I was invited to participate on a panel at the Tufts University Libraries staff development day, 6 June 2018, on the theme of critical librarianship. Before opening the panel to a more discursive question and answer period, each of the panelists — myself, Stacy Collins, and Liz Phipps-Soeiro — were asked to briefly speak about our own practices of critical librarianship. These were my remarks.
I decided to use my brief presentation time here today, before we move into a more conversational mode, to share three questions with you that I use to frame and reflect on the practice critical librarianship at my workplace and in the field more broadly. I want to note here, at the top of our discussion, that I received no formal training in critical theory when I was pursuing my MLS degree at Simmons College, between 2007 and 2011; last night, when I was preparing my remarks, I did a quick search and found that the #critlib Twitter chats go back to 2014, and the DERAIL Forum at Simmons — a student-led forum for “critical discussions of the intersections between social justice issues and our roles as students and information professionals” — began in 2016. Five years after I finished my graduate education.
As someone who entered the field of librarianship because I was seeking a way to put my leftist politics into practice, I am really excited that these discussions are happening — and often happening in ways that are accessible to library workers who are no longer students themselves (on Twitter, at professional conferences, in forums like this). While I love to read and think about critical theory, I want to underscore that you don’t have to be a theory nerd to think and act critically in library spaces. And I hope that these three questions, which I have found helpful in clarifying my role and responsibilities to work for social justice on the job, help you think about what you can do in your own work space to make our practices more inclusive.
Question One: What are my core values?
A key insight of critical theory is that power is distributed unequally in every area of our lives. Critical theory especially highlights the way that systems and structures — cataloging standards, workplace hierarchies, the physical organization of space — presented as objective, neutral, and natural that may appear “neutral” (in part because powerful people present them as such) in fact actively work to produce and reproduce power and privilege whether or not they are ultimately good for human flourishing.
Many of us became librarians because we are passionate about access to information — particularly access that is made available on an equal basis to everyone in the community (however defined) that the library serves. The hard lesson that critical theory teaches us is that the practice of librarianship is not inherently the practice of social justice. We learn that libraries, too, are sites of oppression. Of colonialism, of racism, of anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-fat, ableist, and sexist attitudes and exclusionary practices. And we learn that sometimes these harmful attitudes and actions are not incidental to librarianship but are, in fact, foundational to the history of our field and woven tightly (perhaps inextricably, in some cases) into our daily work.
This is why my first question — for myself, and for all of you — is: “What are my core values?” Current best practices, organizational mission statements, codes of ethics established by professional bodies — these may be useful, but they should not be your only way of holding yourself accountable for socially just practice. Instead, I encourage you to identify (or create) communities of accountability outside of your workplace, perhaps even outside of your field. In the months following the 2016 election, for example, it became clear to me that speaking out against GOP policies required more than the language of professional ethics and best practices. Identify those people and spaces that help you hold on to your deepest sense of justice and joy, and check in with those people, spend time in those spaces, purposefully reflect on how your daily work can better reflect those values you hold dear.
Question Two: Who is missing from this table?
The second question I encourage you to ask — and ask often — is “Who is missing from this table?” Who is missing from your conversations about policy, about access, about inclusion? When you post a job opening, who is applying for those positions, and who is invited for interviews? If those people all come from very similar backgrounds and all fit a very similar profile: Are they all (or almost all) white? Are they all from middle-class backgrounds? Are they all able-bodied?
Particularly when it comes to questions of power and agency in our institutions, getting into the habit of noticing who is and isn’t at the table when decisions are being made, when resources are being allocated, is a crucial step in taking action for change. Think critically about who serves (and who is asked to serve) on committees. Who has the financial resources to participate in professional development. Whose needs are framed as central in your workplace and whose comfort is considered as a postscript in event planning? And task yourself with documenting the exclusions you notice, and speaking up. To take one example, the Massachusetts Historical Society recently established a lactation space for staff and researchers, and when an email went out to staff announcing this the email referred to the space as a “Mother’s Room.” Not all parents who provide milk for their children identify as mothers, or as women — so I asked the facilities staff to consider more inclusive language for any signs or information text on our website. In another case, a staff member noticed that our registration form offered no gender-neutral alternative to Mr. and Ms. — a careless oversight that was easily remedied once he brought it to our attention. While sometimes true ideological differences exist, and need to be dealt with, in many cases change can be made with minimal fuss institutionally and make a HUGE difference in how welcome staff and patrons feel.
Question Three: Where, and how do I have agency?
Once you start thinking about the (mal)distribution of power in your library, and once you start noticing who’s being excluded, and how, it’s time to think about where and how you have agency to make change. All of us carry complex identities that mean we have institutional and social power in some contexts and may be marginalized in others. It’s important to do the work of discerning where you, specifically, can bring insight to bear and where you have the power to act. When it comes to social privilege, for example, I am a white woman, I am able-bodied, I hold advanced degrees, English is my first language, I have birthright citizenship. Institutionally, I have the advantage of ten years’ tenure, a supervisor who supports me, and I’m salaried with benefits. On the other hand, I am queer and a woman; I’m not a department head, and in many cases am not at the table when institutional policy discussions take place. I am young compared to many of my senior colleagues. But that doesn’t mean I lack agency. In the comedy world, they talk about jokes that “punch up” rather than “punch down”: Jokes that punch down — fat “jokes” or rape “jokes,” for example — reinforce existing prejudice and police already-marginalized people further. Jokes that “punch up” work in the opposite way, naming and ridiculing those policing practices in a way that exposes their violence and hopefully helps turn the cultural tide. In a similar way, I have come to think about practicing critical librarianship “from the middle” of an institution as an exercise in sheltering down and amplifying up. Assess where you are in your organization, who your allies are, and who among those allies has more structural power and who has less. It’s your job to amplify the voices of those with less structural power. Remember those people not at the table? If you are at the table, do everything you can to bring those people to the table. And if they can’t be there in person, bring their concerns forward yourself. And in the other direction, identify the harmful ways power is being used against the vulnerable in your workplace — and do what you can to mitigate those harms, even if you are not in a position to unilaterally change policies or practices.
Critical race theorists assert (and here I am quoting from Richard Delgado’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction) that society should “ ‘Look to the bottom’ in judging new laws [and] if they would not relieve the distress of the poorest group — or worse, if they compound it — we should reject them.” I argue that the practice of critical librarianship is the continual process of checking in with our most vulnerable, our most marginalized community members and challenging ourselves and our organizations to make their experiences, perspectives, and needs central to our policies and practices.