Posts Tagged 'social justice'

For the love of baby unicorns: My Code4Lib 2018 Keynote

I was honored to give a keynote at the 2018 Code4Lib conference on February 14. The livestream is already available (keynote starts at 1:26, and the conference hashtag was hopping.

First, a confession, I am not a big fan of keynotes in general — the whole idea that one person would stand in front of the group and spew some special wisdom and/or inspiration to the crowd is a little too sage on the stage for me. And I feel especially self-conscious in front of this crowd, since I have never coded for libraries. In fact, the last time I wrote anything resembling code was 15 years ago and it was SPSS code to run statistical analyses on my dissertation data. I’ve never coded for libraries, and I’m pretty sure my current career trajectory means I never will … and we can probably all be grateful for that.

So, I’m not a big fan of the whole keynote thing and I have virtually no expertise or experience in the kind of work most of you do. But, the fact that you all pick your keynote speakers via community voting tells me that some critical mass of code4libbers must want to hear something from me. Plus, I figure we have to support democracy wherever we find it these days.

But I’ve struggled a bit about what I could talk about it — my approach to keynotes is to try to figure what I might be able to bring to the specific audience that they might not get from each other or from some other speaker they might have selected.

But ever since I got to MIT, that means folks expect me to explain gravitational waves or quantum physics of artificial intelligence. And I’m willing to fake it in a room full of my fellow directors, but I won’t try that here.

Or maybe you want to hear me tell you about how MIT Libraries is going to build an “open global platform” of abundant, equitable, interactive access to information — but to be honest, I can only talk about it as a metaphor.

Its my colleagues Heather Yager, Helen Bailey, Matt Bernhardt, Osman Din, Mike Graves, Jeremy Prevost, Richard Rodgers, Andromeda Yelton and Solh Zendeh are actually going to do the building and can talk about it. Heather is MIT’s AD for Digital Library Services, and the rest of those awesome folks are our Digital Library Engineering Team — oh and by the way, we are hiring a Department Head for that team, and I’m especially keen on increasing the number of people of color and white women in library tech, so if you or someone you know might be interested, let me know.

Anyway, I do have some things to say, because what I came up with is that I do bring to librarianship a sociological lens and a feminist perspective, and I have done a few talks on bias in technology and lack of diversity and equity in libraries.  And it is tempting to give a ranty ALL CAPS keynote about all the problems of lack of diversity in tech and lack of progress on creating welcoming and inclusive cultures, but I’ve done that; and plenty of other people have as well.

Plus, I just came from the ALA midwinter conference, and my friend Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Junot Diaz, who was one of the headline speakers, did the ranty thing way better than I could.

And girl howdy, he did not hold back. For example – he implored us to recognize that “A profession that is 88% white means 5000% agony for people of color, no matter how liberal and enlightened you think you are.” He also said we need to have “a fucking reckoning” about the pain we cause, and that we need to do some hard work on decolonizing our organizations and our professions. And y’all, he ain’t wrong, and what goes for libraries, goes for library tech too. But I figure y’all already know that, or if you don’t then another liberal white lady, even an obviously queer one like me, preaching repentance one more time is not going to make much difference.

I feel like we have been talking for a very long time about lack of diversity in tech, and in library tech, and we’ve critiqued the culture and we’ve adopted codes of conduct (yay), and we do better at getting diversity in our speaker line-ups …  progress has been made, but not nearly enough; not on gender, not on race, not on creating truly inclusive cultures in library tech where members of marginalized groups are recruited, retained, mentored, promoted, and genuinely provided with equitable opportunities to contribute, thrive and lead.

And from what I understand, code4lib is actually a community that does many things right. In this community, people feel included, they feel safe/r, sexism, racism, transphobia, ableism and the like are not tolerated. In fact, I sense that many folks from marginalized groups consider the code4lib community and conference to be a kind of haven. And that’s great, except that it isn’t ok that folks need a haven from their own work organizations.

So I thought instead of a ranty keynote with lots of examples of the problems, I would share some solutions — some from recent research I’ve been reading, some are based on stories I’ve heard, and some of what I’ll say is just me trying to use the privilege I have as a library director to say some things that others maybe don’t feel as safe saying, or don’t have access to the kind of platforms I do for saying it.

I’m going to start with the assumption that we all agree that lack of diversity is a problem, and that we want cultures that are welcoming and inclusive.

And I should also throw in the caveat that there will be things I say that are primarily meant for the white guys in the room. For some of you, this may feel a bit like preaching to the choir, but I hope instead that it feels like equipping the choir.

Also, I’m focusing primarily on inclusive cultures, because as much as we want to throw our hands up and claim diversity is a pipeline problem, the retention data tells us that we have problems with toxic work cultures and unfair practices driving women and/or people of color and/or LGBTQ folks out of tech as well. I highly recommend a report I just read called the Tech Leavers Study, put out by the Kapor Center for Social Impact. The report contains some really sobering stats on the degree to which unfair treatment, discrimination, stereotyping and bullying in the workplace are the reasons why people from marginalized groups leave tech work:

  • among people who leave tech jobs, unfairness or mistreatment is the leading reason; people are 2x more likely to leave because of unfairness or mistreatment than because they have been recruited by a better opportunity
  • women of all backgrounds experience & observed significantly more unfair treatment than men
  • LGBTQ employees were most likely to report bullying, and to experience public humiliation and embarrassment
  • In short, unfairness, discrimination, and crappy treatment drives turnover; and it suck more for underrepresented people of color and LGBTQ folks
  • AND 57% of folks who left tech would have stayed if their prior employer had addressed workplace environment and had created a more fair and inclusive culture.

So lets dig in and talk about things we can actually do to improve those cultures, and move the needle on diversity and inclusion.

There are individual things we can do, workgroup things we can do, and leadership things.

At the individual level, it is actually not enough to simply not be a blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic jerk. That’s a start, but it is not enough.

The more subtle forms of stereotyping, discrimination, and harassment take their toll, and are shown to lead to lower retention in tech jobs for marginalized folks.

One thing men can do, and white people can do in mixed race interactions, is stop mansplaining, and stop whitesplaining. Just stop.

Stop doing it in person, and stop doing it online. What I mean is simply this — if you have some power and privilege in a situation (and if you are white and/or a dude, chances are you do have some privilege; if you are a white dude, you definitely have power and privilege), then for the love of baby unicorns please refrain from giving your unsolicited advice and opinions to others. Practice some restraint. Just try to sit on your hands for a minute and entertain the idea that maybe you don’t have to jump in.

Don’t be the guy who reads the blurb for Safiya Nobles’ new book Algorithms of Oppression and decides on the basis of a couple of hasty google searches that her research is faulty, that he has proven it, and that he needs to inform twitter.

And don’t be the guy who responded to the article Bess Sadler and I wrote about Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery a few years ago by tweeting that only people who don’t know anything about building search tools would write an article like that. Those of you who know Bess know that she knows a thing or two about building search tools, and has spent a minute or two actually doing exactly that.

I’m sure it often feels like other people really need to hear what you have to say about a topic, but if you are a white guy I’m going to ask that you consider all the evidence we have about how women and/or people of color are talked over, ignored, and shut out of conversations; and think about the fact that the airtime you take up may be the airtime that could have gone to a woman and/or a person of color; and maybe you could just decide you don’t have to weigh in on everything. and you definitely don’t have to explain things to women and/or other marginalized peoples.

But what you can do, and research shows that this works to break down stereotypes, is to publicly vouch for the people you work with who are members of a marginalized group. This is something anyone in leadership or other positions of power can and should do, and it is something men can do for women colleagues and something white folks can do for colleagues of color. Vouching for someone means you talk up their accomplishments and skills, especially in a group setting that is predominantly male and/or white. Use your power and privilege to vouch for others. It is the opposite of mansplaining.

Vouching for someone might look like this “Hey Tom, have you met my colleague Safiya? She is an expert on algorithmic bias in search engines, and has just published a book based on years of research” or “This is Bess, she has tons of experience in developing open source search tools, and was instrumental in the initial development of Blacklight.”

Another thing individuals can do to improve the culture and make tech more inclusive and welcoming is to be an active bystander and ally. If you see something, say something. If other men are talking over women, jump in and say “Hold on dude, I really want to hear what Cathy was saying.” If a white person repeats something a person of color said and is getting credit for it, say “That sounds a lot like the idea Bergis suggested. I would really like to hear more about it from Bergis.”

There are some things we can do in our workgroups too.

Just like all politics is local, all culture is local.

Or at least, lots of the visible manifestations of culture are local. There is research that shows that workplaces that are plastered with stereotypically “tech or nerd guy” cultural images – think Star Trek – have negative impact on women’s likelihood of pursuing tech work and of staying in tech work in general or in that particular work environment. Replace the Star Trek posters with travel posters, don’t name your projects or your printers or your domains after only male figures from Greek mythology, and just generally avoid geek references and inside nerd jokes.  Those kinds of things reinforces the stereotypes about who does tech; and that stereotype is the male nerd stereotype.

I also want to urge you all to pay attention to the kinds of informal socializing you do at work and in those liminal spaces that are work/social – if all the guys go to lunch together and not the women; then maybe stop doing that. And if the guys go to lunch and talk about women, then really, really, really stop doing that.

If there’s a core group of guys who go out for beers after work just because you’re all friends, that’s kind of OK; but if you also talk about work and make decisions then it is definitely not OK.

Be more aware. Be accountable to each other for being inclusive. And if you keep inviting people and they keep saying no, don’t keep inviting them and expecting them to suddenly say yes, and don’t shrug it off and say you tried; try something else instead. Try asking whether there is something else more folks would want to do. Consider that there might be a better time for informal team building that would work for everyone. And if the idea of giving up your beer time with your buddies seems like a bridge too far … then at least admit that might mean that you value your all-dude happy hour more than you value an inclusive work culture.

So now that I’ve told you to give up your Star Wars posters and your bro-time; the rest of this – the organizational level suggestions — are going to seem easy.

At the organizational level, a recent report from the Kapor Center for Social Impact called the Tech Leavers Study found that individual diversity and inclusion initiatives are not nearly as effective at increasing the retention of women and/or people of color and/or LGBTQ folks in tech as a comprehensive, integrated approach.

A comprehensive approach includes:

  • Top level commitment to D&I, including stated values and goals, and an approach that treats diversity as a strength – leadership needs to truly understand that diversity isn’t just nice to have, diverse teams are better, more effective teams.
  • Training in a range of topics, including unconscious bias training, bystander intervention, understanding micro-aggressions, preventing sexual harassment, how to be a trans ally, etc.
  • A commitment to gathering data, and looking at the data. All kinds of data — Hiring data, retention data, internal promotion data, and survey data designed to uncover feelings of inclusive or exclusion across demographic groups.
  • Developing and maintaining confidential channels of communication so that issues of bias and discrimination can be expressed and handled.
  • Commiting to auditing management practices – hiring, promotion, compensation, and internal work assignments.

 

One of the really, really important findings about diversity initiatives is that training alone is not very effective. In fact, in some circumstances, unconscious bias training alone can backfire – because white folks get resentful, and marginalized folks are put in the spotlight and scrutinized.

OK, so I’ve made lot of suggestions, and I didn’t put any of it on slides; so let me summarize, plus I promise to send the text, with links to some of the studies I cited by end of the week.

So to sum up, if you really want more inclusive library tech:

  • Instead of mansplaining, vouch for women and people of color, and use your privilege to intervene when you witness micro aggressions and silencing
  • Pay attention to small group culture – ditch the Trekkie posters and such, and be intentionally inclusive in social activities
  • Take a comprehensive approach to diversity & inclusion that goes beyond 1 shot training and includes clear leadership, data, accountability, and communication channels
  • And I’ll suggest, monitor progress on diversity and inclusion the way you would monitor progress on any technical system or technology project. Check progress regularly, pay attention to data, and be transparent.

I’m actually really excited about the potential for new library technologies and technical approaches that will empower users, open up access to more collections, and allow for transformative uses of library content. But if we don’t make a commitment to progress on our diversity and inclusion challenges, then I really believe that the tools and technologies we create will not be as good or as useful to the range of users and uses we should be serving.

I dislike traditional Q&A’s almost as much as I dislike traditional keynotes. So if anything I said inspires a thoughtful comment, go ahead – I don’t need to stand up here and be the person with all the answers. And if you want to ask a question entirely unrelated to what I talked about, go for it.

The only thing I ask is that we make sure that women, people of color, all the queers, and other marginalized folks who want to speak get the first shot at the mic.

 

Debating y/our humanity, or Are Libraries Neutral?

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

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

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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~`

Merriam-Webster and the OED both define neutrality as:

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

Neutrality is about not taking sides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Libraries as social institutions have never been neutral.

Let’s turn to librarianship as a profession.

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

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

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

Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias; by Angela Galvan

White Librarianship in Blackface; by April Hathcock

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

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

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

According to the 2016 General Social Survey:

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

How does a library remain neutral on these questions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some examples:

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

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

Two books you have to read on this topic are:

Our classification systems are also not neutral.

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

And a quick note about programming …

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

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

I’ll end with two relevant  quotes.

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

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

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

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

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

on Charlottesville

I hate that making statements reiterating mine and my organization’s condemnation of bigoted violence has become a routine part of my job. I share below the email I sent to the MIT Libraries staff this morning, in case it is helpful to others looking to make a statement in their organization.

“Friends,

By now you all know what happened in Charlottesville this weekend – Nazi white supremacists marched on the UVa campus, inciting deadly racist violence.

While some insist that there are “many sides” to condemn, and that there is a debate to be had (in libraries and other public institutions) about the nuances of free speech; I believe it is my responsibility to state as clearly and unequivocally as I can that libraries should never support, condone, or provide space to organizations or individuals who promote hatred, bigotry, and racism.  At a time when white supremacists have been re-emboldened, libraries cannot hide behind a myth of neutrality. Reasonable people can have difficult conversations and can disagree about the best tactics for combatting racism; but there is no room in this profession or in this organization for the kind of rhetoric and actions on display by the white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville this weekend. As an organization, we must condemn white supremacy in all its manifestations.

There will be a “Cambridge Stands with Charlottesville” unity rally today at 5:30 at the Cambridge City Hall.

I’ll be there.

In solidarity,

Chris”

 

NC is a no-go: bathrooms, libraries, and the limits of welcoming

Text and some of the slides of talk I gave (remotely) at/for TRLN17AM:

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

Title slide below. See what I did there?

Slide01

The original version of this talk started out with an explanation about why I’m doing this talk remotely  (which is all about HB2 and included several bathroom stories); and then tried to use some of those stories to segue into talking about diversity & inclusion in libraries more broadly. But then this happened yesterday:

Slide02

(My slide shows 45’s 3 tweets declaring a ban on transgender people in the military, and includes a pointer to credible data and info on the issue.)

Despite huge amounts of data to the contrary, the president took to twitter to declare transgender service members a burden and a distraction; and to issue a directive that they be denied the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

As a veteran and a member of the LGBTQ community, it was a punch in the gut. And this talk went from being a little bit about trans and queer issues to being pretty much mostly about those issues. And it went from being a detached analytical prescription of things libraries can do to being a personal and emotional description of ways we are falling short, and a plea to do better.

And I’m mostly OK with that. My colleague Greg Eow gave a talk at SAA17 last night and he talked about being authentic and bringing your whole self to the workplace – he says that’s something I say and encourage; so that’s what I’m doing this morning.  I’m going to share some tales of what it is like to be a queer person in libraries and in the country today, and I hope that focusing on queer issues in my examples still allows us to talk about broader issues of diversity and inclusion in libraries.

But even if it doesn’t, maybe it’s the right time for a talk that is mostly about queer issues … I’m not sure we do that very often in this profession; and this seems a pretty appropriate moment for such a talk.

First comes the explanation for why I am giving this talk remotely, instead of in person in North Carolina. Note that the explanation, and much of this talk, involves stories about bathrooms. And I have way too many stories about bathrooms to tell, but I’ll try to tell just ones that illustrate bigger issues of inclusion and/or that can spur conversations about those bigger issues.

I feel like I might need to start by declaring my deep love for the state of NC. It is honestly one of the great heartbreaks of my life that it is an unrequited love.

While I grew up in VA, my mom grew up in NC – specifically in Laurinburg, and she lives in Wilmington now. I spent some of my best summers with my Grandparents and my aunts and uncle; barefoot, drinking sweet tea and Mt. Dew; and eating my share of bbq, okra, fried cornbread, collard greens, hush puppies. We vacationed every year at Ocean Isle Beach, and when it was time for me to go to college, naturally I headed to the Tarheel state; which should have made all my Tarheel-loving family members very happy and proud, except … I picked Duke. Basketball season has been hard for all of us ever since. Mom & I just agree not to talk in March.

I really do love much about NC, but over the last several years, it has become a state that isn’t safe for me anymore. And yes, I’m talking about HB2  – both the passage of a bill aimed at keeping trans and gender non-conforming folks out of public bathrooms; and all the surrounding rhetoric and attention that has made just trying to pee a complicated and potentially dangerous thing for a woman like me in a state I still love and miss very much.

So my not traveling to NC, either for this talk or to visit my mom, or to watch some Duke hoops at Cameron, isn’t a boycott, and it isn’t about punishing NC or the good people who live and work in the state, or about trying to apply economic pressure to change a bad law (Not that there’s anything wrong with that).

But not traveling to NC (or any of the other dozen or so states with similar laws or pending laws) is about safety and accessibility and equity.

And, it isn’t just about me.

Traveling to states with bathroom bills is not safe for me, and it is also not safe for any of our transgender, non-binary folks, genderqueer, gender-fluid and gender non-conforming colleagues.

In April of 2016, when HB2 and a similar bill in Mississippi passed, I realized that I could not in good conscience ask anyone to travel on MIT business to a state where they might be harassed, intimidated, or arrested just for trying to pee.

So in the interest of equity, we decided at MIT Libraries that we will not ask or encourage anyone to travel to any place where we wouldn’t all be safe.

Specifically, we stated that:

we will neither require nor encourage anyone to travel on MIT Libraries business or on MIT Libraries-funded professional development to any state with laws that restrict the rights and safety of our LGBTQ colleagues.”

ARL also made a statement which read in part:

The potential impact of these and similar proposed bills is a threat to our patrons, to our employees, and to the core mission of our profession as we endeavor to create safe spaces for open dialogue and opportunities for intellectual, artistic, scientific, historical, and philosophical advancement that will improve our society and world.”

I think these were and are important statements, and that they are entirely consistent with the values of our organizations and our profession.

And, having taken that stand for the MIT Libraries, even if I myself was not personally affected by these bills and laws, I would still have to decline the invite to attend this event in person, in support of MIT Libraries stance on equitable and safe travel opportunities for all. But/and – in this case I am personally impacted.

For another, more complete, take on bathroom bills and professional conferences, see this storify of a self-described twitter rant by Kate Deibel.

I said earlier that NC isn’t safe for a woman like me, so let me back up and unpack just what I mean by that.

I’m a cisgendered woman who identifies as butch and lesbian and queer and genderqueer. Cisgendered means that I was assigned female at birth (AFAB) and I identify now as female, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers. Cis or cisgender is a term that describes those of us whose gender identity matches the sex we were assigned at birth.

I also identify as butch.  I don’t want to define butch for anyone but myself, but for me butch means my gender presentation is masculine of center – it means that the clothes I wear and the look I present is self-consciously and deliberately a look that is associated with maleness and masculinity in our culture. I also describe myself as genderqueer, which is an umbrella term often used for and by people who transgress gender distinctions and norms, or people who queer gender.

Language around gender, sexuality, gender identity and gender expression (like language in general) is evolving and proliferating; and I know some folks get confused, and overwhelmed. I can’t and won’t define all possible terms and identities, but I do suggest that if you aren’t already familiar with the range of terms around gender and sexuality, that you make the effort to become familiar.

So here’s a bit of advice, and some good resources:

“Learning how to talk about trans people is not difficult, and doesn’t require any specialist knowledge. Just as you would in any other situation, you just have to reflect back the words a person uses about themselves.”

from The Production of Ignorance, CN Lester

So, now that you know who I am, and why I can’t physically be with you today, let’s really talk about bathrooms, shall we?

First an assertion: Bathroom bills like HB2, that insist everyone use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth and/or the sex on our birth certificates are dangerous for transgender folks and for genderqueer and gender non-conforming folks like me as well.

I stand by that claim, I know it to be true from my own experience and the experiences of others, and I don’t really want to debate that claim because the truth is that single-sex or sex-segregated bathrooms have always been ground zero for gender policing. Because public spaces are never neutral, but are always sites where power and privilege are enacted. Understanding public spaces (like bathrooms and like libraries) as inherently non-neutral places helps us understand how our colleagues and patrons from marginalized groups experience our spaces, our organizations, our profession, and the communities we occupy. In other words, sometimes a bathroom is more than a bathroom.

OK, time for some stories … these are my stories, but they are also stand-ins for the stories of many, many of your colleagues, your friends, your neighbors, and your patrons. These things happened to me, but/and they happen to many of us.

Story #1:

There was the time I was at a small community theater production, and went to the ladies’ room while my wife went to get us a cookie or something.
While in the stall, I hear a man outside the restroom loudly saying “Don’t go in there, there is a man in there!”, and I know its about to get awkward. I go to wash my hands, at a sink visible from the door to the restroom, and the older gentleman steps into the restroom (which has now been vacated by all but me), and aggressively tells me “This is the women’s room!”
Note that at this point, he is the one in the ‘wrong’ restroom.
I respond as politely as I can (I’m frankly a bit shaken up by now) “I know, I’m a woman.” He pauses for a long few seconds as he looks me up and down to confirm my statement for himself, before telling me “Well, your attire had some of the ladies very concerned.” So not only has he thoroughly embarrassed me, but he has also made it my fault.

Story 2:

Then there was the time a docent/security guard at an art museum followed me into the restroom and yelled at me through the stall door.
Docent: “Hello!!”
Yours truly: “Yes?”
Docent: “this is the WOMEN’s room!”
Yours truly: “um, I know …”
After I assured her I was in the right restroom, she huffed about women being worried, and about it being a perfectly understandable mistake. Ironically, this was at the national museum for women in the arts in DC.

Then there are the weekly stories of someone telling me I’m in the wrong restroom, sometimes kindly, often aggressively; and of women entering restrooms and then doing a double-take when they see me and checking to see if they are in the right restroom.

And ever since HB2 passed, and bills like HB2 have been in the news and on the dockets in states, cities and counties across the nation; these encounters take on a more dangerous and menacing tone.

After Target announced its transgender customers and employees could use store bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, Orlando-based Liberty Counsel president Anita Staver said she would be taking her Glock .45 into Target’s restrooms, saying the gun “identifies as my bodyguard.”

In 2016, a GOP candidate for Sheriff in Denton County TX said:
“All I can say is this: If my little girl is in a public women’s restroom and a man, regardless of how he may identify, goes into the bathroom, he will then identify as a John Doe until he wakes up in whatever hospital he may be taken to.”

Check out the comments section on any story about bathroom bills and you will find plenty of these sorts of threats – primarily men threatening violence as a way to protect their wives and daughters from “men” in the restroom.

And since I am mistaken for a man in restrooms several times a week (more when I’m traveling), these threats are personal. For a heartbreaking and very, very real description about what it feels like to be scared to pee in public, see on restrooms, gender and fear by Emily C. Heath.

But thank the goddess we don’t have to worry about extremists like that in the library profession– librarians aren’t like that, am I right? In fact, we reject that kind of hate and ignorance. We’re all very progressive and welcoming and its safe here in our libraries, and on our campuses. Everyone is welcome here, right?

And that is probably mostly true. But/and just because we are fairly confident that outright threats of violence against transgender folks or other marginalized colleagues and patrons are rare in our organizations doesn’t mean we don’t still have some serious problems and shortcomings around diversity and inclusion in our libraries and in the profession.

Let me tell another story, a story I haven’t really told to anyone outside my circle of close friends until I started preparing this talk. Partly I didn’t tell it because I’m still not sure what it means, partly because even though I know it is the other person who should feel this way, I get embarrassed telling and living these stories, and partly because the impulse to protect others, even, especially when they do or say clueless things around diversity topics is strong.

This is my “Welcome to our bathroom!” story.

Not long after HB2 passed, I’m at a meeting of my library directors peers. At this point I’m still new to being a library director, so I don’t really know very many of my peers. So, I’m at this meeting with about 100 other library directors, and a colleague I don’t know except by name and institution starts a conversation with me. She’s older, straight, cisgendered, white. With no prompting from me, she starts this conversation with me and proceeds to tell me how horrible HB2 is, and how “the transgenders” (sic) aren’t a threat to anyone, and just generally how against HB2 she is. This is literally the first conversation I have ever had with this woman, so I smile and nod along awkwardly, silently praying this convo will end quickly. Eventually it does end, but our story does not. Later that day, during a break in the meeting, I head to the restroom and end up behind this woman in line.
She turns to me with a big sweet smile, and says, loud enough for everyone to hear: “Welcome to our bathroom!” I think she even patted me on the shoulder or something.

Slide13

She meant well, I assume; but there’s a lot that went wrong in that interaction, for me. And there is much to unpack about assumptions, intent, and whose feelings got centered, and who got singled out, and how much more awful it would have been if I were trans, or if I weren’t white (like every other person in that bathroom – after all it was a conference full of library directors). If it is helpful to you, I suggest you might use this story to talk amongst yourselves about micro-aggressions, and about good intentions gone wrong.

But I want to use this story – my “Welcome to our bathroom!” story – to point out some ways library diversity and inclusion efforts often fall short, or worse.

I think this story is a pretty decent example of ways in which folks who think they are being welcoming and who are trying to embrace diversity actually end up doing more harm than good.

And it is really hard to resist the urge to apologize for how harsh that sounds – because there is a prevailing narrative – especially popular in librarian circles, that says social justice advocates have to be patient and understanding and kind and nice and forgiving when people try to “be good allies” but mess up. And certainly we need to allow people to learn from mistakes and missteps, but/and in order to learn we have to be specific about when and how our seemingly well-meaning efforts fall short.

What I’m saying is, we need to move beyond the notion of being welcoming and we need to consider real fundamental, cultural and structural changes that would foster inclusion and justice.

I want to really zero in on the “Welcome to our bathroom!” story and talk about one of the many ways it is problematic. Whatever other assumptions might have been going on in that statement, by welcoming me to her bathroom, this nice straight lady made it very clear that she conceived of the women’s restroom as hers; and not really “mine” until women like her welcomed me.

And I think this is also what we in libraries do when we declare ourselves “welcoming” to librarians and archivists of color. We welcome “them” to our spaces, and to our profession, without really doing the work to actually make our profession and our cultures inclusive, and without doing the work to undo the decades of exclusion and discrimination that are the history and legacy of our profession and of most of our institutions.

And, we focus our diversity and inclusion efforts on programs that are designed to recruit members of underrepresented groups into libraries and archives; and then we train “them” on how to succeed in “our” institutions and “our” cultures.

And because representation matters, recruitment programs for librarians and archivists of color continue to matter. We remain an unbearably white profession, and progress towards becoming more diverse is and has been really slow; certainly far slower than the rate of change in the demographic make up of the country and/or of the college student population.

So, yes, our recruitment programs matter, but/and they are not enough. We also have some serious retention problems; and I think that has a lot to do with us resting on our good intentions, and assuming that being nice welcoming white ladies (and we are mostly women in this profession) is enough.

It is not enough.

When I talk about diversity, inclusion, and social justice with white librarians, I always hear from people about how much better libraries are than the rest of society, about how liberal and welcoming librarians are, and about how our lack of diversity is really just a pipeline problem. (I also hear a lot of “shouldn’t we be neutral?”, but in the interest of time, let’s take up that neutrality myth in the Q&A if you want). And there’s always at least one dude who wants to talk about the plight of males in this predominately female profession. Don’t be that dude. Not today.

At any rate, I’m pretty tired of hearing those tropes – and I’m willing to bet our colleagues of color are also really tired of hearing them.

Many librarians and archivists from marginalized groups do not experience our profession or our organizations the same way us white folks do. Which should not be surprising – there is ample evidence across many domains that demonstrate that the life circumstances of people of color are different from those of white folks.

At any rate, my experience is that many of us think we are being welcoming, but we are often just about as ham-fisted and unwelcoming as the woman who welcomed me to the ladies’ restroom after assuring me she was down with the gays and the transgenders.

I’m sorry to say that much of what we do in libraries in the name of diversity and inclusion is just as performative and is often less about making real changes and is more about making us look good and feel good about ourselves.

I want to call your attention to some blog posts from some colleagues I admire very much:

These colleagues write about the emotional, physical, and intellectual toll of being a librarian of color in an overwhelmingly white profession, full of well-meaning nice white ladies (and a few men) who likely think of themselves as liberal and accepting and welcoming and not at all racist. (and I imagine there are some folks in the audience who are uncomfortable, or maybe even offended by the phrase “nice white ladies”, so let’s talk about that in the Q&A).

April talks about ALA as “Five days of having “nice white ladies” tell you to be “civil” and “professional” when you talk about the importance of acknowledging oppression and our profession’s role in it.”

Sarah writes of hearing some white women use the words “inclusive” and “welcoming” to describe our association. And then she reminds us that It’s not up to the majority to determine whether or not the space is/has become welcoming and inclusive. Those sentiments are aspirational, not reflective.

And Fobazi calls our attention to this post by a white woman on a Facebook page I won’t be linking to:
Slide15
The post reads:

One of my greatest takeaways from #ALAAC17 was seeing the beautiful diversity in our profession. We truly represent all those we serve and I’m proud to call you my people.

Not only are we really not that diverse, and we certainly don’t “truly represent the people we serve”; but this kind of statement renders our non-white colleagues as props on some self-satisfyingly diverse stage we can admire. As Fobazi says (sarcastically), “I love knowing that my body is seen as diverse. Not as a person. But as a pat on the back.”

And too often this is exactly what we do in libraries. We don’t want to dig deep, we don’t want to confront our own ingrained racism and homophobia, and we don’t want to examine the racist and oppressive histories and legacies of our institutions; so we talk about how we love diversity and how welcoming we are.

And we tell the one queer librarian we know that we are against HB2 and we welcome her to our bathroom, and we tell anyone who will listen how much we love seeing the “beautiful diversity” of our profession — while we remain 88% white and while our culture and our policies and our bathrooms continue to reflect and enforce a traditional gender binary.

You know that saying “We’ve come a long way, baby”? Well, we haven’t really come very far … and don’t you dare call me baby.

In the meantime, at the Society of American Archivist meeting, we laugh at all-gender restrooms.

And to make matters worse, we get defensive when we are called on our “nice white lady” micro-aggressions. We tone-police people of color and queer activists and we tell them to be more patient, and that they/we will make more progress if they act more professional; without ever interrogating the inherent classism and racism and heteronormativity built into our conceptions of professionalism.

And we complain that the language and the concepts of social justice are too advanced, and that the activists among us need to slow down and provide an on-ramp for those of us who are trying to catch up to diversity work.

Too much of our diversity work is based on an unstated assumption/attitude that libraries belong to us (white folks), and out of the goodness of our progressive and definitely not racist hearts, we need to welcome ‘diverse’ people. That framing, that way of approaching this work is itself a micro-aggression and is part of a culture that keeps us from making any real progress toward inclusion and social justice. And it is the same attitude and culture that makes it OK for a nice straight lady to welcome me to her bathroom.

I think that our diversity and inclusion work and our diversity and inclusion committees have to move away from questions of how we can be more welcoming; and we have to tackle the harder questions about how we create cultures and policies and practices and organizations that are inclusive and that foster and promote equity and social justice. To do that, we have to admit that no matter how well intentioned we may be, libraries and archives are not magically welcoming spaces for people from marginalized communities.

Think about it – I shared with you my own stories of being marginalized by well-intentioned straight colleagues and allies; but/and I come to these encounters with a whole bunch of privilege. My queer identity intersects with loads of privilege — I’m white, I have too many degrees from too many Ivy Plus schools, and I’m the director of the best library in ARL. And I still steel myself against the inevitable micro-aggressions I will experience at library conferences, and I get stressed just trying to pee when I travel.
And y’all, the stuff I have shared today is just the tip of a very chilly iceberg. Ask me about fund-raising and job interviews …

But enough about me – here’s another example:

At ACRL, Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, spoke about the importance of having a regular outlet for her frustrations as a woman of color in a profession that is overwhelmingly white. The most accomplished, most senior librarian in the country admits that she calls her mom to regularly vent about real and pervasive frustrations of being a black woman in this profession.

Some of you, maybe many of you, didn’t need convincing that we have a lot of work to do – individually and as organizations; but I’m willing to bet that some of you did need either convincing or reminding. I hope this talk has done some of that.

I know you will be talking about diversity & inclusion later today, and you will be discussing ways to promote diversity and inclusion in TRLN and your individual institutions. I hope you will ask yourselves and each other some hard questions. I have a few starter questions to suggest:

  • What needs to change at my institution to go from passively “welcoming” to actively inclusive?
  • How does my library enforce a gender binary?
  • How is our definition of “professionalism” classist, racist, heteronormative, etc.?
  • How might we better understand ways we fall short, as individuals and organizations?
  • What are we doing that is queer-affirming in my library?

And I have a few suggestions for queer affirming things you can do in your libraries:

  • Gender neutral bathrooms
  • Pronouns, preferred names
  • Queer-affirming content in ALL displays, libguides, etc. (not just in June)
  • Ally training
  • What else …?

I tweeted this morning that this talk might well end up being the queerest and most personal talk I’ve ever given. I think that might be true.
This was a hard, but cathartic talk for me to prepare and to give. I hope it was helpful to you, and the work TRLN intends to do.

Let me close with this – if you are queer, if you are trans, if you are any part of the big glorious LGBTQ+ community, please know that I see you, you belong here, you are valued, and I will never stop fighting for you – for us.

Carla Hayden’s mother

Hayden spoke of the historical significance of her confirmation and the importance of having a regular outlet for her frustrations as a woman of color in a profession that is overwhelmingly white. “My poor mother knows more about everything than she ever needed to know,” she said.

ACRL Closes with Carla Hayden, American Libraries Magazine

I have written before about the Unbearable Whiteness of librarianship, but that post was mostly about the demographics. Here I want to call our attention to the fact that the most senior and the most recognized librarian in the country publicly acknowledged that the whiteness of librarianship exacts a toll on librarians of color at every level of our profession.

Think about it folks — The Librarian of Congress regularly vents to her mother about the struggles of being a person of color in our very, very white profession. I would hope that my peers (fellow library directors and white library staff in general) and I were already listening to the concerns and experiences of our non-white colleagues; but I also hope that Dr. Hayden’s comments at ACRL are a catalyst for renewed attention not just to the demographic imperative of diversifying our profession, but also to the harder and more entrenched cultural challenges of creating inclusive organizations. The whiteness of librarianship is more than just a demographic reality, it is a cultural one. Like most wicked problems, admitting you have a problem is the first step.

Thank you, Dr. Hayden, for your vulnerability in admitting that the struggles and frustrations of being a woman of color in this profession are real and pervasive. I hope your honesty spurs my peers and I to double down on a commitment to supporting people of color in our organizations, and to creating and sustaining truly diverse and inclusive cultures.

when words matter

I don’t think words are enough, but I do think words matter.

On November 9, I was not on campus with my library colleagues. I was in South Bend, Indiana; giving two talks to librarians and archivists at the University of Notre Dame. I honestly am not sure what I talked about. I threw away my notes, acknowledged how hard it was to be away from home and away from my MIT colleagues, and tried to make some claims about how the election of a president who ran on a platform of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and a general disregard for science and facts made the work of libraries and archives more important and urgent than ever. Again, I really don’t know what I said, but a few folks cried and a few thanked me for being real. I couldn’t do anything else.

In between my 2 talks at Notre Dame, I sat down and sent a quick and heartfelt note to my MIT Libraries family. I was only back at MIT for a day, before the Veteran’s Day holiday, then a trip to Chicago for some ARL business. While in Chicago, I worked with Mark Puente and the amazing staff at ARL headquarters to get a statement out on behalf of ARL, affirming our values of diversity and inclusion.

When I finally got back to MIT, I hosted “open hours” so members of the MIT Libraries could come together to share their thoughts with each other and with me. We brainstormed some ideas for action, including ways we could support one another and our community members. I asked them if they thought I should make a public statement on behalf of the libraries or if we should do something more grass-roots, perhaps signed by those who wanted to contribute to a statement (a great example of the latter is from our colleagues at University of Oregon).  They said we should do both. And they asked if I would give folks a chance to comment on and contribute to the official statement.

That is how we ended up with a strong statement reaffirming MIT Libraries’ commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. The statement is stronger, clearer, and more inclusive because my colleagues contributed. It reflects the culture of our library and the input of many of my phenomenal colleagues. But make no mistake, as a leader, I stand ready to take full responsibility for any backlash; hence the statement came out under my name.

Words aren’t enough, but words matter. As a leader in this profession, I want my colleagues – especially those who are most marginalized and most vulnerable – to know that I have their back, and that the organizations that represent them do as well.

(I’m not really going to weigh in on the ALA statements, because there are others who are way more qualified than I am on ALA politics, so read what Emily Drabinski said and what Sarah Houghton said.)

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.

b6nwjryccaalq5z

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).

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing uncomfortable conversations at ARL/CARL 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please join me in welcoming Darren Lund to the podium.


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