A Lot’s In a Name, Romeo

I’m sitting in my office diving into Hope Olson’s “The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs” and thinking about the power of naming.

Yesterday, I taught a pre-college library instruction course to a group of students entering their freshmen year in the fall. They’ve gotten a jump-start on their studies over the summer to help with the transition. All of these students in my class were students of color, and they are entering into an institution that is physically, mentally, value-ly, historically and systemically steeped in whiteness.

It’s no wonder then that one of my students, while running a database search for her summer essay topic on “concepts of beauty in the black community,” was aghast to come across the following suggested subject terms for her on search on “blacks” as a race:

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Screenshot of a sample search for “blacks” in PsycINFO

I, then, as a librarian and as her instructor and as a fellow black woman in this very white institution, had to explain to her how our subject headings for academic libraries come from the Library of Congress and, sadly, the LoC continues to use the outdated term “negroes” as an official search and categorization term. I then had to tell her that if she wanted to get a full picture of the research available, alas, she was also going to have to consent to the use of that term in her search.

Having to explain these things to my student infuriated me. Not because she didn’t understand but because they existed for explanation in the first place.

It also made me think about all the to-do surrounding the proposed changes to the LoC subject heading “illegal alien.” Even the recommended changes—”noncitizen” and “unauthorized immigration”—are hugely problematic.

No one—and I mean no one—is a “noncitizen” unless you’re that Tom Hanks character in that goodness-gracious-awful movie Terminal. And even then…no.

 

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No one is illegal!” in Lisbon, Portugal, CC BY-NC 4.0 April Hathcock

As simple as it would seem to allow people to name themselves, the established order resists any and all attempts to reconstruct the way we name, organize, and identify ourselves. The power to name is indeed a power. It is a vastly effectual power that those with privilege are always hard-pressed to cede.

But those of us on the margins continue to fight and resist and rebel. We continue to insist on our own names. We continue to wrest that power away from those who would deny us.

What’s in a name? A lot, Romeo.

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Pokémon Stop and Reflect

I’m not a fan of fads.

The last book had long since been released when I finally deigned to read the Harry Potter series. I fell asleep on most of the Star Wars movies, including the originals. I played Nekoatsume for about a minute and really enjoyed it before becoming hopelessly bored and giving up.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a curmudgeon (much). I love video games and all things geek. I’ve played Pokémon on consoles from back when it first came out. I like fun.

But fads in general, and this whole PokémonGo craze in particular, really bother me.

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“pokemon” by 5th Luna via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Here’s why: Fads represent what the dominant culture has decided is cool, necessary, important, valued. Fads never come from marginalized communities, never benefit them, never highlight their needs or desires. Fads are always based on what the dominant, privileged group decides is worth focusing on.

Last week, for about a minute, the dominant, privileged group decided to talk a wee bit about #BlackLivesMatter and police violence and racism. The destruction of black and brown, queer and trans lives, which happens ALL THE TIME, was important for a minute last week. But this week, the dominant, privileged group has decided its far more important to catch imaginary beasties. And we’re all falling right in line.

I am totally disheartened to see so many critical librarians, people who care about social justice and reaching out to patrons beyond the mainstream and into the margins, touting the value of PokémonGo as a way to “reach all the patrons!” I’m not concerned about them enjoying the game for themselves. And while I find the privacy concerns worrying, I also realize that those concerns are no worse with PokémonGo than with any other app anyone uses on their smartphone.

What concerns me is the eagerness with which, we, as a profession, jump on the latest fad or bandwagon in the interest of “reaching out to our patrons.” Too often we do so unthinkingly, unreflectively, not taking the time to question and trouble the implications of that latest fad.

The fact is fads are not for everyone. PokémonGo is not for everyone. It’s not for people with deep privacy concerns, perhaps because they are engaged in important activism and already being surveilled by the so-called authorities. It’s not for people who don’t have the financial resources to maintain a smartphone with loads of data, enough to support the endless running of a location-based app as they wander about town. It’s not for people who don’t have the physical ability to wander around town staring at a tiny screen or the manual dexterity to put an augmented reality creature in a red and white ball on that tiny screen. If the focus of our library outreach du jour centers on PokémonGo, then we are effectively telling all these folks that, at best, we’re not thinking of them and, at worst, we don’t care about them.

There’s nothing wrong with bringing popular stuff into the library to draw people in. It’s part of our marketing strategies. But we need to be careful that we do this, as with everything we do, critically, reflectively, constantly asking the key questions: Who is this really for? Who will benefit? Who will be excluded? What message does this send to those in the margins?

By all means, have fun catching your Pokémon. But as we develop new means of outreach in our libraries, let’s also look beyond the fads, beyond the mainstream, and make sure we’re reaching those who are forever on the margins.