What does it mean to be present?

Hello everyone. Long time no chat. I wish I could say this will be an eloquent post, but frankly I don’t have the spoons or bandwidth or whatever you would like to call it for eloquence. Please forgive me.

I am popping on here because I am seeing a worrying trend when it comes to conferences. Fewer and fewer conferences are virtual or at the least have virtual option. I had a not so great experience with one of the conferences I keynoted for recently. When they first contacted me for an in-person talk, the vaccine rollout had just started for essential workers and delta was just an airline and/or greek letter. And so when the time came closer, I assumed that it would be virtual. Or at the very least that I could speak virtually. Their response to my request was not only to shame me for my decision, but also to attempt to cut my honorarium in half. Their reasoning? That people really wanted to see me in person and that I’d be disappointing all those who came in person and that setting up the technology to broadcast me is an expense they didn’t foresee.

This is how vocational awe pushes people out of the field. Even as someone whose very talk was about acknowledging and breaking down the barriers that vocational awe inflicts on the field, my accommodations were treated as selfish and unfair.

And so it got me thinking about the larger issues surrounding the idea of being present. Librarianship has a really hard time with letting workers leave the building. In many of my presentations when I discuss the difference between occupation and vocation, I mention how as a pastor’s kid (shout out to my fellow PKs!) while you may physically leave the church building, church never really leaves you. Between Bible studies and retreats and vacation Bible school, you are always in church. And perhaps more important is the idea that showing up is 9/10ths of the work needed to show your faith.

And that same expectation of being present lives within librarianship. Physically showing up to the library every day is seen as paramount. In every single one of my library jobs it was incredibly difficult to get a reasonable accommodation that would allow me to work from home. At CSU Dominguez Hills the closest I could get was a compressed work schedule where I worked 9 hours a day to receive the second and fourth Friday ”off.” At Temple you were only allowed one WFH day a week, and that was if your supervisor allowed it. Ironically, it took a global pandemic to actually give me the accommodations I needed.

And now, as we are rushing back to “normal,” the ability to work from home is the first thing to go. Why is being physically in the library so important? When the pandemic started, the NJ governor instituted a 5pm curfew for all organizations that weren’t essential, and a 9pm curfew for those that were. Do you know what NJ libraries did? I’m sure you can guess. That’s right; they declared themselves essential and not only did they stay open, but in many cases -extended- their hours! It took another mandate stating that libraries, including those on college campuses, were not classified as essential workers and had to close. It took -multiple- ProPublica articles to force Chicago Public Library to close. All around the country the very idea that the buildings would be closed for an undetermined amount of time caused panic! Despite the common rhetoric that, ”Libraries are so much more than books!” there was a real crisis of faith amongst the field of librarianship.

And the pandemic demonstrated that the most important resource in libraries were the people. Library workers all over country did amazing work! They worked at home; they worked in coffee shops; they worked at the beach; they worked in different states; they worked in different countries! And the libraries continued to run.

So why? Why does this idea that being physically present in the library is the only correct way to do the work persist? Do you know what happens when being physically present is seen as a core part of librarianship? The same thing that happens with emphasizing and rewarding perfect attendance: the alienation and marginalization of those who can’t adhere to that standard. Library workers with disabilities, library workers with children, library workers who take care of family and/or have other responsibilities. Or library workers who just do better working from home! Not only that, but it encourages a workplace culture of overwork and flattens all reasons why one might not physically be in the building as frivolous. It pressures people to come into work sick. It pressures people into not using their vacation or personal days. It creates a culture where just showing up is more important than actually doing the work. At its extremes it leads to burnout and even death as seen with the situation with my mentor Latanya. All those times she and I dragged ourselves into the building so that we could be seen was energy wasted from doing actual work. All those months I spent working a 9/8 schedule and burning myself out just to have one day “off” was time I could have been more productive than I was. The energy it took convincing the conference organizers that presenting virtually wasn’t shameful could have been used doing literally anything else!

The thing about vocational awe is that it creates a rigid and harmful standard of library excellence. There are so many ways to be a successful librarian! Let’s deconstruct it and figure out what a new and healthier normal can be.

Next Steps and Black Joy

I had written a whole different kind of post to announce this. But this has been a hard week, especially for Black and Brown people. The world seems to be doing its best to stamp us out of existence through police brutality. Between that and Latanya’s death, I know that living life full of sincerity and joy is paramount. And that’s what I’m going to do. But wait. Let me back up and start from the beginning.

It has been almost 7 years since I stepped into Lincoln Middle School as a School Library Media Specialist. I had just graduated Rutgers with my MLIS and NJ school certification and I was excited to get into the field. While library school had already started to disillusion me with its racism and homophobia (more on that here), I was still so happy to be a librarian. And for the most part years later this hasn’t changed. I loved working with the middle schoolers. I loved teaching and doing displays and listening to the kids stories and I even liked grading at times! In another world I would be tenured at a school in NJ laughing at how much 13 year olds still love MCR (aka My Chemical Romance).

But, as I worked at the middle school, I saw pretty quickly that in order to best pursue the research I had started in grad school about intersectionality in librarianship (article here) that I would have to switch to academic librarianship. Even if I limited myself to just Midwinter and Annual, those conferences fell during awkward times in the K-12 school year. Not to mention the costs! I knew that academic librarians had more money and time to pursue research. And so, I switched to academic libraries. First as a Resident Librarian, and then afterward as a Undergraduate/Student Success librarian.

There are definitely things I love(d) about being an academic librarian, and especially one whose focus was the first year freshmen/undergrads. I got to use my school library background, I got to do outreach and social media, and programming. Best of all, I got to work with the student affairs folk. They are the best when it comes to student relations and so much fun! I would definitely recommend any librarian working in an outreach role to connect and collaborate with the student affairs folks in their various departments.

But the part that I’ve loved most is research. The act of researching and writing the Vocational Awe and Librarianship article was stressful but amazing. And the subsequent workshops and keynotes based on that research have been life-changing. It has been such an honor to speak with library and archival workers about vocational awe, labor practices, social justice, white supremacy, and so on. And as I get invited to more places to talk about my research and I think about the different ways that vocational awe fits into larger scholarly conversations, I’ve realized that this work is what brings me joy. I want to research. I want to write. And even the most lenient academic library job has a cap on that. Usually 20%. Only 1/5th of my week every week can be dedicated to that. And it’s not enough.

So, all this to say I’ve left Rutgers and don’t see myself working a regular academic library job for a while. Latanya taught me that life is way too short to waste it. I’m heading off to get my PhD! I will be joining the iSchool at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign. I’m excited to see how my scholarship expands and grows as I learn more. I can’t wait to focus on what truly makes me happy. I think that I can help libraries more through my research than through being a practitioner. It’s bittersweet because I never got to tell her, but I know she would have been so proud of me. And I know she’s jumpin for joy for me on the other side.

So yeah! That’s my update. Perhaps eventually I’ll end up back in a library, but for now I’m more than happy to start a new chapter in my life. #BlackJoy #BlackExcellence

p.s. If you want to reach me for speaking engagements feel free to email me at my personal email fobettarh@gmail.com. I have message forwarding for my Rutgers email but better safe than sorry!

For my friend, Latanya- in memoriam

This is a story about my friend and mentor Latanya Jenkins.

Now Temple Libraries has an absolutely barbaric medical absences policy. If you are absent more than 3 days within a 6 month period, you are subjected to a disciplinary meeting. These actions can ramp up from there to being fired(!!!). Latanya had cancer for years. And throughout her time at Temple, they would force her to come in. Come to work or get written up and eventually fired. She and I would discuss our respective methods of coping with such a draconian policy. We would laugh at our stories about sleeping in our offices. We would groan at the idea that being in the building was somehow more productive than working from home (telework was dependent on supervisors and limited to one day a week).

Throughout all of this pain, the expectation at work was that the library (and library work) was more important than everything else. Libraries after all, serve The People. Librarianship is a calling. You shouldn’t go into the field for money-only love! Meanwhile Anastasia and I were literally being called “the Black and Asian ones” and other horrible racist things. And the ableism was unimaginable. But after any chats with Latanya I would feel empowered and willing to try and change the world…or at least change librarianship.

Today I learned that she has died. And all I keep thinking is how Temple Libraries refused to let her take the time she needed to heal. How “the love of libraries” was used as a bludgeon against advocating for your own health and wellness. Not only was she unable to take sick days w/o being punished, but she, like so many of us disabled folk, couldn’t work from home. She had to come to work directly after chemo or risk losing her job and health insurance. All that wasted energy to drag oneself to work-and for what?

Latanya was an amazing woman and librarian. As one of the few Black librarians (at a primarily Black school btw) she served her community in ways her colleagues couldn’t. And librarianship bled her dry. She took the time she needed when she could but she had to fight for every bit. All I keep thinking is while Latanya lived life to the fullest despite the shenanigans, she shouldn’t have had to spend so much time going to work instead of resting. She shouldn’t have been made out to be a “bad librarian” just because she was sick.

The last message she sent me was on thanksgiving, reflecting on our friendship. I am so thankful to have had her friendship. She was a beautiful soul who spread light and love wherever she went. She was especially important to Black women in LIS. I mourn her today and I mourn that librarianship didn’t thank her for all she was by offering her the space to heal.

I love you Latanya. Rest In Peace. Rest in Power. And know that your life and your memory has and will continue to be a blessing to everyone.

Books-the other sacrament?

That smell of books that people are so obsessed with is the smell of the book slowly molding. I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for what’s wrong with being obsessed with the materiality of books. And yet as library and archival workers we are supposed to love books. Despite the amount of work many in the field have put in to expand the idea of libraries beyond books and monographs, they are still the main character of the ensemble that is the institution of libraries.

And so why does this matter? Books are pretty cool! And it’s true, book are pretty cool. But they are, in most cases, not inherently sacred objects. They have a life cycle just like anything else. They are born, they live, and they die. And when books die, they get pulped and recycled and the cycle begins anew.

At least that’s how it should work. But the nostalgia tied to books means that it’s a battle for books to actually die peacefully. Whenever it’s time for books to get thrown out it becomes a huge kerfuffle. The picture of books in a dumpster, without fail, will go viral and it begins “how could a library throw out books????” Or something like this happens:

And the library worker is seen as some monster. And while the poster in this case isn’t a librarian look at the conversation that later takes place in regards to this situation:

The librarian and patron agree that this must not have been a real librarian that was helping them. A real librarian wouldn’t be so callous and understand the sacredness of a book. If books are seen as sacred objects they cannot be “misused” in any way. Their life cycle can never end because of fear. It’s the same fear that leads to people archiving everything rather than having holistic acquisition and disposal policies.

As we start to dismantle vocational awe in ourselves and advocate for healthier work-life separations it’s important to remember that the books themselves are just tools. They will always be important as a medium for information. The accessibility of books are unmatched; physical books don’t require technological devices like electricity and WiFi. But they’re not sacred objects. It’s not a requirement for a library or archival worker to be in love with physical books and monographs.

That’s the most important takeaway really-it’s not a requirement to be in love with physical books in order to be a good or even great librarian/archivist.

This is who we are

For the past two (3 as of January!) years since my article on vocational awe came out, I have spoken about the disconnect between our values and our reality. Yet I’m repeatedly struck by how enamored librarians are of their characterization in liberal circles as “the good guys.” Despite the prevailing ideology that libraries not only support but reinforce democracy, there has been instance after instance proving it demonstrably false. And what happens each time? Librarians act shocked. Or, only slightly more offensively, they trip over themselves to justify, “logic,” and “devil’s advocate” themselves into a world in which “free speech” rules and they have no culpability for the atrocious behavior of their colleagues. And then, inevitably, Librarianship buries it, never to be spoken of again. The fact that a large number of libraries shut down rather than integrate? Gone from history. The fact that libraries continue to profile and overpolice POC in their communities? “Well those aren’t really librarians,” people say. “They’re the security guards” or “It’s just policy!” There is rarely any accounting for the harm librarianship has done towards marginalized communities. And when harm is done, we as a field are quick to justify it and/or rationalize it away with convenient concepts like values-neutrality, intellectual freedom, etc. …Anything besides deal with, acknowledge, and sit with the ugliness, and yes, systemic oppression, that inevitably permeates our overwhelmingly white field. Anything besides admitting: This is who we are. 

When Toronto Public Library (along with Vancouver Public Library, Seattle Public Library, and many others) invited known TERF Meghan Murphy to speak hypothetical trans patrons were propped up to demonstrate intellectual freedom while the very real trans workers and community were silenced. When some libraries created reading advisory lists for those who wanted to move away from JK Rowling and Harry Potter, others claimed that was censorship despite the very real patrons who expressed discomfort with her transphobia. There was an actual program at ALA Midwinter in which James LaRue argued for Nazis in libraries. The very fact that discussions happened to consider allowing Nazis in libraries and meeting room spaces show how hollow our espoused values really are! The only people who can be comfortable in spaces where Nazis and other hate groups congregate are those who believe in the ideology, or, and this is what so many “progressive” librarians fail to see, those who are privileged enough not to be harmed by them.  

And now a librarian has been discovered to be a Proud Boy. And people are shocked. Responses I’ve seen so far: “But he seemed so nice! He was so kind to me! Could he really have hated ‘diverse people’ this whole time?” “How can you be a librarian and also a Proud Boy?” 
 

If only those were the worst reactions. But no, there are actual discussions about whether or not there should be active hate group members as librarians! 

And not only that, but there are people whose answer is YES. 

 
People that say what librarians do in their own time, out of the library, is their own business. As if white supremacy is something you only do on weekends.  

It is time to stop being shocked. POC have been telling you this forever. Trans people have been telling you this forever. The disabled. The queer. Librarianship is not the last bastion of democracy. It is not inherently good and sacred. It is an institution. And like other institutions it is riddled with white supremacy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so on, and on, and on… This is who we are.  
 

And until you all actually come to accept that fact, we will NEVER move forward as a field. It will always be white, exclusionary. Vocational awe, though always damaging, is comforting. Especially in these times, we crave comfort. But it’s a deceptive comfort. One that hurts. Every justification for a “really nice but misguided” colleague, drives a Black librarian from the field. Or a patron from the desk, who gives up on attaining that “free information” you hold so dearly. Every meeting of a gay conversion therapy group held in our spaces, lends the practice legitimacy, inflicting horrors on the queer youth of the community who will grow up with such abuses normalized. Because of us.  

I propose that the true comfort will come in doing the hard things, the uncomfortable things. Leaving behind vocational awe, to fight for a librarianship that is always fighting to be better. That is never in awe of itself, but always in awe of how far we have to go. It all starts with admitting one thing. Say it with me: This is who we are

p.s. As always thank you to my lovely fiancé and wifey Elena Rosa Maris as the best copy editor ever! Any eloquence is because of her.

Mover And Shaker?

2020 has felt like a millennium, and most of the news cycle has been one horror after another. Which made it all the more exciting to be named one of the Change Agents for Library Journal’s Mover and Shaker award. While in the midst of a pandemic and an awe-inspiring movement for racial justice the award might seem a trifle – I was utterly thrilled at the wider recognition that vocational awe would (and did!) receive from the honor.

And then on June 3rd came the news that soured it all. Library Journal named the Seattle Public Library (SPL) the 2020 Library of the Year, citing their “exceptional commitment to community service, innovation and centering equity in work.”

For those who do not know, in December of 2019, Seattle Public made a decision to host a TERF event that would take place on February 1st. And despite mounting pressure from the community and SPL’s own queer and trans library workers, SPL decided to continue on with the event. On top of that, they increased security to protect the transphobic speakers.

I have already written about why libraries hosting TERFS and Nazis is antithetical to the mission of librarianship, but the main point is this: by hosting hate groups in the library you send a message to your workers and community that the only people that should feel safe in the library are those who support hate groups and/or those whose lives are unaffected by them.

So, to have Seattle Public Library awarded Library of the Year and given $10,000 is not only a slap in the face to the queer and trans people who work(ed) at SPL and the community that rallied against the event, it is also violent to all queer and trans library workers. Lifting up a library that denies the personhood of queer and trans people sets a dangerous precedent. It says bigotry is not only acceptable, it is praiseworthy. And the timing of the award – June, aka LGBTQ pride month – is just salt in the wound.

As I said, being awarded this was a shining light in what has been a hard year. From Breonna Taylor to George Floyd, police brutality has felt even closer to home. And while I am supporting the movement in other ways, I’m immunocompromised and it has been killing me not to participate in the protests for personhood and freedom currently happening. This award felt like a validation of the hard work that I have put in to try and make librarianship a more equitable field – my own shout for freedom and personhood.

But, I cannot ethically accept an award from an organization that would name me a Change Agent while also naming such a bigoted, hateful space Library of the Year. So, I have decided to sign the petition demanding that Library Journal revoke Seattle Public Library’s award and that the $10,000 prize be donated to Gender Justice League WA. I have also signed the part of the petition for past and present Mover and Shaker awardees to demand that if Library Journal does not revoke SPL’s award, they revoke ours. I will not let Library Journal claim me, or my work – especially vocational awe – in any way if they cannot align themselves with the values of social justice the concept articulates.

However, after much thought, I’ve decided I will NOT be removing the award from my CV. As a disabled queer librarian of color, there are already a number of institutional barriers in my path toward reappointment and tenure. I will not add barriers to it, and I won’t pressure early-career/minority librarians to add barriers to their already significantly arduous professional journeys. It is a privilege to be able to completely remove such an award from one’s professional record. I feel very fortunate that my work has been found useful by so many these last few years, and know that with or without that CV line, I will probably be fine professionally. However, activism must come in many forms to protect the most vulnerable among us, and I hope my decision might model a path forward for those winners who wish to participate in calling out Library Journal, but worry this particular action might harm them professionally. So, I will put an asterisk by the award on my CV with the statement:  “voluntarily revoked due to irreconcilable differences in values.” This brings attention to the value of the award as well as the extraordinary circumstances, and I hope, will bear written witness years into the future on all winners’ CVs, websites, etc. to the bigoted decision made by Library Journal in 2020.

I believe that this aligns with the recent  practice of keeping asterisked conference acceptances on CVs for events canceled due to COVID-19, similarly honoring the work done while explaining the extraordinary mitigating circumstances. So, for librarians of color, queer and trans librarians, and any other marginalized librarian who may worry about the professional impact but want to take a stand, perhaps think of this as an acceptable path forward.

I was a Library Journal 2020 Mover and Shaker – Change-Agent. I am no longer one. Perhaps, if the situation is resolved, I will be again. Either way I will always keep fighting to protest the injustices around me in any way I can.

A chronic lack of nuance & a love of the hypothetical: a library story

Author’s note: Content warning  – this post contains discussions of transphobia and TERF rhetoric.

I’ve been doing my best not to engage with the Toronto Public Library situation, because I’m exhausted by it and all the other similar examples out there. But these situations demonstrate how so many libraries seem determined to drive out their marginalized library workers and patrons  – and so I felt like I should say something rather than potentially be complicit in my silence. And, to be fair, it is not like libraries are the only places doing this. For instance, Facebook is currently under fire for including Breitbart under its tab dedicated to quality news, a decision Zuckerberg defended as a need for a “diversity of views.” There has been a steady increase in providing space and amplification for the “views” of bigoted outlets, individuals, and groups -like Nazis- in the interest of “hearing both sides.” But it seems especially isolating and sad when institutions like libraries, that pride themselves so much on the values of inclusion, are so determined to exclude the ones who need support the most.

So, for those who may not know, there is a conversation surrounding Toronto Public Library (TPL) and the hosting of the conservative writer/journalist, Meghan Murphy, who is regarded by many as a trans-exclusionary radical feminist or TERF. For those who are unaware of the rhetoric of TERFs, here are some of the main arguments/beliefs:

  • only those born with vaginas are women
  • trans women, therefore, are not women
  • trans women are men pretending to be women to encroach into women’s spaces and rape them
  • and many other, awful, and bigoted beliefs.

The issue of meeting room spaces and hate groups have been a growing conversation in libraries. The main argument for proponents of letting hate groups use the library is “neutrality.” Jennifer Ferretti has done an amazing job at demonstrating how neutrality is hostility and polite oppression. In fact, she, Anastasia Chiu, and I will be releasing a book chapter about how vocational awe and neutrality intertwine to uphold white supremacy in librarianship. But, the long and short of it is this:

Libraries were, aren’t, and can NEVER be neutral because they are an institution situated in a white supremacist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic society and therefore reflect those hegemonic, bigoted views. It is only through ACTIVE work against those values that libraries can push back against the “natural” and therefore “neutral” state of things. And thus, “neutrality” in most all cases upholds white supremacy and further marginalizes communities in need. Subsequently, upholding “neutrality” goes directly against the “safe and welcome spaces” that libraries purport themselves to be. Because the only people who can be safe in a space with Nazis (or in this case TERFS) are those who are either or both:

  • comfortable with the ideology
  • privileged enough to not be harmed by those with said ideology

 

That’s it. No one else.

And the thing is, bigotry is the norm. I’ll say it again. White supremacy is the norm. Transphobia is the norm and enforced by state power. And we all have access to it, all of the time. It’s policy. We’re swimming in it. It isn’t a radical act to create a space where bigoted voices are “heard” and people are marginalized. And libraries, like other institutions, have demonstrated with these instances that it isn’t marginal speech that is being protected, but that of the bigoted powerful. Library workers told the Nashville chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM) that they weren’t allowed to host meetings in the library because the BLM meetings were only open to people of color and therefore excluded white people. Yet, wouldn’t a Nazi meeting by its very ideology exclude people of color? Jewish people? Why is the outrage suddenly present when the marginalized want to protect themselves? The Nazis or TERFS might not explicitly put “no Black/trans people” can come, but the sentiment is there. The very ideology driving the groups’ need to speak and meet, explicitly says to the marginalized person: “You should not exist, and we are meeting with the goal of figuring out how to make sure you don’t.” But because they don’t fill out meeting space paperwork that says the marginalized groups are not invited, they, or anyone with an interest in propping them up, can lean on the hypothetical Black or trans person who technically can attend the meeting (as well as the extremely rare case in which such things do happen).

But – let’s be honest, if a large group that was all-white had a meeting in most libraries, would it be pegged as exclusionary? No, like most whiteness, its power lies in its invisibility, the extreme normality of its exclusionary existence. Another example was the outcry by some librarians when they learned of a Black Lives Matter book display a librarian created in the library’s teen space. She received pushback stating that “all sides” should be heard and therefore All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter displays should be created as well. But when library displays have all white and/or all straight authors/characters, how often is it noticed as exclusionary? Are these same “champions of neutrality” raising their voices at every YA book display with only white authors? If so, those voices would be very hoarse by now. Again, why is it only when the marginalized come together as a collective that it is suddenly important to include the “other side?”

Toronto Public Library’s statement shows that they privilege some hypothetical LGBTQ group that isn’t harmed by homophobia and transphobia rather than the very real people of their community who are protesting the event, explaining how TERF ideology harms them and their ability to safely exist in the same space. TPL argued that protestors are asking them “…to censor someone because of the beliefs they hold and to restrict a group’s right to equitably access public space and we cannot do either.” Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. TPL cannot purport to be a safe space for LGBTQ people and also invite someone who does not believe in their humanity and personhood. There is no such thing as “civil discourse” between someone who doesn’t believe in your very existence and someone who does. Not only does the onus then fall on the marginalized group to “prove they should exist,” but – as hatred and bigotry are based on ideology and not facts – there’s no way for the marginalized to “win” in what, is again, a hypothetical “dialogue” TPL claims it must “champion.” In fact, TPL is most honest when it explains what it means when it says it welcomes the LGBTQ community: “Libraries have always been committed to supporting vulnerable communities by welcoming and creating space for different perspectives…” Indeed, TPL “welcomes” the vulnerable by creating space for entrenched “perspectives”  like that those vulnerable people should not exist. They don’t at all claim they’ll value marginalized perspectives like those expressed by community protestors: we’d like to be welcomed into a library free from those who would harm us.

So again there is, and never was, a dialogue or debate to win. The only people “winning” here are the bigots and the complicit. And a place where the bigoted feel safe cannot also be a place where the marginalized feel safe. In fact, let’s break that down a little bit. What has TPL “won” by showing that they privilege hypothetical people and ideals over the reality?

  • the alienation of real LGBTQ patrons and community
  • the alienation of real LGBTQ library workers
  • the alienation of LGBTQ allies (e.g. Toronto literary community)
  • the approval of hate groups

It seems to me then that the only thing Toronto Public Library has shown is that it does not actually want to represent the community, but instead represent “ideals” and hypothetical patrons and debates. They are not the first library to make these decisions, nor, unfortunately will they be the last, but I believe that change can occur. And, in fact, I believe that libraries are situated in a place where they can truly begin to counter these larger misunderstandings of neutrality and other instances of “both sides” rhetoric.

Currently, the sociopolitical climate is such that marginalized voices are being even more repressed and hatred and bigotry are increasingly endorsed outright by those in power. As such, wouldn’t “the other side” we need to hear be that of the marginalized? Having all Black or all queer displays are seen as political, because the identities of the authors who get published and the stories that are told, are so entrenched their identity politics are not recognized as such. Yet these “mainstream” authors and stories don’t accurately reflect the demographics of America and the world. So, there is a “side” that truly needs to be lifted up and heard, it is that of marginalized people. Where there is an inherent imbalance of narratives, giving equal weight to the privileged and the marginalized does not create balance, it gives more weight to the privileged. So, when libraries use “welcoming all” to give equal weight to hate groups and activists, they are not in fact being neutral, but instead giving more support to hate groups and bigotry.

Libraries, as repositories of information, hold the keys to understanding the nuances of marginalization and power. If anyone should be able to replace hypotheticals with realities, it is the library.

 

5 Years: A Reflection

As I prepare for my presentation at ACRL, I realize that it’s almost 5 years to the date that I did my very first presentation. It was for MARAC (Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference) and I was terrified. I was weeks away from graduation, and had no idea where I was going or what was coming next. The reason I was on this panel despite no archival experience was because Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet heard me bumble my way through a lightning talk about intersectionality at Midwinter, and thought my perspective might be worth hearing. I’ll forever be grateful to her for asking. And to God for putting the right people in my path at the right time.

So much has changed since then. I first started speaking about intersectionality because of my experience at Rutgers during library school. I had been so excited about going to Rutgers for my MLIS, not only because it was one of the best school library programs, but also because the campus itself was so diverse. After spending four years at a PWI (primarily white institution) I was excited to be surrounded by people who actually looked like me. And Rutgers, the campus lived up to that reputation! As I wandered campus and walked through the student centers, I saw people from all walks of life…which made it all the more heartbreaking when I realized I was the the ONLY women of color on the school library track in my cohort. And that the people of color in the entire program could be counted using one hand. I felt isolated and alone. It seemed like no aspect of my identity was considered valid let alone valuable to the profession.

Although the profession hasn’t become more diverse in these past 5 years, I do not feel quite so alone. I have found a community of amazing and radical women of color through programs such as MIECL (Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians) as well as at conferences. Oftentimes those conversations had over dinner and in hallways have been more vital to my professional development than the actual conference! And as I’ve grown in the field my research has changed and grown with me.  I would never have been able to coin the concept vocational awe without understanding white supremacy and how it intersects with librarianship and institutional culture, power, and labor.

From writing articles, speaking, at conferences, to making a microaggressions game, and  coining a concept are all things I never would have guessed I could do back when I was doing a 5 minute lightning talk or speaking in a small room in Rochester. I’m still learning and growing, and I’m excited to see where the next 5 years takes me.

Giving Thanks

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

 

Whether it’s from the song Turn! Turn! Turn! or from the Biblical chapter of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, I’ve always loved the idea that there is a season for everything. And although November is usually the month of giving thanks, technically, you’re supposed to be giving thanks always. And so now, as the last month of 2018 continues marching ever slowly, here are some things I’m thankful for:

 

  • Getting to go to JCLC and speaking with amazing people (Sofia, Rae, Charlotte, April, and Rebecca!) to a room of amazing and beautiful POC.
  • Getting a new job!
  • Moving back to my homestate of New Jersey
  • Eating delicious tacos and burritos in Cali and delicious bagels and pizza in Jersey
  • My beautiful and amazing partner without whom I’d be lost always
  • Christmas time! I’ve been listening to Christmas music since September, but it’s nice to finally be in a month where even the Grinchiest of Grinches can’t begrudge my joy.
  • And finally, writing my vocational awe article and seeing the amazing reach that it has had in libraryland. Can you believe it came out January of this year? I feel like the language of libraries has changed just slightly because of its naming and its humbling and amazing to be a little part of that.

 

Happy December everyone! 2018 has been hard, and while it’s so much easier to remember how horrible things can be; it’s much more brave and radical to remember how amazing our lives has/can/will be.

 

Black Face–White Space

It has been a long while since I’ve been to a smaller state conference. It’s been just over two weeks since I returned from the California Academic and Research Libraries (CARL) conference. It was, for the most part, a great conference. I got to speak about critical pedagogy which I always enjoy. I met some cool and interesting librarians. And I got to reconnect with friends that I don’t normally get to see outside of conferences.

But throughout the conference I couldn’t help but think of the Starbucks boys handcuffed and put in jail for hours just for existing in a gentrified space. They were in the building for only two minutes before the police were called. Two minutes.  During the opening plenary, Miguel Figueroa mentioned that when he posted about Philando Castile, that he lost a lot of followers because “it has nothing to do with libraries.” As if the lives of our communities mean nothing to us. It’s not like one of our espoused values is being open to all or anything. But since ALA and librarians in general have shown time and time again, that caring is dependent on whether the victim was a librarian (like with the Charleston 9 — besides Cynthia Hurd can you actually name any of the other victims?). So, I wasn’t necessarily expecting librarians to say anything about this event. However, the few things I did see from the library world were not what I expected. The response was basically a self-congratulatory pat on the back for being a space where one doesn’t have to pay for anything in order to be present.

And it just broke my heart. Librarianship seems to pride itself on being better than these “commercial” spaces when it comes to equity despite its own history. And sure enough, despite the field’s apparent superiority complex when it comes to being safe spaces for all, a new story broke yesterday about a police officer who broke a teenager’s jaw in the library. The teenager was yelled at for putting her feet on a chair and even though the teen complied, she was pushed into a book cart and onto the floor, dragged toward the exit, and then had her jaw broken.

There have been countless studies showing that Black people are seen as “violent” and “angry.” This phenomenon starts at birth. In Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry likens the experiences of Black women to that of attempting to stand up straight in a “crooked room,” all while being “bombarded with warped images of their humanity.”

CARL was a nice reprieve in many ways because I spent most of my time surrounded by people of color. From my roommates to lunches and other gatherings, I was enveloped in the comfort of librarians of color. But, despite the shielding, it was hard not to notice the very different conversations that we were having vs our white colleagues. After Charlotte Roh’s amazing discussion about the structures of power and privilege in scholarly publishing, the first question was “how do I add diverse books to my collection?” Now at its face, this question may not seem like a bad one, but this question without fail is asked when any women of color (WOC) discusses the inequitable experiences that people of color (whether it be the librarians or the patrons) undergo. On its face, it implies a desire and willingness to learn. And yet, in no other sessions, have I heard questions on how to do question development. Why is it then when faced with race do the skills and knowledge about how to build a collection evaporate? Currently, there are multiple award winners written by POC. To me it is reminiscent of the questions around hiring people from diverse backgrounds. Choosing people of color does not somehow diminish the quality of the library. And ultimately these questions come off as “help me do my job” and the optics of white people continually asking librarians of color to help them with diversity is not a great one. Especially when the question/comment that inevitably follows is a defensive one that basically boiled down to “not all librarians.” As I sat at my table with only librarians of color, we couldn’t help but look at each other and sigh because it’s not hard to know just what is thought of us. How unwilling some of our colleagues are to see us as people. At conferences, my hair has been groped, I’ve been mistaken for a server or as the help, and experienced plenty of other such fun microaggressions.

So, as I read the stories about Starbucks and libraries who refuse the personhood of Black people, all I can ask myself is “if I wasn’t a librarian, how would they see me in this room?” And unfortunately, I know the answer to that. Despite the fact that I am in fact a librarian, they still only seem to see my Blackness.

 

But, I will say this. My Blackness is beautiful. My Blackness is magic. My Blackness is powerful. And while librarianship may try and contain me, I will not be contained.