Thursday, June 14, 2018

And what I choose is my voice

I am taking a class this summer wherein we are reading newly published books about higher education. For this week's class, we read Taking It to the Streets, which I enjoyed far more than I thought that I would. Even in the places where I didn't agree with an author's ideas, I appreciated the vulnerability it took to write about how they considered their relationship to public scholarship.

While all of the author's seemed to be in favor of some degree of public scholarship, a theme that permeates Taking It to the Streets is the tension between being the kind of scholar who chooses only to write and publish and the kind of scholar who chooses to both write and publish and in some way connect to the communities about which they research and write.

It may be too reductive of an observation, but it felt to me like implicit in the tension I felt in this book is whether the goal of the scholar should be to embody a positivist epistemology or a participatory epistemology. The goal of research conducted using a positivist epistemological lens is to explain some naturally occurring phenomenon. In contrast, the goal of research conducted using a participatory epistemological lens is to create change in the world using research findings as the basis for that change.

While it might be tempting to suggest that one or the other of these epistemological lenses is more appropriate for the time in which we live, it is important for scholars on both sides of the divide to understand that there is not universality in what brings scholars to the academy and what undergirds their work. In a chapter titled "A Road Less Traveled: the Responsibilities of the Intellectual," William G. Tierney (2018) writes:
I do not believe that only one route exists for intellectual engagement, and in that light, I want each of us to be aware that we are choosing a particular path. I am troubled at times that a colleague may assume that only one choice is possible and that if another choice is made, then his or her colleague is gravely mistaken or morally failing. I am equally troubled by those who do not see their choices are choices. By assuming that the choice one has made is the only possibility or not thinking through the array of possibilities that exist appears shortsighted to me, loaded with hubris and devoid of humility. (p. 101)

Reading Taking It to the Streets helped give me words to talk about a similar tension I feel in librarianship. While the divide isn't explicitly drawn along epistemological lines, there are similarities. There are library workers who believe deeply that the work of libraries and those who work in them is to be neutral actors, providing access to all types of information to all types of library users. There are also library workers who believe deeply that the work of libraries and those who work in them is to agents for liberatory change, wherein marginalized voices are privileged and hateful rhetoric is unwelcome.

In much the same way as there is not universality in what brings scholars to the academy, there is not universality in what brings library workers to the library. But there's something in what Tierney writes that sits wrongly with me. While choosing to take a particular path or to use a particular epistemological lens is, in fact, a choice, there are people for whom the stakes are higher. In her remarks at the ALA Midwinter President's Program, Emily Drabinski (2018) suggested that:
those steeped in and rewarded by dominant ways of seeing the world don't have to see how intensely political the ostensibly neutral position is. If the white supremacists booking your meeting space are not after you, you don't have to know how dangerous they are. Books about reparative therapy for gay people can simply be another point of view if yours is not the body and mind those authors seek to destroy. To imagine that neutrality could be something we could choose is an intensely privileged position, one that I have to imagine my way into as I listen to the arguments of those whose worlds are rarely contested. (para. 6)

In his chapter in Taking It to the Streets, Shaun R. Harper (2018) echoes Drabinski's thoughts, writing "Researchers frequently mistreat Black Americans and other minoritized populations as variables in their statistical models. Then they go on to make all sorts of assumptions about my people vis-à-vis Whites and other groups in their analyses. Much about this is dehumanizing" (p. 82).

The point I'm trying to make is this: for those of us in dominant groups, acting out of a particpatory or liberatory epistemology in either the academy or the library is a choice. We can choose to turn away from neutrality or positivism because we have the safety afforded to us by being some combination of white or cisgender or able-bodied or middle-class or male. But our colleagues from marginalized communities are less able to adopt the position of neutrality because it is their identities that the world seeks to destroy.

So yes, let's accept that each of us comes to librarianship with a diversity of experiences and motivation. But let's also accept that for some people, living into a participatory or liberatory epistemology is literally a matter of life or death.

Stay positive,

Drabinski, E. (2018, February 12). Are Libraries Neutral?. Retrieved from

Harper, S. R. My People's Professor. In Perna, L. W. (Ed.) Taking It to the Streets: the Role of Scholarship in Advocacy and Advocacy in Scholarship (p. 79-85). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Tierney, W. G. A Road Less Traveled: the Responsibilities of the Intellectual In Perna, L. W. (Ed.) Taking It to the Streets: the Role of Scholarship in Advocacy and Advocacy in Scholarship (p. 100-105). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Nobody listens, nobody should

Toward the end of a fantastically resonant blog post, Carrie Wade asks "what would it take for our profession to take theory seriously on a systematic level?"

I think the short answer (which Wade, herself, touches on in the post) is: LIS programs need to engage more with theory and teach it to students, even if the profession sees the MLIS as a practitioner degree.

Here is my longer answer:
I am taking a course this semester titled Qualitative Methods in Higher Education. It is a wonderful survey course where we learn the mechanics of qualitative methodology through reading how-to texts as well as articles in which these methods are applied.

What I have learned about qualitative research so far is that unless you are doing grounded theory research in which the theoretical framework emerges from the data, at the outset of a project qualitative researchers choose theoretical framework to guide their research.

It is my sense from reading LIS literature that much of it could be considered qualitative research, by which I mean that this literature often tries to make sense of the behavior of library users in some kind of context. It is also my sense that LIS is an interdisciplinary field, which is to say that people who study LIS come from varied backgrounds and bring their own interdisciplinary frameworks to their work and, as a result, LIS lacks its own set of theoretical frameworks.

(A parenthetical digression: One could correctly state that LIS does have its own theoretical frameworks, especially around organization of information. It would be wrong to overlook this part of the argument, so I'm acknowledging it. But I also think that much of our literature is not strictly about the organization of information, so I'm not sure how useful IO theoretical frames are to the whole of LIS scholarship.)

I think that when people criticize LIS research for not being rigorous enough, what they're actually criticizing is the fact that many LIS researchers do not engage with theoretical frameworks as part of their qualitative research. As a result, a lot of LIS scholarship ends up accidentally being grounded theory research. There are, of course, exceptions to this--notably Maria Accardi and Emily Drabinski--and I think this is why some LIS scholarship seems both more resonant and more rigorous than others.

In fairness to those engaged in LIS scholarship, my background preparation also leaves me as woefully unprepared to apply theoretical frameworks to my work. As I have tried to work through my research question for my Qualitative Methods in Higher Education course, I have struggled to identify an appropriate theoretical lens through which to view my research question. I feel certain that this isn't because a framework doesn't exist but, instead, that I have not been trained to find it.

The problem of LIS practitioners being unprepared to successfully engage in qualitative research is not, in itself, particularly problematic. Where the waters get troubled is that many academic librarians--especially those on the tenure track--are required to produce scholarly work. And while I haven't done any research into how many American LIS programs offer social theory courses, my sense is that the number is pretty low.  And if you're an academic librarian without a background in qualitative research, the scholarship you produce is only as good as your background and/or your capacity to take on learning about theoretical frameworks you can apply to your research question.

I think the answer to the question that Wade posits in her post is that LIS program administrators and accreditors need to consider how well LIS programs prepare librarians for the life of scholarship often required for academic librarians and make adjustments to the curriculum to make space for engagement with social theory. Doing so would improve engagement with theory, both in the creation and consumption of scholarship.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Undermine the underground

I'm taking a qualitative methods class this semester and while I am by no means a qualitative researcher at this point, there is a particular method in qualitative research that has captured my interest: bracketing.

This article (maybe paywalled?) by Tufford and Newman has an useful definition of bracketing:
Bracketing is a method used in qualitative research to mitigate the potentially deleterious effects of preconceptions that may taint the research process (80).
The authors go on to suggest that what researchers may choose to bracket includes, but need not be limited to "beliefs and values (Beech, 1999); thoughts and hypotheses (Starks and Trinidad, 2007); biases, (Creswell and Miller, 2000); emotions (Drew, 2004); preconceptions (Glaser, 1992); presuppositions (Crotty, 1998); and assumptions (Charmaz, 2006) about the phenomenon under study" (84).

My sense is that the idea is that when a researcher brackets, they acknowledge the role that their lived experience plays in the work that they do. So while there isn't such a thing as neutrality in qualitative research, the researcher can expose their positionality and attempt to separate lived experience from their observations.

I think a lot about how lived experiences inform our work as catalogers and I appreciate the space that bracketing gives qualitative researchers to both acknowledge their lived experiences and to separate those experiences--to the extent it is possible--from the work that they do. In much the same way that lived experience informs qualitative research in some way, lived experience informs how we catalog. And, in much the same way as there is no such thing as neutrality in qualitative research, there is no such thing as neutrality in cataloging.

While it may be easier for us to make immediate connections between our lived experiences and the work we do when we are tasked with cataloging materials which challenge our worldview, those connections are always with us. As Emily Drabinski said in her talk at the ALA Midwinter President's Program regarding neutrality in libraries:
The principle of neutrality is one that asks me to leave my political opinions somewhere other than that reference desk. But the truth is, I don't even think of my opinion as political, or, even, as an opinion. I can't get rid of it. It's mine.
I think we focus on the wrong thing when we suggest that catalogers should put aside their opinions or beliefs in favor of a mythical state of neutral being. I think what is more useful is for catalogers to engage in self-reflection about their values, beliefs, emotions, and biases. Bracketing doesn't say that qualitative researchers should ignore their lived experiences. In fact, it suggests the opposite--that qualitative researchers should reflect on them so that they can be separated--to the extent that it is possible--from the work being done.

Who are you and what do you believe in? Which of your identities is privileged and which is marginalized? What do you value? What do you assume about the subject matter of the item you are cataloging?

I feel like there is real value in embracing the whole self and in identifying posititionality when it comes to the work we do. If we can't separate ourselves from the things that make us us, we should acknowledge those things and the ways they inform our work.

Stay positive,

Friday, February 23, 2018

Friday jams (02/23/18)

R.E.M.'s album, Monster, came out in 1994 when I was a sophomore in high school. In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe said "'in terms of the whole queer-straight-bi thing, my feeling is that labels are for canned food,' he [Stipe] says. 'People are much too binary in their thinking--I think sexuality is a much more slippery thing than that. I've always liked the idea that I could publicly play with that and not pronounce myself anything and let people...not wonder...let people take me for what I am.'" As a teenager with what I imagined to be a complicated relationship with sexuality, Stipe's quote resonated with me. I could be who I wanted to be, who I needed to be, without having to try to find a place in the binary. I mean, it turns out that Stipe embraced his queer identity. But what he said in 1995 meant a lot to teenage, queer me.

Janelle Monae dropped two tracks yesterday. They're wildly divergent in feel, but equally awesome. Make Me Feel is a fun Prince-esque jam, but the consensus seems to be that it's more than that. In a different way than Stipe, and (presumably) for different reasons, Monae has always been publicly vague about her sexuality. And the consensus seems to be that Make Me Feel is the bisexual anthem that everyone was sure Monae could make. Yesterday, Brittani Daniels said on Twitter that "Janelle Monae continues to have the most iconic non-coming out coming outs."

Anyway, enough about me. This this song is great. Put it in your ears.

word is that 2018 will bless us with both an album from janelle monae, who I am not entirely sure isn't the goddess athena, AND robyn. I feel like, we're gonna need it, and we're gonna get through.

Robyn's three-part album Bodytalk literally changed my life in a lot of ways I'm not even sure I can explain.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

And these doors all have locks on them

While we're all still thinking at least a little bit about professional association governance, I wanted to focus on something that surfaced at ALA Midwinter and which I suspect will be on our minds for a while to come: the working document put out by the Presidents and President-Elects of LLAMA, LITA, and ALCTS about future opportunities for growth and realignment. 

Because who doesn't want to think about professional association governance?

The divisions within the American Library Association are organized both the type of library (e.g., ACRL) and by functional units (e.g., ALCTS). Depending on where you're situated within your particular library, you may find your "ALA home" in multiple divisions. Given that money is often too tight to mention, ALA members often have to make choices about which part of the Association they want to support with their time and their money. ALA's functional divisions (LLAMA, LITA, ALCTS, and RUSA) have many of the same goals: recruitment and mentoring of new library workers, continuing education, advocacy, and standards. And given the concern at the Association level about the membership numbers and member engagement, it is noteworthy that the leadership and the Executive Directors of LLAMA, LITA, and ALCTS are talking about the best ways to work together to better realize the goals that are shared among the divisions.

One of the things we try to do over here in the Unified Library Scene is talk about the importance of relationships that lead to better outcomes for users. So, yes, let's talk about how we can realign our missions and our work to make better experiences for members. For example, imagine how valuable it could be to have library technologists and metadata creators working together to develop and implement standards related to the description of library resources and the automation of library technology.

One line in this document stands out to me, though: we have come to realize how much actual overlap in strategic mission, continuing education, and topical interest there is between our divisions, despite the different structural elements and the importance of member identities associated with being part of the division.

As much as we try to talk about relationship building here, we also talk about being clear about what you're doing and why. I'm glad that LLAMA, LITA, and ALCTS are thinking strategically about how to best adapt to a present where member needs are different than in the past and how to best move the Association forward into a future where we will need to prove value to our members as we compete for resources. But I also think that part of the reason that people to choose one functional division over another is because of the identities of each individual group. Just as blurring the lines between functional job duties in libraries has lead to identity crises for library workers, I worry that blurring the lines between divisions will lead to identity crises for the divisions and their members. It seems like the way that we, library workers, choose to respond to existential crises is to become more siloed and more territorial, and that's my fear about any kind of integration or realignment happening between these functional divisions. It's hard to bring groups with different goals and different constituencies to consensus on things, and I worry that while we're making hard choices that a lot of people will lose out.

Although the alternative to figuring out how to work more closely together is to watch all three divisions go extinct, so we definitely need to get to work.

I hope that as LLAMA, LITA, and ALCTS figure out how to navigate this present and this future, its leaders find ways to honor the parts of them that are what draw their members to them while jettisoning off the parts that are not as useful. And I hope that this future is member-driven and member-centric.

Stay positive,

Friday, February 16, 2018

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Post ALA Midwinter Jams

I have a lot of feelings (and work) coming out of this American Library Association Midwinter Meeting. Erin already shared some feelings I resonate with. But I am trying to take a moment to breathe before I dive right back into it. So here are two of my favorite jams which encompass how I feel after a conference or a meeting:

Two jams, eh? I can do that.

Jam the first:
Who can you trust
And who are your friends
Who is impossible
And who is the enemy
These are the halls that we're presently haunting
And these are the people we currently haunt

Jam the second:
I've been pulling on a wire, but it just won't break
I've been turning up the dial, but I hear no sound
I resist what I cannot change
And I wanna find what can't be found