Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The personal is political is personal

I'm currently reading a book by Frances E. Kendall called Understanding white privilege: creating pathways to authentic relationships across race. In the chapter titled "Understanding white privilege," Kendall tells an anecdote about something that happened in conjunction with one of the diversity-related training sessions she facilitated. During a break on the second day of the workshop, a white woman and a Latina from the class ended up at the same store. The white woman watched how the Latina was treated by the sales clerk from which she was trying to make a purchase--being asked for additional identification when she presented her credit card, being told that the security guard would want to see her receipt when she left--and contrasted that with her own experience. The white woman came back to the training session and told Kendall that she wouldn't have believed how her Latina colleague was treated if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes. Kendall writes:
even though Debbie had been listening to employees of color talk about their painful experiences for a day and a half, she had essentially chosen not to believe what they said; she had continued to say that she thought the different experiences were individual, not race based. She used her own privilege of expecting to be educated about race by the people who were most affected--those of color--and then chose not to believe them (61).
I read this passage right around the time that people were starting to express their outrage over the press releases that ALA sent out regarding its desire to work with the newly elected administration and which highlighted a trio of initiatives that it felt aligned with the newly elected administration's stated goals for its administration. People have addressed this situation in smarter, and more nuanced ways that I have. If you're interested in reading other people's points of view, I would suggest checking out #notmyALA on Twitter. A lot of opinions and posts are aggregated there.

There is a piece of this conversation that relates to the passage from Kendall's book that I want to highlight. In its most recent communication on this issue, the ALA President stated "the ALA executive board will discuss these issues and our processes and will use your comments to help guide us in our discussion and planning as we work to earn back the trust of our members and prepare for the work ahead during this new administration."

So, let's talk about trust.

ALA has identified diversity as one of its key action areas, charging a task force and then a subsequent implementation working group with considering how equity, diversity and inclusion could be built both within ALA and in wider library community. You can read the task force's final report here. By charging people at the Association-level to do the work  of identifying and proposing ways to further DEI-related initiatives, the Association has both implicitly and explicitly asked the margainalized people throughout ALA what can be done to make ALA a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive place. The Association has asked people to entrust us with their stories and told people that it is part of our value system that we will hold those stories and respond in an appropriate way. And then we have chosen not to believe them when they tell us that they are afraid that they will be the targets of state-sponsored violence.

In the same week, ALA's President released a statement affirming ALA's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and two statements affirming ALA's commitment to working with the incoming administration. And, yes, one of those statements was taken down and an apology issued. But one can see how people within the Association's membership would be outraged that such an affirmation was issued in the first place. ALA asked people what they needed to trust the Association as a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization and then didn't listen to them as they expressed their loudest fears and their deepest concerns.

In the days following the election, Hugh Acheson posted to Instagram a letter he sent to the staff at each of the restaurants he owns. In the letter he writes "The customer is always right, until they are wrong. And when they are wrong with epithets or cruelty they will be asked to leave. This is not me giving you an aggressive power to wield, but rather making sure you understand the ethos I have in protecting what I believe in, and what I do not have the patience for."

I understand that ALA has a dual responsibility to serve both libraries and the people who staff them. To that end, I believe that our goal in libraries should be to serve the communities in which we find ourselves, even when their beliefs don't align with ours. Libraries should be places that foster conversation and an exchange of ideas, but I believe that in libraries, as in Acheson's restaurants, there is a point past which the patron isn't always right--especially when a member of our user community is wrong with cruelty.

So how does the Association go about the work of rebuilding trust?

First, I think it is incumbent upon Association-level leadership to restore the relationship between the Association and its members by centering the voices and taking seriously the concerns the people among its membership who will be most vulnerable in the coming years.

Second, I think it is incumbent upon the membership to make even more space for people who are traditionally underrepresented in librarianship to take on leadership roles. The includes not only providing increased support for programs like the Spectrum Scholarship Program but also the development of a pipeline for leadership both at the Division-level and Association-level.

Finally, I think it is incumbent upon both Association-level leadership and Association membership to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable members through both our words and our actions.

I'm sure that the path toward a restored relationship between the Association and its membership will not be without bumps and will probably look different than what I've suggested here. But I do hope that it happens. And I'll continue to attend ALA Council meetings and ALA Midwinter and ALA Annual in the hopes of seeing signs of the Association working toward that restoration.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Mountains grow from just one stone

One of the things that I talk about over and over (and over and over) again on the blog is the idea of imagining what it would be like to center the lived experiences of our user communities when it comes to creating metadata to describe our collections. I was thrilled when a friend, Anna-Sophia, sent me a link to the transcript for a 2015 talk by Sara Wachter-Boettcher called "Everybody hurts: content for kindness."

The talk centers around this idea:
And what I've come to is there's an opportunity that we have to make every decision an act of kindness. Make sure everything we write, everything that we build, come from a place of kindness at its core.
Wachter-Boettcher goes on to talk about how this mission of centering kindness can be lived in when it comes to better understanding both the needs and the triggers of our user communities. While the audience of this talk wasn't those engaged in the work of libraries or librarianship, I can get behind this premise for librarianship in general and metadata creation more specifically. I spend a lot of time wondering how metadata creation would be different if those of us who create metadata saw it as not just an act of service, but also as an act of care for the user communities that we serve and support. And then I wonder why we don't.

I was struck by something that Wachter-Boettcher referenced early in her talk. She made mention of an address given by Paul Ford, in which he states:
If we are going to ask people in the form of our products, in the form of the things we make, to spend their heartbeats--if we are going to ask them to spend their heartbeats on us, on our ideas, how can we be sure, far more sure than we are now, that they spend those heartbeats wisely?
And I think that this quote is at the center of why we don't always see metadata creation as an act of care, and why we should.

I worry that we take for granted that users will spend their  heartbeats using the collections and services that we offer. I especially worry about this in academic libraries where students and faculty require access to scholarly resources in order to conduct research and create scholarly works. As this applies specifically to metadata creation, I worry that we take for granted that user communities will have to use the library catalog in order to access our collections. As many people wiser than I have pointed out to me when I try to reckon with this mindset, it's a direct holdover from the time when our collections were kept in closed stacks and library workers were the gatekeepers to these collections. It's also a significant conflation of the catalog as both the content and the carrier--a thing that I do all the time and which my wise friend, Kyle, regularly holds me accountable for.

So what would it look like for those of us who create metadata to describe collections to choose to put kindness at the center of our work? First and foremost, I think that we should stop taking our user communities for granted and create software systems and rules for description and encoding that respect the lived experiences of our users. While I don't agree with the idea that people in Technical Services are change averse, I do think our public services colleagues have been quicker to see the ways in which the needs of our user communities are changing and then responding. Second, I think it means evaluating our local policies for metadata creation and remediation and amending them in ways that have the biggest impact on our user communities.

I don't think that evaluating our metadata reuse policies means we have to stop reusing metadata. For some materials, records don't need a significant amount of customization. And for smaller libraries, metadata reuse is the only way that their cataloging operations stay afloat. But I do think it's worth considering which types of material and which subjects are important enough to your users to provide the extra care of customization. Especially if the library for which you are describing collections has made diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority.

I think that many people who create metadata would tell you that the work they do is a public services. I think what is important for us to be explicit about is that we have the choice to treat our work as an act of care for the user communities we serve. I think it's time for us to think more about what it would mean for metadata creators if we thought about making sure that our user communities were using our heartbeats wisely when they accessed the metadata we create.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

No firm ground, but we ain't sliding

The Policy and Standards Division of the Library of Congress decided for a second time to reject white privilege as a subject heading. You can read their decision here. The part of their argument that is most salient to this blog post is: Numerous works about white privilege have been assigned the headings Race discrimination and Whites--Race identity, and the meeting wishes to continue that practise.

It is both completely understandable and completely perplexing that the PSD would reject this heading despite the fact that literary warrant exists. On the one hand, if the PSD believes that a combination of existing subject headings is sufficiently describes a concept they can make the argument against adding another subject heading to the thesaurus. On the other, it seems like the combination of subject headings that the PSD points to in their decision misses the mark.

When reading this decision, it seems like the PSD fundamentally misunderstands the concept of white privilege by deferring to the headings already being used. The idea of white privilege implicitly touches on discrimination and race identity to the extent that the privileges extended to white people as a result of their identity further margainalizes people who aren't white. But white privilege is not explicitly about either of those things. April Hathcock wrote a really great blog post about this which I think it well worth your time. In her post she writes " Privilege isn't about discrimination; it's about the automatic benefits and advantages that come from living in a system set up to value the lives, ideas, and expressions of one group over all others. You may be a staunch antiracist, but if you are white, you are steeped in WHITE PRIVILEGE. It is a reality of living in the systemic bias of our society."

Thematically related to this discussion of white privilege and systemic bias is Jarrett Drake's keynote address at the Digital Library Federation Liberal Arts Pre-Conference titled "Documenting Dissent in the Contemporary College Archive: Finding our Function within the Liberal Arts." In this address, Drake states
I doubt many of you here know about this history of black college and universities in this country, and I have that doubt for many reasons. The first is that most of you are white and can afford to be ignorant of blackness. The second is that many of our library and archive consortia--this one included--excludes our librarians, libraries, archivists, and archives at black colleges and universities, so even when you think you are immersing yourself within the field of librarianship, you remain blissfully unaware that there is a whole different world out there to which you are functionally illiterate. This unawareness is both a product and a reification of systemic racism, and it doesn't require racists whatsoever.
Both Drake and Hathcock point out that even those of us who believe that we are antiracist still benefit from our whiteness and that white privilege affords us the luxury of being able to be ignorant about aspects of blackness. Further, Hathcock argues that the decision not to name white privilege explicitly and add it to the thesaurus perpetuates systemic racism both in libraries that utilize the thesaurus and in the larger arena of subject cataloging.

Working both inside and outside of a system is important when thinking about how to create a more equitable and inclusive library catalog. While asking the Library of Congress to both change its most problematic subject headings and to add new headings to address issues of importance to our users is a key component of pushing back against the systemic racism inherent in our metadata creation standards, I would also argue that we can work outside of/around the system to add subject headings to records which both reflect the lived experiences of our users and the values to which we claim to adhere.  There are a lot of existing subject thesauri and the MARC standards allows you add a term from a thesaurus other than LCSH in field 650. Library of Congress publishes a list of source codes and has at the bottom of the document an example of how to construct a 650 field using one of these alternative thesauri. Additionally, the MARC standard allows you to utilize fields 69x for locally constructed thesauri that aren't on the source code list. So while LCSH is the (seemingly) most widely used thesaurus for published material, it doesn't have to be the only thesaurus a library uses to describe the about-ness of a resource. A particular community of practise could create its own thesaurus and use that to provide access to headings that the Library of Congress has chosen not to address.

I should note that this isn't a new idea. There's a reason that cataloger's love Sanford Berman.

I know I write a lot about how I think we should think about how much we rely on repurposed metadata and on how we should localize our cataloging practises to better meet the needs of our users. And I think that the use of alternative thesauri is a good place for us to do some thinking. As luck would have it, there are a lot of people in technical services librarianship already thinking hard about these issues. As April notes, Jenna Freedman and Netanel Ganin stand out as people whose efforts in this arena should be acknowledged. I am so, so grateful all of the people who speak so bravely and so boldly about the lived experiences of our users and who hold us accountable for the ways in which we fall short of doing right by them.

Stay positive,