This past week, I attended the 118th Medical Library Association (MLA) Annual Meeting in Atlanta, GA. While it was a standard conference in many respects, it was also a historic one. Beverly Murphy was named the first African American president of MLA since it was incepted in 1898.
When I first considered becoming a librarian, I quickly learned about #critlib, which centers the impact of oppression and marginalization of the many –isms in librarianship. I wanted to be in a profession where I could provide information in a critical way, dismantling library neutrality. I found this through a hashtag which allowed me to meet diverse, inspiring, kind, and intelligent librarians. However, I find it slightly more difficult to apply a social justice framework as an academic medical librarian focusing upon the School of Medicine. I have tried my best through critical search strategies and educating others about bias within publishing. And of course, subject areas specific to public and/or global health easily lend themselves to health disparities. Overall though, I have noticed that medical librarianship has been slower to the game, especially in terms of coming together as a community. During this meeting, however, it felt different.
The annual Janet Doe lecture was given by Elaine Martin, focused upon social justice. I have listened to some talks concerning social justice that just scratch the surface. They seem to give a nod to diversity as more of a check box rather than a critical interpretation and call for action. However, Elaine stressed mass incarceration as a public health issue; she emphasized dismantling library neutrality; she quoted Paulo Freire, the author of the seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed. She received a standing ovation. It was inspiring, and while it may have just been pure emotion, it gave me hope.
I also attended a Diversity & Inclusivity Fishbowl session by MLA’s Diversity and Inclusivity Task Force. During a fishbowl, a moderator poses a question to a group of individuals seated in a few concentric circles. In our case, there were around 30 of us. There were four seats in the innermost circle, and the individuals in that circle answered the question and can be “tapped out” by others in the outside circles who wish to speak. Unless we were in the inner circle, we were solely active listeners. I’m not going to lie, when I saw the format of this meeting, which was three days into the conference and from 5:00 p.m.-6:30 p.m., I dreaded it. But I also knew this was an important issue. Not only did I feel welcome, but I enjoyed the structured yet conversational format. It can be difficult to talk about diversity and inclusion because everyone’s positions are well-intentioned, however, because this is an issue that historically induces trauma upon the marginalized, it can become very passionate. This passion is essential for affecting change, and this format provided a way to combine this passion with respect and compassion. While this is just the beginning of these discussions, it is important to understand perspectives, especially for those greatly affected by oppressions. It was assuring to see so many people coming together while sharing their individual experiences and beliefs for a topic I thought was somewhat dormant within medical librarianship. And, because of the incoming presidency of Beverly Murphy, I am full of hope and faith that events like these will result in an action plan.
I can’t say that I remember everything that Beverly said during the talk she gave after being named the new MLA president. But I can tell you how I felt in response. First, Beverly did not stand at the podium when delivering her words. She sat at a table on the stage to be in conversation with the MLA members. She included song, humor, and love in her words. It was warm. It was inviting. And given the previous events I witnessed, it felt promising. She incorporated the importance of diversity and inclusivity, so it wasn’t a mere check box. Rather, it was always part of the conversation. Just two days before, I met Beverly at the New Members Breakfast. As a co-convener of the MLA New Members Special Interest Group (SIG), I was interested in how we can further engage new members. Shannon Jones, the founder of the New Members SIG, was eager to share ideas with me and introduced me to Beverly, who immediately stated her commitment to advocating for new members. She also told me that she was asking first-time attendees she met to share their experiences, positive and negative, and to contact her directly. Real change comes from strong leaders and action. And diversity is more than an initiative – it is a way of being. Regardless of topic, subject area, or library role, it needs to be part of all we do. Beverly is firm in this commitment:
“No matter what race we are, what color we are, what ethnicity we are, what gender we have, or whether we have physical issues – we are all information professionals, with a common goal, and that is ‘to be an association of the most visible, valued, and trusted health information experts.’ Diversity drives excellence and makes us smarter, especially when we welcome it into our lives, our libraries, and our profession.” – Beverly Murphy
The solidarity and volume is increasing for diverse voices in medical librarianship, becoming a stronger driver for diverse and inclusive representation, pedagogy, scholarship, community, and more and vice versa. I know that equity of race, sexual orientation, gender, and ability is a long road. And I am appreciative we are on it.