Tuesday, February 13, 2018

You're pretty good with words, but words won't save your life

Have you even been in a moment and realized that you were witnessing a turning point in the life of a relationship or an organization? I just got back from Denver and, honestly, that's what ALA Midwinter felt like for me this year. It felt like the American Library Association is standing at a crossroads and its members and leaders are going to have to start having some hard conversations and making some tough choices if they want to organization to continue to be relevant in the current day and in a future that seems poised to leave the organization behind.

Attendance at ALA Midwinter has been declining steadily over the past few years and this year, attendance numbers fell just short of 8,000. Attendance at ALA Midwinter suffers from the fact that winter is a hard time to travel by airplane, given the chances of travel problems. But it also suffers from changing organizational norms. While ALA Council and some of the committees at various levels of the organization need to meet in person to do their business, many committees do not need to meet in person two times per year because their business can be conducted online. It was my experience that many committees where in-person attendance was not required had fewer than half of their members present. Add to that the fact that because ALA Midwinter has historically been a business meeting, there are significantly fewer opportunities at ALA Midwinter for engagement and learning. To their credit, it does seems like ALA and its leadership are trying to figure out how to reckon with these challenges. But to my untrained eye, it doesn't seem like the conference will be able to continue in its current form in perpetuity.

But beyond numbers, there was a significant dissonance that was hard to shake. Two things struck me. First, that the discussion about whether or not the ALA Executive Director should be a degreed librarian continues apace. In November, ALA Council voted to change the educational requirement for the ED from "required" to "preferred." A petition to overturn the Council's actions got enough votes to make it onto the ballot for ALA's spring elections and so here we are. The search committee will reconvene after the vote and I saw badge ribbons at ALA that read "Vote Librarian!" One of the pro-librarian talking points is that we need an ED with a MLIS because we want to find someone who is familiar with and represents our values. I have a hard time with this conversation, mostly because I feel like that's a slap in the face to the countless numbers of library workers who are not degreed and who keep our libraries running smoothly. I also wondered how those in the "Vote Librarian!" camp felt about having a non-degreed librarian as a featured speaker on the ALA Present's Program panel. Chris Bourg's comments were passionate and as representative of library values but do we discount them because she isn't a degree-holding librarian? I wonder how those in the "Vote Librarian!" camp would be able justify either discounting Bourg's words OR holding her in high esteem while also having a viewpoint that makes her less-than in the eyes of the organization. I wonder what kind of mental gymnastics that takes. Frankly, it seems exhausting.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, we have to talk about ALA's failure to walk its talk when it comes to equity, diversity, and inclusion. ALA has declared that equity, diversity, and inclusion are core values of the organization. But it felt at this conference like the organization and its leaders weren't really walking the talk. It was noted by more than one person (and I experienced it myself) that gender-neutral restrooms were few and far between at this conference. And those restrooms that had been converted were in far off corners of the convention center. Given the size of the convention center, the surfeit of restrooms, and the dearth of gender-neutral restrooms in the convention center, it seemed like a choice to not have converted more of them. And choosing not to convert more of the restrooms to gender neutral is not a great way to live into your values which foreground equity, diversity, and inclusion. Also, let's circle back to the "Are Libraries Neutral?" debate that was the ALA President's Program. Neutrality has definitely been on the minds of many in the library community so I can understand wanting to devote a program to talking about it. But as I was watching this debate I couldn't help but think of the privilege required to have a space devoted to the idea of neutrality. Because nearly 90% of librarians are white, we have the luxury of being able to have theoretical discussions about whose points of view we are required to give space to in our collections and our spaces. But I couldn't help but think about our colleagues in marginalized communities for whom this conversation is not actually theoretical because including certain points of view in our collections and our spaces is dangerous for them. How must it feel for our colleagues from marginalized populations to walk into a ballroom filled with jaunty music and sit through a conversation that argues that the rights of people who do not believe in their right to exist are more important than, well, their rights to exist. How can we, members of the Association, claim walk the talk of equity, diversity, and inclusion when we make spaces hostile for those in marginalized communities?

At ALA Midwinter, Junot Diaz gave an impassioned speech that, among other things, held those working in libraries accountable for how we treat our colleagues of color. The blog post on the American Libraries' website suggests that he "got real" in this conversation. The quote that I saw retweeted was "I wish that libraries would finally have a reckoning and know that [staffs that are] 88% white means 5000% agony for people of color, no matter how liberal and enlightened you think you are. We have to decolonize [libraries]." And I saw a lot of my more privileged colleagues quote tweeting this with some kind of "Yes!" as part of their commentary. But wokeness is performative when we say one thing and then prove with our actions that we're not really committed to it.

I have much respect for the Association and its leaders and members. But I also feel like we are really good at performative wokeness and, as Diaz points out, feeling really liberal and enlightened. I don't know where we go from here, but I also feel like this posturing is not a sustainable long-term solution. Declining Association membership and dwindling attendance numbers should tell us that what we're currently doing isn't working and that reinvisioning how the Association and its meetings are structured won't be enough to save us.

Stay positive,

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