Posts Tagged 'femqueerlib'

Debating y/our humanity, or Are Libraries Neutral?

Below are my prepared remarks for the ALA MidWinter President’s Program, billed as a debate on the question of Are Libraries Neutral? I was on the Hell No side. Please be sure to also read Emily Drabinki’s remarks — she was a designated commenter and she slayed.

There will apparently be a video available later, which will be great because some of the questions were amazing, and there were some really incredible people who told brave truths.

(There was also the dude who chastised the debaters by claiming none of us talked about libraries as institutions or organizations. I basically responded with “yeah, actually I did. I guess I could read it louder if you want.” Too snarky probably, but at least I didn’t actually flip any tables.)

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Merriam-Webster and the OED both define neutrality as:

“The state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict, disagreement, or war.”

Neutrality is about not taking sides.

Now my opponents are likely to use a different definition of neutrality, and may try to convince you that to be neutral is to equally support all sides.  But … well, they’re wrong.

I’m going to argue that libraries are not now, have never been, and cannot be neutral by addressing 3 levels of analysis:

  1. Library as a social institution
  2. Librarianship as a profession
  3. Libraries as organizations

In the interest of time, I’m not going to talk about whether librarians as individuals can or should be neutral, other than to say that one of the most robust findings over decades of social science research is that individuals are prone to multiple types of bias across a wide range of contexts and in nearly every kind of decision-making. Humans are not neutral, and neither are librarians, archivists, or other library workers.

But I want to start by talking about Libraries as social institutions.

A library is a social institution that provides access to a pool of information resources for a given community. The very notion that shared, consolidated community resources ought to exist is not a neutral idea.

In 2011, a Chicago paper ran an op-ed, possibly tongue-in-cheek, but none-the-less relevant, that equated libraries with socialism:

“I can’t think of a more egregious example of government-sponsored socialism than the public library. Unproductive citizens without two nickels to rub together are given access to millions of books they could never afford to buy on their own — all paid for with the tax dollars of productive citizens. …why should the government pay for people to read books and surf the Internet for free?”

A library as an institution represents a decision about how a community spends its resources and those decisions are never neutral – they are value-laden and they reveal what the community (or at least the powerful actors in that community) thinks is important. Decisions like how much funding a library gets, who should have access to the library, and even where the library is located are not neutral decisions.

And I can’t talk about the lack of neutrality in the very notion of libraries as social institutions without acknowledging the fact that the origin of public libraries in the US is inextricably tied to the fact that the history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism, slavery, and segregation.

For more on this argument, I recommend an article titled Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression, by nina de jesus.

In the US, Libraries were created to spread knowledge and culture and to educate citizens in support of a new nation, a new democracy  — a nation conceived via the displacement and genocide of indigenous peoples, and a nation that was built on the backs of enslaved black people.

Libraries as social institutions have never been neutral.

Let’s turn to librarianship as a profession.

We are over 85% white as a profession, in a country where non-hispanic whites make up only 63% of the population. A profession doesn’t become so disproportionately white by chance, and there is nothing neutral about that fact that our profession, and most of our organizations have remained stubbornly white for decades, despite changing national demographics and despite all our rhetoric about how much we ‘value diversity and strive to represent the diversity of the communities we serve’

“Professionalism” itself, and how we define and defend it in librarianship, is not a neutral concept. It is rooted in white, middle class, heteronormative and able-bodied ideal-types

My 2 colleagues describe and explain this better than I can, so please read their articles:

Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias; by Angela Galvan

White Librarianship in Blackface; by April Hathcock

And if you want to fully explore the topic of whiteness in librarianship, I recommend the Library Juice Press book: Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science.

Turning to libraries as organizations, I’m going to talk about collections and about programming.

The pro-neutrality folks are going to argue that a neutral collection is one that includes items reflecting all sides of contentious issues. But the idea that our collections should be inclusive of all or many points of view – even those points of view that some members of our community find repellent — is not a neutral stance.

According to the 2016 General Social Survey:

  • 51% of people would favor removing a book written by a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States from their public library.
  • 35% favor removing a book that argues blacks are inferior
  • 25% favor removing books by communists
  • 17% favor removing books by homosexuals

How does a library remain neutral on these questions?

One side says keep the book, another side says remove it.

You can’t have and not have the book simultaneously – you have to take a side. As far as I know, none of us work in Schrodinger’s Library.

A library that includes books by anti-American Muslims, communists and homosexuals is not a neutral library. Likewise including racist and/or homophobic books in your collection is not a neutral decision.

AND , you can’t just include everything and claim neutrality – because doing so means you are taking the side of those who say include them over those who want certain books and authors removed from libraries.

Not only does including multiple points of view not equal neutrality, but we also make collection development decisions within a context and a publishing landscape that is riddled with systemic bias.

In an essay titled, All the sad young literary women, Ta-Nehisi Coates, describes the “ways that our reading is shaped and limited by the biases of the dominant literary gatekeepers”. Publishers, book reviewers, book sellers, and yes libraries and librarians favor works by and about men – especially white men.

Some examples:

The NY Times summer reading list for 2015 was all white authors (I haven’t checked the 2016 or 2017 list); and None of the pulitzer prize awards for fiction in this century has gone to a book by a woman about women (for more data on bias in book stuff, see vidaweb.org)

We also know that the search tools and other technologies we use are not neutral.

Two books you have to read on this topic are:

Our classification systems are also not neutral.

We use subject headings that center the straight, white, male, European experience; and are often racist and dehumanizing.

And a quick note about programming …

Let’s talk about Nazis, and whether libraries have to provide a platform for Nazis and white supremacist ideas in order to maintain some mythical claim to neutrality?

I hope others will tackle this topic more fully, but let me simply say that allowing those who deny the humanity and basic dignity of others to coopt the legitimacy of our libraries and our profession to spread their hatred and intimidation is not in any way a neutral choice.

I’ll end with two relevant  quotes.

First, from historian Howard Zinn, who wrote in Declarations of Independence: Cross examining american ideology:

“Indeed, it is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts.”

And, to close this out, I’ll share a favorite quote from the black, bisexual feminist poet and activist, June Jordan, who said,

“poetry is a political act, because it involves telling the truth.”

I submit to you that if we believe that libraries have any role to play in supporting and promoting truth, especially in today’s post-truth culture, then our work is political and not neutral.

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.

 

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.

Librarianing to Transgress: Closing Keynote ACRL OR/WA 2014

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

Great conference, really cool people, gorgeous setting.

_________

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queer butch feminist, librarianing for justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

#Ferguson happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why librarians? And how would we do it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukraine exhibit, Green Library, Stanford University

Ukraine exhibit, Green Library, Stanford University

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

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

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

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

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

Data collection isn’t neutral either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of diversity by the numbers in librarianship and in book stuff

When we talk about diversity and social justice in libraries and librarianship, it is good to know exactly what we are dealing with:

Sitting and thinking: Some post #libtechgender panel thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

And on that whole issue of storytelling …

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

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

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

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

A queer, feminist agenda for libraries: Significance, relevance and power

Bess Sadler and I are slated to present a paper on Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery at the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference here at Stanford next month. It has been really interesting to think about how to present these ideas to a primarily non-librarian crowd. Bess is doing most of the real work, but I promised to try my hand at providing some context in an introduction. This is super drafty, so comments very welcome.

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Libraries have never been neutral repositories of knowledge. This will likely strike many, particularly scholars working in feminist and/or queer theory traditions, as a not particularly novel or insightful claim. I expect that most will readily concede that libraries surely reflect the inequalities, biases, ethnocentrism, and power imbalances that exist throughout the academic enterprise. What may not be as obvious is the degree to which libraries contribute to bias and inequality in scholarship; and conversely the amount of power and responsibility libraries and librarians have to promote a more inclusive version of the scholarly record.

Libraries exercise considerable influence over the diversity (or lack thereof) of scholarship primarily through choices we make in fulfilling our primary missions of collecting, preserving, and providing access to information.

Collection development decisions have profound impacts on who and what is represented in the scholarly and cultural record. The decisions we make about whose archives to collect and preserve, and what books and journals to buy, are inevitably biased, based as they are on some combination of the judgements and interests of individual libraries and librarians, and on those same librarians’ sense of the tastes and needs of our patrons. Besides the obvious impact on the kinds of resources available to current scholars, our collection development decisions also impact the marketplace for scholarly publications. Libraries have historically represented a significant market for scholarly books coming out of university and academic presses, so budget-based decisions that reduce the numbers and types of monographs we purchase are likely to influence the kinds of authors and topics that presses are willing to publish.

Libraries collect — and therefore publishers publish — books by authors and about topics that are deemed to be novel and important, and that are expected to be heavily used by others. But those evaluations don’t happen in a vacuum. Like nearly every evaluative decision humans make, decisions about the quality and value of research and writing are riddled with biases and are made through lenses of power. These decisions then become self-perpetuating through a vicious cycle by which publications are judged by the reputation of the publisher and by how many major research libraries hold a copy of the publication. But conscious attention to collecting more diverse literatures, authors, topics and archives will only get us so far towards a more inclusive and feminist agenda for libraries.

As Hope Olsen’s work on critical feminist approaches to knowledge organization demonstrates, libraries also exert tremendous control over how books and other scholarly items are organized and therefore how, when, and by whom they are discoverable. As an example, librarians determine the primary subject classification of a book, which in turn determines the book’s call number and physical placement in the library stacks. Hierarchical classification schemas marginalize certain kinds of knowledge and certain topics by creating separate sub-classifications for topics such as “women and computers” or “black literature”.

books on gays in military

Shelved together in Green Library. One of these things is not like the others

The power of library classification systems is such that a scholar browsing the shelves for books on military history is unlikely to encounter Randy Shilts’ seminal work Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the US Military, because that book is sub-classified under the subject “Minorities, women, etc. in armed forces”.  In my own library, that means the definitive work on the history of gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces is literally shelved between Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star and Military Trade, “an edgy, enlightening, and richly entertaining collection of voices with a passion for servicemen”.  Over in the military history section of the stacks, you won’t find any books devoted to the service of gays and lesbians. You will however, find exactly 4 pages on “gays in the military” in A People’s History of the U.S. Military: Ordinary Soldiers Reflect on Their Experience of War, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan (emphasis mine). The scant 4 pages on gay military service literally starts at 1993, as if gays didn’t serve until Bill Clinton noticed them.

In our presentation, we argue that without an explicit feminist and queer agenda, these same processes of exclusion and marginalization will play out in our digital library and online discovery environments.   A queer feminist rhetoric and agenda for the future of library discovery would leverage technology to promote the feminist and queer values of plurality, participation, advocacy, ecology, embodiment, and self-disclosure. These qualities are described in Shaowen Bardzell’s “Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining an Agenda for Design”.
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This is where Bess will take over and actually talk about things like hacker rhetoric, online archives and discovery tools, assumptions of neutrality in relevance algorithms, the importance of having diversity in the coding community, etc.

Feminism, queer theory, and the future of library discovery

Last week, I riffed a bit on Bess Sadler’s talk Brain Injuries, Science Fiction, and Library Discovery. Bess and I continued our conversation (on and off-line), and we rode the wave of great feedback and our own naive enthusiasm right into submitting a presentation proposal for the 2013 Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference. Whether our proposal gets accepted or not, we’re going to keep wrestling with these ideas and see what we come up with, so stay tuned.
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Feminism and the future of library discovery
Proposal submitted for Feminisms & Rhetorics 2013

Chris Bourg, Stanford University
Bess Sadler, Stanford University

Debates over the roles of technology in higher education frequently include conversations about the effects of technology on the future of reading, books, and libraries.  Rhetoric surrounding physical browsing and print books tends to focus on physical and emotional responses to print, while discussions about ebooks and online discovery tend to emphasize the gains in efficiency afforded by technology.  In this way, debates about the future of books and of libraries tend to reflect the classic gendered differentiation between emotion and reason that feminist epistemology debunks so well (see Jaggar, 2008).

These debates also tend to be incredibly a-theoretical, as few scholars have engaged in any serious theoretical consideration of the effect of new technologies on library-based research.  While Hope Olson’s work on exposing the impact of western patriarchal biases on the organization of knowledge brings a much-needed critical feminist perspective to key library issues (Olson, 2002), little work has been done to expand that perspective to online environments. Queer theory scholars, such as Jack Halberstam, who calls for “counter-intuitive ways of thinking, anti-disciplinary forms of knowledge production, uncanonical archives and queer modes of address”, likewise have much to offer these debates (Halberstam, 2011; Halberstam 2012).

In our presentation, we imagine a future for libraries and their readers – from searching, browsing, and reading, to knowledge organization and relevancy ranking in online discovery environments – that is fully informed by queer theory and a critical feminist perspective.

Works Cited:

Jaggar, Alison M. Just Methods: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Reader. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008. Print.

Halberstam, Jack.  “Bullybloggers on Failure and the Future of Queer Studies.” Weblog entry. Bullybloggers. April 2, 2012. Accessed February 4, 2013.

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham [NC: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

Olson, Hope A. The Power to Name: Locating the Limits of Subject Representation in Libraries. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002. Print.


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