Librarianship as Plantation

I was up late one night contemplating slavery (as one does, especially as a Black American), and it hit me:

The library profession is a plantation.

Black and white image of a large plantation house surrounded by Spanish moss and oak trees

“Goodwood Plantation, after remodeling: Tallahassee, Florida” via Florida Memory, Public Domain. This plantation is located in the hometown of my mother’s family going back several generations; its owners undoubtedly enslaved some of my maternal ancestors.

At the top, we have the white people, the masters and missuses, who own the profession like the landowners of old. These white, middle- and upper-class “gentry” stand at the top of the profession with a sense of ownership and entitlement that is deeply rooted in tradition, history, and privilege. No more how many of us “others” come in (people of color, poor people, both white and of color, etc.), the masters and missuses own and run this field we call our professional home.

Not unintentionally, there’s a gender element to this top echelon, too. The master is the ultimate owner of the domain, even when he may not be in the numerical majorityjust as white cis-men dominate the library and archival profession, in privilege, pay, power, and prestige, regardless of the feminization of the field.

Now well below the masters and missuses, there are those of us who have been fortunate and privileged enough to earn the professional degree and who have been allowed (not welcomed, mind you, but allowed) to serve in the manor house of the profession. We are the “house Negros”; we may advance fairly far and take on significant responsibility for the management of the manor; we have relatively close relationships with the masters and missuses; we’ve learned to assimilate enough to be allowed into the mastwrs’ and missuses’ rarefied space…And yet, should we ever attempt to see ourselves as equal to the owners of the plantation, we are very quickly put in our place. We are reminded that we don’t truly belong in the manor as other than “the help,” meant to serve the masters’ and missuses’ agenda for lip service diversity and feel-good neoliberal multiculturalism. But we aren’t meant to bring our true selves, our perspectives, our experiences, our feelings, and certainly not our critiques, into the sacred space of the owners’ house. And many of us often find our invitations to enter and serve are temporary and precarious: they’re happy to have us in a “special program” for a year or two, but we’re never meant to stay.

That’s bad enough, but this analogy is far from done. Outside the house is a massive complex of “field Negros” and “poor white trash,” on whose backs and labors the day-to-day work of the plantation progresses and flourishes. These folks are euphemistically termed “paraprofessionals,” while their time and experience in the profession is unerringly undervalued and unrecognized. Never are they welcome to enter the manor house: their role is to serve out in the fields of the field, their labor and experience kept at a careful distance from the tender sensibilities of the elite. And for those who wish to advance beyond their assigned “station”? Forget it. Again, one finds oneself quickly put back in one’s place.

Meanwhile, the lovely, lily-white, young ladies and gentlemen from neighboring plantations (other disciplines), with all the class and pedigree that is valued in our own manor (read: advanced degrees in those other fields), are welcome to move right into the “big house,” to learn and grow under the careful wings of the masters and missuses. These eligible gentlefolk leapfrog right over the folks in the field, the folks working in the house, to fast track on the path of future master- and missus-hood, thereby guaranteeing the continuation of the privileged and privileging status quo.

Yes, librarianship is a plantation. And if we truly value equity and inclusionif we truly wish to change the literal face of this professionthen we need to conscious and intentionally let go of this plantation mentality.

I want to extend a gracias de mi corazón to D.M. for helping me think through this blog post and for offering me una amistad that truly gives me life.

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Grit? Git!

I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately.

Angela Galvan, Jacob Berg, and Eamon Tewell gave a fantastic presentation on the myth of resilience and grit in academic libraries at the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference in Baltimore earlier this year. While I wasn’t able to attend because (of course) the conference gods had scheduled one of my panels at the same time, afterward, I dove into their presentation, handout, and the related tweets with gusto. I sincerely hope Angela, Jacob, and Eamon take their work further because it’s really important stuff. They talk about how the myth of resilience reifies oppression and maintains the status quo. How grit is an excuse for the haves to continue having and the have-nots to continue without.

Now, the ACRL President’s Program is planning a program on “resilience (hopefully) in all its complexity” for the American Library Association (ALA) Annual meeting next year. They’ve asked for people to share (for free) their ideas about resilience so that the speakers (not yet identified) can use those ideas as the basis for their talks (likely without attribution as the originating comments are to be anonymized). In other words, ACRL wants us to show resilience by pouring out our gritty souls as fuel for what promises to be an interesting program.

Yesterday at the Untold Histories unconference, I sat in on a session about creating a diversity pipeline for the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) professions. We’d hardly gotten settled in our seats when the conversation quickly turned to the abysmally low pay commonly found in our professions, even when they require graduate-level degrees. As one participant put it, “I feel a little guilty encouraging people from underrepresented groups to enter this profession when I know they’re going to be paid so little for so much work.” In other words, they’ll be expected to spend the rest of their professional lives wallowing in grit and resilience.

All of this thinking has made me reach a conclusion: Our profession’s obsession with resilience plays a huge part in destroying our attempts at increasing diversity. I am convinced that a big reason why we’re still 87% white is because we are obsessed with grit. Grit keeps our libraries underfunded, our staff underpaid, our work undervalued. We wear our grit like medals of honor when it’s that same grit that keeps us mired in the status quo.


“Grit” by Al Greer via, CC BY-NC 2.0

Grit is the magical fairy dust that makes “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” physically possible. Normally, that phrase, so common among those with privilege, is nonsensical. (No, really, it can’t be done.) But when you sprinkle on a bit of grit, all of a sudden, the hapless pickaninny floats up from his place in the dust and accomplishes the incredible. All without touching the much-protected privilege of the master in power. Resilience absolves those with privilege of the responsibility for dismantling oppression and erecting systems of equity. Resilience is the wheel that keeps the myth of meritocracy grinding.

And we, in the library, profession love it. We’re obsessed with it. We love our tales of the library staff who kept the place open after-hours, without pay, for the sake of the community. The library folks who continued to provide the same level of services even when their budgets had been slashed in half. We proudly share our job postings calling for a library unicorn with an MLIS, a second masters, and the ability to do the job of five people while being paid the salary of three-fifths of a person (that age-old fraction always at play). We shove our graduate students into unpaid internships where they pay tuition for the pleasure of handing out their free labor, and we tout their resilience for the sake of gaining “valuable” experience. We love grit.

And we are steadily choking to death on it.

If we truly want to diversify our profession, we MUST give up our obsession with resilience. We must give up our never-ending dreams of grit. As Angela, Jacob, and Eamon note in their work, we have to accept the possibility of failure. Services may (will) be cut. Libraries may (will) close. It’s tragic. But it’s happening anyway, even with our grit. We can’t continue to try to make do with nothing. Our resilience is doing us no favors. It isn’t the life raft sent to save us; it’s just extra weight dragging us down.

Let’s give up resilience and grit and follow in the steps of Christina Bell, that beautiful creature:

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 12.46.08 PM

Screenshot of tweet by @librarybell

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.