Posts Tagged 'sociology'

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

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.

a ‘what if’ story about a dissertation opened up too late

I posted my 2003 Stanford dissertation, Gender Mistakes and Inequality, on the open access pre-print server SocArxiv in July of 2016 and it has been downloaded over 2000 times to date (it got out of the gate strong too). Prior to that, it had been cited once, and I assume read (maybe) by my committee and the few friends I begged for feedback. I never submitted it to a ‘real’ journal, so it was available in print at Stanford Libraries and behind the ProQuest paywall only.

Here’s what I think would have happened if I could have deposited it (or an earlier  working version of it, even) in SocArxiv all those years ago:

  1. I could have gotten feedback from folks other than my committee and fellow grad students. My favorite part of my dissertation is the nascent queer theory part, but there was no one in the Stanford sociology department whose work was even close to the same ballpark as queer theory then. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and my committee wasn’t telling me.
  2. Related to #1, I like to think that with the chance at more diverse readers I would have revised some of the cringe-worthy parts of the manuscript that are not trans-inclusive at all. My advisor, a well-known gender scholar, does not do any work that really questions the gender binary; so even though my dissertation is all about what happens when we are ‘wrong’ about someone’s gender, it still hews pretty closely to binary and non-mutable conceptions of sex and gender. That sucks and I’m embarrassed by that. If an early version of this had been on a SocArxiv, maybe someone would have told me about the sucky parts and I could have made those parts not suck.
  3. If it were widely and openly available early on, maybe I would have realized that it had a potential readership; and maybe I would have prioritized revising it for submission to a ‘real’ sociology journal. That, in turn, could have gotten the ideas and the findings into the literature way earlier.

I know some folks are concerned that grad students and junior scholars are ill-served by incentives to publish working papers in open access repositories like SocArxiv because they might be embarrassed at criticism of ideas and work that is not fully vetted and not ready for prime-time. My experience is the opposite – I would have welcomed a more open and diverse audience, criticism and all, of my dissertation. As it is, I’m embarrassed by parts of it that I fully believe would have been caught and corrected/revised if it had been available openly to a wider audience early on.

So, yeah, I fully support the proposal to open up ASA section paper awards; and so should you.

a dissertation finds her readers

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

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

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

It got read. A lot.

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

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

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


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

Shameless self-promotion of publications, presentations, and unpublished manuscripts

I decided I needed a place to keep track of my publications, presentations, and unpublished manuscripts, so I added the Publications and Presentations page now linked at the top of this blog.

A second, but important, motivation is to provide access to the full-text of some unpublished manuscripts, including my dissertation Gender Mistakes & Inequality. I also included an unpublished paper I wrote about civilian husbands of military women for a graduate school class back in 1994. I still get an occassional request for a copy of that paper, and it has actually been cited a few times in published books and articles. I guess it pays to be the first to write about something, and to have had an awesome advisor who continues to tell anyone writing about military women with civilian husbands that I wrote about the topic way back when.

I actually think one of my best papers is an unpublished and (so far) uncited paper with the clever title: Bowling with veterans: The impact of military service on subsequent civic engagement. I wrote it for a graduate methods course at Stanford, and submitted it to American Journal of Sociology back in 2001. I actually got a very kind and very helpful rejection from AJS. I worked on it a bit more and was thinking about submitting it somewhere else, but then I then I got a full time gig at the Stanford Libraries and I just never could find the time to get back to it.

Does posting these old unpublished manuscripts online here count as self-publishing? I wonder if putting them online will have any affect on citations? At any rate, I’m not likely to be writing any more military sociology papers, but I do now have a place to put future presentations so I can find them again.

Social Science on steroids

The next big (and I do mean BIG) thing in the social sciences is Computational Social Science (PDF, Science, Vol 323, 6 February 2009; subscription required). As human interaction increasingly occurs “in the network”, we are creating massive amounts of data tracing human interaction and behavior. The Science article asks and answers the question: “What value might a computational social science—based in an open academic environment—offer society, by enhancing understanding of individuals and collectives?”

My interest is in “How might libraries and librarians facilitate the development of a robust field of computational social science, within our own institutions and across the academy?”

I often have a vague uneasiness that social sciences get left out of discussions about the future of libraries, and digital libraries in particular. The “hard” sciences get plenty of attention, as they tend to be the first to move towards adoption of digital content and delivery. The humanities get plenty of attention for developments in digital humanities. As computational social science develops, libraries ought to be paying attention and participating.

One logical role for libraries is in the area of data curation. One challenge identified in the Science article is the fact that “existing data sets are scattered among many groups, with uneven skills and understanding of data security and widely varying protocols.” Libraries would provide a logical site for the trusted preservation of these kind of data, and for developing and implementing the necessary privacy protections.

Some examples of emerging centers for computational social science include:
Center for Social Complexity, George Mason University
UCLA Center for Human Complex Systems (aka Computational Social Science)

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Twitter and strength of weak ties

I’ve written before about Facebook and the strength of weak ties, and I think Michael Clarke’s The Strength of Weak Ties: Why Twitter Matters in Scholarly Communication is right on.
The key part of the post is where he talks about how Twitter differs from other social networking sites/tools:

Twitter, however, diverges from this model in 3 important ways:

1. Followers not friends. On Twitter, your status update is sent to your “followers” … When you first start using Twitter, your followers are typically people you know personally…But then a curious thing happens: other people—often complete strangers—become followers based on the content of your status updates.
2. Content not relationships. You develop followers on Twitter in large part based on what you have to say. If your posts are interesting to other people, they will follow you…
3. Open not closed. On Twitter, status updates are visible to everyone. I can perform searches on Twitter … Moreover, retweeting (reposting) other people’s messages is a common practice on Twitter. .. Additionally, the use of hash tags to indicate content is related to a particular topic or event can result in further dissemination of one’s posts. Using these mechanisms, posts on Twitter can circulate in surprising ways.

Clarke rightly notes that Twitter’s networking advantages are best described by the work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, whose seminal AJS article “The Strength of Weak Ties” anticipated the effects of online social networking by three decades.

In his subsequent book Getting a Job, Granovetter demonstrates that our “weak ties” are more valuable than “strong ties” for leading us to important outcomes like getting a job, finding a mate, etc. Our strong ties tend not to be particularly diverse in ways that are valuable for leading us to the kinds of new, unique leads that connect us to job opportunities and the like.

For me, Twitter has expanded and exposed my “weak ties” and exposed me to a more diverse set of people, who provide me a more diverse set of information on a daily basis than my “strong ties” could possibly do.

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Journalist discovers sociology

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is one of the Three Books being read by incoming Stanford students this year. I volunteered to lead one of the discussion groups, so I finally got around to reading it.
My snarky, one sentence review/summary would be: “Journalist discovers sociology; argues by anecdote anyway.”

I’m not the only one who isn’t overly impressed with Gladwell, as Stephen Kotkin of the NY Times describes Outliers as “like a sumptuous Chinese meal that an hour later leaves a diner feeling hungry.”

On the one hand, I guess I am pleased that incoming Stanford students will get exposed to a Sociological Imagination:

C. Wright Mills:
…the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances (p. 5).

Malcolm Gladwell:
It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine (p. 19).

On the other hand, I would hate for incoming Stanford students to think that Gladwell’s standards of evidence are the standards of evidence used by real social scientists. Or that sociological theory is no more sophisticated than Gladwell’s pithy, but simplistic thesis.

Perhaps the best discussion point I can bring to my group of students will be something like:
“If you liked Gladwell’s book, and are intrigued by the idea that individual choices and achievements are heavily influenced by our social settings; then you should definitely take some classes from Stanford’s world class Sociology department and find out how social science is done in the big leagues.”

The more I think about it, my real beef is less with the Gladwell book itself, and with the Stanford Three Books committee for selecting it. If you want to pick a book with a sociological focus, why not pick one written by a sociologist? How about the 2007 ASA Book Award winner, The Chosen, which “tells the story of admissions policies and practices in America’s elite colleges over the full length of the twentieth century”? Or Working-class white : the making and unmaking of race relations by Stanford’s own Monica McDermott?

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