It’s My Struggle–Give Me Space

One of my Twitter faves recently tweeted this about something that happened to a friend of hers:

This friend was organizing meetings for local people of color to mobilize for the #blacklivesmatter movement in his public library. The library was happy to offer the space until they realized the meetings were meant to be for non-whites only and shut it down. Now, this person has to find new space for the meetings.

This kind of issue comes up quite a bit. It’s definitely a concern for people who don’t understand or care about issues of oppression. The so-called colorblind, neutrality-believers who don’t get that neutrality is a myth and all things are tinted by the systemic bias inherent to our society. They always have a problem with things like affirmative action and exclusive spaces.

I’m not talking to or about those folks. They still have a lot of work to do.

No, I’m talking about allies. Those folks who consider themselves to be woke and progressive and all about the cause, but who hate coming up against exclusive safe spaces to which they are not welcome or invited. Allies who want to fight alongside their marginalized counterparts but only want to do so on their own terms. Those are the people I’m talking to and about.

The fact is that people from the margins need safe spaces. We need places we can go to laugh, cry, scream, and shout among our own. We need exclusive spaces where we can curse our lot, speak our minds, and then dry our faces and take back up our fighting stances. We need places where we can be weak and vulnerable without being in danger or exposed.


“Always Curious What’s Behind Closed Doors” by Vincent Van Der Pas via Flickr,             CC BY-SA 2.0

As a black woman, I need space apart from white women to rage about how white women mistreat feminism. I need space apart from white men to rage about how white men mistreat blacks and women and black women. I even need space at times apart from my black brothers to rage about the patriarchy in our shared black community.

That doesn’t mean I hate white women or white men, and I certainly don’t hate my black brothers. But I need that space. And I need it to be exclusive.

Likewise, as a Christian, cisgender hetero woman with an able body and middle-class background, I understand that my atheist friends need space, my trans friends need space, my queer friends need space, my disabled and working-class friends need space apart from me to work through some of their struggle. And I understand that as a good ally, I need to respect, and at times help protect, that exclusive space.

To fight against that exclusive space as an ally is to insist that the struggle be centered on me, on my feelings, my needs, my desires. That is not good allyship. Being an ally means standing to the side and lending support. It does not mean being at the center. It does not involve performing theater as the star of the show.

I am forever grateful for my allies, for the white men and women, and the black men who stand in solidarity with me. But there are still places I need to go where they cannot follow. And that is okay.

Because good allies, true allies, will stand at the gates to the exclusive safe space and wait for me there.


Fair Use for Social Justice

This week is fair use week; and as I spent my time preparing and giving workshops on how to harness the power of fair use within the walls of the ivory tower, I also thought of the many ways in which fair use can be used as a tool for social justice.

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Slide from “Figuring Out Fair Use” by April Hathcock, CC BY-NC

Fair use is an exception to the exclusive rights of a capitalistic copyright system that allows owners to exclusively own and monetize works for about a century after their death. Though originally created “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” (U.S. Const. Art. I, §8, cl. 8), it is now widely used to ensure the ability to reap financial award from “original works of authorship” (17 U.S.C. 102)—sometimes by the author but most often by the corporation to which the author has assigned their rights.

In the midst of this bleak copyright environment, there exists fair use: an imperfect, but powerful copyright exception that allows limited use of materials without permission for purposes “such as criticism, comment, news reporting,” and more (17 U.S.C. 107).

Despite popular belief, fair use is a right and not just a defense. You don’t have to wait until you are sued to assess your use and determine whether it’s fair. You have a right to make that determination as you contemplate your potential use.

And that determination is naturally flexible, allowing for changes in the way copyrightable creations become “fixed in any tangible medium of expression” (17 U.S.C. 102) and the various ways in which fair users may need to exercise their right to use. The famous “four-factor test” is in fact a “four-factor plus test,” allowing for the consideration of additional factors as circumstances may warrant (17 U.S.C. 107).

What does all this have to do with social justice? Like with any socio-legal structure or process rooted in a society of capitalism and oppression, copyright law affects different groups and different forms of expression differently. There is privilege in copyright law. There are haves and have-nots. There is the mainstream and there is the marginalized.

But with fair use, there’s at least a teeny bit more equity in the system. The haves are not able to exercise monopolistic power over their works because their power is not absolute. There are limits and exceptions, allowing the have-nots to benefit from information and cultural materials being offered at high cost in the market.

And it does come down to the high cost of information in the market. While plain data and ideas—which make up the basis of information—are not copyrightable, much of our information becomes locked down in copyright because of the fixed and tangible nature of how we create and value knowledge. White, capitalist society is not an oral society. Whatever there is to know, whatever there is that is worth knowing, is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression” and subject to the market forces of copyright. Information is available and there’s tons of it, but it is far from free.

Those of us working in libraryland should readily see how important fair use can and should be to our social justice mission of providing information to all. And we should also realize how this same power of fair use is essential to providing some form of equity for marginalized groups.

Just look at what happens when fair use fails: The precedent set in Biz Markie’s loss of his sampling case nearly crippled hip-hop and virtually all other forms of black music that rely on sampling previously created rhythms and beats to create new musical creation. This is a tradition that harkens back to the drum circles on the African plains and shared oral culture, none of which finds value or validation in a white, capitalist society. What is more, this lack of fair use continues to plague the black music industry; just ask Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams.

In the realm of higher education, we see the potential trouble a failure of fair use can cause in the lawsuit against Georgia State University, a public institution with a diverse student body, located in the heart of a city comprised of over 50% people of color. Librarians, faculty, and staff were working to save students on exorbitant textbook fees by harnessing the power of fair use to make educational materials—and the valuable knowledge they contain—available on password-protected course sites. While the case, through all its permutations, seems to be headed for a positive note for the university and its students, it is still an example of how much fair use is desperately needed. This case has been going on for eight years and still isn’t closed. All for the sake of providing students from diverse backgrounds with the materials they need to learn.

We need fair use in order to provide information to more people, in order to break beyond institutional, market-driven barriers that function to keep information locked away for a high price. Fair use is the tool we use to make the creation and distribution of knowledge and culture more equitable. Fair use is a tool we use to build a more just society.

A Cure for the Common Whiteness: Diversity Recruitment

I want to talk about diversity recruitment.


“The Empire Wants You!!!” by leg0fenris via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’m on all kinds of listservs for librarians and academics of color and I’m frequently on Twitter and the like; and I’m constantly getting messages like these:

Our [organization/program/conference/group] needs more diversity! We are serious about diversity! We are recruiting diverse applicants! Please apply if you are diverse! Yes, that means you, [person of color, queer person, transgender person, poor person, immigrant, disabled person]!

I’m really getting tired of these messages.

I’m tired of them because they are lazy. They are a passive response to what is a very active, systemic, and institutional problem—capitalist, cis-heternormative, white patriarchy.

I’m tired of them because they are burden-shifting. I see these messages go out; and then several months later when no “diverse applicants” successfully apply—inevitably happens with such slapdash recruiting efforts such as these—I see the recruiting leaders bemoan how “difficult it is to get diverse people” because they “tried really hard and everything and no one was interested.” These lazy messages allow those responsible for recruiting to shift that responsibility to the marginalized communities they are supposedly trying to reach.

Finally, I’m tired of them because they are not solutions to the problem of lack of diversity. They are panaceas. They are Spongebob bandaids on gaping, festering, gangrenous wounds of oppression and bias.

So what should these recruiting efforts look like?

First off: Before anything else, you need to be ready to address both diversity and inclusion. You need to aim for recruitment while maintaining an eye on retention. Diversity gets folks from different backgrounds into the organization (recruitment); inclusion creates an environment in which they can remain and thrive (retention). Both are equally important upfront.

If your organization/program/conference/group struggles with homogeneity, then one of the very first questions you should be asking is “Why?” What is it about your organization/program/conference/group that is keeping people from diverse backgrounds away? When people from underrepresented groups show up, why don’t they stay? What is going on in your organizational culture that is not conducive to a person from a marginalized community?

Think of your lack of diversity as a cough (I’m really feeling the medical analogies today; go with it). There are many reasons why you may have that cough. And while you can down bottle after bottle of cough syrup to suppress it for a time (like sending out those lazy messages), in the end, your cough will still be there. And it will likely get worse because you’ll have grown inured to the cough medicine; meanwhile, the underlying cause of the cough will still be there, getting progressively more problematic. You need to find out if you’ve got emphysema or bronchitis or an inhaled piece of broccoli, so you can figure out how to get rid of the cough for good.

Likewise, you need to figure out what kind of barriers to entry and success exist in your organization and organizational culture, in order to meaningfully address your lack of diversity.

Second: Once you’ve uncovered the roots of the problem (and there will be many), you need to begin taking steps to fix them. This is going to take a lot of candid, brutally honest discussions. You’ll have to confront a lot of individual and organizational biases. So be ready. It will also take a lot of time. While you don’t need to have things fixed before recruiting, you should at least have started addressing your organizational issues.

Third: Now you can start sending out messages, but those messages should make clear that diversity is important to the organization/program/conference/group without being tokenizing or causing unwarranted and unwanted visibility. (Hey, you’re gay/latinx/disabled/etc! And you do the stuff they want! You should apply to that thing!) This can be a fine line but it can be done tactfully and respectfully.

Our [organization/program/conference/group] is recruiting. Also, we are very serious about diversity and inclusion* and welcome applicants from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Our goal is to maintain a non-oppressive work environment where diverse perspectives are accepted and valued.

Finally: You need to accompany those messages with proactive, off-the-beaten-path outreach. If you want diverse applicants, you HAVE to go outside the pipeline. Think of folks from underrepresented groups who may be in your professional networks. Reach out to them and ask if they know of specific people who may be interested in your organization or program.

Note: If you can’t think of any folks like this in your networks, then go back to the first step above and do that same work on an individual rather than organizational basis: Why don’t you have diverse folks in your networks? How are you further marginalizing already marginalized people in your professional life? What biases are at work in your professional networking?

Once you have a list of specific people to approach, approach them, but make sure you do so professionally and fairly. Don’t expect them to jump at the opportunity to join your organization just because you “need” them for diversity. Their work should be fairly and adequately valued just like anyone else’s, while still acknowledging that some accommodations, not otherwise thought of in a oppressive normative environment, may be called for.

If they refuse, ask them if they’d be willing to provide you with feedback. (But don’t assume they want or are able to do so!) Take note of their critique, don’t defend or justify, make the necessary changes.

You’ll also want to ask them if they’d be willing to share the names of other potential applicants or to spread the word about your recruitment effort.

You may find that you need to run through this process several times before successfully recruiting people from different backgrounds to your organization. That’s okay. It is an iterative process.

You may have also noticed this process is labor-intensive and time- and resource-consuming. It is not easy. And it shouldn’t be. Oppression didn’t arise overnight; correcting for oppression likewise takes time. But if you’re really serious about brining diversity into your organization/program/conference/group, then you will do what it takes.

(Some of) The Trouble with IRB

I’m working on a research project with one of my favorite people, Jennifer Vinopal, and we had to go through the U.S. Institutional Review Board (IRB) process. (Commence collective groan.)

The IRB process is required for human subject research and involves having your proposed study reviewed by a select group from your institution for any potential ethical issues. It can be a very long, painful, drawn-out process, and there’s plenty of critique out there that it often does not serve its purpose to ensure the ethicality of human subject research (Heimer & Petty, 2010). (That last article is paywalled, sorry. ILL at your library or contact me directly for a copy.)

Aside from the personal annoyance of having to deal with IRB—which really wasn’t that bad for me because Jennifer is incredible and took the lead on that part of our work, plus our study was exempt—as I’ve learned more about IRB standards in general, I’ve come across some serious issues.

IRB standards in the U.S. are based on federal regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources. They lay out the types of research requiring IRB approval and the standards by which that research should be judged for its ethicality. Part of those regulations involves identifying population groups that are particularly vulnerable and require heightened standards for research conducted among them. There are three. Just three. (See a problem already?)

  1. Pregnant women and their fetuses (Subpart B)
  2. Prisoners (Subpart C)
  3. Children (Subpart D)

Now right off the bat, this list is far from adequate. I can come up with several more categories that should be on this list: people who are homeless; members of an immigrant population, particularly if undocumented; sex workers; people with physical or mental disabilities that render them incapable of conveying meaningful consent; and on and on. But those three are the only ones.


“Prison doors” by rytc via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As if the dearth of categories isn’t enough, there are also problems with the so-called extra protections afforded these categories of people. In particular, I was troubled by what I learned about the requirements for research among prisoner populations.

First off, prisoners only include people who are confined to an institution by court order. Obviously, people in prison but also people on house arrest or in court-mandated rehabilitation or psychiatric wards. However, it does NOT include parolees, even though they are subject to court-ordered monitoring and are susceptible to some of the same vulnerabilities as the currently incarcerated.

Imagine if the director of the halfway house invites a researcher to come in and interview residents for a research project. Even if there’s no overt coercion at play, what might a recently paroled resident think about refusing to participate in the study? This person is already struggling to reenter society, get a job, find a permanent place to live—would it pay to potentially piss off a highly educated researcher or the director of the housing facility? What if word gets back to the parole officer? Will there be repercussions there?

Another issue I found lies in the required composition of IRBs reviewing prisoner research. IRBs in general are required to have at least five members. For boards reviewing prisoner research, only one of those members needs to be a prisoner, former prisoner, or someone who can advocate for the prisoners’ rights (such as a prison chaplain, social worker, or other such representative, thankfully excluding wardens, guards, and the like). One of at least five. Only one.

Can you imagine being an ex-con, sitting in a room with a bunch of scholar-types, discussing why it is NOT okay to conduct research on your former fellow inmates? Better yet, can you imagine being a current prisoner, in your orange jumpsuit or whatnot, sitting in a room with a bunch of free and highly educated researchers, discussing why it would not be a good idea to conduct research on you and your fellow inmates?

Talk about power differential. Meaningless agency is no agency at all.

It terrifies me that this is the type of bureaucracy passing as “safeguards” for the interests of vulnerable populations. And when you consider that 60% of male prison inmates are black or Hispanic and that black females are as much as 4x more likely to be imprisoned than white females (U.S. Dept. of Justice, 2015), you can see how this lack of protection and agency can cut across other lines of oppression.

For IRBs to be meaningful, they have to involve more than just an annoying bureaucratic step in the research process. This isn’t just about preventing overt forms of exploitation like the Tuskegee syphilis study; there are also more subtle forms of oppression and exploitation at play.



Heimer, C. A., & Petty, J. (2010). “Bureaucratic ethics: IRBs and the legal regulation of human subject research.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 6, 601-26.

Tuskegee University (n.d.). “About the USPHS syphilis study.” Retrieved from

U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services (2010). “Protection of human subjects.” 45 C.F.R. 46. Retrieved from

U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2015). Prepared by Dr. E. Ann Carson. Prisoners in 2014. Retrieved from

Open But Not Equal: Open Scholarship for Social Justice

Here is the text from my talk at the CUNY Graduate Center on Feb. 5, 2016 as part of a panel discussion entitled “Ideas in Circulation: Open Scholarship for Social Justice.” You can follow along with my slides and/or see a recording of the entire event.

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I’m really excited to be here talking about open scholarship and social justice because, aside from being a very timely topic, it greatly coincides with my own research interests. As both an attorney and an academic librarian, I’m particularly interested in the ways we create and distribute knowledge and the ways our social structures, such as publishing practices or intellectual property laws, determine whose knowledge or cultural products are valued and whose are left out of the mainstream.

It’s important, when we talk about open scholarship, particularly within a social justice context, that we look beyond making sure scholarship is open to making sure scholarship is findable and discoverable.

The truth is that not all open scholarship is treated equally. As Matt mentioned in his talk, just because work is open doesn’t mean that it will be found, valued, or validated. We find that, same as with locked-down, market-based scholarship, open scholarship can and does replicate some of the biases inherent in academia and our society as a whole.

Thus, what comes from the margins, from marginal communities, remains in the margins, even in the open context. Likewise, what comes from the mainstream remains in the mainstream, even when that scholarship may not be particularly appropriate or relevant. Scholars use and reuse what they can find, so we end up seeing the same mainstream scholarship being constantly recycled throughout the research lifecycle. This adversely affects the development of the scholarly record and limits the voices that are represented in that record.

We can see this clearly in some of the most prevalent ways in which researchers search for and discover open scholarship: through search engines, like Google, and through library classification systems and keywords, like the LOC Subject Headings. These systems, rather than representing an equitable organization and curation of information, are rooted in the biases found in general society. The so-called neutrality of their algorithms or concept classification privileges what is mainstream.

Such that when you search Google for Martin Luther King, given that his birthday was just a few weeks ago, you find one of the first search results is a white supremacy website masquerading as a legitimate open scholarly resource: This site is full of white supremacy, anti-MLK, and anti-civil rights propaganda, but because it is a popular site and generates a significant amount of ad revenue, it gains a coveted spot “above the fold” on your Google results. As if this isn’t bad enough, researchers are using this site for their work on Dr. King, not just secondary school students, but college students, your students. For more information on the ways in which Google search algorithms affect representation and voice in resources, I highly recommend the work of Siva Vaidhyanathan (2011) and Safiya Noble (2016).

Even outside Google, within the language of our academic libraries, we find a similar problem of representation in the way open materials, and indeed all materials, are classified and categorized. In the LOC Classification System and Subject Headings, for instance, when you search for materials relating to members of marginal communities, you find a clear differential based on what’s present in the headings, what’s missing, and the way in which the terms are framed.

For example, there are subject headings for HomosexualLesbian, and Gay but no subject heading for Queer, which is a term that many people from the LGBTQ community use to self-identify. Likewise, under the subject heading for Criminals, there are sub-headings for a variety of racial and ethnic minorities, such as African-American CriminalsChinese-American Criminals, even Russian-American Criminals, but no heading for White-American Criminals,.

Finally, we see this bias continue in the way terms are framed, such that there is a heading for White Supremacy Movements but not White Supremacy (as an ideology) or White Privilege. The implication is that white supremacy consists of isolated incidents of history rather than a foundational aspect existing at the root of American society.

Again, these biases affect the ways in which researchers find open materials and the development of the scholarly record. For example, my recent open access article on white privilege and whiteness in librarianship would not be classified under those terms because they don’t exist, thus affecting the way scholars are able to find and use my work.

For more on library classification systems and the erasure of marginalized identities, please check out Emily Drabinski’s (2013) work on applying queer theory to library classification and the work of Sanford Berman (1993), a long advocate for building more inclusive Library of Congress Subject Headings.

Lastly, even when open scholarship from the margins can be found, there still exists a bias in the way we evaluate and validate it. Just take a look at the predatory publishing scare, being led in large part by Beall’s list and others like it. Predatory publishers are publishers that charge high author processing charges (APCs) for publication but do not provide meaningful review or editorial support.

There is a clear anti-global south bias in the way publishers and publications get evaluated for predatory status. Materials from, say India or China or Guatemala, are viewed askance and their quality rigorously questioned, while that same material, if it came from the U.S. or Canada or the UK, would be readily accepted.

Yes, there are low-quality predatory journals that come from the global south. But many also come from the global north. The fact is that there are plenty of journals snuck into our expensive big deal packages from such popular publishers as Wiley, Springer, or Elsevier, that qualify as low-quality, predatory works. We just don’t see them that way because they come from global north companies that we’ve decided we know and trust.

Sarah Crissinger (2015) has examined this bias in the context of open educational resources (OERs) and Martin Paul Eve (2016) has looked at the issue particularly in connection with Beall’s list.

So what can we do to correct for this bias in open scholarship? We need more diverse perspectives among the gatekeepers and stakeholders of the scholarly record.

We need more diverse perspectives among scholars doing the actual labor of research and writing; we need more diverse perspectives among reviewers who determine what scholarship is worthy of publication and what is not; we need more diverse perspectives among publishers packaging this research and making it available; and finally we need more diverse perspectives among librarians who are organizing and curating this material and making it discoverable to researchers.

When I say we need more diverse perspectives, I quite simply mean we need more diverse people and we need more inclusive institutions to ensure the success and well-being of those people. In a particularly timely (and open access!) piece, Charlotte Roh (2016) picks up these themes and discusses the need for diverse perspectives in library publishing specifically.

In conclusion, as we work toward making scholarship more open and more available, let’s also work to make it more equitable, thereby ensuring everyone’s full and meaningful participation in our scholarly record.


Berman, S. (1993). Prejudices and antipathies: A tract on the LC Subject Heads concerning people. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.

Crissinger, S. (2015). “A critical take on OER practices: Interrogating commercialization, colonialism, and content.” In The Library With The Lead Pipe, Oct. 21, 2015. Retrieved from

Drabinski, E. (2013). “Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of correction.” Library Quarterly, 83(2), 94-111. Retrieved from

Eve, M. P. (2016, Jan. 28). “Hunters and hunted.” Times Higher Education. Retrieved from

Noble, S. U. (2016). Forthcoming book with NYU Press on Google, race, and representation.

Roh, C. (2016). “Library publishing and diversity values: Changing scholarly publishing through policy and scholarly communication education.” College & Research Libraries News, 77(2), 82-85. Retrieved from

Vaidhyanathan, S. (2011). The Googlization of everything: (and why we should worry). Berkeley, CA: UC Press.

Ownership is about Access: Intellectual Property in the Humanities

This post is the text from a talk I gave a year ago at the former NYU Humanities Initiative (now the NYU Center for the Humanities). 


As both a lawyer and a librarian, I look at the issue of who owns what in the humanities from a dual lens of scholar and practitioner. 

Generally, when you talk about who owns what, you’re really talking about who gets to make money off of what. But in academia, and especially in the humanities, it isn’t about gaining financial capital rather scholarly capital. So really the question of ownership is a question of access; who owns what is about who controls access to what.

In fact, this question of access touches every aspect of the research lifecycle. You find others’ research, analyze it, ingest it, use it to create and publish own research, which is then made available for others to find and use and cycle begins again. At every point in the cycle, access is the key, both in what we as scholars use and what we create.

That’s my role—helping researchers navigate questions of ownership, access, and control of what they use and what they create.

Sometimes this question of access even goes beyond ownership to just a question of control, particularly in things we use.

For example, NEH and Mellon just announced a new grant program to fund the republishing of out-of-print humanities books as Creative Commons licensed open access e-books. Part of the funding is to go toward clearing the rights for these books. Ultimately, it’s not a question of owning the books but of providing access to them where previously there was none.

It’s all about achieving balance between rights of authors and access for other scholars and public.

There’s a similar consideration when thinking about the things scholars create—the goal is to achieve balance between providing access to one’s work and retaining a certain level of control over the work (in the form of copyright or other intellectual property rights).

This discussion usually takes place on the extreme ends—new scholars seeking to embargo their work in hopes of increasing the chances of getting that first monograph deal versus making work available open access to everyone at all times. The discussion can be very black and white in that sense. The real issue, however, is in the gray area in between. And the answer is a personal one for the scholar creator that should be made with all the relevant facts.

One of the things I do is help scholars gather those facts: Helping them figure out that they can negotiate the terms of a publishing agreement for their new monograph and retain rights to their work. Or making sure they know they can choose of one of various Creative Commons licenses to help make their work readily available to others while still retaining a certain amount of control.

A scholar can even choose a combination of the two, as one social science faculty member has done, by negotiating a hybrid model with a publisher—selecting traditional publishing for a fixed period of time followed by making the monograph available open access.

There are so many options, it’s important to think about them early and to think long-term. Thinking long-term about a research project can be difficult when in the midst of the project. You’re looking to get your work completed and published now; long-term access isn’t always a priority. But there are people like me and resources available in the library to help with this kind of long-term planning.

Ownership doesn’t have to be a barrier to access in the humanities; instead, it can, and should, be an asset.