Posts Tagged 'libraries'

Educause 2016: Libraries and future of higher education

Text of the talk I gave at Educause 2016

Like all good talks, I’m going to start out by telling you what I’m not going to talk about.

As fewer people “go to the library” there has been a growing genre of literature I’ll call the “how to save libraries” genre.

Trends like declining circulation of print books and, in some cases, declining foot traffic in physical library buildings, has led to all kinds of strategies for “saving libraries”.

For academic libraries, that has usually been about turning libraries into information commons, always with coffee shops inside; and/or pumping up the role of librarians in teaching study skills, info-seeking skills and otherwise tying the work of the library folks into student success.

These are all good things, and make for good talks and articles, but my talk today will not be part of that genre. This will not be a “save the libraries” talk.

(this talk by David Lankes, where he references a great talk by Char Booth ,is a much more nuanced take on this than my soundbite intro here)

Let me go ahead and give away the punch line now: I don’t think we need to save libraries, but I do think we might need libraries to save us.

And maybe that’s the kind of hubris you might expect from a library director at a place like MIT; but so be it.

I believe it strongly and am willing to take some time here to try to convince you of it as well.

To convince you that libraries can save us, I figure I need to talk a bit about what libraries (really what librarians, archivists, and all those folks who work in and for libraries and archives) do in addition to building, maintaining, and circulating big collections of physical books and managing physical spaces.  I also need to talk about why what we do is so crucial in higher education a right now, and frankly in the nation and in a global context. To do that, I’ll share with you some of the ideas in a recently released MIT report on the future of libraries.

But before all that, I should probably be clear about what I think we need saving from.

This is the gloomy part of the talk, and I’m not really saying anything you don’t all know, so I’ll try to keep it brief.

At a global level, the challenges we face include ridiculous levels of inequality, poverty and hunger; refugee crises triggered by violence and environmental disasters; climate change; energy and water shortages; civil unrest and violence across the globe; an increase in human trafficking; and more.

At the national level, we are of course affected by the same global horrors, including a growing inequality gap, increasingly divisive and inflammatory political rhetoric, and a frighteningly polarized population.  And the most recent headlines tell us that 51% of likely voters fear election day violence, and in many counties across the countries schools are cancelling classes on election day because of the same fear. I mean, that’s not really how democracy is supposed to work.

But I don’t want to talk about anything as touchy and controversial as politics; so instead I’m going to talk about race.

(there was some uncomfortable laughter from the audience at this point)

Some of you likely know these data, but let me highlight some of the staggering racial differences in the US experience.

wealth-inequality-by-race-ethnicityOne troubling trend is the growing wealth inequality by race and ethnicity in the US – the current gap between blacks and whites has reached its highest point since 1989, and the current white-to-Hispanic wealth ratio has reached a level not seen since 2001. What data from the Pew Research Center show is that whites currently enjoy a level of wealth 13 times that of blacks, and 10 times that of hispanics.

There is a persistent income gap as well. We all know about the gender pay gap — that women make 80 cents for every dollar earned by men — but the race and ethnic income gap is even larger: 2014 census data show that black men earned 70 cents for every dollar earned by white men, black women, 63 cents. Hispanic men earned 60 cents on the dollar, and hispanic women earn 54 cents for every dollar a white man makes.

There are persistent racial and ethnic differences in educational attainment, health outcomes, home ownership, you name it. And residential and occupation segregation persists as well.

Look around the room and you’ll see evidence of occupational segregation – higher education, information technology, and librarianship are all overwhelmingly white occupational fields.

But racial differences in this country are not just demographic differences.

When polled about a variety of social issues, blacks and whites have very different opinions. Perhaps not surprisingly, for example, black americans are about half as likely as white americans to have positive views of whether the police treat members of all racial and ethnic groups equally, and whether police generally use the right amount of force.

On a huge range of topics, black people, other people of color, and white people all see the world differently.

By now, some of you may be wondering if you walked into the wrong talk – what do racial differences and racial inequality have to do with libraries and the future of higher education?

Bear with me just a bit longer as I call your attention to last fall, when students on many of our campuses came together to demand that America’s colleges and universities own up to the systemic racism that exists in higher education and in our nation, and to insist that we take steps to reduce discrimination and promote social justice.

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

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

And, like the Stanford law school students who hung this banner in January of 2015, they have insisted that we simply affirm that Black Lives Matter.

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Given the very real racial, political, social, and economic inequity, tension, and divides in this country and on our campuses I think how those of us who work in higher education respond will determine what kind of future we have.

Bridging our divides to find common ground and common solutions requires both individual education and awareness; and dialogue — and libraries are really good at facilitating those things.

Libraries are and must be key partners in the academy and in our communities for making progress on global, national, and local challenges.

And one of those challenges is that we haven’t yet figured out yet how to provide quality education to the billions more people who need and want it, people who are going to be stuck with solving the wicked problems and challenges we leave them with.

Two necessary conditions for making progress on the kinds of challenges we face are sound research and a well-educated populace.

This is where libraries come in.

Libraries and librarians can and do play a crucial role in creating a more open, connected, and equitable future for higher education (and for our communities) through our support and facilitation of open access to scholarship and through our role in providing inclusive spaces that facilitate community building and formal and informal learning.

Let me talk first about openness.

And I want to talk about more than open access when I talk about openness, but let’s start with Open Access.

And here I borrow liberally from Harvard’s Peter Suber, who literally wrote the book on Open Access (published by the MIT Press). A book I recommend to anyone who wants to a quick but thorough introduction to the basics of Open Access. The e-version is available for free, the print version for under $20.

First, what is Open Access? It is work that has been made available to a global audience, digitally, online, free of charge and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.

According to ROARMAP, the Registry of Open Access Repository Mandates and Policies, there are nearly 800 registered Open Access policies across the globe; mostly adopted by research organizations & universities; but also adopted by funding agencies and by sub-units of major research organizations – such as departments or schools within a university.  And the number of policies has grown significantly in the last decade.

If you believe, like I do, that equal access to information and knowledge is a social justice issue; that higher education is a social good; and that education and research are essential to finding solutions to the problems I mentioned earlier; then ensuring everyone has open and equitable access to research and scholarship is really important.

This is one of the key themes in the preliminary report on the future of libraries just released by MIT on Monday:

For the MIT Libraries, the better world we seek is one in which there is abundant, equitable, meaningful access to knowledge and to the products of the full life cycle of research.

And lo and behold, it is libraries and librarians who are implementing Open Access policies in our research organizations and who are doing the heavy lifting to make journal articles (and some other forms of scholarship, like data and in some cases books and textbooks) openly available in meaningful, organized ways through institutional repositories and through educating authors on their rights and options.

Right now we are doing that in a hybrid environment, where much of the content that libraries provide to our communities is still not openly available. We provide content to “authorized users” only, based on the contracts we sign with publishers – many of whom are for-profit entities who dabble in open access publishing, but who at the end of the day are still driven by a profit motive — not an educational or social good motive.

Having research locked away behind corporate paywalls and/or behind our institutional authentication systems means that access to information is not only not free; but is fragmented and cumbersome.

The current landscape of scholarly literature consists of multiple silos of information, accessed through library websites, journal sites, aggregators sites, Google and Google Scholar, social media sites, you name it.

Not only is this hard to navigate as a whole and at each site; but the distributed nature of current access makes it nearly impossible to use the ideas and topics and data in a scholars’ research output to make connections for that scholar to the full range of other research and other scholars that might be relevant, interesting, and important to them. And the need for those kinds of connections and insights was something MIT faculty and researchers brought up often in our conversations with them about their hopes for the future of libraries.

In response to this fractured environment, one way many libraries, MIT included, are re-thinking the way we provide collections to our communities is by applying the “inside-out” framework offered by Lorcan Dempsey of OCLC.

The inside-out library concept describes  a pivot from an old model of libraries where we went out into the world and collected all the stuff (books and articles and such) that was written and published elsewhere, put it on our shelves and loaned it out 1 at a time to our students and faculty; to a new model where we focus on being a trusted repository and disseminator of the research outputs of our own scholars.

In the inside-out model, libraries take responsibility for gathering up and organizing the research and teaching outputs of our own scholars, and making it available to the world.

In the report on the Future of Libraries out of MIT, we use this image of the iconic great dome  at MIT to symbolize that mission.

global-platform

From the preliminary report of the MIT Task Force on the Future of Libraries

(note that the dome is opened in the image, but not in real life)

The overarching theme of the Task Force’s vision is that the MIT Libraries must become a global library for a global university. We conceive of the library as an open platform serving the needs of our communities.

Through this open global platform, we will disseminate MIT research to the world.

We want to do this not just because of a philosophical sense that it is the right thing to do, but also because open access facilitates the verification, replication, reinterpretation and application of research.

Open access accelerates the development of new materials, new technologies, new theories, new policies, new understandings of our world and new solutions to our grand problems — including the kinds of seemingly intractable social problems I described at the beginning of this talk.

Right now, a remarkable 44% of recent journal articles written by MIT faculty members are freely available online through our institutional repository.

As we make progress on the recommendations in our Future of Libraries report, we expect to increase not just that percentage, but also the kinds of research outputs available and the kinds of MIT authors whose work we disseminate.

Now imagine if all, or even most, or every some decent number of research universities and organizations, committed to doing the same thing, at scale. And imagine if the content platforms we built for storing and disseminating our universities’ research outputs, were all compatible and interoperable and built on a common set of standards and metadata practices.

That is the information future we imagine at MIT and it is an information future that contributes to social justice –directly through open, free, and equitable access to information for individuals; and indirectly (but no less powerfully) because open access is good for science.

The report also highlights the need to create content platforms that are for use not just by people reading articles one at a time, but also by machines and algorithms.

We envision the library as a networked set of global platforms replete with content, data, metadata, images, audio files, laboratory notebooks, course materials, and more. We imagine a repository of knowledge and data that can be exploited and analyzed by humans, machines, and algorithms. This transformation will accelerate the accumulation and validation of knowledge, and will enable the creation of new knowledge and of solutions to the world’s great challenges.

That is a really important part of our vision — that the data, collections, and metadata that the libraries have would be open for others not just to read, but also to build tools on top of; and to aim machine-learning algorithms and APIs at.

At MIT, there is a long history of student hacks – ostensibly harmless, but clever pranks carried out with some degree of secrecy, bravado, creativity, and engineering know-how. The most famous MIT hacks have involved putting things on top of the great dome I showed earlier.

And by things, I mean things like whole firetrucks.

firetruckondome-erik-nygren

Photo credit: Eric Nygren

So we used the dome in our illustration because we hope our platform inspires clever, creative, and productive “hacks,” in the form of innovative uses, tools, and programs that extend and amplify our work. For libraries and library collections to have maximum impact, we have to open them up to a full range of possible uses and users.

We have to build open, flexible environments because there are uses for our information and findings to be discovered via our data that we can’t yet imagine.

This is a vision of libraries that is more than books and buildings, and that takes us beyond libraries as high-tech study spaces or gateways to paywalled journal literature.

And yet, it is a vision of modern libraries that is firmly rooted in the traditional and historic role of libraries as providers of information and as institutions that contribute to democracy and the social good.

The theme of radically more open access to information and knowledge is central to the MIT report on the future of libraries.

Another key theme in the report is the importance of libraries as  a space—virtual and physical—where communities of students, scholars, local citizens, and global learners can gather to interact with one another and with scholarly objects and tools.

At MIT, our library spaces are used for everything from a classical music hackathon to dog therapy stress relief during exam week.

Libraries are special places on campus and the Libraries and their staff occupy an essential role in the intellectual and social life of our college and university communities, perhaps especially for students.

The Libraries are a place of research and learning, and library staff are subject-matter and methodological experts who are committed to supporting student success.

One important characteristic of library staff that distinguishes them from faculty is the lack of any authoritative or evaluative role over students. This makes the Libraries places where students might be especially free and comfortable asking questions, seeking help, experimenting with nascent ideas and thoughts, and making mistakes.

Combine that with the fact that Libraries are places where intellectual freedom and privacy are deeply valued and fiercely protected, and it is quite possible that libraries will be the places our students and other community members might feel the most comfortable talking about difficult topics. Perhaps we could start to bridge some of the racial and other divides on our own campuses in and through the libraries; through formal and informal learning and dialogue in our spaces and through exposing students to an inclusive range of credible sources of information and knowledge and research.

To wrap things up I’ll just repeat that at MIT, the idea of the library as an open global platform is central to our vision for the future of libraries. So too is the assertion that library buildings provide unique and necessary spaces for students and other community members. The future of libraries is both digital and physical; and it is open, connected, and inclusive.

I don’t know if that is the kind of talk you expected about libraries; but in case it wasn’t I’ll end with the most stereotypically librarian slide I could come up with, complete with a cat and a card catalog (courtesy of Jackie Dooley).

slide15

Libraries, technology, and social justice

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a code of conduct?

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

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

Access was a YES on all 3.

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Fredericton is a very beautiful place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does that mean for us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s start with search technologies. Most librarians will agree that commercial search engines are not “neutral” in the sense that commercial interests and promoted content can and do impact relevancy

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

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

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

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

What Noble’s analysis of Google shows us is that Google’s algorithm reinforces the sexualization of women, especially black and Latina women. Because of Google’s “neutral” reliance on popularity, page rank, and promoted content, the results for searches for information on black girls or Latina girls are dominated by links to pornography and other sexualized content.

Noble suggests that users “Try Google searches on every variation you can think of for women’s and girls’ identities and you will see many of the ways in which commercial interests have subverted a diverse (or realistic) range of representations.”

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

Or, just imagine you’re a tech worker

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

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-2-51-21-pm

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

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

 

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

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

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

The default settings for everything from film stock to lighting to shutter speed were and are designed to best capture “normal” faces – that is faces with white skin. What that means is that it is difficult to take photos of non-white faces that will be accurately rendered without performing post-image adjustments that sacrifice the sharpness and glossy polish that is readily apparent in photos of white faces.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, I’ve given some examples of how technology itself is not neutral. My point with these examples is to convince you that technology does not exist as neutral artifacts and tools that might sometimes get used in oppressive and exclusionary ways. Rather, technology itself has baked-in biases that perpetuate existing inequalities and exclusions, and that reinforce stereotypes.

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

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

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

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

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

OK – here goes.

First things first – Don’t be this guy.

code-like-psycopath

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to talk about 3 ways:

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

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

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

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

And as we would expect, their data show that women tech workers are significantly less likely than their male counterparts to view themselves as fitting that cultural image of a successful tech worker.  Where it gets interesting though is that their research goes on to show that the sense of not fitting the cultural image has consequences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, watch your language.

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

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

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

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

In fact, when asked to generate a large numbers of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking at Harvard about Libraries and Social Justice

 

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

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

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

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

I mean, its Harvard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Black Lives Matter banner, Stanford University Law School

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

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

Maybe best to start with the why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I suspect that plenty of you do as well.

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

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

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

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

slide2

A framework for social justice work in/through libraries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slide1

This is what purple people look like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slide2

I can’t think without my whiteboard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussing RBMS 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infrastructure and Culture: A job talk

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

Shaping scholarly communication: Infrastructure and Culture

Shaping scholarly communication: Infrastructure and Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bikes outside Green Library, Stanford

Bikes outside Green Library, Stanford

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

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

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

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

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

DSpace at MIT

DSpace at MIT

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

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

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

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

Open Access: What's next?

Open Access: What’s next?

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

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

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

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

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

Journals, photo by Wayne Vanderkuil

Journals, photo by Wayne Vanderkuil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stanford Libraries Concierge Program, with feedback

Stanford Libraries Concierge Program, with feedback

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infrastructure + Culture = Conversations

Infrastructure + Culture = Conversations

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

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

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

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

Never neutral: Libraries, technology, and inclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Title slide for Never Neutral talk

Title slide for Never Neutral talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 books about gays in military

Call numbers matter

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

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

Here is how Myrna described her experience:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching the camera to see my skin

Teaching the camera to see my skin

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

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

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

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

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

Who is missing?

Whose experience is being centered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbie "Math is hard"

Barbie “Math is hard”

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

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

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

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

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

How do we do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let me try to sum up here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mentors, gender, reluctance: Notes from Taiga panel on leadership at ER&L

As part of Taiga’s efforts to engage in broader conversations with a wide variety of librarians and library communities, I agreed to be on a panel about Leadership at the recent ER&L conference in Austin TX (YeeHaw!). I had a great time with colleagues Damon Jaggars from Columbia University and Kristin Antelman for North Carolina State University both in planning for the panel and on the day of.

Below are my edited notes from my portion, where I talked about mentors, gender, and reluctance/skepticism about moving into formal library leadership positions.

When the 3 of us first starting planning this panel, part of what I volunteered to do is talk about talking about leadership … which sounds really meta, but is really just about how and when and why and with whom you might want to talk to about your interest in library leadership.

Everyone knows good mentors are important – and I want to put a plug in for informal mentors. Some organizations have formal mentorship programs and that’s great, but many successful leaders talk about the important role of informal mentors on their success.

How do you find an informal mentor or mentors?

My colleagues may suggest different strategies, but I’ve found that being active on social media and reading library blogs makes it easier for you to “meet” people whose work and/or career you want to emulate or at least who you might want to learn from. Interact, comment, RT, ask questions. Talk to speakers after talks, even if you don’t have a question – tell them what you liked about their talk, why it resonated. Then later, ask to have coffee w/ them.

You don’t have to formally ask them to be your mentor, but you can tell them what your career aspirations are and ask for some advice. Honestly, most of us are egotistical enough that we are flattered when someone asks for our advice.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret – it isn’t really any advice you get from formal or informal mentors that will pay off.  It is the connection you have made. The adage about it not being what you know but who you know has an element of truth in it. One of the most influential articles in sociology is all about the strength of weak ties. In that research Mark Granovetter shows how it is our weak ties, our acquaintances, not our closest friends or family members, who are most likely to help us get the best jobs. The connections we make at conferences and on social media are exactly the kinds of weak ties that will pay off in helping us find and get the next job.

(Insert abrupt transition here)

And now I want to talk about gender.

Women are less likely to express career ambitions than men, and whatever you think of the advice in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, the research she cites makes it clear that women are (in general, and mostly white women) less likely to engage in the kinds of behaviors and activities that promote their own career advancement, and no wonder …

There is ample research showing that ambition and/or engaging in a range of leadership behaviors (speaking first, speaking confidently, taking charge in leaderless groups) is more likely to be viewed harshly for women, but positively for men.

Sociologist Joan Williams has distilled a huge amount of the research on women and work into a summary of some basic patterns of biases that women face, along with some suggested strategies:

  • “Prove it again”: This pattern refers to the fact that women encounter harsher standards than men, and that women’s success is more likely to be attributed to luck than to competence. Some suggested strategies are for women (and male allies) to vouch for each other and to publicly praise and celebrate each other’s success. Williams suggests that women “form a posse”. Another recommendation is to engage in “gender judo” – that is to adopt a mixture of feminine and masculine behavioral styles. Gender judo is also the recommended strategy for mitigating the effects of “The Tightrope”.
  • “The Tightrope” refers to the fact that women are rarely seen as both competent and nice, so they are forced to walk a tightrope between the two, trying to hit just the right balance to ensure they succeed at work. An additional strategy suggested for this challenge is that women strategically say “no” to some of the “housework” tasks women are typically and disproportionately asked/expected to do (bring the snacks, remember the birthdays, etc.).
  • Another well-documented pattern of discrimination women face is “The Motherhood penalty” – women who are mothers are judged as less committed AND less competent than childless women & than fathers. Williams suggests that an effective strategy to counteract the assumptions behind The Motherhood Penalty is for individual women to be explicit about their own goals & family decisions – whatever they are — and when people question your commitment to either work or family or both, to respond that the choices you are making are working for you (assuming that they are).

Now, to be honest, – Despite the fact that there is apparently some research showing that these strategies are effective (I’m guessing especially for white, straight, cis-gendered women in professional jobs), I’m not super comfortable with the focus on individual rather than organizational or institutional responses to gender bias and other forms of inequity in our organizations.

But … institutional change is slow and hard. And I suspect some combination of individual, organizational, institutional, and societal level strategies is required. And, one potential strategy for making our organizations more inclusive is for more men of color, more women, more people from underrepresented groups of all kinds, to assume leadership. Especially if those people are committed to a more diverse and equitable profession and organization.

And that brings me to my final point – I want to finish this up by talking to those of you who don’t want to be in library administration – especially those of you from underrepresented groups – and people of color and even white women are underrepresented in leadership in libraries relative to their numbers in the profession.

How many of you want to be a “leader” in the library world but can’t picture yourself as an AUL/AD or other high-level administrative leader in libraries? How many have mixed or negative feelings about being a library administrator, and have no desire to ever be a UL? (Note: LOTS of hands shot up).

Do any of these reasons resonate? (Note: Lots of head nodding during this roll call of reasons librarians are reluctant about moving up into formal administrative leadership positions).

  • I don’t want to deal with all “the politics”
  • I don’t want to be “the man”
  • I don’t want to have to compromise my values
  • I could never handle all the bureaucracy and I don’t want to deal w/ budgets
  • I want to have a balanced life

And what I want to say is that I get that … I really do… and I’m not going to tell anyone to Lean In when they want to Lean Out. I say Lean whatever way you want … AND I want to leave you with this thought:

If all of you who don’t want to play politics, who don’t want power & influence to change your values, and who want to have a healthy work life balance shy away from leadership positions; it might mean that you are leaving the leadership of our profession in the hands of those who aren’t concerned about those things …

 

The Neoliberal Library: Resistance is not futile

Here is the text of the talk I gave at Duke University Libraries on January 14. As usual, the questions & discussion were better than the talk. Also, please check out the partial list of sources for this talk.

 

As a Duke alum, I really wish I could ease into this talk with tales of roaming the stacks in Perkins way back when.  But unfortunately, they would be just tales … and rather tall ones at that. I have to admit that I just didn’t spend much time in the library as an undergrad. I just wasn’t that kind of student.

I was here from 1983-1987, or as my classmates and I refer to it – the time of Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas, Mark Alarie, Tommy Ammaker and Danny Ferry. I spent way more time in Cameron and in Krzyzewskiville than in Perkins.  I guess I’m just a late bloomer when it comes to my love of libraries.

The first Krzyzewskiville, 1986. From Kimberly Reed's Krzyzewskiville Collection

The first Krzyzewskiville,
1986. From Kimberly Reed’s Krzyzewskiville Collection

I actually thought about using this talk as a way to share some ideas about how academic libraries could reach students like me … but I’m not sure I have any ideas that Duke isn’t already implementing. I love the Crazy Smart campaign, the Library Party, and the awesome study breaks you all host.

So I really don’t have anything to say to y’all about how to get students like me to use the library.  I’m certain that if I got a second chance to be a Duke undergrad, I would hang out at the library all the time – heck, I want to hang out here all the time now. And just in case there is anyone here who was part of the library back in the 1980’s, trust me when I say it was me, not you.

So I know the topic is “Research Libraries and different clientele”, but I hope you will indulge me as I take this topic in a perhaps unexpected direction. In some ways it would be easy to use the topic to talk about how we ought to design our services and collections to serve the different needs of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty — even alumni and donors and the general public.

Another obvious direction for this talk, especially given my interest in diversity and social justice, would be to talk about different clientele in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender and other forms of social difference. After all, librarianship remains nearly 90% white and over 80% female; while the projected college student population for 2021 is expected to be 58% white, and 58% female , with 17% of students being African American, 17% Hispanic, & 7% Asian/Pacific Islander.

So it might be easy to talk about how librarianship needs to address it’s own lack of diversity if we want to have any hope of reflecting and serving an increasingly diverse clientele.

But I decided to take the topic in a perhaps unexpected & decidedly more theoretical direction, because I think the future of research libraries depends on librarians making conscious choices about what a library is and who and what we serve.

So let’s talk first a bit about the whole notion that libraries, and universities, have clients – a concept I am frankly not very comfortable with and would like to challenge a bit.

It is true that our students, and their parents, are in fact increasingly approaching college with the expectation of gaining the marketable skills and credentials they need to compete in the job market.  Faculty mostly see us as their buying agent – they want us to provide access to the research materials they need for their research and they then want us to buy their books and the journals they publish in.  The university administration wants us to run ourselves more efficiently (“like a business”), and in some cases want us to find ways to turn some of our services into cost-recovery or profit centers.

The current reality for many research libraries certainly lends itself to thinking of our users and stakeholders as clients or even customers. We have the goods and services they need, and the whole system works best when we find the most efficient way to deliver those goods & services. And, of course, since everyone knows that academia is hopelessly inefficient; we must look to the business world for models of how to best serve our customers and to the “start-up” culture of silicon valley to learn how to innovate.

Shenanigans

Shenanigans, by flickr user binkmeisterrick

Well, if you have read any of my previous writings, you know how I feel about that.  I call shenanigans on that approach to libraries and the future of libraries. It is a philosophy that is (sometimes consciously, sometimes unwittingly) steeped in neoliberalism, and it embodies a definition of libraries that is at odds with my understanding of the core values of our profession – values like Democracy, Diversity, the Public Good, and Social Responsibility.

So what I really want to talk about is my belief that Neoliberalism is toxic for higher education, but research libraries can & should be sites of resistance.

To do that, it would probably be good to define neoliberalism. What is neoliberalism?

There are plenty of definitions – but I like this one from Daniel Saunders, who defines neoliberalism as “a varied collection of ideas, practices, policies and discursive representations … united by three broad beliefs: the benevolence of the free market, minimal state intervention and regulation of the economy, and the individual as a rational economic actor.”

Neoliberal thinking emphasizes individual competition, and places primary value on “employability” and therefore on an individual’s accumulation of human capital and marketable skills.

A key feature of neoliberalism is the extension of market logic into previously non-economic realms – in particular into key social, political and cultural institutions.

We can see this when political candidates promote their experience running a successful business as a reason to vote for them, and in the way market language and metaphors have seeped into so many social and cultural realms.

For example, Neoliberalism is what leads us to talk about things like “the knowledge economy”, where we start to think of knowledge not as a process but as a kind of capital that an individual can acquire so that she then can sell that value to the market.

This is where I pause to ask if you have heard the joke about the Marxist and the Neoliberal? The Marxist laments that all a worker has to sell is his labor power. The Neoliberal offers courses on marketing your labor power.

The Neoliberal joke

The joke about the Marxist & the Neoliberal

So OK, Neoliberalism is a thing, a pervasive thing, and it includes the extension of market language, metaphors, and logic into non-economic realms – of special concern to us is the extension of neoliberal market frameworks into higher education and into libraries.

And it is really important to remember that one of the really insidious things about ideologies as pervasive as neoliberalism is that we barely notice them – they become taken for granted the way a fish doesn’t know it is in water, or the way many of us Dukies assume an obsession with college basketball is normal.

Obviously, I think this is a bad thing – not the obsession w/ college basketball, of course — but  the neoliberal encroachment on education.

I am one of those hopeless idealists who still believes that education is – or should be – a social and public good rather than a private one, and that the goal of higher education should be to promote a healthy democracy and an informed citizenry. And I believe libraries play a critical role in contributing to that public good of an informed citizenry.

So the fact that the neoliberal turn in education over the last several decades has led to a de-emphasis on education as a public good and an emphasis on education as a private good, to be acquired by individuals to further their own goals is of particular concern to me.

In the neoliberal university, students are individual customers, looking to acquire marketable skills. Universities (and teachers and libraries) are evaluated on clearly defined outcomes, and on how efficiently they achieve those outcomes.  Sound familiar?

We can find evidence of this neoliberal approach in plenty of recent trends in higher education – which are almost shocking in how blatantly they rely on a market model of education. The penetration of neoliberal thinking in higher education is so pervasive that it is no longer just market metaphors – colleges recruit students with blatant appeals to their economic self-interest and the mainstream argument for a strong education system is that it is an economic imperative – that we, as a nation, must invest in education in order to compete as a nation in the global economy.

As an example – This very recent article on fastcompany.com – Does Ikea hold the secret to the future of college? – reads almost like a parody of an unabashed, uncritical, unselfconscious neoliberal approach to higher education.

In discussing his enthusiasm for bringing his special brand of for-profit eduction to Africa, one educational entrepreneur explains, “There are a lot of young people in Africa who could be Steve Jobs”.  It is no mistake that the justification for bringing “higher education” to Africa rests on the image of one of the richest & whitest men in America — someone who also happens to be a college drop-out, by the way.

In the article, the founder of First Atlantic University freely admits that he started this for-profit, blended learning institution in Africa as a solution to the hiring problems that his microelectronics firm is having. The real problem here is not that this dude has created a for-profit job training program that provides not only direct financial benefit to him but also provides a pipeline of future employees trained to meet his company’s labor needs … the problem is in calling that education instead of job training.

But it isn’t only the new for-profit universities that privilege corporate interests and the production of new workers.

All across the spectrum of higher education, including at institutions like ours, resources are shifting towards standardized market-driven curricula and programs and towards producing not the next generation of critically engaged citizens but rather the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Research libraries are, of course, not immune to the effects of neoliberal thinking and policies. I see it seeping into just about everything we do, and I hope we can talk about where you all see it (or not) and what we might do to resist it.

So, let me seed the conversation with a few of my own observations about the neoliberal influence on various areas of research libraries.

In terms of instruction & reference, neoliberal thinking tells us that information literacy provides students with a discrete set of skills (which we can easily measure and assess) that will help them on the job market.

Neoliberal thinking tells us a successful reference “transaction” provides the patron with the most efficient answer to their immediate information need. Neoliberal thinking mocks the idea that library instruction and reference might be about encouraging students to think critically not only about their own information consumption but also about the whole system of knowledge creation & access, and about who controls how we search and what we find. Neoliberalism scoffs at the idea that librarians ought to encourage browsing and serendipity and other forms of “inefficient” research and learning.

Neoliberalism frames this as a contrast between giving patrons what they want vs what giving them what we think they need. That formulation is a rhetorical strategy that makes librarians sound like condescending bunheads who aren’t hip to what the kids need.

What I want to suggest is that we can and should resist that rhetoric – both because it is incredibly sexist and ageist and because the tension is not between what our patrons ask for and what we want to give them; the tension is between a neoliberal, transaction model of library services and a model based on the mission of promoting critical thinking and equipping students to interrogate power and authority.

Neoliberalism has also really seeped into the way we think about collection development. We have become obsessed with measuring the value (defined almost always in terms of use only) of every item in our collection so that we can pare down our collection to its leanest, most efficient form. We are assigning actual dollar values to how much it costs to keep a book on a shelf, so that we can prove how much money our shared print storage programs save us … with no real consideration given to the non-monetary benefits of having large world-class print collections, on many topics and in many languages, in one location.

In many cases, we’ve also turned over collection development to the market by signing on to Patron Driven Acquisitions programs that essentially signal that we trust the free market to build our collections.

Neoliberalism has affected library staffing models as well. Whatever you think of faculty status for librarians (and my thoughts on that issue are constantly evolving), there is no denying that the erosion of faculty status and job security for librarians is tied to the same neoliberal emphasis on cost-cutting that is leading to the adjunct crisis across higher education.

Finally there is our obsession with assessment, and with justifying everything based on statistics and ROI or Return on Investment. I actually have a whole talk on why the ROI paradigm is a bad fit for libraries, so let me just say that it isn’t assessment per se that is a problem in libraries – it is the fact that we rarely measure things that actually matter (or should matter to us), and we rarely know how much of what we are measuring we are looking for.

But I guess the real question is Where should we go from here?

Dog in truck asks Where now?

Where now? Photo credit Katie Young & Liz Gaudet

I’m not entirely sure, but like any good entrepreneur, I have a 3 step plan to get us started.

The first step is awareness. I urge librarians to critically examine the philosophical underpinnings of our own policies and programs. Read the works of critical scholars who call attention to the “scourge of neoliberalism” affecting higher education and ask yourselves where is that manifest in my own work?

Where is it manifest in the work of the thought leaders of librarianship – those who offer roadmaps for the future of academic libraries that involve thinking like start-ups and ceding responsibilities for general collections to the marketplace?

Step 2, if you agree that the values of librarianship compel us to resist the corporatization of libraries, is to find allies – amongst our own profession and across the academy. This is both harder and easier than one might think. Quite frankly, precious few of the dominant voices in academic librarianship speak from a progressive, critical, radical stance. I suppose in some ways that is to be expected – voices of resistances rarely emanate from the center. But once you decide to actively seek those voices, it doesn’t take any exceptional library sleuthing skills to find them. You can quite literally google “progressive librarian” and you can find both a journal and a tumblr by that name. “Radical librarians” turns up some great stuff too. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Library Juice Press, which is publishing top-quality work by and for librarians who want to engage in a more critical analysis of our profession and our institution, and who want to engage in a radical praxis of librarianship based on commitment to democracy, social justice, diversity and social responsibility.

Step 3: Do something. Collect archives simply because inclusion and social justice demands that works and archives of marginalized peoples are just as important (perhaps more so) as those of prominent, mainstream men and organizations. Sneak a little critical thinking into your information literacy sessions or reference encounters. Try something wildly inefficient and with no clear economic benefit.

In other words Resist – It is not futile!

Jean-Luc Picard as Locutus after Borg assimilation.

Jean-Luc Picard as Locutus after Borg assimilation, from Wikipedia article on Borg (Star Trek)

So to try to tie this all back to the original topic – Research Libraries and different clientele – I guess my whole point is really that we ought to
reconceive of our clients as not simply the undergraduates, graduate students, or faculty around us. Let’s start thinking about social justice as our client, or democracy, or an informed citizenry; and then let’s consider how our priorities and way of working might change as a result of that kind of thinking.

Reading list on neoliberalism, higher education and libraries

A partial list (in no particular order) of sources I used for the talk I’m giving tomorrow at Duke on neoliberalism and research libraries (I’ll post the talk soon). Enjoy.
Anyone have other relevant readings to suggest?

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