Let Labor Be Labor

I’ve been thinking a lot about labor lately.

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“Work in Progress” by Gleb Khorunzhiy via                  The Noun Project, CC BY 3.0

Maybe it has to do with Mother’s Day (see what I did there?), but mostly it has to do with the fact that I’ve been really busy and doing a lot of extra stuff. It’s all stuff I enjoy—some directly connected to my job, some only tangentially so—all of it requiring my time and effort.

And all, I’m finally fully realizing, deserving of payment.

I really struggle with this. I struggle with demanding that I get fair credit for the work I do. Like many other non-male, non-white people, I tend to sell myself short and allow others to do likewise. I’m fortunate to have parents who get really vocally frustrated with me about this and who lovingly push me to demand fair recompense for my work. And while I don’t always get it right, I do try to push beyond my discomfort to get what’s rightfully mine.

One of the challenges that gets wrapped up in this struggle, though, is the insistence in many circles on qualifying what is meant by “labor.” Too often, work gets placed in categories based on its importance, value, emotional versus physical or intellectual requirements, etc. We talk a lot about “emotional labor” and “invisible labor” and “feminized or gendered labor.” And what we’re getting at is that work that gets done, often behind the scenes, and often without recompense. That extra stuff that certain people—often non-male, often non-white—get expected to do. The work that gets relegated to “the help.”

The fact is, though, that all this labor is really just labor. And all labor should be paid/credited/recognized. Period.

It makes no sense to create false dichotomies for our labor, particularly in a service-based profession like librarianship. Everything we do has emotional and physical and intellectual components. All of it is labor. All of it requires our time, effort, and talents. Even when we love what we’re doing.

One thing that has helped me shift my thinking about this is to go back to my roots as a corporate attorney. When I worked at a high-powered law firm, we had to account for everything we did in 6-minute increments. Paid client work got counted and billed, of course, but even work we did for pro bono clients and internal firm work got counted, as well. The thinking was that all our labor involved valuable time and effort that should be accounted for.

I’m by no means suggesting that high-powered law firms have it totally right. There was certainly “invisible” labor going on at the firm. And having to bill every minute of your time in a day is stressful and tiring (hence the fact I’m no longer doing it). But some of that, shall I say, mercenary thinking that powers law firm billing could be of great use to us in the library profession. Yes, we love to talk about how we’re called to the profession and how we love to help and we love to serve. But our help and service also involve labor. And that labor should be recompensed and credited accordingly. Being called and being credited are not mutually exclusive.

So, for example, as I get invited to speak with groups about diversity issues in libraries (which I thoroughly enjoy doing), I realize that I’m doing work and that work should be recognized. I should get paid for it; I should get credit for it as outreach and scholarship at my job; I should get recognized for having shared my time, effort, and thoughts.

Even when people reach out to “pick my brain” about something, before agreeing, I take time to think about how much labor I’m willing to put in and how much that labor should cost. In the end, I may agree to speak with that person for free, but it will always be with the understanding that I’m giving them free labor that should otherwise come with a cost. I make sure I’m clear on this to myself and I even go so far as to make it clear to them. I’m also very careful about how much labor I give away. When I reach my limit, I stop. No exceptions. Again, my legal training comes into play here. I imagine that the work I’m doing amounts to offering free legal advice and I determine how much of that free advice I’m willing to fork over before the billing clock should start to run.

It’s the same with time you may spend consoling a student who came to get reference help but ended up needing to vent about exam stress. Or the time you spend listening to a patron battling homelessness describe how difficult things have been lately. Or the time you spend sitting with a new colleague going over unspoken office politics so they can avoid the pitfalls of interpersonal interaction on the job. Or the time you spend serving on the diversity committee for your organization. You may love doing it, but it’s still work. Your work. And it’s worth something.


I say we stop qualifying our labor and just start sweeping it into our reports/CVs/stats/etc. I started doing this at my former job. There were times when some of the very few students of color would stop by the ref desk during my shift to chat about life. They did so because I was the only librarian of color there and they felt comfortable chatting with me. And even if we never discussed anything remotely related to library services per se, I always logged those interactions into my reference stats, under “general reference consultation.” Because as much as I loved being there for those students, my time with them involved important labor and that labor was worthy of credit.

I know we can’t all make this kind of change in our places of work. You may not be able to sweep all your labor into the same pot for payment or credit. But to the extent that you can, I challenge you to do so. And either way, be on the lookout for ways in which you can get credit/payment/recognition for all your labor.

Let’s stop bothering with false divisions of emotionality or invisibility. Let’s stop “other”-ing the important work we do. Let’s instead try to get credit for all aspects of our very valuable labor.


Whiteness and “Oppressive Normativity”

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!


Creative Commons Requires Consent

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.

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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.

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Screenshot of legal information from “About This Collection” page of Independent Voices collection via Reveal Digital

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.

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Screenshot of footer from Independent Voices collection via Reveal Digital

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.

Decolonizing Social Justice Work

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the whole false dichotomy of theory vs practice and the divide it seems to have spurred among those who do social justice work in libraryland and beyond. While I wasn’t there, I hear Dave Hudson gave a great keynote about this at the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium last week. Judging from the response on Twitter and the community notes, this discussion really got people thinking about and reframing things they’d already been mulling over. I call that a win.

But through it all there was still something about the discussion that was missing. I agree that theory is practice and that any attempt to distinguish between the two is setting up false camps. I also agree that lived experience is a form of intellectualism and theorizing. And I’m totally there for the idea that calls for plain language and practicality can be used to further erase the intellectual work happening in marginalized communities. There is nothing about that with which I disagree.

What has been bothering me—and truthfully, this has been bothering me for months now since the #whyicritlib meta-discussion Kevin Seeber hosted a few months ago—is that the discussion has gotten conflated and simplified such that the real issues are being hidden by straw men arguments. Essentially, exactly the stuff that Dave Hudson wisely warns us against doing.

We’ve been framing the debate as theory vs practice or lived experience vs theory, but for those of us who critique critical theoretical work from within, we’re talking about something much more nuanced. We’re not saying theory has no place or lived experience can’t be theoretical. What we are saying is that much of the theory we see and hear from our colleagues remains largely colonized, that is, it is largely white, male, Western, cis-het, Judeo-Christian.

When we call for more value for lived experience and “practicality” or “plain language,” what we’re really calling for is more value for the theoretical work coming from the margins. We want to hear a bit less from the scholar in the ivory tower and a bit more from the scholar on the street. A bit less of “traditional” ways of knowing and a bit more from “alternative” ways of knowing. Community knowledge. Mother knowledge. Tribal knowledge, so to speak. Maybe less Foucault and more hooks or Davis or Hill Collins (all of whom, wonderfully enough, combine ivory tower scholarship with alternative ways of knowing in beautiful and empowering ways).

So when I decide to forgo talk of panopticism and instead talk about how my black parents, grandparents, and extended family taught me that “the Man is always watching us,” it’s okay. I’m not dumbing down the theory. I’m not even changing it. But I’m bringing intellectualism from a different quarter, speaking it in a different language.

I think, moving forward, it would help if we refrain from speaking of this tension as theory vs practice and acknowledge it for what it really is or should be: a call to decolonize our social justice work. We want to step away from the white, male, Western mainstream and gather intellectual work from the margins. We want to feel comfortable citing examples from Grandmama and Miss Peachy down the street, even as others cite wisdom from Althusser or Marx.

I’ve been watching a talk given by Dr. Spencer Lilly at the University of British Columbia during his stay from New Zealand. In it, Dr. Lilly talks about what it means to decolonize “as a long-term process” that goes beyond mere governmental transfer of power to the “cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power.” (Lilly, 2015, quoting L. Tuhiwai Smith, 2012).

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Screenshot of slide from Dr. Spencer Lilly’s “Decolonize or Indigenize?” presentation at UBC

This is what I’m talking about. Let’s divest colonial, dominant power from the cultural, linguistic, and psychological realms of our critical work. Let’s open up what it means to be mainstream and capture the intellectualism happening at the margins. And let’s do this work openly and honestly, without the use of false dichotomies.