Reflections on ACRL 2021

As I logged into the ACRL 2021 Virtual Conference Opening Keynote, I was excited and nervous for the conference. I didn’t know what to expect. Would I find new and inspiring ideas? Would I find old and tired conversations that I’ve participated in over and over again? Would I find the virtual format engaging? Who would I be hearing from? How difficult would it be to find non-dominant voices?

My recent focus in research has primarily been on critical librarianship, information literacy, and open pedagogy. These subjects were well represented on the calendar. And, in the actual sessions, I found perspectives and conversations that were entirely new to me. Now, this isn’t true across the board, but the virtual conference allowed me to watch other sessions if I didn’t find the discussion in a given session to be meaningful.

From the opening keynote with Tressie McMillan Cottom and conversations about information and platform capitalism, to a deconstruction of imposter syndrome by former library pages, I found many of the new perspectives to which I was exposed to be helpful and well-grounded in a critical theoretical framework. The critical perspectives brought by the presenters helped me to articulate some of the challenges that I have been wrestling with recently: feeling gas lit by higher education conversations focused on productivity rather than recovery and healing, an alarming preference for surveillance of students rather than connection with students, and the continued omission of critical anti-racist approaches from conversations about progress. Luckily, I haven’t felt this in my library specifically, but I have found the broader discourse in higher education to be discouraging, especially since the start of the spring semester.

In addition to McMillan Cottom’s keynote, the session with We Here, “Systemic Oppression Requires Systemic Change,” highlighted specific instances of racism and oppression in librarianship. Recently, I’ve often felt as if I am blindly gesturing at these issues on a strictly theoretical level. For the most part when I speak about the systemic racism of libraries, I get a few nods, but more blank stares. The presentation underscored that there are concrete and present manifestations of white supremacy in academic librarianship, and it is not strictly an obscured, ominous force that is difficult to uncover. While many conversations about anti-racist work have died out since the summer, this presentation encouraged me to continue seeking anti-racist organization within librarianship and without.

I walked away from the ACRL Virtual Conference with new ideas, a handful of lesson plan sketches, and a re-assurance that I am not the only one trying to have conversations about critical librarianship. In fact, the ability to quickly move between virtual sessions allowed me to find something that really felt like a community. I only wish I had the opportunity to build more connections with that community. At future ACRL conferences, whether virtual or in person, I am excited to find ways to intentionally build relationships.

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