I promise I did not vanish into the abyss. I did, however, disappear into an incredibly busy March and April and I offer profound apologies to my fellow ACRL bloggers, though I’m quite sure they understand how these things go in the wild world of libraries.
One of the many events that consumed me during these past two months was the Texas Libraries Association conference, AKA TLA2022. If you are a member of #LibraryTwitter, you might be familiar with the controversy that was stirred up by one of the keynote speakers, Alyssa Edwards. I was unfortunately unable to go to this keynote due to a very long and tiring day waiting in lines (Sidenote: What do conference organizers have against chairs? I haven’t been able to sit on the floor without a monumental effort to get up again since undergrad. Do not make people stand in lines for hours! It’s not acceptable or disability inclusive or okay! Geez!) but the issue was echoed again and again in each session I did attend. Libraries are being badgered by bigots, zealots, and busybodies who jump on us the moment we show any support to LGBTQ communities.
It’s not as bad in academic libraries. My colleagues in public libraries and especially those in school libraries are taking the brunt of the abuse. However, the field itself is having a reckoning, if the thrust of nearly every main session at TLA is any indication. I attended sessions each day, and book banning and challenges, patrons abusing staff, programs being canceled and boycotted, and constant, aggressive censorship was a topic brought up at almost every one of them. Even while I was busily networking in the Exhibition Hall, my main goal of the conference, I saw it everywhere. The air hummed both with the tension of the amount of pressure librarians and library staff are under as well as understanding. Every time a speaker acknowledged how hard this has been on us, professionally, physically, emotionally, I could feel waves of relief coming off those surrounding me. I got it. I’m lucky to have a partner who is also a librarian, so he understands. But how many of the people I encountered at that conference had felt isolated in their struggles? If your family, friends, even colleagues just don’t grasp the severity of the anxiety you live in day after day, that the one book you order or the one event you plan is going to set off a tidal wave of complaints, how amazing must it feel to finally have someone recognize it? And not only that, but someone on stage, holding a microphone, speaking with authority?
Nadine Strossen addressed the audience of librarians during her mid-conference keynote when she said, “In the land of the free and the home of the brave, it should not take courage to be so brave to do your job.” And all I could think was yes, yes, thank you! Thank you for acknowledging what the people around me have been doing. Thank you for speaking that truth to the people who really needed to hear it.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how amazing Ibram X. Kendi’s session was.
TLA did my heart good. I took a risk by going, I know I did. Large gatherings like this are going to be a gamble for a while with the COVID pandemic still in full swing. We did have protections in place, particularly either a vaccination record or clear test being required to enter the convention center, but in the end I’m very happy that I went and experienced this validation. No, I’m not on the front lines of this fight, but I’m also not so sheltered that I can ignore it (nor insist on continued oppression-favoring neutrality like some members of our field). It was a memorable and important first conference for me in my academic librarian career. I’m hoping to attend more in the future, especially because I don’t see today’s problems going away any time soon. I’m going to keep my head in the game to support fellow library workers. We all need each other right now, that’s how we make it through this.
This week, I am writing my last post as a First Year Academic Experience blogger for ACRLog. I hope that my posts have been relatable and helpful for those of you in similar and dissimilar worlds. After working in multiple careers, I have learned is that some professional concepts are career-agnostic, and we can apply our career experiences to our personal lives and vice versa.
One of the biggest takeaways from the Institute was the following: Culture Eats Strategy (for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). When these words came out of DeEtta’s mouth, I had chills. The truth of this phrase rings true in our families, communities, work environments, and global society. No matter how we plan things, no matter what policies we create, no matter what the strategic plan may be, the culture of the environments we are in will drive what actually happens.
When I was little, my mom wrote daily to-do lists of chores for my brother and me over our summer breaks. We were old enough to stay home on our own but young enough to want to watch TV all day long. Every one of those summer days, around 3:30pm, we would scramble to look at the list and do as much as we could before my parents came home. I would frantically clean grains of rice or moong dal and cross off as much as I could on the list, hoping my mom wouldn’t notice that I gave a less than mediocre effort. My brother would vacuum the whole house haphazardly, hoping it looked cleaner than it did in the morning. My mom came home, discovered our incomplete to-do list, and yelled at us about it every summer day.
I tell you this because it didn’t matter that the to-do list strategy existed. It didn’t matter that we made an average-ish effort. What mattered is that it was summer and we were kids and we wanted to watch TV and hang with friends. Culture ate strategy.
I see how, as libraries, we need policies and strategic plans. We need to have a direction and a way of doing things. I’m all for that. But the shroud of culture will always loom and outmaneuver the best of intentions. Nicky Andrews, who was in my ARL IRDW cohort, is an NCSU Fellow, and is a friend of mine, posted the following tweet during the Digital Pedagogy Lab this past week:
Her words go hand-in-hand with the implications of Culture Eats Strategy. A huge component of culture is emotional intelligence. It isn’t everything; however, it is a great place to start so we can become aware and improve upon ourselves and the larger culture. In a way, we can equate strategy with artificial intelligence. It may not be synonymous, but Nicky’s tweet reiterated to me that what we focus upon can take away from what makes the biggest difference.
Addressing culture in an organization, in a neighborhood, or in a family is not an easy task. But it is a necessary task for true forward progress and to address what is underneath the surface of the cultural iceberg.
A good friend of mine, Dr. Nazia Kazi, is an anthropology professor, and a few years ago she wrote an incredible status update on Facebook. It said, “The day I saw the video of the Walter Scott shooting was the same day a student spoke up about how unfeasible any type of reparations would be… ‘Where would we get the money from? How would we even decide who gets them? And if we pay reparations to black Americans, what about others America has wronged? It’s all just too complicated.’ Capitalism allows us to imagine – even desire – indoor ski resorts in Dubai, but makes something that would *begin* to address endemic racism seem ‘too complicated’. Where did we ‘get the money from’ when it was the banking industry or the war machine or the construction of a new prison? How have our young people already internalized such a treacherous script?”
The culture of capitalism, the culture of working in silos, the culture of hierarchy, and the culture of the larger organizations we serve, affect the work we do every day and can make it difficult to make an inch of progress. But that doesn’t make it unfeasible.
In the past year, I have learned how to conduct a systematic review, how to write effective learning outcomes, and how to check my voicemail. But, in the end, the most powerful lessons have nothing to do with my job. The most powerful lessons have been, and always will be, about the deeper ways we create and imagine, how we work with each other, questioning existing boundaries, and how to serve others with justice. And the bonus lesson is that I have extremely intelligent friends.
Dr. Bourg explores the problem of diversity in tech, specifically in a library context. She investigated similar ground that Junot Diaz, whom she references in the keynote, did at ALA Midwinter. Within a few weeks of Dr. Bourg’s keynote, conservative and anti-PC forces, sought out and harassed her online in many environments. Like most reactionary responses to anything happening in the field of higher education and “political correctness” the responses narrowed in on a specific grievance rather than deal with the entire keynote on diversity in tech. This narrowing focused on a citation Dr. Bourg used to talk about the way in which white guy nerd cultural artifacts discourage women and minorities from staying in tech jobs.
I will not link to these posts or these comments because they do not warrant being repeated.
It is not surprising at all that some who describes themselves as “butch, lesbian, and feminist” would be the target of sustained harassment. Our culture, especially in the right wing blogosphere and opinion engine, thrives on cutting queer folks down for speaking out against the dominant forces of oppression within our institutions. It also isn’t surprising that publications like The National Review who have found enemies in higher education wouldn’t decline an opportunity to attack the director of one of our best and brightest centers of critical thinking and education. Glancing at The National Review writer’s oeuvre we find all sorts of faults with feminism and gender inclusion in schools, universities, healthcare, yoga, Doritos, and dating apps.
What is surprising and disappointing, given the supposed political inclination of our field, is the response that the keynote saw in our online forums run by and contributed to by Librarians. While it is true that many organizations, Code4Lib and ARL included, came out in support of Dr. Bourg, underneath these organization lies a dark and toxic quagmire of reactionary attacks and harassment.
Many of these toxic social media collectives are well known to us, and the example of Dr. Bourg’s treatment made me think about libraries, social media, and attacks against social justice efforts.
The group formerly known as ALA Think Tank is one such example and the twitter bot LIS Grievances is another. On Think Tank, A user shared a conservative anti-higher education blog post from the College Fix about Dr. Bourg and commented that “This librarian claims to want to non-gender our workspaces but totally genders our likes and dislikes in the attempt!” Which led to dozens of shares and comments some in support, but most in the dog pile against Dr. Bourg. Important in this post by a fellow librarian, and the conservative blogger, is the fact that Dr. Bourg’s butch appearance is threatening to masculine and cis spaces in general, as if her appearance or her sexuality preclude her from discussions on gender in workplaces.
The problem here is not that anyone is not able to disagree about the gendered nature of Star Trek posters (Dr. Bourg is quick to point out that these are stereotypes of male dominated tech spaces), but that our supposedly inclusive profession, one where discussions about Nazis in libraries prompt long winded think pieces about neutrality and librarianship, attacks our own members with gendered, disgusting, and unthoughtful volleys.
Much like the attacks against feminists during #gamergate, reactionary forces use the shield of geek culture to allow themselves the room to attack women with impunity. This explosive reaction was from one line in a 45 minute keynote address, and yet dominated library discussions and led to threats against Bourg’s institution and herself.
On the other hand we have @LIS_Grievances. This is a bot programed to tweet “grievances” with the field with an appropriate profile image of George Constanza (although Frank was much more of the grievance type). When a disgruntled member of our field submits a “grievance” it comes out of the bot’s mouth. Recently these have been only slightly veiled attacks against prominent critical librarians on twitter. Commenting on “self-righteousness,” “blowhards,” and the long-time scourge of the academic library….critical theory.
Groups like Think Tank and @LIS_Grievances perpetuate the outrage machine that feeds many library focused online harassment moments. More specifically, these two social media engines work to undermine the work done by our colleagues who think critically or imagine the library role as a social justice issue. When they attack, they attack specifically those who are marginalized or work for the marginalized. The toxicity of these is an open secret amongst many librarians.
Andy Woodworth, on his blog Agnostic, Maybe?, wrote that “In the past, I was someone who said that they would never hire someone who posted in the ALA Think Tank. That’s only a partial truth; it would really depend on what they had to say. It would have to be something so detrimental, so completely outrageous that I would have to question the inherent character of the poster.” https://agnosticmaybe.wordpress.com/2015/02/17/reconsidering-the-think-tank/
Woodworth challenges the notion that its open format is truly open. Not only does this include time to be involved, the controversies and the fights, even when tame, exclude many members of our library world. This is not a welcoming environment. The example of Dr. Bourg’s harassment is just one, of many, examples. (Here is a Library Microaggressions post referencing the not-too-uncommon Think Tank http://lismicroaggressions.tumblr.com/post/98411107398/from-an-ala-think-tank-thread-on-racism). Woodworth does not go as far as to throw ALA Think Tank out completely because of its problems, but maybe it is time.
The attacks from Think Tank or @LIS_Grievances are not the community at its most rabid, but it is the tip of a larger toxic iceberg. These call out social medias thrive on the dog pile. They thrive on not being kind to others in our profession and we as a profession need to seriously think about how we support our fellow librarians, even if we disagree with them.
As librarians take the lead on neutrality and freedom of speech, we should also take a leading role in the development of digital empathy, especially for those who practice social justice. Psychologists have called society’s uncontrollable rage toward one another online as a symptom of “online disinhibition.” (Konrath, O’Brien, Hsing 2011) The mediated, online, and asynchronous environment does not discourage verbal abuse levied at other “faceless” folks online.
Fostering digital empathy could be a step forward in troubled times. Christopher Terry and Jeff Cain wrote in “The Emerging Issue of Digital Empathy” that digital empathy shows “a targeted awareness that digital communication is powerful and can often have unintended effects on others.” (Terry and Cain, 2016) While this idea could be ripe for academic librarian instruction, especially for younger students, it will be essential that we instill these beliefs in our own interactions online.
While it is easier to paint conservative bloggers with broad brush strokes about their anti-PC fights, it is more difficult to understand the dog pile when it comes from librarians. We should be aware that all of our spaces online are not inclusive or even safe. We are a social justice field, we should fight against those who would malign our “woke” colleagues.
A little over a year ago, I took a flight to Los Angeles to interview for my job at UCLA – it was the night before the election. At the time, natives and their allies were fighting to re-route Dakota Access Pipeline. I found out towards the end of my flight to LA, that the gentlemen in the aisle seat of my row was from North Dakota and thought natives were “making a big deal” out of it. I woke up the next morning to learn that my less preferred candidate won the election, and I cried in disbelief. I had no idea how I was going to get through my interview.
A year later, I am in my position at UCLA, and recent news of the Keystone Pipeline 210,000 gallon oil spill has come to light days before Thanksgiving, a holiday based upon the false notion of unity between natives and colonizers. I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but I just wanted to place this article in it’s appropriate historical context of my life as a first-year librarian. While I am beyond grateful for my job, my amazing colleagues, and the sunny skies around me, I started in this profession during, what I believe is, a grave time in global history.
I approached librarianship as a career because I loved being able to provide individuals information. However, as I mentioned in my first post, I also embraced the critical possibilities within the profession. I would be lying if I said I have been able to sustain the enthusiasm for deneutralizing the library because between moving across the country, starting a new job, and the current political climate, I am emotionally exhausted.
The good news is I have still found outlets that affirm my place in this field. So here is a list of what has kept me going. I want to share this for anyone else feeling a lack of hope and/or motivation to keep sticking with the fight:
Multiple students have approached me with a research question that focuses upon a marginalized population.
The UCLA Medical Education Committee held a retreat to discuss diversity, inclusion and equity in medical education. This included speakers that used words such as “racism”, “oppression”, and “microaggressions”.
I have been able to collaborate with amazing South Asian women librarians for an upcoming chapter in Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS. On top of it, my co-authors and I were able to share our experiences about being South Asian women in librarianship in a panel at a symposium at UCLA. And even better, I was able to meet and listen to the other incredible authors that will be included in this book!
I’m way less clueless about being a librarian than I was when I started in April!
And now I am able to share my first-year experiences through ACRLog!
This is not an exhaustive list, however, it proves that in less than 8 months of working in my position, I have been blessed to create, pursue, attend, and feel a part of unique opportunities within my profession, especially at my institution. So while I might feel disillusioned and hopeless because of the world and its inequities, I have to admit that there have been several upsides.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you too can discover these golden nuggets amongst the rubble around us.
This semester I’ve been working with a First Year Seminar on Business Ethics & Corporate Responsibility. For their semester-long research assignment, each student selected a company from the 2016 Forbes Most Ethical Companies list. They were asked to investigate the company’s relationship to its customers, employees, the environment, and international suppliers (if applicable), and how these relationships reinforce or undermine the company’s values, ethics, and/or statements of corporate responsibility. It’s an amazing assignment developed by one of our college’s philosophy professors, one that is ripe for critical thinking, questioning, and information literacy.
Two weeks ago I met with the students in this class for a second time. I want to check-in with them and facilitate a workshop where they could ask questions, share concerns, and discuss their information needs. As with many library classes, what I thought students would need and what they ended up needing were not quite the same thing. The students in this class overwhelmingly needed help developing critical questions, and by that I mean questions that interrogate the public image that companies put forth into the world.
How does your company treat its employees?
Oh you know, good. They say they value them.
But what does valuing an employee mean? Do they pay a living wage? What are their benefits like? Do they offer paid parental leave? Childcare? Do they negotiate fairly with unions? Do they offer flexible schedules? Do they practice inclusion in recruitment and retention? Is diversity and comfort of employees a top priority?
The list goes on and on.
I realize that part of the ease with which I develop these questions comes from being a working adult, but a bigger part of my ability to do this comes from the critical habits of mind I’ve worked to develop over the years. I’ve reached a point where I just can’t turn my critical consciousness off (nor would I want to do so), but I recognize that not all students are quite there yet. Learning to ask questions, to interrogate information you read, takes time.
So we practiced.
We spent much of the class thinking of different questions to ask about each company in relation to each of its stakeholders. Things like, Where are they manufacturing their products? to What kinds of advertising do they practice? Students dutifully wrote these questions down and began to think about how they might apply to their research of their selected company, then I got a question I get all the time, but in this particular context, surprised me:
How do we know if the information we find is credible? How do we know if it’s good?
We’d just spent the majority of the class period interrogating company statements of corporate responsibility and asking difficult questions about their companies’ actions in relation to their stated values and ethics. But students couldn’t continue that line of questioning to the information sources they were finding in online news outlets, websites, and library databases. I got lots of “if it’s from a .com site it’s not credible,” when all of our major news outlets end in .com. Or, and this one is always my favorite, “it’s based on unbiased facts, not someone’s opinion,” which is, of course, all kinds of problematic.
These exchanges reinforced my long-held belief that critical questioning is hard. It’s not something we’re born knowing how to do, but rather, it’s something we practice day in and day out. I finally stopped the students and said that “good” sources are hard to categorize, and that it’s really up to us to do our due diligence. The SAME way you are really digging deep into your companies and investigating them online is what you should be doing for EVERY INFORMATION SOURCE YOU FIND. Who is the author or publisher? What do you know about them? What is the point of view this piece is trying to share? How might this be helpful to you? What kinds of other information sources is this piece citing, agreeing with or refuting?
Checklists are easy. Questions are hard. It’s important that we facilitate opportunities for our students to practice critical questions, I would say, particularly NOW more than ever. We need to pick apart statements that are made on campaign trails and rallies, question narrow-minded views of the world, and challenge anti-everything populist rhetoric. Critical questioning is not just an information literacy or academic skill, it’s a life practice and habit of mind we’ll need in the years to come.