Applying Counter-Narratives to Academic Librarianship

Beginning notes from Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s keynote at IDEAL 2019.

Late July and early August were a whirlwind of travel for me. First up: ACRL Immersion, where I had the privilege of observing the program as a new facilitator. This was followed up by a quick trip to Columbus, Ohio for IDEAL 2019, the Advancing Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility in Libraries & Archives Conference. I’ve been pouring over my notes, doing some personal reading, and reflecting on some of the bigger ideas that connected these two very intense learning experiences. One of those ideas was the concept of counter-narrative.

Counter-narrative comes from Critical Race Theory, and is rooted in the idea that power creates a dominant story that is accepted as Truth. Through counter-narrative, groups of people who have been marginalized have the power to resist dominant ideology and tell the story of Truth from their (our) own perspective and experience. An excellent example of counter-narrative in action is the 1619 Project spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York Times. This project “is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” I had the honor of hearing Nikole Hannah-Jones and Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw speak at IDEAL 2019 and both stressed the importance of the stories we tell and the way that narrative shapes our reality.

There are so many opportunities for us to develop and apply a counter-narrative to our work in libraries, which is influenced by the same ideologies and -isms that plague the world in which we live. We see this in the work of Eamon Tewell, Jacob Berg, and Scarlet Galvan, who turn the resilience narrative so many libraries adopt on its head, highlighting the ways in which it reinforces structural inequalities and shift responsibility to individuals who suffer. It is present in the instruction team at the University of Nevada Las Vegas Libraries who seek to dismantle deficit thinking in information literacy education and acknowledge the strengths that transfer students bring to the classroom. The work of Annie Pho and Rose L. Chou in Pushing the Margins, along with that of the many talented librarian researchers who contributed to that excellent volume are all prime examples of counter-narratives by women of color within our profession.

What narratives and ideologies have we bought into in our own work in academic libraries? What have we simply accepted as Truth without bothering to question, poke holes in, and dismantle? There’s this unfortunate narrative that critical inquiry is about posing problems without offering any form of solution. To respond to that, I’ll borrow from Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw and say that “There is power in naming.” There is power in storytelling, in pointing out problems, and in developing a discourse of dissent. What can you question? What kind of counter-narrative can you give to our profession?

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