly in the context of libraries and university presses, affect scholarship and the future of scholarly publishing, and provide examples of ways I have tried, and would continue to try, to influence discourse and organizational effectiveness via infrastructure and culture.

When I talk about infrastructure, I’m referring to not only physical settings but also to the digital infrastructures that are increasingly important to research and learning. And when I talk about culture, I’m primarily talking about organizational culture – the assumptions, values, and norms that make up an organization’s personality and that guide (or should guide) the decisions an organization makes – not just about what to do, but also how work is accomplished and by whom.

Bikes outside Green Library, Stanford

Bikes outside Green Library, Stanford

As a sociologist I see infrastructure and culture as not separate domains, but as very much interrelated. For example, Stanford is a biking campus, not just because we are in California, with its culture of healthy living and environmental consciousness, but also because we have a very large sprawling campus and we enjoy generally excellent weather all year round.

Infrastructure and culture are mutually reinforcing aspects of a healthy, effective organization. And as a leader, ensuring that infrastructures are reflective of and supportive of a clearly articulated culture is one of my key responsibilities.

I also think it is important to note at the outset that I do not believe that libraries have ever been merely neutral repositories of information; nor do I think they should be. Great libraries are always more than infrastructure, they are more than warehouses they are definitely more than merely a Netflix for books.
Great libraries embody the cultural values of their communities and their parent organizations; and they promote the values of democracy, diversity, openness, and the idea that education is a public and social good.

MIT strikes me as a place that openly strives to create infrastructures that match your particular culture and values; and as a place where the libraries and the press are expected to play leading roles in advocating for change in scholarly publishing practices and higher education consistent with MIT values. That is one of the key factors that makes this opportunity so attractive to me.

For example, it is no coincidence that DSpace – an infrastructure designed to promote the preservation and open dissemination of scholarship, was developed at MIT – an institution with a culture that promotes open access to the scholarly record and that includes preservation as part of its mission. I won’t name names, but many institutions lag behind MIT in providing access to the research they produce. In some cases, it is because they have the cultural will, but lack the infrastructure; at other universities, the infrastructure exists, but the institution lacks a shared cultural imperative. It seems clear to me that the tight coupling of culture and infrastructure has been a key factor in MIT’s unique and early success in disseminating its research and teaching to the world.

DSpace at MIT

DSpace at MIT

MIT established itself as a bold and effective leader in the open access movement when it developed DSpace over a decade ago, and again when faculty passed an Open Access policy in 2009.
(Let me note here that I am aware that within the broad support for open access as a concept there are valid concerns across campus about how to balance openness with current realities of tenure and promotion and the pressure on humanities graduates especially to revise their dissertations into a first book that university presses will be wiling to publish.)

It is clear to me that the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press play a vital role in providing the kinds of physical and digital infrastructures that facilitate world-class scholarship and teaching and that encourage and support innovations in research and pedagogy.

The next leader of the MIT libraries and the MIT press will clearly have a unique opportunity and responsibility to continue the legacy of leadership and excellence, and to influence the discourse on open access – both locally and nationally.

My sense of the open access landscape is that the movement has reached the point where it is time to take stock of the many innovations, experiments, successes, and failures in this space. MIT strikes me as especially well-positioned to lead such a conversation.

Open Access: What's next?

Open Access: What’s next?

Developing sustainable models for open access publishing requires an understanding of the complex interactions between the ways scholarship is produced, reviewed, published, rewarded, marketed and disseminated – and the ways all of those things are changing.
Essentially, I see this as a sort of systems engineering puzzle – the exact kind of problem that folks from MIT are especially well qualified to solve.
It is time to pull together all the key players – scholarly associations, librarians, publishers, funding agencies, and scholars – to develop a systematic inventory of what we know about open access efforts to date, and what remains to be learned. I would love to see MIT host a set of productive conversations on open access, with the explicit goal of chronicling what we know so far, and charting a direction for continued development of infrastructures, policies and practices based on documented successes and best practices.

Moving from experimentation to sustainable models for Open Access, especially models that move beyond journals to include monographs as well as new forms of interactive, multimedia narratives, will require steady and coordinated change across all parts of the scholarly communication system.

Change in this space will also require new radically collaborative funding models – such as the model suggested by a recent white paper produced by K|N Consultants that calls for all higher education institutions to contribute to a centrally managed fund that would be used to support partnerships among scholarly societies, research libraries, and other institutional players for the production, access and long-term preservation of new and evolving forms of research output. Full disclosure, I am was a member of the Board of Directors of K|N consultants – in part because I think bold strategies like the one they propose need to be part of the conversation.

Encouraging and hosting a systematic and collaborative meta-analysis of what we currently know about open access is one specific way I would want to leverage the expertise, culture, and reputation of MIT to influence discourse and progress in shaping the future of scholarly communication. In other words, lets gather the available data, from all parts of the ecosystem, and analyze it so we can make smart decisions about how to move forward.

Finding ways to promote and sustain open access to and broad dissemination of scholarly research is not only consistent with the core values of librarianship and with the mission of MIT, but it also conveniently has the potential to offer some relief from the very real budget pressures most academic libraries and their host institutions are all too familiar with. Flat or declining collection budgets, combined with rising serials costs – especially in the sciences – have driven most libraries to look very carefully at the value of their collections and to focus on maximizing the return on investment on the materials we acquire.

Journals, photo by Wayne Vanderkuil

Journals, photo by Wayne Vanderkuil

Now, while I am very much in favor of maximizing the use and impact of our collections, I am also an advocate for explicit efforts to ensure that use and popularity are not the sole determinants of what sorts of materials libraries collect. I believe that libraries need to collect and university presses need to publish diverse literatures, on niche topics and by authors from underrepresented groups not just so that our individual collections reflect a stated commitment to diversity; but also to ensure that diverse voices get published and are therefore available as part of the collective scholarly record we leave to future students and scholars.

I also think it is important to recognize that the books we collected in the past, and kept, preserved, and digitized are now available for innovative new kinds of research – such as this project on the evolution of Brazilian Portuguese.

Graph of evolution of Brazilian Portuguese, courtesy of Cuauhtémoc García-García

Graph of evolution of Brazilian Portuguese, courtesy of Cuauhtémoc García-García

The data for this research – provided to the Stanford research team by Stanford librarians — consists of the digitized texts of Portuguese language books in HathiTrust & Google Books –from our own collections and those of our peers. Here’s the thing — Our pre-colonial Brazilian literature doesn’t really get much use, and it is a good bet that the majority of the tens of thousands of texts that make up the data for this study have less than impressive circulation records. For me this project, and other examples of research that depend on rarely used materials, stand as cautionary tales about relying too heavily on use statistics and narrowly defined return on investment metrics for decision-making and assessment. We have to be cognizant of the fact that current and future scholars will make use of our archives, our collections, and our data in ways we cannot now imagine.

Creating a culture that values diversity and the long-term value of library collections and services requires new and innovative ways of assessing and demonstrating impact. With this in mind, I started a pilot project last year, with one of our digital humanities librarians, to investigate an alternate way of assessing the value of libraries and librarians. In this project, we used text-mining techniques to quantify and analyze mentions of Stanford libraries and librarians in the acknowledgements sections of published monographs. We have dubbed this our “measuring thanks” project, and our early findings are quite encouraging and informative. For example, we have found that the two library services most often mentioned by name in acknowledgements are special collections and interlibrary borrowing. We have also found that the majority of authors who acknowledge a library actually acknowledge more than 1 library or collection—pointing to the importance of creating collaborative collections and discovery environments to make access to dispersed but related collections even easier for future scholars.

Developing new ways of demonstrating the impact of our services and collections is a way of promoting a culture that values assessment, but also recognizes that the true impact of libraries and librarians is often delayed and too idiosyncratic to show up in most of the standard ROI style assessment tools currently in use.
So while I am a fan of assessment and data-driven decision-making, I think it is critically important that we make sure the data we are using captures the full story of our impact. As a social scientist with experience teaching and consulting on statistics and research methods, I’m committed to making sure that the assessment tools we use in libraries are the right ones, that the data we collect measures what really matters, and that we use methods appropriate to the decisions we want to make.

In addition to providing an alternate, potentially more meaningful benchmark for library impact and value, one of the other things I love about the “Measuring thanks” project is that it has provided us with true stories that help us connect the work we do with actual scholarly products.

Ensuring that all members of our staff understand how their own work and the work of their colleagues contributes to the research and teaching missions of the university is one of the main goals of the Library Concierge Program – a project I developed for Stanford Libraries in 2012.

Stanford Libraries Concierge Program, with feedback

Stanford Libraries Concierge Program, with feedback

The Concierge Program ensures that all our library staff have a good understanding of the array of resources and services we have to offer – from print and digital collections across many disciplines, to multi-media training, to digital humanities support, to data management planning and more. The Program consists of structured opportunities for all library staff – from subject liaisons to cataloguers to shelves, even many of our long-term student workers – to learn about what their colleagues in other parts of the organization are doing, so that we could all act as ambassadors – or concierges – for the full range of resources, services and expertise the libraries have to offer. The program is explicitly designed to break down the silos across the library, the university press, and our academic computing services and to promote more open exchange of information and expertise among all members of the libraries.

I’m happy to say that the program has been a huge success – I offer these 2 quotes as partial evidence, supporting by a more quantitative evaluation reported in a case study published in the open access Journal of Creative Library Practice. As the quotes suggest, library staff report that they have a better understanding of the bigger organization and how & where their particular job fits in the big picture. And ultimately, the success of the program is revealed through the impact on scholars, who, as the 2nd quote illustrates, are able to make more productive and efficient use of the resources we make available to them.

The final topic I want to touch on is the work I have done as an advocate for increased diversity and inclusion in the library profession generally, and specifically in library technology.

As some of you know, I am active on social media – I’ve used twitter and my blog, as well as various speaking opportunities to try to raise awareness about the lack of diversity in librarianship and I have played a leading role in two major recent events – a day-long forum on diversity in academic libraries at the Digital Library Federation Fall forum, and a 2-day summit on Leadership, Technology, and Gender in April of this year.

And last summer, I asked our university librarian to issue a public statement in support of anti-harassment policies (or codes of conduct) at library, technology, and higher education conferences. Together, we encouraged our staff to participate only in those conferences that had clear and public anti-harassment policies and to advocate for the adoption of such policies at conferences in which they participate. As a result, Stanford librarians, backed by the strong public stance made by the library leadership, played key roles in the adoption of codes of conduct by several major national and international organizations, including the Association of Digital Humanities Organizations, the Music Library Association, and the Association of Slavic Eastern European & European Studies. I am told that the Coalition of Networked Information is working on such a policy, in response, at least partially, to advocacy from Stanford. I am proud to have played a key role in ensuring that these spaces are safer and more accessible to those who may have otherwise felt less welcome.
OK – to summarize, I was asked to talk about the future of scholarly communication and how I might influence discourse about that future, and how I would lead the MIT Libraries and Press. I hope that what I have shared about the work I have done and the values and passions that motivate me have made it clear what kind of leader I have been thus far and how I would seek to lead if given the opportunity here at MIT.

I believe that scholarship is ultimately a conversation, and my vision of libraries and university presses, is that they are natural hosts for those conversations – creating spaces — virtual, physical, & cultural spaces –where those conversations are facilitated, recorded, published and made available to be used and revised and expanded in ways we can’t yet anticipate; but which we none-the-less must aspire to capture and preserve for future generations.

Infrastructure + Culture = Conversations

Infrastructure + Culture = Conversations

I’m proud of the work my colleagues and I have accomplished at Stanford, and of the influence I have had on broader conversations about issues of importance to the library profession and to the future of scholarly communication.

And … I am ready and eager to assume a more active and a more prominent role in leading and influencing the future of libraries and of scholarly publishing. I am attracted to MIT because of its unique blend of values, scholarly intensity, and commitment to solving real world problems.

By all accounts, the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press are poised to meet the emerging challenges presented by new methods of research, new forms of publication, and changing expectations for access to information. MIT strikes me as a place where people see challenges as opportunities, and where faculty, students and staff alike seek to leverage the full force of MIT’s intellectual resources toward finding solutions to real problems. MIT has already taken a lead in addressing the very real and pressing challenge of finding sustainable models of providing open, equitable & meaningful access to the growing flood of scholarly information, data, and technologies. I would welcome the opportunity to build on MIT’s legacy of strong and principled leadership on these issues as a member of this community and as director of the MIT Libraries.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you and I very much welcome your questions.

no crystal balls

Below are my remarks from the Look into the Crystal Ball: Future Directions for Higher Education and Academic Libraries panel at ALA, sponsored by ACRL University Libraries section. I think it was recorded and will be available somewhere. Google that in a few days if you want to hear the whole thing.

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There are no crystal balls – the future is notoriously unpredictable and it is certainly not linear.

I think the events of just the last few days make that clear – at least to me. On the same day that the Supreme Court issued a historic ruling for marriage equality – something many of us simply couldn’t allow ourselves to hope for in our lifetimes – our President gave a eulogy for a pastor who was murdered in a heinous act of racial terrorism that also claimed the lives of 8 members of his historical black church in Charleston SC.

Yesterday was a day of both celebration and sorrow.

I believe Dr. King was right — the arc of the moral universe is long and it surely bends towards justice; but it does so in fits and starts; and it includes times like this marked by progress and by pain. In the span of a few days we have seen history being made and we have seen history tragically repeat itself. Three black churches have burned in the south in the last 5 days.

So I’m even less inclined than I usually am to try to predict the future, or to describe how libraries ought to react to future trends.

As my friend and colleague Francis Kayiwa says – if we could predict the future, I hope we’d all play the lottery and then use the winnings to build great libraries.

That said, just as many us work towards social change even though we can’t predict the path or timing; we can and should work towards the kind of future research library we want.

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.

Let me respond to some of what my colleagues have talked about and bring up a few other topics:

Most of my colleagues on the panel stressed the coming wave of online education and roles librarians can play to support faculty and students in online courses. Sure, libraries and librarians can do all the same things around online education as we do for face to face education; but to me a big challenge of online education that only libraries can address is one of preservation – of the massive amounts of data being generated by the multi-institutional experiment in online learning that is at the heart of edX and other online education ventures.

I’m also less interested in helping faculty find open resources for their online courses than I am in pushing to make more and more scholarly content and educational resources open in the first place, so finding resources that can be used in open education is easy for everyone.

As more university presses land under the purview of the libraries, we have real opportunities (obligations?) to work together towards our common cause of providing access to scholarship. Together we can and will figure out sustainable models for funding the production and dissemination of scholarly research.

My fellow panelists also talked about the need for librarians to help students find the “right” information by providing curated sets of resources. Again, yes librarians can help students make sense of a deluge of information through curation …

But it would be so much better if we could develop discovery environments that put intuitive curation and filtering tools in the hands of users, so they could do their own curating. Let’s give them the power and the choice.

[Here I gave an extemporaneous shout-out to the Code4Lib article Bess Sadler and I wrote about building feminist values of choice, empowerment & transparency into our discovery environments.]

Along with that – I want to put real resources into developing truly effective virtual browsing capacities – instead of mocking scholars who tell us that browsing physical stacks is important part of their research process; let’s figure out how to recreate and enhance that experience in a virtual environment. Let’s get to work creating a virtual browsing enviroment that allows a scholar to browse collections regardless of format or physical location.

On library instruction I agree with my panelists that there is an ever more important role for librarians, and want to stress the need for us to work in the realms of data literacy and critical thinking.

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

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 – persistent racial and ethnic injustice, climate change, global poverty, and staggering and growing degrees of income and wealth inequality to name a few.

Let me be very clear, I am calling for activist librarians who will be the change we want to see in the library world, in higher education, and in our communities.

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

In some cases we need to take our cues from the new generation of activist and radical librarians and archivists who are already doing this kind of work.

I hesitate to name names because I will inevitably leave folks out who are doing great things; but I have to single out Bergis Jules & Ed Summers who are creating and analyzing an archive of #CharlesonShooting tweets. Others among us contributed to efforts to develop a Ferguson syllabus and resource guides, a Ferguson archive, and a Charleston syllabus. Former Stanford colleagues developed a GIS application to track Mass shootings in America after the Newtown shooting.

These are examples of curation, education, publication and yes activism all rolled up together.

There are more examples and more people who rarely get asked to talk about the future of libraries, but who are making that future every day. My twitter pals, you are the future of libraries and I see you. I see you.

Joy playlist

I put together a playlist for our recent MIT Libraries and MIT Press leadership retreat. My unofficial motto since I got here has been “Let’s do great things, and have fun doing them.” In addition, our awesome Associate Director for Research and Instructional Services, Tracy Gabridge, has added “do it with joy” to the charter for some of the projects she is managing. So the playlist for our retreat was based on songs with the word “Joy” in the title.

I had this playing as folks arrived for the retreat and at the breaks, and offered a $50 gift certificate to the MIT Press Bookstore for the first person who guessed the theme.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pride and Joy

Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pride and Joy

  1. Joy Against Me!
  2. Joyful Girl Ani DiFranco
  3. Road To Joy Bright Eyes
  4. My Joy (7″ Mix) Depeche Mode
  5. Joyful Noise Derek Trucks Band
  6. Joy Iron & Wine
  7. Joy Lucinda Williams
  8. Tears Of Joy Lucinda Williams
  9. Joy Phish
  10. Pride And Joy Stevie Ray Vaughan
  11. Joy To The World The Supremes
  12. Joy Teddy Pendergrass
  13. Let’s Dance to Joy Division The Wombats

EnJOY!

feminism and the collective collection

Text of my talk at BLC Networking Day 2015 below:

title slide: feminism & collective collection

title slide: feminism & collective collection


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

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

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

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

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

rosy the riveter socks

rosy the riveter socks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The library as an institution is a downright radical idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

African America Women - fiction

African America Women – fiction

Yes, that’s right —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at what they have found.

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

Gender and NY Review of Books

Gender and NY Review of Books

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

Racial disparities are even more dramatic.

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

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

Women of color - Time Literary Supplement

Women of color – Time Literary Supplement

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

Women of color - Boston Review

Women of color – Boston Review

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

Some more data to consider:

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

NY Times Summer Reading List: Peak Whiteness

NY Times Summer Reading List: Peak Whiteness

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

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

Finally, lets look at awards.

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

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

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

Gender and Pulitzer Prize for fiction

Gender and Pulitzer Prize for fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcoming the Massachusetts Black Librarians Network to MIT

Today I had the great honor and pleasure of welcoming the Massachusetts Black Librarians Network to MIT for a luncheon event hosted by MIT Libraries.

It was a wonderful event, full of great conversation, inspiring people, and really terrific ideas about how to advance equity, inclusion, diversity and social justice in and through libraries.

Below are the remarks I made to open the conversation.

~~~~~

Barbara Williams asked me to share a few thoughts to kick off a conversation about how we can create a culturally relevant profession, and I do have a few things to say on that topic.

What I want to be able to say is that libraries, and by extension those of us who work in and for them, are arguably the most culturally relevant social institutions of our times. Full stop.  

But I think we all know that libraries and librarians suffer from a strange kind of image and PR problem.

On the one hand, the vast majority of people in any public opinion poll rank librarians high on all kinds of positive dimensions – especially helpfulness and trustworthiness.

And people generally love libraries, but often nostalgically and not so much when we start talking about funding needs.

But even with all the positive sentiment about libraries and librarians,  there is a profound lack of understanding about the range of what libraries and librarians really do.

In fact, the night before I flew here for the interview for this job, my wife and I were out to dinner with friends and I was expressing some nervousness about the presentation I would be giving as part of the interview process. One of our friends actually asked me: “What do you have to do in your talk, recite the full Dewey Decimal System?”

We can chuckle at that, but uneasily I hope, because we all know that libraries and those of us who work in them bring tremendous value to our communities through a range of activities, resources, services and expertise.

In a time when information and misinformation is shared and used and misused at dizzying speeds; and at a time when our country is increasingly polarized in its views about everything from climate change to whose lives matter; libraries and those of us who work there are more relevant than ever.

We can and do provide the spaces (physical and virtual), the resources, and the expertise to host productive, informed and inclusive conversations about the topics and issues that our communities care about. And I believe we have a special responsibility and the special expertise to provide access to the information and the tools people need to understand current events and to contribute to solutions to the big problems of our day.

So one of the challenges for us in asserting our cultural relevance is in updating the image of libraries and librarianship to include the full range of what we do and how we can empower our communities. We also all know that another challenge is that our profession is a painfully homogenous one demographically.

The challenge of recruiting and retaining librarians of color is one I think about all the time, and frankly I don’t have a magic solution. I hope that our conversations today touch on both the supply and demand sides of the problem.

On the demand side, there is no doubt in my mind that racial bias – conscious and unconscious – seeps into the recruiting and hiring practices of libraries. And I suspect sadly that many of you know better than I do that once in the profession, people of color do not experience workplaces as welcoming as our values say we are.

On the supply side, we need to make the profession attractive and rewarding to young people of color — which maybe goes back to the issue of making our cultural relevance more obvious.

So when i think about promoting the cultural relevancy of libraries and of those of us who work in them, I think about updating our image; I think about reminding library leaders like me of our responsibility to uphold the values of librarianship with respect to diversity, inclusion and equity; and I think about finding ways to excite people about what they can do as a member of our profession.

The once and future librarian

I had the pleasure of participating in a Faculty symposium on the future of academic research libraries hosted at McGill University today. The event was live-streamed, and the video is now availablewill be available from McGill Library soon – I’ll add the link here when it is up. I encourage you to watch the full video, because the other talks and the question and answer session was terrific.

Below is the text from my portion:

It is an honor to be here and to be included in this panel of really smart insightful people who care deeply about the future of higher education and the future of academic research libraries.

I have to be honest though, it is not really very good timing for me. The thing is, earlier this week we buried my brother-in-law, Alfredo “Freddy” Cordero Jr. — A sweet kind soul, whose life was both harder and shorter than it should have been.

And I wondered whether I should mention something so personal in a talk like this, but I’m a long-time feminist who believes that the personal is political is professional … and back again.

So this weekend, while I was writing this talk, my wife was writing a eulogy for her brother.

And that certainly felt like a very strange and uncomfortable juxtaposition, until I realized the extent to which our grief and grieving served to crystallize just how important and precious the past can be, and likewise how fragile and uncertain the future.

That certainly feels like a good perspective to keep in mind as we talk about the future of research libraries.

And if you’ll indulge me one more connection – Freddy grew up in Bridgeport Connecticut, which is the largest and also one of the poorest cities in Connecticut.

The Bridgeport Public Library plays a vital role in the lives of Bridgeport’s residents, and its motto is “A gathering place for the entire community”, and its mission statement includes the assertion that “we believe that libraries can change people’s lives and are a cornerstone of our democracy”.

I think all libraries (public and academic research libraries) can and should aim for the same impact —
to be an inclusive gathering place, to change lives, and to advance democracy.

In the case of academic libraries, we are and should always be a safe, multi-disciplinary, information-rich gathering place for members of our communities.

We do and should always aspire to have transformative impact – on students of course, but also on faculty – by providing expertise, tools, resources, and services that inspire new kinds of research questions and that serve as catalysts for experiments in new forms of pedagogy.

And we do and should always take seriously our role in producing informed citizens who participate in their own governance through the democratic process.

There are lots of ways to think about the future of libraries, and plenty of questions to tackle within that topic:

  • what will the right mix of print and digital resources be in 5 years, in 10 years? (the correct answers to that one are “I don’t know” and “it depends”)
  • what should a physical library look like as more and more resources are available and used in digital rather than physical format?
  • what’s the next big technical breakthrough that will transform how people discover and access information?

These are all great questions that highlight important ways to think about the future of libraries. And I’m glad my colleagues on this panel are going to address most of them.

The topic I’m going to talk about is the kinds of expertise that will be needed in the great research libraries of the future.

And I want to suggest that the expertise that will ensure that the future academic library continues to be a central part of the research and teaching life of a university is similar to the expertise librarians already bring to the table – we just might need more of it.

Now, I have to take a short and I suppose slightly dangerous detour to define what I mean by librarian.

Urban Dictionary definition of Librarian

Urban Dictionary definition of Librarian

It is tempting to use this urban dictionary definition of Librarian, but let me at least add to that definition.

I want to talk about the human capital inherent in library organizations – the distinct expertise, skills, perspectives, and values that people who work in libraries contribute to the academy. And I use the term Librarian to describe those people – the people who work in the library organization and contribute to the core missions of the library.

To refer to a broad range of people who work in a library as librarians – regardless of their job title or credentials – is actually fairly controversial, so let me be clear about one thing. I use the term in this more inclusive way not to devalue the library degree or those who hold it in any way at all — I use it rather to value the range of degrees, skills, talents and experiences needed to make information accessible for current and future scholars.

And I do this because I chose to believe that professional respect is not a limited resource; and I believe a more expansive understanding of who a librarian is and what academic librarians do to advance research and teaching is critical to a robust future for libraries and for higher education.

OK – back to this idea of the once and future librarian – my bottom line is that the future of libraries depends on librarians – a diverse, highly skilled, values-driven set of people who collaborate across and within institutions to support, create, and inspire the very best of current and future scholarship and teaching — And who do so with from a distinct and important perspective.

Let me talk a little about my own journey into librarianship as a way of highlighting some of the ways I had to learn to think differently as a librarian — ways of thinking that make librarians key to not just collecting, preserving, and providing access to scholarship, but to producing and shaping it as well.

I moved to Stanford in the late 1990s, after 3 years on the faculty at West Point, to pursue a PhD in sociology, with the sort of vague intention of pursuing a regular faculty position when I finished.

But Stanford and Palo Alto are expensive places to live, so I immediately got a part-time job working in the library and I worked in the libraries throughout my graduate career.

By the time I finished my PhD I was recruited into a full-time position in the libraries as the social sciences librarian, and for me that turn made sense. I realized I could have greater impact on scholarship & on the future of higher education and scholarly communication thru a career in libraries than I could have as an individual scholar.

As I made the transition from preparing for a career as an individual scholar to a career in librarianship, I found that being an academic librarian require a change in perspective.

My academic background was and is very useful; but being an effective librarian has required more than subject matter expertise, it has required a change in perspective.

New perspective as librarian

New perspective as librarian

In the most general sense, I would say that the librarians I have worked with operate at a different level of analysis than do most individual faculty members. So, for example, as a PhD student, you are expected to become an expert in a discipline, with a solid grasp of the seminal works and main journals of your field.

As a librarian, I needed to think in much more multi-disciplinary ways. And as I built and maintained collections in several disciplines, I couldn’t afford to select for individual authors — I had to learn the publishing landscape for each discipline so I would know which publishers were strong in what fields; who published quality journals at reasonable prices, and who published monographs in fields that were most active at my university.

I learned how important metadata is … to just about everything libraries do. And I started thinking less about specific books and articles and more about the scholarly communication ecosystem as a whole – and how it was changing and should change to support new modes of scholarship and to allow for open access to the scholarly record. And, I had to start taking a much longer view of both the past and the future.

It is this distinct set of perspectives that means librarians have been working on and thinking about issues like open access, metadata, data privacy, and digital preservation for much longer than most in the academy .. and certainly for longer and with more rigor than most outside the academy.

This was never more evident that when Google Vice President Vint Cerf made big news by talking about how worried he is that the digital documents and images we are all creating now will disappear as software and hardware becomes obsolete. When news about Vint Cerf’s fear of a digital dark ages reached the library community, our collective reaction was best summarized by Dorothea Salo – one of librarianship’s most insightful voices.

Salo took to twitter to explain that librarians had been thinking about digital preservation for a long time already — and that Cerf needn’t worry because we had already built digital repositories, and workflows, and access systems for preserving digital artifacts.

We teach personal digital archiving classes, we create standards, and we have built the capacity to not just store, but to truly archive – for the long-term – the digital artifacts of our culture and of scholarship. That’s our job and its the kind of thinking and work that is a distinct strength of librarians. We think about the long-term future of the past, so that scholars and students can use it in the present.

At many universities, libraries and librarians have been supporting digital humanities research, GIS and data visualization, technology-enhanced pedagogy, and sound data management practices for a very long time. Today’s librarians have expertise, skills, and perspectives that are absolutely critical to the changing research and teaching needs of today’s faculty and students. And any vision for the future of research libraries needs to include ways to highlight and maximize the contributions of library experts to research and teaching.

Since it is free, I will leave you with some specific advice:

One major challenge for most academic libraries I know is a lack of awareness of the expertise that libraries and librarians have to offer. Every library survey I have seen – from multiple universities – shows that over 80% of faculty and students at any given university are very satisfied with their libraries and their librarians.

That’s great of course; but those same surveys (plus plenty of anecdotal evidence) reveal that high percentages of faculty and students are likewise unaware of the full range of services and expertise their libraries and librarians have to offer.

So my first bit of advice is that you should ensure that your vision for the future of research/academic libraries prominently features librarians – both symbolically and literally. Design spaces and services that showcase the full range of expertise of your librarians.

And no, I don’t simply mean ensure that the reference desk is visible from the entrance. If you want a truly great library, you have to design spaces that emphasize that librarians have expertise in a huge range of areas vital to scholarship and teaching – from data and metadata, to digital preservation, to publishing, to online learning, to software development, text-mining, project management, and yes even reference.

Ensure your library is designed to make library experts visible and accessible to scholars and students. Include in your designs plenty of information and technology rich environments for faculty and students to collaborate with library experts.

My second bit of advice is that you recognize that the best future we can imagine (for higher education or for libraries) is likely to come from more diverse and inclusive conversations than the ones we usually have.

And I mean more diverse along all the usual axes of diversity that we think of – race, class, gender, sexuality; and some that we sometimes forget – conversations that include a range of neurodiversity, and that include people with different physical abilities and disabilities.

And when we are having local conversations – about the future of our own academic institutions and our own libraries; we still need to be very deliberate about including as many voices as possible.

For example, if we really want to understand how students use library spaces; and what’s missing from library spaces that students find frustrating; I think we would do well to talk to the library support staff who work the late evening shifts.

If we want to understand how our print collections really get used – and here i’m talking about the full range of uses, not just what gets officially checked out —we ought to talk to the library staff who re-shelve the books and keep the stacks maintained and in order.

But of course, my whole point is that the future of libraries is about much more than finding the right balance between print and digital; or designing the right kinds of study and collaborative spaces for students — those are important parts of it; but I challenge you to imagine a future library where every scholar and every student has the maximum opportunity to work with experts in the library who bring unique skills and knowledge that could jumpstart new research and transform learning.

I said at the beginning that the future is incredibly fragile, uncertain and nearly unpredictable. But the one thing that I am certain of about the future is that it will be better through radically inclusive collaboration.


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