My Fire, This Time

I’m reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time finally for the first time.

It’s beautiful to see my reality reflected in someone else’s words, even over the distance of several decades. In some ways, it’s disheartening to see how little things have changed; but mostly it’s empowering, just as it’s always empowering to connect to the ancestors’ wisdom for how to make it through to another day of struggle.

photograph of a single candle flame up close

“Still” by roujo via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In his short book of two letters, Baldwin says some things that really sync with my current reflections on life in this white supremacist patriarchal world:

In a letter addressed to his nephew: There is no reason for you to try to become like white ppl & there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that THEY must accept YOU. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that YOU must accept THEM.

and

In a self-reflective letter: There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white ppl, still less loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.

This makes me think about conversations I’ve had with family, friends, and allies lately. How I’ve grown past the point of wanting to bond with white people or even be a part of their world; how I’m now just struggling with them for the right to live my life, equitably, fairly, without their censure or policing or gaze. Free in my physical body. Free in my mind. Free in my spirit. To be my whole Black woman self.

It’s hard.

The thing is, it’s the so-called Nice White Folks™ who do the most damage, who stand most in the way of my freedom. Baldwin calls them “the innocents.” The ones who don’t believe they’re doing any harm, who hardily support “diversity” and “inclusion” and “multiculturalism.” As long as it doesn’t cost them anything. They’ll eat our food and learn a bit of our languages, steal our music and watch our tv shows, peer avidly into our lives as a form of “cross-cultural exchange” because doing so is free. They cede no power or privilege in treating us, the very real physical traumatized fact of us, as exotic anomalies for their amusement.

That makes me tired.

I’m tired of allies treating my presence, my very reality, as a problem that needs solving. As if I’m little more than part of a clogged pipeline that just needs a little adjustment over here, off to the side; again, not costing them anything. Sprinkle a little scholarship money here, a program there, some assimilation over here…it’ll all be fine; I just need to stop being “bitter” and “angry” and “divisive” and start being filled with gratitude for my generous white saviors. Who still have not been cost anything.

Yeah, well, I’m done with all that. I’m with Baldwin. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter if they like me or accept me or want me. It doesn’t matter if they understand me. I don’t have to continue squeezing the wholeness of my Black womanhood into tiny bite-sized, white-sized parcels that they can swallow. Because nothing will ever change that way. Nothing can ever change until they’re willing to accept the cost. There’s a price to be paid for the undoing of their privilege, for the dismantling of their so-called supremacy.

And how many of them are really ready to pay?

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Building and Being Welcome

It’s that time again.

A new school year is beginning, and for those of us who work in academic libraries, it’s a time when our work ramps up. Students flood our campuses and library spaces; teaching faculty race to finalize syllabi and set up last-minute instruction sessions. New materials bound in awaiting processing for what will undoubtedly be heavy use throughout the year. It’s a fun time. And for those of us who work in this space, it’s a familiar time.

But it’s not familiar for everyone.

This morning—as I sauntered through the morass of humidity and the aroma of eau de garbage that is New York City in late August, sipping on my tall latte with almond milk and two pumps of vanilla syrup (sigh, yeah, I’m one of those)—a fellow Black woman stopped me in front of the library doors and hesitantly asked, “Excuse me, but where did you find a [insert name of big corporate coffee shop here]?” She seemed new to the campus and unsure. Even in the course of our brief interaction, I saw that she moved and spoke uncertainly, like she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to fully inhabit the space. I also noticed that she moved past several other people with similar cups but less melanin to approach me with her question. I gave her a giant smile and replied, “There’s one right on that corner. You’re almost there.” She grinned in relief and solidarity and made a beeline in the direction I pointed. She’d found a familiar face to guide her to what I’m sure was a familiar place.

Black and white photograph of Welcome sign

“welcome” by ☻☺ via Flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

As we’ve been gearing up for orientation and the start of classes on my campus, I’ve been reminded of how alienating our institutions can be for some and how important it is for us to do what we can to those folks know they belong. Institutions of higher education can be very white, male, ableist, colonial, classist, hetero- and gender-normative spaces, and for those who don’t inhabit those identities, they can feel like harsh, uninhabitable planets. We all put in a ton of labor in our jobs already, I know, but to the extent we can, we should each make an effort to seek out those most marginalized and carve out a place of welcome in these spaces in which we work.

We should also make sure we’re all sharing in this additional labor and not just relying on our colleagues from marginalized identities to do this work. There is a role that members of privileged groups can play in crafting welcoming spaces. Treat folks with dignity. Interrogate your biases. Don’t make assumptions. Look beyond and step beyond unspoken norms. Engage in microaffirmations—those small acts of encouragement and solidarity that show a marginalized person that you acknowledge and respect their belonging in the space. These things can seem minor, but to a new student, faculty, or staff member who already feels marginalized and out of place, they can make a world of difference.

I hope that woman found what she needed at the coffee shop. But more important, I hope she found welcome and belonging while in the library and that she continues to find welcome and belonging there and everywhere else she goes on campus.

Just say it…WHITE SUPREMACY

Last week, I dropped in on this event being organized by a Twitter friend who is an amazing science researcher doing work in the scholarly communication space with a particular focus on social justice and anti-oppression. She’d gotten a bunch of other researchers, librarians, funders, students, and the like together to write a handbook on building better, more equitable systems and platforms of open scholarship.

The point of the group and the handbook was to move conversations and action forward in the scholarly communication space. So right off the bat, for the opening preamble of the handbook, a librarian friend of mine started a draft of two powerful paragraphs that were meant to lay out the values of this collective. Others added to the language.  The thinking was that their radical, critical values needed to be clear and uncompromising for real change to take place.

To paraphrase (the handbook hasn’t come out yet, so I won’t share the exact language), the paragraphs went something like this:

We recognize that current systems of scholarly communication are mired in historical and modern white supremacy, ableism, capitalism, and cisgender hetero-patriarchy . . . It is our goal to work to establish systems that are intentionally anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist, anti-capitalist, anti-heteronormative and anti-gender-normative—in short, anti-oppressive.

They were beautiful paragraphs. I loved them. Many of the participants did. Yet, some of the participants, notably folks who were white and more senior professionals with particular power and privilege, felt the statements were “too blunt.” Discussion ensued. And at some point, the real issue came out: “I don’t know,” one of them admitted, “I agree with the ideas here, but some of these terms—specifically, ‘white supremacy.’ It’s just too militant. Too in your face. It’ll turn people away, and we don’t want to do that.”

Ah. Yes. White people hate the term RACISM. But what they hate even more is any reference to WHITE SUPREMACY or WHITENESS. Anything that calls out WHITENESS as  an oppressive norm.

At this point, I got up, said a little something about how awesome I thought the statement was and how pointless the work would be without it, referenced what was going on in libraridom with folks trying to sell marginalized folks down the river while bending over backwards to protect Nazis, and peaced out. That was my cue to leave. Most of the room may have been on board with what my scientist and librarian friends were really, radically trying to do, but the people with the power and prestige and MONEY were scared. As the Bible says, “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” I didn’t have time for weak (white) flesh.

Then, today, my sister sent me this New York Times op-ed, accompanied by an angry face emoji, and it was the same old, same old. Sure, this Nice White Lady™ was limiting her message to other white liberals. But the message was the same: Don’t call out racism or whiteness or white supremacy for what they are. You hurt feelings that way.

The thing is, this message is not new. I hear it all the time. From angry white trolls and well-meaning white “allies” alike. Lemme say that again: I get this tone policing message from both the angry white conservatives AND the well-meaning white liberals. Don’t talk about WHITE SUPREMACY. Tone down the talk about WHITENESS. It’s divisive and alienating. It hurts feelings. You lose potential “allies” that way.

Black and white photo of woman holding a magnifying glass up to her open mouth showing off enlarged image of her tongue, which is colored bright red

“Megaphone” by madamepsychosis via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

Well, let me make this clear once and for all: If the terms WHITE SUPREMACY, WHITENESS, RACISM, WHITE PRIVILEGE, or any variation thereof, makes you so uncomfortable that you wish to disengage from this work, then YOU ARE A WHITE SUPREMACIST.

Yes. I said it. I mean it. Yes, even you. No excuses. I don’t care if your best friends are people of color. I don’t care if you marched for Black Lives Matter. I don’t care if you voted for Obama. I don’t care if you are part of the resistance against the current administration. I don’t care if you participate in actions to free Black and Brown children from cages, to open immigration, to abolish ICE and prisons and the police. If the very thought of hearing or using the term WHITE SUPREMACY makes you want to walk away, tone it down, disengage in any way, then YOU ARE A WHITE SUPREMACIST.

Why? It’s simple. WHITE SUPREMACY is, by definition, the belief that white feelings, values, and experiences are more important and deserve more consideration than the feelings, values, and experiences of people of color. To shy away from anti-racist work because the term WHITE SUPREMACY is used and you find it “too blunt”? THAT IS WHITE SUPREMACY. That is the act of preferring to engage with more blunt, “white-friendly” terminology than to actually get on with the much-needed work of dismantling WHITE SUPREMACY. It’s preferring to support the feelings of white people about WHITE SUPREMACY rather than directly and actively addressing the feelings and experiences of people of color facing WHITE SUPREMACY. IT IS WHITE SUPREMACY.

I understand that there are folks who are new to this work and need space to learn and move beyond their discomfort. I get that, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the space for that needs to be elsewhere. Because there are others who are busy doing the work and don’t have time or energy to coddle white feelings and coax white people along.

As for that scholarly communication group, like I said, I left early so I don’t know how the conversation ended up. I don’t know what the preamble to the handbook will look like. But what I do know is that while they were busy going back and forth on whether to say WHITE SUPREMACY, they weren’t busy engaging in action to dismantle WHITE SUPREMACY in scholarly communication. And ultimately, that was part of what their work was supposed to be about.

So, if you’re serious about doing anti-racist work, then you need to be able to work through the discomfort and just say it. WHITE SUPREMACY. Because that is at the crux of what we’re dealing with here.

 

 


Oh, and by the way, fellow people of color, while this post is directed mainly at white people, please know that we too can and many times do enact WHITE SUPREMACY. But that’s another blog post for another day.

My Bought Sense, or ALA Has Done It Again

Mama. Daddy. Aunt Doll. Granny. Muz. Big. Aunt Pearl. Sutta. All my ancestors, all the way back, have always told me, “Don’t you never sign NOTHING a white man gives you without reading it first.” As a Black woman, I hold this advice dear. As a lawyer, I hold this advice dear. Before the first of the six figures of my law school loans hit my Sallie Mae account, I knew this basic tenet of legal practice.

But I didn’t do it. I slipped one time. And now this.

I’m on ALA Council. It’s a pain and a lot of work, but I do it anyway because the American Library Association is a big opaque beast (though one that has shown it doesn’t care much about the marginalized) and those of us with anti-oppression principles and financial privilege need to do what we can. When the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, which is led by a privileged white man, sent a draft of this interpretation out around May, I read it carefully and commented. I was frustrated that they were doing it. I knew it grew from misguided interpretations of the tiresome “Nazis in the library” question. The endless debate about free speech that is really by and for and about straight, cis, Christian, white men. But I was heartened to see comments and edits incorporated that seemed a reasonable (if not altogether desirable) compromise that most of us could live with.

The statement I read and commented on, all the way up until ALA Annual in late June, had no specific mention of hate speech or hate groups. It just reiterated that generally people can’t be turned away from public library spaces for their beliefs. And there was at least one line about none of this having anything to do with regulating behavior to maintain safety. I figured it was the best we could do. And I trusted that the document with the final resolved comments and edits would be the document I’d vote on during the hectic frenzy that is ALA Annual. I thought I’d done justice to my office as an ALA Councillor and to my status as an ALA member who cares about anti-oppression and who knows libraries are not now and never have been neutral. I thought I could trust my colleagues in the ALA OIF, though led by a privileged white man, to be upfront and honest and not make any additional changes to the document that had been vetted and commented and edited by the membership for close to two months. I thought that, at the very least, last minute changes wouldn’t take place during a historically poorly attended and poorly advertised side session of Council. I thought any changes that did take place would be highlighted right before the vote and opened for discussion as is usually the process. In short, I thought I could vote on the document during the ALA Council Session, which always runs at a frenetic pace, without having to re-read it.

I was wrong.

Oh, ancestors, I should have heeded your time-honored advice.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t take the time—even spoken up to stop Council proceedings (which we totally can do)—to re-read this document and notice the change. I’m sorry that I voted for a document (essentially signed my name to a document) that I wholeheartedly do not support and cannot endorse. I’m sorry that library workers, whether they’re ALA members or not, who count on me to represent them were failed in this way. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to my ancestors.

And I’m angry. I’m angry this new document was, I’m convinced, deliberately slipped past me and others who would have vehemently opposed it beforehand. I’m angry that my fellow socially conscious, anti-oppression Councillors—folks who are conscientious and thoughtful and who really care about this work—have been bending over backward to take responsibility and apologize and make things right while the bad-faith actors have glibly dismissed the concerns of their colleagues. I’m angry that other socially conscious, anti-oppression library workers who have already put in plenty of labor in this profession have had to step up to mobilize a response. I’m angry that it is again and always the women of color and white women, queer folks, non-binary folks, disabled folks stepping up to save this profession from itself.

During this same ALA Annual, ALA Council voted to pass a resolution honoring the African-Americans who fought against the segregation of public libraries during Jim Crow. Like the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, Jim Crow was also THE LAW. But these brave librarians put their bodies, lives, and livelihoods on the the line to fight for what they knew was right, regardless of what an unjust law said.

Though that’s all moot, because it is my expert legal opinion that ALA OIF purposefully mis- and over-interprets the law surrounding free speech. I just point it out because it is so typical of the hypocritical whiteness of the library profession.

Anyway, for those of you who want to help do something, several of our amazing colleagues have put together letter templates. Please continue to write and call. The folks of privilege and power in our profession have been trying to dismiss our response as “a few posts on Facebook,” but we won’t let them ignore us.

And as for me, I’ll know better than to trust my so-called colleagues over my ancestral wisdom. As Big always said, “Well, bought sense is better than told.”

 

selfie photo of April in large conference hall

To ALA and Beyond

I just got back from the 2018 American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans, and I actually feel invigorated.

selfie photo of April in large conference hall

Me, waiting excitedly to see First Lady Michelle Obama at ALA Annual 2018

And that’s saying something given how the U.S. Supreme Court just upheld the President’s ban of Muslim folks while he still orders the holding of thousands of children of color in cages.

Being invigorated this year is also huge because this time last year, after the 2017 ALA Annual in Chicago, I came back demoralized and exhausted by whiteness and then eventually harassed by white supremacist trolls.

But at this ALA, I made some changes. I took more breaks and surrounded myself with colleagues of color and allies. When I could, I took myself out of spaces and situations that felt tiring, leaving me more bandwidth for coping with the spaces and situations from which I couldn’t leave. My parents came for a day, and I soaked up some much-needed familial love. In short, I made my self-care a priority, and it paid off.

I also had the opportunity to present in two wonderful programs that really left me feeling encouraged, hopeful, and ready to keep doing the work.

April's conference badge with ribbons for Speaker, Spectrum Scholar, pronouns she/her/hers, Wakanda Research Library Staff, and Council

Obligatory badge pic

The first was a panel with Nicole Cooke, Miriam Sweeney, Cynthia Orozco, Stacy Collins, and Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez (in absentia) titled “Bullying, Trolling, Doxxing, Oh My! Protecting Our Advocacy and Public Discourse Around Diversity and Social Justice.” During the session, we each shared our stories of suffering extensive harassment online, by phone, and in the mail, from right-wing white supremacists angry about our public social justice work. We also talked extensively about the lack of meaningful (or any) support we received from our institutions and professional organizations, including ALA, and suggested better, more productive ways for providing support to harassed professionals. I shared my experiences after last year’s ALA, when I received hateful tweets, emails, and voicemails from white supremacist trolls about my post on race fatigue. I even had people calling my library and university administration about me. It was a devastatingly traumatic time, but I made it through with the support of my family and wonderful allies and friends, like the women with whom I had the pleasure of presenting. The room for our panel was packed, and we heard from several attendees who were eager to take the conversation further in developing plans to provide support for victims in the future. I was also delighted to learn more about Stacy’s Anti-Oppression LibGuide, an amazing resource for supporting folks from marginalized communities and educating potential allies.

My second session was a workshop I led on “Breaking Below the Surface of Racism, Whiteness, and Implicit Bias,”  which was part of the Association of College and Research Libraries series of programming. I figured we’d be sequestered in a tiny room and there’d be a small group of folks who are already heavily involved in this work. So I brought 40 or so handouts, thinking I was being optimistic.

Y’all.

The room was HUGE and packed. There were 500 attendees for my workshop. FIVE HUNDRED.

And we had a great time. There was a wide diversity of attendees, white and people of color, from all types of libraries (not just academic), from all different levels and ranks of work or management. Everyone was very engaged and eager to participate in the group and plenary discussions that I had arranged. After all, antiracist work is active and collaborative, so we put that into direct practice during the workshop. It was a room full of people willing to learn, teach, share, make mistakes, be corrected. There was an amazing collaborative, supportive energy flowing through those 500. And it was made even better given the fact that my parents were also in the room. What a beautiful, beautiful time. Ryan Randall got these community notes started and others filled in if you want to check them out.

So, it was a good conference for me, on the whole. Add on top of that getting to hear First Lady Michelle Obama dialogue with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden and to hear actress extraordinaire Viola Davis speak, and I can’t help but to feel invigorated and surrounded in my Black girl magic.

Don’t get me wrong, our very white, cis-het, middle-class profession still has a ways to go. It wasn’t all roses. At our last session of ALA Council, many of my fellow cisgender and gender-conforming colleagues refused to be bold and stand with our genderqueer and trans colleagues on a resolution that would aim to have 100% of conference bathrooms be gender-inclusive. We ended up with a weak compromise that only calls for a “sufficient mix” of gender-inclusive and gender-specific bathrooms, a resolution that really changes nothing of the status quo. And what was more disheartening was hearing the arguments being made for “safety” and the “comfort” of the oppressive majority. It felt grossly familiar to stuff many have lived and the rest of us have read but in our history books. We need to do better.

We can do better. And I’m determined that we will. My ALA Council term ends next year, and I’ve already submitted my candidacy for another term. So, we’ll see.

But in the meantime, I’m taking this renewed energy I’ve got and pushing forward with the fight. To ALA and beyond!

black postcard with multicolored hand outlines in background titled "Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS," edited by Rose L. Chou and Annie Pho

I’m super excited about this new volume edited by Rose Chou and Annie Pho, Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS, coming this fall from Library Juice Press. Get one!

Columbus Day 2017: Tear It All Down

Today is Columbus Day, but I’m in the midst of a social media break so you won’t see this post until much later. Still, I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and it’s really come to a point where I’ve got to get the thoughts down.

I just eavesdropped on a white woman talking about her family’s participation in the New York City Italian-American community’s Columbus Day celebrations. (Columbus Day became a holiday in the U.S. initially as a way for marginalized Italian immigrants to celebrate their heritage.) There will be protest by native folks and allies against the settler colonization and genocide that Christopher Columbus represents. In the words of this woman, “I get it, but I don’t get it.” Then, she proceeded to give all the usual trite arguments:

  1. It’s a celebration of Italians in America, not Columbus per se (though he was Italian in America and a genocidal one at that).
  2. You can’t judge historical figures by today’s standards of morality.
  3. I supported the taking down of the Confederate monuments, but where do we draw the line?
  4. Blah, blah, blah.

I don’t mean to rag on this woman. She’s only saying what many other well-meaning, white, liberal Americans say. But this thinking is the very epitome of why we will likely never decolonize and dismantle white supremacy in the country (or anywhere else really).

White people are just too married to their own supremacy and privilege. Even the well-meaning, so-called “liberal” and “progressive” ones.

Over the last few months with all the hullabaloo about taking down Confederate monuments, so many well-meaning liberal white folks took to their thinkpieces to explain why it’s the white (do I mean “right”? Is that really a typo?) thing to do to take down the Confederate monuments, and why it’s okay to leave monuments to other well-known slave-owners and native murderers because of “all the good they did in founding our great country.”

Huh. Cue thinking-face emoji.

What “good” did they do? For whom? What “great country”? For whom?

Because from where I sit, I see native peoples being chased by dogs and teargassed for trying to protect the sanctity of their (and all of our) water.

From where I sit, I see black athletes, whose very bodies are owned by wealthy white men (sound familiar?) being castigated and Black-balled (quite literally) for engaging in peaceful protest against state-sanctioned, racist violence.

From where I sit, I see Spanish-speaking, colonized Americans, Black, Brown, and every shade in between, being left to die of thirst and disease in the midst of one of the worst natural disasters in their living history.

But yes, let’s please preserve the racist legacy of the racist people who built this racist country. By all means.

I say tear it all down. I say this as a proud American who wants to be even prouder of her country. I say this as a Black woman, most of whose ancestors didn’t choose to be here, but here we are, so deal with me. I say this sincerely and unequivocally.

Until we’re willing to, figuratively and literally, tear down every vestige of our nation’s racist, white supremacist history—from Washington to Jackson to Tr*mp—we will never attain the equality and equity we like to talk so glibly about. We need to confront our history and our present, and then we need to tear it down.

Until then, enjoy your ridiculous parades and bank holidays. I’ve got better things to do.

 

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.

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“Grit” by Al Greer via Flickr.com, 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

Reflections: Untold Histories Unconference 2016

Hello, everyone! I’m baaaaack! I’ve had a really great month off and am ready to jump back into the swing of things with you all.

Next week is the 2017 Untold Histories Unconference at Rutgers University-Newark, a public history gathering of historians, archivists, librarians, community members, and more. I attended the unconference last year and had a really great time. This year I was honored to be asked to serve on their planning committee. The event is scheduled for Thursday, May 11 from 9am to 4pm and registration is still open.

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Banner image from untoldhistories.wordpress.com

At last year’s unconference, I proposed a session on walking the fine line between providing access to a community’s materials and exploiting that community for their material. It was a hugely popular session; the room was packed and we didn’t really get to finish the conversation. With this in mind, I’ve proposed the session again for this year in the hopes of keeping the conversation going.

Here are my notes and reflections from last year’s session. If you’re in the New York/New Jersey area, I hope you join us on May 11!


Break out session on fine line between providing access to a community’s material and exploiting that community. How do we help document these stories without exploiting them, especially stories that are not our own? Much of this conversation spilled over into the following session on archives for Black Lives. We essentially were teasing out the ways to tell stories without changing them.

A lot of great discussion about transparency of intention, open collaboration. Being open and honest about your motivations as researcher/archivist as you enter a community. Learn the language, be ready to codeswitch. Allow members of the community to tell their stories in their way.

Feminist methodology comes into play here with emphasis on transparency and collaboration. Allowing flexibility in entering community and working with them. Letting community share in power and authority over project. It takes time to build trust in a community. Your timeline and priorities may not work. Remember it’s not about the project but the people.

The focus on power is key: both the power you bring to the community in the form of your project as well as the power dynamics that exist within the community. Remember this can take a ton of time. Flexibility is especially salient when having to navigate the local hierarchies, power dynamics, and internal systems of oppression.

Also cast critical eye to the role you are playing in the project, the effect you have on the community. Examine the assumptions you enter with, the ways in which you become part of the work. You aren’t an objective, distant gaze. You are a part of the telling of the story.

Finally, remember to approach work with an intersectional view. People possess multiple interconnected the titles and they will interact with different communities in different ways.

We had such a rich discussion. I particularly loved the connections made because they resonated not just on a professional level but also on a personal level. A couple of the public historians in the room talked about research they’ve done and are doing with Black Seminoles in Florida and the Gullah and Geechee people of the Carolinas, groups which make up the bulk of my ancestry. Hearing about their work and being able to see my people’s stories in it was incredibly moving.

Ultimately, in engaging in this conversation we reached an important realization: These aren’t really “untold histories”; they’re just unheard histories. The histories are being told even if we don’t hear them in the mainstream.

 

Just Make Stuff Accessible

I’m sure many of you have heard by now about UC Berkeley’s decision to remove tons of otherwise publicly available content because the Department of Justice recently found that its content did not meet minimum accessibility standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This very unadulterated ableist move on the part of UC Berkeley has been accompanied by equally unadulterated ableist responses:

Ugh. When the law requires you to delete a bunch of content from the public view just because a few people can’t access it, then the law must be pretty harsh, don’t you think?

This decision is rash and ridiculous. Also, the DOJ ruling is rash and ridiculous. Now, no one gets to access the content.

The ADA requirements are clearly too rigorous when even a place like UC Berkeley finds it too burdensome to comply.

Let me make something clear: UC Berkeley knew all along what it had to do to meet the requirements of the ADA. Anyone who creates online content knows about the section 508 ADA requirements and the more inclusive W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Transcripts for audio material. Decent closed captions for video material (no, the YouTube auto-captions aren’t sufficient; they suck). If you provide public web content and don’t know about these guidelines then you are doing it wrong. It’s like saying you specialize in providing web video content but then not knowing how to turn on a webcam. Nope.

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“Access” by Sarah Stewart, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

What I’m saying is this: UC Berkeley knew better. It just chose to ignore the law anyway. And now that it has been caught in its disregard for the protection of people with disabilities it has chosen to take the petulant toddler approach: if I can’t do it my own ableist way, then no one can play.

It is not the law that makes UC Berkeley’s compliance obligations overly burdensome. It is the fact that UC Berkeley has spent so much time producing content in blatant disregard of the law that now makes compliance so burdensome. Essentially, they’ve been ignoring the law for so long, that it will now cost them a lot of time and money to make things right. That’s not the law’s fault; that’s on them.

And what’s worse is I know for a fact that UC Berkeley is far from being the only institution out there in this situation. They may have been the speeding car that got pulled over by the cops, but they are far from the only or even most egregious offender. I’m certain there are other institutions out there that are blissfully ignoring ADA requirements, and the warnings of conscientious employees, in the hopes of never being called to task. I can only hope that those organizations take what is happening at Berkeley as a clear warning. And I applaud the National Association of the Deaf for pushing back on these forms of lazy ableism.

The fact is that ADA requirements actually fall way short of providing people with disabilities with adequate access to materials. So complying with those rules is, quite literally, the very least that an organization can do.

Let’s do better.

Opening Up the Margins

This is the amalgamated text from three talks I gave at the University of Kansas, Crossref LIVE 2016, and Bucknell University. Feel free to check out my slides and bibliography.

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.

Thank you.