I came across this question on Twitter recently, and it got me thinking about something that I think about quite a bit: I do a lot of work around diversity, inclusion, and representation in librari…
Source: Women Working In the Open
I came across this question on Twitter recently, and it got me thinking about something that I think about quite a bit: I do a lot of work around diversity, inclusion, and representation in librari…
Source: Women Working In the Open
I’m delighted to be here. Last week was International Open Access week with the theme “Open in Action.” Often when we talk about the way openness functions “in action,” we tend to focus on the ways in which openness enables good scholarship—at least, our conception of good scholarship—to get into the hands of those outside of our privileged ivory towers of academia. We talk about getting “good” scholarship into the hands of people in the developing world, independent researchers with no institutional homes, non-academic researchers without access to institutional collections, or researchers working in institutions lacking the resources to subscribe to the top publications in their field.
As Sarah Crissinger (2015) notes in her article “A Critical Take on OER Practices: Interrogating Commercialization, Colonialism, and Content,” we often view openness in a paternalistic, sacred savior kind of way; openness is the great blessing from on high in the global and academic north to the global and academic south, spreading worthwhile knowledge to those poor marginalized souls who must otherwise do without.
I want to challenge that conceptualization of open. I want to flip the script, so to speak, on how we view open; rather than looking at it as a means of getting mainstream scholarship out to the margins, instead I want us to see it as a way of getting scholarship from marginalized communities into our mainstream discourse.
There is a wealth of experiences, knowledge, and perspectives that is largely unseen and unheard in mainstream scholarship. Indeed, scholarly communication and academic discourse largely reflect the systemic biases we find in broader society. With open access, however, voices at the margins are able to come toward the center, toward the mainstream. As Nicole Brown et al. (2016) acknowledge in their article on black feminism and digital humanities, this type of scholarship is about “opening up spaces that can empower and amplify the voices/narratives of the marginalized” (p. 113).
In a very fundamental way, openness truly allows scholarship to exist as a conversation, inviting marginalized voices to join into the discourse. As a librarian, I am particularly interested in this function of openness as one of my national organizations, the Association of College and Research Libraries (2016), has recently adopted “Scholarship as Conversation” as one of the foundational threshold concepts for information literacy in higher education. We’re encouraged to teach our students that the scholarly record is built through an iterative process and that so-called “experts understand that a given issue may be characterized by several competing perspectives as part of an ongoing conversation in which information users and creators come together and negotiate meaning” (ACRL, 2016).
This may be the aspirational goal of those of us engaged in teaching information literacy, but it is far from the nature of traditional scholarship today. Our traditional mode of scholarly communication—with a limited selection of materials on a limited selection of topics published by a limited selection of gatekeepers and housed behind paywalls accessible only to a limited selection of researchers and users—this mode of scholarly communication constitutes a closed conversation at best, an extended monologue at worst. It is not the “scholarship as conversation” that we envision when we talk aspirationally about the function of scholarly discourse. It is not discourse at all.
Openness, however, allows for scholarship to take place as a real conversation, a conversation that is not only open in access but also open in scope of ideas and topics, open in participation, open in terms of the voices represented, including those voices that normally get relegated to the margins. Open scholarship demands that scholarly discourse be more than an echo chamber, in which the same articles and ideas get cited and recited among the same small group of researchers. Open scholarship allows for previously silenced voices and discussions to be heard.
In a primary way, this means opening up the research process beyond the realm of the final research output or product. In other words, going beyond the Western mode of knowledge creation that must always result in a written, published book or article, to different, decolonized ways of thinking and knowing, ways that involve collaboration, self-reflection, slow, purposeful methodology and theorizing. In their article, “For Slow Scholarship,” Alison Mountz et al. (2015) provide an interesting reflection on slow, conversational scholarship that goes beyond the current “counting culture” of our neoliberal universities (p. 1244).
When it comes to this attempt to shift focus from the research product to the overall research process through openness, I find the work of the Center for Open Science (2016) with its Open Science Framework particularly encouraging. OSF is a completely free and open source tool that allows researchers from all over the world to integrate and publish every aspect of their iterative research process, from initial brainstorming of ideas to failed data sets to, yes, even the final published article. Billed as “a scholarly commons to connect the entire research cycle,” it allows research work that might not otherwise be seen see the light of day. It helps to bring that marginalized research out of the margins and allows for the conversation of scholarship to take place throughout the research process.
Another way in which openness brings marginalized voices into the conversation of scholarship is by opening scholarly discourse up beyond the researcher. Essentially, open scholarship helps us to disrupt the town versus gown divide and bring voices from outside the ivory tower into our scholarly discourse. Too often non-academics are seen as not also being intellectuals and are not included in scholarly communication except as subjects of study. With the principles of openness, we can bring more marginalized voices from outside of academia into our scholarly conversations and thereby benefit from their direct knowledge and experience. With openness, we can take the conversation of scholarship beyond the researcher to incorporate the voices of the researched.
For example, at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Science Colloquium at Simon Fraser in Vancouver earlier this year, archivist Jen LaBarbera (2016) talked about her work with the Lambda Archives of San Diego, a community archive of LGBTQ history developed specifically for use by local activists. LaBarbera explained how the archives provide activists with a space to connect directly with the historical struggle of their community and to connect that history, through the use of physical primary materials, to the work that they are doing today. As a community archive, the Lambda collection goes beyond warehousing artifacts for outside academic study and exist to be used directly by those working within the communities that originally created these materials.
LaBarbera’s work ties closely with shifts in archival theory pushing for more “post-custodial” approaches to the collection and maintenance of research collections. Punzalan and Caswell (2016) describe this reinterpretation of archival concepts as a shift in the ways information professionals deal with the issue of provenance:
[In the archival world], provenance has been recast as a dynamic concept that includes not only the initial creators of the records, who might be agents of a dominant colonial or oppressive institution, but more importantly the subjects of the records themselves, the archivists who processed those records, and the various instantiations of their interpretation and use by researchers. (p. 29)
Thus, among information professionals, the conversation of scholarship surrounding primary source material is being opened to include not only the voices of the researcher, but the perspectives of the community creators and even the material curators. I argue that this same shift in approach should also be taking place in broader scholarly discourse.
Indeed, in some cases, it already is. I’m thinking particularly of the work of Michelle Fine, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Urban Education and Women’s Studies at CUNY. Fine is an advisor for the Public Science Project, an initiative that equips and empowers marginalized communities to conduct research on issues directly affecting their lives (Public Science Project, n.d.). The Project operates under “a belief that those most intimately impacted by research should take the lead in shaping research questions, framing interpretations, and designing meaningful products and actions.” For one of her most recent projects, Fine has been collaborating with groups of urban LGBTQ youth of color to develop and administer a nationwide survey of the issues of most salience to their lives. As data come in, the youth will fully own and determine the outcome of the study. This work, though it is taking place on the streets of the Bronx, Harlem, and West Philadelphia, is also part of our scholarly record and an important contribution to scholarly discourse. The principles of openness make this kind of marginalized inclusion possible, regardless of how these youth eventually choose to use their data.
One other way in which openness allows us to broaden further the conversation of our scholarship is by opening up the discourse for discussions of failure. When it comes to scholarly communication, failure is one of those areas that forever remain hushed in the dark, and yet, there is much we can learn from work that has been marginalized because it has not produced the desired, or even expected, results. Because much of our research and knowledge is locked away in Western, colonized ideals—ideals that favor the solitary and successful scholarly genius—little if any place is made for work that could be considered a “failure.” Instead, that work is hidden away, and not expected to enter the realm of scholarly discourse, via publication, unless or until it produces viable and successful results.
However, in a more collaborative paradigm of knowledge production—one that values the slow, iterative nature of research, one that is decolonized and moves beyond the white Western ideal—so-called failure is welcome as part of the research process. Failed research is simply one step in the big collaborative effort made toward finding a particular answer for a particular time to a particular problem. And this conception of the very nature of research, as unfixed and subject to context rather than as a quest for absolute answers, represents yet another way in which knowledge can and should be decolonized and de-Westernized to allow for more marginalized perspectives. As Judith Halberstam (2011) notes in her book The Queer Art of Failure, “Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (p. 3). With openness, there is space for failure in a decolonized version of scholarship.
For this reason, the recent news from the Wellcome Trust that it would be creating a bold new publication platform is particularly exciting. Using services developed by F1000Research (2016), Wellcome’s new platform will allow researchers “to publish a wide variety of outputs from standard research articles and data sets, through to null and negative results” (p.1). Similar to the work being done by OSF, Wellcome’s new platform will allow scholarship to become more open throughout the various phases of the research process, including those phases that result in a dead end. In turn, this more open scholarly discourse will allow more diverse voices to participate in and contribute to the conversation surrounding research. As Wellcome’s Head of Digital Services, Robert Kiley, notes, “This model [of wholly open research publishing] will bring benefits to researchers and institutions, as well as to society more broadly” (p. 1). Indeed, with a more open research practice, society as a whole, particularly those marginalized members of society, can participate more fully in the research it supports.
With the principles of openness, we can convene a scholarly discourse that is more inclusive of those voices most often relegated to the outskirts by “traditional” methods of knowledge creation and dissemination. In her article, “Library publishing and diversity values,” Charlotte Roh encourages us to use openness as a way to “push back against these biased systems and support publications that might not otherwise have a voice” (p. 83). It’s important to note, however, that while openness helps us achieve this goal, it is not without its sources of critique. Open scholarship is still a part of our broader society and is still vulnerable to the biases and systemic power dynamics inherent in our broader society. As I mentioned in a talk at a Futures Initiative event at the CUNY Graduate Center earlier this year, “The truth is that not all open scholarship is treated equally . . . [S]ame 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” (Hathcock, 2016, February 8).
There are so many ways in which open access still reflects the biased systems of the scholarship in which it’s found, even as it can be used to open up scholarship at the margins. For example, in their research applying the principles of black feminist thought to digital humanities methodology, Nicole Brown et al (2016) discovered a marked discrepancy in the number of available texts relating to the black experience and culture. Specifically, of the more than 13 million texts housed in the HathiTrust corpora, less than 25,000 were classified under the subject heading “African-American.” That’s less than .002% of the texts in Hathi. Now, don’t get me wrong, HathiTrust is a great source of open access material and they have done wonders for developing the principles of openness in scholarship. But this discrepancy makes clear that even within the realm of openness, systemic marginalization continues to play a significant role.
For instance, during a recent Force11 Working Group meeting I attended, I heard from several colleagues throughout the global south, including Latin America, Egypt, and India, who described the ways in which the neoliberal and colonial scholarly communication of the global north has completely infected their systems of knowledge creation and dissemination (Hathcock, 2016, September 27). They are unable to get their work published, even in prominent open access journals, like the journals that form part of SciELO, a popular open access platform in Latin America, without providing sufficient citations to Western researchers or including Western researchers as contributing authors. Moreover, research topics of interest to the global north are much more likely to be published than topics of interest to these researchers’ own regions. In so many ways, their research ecosystem has been colonized by the global north. This colonization can also be seen in this map my colleague Juan Pablo Alperin (2011) created depicting the number of documents indexed in Web of Science based on country of origin. The African continent, the second largest in the world both geographically and in terms of population, is little more than a sliver. And South America looks very much the same. While open access helps open up some of these decolonized margins of scholarship, the discrepancy is still hugely problematic. This problem of marginalization isn’t just a matter of cost but of culture and colonial erasure.
Relatedly, in her research on archival documentation of LGBTQ history, Rebecka Sheffield (2016) describes the haphazard and serendipitous way in which early LGBTQ history has been collected and preserved, and even when done it is done almost exclusively by and among activist communities. Sheffield notes that much of what we know about LGBTQ history often begins with the Stonewall riots of 1969 because they constituted an event that was deemed of significant importance to the broader mainstream community. (The Stonewall riots took place over two days in June 1969 when NYC police attempted to “take over” Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Bar patrons overpowered the police and resisted their attempts at violent abuse of power.) While we see Stonewall as the beginning of LGBTQ advocacy history, LGBTQ resistance to discrimination and struggle for liberation has in fact existed long before that.
Sheffield discusses the importance of scholars and information professionals working conscientiously to help steward and preserve these stories that run the risk of being lost at the margins. Rather than referring to them as “untold” or “silent” histories, she adopts Rabia Gibbs’s term “unexplored histories” to refer to these materials as works that have full existence and importance, even if they’ve largely been ignored by mainstream scholarship (Sheffield, 2016, pp. 573-74). Sheffield also highlights the importance of these histories being stewarded rather than owned or even necessarily collected by the mainstream (post-custodial). Citing Roderick Ferguson, Sheffield writes, “[J]ust because a university preserves unexplored history does not mean that it is ready to acknowledge or confront any of the structural inequalities that exist in order to create the conditions in which that history remains unexplored to begin with. Preservation of unexplored history cannot take place if systems of power are also preserved” (Sheffield, 2016, p. 580). This is why open community-based archives, such as the work of Jen LaBarbera and the Lambda Archives of San Diego, are so important.
Indeed, ethical considerations, such as self-representation and privacy, make it important that marginal communities be integrally involved in any attempts to open their work to broader scholarly discourse. I look, for instance, at the thought-provoking work of Tara Robertson (2016), librarian and activist, relating to one digital media provider’s decision to provide open access to a queer, feminist, porn publication. Earlier this year, the company Reveal Digital earlier this year published its collection of digitized copies of On Our Backs, a print queer, feminist porn magazine that ran from the early 80s to the early 2000s. The digitized collection is part of Reveal’s Independent Voices collection, which “chronicles the transformative decades of the 60s, 70s, and 80s through the lens of an independent alternative press” (Reveal Digital, n.d.). While Reveal took the time to secure copyright permissions from the publishers and got the publishers’ consent to mark the work with a Creative Commons license for public reuse, Reveal did not contact or in any way consult with the people represented in these sexually explicit images. For those who provided releases to the original publishers for use of their images, the releases did not go beyond the limited print run of the original publication and in no way address the issue of future digitization or open access publication. Because of concerns raised by Robertson, myself, and many others in the information and LGBTQ community, Reveal has since closed off the collection from public view and is now taking steps to consult with a group of stakeholders, including some of the former models from the publication.
This example of On Our Backs points to one of the truths behind opening up the margins: What is legal is not always ethical when deciding to provide open access to the works of marginalized communities. That is why it is essential to engage community involvement and agency in any decisions to open marginalized content to scholarly discourse. In their presentation at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Sciences Colloquium, Michelle Caswell, Alda Allina Migoni, and Noah Geraci (2016) discussed the importance of community ownership and custodianship of marginalized archival collections as a means of building “representational belonging” in the face of “symbolic annihilation.” To truly open up the margins in a meaningful way, marginalized material must be brought into scholarly conversation through methods free from colonization and exploitation. The only way this can be done is through empowering involvement from members of those marginalized communities.
Another great example of this work happening is with Mukurtu (mukurtu.org) and Local Contexts (localcontexts.org). Mukurtu is an open platform for sharing digitized cultural history from indigenous communities and Local Contexts provides traditional knowledge labels that can be added to these objects to provide appropriate levels of openness and access. Both operate on the principle of empowering indigenous communities both to own and control access to their cultural items, based on a post-custodial model of archival practice.
Ultimately, if we wish to empower the involvement of marginalized communities in scholarly discourse, and we should, then we’ve got to diversify the current gatekeepers to the scholarly record. Even in the realm of open scholarship, there are gatekeepers, in the form of faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion committees, reviewers, publishers, librarians and other information professionals. 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.
We need to incorporate more diverse voices in order to break out of this echo chamber of scholarship that we currently find ourselves in. Within the university setting, at my institution NYU, and at colleges and universities across the U.S. and to some extent here in the U.K., students are demanding more diverse faculty, more diverse university administration, and more diverse curricula for their learning. They are demanding that marginalized perspectives be more fully included in the scholarly discourse they are learning and in which they are participating. Open access helps us do this, but it is only a tool in the right direction and does not operate in a vacuum. Opening up the margins requires intentional, focused work to bring marginalized voices and perspectives into the scholarly conversation. As Charlotte Roh (2016) writes, “[OA] allows new voices to find their way into the disciplinary conversations, reach new audiences, both academic and public, and impact existing and emerging fields of scholarship and practice in a transformative way” (p. 83).
Let’s continue to harness the power of openness and build more inclusive scholarly discourse that leaves no voices in the margins.
Once again the Library of Congress has refused to add WHITE PRIVILEGE as a subject heading.
Long-time critical classification activist Sandy Berman has been fighting for this for years, and other library folk whom I know and love, like Netanel Ganin and Jenna Freedman, have also been discussing and taking up this fight.
Still to no avail, though.
The Library of Congress, even as it finally welcomes a black woman at the helm, refuses to acknowledge that WHITE PRIVILEGE is a reality that extends beyond RACISM or WHITE—RACE IDENTITY. Privilege isn’t about discrimination; it’s about the automatic benefits and advantages that come from living in a system set up to value the lives, ideas, and expressions of one group over all others.
WHITE PRIVILEGE ≠ RACISM.
You may be a staunch antiracist, but if you are white, you are steeped in WHITE PRIVILEGE. It is a reality of living in the systemic bias of our society. Granted, not all white people experience the same flavor of privilege. WHITE PRIVILEGE intersects with other domains of identity—such as class, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, religion, etc.—so that the final product can look and feel differently for different people. But the essential fact remains: All white people have WHITE PRIVILEGE. And that privilege exists regardless of their racism/antiracism or their sense of racial identity.
Contrary to what the Library of Congress thinks, the current subject headings are not sufficient. They do not capture the reality of WHITE PRIVILEGE. But the LoC continues to refuse to see this. (Many refer to this phenomenon as being “blind to privilege,” but that construction is ableist and fails to acknowledge the willfulness involved. Truly blind people have no choice about not seeing; but people who ignore their privilege do so willfully.)
For those of us who write and do research on WHITE PRIVILEGE, we are going to have to continue to be creative in the way we hunt down and share resources, knowing that the classification system continues to fail us. Take this post, for example. While I mention the terms RACISM and WHITE—RACE IDENTITY, those terms are not what this post is about. This post is about WHITE PRIVILEGE. But since that term doesn’t exist as a subject heading, you’d have to do some fancy footwork to find it in one of our most popular classification schemes.
I find myself once again reflecting on Hope Olson’s “The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs.” This power to name and classify the realities of life is a potent and creative one. And the inverse is just as true: The power not to name is just as potent and full of anti-creative energy. While it does not destroy the reality of that which is never named, it does render it invisible, making it much more insidious, and thus, much harder to combat. The power of the LoC not to name WHITE PRIVILEGE helps to further cloak that privilege in camouflage so it can continue its work.
“The power to name is indeed a power. It is a vastly effectual power that those with privilege are always hard-pressed to cede.”
~”A Lot’s in a Name, Romeo,” July 29, 2016
I’m grateful to people like Sandy, Netanel, and Jenna who activate their privilege for good and unceasingly take up this fight to name WHITE PRIVILEGE in our library classification systems. We didn’t get a win this time, but maybe one day.
Last week, I was invited to participate in a meeting of the Force11 Scholarly Commons Working Group in San Diego, California, U.S.A. The group, consisting of a mix of researchers, librarians, publishers, and other stakeholders has been using grant funds to examine what it would look like to build a commons centered on open scholarship. During a previous meeting in Madrid, Spain, the group put together a set of 18 principles that would guide participation in the scholarly commons. This current workshop was meant as a time to reflect on and validate the application of those principles.
I really don’t have much to say about the principles. As several of my fellow librarian colleagues pointed out at the meeting, we tend to participate in conversations like this all the time and always with very similar results. The principles are fine, but to me, they’re nothing new or radical. They’re the same things we’ve been talking about for ages.
What I found more interesting about this meeting, on the other hand, was the way in which the conversation was structured and the power and space differentials between and among those with privilege and power and those without.
This scholarly communication conversation, like virtually all other scholarly communication conversations, was centered around, directed by, and saturated in the values and ideals of the white North American and Western European, neoliberal researcher. While there were several people present from other knowledge traditions—and the group leaders congratulated themselves again and again during the course of the meeting on the “diversity of voices” at the table—it was, realistically and at its heart, a Western scholarly communication conversation. There was a lot of talk about building a “global” scholarly commons, but essentially this commons was being built by and for the global north.
Which is hugely interesting because the idea of “commoning,” while initially described in terms of white colonial settler culture, actually has its roots in indigenous and native notions of shared, community- and value-based livelihood and provision of needs. A commons is meant to be the antithesis of colonialism, neoliberalism, and capitalism.
Yet, this scholarly communication meeting, like so many others, paid lip service to plurality and global contexts—indeed, to the heart of commoning—while functioning very much like a typical colonial endeavor.
For example, since the organizers recognized that there were those who wished to discuss other issues than what was on the main agenda, they set up space for an “unconference” for people to leave the room and congregate around these fringe topics. Wouldn’t you know, one of those “fringe” topics turned out to be a discussion, proposed by a colleague from India, of how scholarly commons could meaningfully be built by and for researchers in the global south? When it came time to begin our “unconference” discussion, more than half of the attendees left the main room, including all of the attendees from the global south and virtually all of the attendees of color. Clearly this was an important issue up for discussion, one that the majority of the attendees wished to see addressed. But because it was not a priority for the white, colonial scholarly commons agenda, it was relegated, literally and physically, to the margins, ghettoized from the main discourse.
I’m glad I was able to attend the discussion, though, because I learned so much about the ways in which scholarly communication works in the developing world.
For one, I learned from my Latin American colleagues that they are essentially forced to cite North American or Western European researchers in all their work in order to get published, even if/when they have fellow Latin American colleagues whose work is more on point.
From my colleague from India, I learned that researchers must do all they can to publish in the big name Western journals if they wish to maintain their careers; the concept of authors rights and open access advocacy have little place when researchers are literally fighting to survive in the field.
From my colleague from Egypt—who took a 5-hour bus ride, waited at the airport for 7 hours for their flight, and took 4 flights to get to the workshop in the U.S.—I learned that the term “open access” has no direct translation in Arabic and that the concept varies depending on culture and country.
In all, my colleagues from other parts of the world taught me that the Western neoliberal research institution is alive and well and fully colonized across the globe. We’ve taken our diseased local system of scholarly communication and made it global. And we’re attempting to make changes to that system by engaging in the same colonial practices.
If we truly wish to transform scholarly communication on a global scale, then we need to be open and honest about what that entails. As much as we declare the importance of openness and transparency for our research, we should be doing the same in our scholarly communication discourse. The conversation needs to be an actual conversation and not a one-way soliloquy from the global north that gets imported colonial-style to the global south. There needs to be a dialogue, real dialogue, that decenters white North American and Western European values and knowledge creation. Those of us from the global north need to acknowledge the harm our neoliberal colonizing has done to scholarship around the world and take responsibility. Then, we need to step back and listen.
Maybe instead of always having these kind of meetings in places like Madrid or San Diego, let’s schedule events in Dhaka or Lilongwe. (Don’t know where those places are? Well, that’s part of the problem. Look it up!) Let’s truly transform and radicalize scholarly communication by decolonizing these conversations.
One great takeaway that came from this “unconference” discussion was that a group of us are going to apply to Force11 to start a working group to examine ways of building real and meaningful inclusivity to these broad-based scholarly communication discussions. Our goal will be to craft a checklist or set of guidelines for organizers to consider in everything from convening their steering committees to selecting a meeting location.
It is possible to disrupt the way these conversations tend to take place, but it will take intentional, thoughtful, and critical work.
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:
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.
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.
I recently went out on a limb to help a group of scholars who were trying to do a good thing but going about it in a not-so-good manner. They wanted to curate a list of articles on a topic relating…
This weekend, I’ll be in Vancouver presenting at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium, organized by the amazing and inimitable Emily Drabinski, Baharak Yousefi, and Tara Robertson. We’re going to sing and drink coffee and discuss intersectionality, so it’s guaranteed to be a good time.
My talk is based on my article on whiteness for In the Library with the Lead Pipe, with one notable difference—I’ve added the term “oppressive normativity” to the title and substance of my talk as an alternative (or rather complement) to my discussion of whiteness as ideology and hegemonic practice.
In my article, I join Angela Galvan in taking a broad view of whiteness to encompass not only race but other intersections of identity along the “matrix of domination,” as defined by Patricia Hill Collins. For me, whiteness is an appropriate umbrella term for the multiplicity of oppressed identities; the argument can be made that that whiteness plays a role in the marginalization of people based on class, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, able-bodiedness, and other modes of identity. When we talk about whiteness in general and white privilege and supremacy in particular, we are also necessarily talking about an ideological practice that specifically privileges those who are middle-class, male, straight, cisgender, Christian, and fully able-bodied as being truly “white.” Those who do not fit those standards, while still enjoying significant benefits of race privilege as white people, do not reap the full rewards.
Nevertheless, I realize that this collapsing of the matrix of domination under an umbrella term more traditionally associated with one form of identity—namely race—is not entirely helpful. While I embrace that broad definition of whiteness that Galvan and I adopt, I recognize that my understanding of the term is not necessarily readily apparent from the term itself.
So, in the interest of providing clarity to my work, I’ve adopted the phrase oppressive normativity as an complementary term to describe the operation of this matrix of domination.
A quick and dirty search shows that while the phrase oppressive normativity has been used before, it has not been used in quite the context I’m proposing for it. There are mentions of oppressive normativity in the social sciences, particularly gender studies, psychology, and law, to refer to compulsory and often unofficial behavioral norms found in a community or society. (And it’s worth noting there are a few references to Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.)
My use of the phrase, however, is centered in norms of identity that dictate who is privileged in our society and who is marginalized. For me, oppressive normativity isn’t about what one does but who one is.
Oppressive normativity, as I’m defining it, refers to the fact that people who are middle-class, male, straight, cisgender, Christian, fully able-bodied, etc. are privileged in their professional and personal lives, while those who do not fit within all of those identities are professionally and personally marginalized, excluded, and erased.
What this means is that the systems for reward, advancement, support, fulfillment, and livelihood that we’ve constructed in our society are based specifically on the values, experiences, and practices of those in the dominant identities. They are the norm, and that norm is oppressive because of the way that it naturally forces out all those not fitting its dictates.
I guess you can say that I’m coining this term “oppressive normativity” for a new purpose. Feel free to reuse it with attribution.
Thus, in my talk for GSISC this weekend, I will be applying this concept of oppressive normativity to diversity initiatives in LIS, examining the ways in which our diversity programs reflect this hegemonic norm that privileges dominant identities while marginalizing all others. I’m really looking forward to embarking on this phase of my work and invite you to join me for the journey!
Today the ALA ScholComm listserv went beserk.
Well, more beserk than usual. Usually, it’s a bunch of predominantly white males whipping it out email-style over issues of open access and publishing and the like. All kinds of attacks and counter-attacks go into the debate. It gets brutal.
But today, one of these men (we’ll call him Dude #1), whom I know and like, decided to take a step back and reflect on the nature of what is supposed to be a professional email list group. He noted that many people have expressed hesitancy in participating in the group because it feels more like fight club than professional discussion. He also acknowledged that the conversation tends to be dominated by a select few (the above-mentioned white men). He then proceeded to do a quick and dirty quantitative analysis of the most recent discussions on the listserv. And in an act of really nice self-reflection, he included his own name and stats in the list, acknowledging that he himself had been accused of being one of the frequent listserv blabbers. (Interesting note: I’m pretty sure the person who made that accusation was yours truly.)
Right away, of course, came the usual response you get when someone tries to step back and point out power inequities and privilege within a group. Another one of these menfolk (Dude #2) jumped up to cry out that gender was not an issue in the listserv and that pointing out what was little more than an “anomaly” in the numbers of active participants was only playing up trump (pun intended) issues.
I usually stay out of these things and just delete the messages until I come across something useful for my work. But at this point, after a wonderful Easter weekend of rest and relaxation, I was ready to jump back into the Struggle. So, I wrote:
And then it was on.
Like, all of it showed up, y’all. There were the “not all men” responses. And the “Why should people be silenced?” responses, which interestingly, came on the heels of the “Silence! Don’t play the race/gender card!” responses. There was the “Let’s all just be nice” people and the “Everyone should maintain civility” people.
The white feminists clutched their pearls in horror: One, herself a frequent flyer in the usually all-male melee, even kindly took the time to”fact check” us all by stating that my thoughts made little different since she herself has been contributing to the list and leading the feminine charge all along. So, you know, bow down, b!tches.
The white men cried out in agony at their hurt feelings: Apparently, Dude #2’s feelings are “still smarting” from what was said in response to his email. He acknowledged that as a non-librarian, non-scholcomm specialist, he probably doesn’t belong on the listserv, but still. He “took a risk” to express his white male thoughts in this email group for a profession that is 80% female. Also, he has a nice, smart wife so he’s not sexist. So, you know, give him a cookie already!
And yet, here’s the deal: All this talk about civility and not silencing and all of it, ALL OF IT, is directed at those who for the first time in a long time are daring to speak up against the oppressive nature of this email list and say, “No more!” All the times the menfolk fairly eviscerated each other over open access or the merits/pitfalls of CC BY were fine. Making sexist remarks = fine. Racist commentary = fine. Homophobia/transphobia = sure. Ableism = why not?
But challenge the right of the privileged white male to speak his mind all over the place and you are rude and uncivil and “worthy of internet trolls.” (Yes, someone, one of the nice white ladies, said that about me.)
And you know what? None of this is anything new. We find this kind of bullsh!t all over the Struggle. But we keep on keeping on. Because it’s worthwhile work we do. Because we are not alone. Because being a troll is a-okay when you’re trolling oppression.
I hate the way people dominate that list and activate their privilege to take up way too much space. But I’m proud of all the wonderful and thoughtful people (yes, including many white males) who spoke up today in favor of less oppression and more true professionalism.
Looks like we’ll be alright to Struggle for another day.
Recently, one of my Twitter friends pointed out a collection of digitized material being made available online by a company known for doing great work in making otherwise marginalized, radical works digitally accessible. But she was troubled by what she saw was an over-reaching attempt to open the material beyond what had been expressly permitted by the creators and others involved in the projects.
I too was concerned.
It turns out that the material in this collection of “the powerful voices of feminists, dissident GIs, campus radicals, Native Americans, anti-war activists, Black Power advocates, Latinos, gays, lesbians and more” (Reveal Digital, n.d.) has been cleared by the copyright owners for a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License.
That is good news. And there are plans, based on creator consent it seems, to make the work more open at a later date. Also good.
Yet, the entire website is marked by a footer that only claims a Creative Commons Attribution License.
That is confusing. Particularly as this footer shows up on all pages of the collection, including those pages from which users can access specific content from the collection.
This collection is not open with a CC BY license, yet. Nonetheless, the way the site is set up, it appears not only to be open to that license but also intellectually owned by the company responsible for its digitization.
I by no means believe this company is intending to do harm or mislead. And yet, this kind of open confusion happens all the time. This company is by no means the first to do something like this, and it certainly won’t be the last.
There are many who seem to embrace the tenets of open access uncritically and push wholeheartedly for others to do the same. For the most part, they do so for the sake of social justice, bridging the information divide by making research materials freely available to all regardless of economic fortune or lack thereof.
Yet, in many ways, this uncritical act of opening all things to all people is in and of itself an act of aggression and oppression. It is a form of cultural and informational colonialism, taking the works of the marginalized—such as the feminists, dissident GIs, campus radicals, Native Americans, anti-war activists, Black Power advocates, Latinos, gays, lesbians and more” mentioned above—and forcing it into (uncompensated) availability without their express consent.
I’ve written before on the oppressive perils of open access as we conceive of it; this is just another word of caution to add to the mix: We have to be careful that in our quest for openness, we’re not, wittingly or unwittingly, taking away someone else’s agency in controlling their work.
Don’t get me wrong. Openness is great and should be encouraged. I encourage it myself. But it should also be chosen and not forced. The decision to make work open should be accompanied by full agency and volition. The students required to make final course projects open in order to receive credit; the scholars required to make their work open in order to get published; the filmmaker required to make their work open in order to have it included in a digital collection—all should be permitted to choose openness of their own free will and without the shade of oppression.
We have to remember that open access does not exist in a vacuum. It enters into our ways of creating and sharing knowledge based on a society built on oppression and marginalization. Those with power and privilege can make choices about what can and should be open, but those without often lack that same agency. We must remain cognizant of that power imbalance and make our policies accordingly. Openness is great, but like everything else, it’s only great when entered with full consent.
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.
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.