“The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), is pleased to announce that Alanna Aiko Moore, academic liaison coordinator and librarian for sociology, ethnic studies, and gender studies at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD), has been chosen to receive the 2017 University Libraries Sections (ULS) Outstanding Professional Development Award.
“The $1,000 award and plaque, donated by Library Juice Academy, will be presented to Moore at the 2017 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago.”
The Change We Seek: Understanding EveryLibrary’s Work for Libraries
Presenter: John Chrastka, Executive Director, EveryLibrary
EveryLibrary, the first national political action committee for libraries, is advancing a policy agenda to work in local communities and with new coalitions to extend funding for libraries. In this webinar, you will learn more about EveryLibrary and the work they are doing to build voter support for public library ballot measures, to help school library communities lobby for new funding support at state and local levels, and to reach voters across the country with calls-to-action in support of their libraries and librarians. Find out about the EveryLibrary 2017 Agenda for political action and the 2017 Coalition Strategy to bring library issues and library resources for social change. Executive Director John Chrastka will discuss ways that you can be involved in this work, and how EveryLibrary is able to support your library activism projects as well. This is an “inside view” of this essential organization.
Amnesty International have also raised concerns over the case against Natalya Sharina, calling her a prisoner of conscience. They are asking for supporters to write appeals to the Russian Prosecutor General and Chairman of the Investigation Committee of the Russian Federation. For more information see the Amnesty website at https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur46/2900/2015/en/
IFLA remain concerned over the unnecessary and disproportionate treatment of Natalya and continue to be in touch with her lawyer and to monitor the situation.
Library Juice Press is happy to announce the winner of the Fourth Annual Library Juice Paper Contest. Lisa Sloniowski’s paper, titled, “Affective Labor, Resistance, and the Academic Librarian,” published in Library Trends, was judged by the award jury to be the best paper out of 19 submitted in this year’s contest. The award jury consisted of three members and evaluated papers in a blind process. The jury wrote,
“‘Affective Labor, Resistance and the Academic Librarian’ extends the traditional analysis of librarianship as a feminized profession by drawing on Marxist and Autonomist conceptions of labor to make an important and urgent argument for the role of affective labor in librarianship generally, and reference and liaison librarianship specifically. This immaterial, affective work is increasingly subject to post-Fordist metrics that devalue or disregard the emotional and intellectual subtleties underpinning the work of librarians; baked into the long conversations with students and faculty who may “leave [our] office[s] in tears” (647); or the nuance and care required to develop and curate an intellectually honest research collection. Underscoring the value of librarianship in the digital age and in the context of the neoliberal university we are reminded that we need be mindful of the decisions we make as we move forward as stewards of libraries and librarianship and offered potential modes of resistance.”
Ms. Sloniowski is Associate Librarian at York University in Toronto.
The award for honorable mention goes to Anne Gilliland and Michelle Caswell’s “Records and Their Imaginaries: Imagining the Impossible, Making Possible the Imagined,” published in Archival Science.
The Library Juice Paper Contest winner receives an award of $1000. The intention of this contest is to encourage and reward good work in the field of library and information studies, humanistically understood, through a monetary award and public recognition. Papers submitted may be pending publication, or published (formally or informally) in the year of the award. Any type of paper may be entered as long as it is not a report of an empirical study. Examples of accepted forms would be literature review essays, analytical essays, historical papers, and personal essays. The work may include some informal primary research, but may not essentially be the report of an empirical study.
The critera for judgment are:
– Clarity of writing
– Originality of thought
– Sincerity of effort at reaching something true
– Soundness of argumentation (where applicable)
– Relevance to our time and situation
Entries in next year’s award are due August 1st, 2017.
Library Juice Press is an imprint of Litwin Books, LLC specializing in theoretical and practical issues in librarianship from a critical perspective, for an audience of professional librarians and students of library science.
PO Box 188784, Sacramento, CA 95818
Annie Downey has agreed to do an interview with me about her new book with Library Juice Press.
Dr. Downey is Associate College Librarian and Director of Research Services at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Annie’s professional aspiration is to occupy a constant state of praxis in her daily work. Her research interests help her do that and include critical information literacy, women in librarianship and the status of women’s professions, service design and user-centered research methodologies in libraries, and library administration. She published two books in the summer of 2016: Critical Information Literacy: Foundations, Inspiration, and Ideas from Library Juice Press and Library Service Design: A LITA Guide to Holistic Assessment, Insight, and Improvement with Joe Marquez from Rowman and Littlefield.
Annie, thanks for agreeing to do this interview.
Thanks for inviting me! I am always excited to talk about critical information literacy.
Critical information literacy, or critical pedagogy in library instruction, is a hot topic in the library world right now, especially among Twitter’s #critlib participants. The discussion goes back a few years. I’d like to start by asking you first to summarize what critical information literacy is, and then to talk about how you first learned about it and got interested in it.
My favorite definition of critical information literacy is from Accardi, Drabinski, and Kumbier’s 2010 book Critical Library Instruction. They define it as “a library instruction praxis that promotes critical engagement with information sources, considers students collaborators in knowledge production practices (and creators in their own right), recognizes the affective dimensions of research, and (in some cases) has liberatory aims.” I am drawn to this definition in particular because the authors use plain language to attend to both the student and teacher roles, praxis, and empowerment, all of which are important components of CIL theory and practice.
As our definitions of information literacy have expanded – which we see reflected in the ACRL Framework – it has become harder to define critical information literacy as a distinct type of information literacy. But a primary signifier is that CIL is inspired and informed by critical educational theories and theorists, especially Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy.
Like many CIL converts, I first became interested in critical education and the emancipatory potential of education, and then found my way to CIL when I was looking for ways to connect my burgeoning interest in that set of theories with my work as a librarian. As I was working on my PhD coursework, I had an opportunity to study education theory in depth for the first time. I was inspired by Freire’s work, but also by Myles Horton and Jack Mezirow. Freire, Horton, and Mezirow all worked on critical literacy with adults. The connections between critical literacy and information literacy jumped out at me right away so I began looking for other librarians who were doing work in that space. This was just a few years ago, but there was not a lot out there. I immediately found the work of James Elmborg, Troy Swanson, Kushla Capitzke, and Heidi Jacobs compelling. Of course, since then many others have come forward and a lot of great work is being done on CIL right now.
Regarding Freire, many readers caught that the cover of your book is a riff on the cover of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I think it’s fun to make that reference, but I have to admit to feeling like it might be false advertising to an extent, because the book is not that directly tied to his educational philosophy. He was strongly marxist for one thing, and your book is not. I wonder if you have any comments about expectations people might form of a more radical book, looking at the cover.
First, let me just say that I love the cover and was so thrilled when I saw it. It’s true that the book is not tied strictly to Freire’s theory, nor is it Marxist. But I would argue that it is fairly radical and heavily influenced by Freire.
The majority of the librarians I interviewed were influenced by Freire either directly through reading his work or reading work inspired by it so the ideas and practices presented in the book provide examples of what librarians have done with his theory so far. In that sense, the cover is more than appropriate as a reflection of the contents providing a Freirian interpretaton of information literacy. However, I also tried to make it as authentic to the academic librarian experience as possible, and in many ways that resulted in me finding ties to critical education generally rather than Freire’s work specifically. I also wanted it to be an authentic reflection of my own interpretation of CIL, which is influenced Frieire, but also by other theorists.
Prior to my interviews, I was really into the type of critical pedagogy taught by Myles Horton, which is due at least in part to finding his work a lot more relatable and usable in a personal way. When I was first reading about critical education, I was also involved in a grassroots activism organization that used popular education to move people to action. I loved the curriculum we designed and were teaching, but getting people in the room to learn what we were trying to teach was close to impossible in my small Texas city. I always felt like we were teaching the already converted and the power to change anything in a meaningful way would ultimately reside in our ability to speak to people who weren’t already in the room. Horton, Freire, and other critical pedaogues encouraged teachers to start where their students were and then help them get where they wanted to be. Starting where the students are in order to make learning meaningful is a major rationale behind student-focused pedagogy. A major purpose of this book is to help librarians practice CIL and in order to do that, they have to start where they are and build their practice to include CIL.
All of the librarians I spoke with talked about their inability to do anything too radical in their classrooms – one of my participants was actually leaving the profession for this very reason. I understand that feeling because I am a radical in my own mind, but my at work radicalism has to be moderated because over time, librarians have not managed to position themselves very well institutionally. I believe we can change that, but the change has to be thoughtful and we have to start where we are. I know there are plenty of radical activists that will call this a cop out. But I decided many years ago that I did not want the typical activist life for me or my children. I want to do good meaningful work, but I also want my children to live fairly unstructured lives with one parent at home. I am the breadwinner for my family of five and I work at an institution where it is much easier for faculty and students to take an ideological stance than for staff, including librarians. My work in this area has to be more stealthy and that was definitely what I heard from participants as well. So I think this book is radical in part because we are talking about trying to move a whole lot of disempowerd people to action. When we know that librarians are starting from a fairly disempowered place organizationally and their values have gotten confused over time, big change starts with small steps. Personally, I will just be thrilled if this book convinces more librarians that we are not and should not pretend to be neutral actors in our work.
But I also think the Freirian pedagogy is there, even though the radical politics are largely missing. This is where the practicality and professionalism of librarianship often conflicts with the value structure and political philosophy of librarians, especially teaching librarians. What you’ll find in this book is that many librarians are taking the radical step of trying to adopt Freire’s critical pedagogy for their teaching, but as one participant said it is just really really hard. Feminist critical educators like bell hooks, Jennifer Gore, Carmen Luke, and others speak to this difficulty and I think that is really the next step for CIL – to look at, work with, and respond to the critiques of critical pedagogy. Freire said we have to remake critical pedagogy for our situations and contexts and that is what the librarians in my book are trying to do.
Yes, that makes perfect sense. One thing I have wondered about in relation to that is how Freire translates into the affluent first world context. He was an educator in the third world, and his efforts to empower students had to do with their situation as members of an oppressed class. In what ways are his ideas about student empowerment and student perspectives relevant when you are talking about students who are privileged, like the students at your institution? When they question authority, is it the same thing?
I can’t imagine anything bringing home the importance of questioning authority like the current presidential election. As unfortunate and distasteful as the whole thing is, I’ve definitely thought this book came out at a good time because it points to how important it is for even privileged students to question and challenge authority. It also illustrates how the breakdown of old gatekeepers have really changed what and how issues are talked about. It has turned older notions of information literacy on their head. And that is where the importance of talking about power with privileged and oppressed students alike really comes in. It is no longer acceptable to teach library literacy like it is information literacy or to ignore the power structures behind information access. Students have to be able to understand and use sources outside of our expensive (and privileged) databases and they need to understand the power structures that put that info behind pay walls to begin with.
When I urge students to analyze and question information power structures in my classes, I am also asking students to consider where they are and where others are and have been. A major issue over the last couple of years in higher ed and at my institution involves creating inclusive communities. One of the things that always comes up in trainings and discussions is the importance of identifying and being mindful of your biases. That also happens to be one aspect of CIL. You need to understand where you stand in the discussion. Students have to ask themselves what their privilege is and how that influences their understanding. Half of our student body receives need based financial aid, but the other half have families that can afford to pay around $50,000 per year. When you have classrooms that include students from all places on the financial spectrum, it is really important for everyone in the room to be able to identify and name privilege and power.
In an oppressive system, you obviously end up with people that are born into one side of the equation or the other. It is easier to change the equation if both sides see how it does not add up. My mother has recently been really surprised and upset to discover that so many of the people in her life are racist. What brought that to light for her? Facebook. It has become harder for people to keep their biases to themselves. But the good news is that finding ways to uncover bias and inequities helps us all to get to a place where we can start to analyze and question them. One of the things we can learn from Freire is how to do that in a productive way. One of my favorite pieces of Freire’s work is his explanation of the complexity of dialogue. For him, dialogue is much more than just a discussion where everyone shares their truth. Rather, it is about taking those truths and using them to look deeper, analyze, and make change.
Okay, I appreciate what you are saying, but there is an odd dynamic in current US media and politics, which is that the authoritative voices like objectivity-minded journalists and fact-checkers, as well as establishment politicians, are under attack mainly from the Right. It is Donald Trump and his ilk who claim that Politifact is biased and that scientific claims are politically biased. People on the left, including radicals, tend to be more fact-oriented and science-oriented, and depend for the arguments they make on the possibility of claims to an independent objective reality, facts that everyone must accept and understand for their implications. How does that jibe with ideas in critical information literacy about questioning authoritative information? And how do you deal with right-wing students rejecting Politifact?
CIL and critical education theory do not just demand that we question authority, but also seek social justice. Justice can only be found by seeking evidence and facts. But beyond that, we also have values to guide us. Part of critical pedagogy is naming values. When working with problem-posing methods and dialogue, teachers should always encourage students to name the values that underlie the evidence, in addition to looking at how they mesh with their own values. To question does not necessarily mean to deny or even disprove. When we say to question, we mean to look at the whole picture with authenticity and hope with the goal of getting closer to social justice. I think Freire’s book titles alone display that approach: Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Pedagogy of Hope, Pedagogy of Freedom, Teachers as Cultural Workers, Education for Critical Consciousness,…
The Right is doing exactly the opposite of looking at the big picture with authenticity and hope -they are focusing on pieces to obscure the whole and they are twisting the truth or outright lying to drive home political points. They lack important information literacy skills. They claim that the media, educators, and science are biased, but they use logically flawed or untruthful arguments. They bring up conspiracy theories for things like climate science because that works for them when actual facts would not. A student in a CIL class could not get away with this.
If you don’t trust the fact-checkers, you should check the facts. If a student disagrees with Politifact, they should fact check it. I actually did a little of that yesterday for my own enjoyment and would happily lead a student down that path. I might ask them to consider whether it is really the fact-checkers they don’t trust or if they don’t trust or want to believe facts, while also teaching them how to check the facts in question. Through this process, they may find that their favorite politicians often treat facts as though they are inconvenient or don’t mesh with how they have decided to interpret the world. But they could not do that with just a discussion or debate where I have my opinion and you have yours, but rather they would have to actually do some searching for facts. This is what Freire means when he says to structure the dialogue. How are you going to push students to ground themselves in their own experiences and think deeply while also considering others’ experiences, the evidence, and the overarching value structure you are working within? There are many levels of complexity there that go beyond an opinionated Twitter war.
There’s an example in my book of a librarian who had students research a fear that the media had perpetuated to try to find the science behind the fear. Basically, he wanted them to see that fears are often overblown by the media and scientific studies can be sensationalized. Unfortunately, almost all of the students found other newspaper articles on the fear rather than digging deeper to find the real science. This example shows that the layers of understanding are complex. I can see why the Right has such an easy time getting people to mistrust the media and I actually think that is an understandable impulse. But they stop there because it helps them meet their goal of obscuring and confusing in order to meet their political goals. With CIL, we teach students to take the next step and problematize, investigate, and dialogue about the issue, the evidence they’ve found, and the value structures they’ve uncovered.
I get what you’re saying, but I still feel like there is a tension involved in trying to empower students to question authority for themselves, and then at the same time exercising pedagogical authority in telling them the right and the wrong ways of doing that. Reed College, where you work, is a selective school, with students who bring their own intellectual motivation to the classroom. (Full disclosure: I know that because I was one of those students, a “Reedie,” for my first two years of college.) I’ve worked at other types of institutions though, where a lot of the students are just there because their families believe that college is the ticket to a middle class life, which is not their own background. Those students are more likely to feel alienated from the educational system and intellectual authorities in general. They might resent “elites” telling them what to think. This is the social position of typical Trump supporters, or so I have been reading. You probably don’t deal with a lot of them in your classrooms, but I wonder what you think about the difficulty of teaching students CIL when they are resistant to intellectual authority because of class dynamics?
I agree that there are students who resent elites telling them what to think. And they are right to resent that. I was poor when I started college and stayed that way until well into my first years as a librarian. My time in the middle class has been short so far. I personally felt disenfranchised for a very long time and I still have to stop myself from identifying as poor. My habit is always to go there, but doing so is not fair to people who are still in the middle of that struggle. I always think of the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quote: “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?” I was once cold, but now I’m warm. And so I can and should maintain my empathy, but alienation sets in when those of us who are living a comfortable life tell others that we have the answers for them or tell them they should think about things a certain way because we know best. This includes questioning students’ motivations for being there. Going to college to try to work your way up the economic ladder is a smart thing to do, and I enjoy working with students who are motivated in that way because I understand it and I respect the stake they have in the game. I also enjoy and feel privileged to work with so many students that are intellectually motivated the way Reed students are, in the same way that I felt privileged to work with the many intellectually motivated students at my alma mater, the University of North Texas. But regardless of their intellectual motivations, I definitely believe almost all students hope to be able to support themselves financially when they graduate and they expect their educations to help them do that, even if they come from more privileged backgrounds.
But the alienation issue is very real. Students who’ve attended public education in this country are likely to have seen how the education system is often set up to keep them in their place. They are not wrong to feel that way because that is how our public education system is set up. It is very hierarchical and racist, funding is far from equitable, and teachers are often encouraged to control their classrooms above all else. It is very steeped in maintaining the status quo. One of the most remarkable things I discovered when I moved to Reed was how focused on personal empowerment liberal arts colleges are. Students are encouraged to think they are very special for being there. They are told they can change the world. And they have a lot of resources to help them think of ways to do that, including hands-on and involved faculty and staff, funding for research trips and projects, planned activities meant to engage them in the larger community, volunteer and paid opportunities in schools, labs, and non-profits, and of course a wonderful library. This is great for these students and this type of education benefits all of society because students from liberal arts colleges go on to do amazing things, but what if we told all students from Head Start through college that they were special? And then actually gave them tools to bring their gifts out?
Critical information literacy can actually help with alienation because it helps students of all backgrounds identify and reflect on where they are on the power structure underlying information availability, access, and distribution. I have found in my experience that students are empowered by that discussion alone. Seeing where you are and how you fit in a larger social system is something people crave, but there are few opportunities to discuss and problematize it in a group of people with a variety of backgrounds. The social system underlying information is something they live in, but may have never been asked to really think about. I find that I don’t need to say much to get that type of conversation going, which means I do very little telling students what to think.
Inequity is one of the things critical pedagogues hope to confront and challenge. But the change we hope to see will not come from us. It only starts with us. One of the librarians I interviewed said that we just have to hope students take what we’ve presented in our sessions and turn it into real learning later. We don’t have the time or space to make real lasting learning happen in our classrooms as librarians – what we are doing is planting seeds. As a librarian, the truth is I don’t get to deal in-depth with issues like intellectual authority or even motivation for being in college. The best I can do is plant seeds that encourage students to question. If there are students that question the questioning, I am open to them doing that. To take it back to the student who challenges Politifact and authority in general, I would say “good, you should be doing that. If you’re not questioning, you’re being complacent.” But I would also tell them that their arguments will be better and stronger and will be more likely to line up with their own views if they dig deeper and make sure they know the truth. Finally, I would encourage them to be open to what they find and realize they are seeing it through their own filter. If you’re going to mistrust someone you see as an intellectual authority, the best tactic is to know their arguments well and then find the facts that either prove or disprove their position.
Thanks for that explanation. I think you present a good way of thinking about it. I’d like to switch gears a bit. I’m curious about how the interviews you conducted changed the way you think about CIL or surprised you in some way. Could you talk a bit about that?
One of the biggest surprises for me was to hear how hard it was for so many librarians to get to practice CIL. I’ve long struggled with the relatively low status of librarians in education. I see library work as the very center or cornerstone of education and just don’t get why we often have to fight so hard to have a voice or be allowed to use our expertise to improve the educational experience of students. But when you’re struggling with something that is as personal as your own teaching practice, it is easy to think you are just doing something wrong when you feel like you have to work so hard to turn your teaching into what you want it to be. So I guess I thought my own teaching struggles reflected a weakness in my practice and hearing from so many librarians that they were having the same struggle was enlightening and oddly empowering. It made me realize that the status and stereotyping issues really do impact librarians’ ability to develop our own authentic teaching practices. It was not just me feeling this way – it is a real thing!
Another thing that surprised me was how little faculty status seemed to influence this. I asked participants to talk about their thoughts about faculty status and if they believed it helped librarians who teach. I don’t talk about this much in the book because it was not something I felt like I got enough information on to find patterns that I felt comfortable making assertions about, but the conversations I had with participants made me suspect that faculty status is not terribly important when it comes to empowering librarian teaching. Librarians that had worked in both types of institutions (as I have) did not find that their faculty status did much beyond giving them opportunities to build relationships through committee work. While I think relationship building is one of the most important things we can do as librarians, teaching faculty often see early career committee work as a distraction from developing their teaching practices. So why do librarians feel so differently about the interplay of committee work and developing a teaching practice? This would be a great research topic for someone interested in CIL!
Now that the book is complete and out in the world, what do you think remains to be said, by another work perhaps? Is there anything you regret you didn’t have a chance to cover, or would cover differently now?
There are so many aspects of CIL that still need to be covered! We need some actual classroom studies that look at how critical pedagogy works in our classrooms. We also have a lot of theoretical work still to do. Our theory is behind other educators so we need to take the time to consider what other educators and social scientists have been up to over the past couple of decades, while continuing to work on figuring out where librarianship and information literacy fit in that conversation. We also need to seek wider audiences for our information literacy imperative. You really make the case for this in your previous questions. There is a lot of evidence right now that society has to start paying attention to the importance of learning to understand and evaluate information. Information literacy is so much more than an academic skill and it is really very crucial for democracy. I would like to write something on the importance of CIL for a general audience.
Researching and writing this book really got me thinking about the positioning of librarians in education and in what ways our standing is related to being a historically women’s profession and librarianship’s bizarre stance on neutrality. The institutional barriers and professional philosophies that get in the way of librarians being able to teach CIL also lead to librarian disenfranchisement and burnout and limits our potential to positively impact students’ lives. This summer, I’ve returned to some previous research and done some new work to prepare a book proposal for you on these intersections. So much of the work that has been done on this has focused on women in public librarianship, but not as much has been done on women in academic libraries and even less on women librarians in K-12. Libraries were the most important part of building the first American colleges. Colleges with libraries made it and those without did not have a good chance. Likewise, the first academic librarians were often chosen from the best of the lecturers. How did we move from librarians holding a position of importance to becoming so disregarded intellectually? Somehow along the way, our management and clerical skills became what we are known for, rather than our intellectual skills. Everyone who knows several librarians knows this is crazy because the breadth of most librarians’ knowledge along with our capacity to problem solve, adapt to change, understand many disciplines and the publishing industry, and commitment to students should make our importance to education indisputable. Yet, many people don’t see our value and even write long, infuriating, ill-informed pieces stating that our profession is approaching its death. I want to investigate the history that led us to this point with the hopes that librarians will be empowered to reclaim our profession.
That’s an important topic, and it sounds like an ambitious project. I look forward to seeing the proposal. Thanks for doing this interview! I think it was enlightening. Best of luck with the book! I hope everyone reads it.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk a little about the book and CIL. I am excited to see where librarians take information literacy next. We still have work to do, but I have been really delighted to see how much critical engagement and reflection on information literacy has gained traction in recent years. It makes me feel really hopeful about the future of our profession.
 Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier, eds., Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods (Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 2010), xiii.
In the past couple of years, social justice issues in librarianship have come to the fore, led by the #critlib conversations on Twitter. I have felt that much of this new discussion could benefit from greater awareness of work that has gone on in the past in relation to social justice and libraries, and continuing efforts of some of these older groups and older generations. Specifically, I think The Progressive Librarians Guild (PLG) and ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) deserve greater recognition in the conversations that are happening now, and I think it is worth discussing their contributions, as well as some of the differences with newer formations. I think this discussion could potentially give food for thought to activist librarians of all generations, in light of changing political priorities, strategies, and social and political contexts. As a way to start this discussion, I am interviewing one of the founders of the Progressive Librarians Guild, Elaine Harger.
Elaine Harger is the librarian at Washington Middle School in Seattle, and is the author of a book recently published by McFarland & Company entitled Which Side Are You On? Seven Social Responsibility Debates in American Librarianship, 1990-2015. She is one of the co-founders of the Progressive Librarians Guild, the managing editor of its journal Progressive Librarian, and had been very active in the American Library Association until 2009, when she gave up air travel to reduce her personal CO2 footprint. As a librarian she has served a wide range of library users, from kindergarten through graduate school. She’s been a union activist, and worked her way into librarianship after a series of library jobs as a student, clerical worker, and paraprofessional.
Elaine, thanks for agreeing to do this interview.
I’m happy to have the invitation Rory. Now more than ever we need librarians concerned about social justice to come together.
I’d like to start by asking you to talk a bit about what was going on when you founded PLG, why you felt it was needed, and why it took the form that it did?
At the 1989 annual American Library Association (ALA) conference in Dallas, Texas, Mark Rosenzweig and I, both recent graduates of Columbia School of Library Services, attended a meeting of the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) where a discussion was held regarding SRRT’s seeming inability to address some of the big issues then confronting the profession. SRRT members Sandy Berman and Elliott Shore presented a statement urging SRRT to consider expanding its focus beyond the work of individual task forces in order to challenge the growing use of business models in library administration, privatization, and concerns that new information technologies threatened to lead to deskilling and deprofessionalization of the work of librarians.
After returning to New York City from the conference, Mark and I continued to think and talk about what we’d learned, and thought it would be a good idea to bring together librarians in the northeast for further conversation. The full story of PLG can be found in Al Kagan’s excellent book Progressive Library Organizations: A Worldwide History (McFarland, 2015), and five years ago I published an article on PLG in issue 34/35 of Progressive Librarian (p.58-71) that readers might find of interest for details about our history.
In a nutshell, however, PLG was needed because no other group in librarianship was taking a critical and activist stance toward “big picture” issues. SRRT task forces were doing excellent work, but they all focused on single issues — human rights, library unions, LGBT, feminism, peace, and others. Members of PLG believed, as Mark stated in a 1997 letter in the SRRT Newsletter that librarianship needed “a global vision of social librarianship and cultural democracy” something SRRT did not provide at the time.
As for the form PLG took, we became an affiliate of SRRT in order to operate both within and outside ALA. This allowed PLG to have a presence at ALA midwinter meetings and annual conferences by holding meetings, sponsoring programs, having a presence on the exhibit floor, but also gave us freedom from ALA’s heavy bureaucracy to issue statements, publish an independent journal, participate in conferences of leftist organizations, march in rallies. This was the best of both worlds — affiliation and independence.
As for organizational structure, it evolved out of the hum-drum of managing memberships and subscriptions and also out of a political sensibility (maybe with anarchist tinges) opposed to the bureaucratic trappings of bylaws, officers, elections, and cumbersome relationships with the Internal Revenue Service. We needed a bank account and a tax ID number, both easily available to small club-like groups. PLG is run solely by volunteers. Membership dues pay for the publication of the journal. We have always operated at a deficit (except for a period in which the Alternatives Library in Ithaca NY printed the journal) with editors of the journal sometimes helping to pay for printing and mailing costs, and various members (most recently David Lesniaski of St. Catherine’s LIS in Minnesota) taking on the tasks of maintaining membership lists, handling finances, and mailing the journal.
The PLG Coordinating Committee was established in 2002 to bring more people into decision-making for the organization. Previously all the work had fallen to editors of the journal, an arrangement that was neither sustainable nor organizationally healthy.
Well, thanks for that outline of PLG and its history. You’ve reminded me of why I got involved in PLG in the late 90s and was so inspired by it. Two things strike me about this in the current context. The first is that the issues that PLG has been concerned with are not prominent issues in the current discussion in the #critlib community, and I think this reflects differences in the younger generation’s politics more broadly. I realize this is oversimplifying, but PLG’s priorities could be described as socialist, and the concerns of #critlib are more related to the politics of identity. There is plenty of overlap; in #critlib there is often reference to neoliberalism, and plenty of reference to Paolo Freire, who was a marxist. But the priorities are different, and the theoretical background that people refer to in the group is different. And #critlib is more concerned with theory in general it seems, as there is often discussion about poststructuralist critical theory. So there is that difference in terms of the priorities and focus. The other thing that strikes me is that at that time, in the early 90s, you felt that the natural thing to do was to start an organization, and it came out of a context of being involved with another organization. I understand what you say about the ethos being anti-bureaucratic. At the time that you founded PLG, the logical way to network with people was to form some kind of organization, but that is no longer true. People participating in #critlib generally don’t feel the need to have a formal organization at all, especially not one that collects dues. I think many younger people today would question what the point is of being involved in an organization at all. Given all of that, I wonder what you would like to say to younger people, to speak to the importance of the work that PLG is doing or has done, and the mode of organization for doing it. I’d also like to ask if in retrospect, PLG could have been more open to being reshaped and redirected by younger people who had different politics?
I’m quite interested in how you’ve described the differences between these two generations of social justice-minded librarians. Not being a theoretician, rather a practicing librarian who uses theory to inform my practice and my activism, I don’t feel I can say too much except in a general fashion. You mention a few differences between the thinking and politics of librarians who identify with either PLG or #critlib. I’ve been meeting with several #critlib-identified librarians here in Seattle this past year and find that there aren’t many substantial philosophical or political differences, but I do think there is something accurate in your assessment. Let me take one point at a time and then add what I believe is a very important difference that PLG has been missing, and which addresses your final question.
First, I’d like to share a quote from a document considered foundational to the concepts of identity politics and intersectionality — the Combahee River Collective Statement of April 1977. The Combahee River Collective was a group of radical, black, lesbian feminists.
We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation…. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.
…In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving “correct” political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society.
Although this document played no role in the establishment of PLG, I believe it describes what I consider the political spirit of PLG. Yes, PLG is (loosely speaking) socialist, and we also from the very beginning recognized that the goal of socialism could never be reached without being informed by the knowledge and experience of people who had often been “invisible” to earlier socialist theorists. Because of our place on the timeline of history and our identification with various strands of leftist politics, we knew that efforts toward liberation had to be informed by women, people of color, LGBT members, and others who were oppressed on several fronts. That was a given.
We chose to call our group of radical, leftist, anti-establishment librarians “progressive” because the term embraced a broad spectrum of political strands. We weren’t Maoist or Trotskyist or anarchist or communist or liberation theologists, and although members might identify personally as such none of those groupings could describe all of us. The word “progressive” also hearkened back in history to the progressive movement of the early 20th century (not to say that the Progressive Era was free of oppressive elements).
As far as theoretical differences are concerned, it’s important to point out that theories evolve and have roots in the work of earlier thinkers. The term intersectionality, for instance, was coined in 1989 when PLG was first getting started. I know I had never heard, much less used, that term back then, but the underlying concept was quite familiar as noted above. Another example, in Progressive Librarian we’ve published several articles critical of post-modernism. I don’t know what #critlib librarians think of post-modernism, perhaps it is so “old school” as to receive no attention from the younger generation, but we saw that post-modern theory was very negatively impacting thinking in the profession and so felt critiques must be made.
Regarding the politics of PLG and #critlib, I’d say that the main difference might be in what constitutes the ultimate goal of those politics. Is the goal primarily to develop one’s practice as a librarian or to change unjust social structures, or both? Developing one’s practice might not require organization, but the task of changing social structures cannot happen without organization. Yes, protest might be triggered via Twitter, but as we’ve seen with the various outcomes of Arab Spring, lasting change requires a level of organization and action well beyond street activism.
The social, political, economic, cultural structures that maintain oppression are powerfully organized. And all successful movements for social change have been powerfully organized. So I don’t see how social justice-minded librarians can impact our profession and communities without also being organized.
As for dues, while it is true that no one has to pay dues to participate in #critlib, there are costs involved — either individuals or institutions pay for access to the internet, and if workshops or un/conferences are held either donations or volunteer time or in-kind contributions are solicited. PLG requires membership dues to pay for the printing and mailing of Progressive Librarian. Some have argued that the journal should just be published electronically in order to do away with the necessity of dues. Editors of the journal have discussed this several times, always deciding that we want to maintain a print publication. The payment of membership dues is an act of solidarity whether tithing to one’s spiritual community, joining a political party, club, union, professional association. Paying $25 per year to PLG is a message that says, “I value what PLG is and does and want to make a contribution to the cause from my hard earned income.” Many people who don’t pay dues benefit from the work of an organization, but those who do pay are actual contributors — and that act of solidarity is powerful in many ways.
You state that PLG’s concerns are not “prominent issues” within #critlib. Because PLG’s journal covers such a wide variety of issues, I’m not sure which are not of interest to #critlib, but my guess if that you might be referring to our ongoing critiques of information technologies — the ubiquitous gadgets of 21st century existence. For the moment, I’d encourage readers to consider the following:
1. Take a look at this 8-minute video and ask “What does this mean in terms of librarianship today?”
2. Consider that wars are fought over who controls the coltan mines in the Congo, and ask what sort of privilege benefits from the misery of that region.
3. Are there any negative impacts of technology in the library workplace? In your own job? In the job you wish you had? Ever experience “speed up”? Doing the work of two or three people?
4. What is your personal relationship with technological devices? Does digital addiction enter into that relationship?
5. Are 3-D printers really important in libraries, or have they just been successfully marketed by an industry that, having saturated the market with regular printers, simply needs something new to produce and sell and profit from?
There is so much critical work librarians could be doing regarding information technologies.
Lastly, I have noticed an element in #critlib gatherings that has largely been missing from PLG — a manner of relating to one another that is more open, more welcoming, and more respectful of differences. It seems to me to be a sensitivity to the establishment of relationships and a communication style that is informed by an understanding of white (and other) privilege. The #critlib guys actually listen attentively when others speak, they are not the experts who suck all the airtime (and spirit) out of the room. There seems to be a level of humility and recognition that other voices are needed and must be considered, and that differences in communication styles require different needs. Time is given to everyone, a quiet moment is allowed to give a speaker time to gather their thoughts, speakers are not “pounced on” by those with louder voices, sarcasm is understood to be NOT universal and so not used, conscious efforts are made to make everyone comfortable in gatherings and conversations. No one voice is prominent. That is something PLG has learned from the younger generation, and this is no small matter. It must be said, however, that ardent, confrontational, critically informed communication styles have their place too. To quote Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand” and demands usually require forcefulness. The important thing is to know when a particular style is useful and when it isn’t.
Elaine, thanks for that explanation of what PLG is about. I think it is very enlightening, and it shows a seriousness about political action that many perhaps do not realize is a part of PLG. I have a follow-up question. The first is to elaborate on an earlier question. You talked about something that I observed at PLG meetings as well, which was a certain macho attitude and lack of openness to younger people or people who came in with a different set of assumptions about what PLG should be doing, resulting in people being “shut down.” I think that explains how PLG could have been more open to new people at an affective level. But I want to ask about that issue in terms of the structure of PLG as well, and the way PLG decided, at least from the start, to be a structureless organization, and the structure it chose to have once the guidelines were created. I want to ask this in reference to Jo Freeman’s famous piece, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” I always felt that the reason new people were not replacing the original founders of PLG and taking it in new directions was as much because the structure prevented it as it was because people were less welcoming than they might have been. For the first twelve years, as an organization it was equivalent to a small, informal group doing the work and making the decisions, and dues paying members existing to offer their tacit support. When the guidelines were created, a structure was introduced that allowed for people to be voted onto the coordinating committee. But a near majority of the possible seats on the coordinating committee would be held by the members of the editorial board of the journal, which was roughly equivalent to the original small informal group, which all but guaranteed that they would stay in control. My question about this is, first, is any of that incorrect in your view, and secondly do you think it prevented PLG from being open to new people coming in to take it in new directions?
Before answering these questions, I want to clarify something. PLG has never made, or even attempted, a statement describing an organizational political ideology, and we’ve never affiliated with any political groups. The most overtly political thing we ever did was invite native activist Winona LaDuke to speak at ALA when she was vice presidential candidate for the Green Party. PLG’s politics are expressed via the work we do within librarianship, within the contexts in which individual PLG members are active, and in the statements and actions taken under the banner of PLG. Again, readers are referred to Al Kagan’s book for details.
In regard to your two questions concerning the affective environment of PLG meetings and our structure, and the impact of both in attracting the new generation of librarians, I think this discussion can be made constructive by recognizing that the dynamic is not so simple as you describe it.
First, PLG meetings on a national level take place at the midwinter and annual ALA conferences. I have only attended 3 of these meetings in the last five years, so can’t speak to the dynamics of meetings in recent years. That said, my observations, concerns, and attempts to change those dynamics in the past has led me to conclude that interpersonal behavior was only one component of the problem. Limitations of time, plus an agenda that usually covered both PLG business and ALA activities (program planning and resolutions mainly), and the nature of ALA conferences with many attendees on tight schedules, did not foster an environment that was welcoming to anyone new to either PLG or ALA. There was a period of time, however, when two PLG members (Georgie Donovan and Lauren Ray) had the idea to facilitate a discussion about an issue of interest for the first half of the meetings as a means to get everyone who attended involved in conversation. Those were my favorite meetings and the practice was used for a couple years.
Second, I hesitate to use the term “macho” to characterize the behavior that “shut down” any (and certainly not all) newcomers. Rather, an unbridled sense that one’s expertise is paramount, which is a culturally engrained attitude, often not subject to reflection, and a manifestation of white privilege. It pops up all the time even where one might least expect it. Recently, someone demanded on the SRRT listserv to know what qualified a published librarian to edit a book on gender studies and praxis. This is an example of behavior that can have a “chilling” effect on others. It has been present at PLG meetings, I imagine it’s made an occasional appearance at #critlib gatherings also. But, as I mentioned above, I have noticed an attentiveness to the problem among the new generation of librarians that hasn’t been as fully attended to within my own generation. That said, awareness can always be developed, behaviors can change — at any age!
As for the question of PLG’s structure, readers can take a look at the guidelines, adopted in 2002 and revised a couple times. They need further revision to reflect the fact that over the past several years, some of the editors of the journal have chosen not to also serve on the Coordinating Committee, so the determination of the size of the CC is no longer correct.
I’d not read Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” until you brought it to my attention, and have found it quite interesting and an accurate reflection of what I’ve experienced and observed about group dynamics over the years. Reading it brought to mind the recent vote by PLG members in Edmonton, Alberta, to disaffiliate with PLG. We’ve no idea if the decision was made by a small number (an elite?) who drafted the statement and voted, or if the vote represented the thinking of a large number of members (although I’ve no idea how many members the chapter had, could have been 5, 15, 50…). I use this example to make what I think is an important point, one that Freeman also makes when describing challenges to one informal structure/group/elite by another. She states, “[the group in charge] would have to become ‘public,’ and this possibility is fraught with many dangerous implications.” The “dangerous implications” being the revelation of exactly who is in charge — knowledge that threatens the power of informal elites.
It seems to me that what is most important in an organization is transparency. For whatever structural and governance problems PLG has, at least anyone who wants can easily find out who is on the Coordinating Committee. We are not anonymous. If someone wishes to complain about something done in the name of PLG, they know who to contact, and our guidelines do contain a process for rank-and-file member input. Can the guidelines be better? Probably, but at least we have a known structure and process.
While it is very easy to find fault in the details of any given organizational structure, what interests me most about the question is how, at this point in time, does the progressive, radical, critical, leftist library community work together to assist one another and our communities at a time of increasing political and climate crisis (which I personally think needs to be moved to the front of our agenda, along with racism). A couple days ago I received an email from Fred Stoss, a longtime PLG member who wrote:
It is hard to believe that the very first ALA program on climate change was at the 1995 Annual Meeting in Chicago at the very beginning of a massive heat wave that would go on to kill more than 1500 people in Chicago and Milwaukee (most old, respiratory-compromised, over weight poor people). Hundreds were buried in a mass grave, never having been identified, claimed or reported missing. Many died on Chicago’s South Side when the power went off due to voltage drains and they had no means to get out of their upper floor apartments (elevators were inoperable and they physically could not use the stairs), had no water and no means to keep themselves cool. Chicago passed an ordinance shortly after that require stores to remain open as harbors of refuge from the extreme heat.
Twenty-one years ago PLG and SRRT activists were working to bring climate change to the attention of ALA members. But knowledge, information, and education are no longer enough. Librarians need to be thinking of and working within our communities on action in regard to climate change. What Fred describes above is the future, plus floods, storms, fires, social tension.
Tomorrow night (July 21st) I’m joining other librarians for a Black Lives Matter demo here in Seattle. Temperatures and tempers are getting hotter, and there is work for librarians everywhere to provide harbors of refuge, spaces for dialogue. Librarians who recognize the political nature of our profession, who reject the notion of neutrality, are needed now more than ever — as individuals and as organizations. So, my question is: How can we unite in order to be strong with those we serve, as well as with one another?
Elaine, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about PLG. I think what you’ve said is very helpful in clarifying what PLG is about. I hope that it will attract new people into the organization.
I appreciate the opportunity, Rory. Your contributions to librarianship and to PLG have been considerable and I’ve no doubt will continue to be. Readers of your blog might not be aware that you and I have a longstanding, sometimes contentious, relationship. You put up PLG’s first website, got San Jose to sponsor the PLG listserv, you’ve been an editor of Progressive Librarian, a member of the Coordinating Committee, and we’ve spent countless hours at ALA dealing with all kinds of issues. Trust was broken, but now we are taking steps toward healing that break. Neither of us is perfect, neither of us has all the answers, both of us have the capacity to change. You keep an eye on my progress, and I’ll keep an eye on yours, okay? Let’s see where we are a year from now.
Beta Phi Mu, the International Library and Information Studies Honor Society, announced the 2016 scholarship and award winners at their annual business meeting and member reception. This event was held on Saturday, June 24th, in conjunction with the American Libraries Association Annual Meeting in Orlando, FL.
The Eugene Garfield Doctoral Dissertation Fellowships are $3,000 awards intended to support doctoral students who are working on their dissertations in library and information science and related fields. The 2016 winners are:
• Sarah Buchanan, University of Texas, “A Provenance Research Study of Archaeological Curation”
• Rachel Clarke, University of Washington, “It’s Not Rocket Library Science: Design Epistemology and American Librarianship”
• Wei Jeng, University of Pittsburgh, “Factors Influencing Qualitative Data-Sharing Practices in Social Sciences”
• Jinseok Kim, University of Illinois, “The Impact of Author Name Disambiguation on Knowledge Discovery from Big Scholarly Data”
• Robert Montoya, University of California, Los Angeles, “Articulating Composite Taxonomies: Epistemology and the Global Unification of Biodiversity Databases”
• Min Sook Park, Florida State University, “Exploring Social Semantic Relationships in Knowledge Representation in Health through Mining Unstructured Textual Data on Social Media”
Winners of the Sarah Rebecca Reed Scholarship for beginning library and information science students are Jennifer Dixon, studying at Pratt Institute, and Ayoola White, studying at Simmons College. The winner of the Blanche E. Woolls Scholarship for School Library Media Service, for a beginning library and information science student with an interest in school media librarianship, is Emily Fischer, studying at the University of Iowa. Each scholarship provides $2,250 of support to its recipients.
The $1,750 Harold Lancour Scholarship for Foreign Study was awarded to Natalie Baur, to help underwrite her work with a digital cultural heritage archive in Ecuador. The Archivo Cultural de Cañar is a digital archive intended to help preserve and provide access to the rich cultural heritage of the town of Cañar and the Cañari indigenous nation. Natalie holds an M.L.S. degree from the University of Maryland, with a concentration in Archives, Records, and Information Management.
The winner of the Frank B. Sessa Scholarship for the Continuing Professional Education of a Beta Phi Mu Member is Alyson Gamble, a member of Beta Zeta chapter at Louisiana State University. Currently working as a science librarian at the New College of Florida, she plans to obtain a Council of Science Editors (CSE) Publication Certificate. This certificate program requires CSE members to attend two conferences, three webinars, and two short courses before creating and presenting a research project in the form of a poster or published article. This scholarship provides $1,500 worth of support.
Beta Phi Mu was established in 1948 to recognize and encourage scholastic achievement among library and information studies students. It seeks to support the values of scholarship, leadership, and service within the library and information science profession. Beta Phi Mu is an affiliate organization of the American Library Association and is a certified member of the Association of College Honor Societies.
For more information, contact Alison Lewis, email@example.com or 215-895-5959.
We are pleased to announce the winner of the 2016 Litwin Books Award for Ongoing Dissertation Research in the Philosophy of Information. We are granting this year’s award to Robert Montoya of the UCLA Department of Information Studies, based on his dissertation project, tentatively titled, “Articulating Composite Taxonomies: Epistemology and the Global Unification of Biodiversity Databases.” Montoya’s nominating faculty member wrote:
“Our field, information studies, is often misunderstood as a field in which technocrats and managers impose standards on data or records for the purpose of implementing tasks that make it easier for people to find and use information or cultural legacy materials. This misapprehension ignores the complex and profound inquiry into the nature of knowledge models, epistemological discourse, and the historicity of these models and discourses across fields, disciplines and professions. Robert Montoya’s work on classification and nomenclature is relevant to scholars and scientists working with the identification and assessment of species viability. Perhaps more importantly for the Information Studies community, his work on classification used in the natural sciences is going to offer insights into the ways classification systems and knowledge organization meet a specific set of conditions in application and use. His dissertation should also be of interest to those working in the history of science, cultural history, bibliographical study, and discourse analysis from a philosophy of knowledge perspective.”
The award consists of a certificate suitable for framing and $1000 check.
Since this award is for ongoing research, other applicants who are still working on their dissertations will be eligible to enter their work next year, and we strongly encourage them to do so.
Human Operators: A Critical Oral History of Technology in Libraries will be a collective oral history covering many of the issues in technology in librarianship in the early 21st century. Via edited and compiled interview transcripts, readers will get to “hear” the voices of librarians and archivists discussing tech topics from perspectives that are critical, social justice-oriented, feminist, anti-racist, and ecologically-minded.
This readable, conversational book will bring out specific critiques of technology as well as more inspiring aspects of what’s going on in the instructional, open source, free culture, and maker worlds in the field. The book will be less about the technology per se and more about critical thinking around technology and how it actually works in people’s lives.
The stories that this book intends to capture may have been documented in blog posts, Twitter conversations, and academic articles, but this “oral history” will be an opportunity for them to live on in printed book form.
– Librarians and archivists who want to hear about use cases, organizational impacts, and generally how people (staff and library users alike) are affected by technology in libraries.
– Technologists who want to better understand how ideas are sparked, decisions are made, and hardware and software are deployed in libraries.
– Other readers who think about technology and society.
About the editor
Melissa Morrone is a librarian at Brooklyn Public Library and manages the Shelby White and Leon Levy Information Commons there. She is a non-technologist who has long been involved in technology (writing CMS documentation; developing and conducting training on her organization’s ILS, Internet filters, and digital privacy; giving online research workshops for activists; doing everyday public library reference and computer support) at work and elsewhere.
How to participate
Email firstname.lastname@example.org by July 31, 2016, if you’re interested in setting up an online interview to discuss your work around one or more of the following topics:
– open source ILSs and other FOSS software
– library cataloging and automation
– ebooks, DRM, and related issues
– makerspaces and digital media labs
– privacy, security, and surveillance
– technology instruction and digital literacy
– digital humanities
– digital archives
– digital reader’s advisory
– continuing education, conference codes of conduct, and other professional activities
Bring your stories, your critical librarianship, and your sociopolitical analysis to technology in libraries, and let’s talk.
As you may know if you read my interview with Mandy Henk a year ago, I am a big fan of hers. She is the author of Ecology, Economy, Equity: The Path to a Carbon-Neutral Library, published by ALA Editions, and an academic librarian now living in Auckland, New Zealand. A few days ago she gave a talk in Auckland, titled, “What is Critical Librarianship?” She gave me permission to publish her talk on this blog. So here it is….
So, I’m here to talk about critical librarianship. It’s going to really be a sort of meta talk about our professional discourse and our professional practice.
But before we get into the details I want to talk for a moment about the whys and whatnots of critical librarianship more generally. There aren’t 50 people sitting in here in this room on a Monday evening because you’re super excited to hear about a new methodological approach to LIS scholarship and practice. That is what we’re going to talk about, but first I think we need to talk frankly about why we’re really here: social justice. I don’t consider myself an LIS scholar; I write stuff, true. But I’m an activist who uses LIS scholarship, both my own and that of others, to inform my professional practice and my activism. My interest in this material, like other critical librarian-scholars, is in using it to influence the practice of this profession and to alter the fundamental relationships we have with our patrons, our vendors, and within our libraries. Critical librarianship–the application of various critical methodologies generally grounded in critical pedagogy to the study and practice of librarianship– gives us a set of tools to do that as a profession, from within our own professional discourse and practice.
Critical librarianship isn’t the first foray our profession has had into social justice issues. I don’t know enough about the history of New Zealand’s librarians to cite examples from here, but in the US we have Juliette Hampton Morgan in the civil rights movement, more recently we have the amazing work of Sanford Berman working to transform LOC subject headings, Jessmyn West in the Battle of Seattle . . . we’re a profession with a proud tradition of fighting for our patrons, all of our patrons. Where I think Critical Librarianship diverges from most of our previous tradition is its inward focus on the scholarship of the profession and its related willingness to critique our practice. I also think that Critical Librarianship is the first genuine intellectual movement from within the profession.
We never really talk about our profession as a discipline, as a site of inquiry, especially not once we finish our degrees. But it is. If we step back and take a look at how we do “research” within LIS, especially as practitioners, there are a few themes that really stick out. One, we want practical solutions. And we define “practical” as implementable–we want people to write stuff and give presentations that will tell us things that we can take back to work and use the very next day. Two, we see ourselves largely as a social science. This has implications for how we train future librarians, how we judge the quality of each others’ work, and, crucially, what kind of research we do in the first place. Finally, and I think most importantly, within mainstream library discourse we emphasize the maintenance of the status quo, we focus on how to work within a Westernized, capitalist, global economy and in doing so define the perspectives of other kinds of librarians, who might operate from within very different paradigms and very different knowledge systems, as unserious and not worthy of genuine consideration. We marginalize them. And in doing so we reduce the range of views within the profession to our great detriment.
At the same time, we also define away work that has the potential to be truly revolutionary. Work that critiques the impact of neoliberalism on our libraries. Work that analyzes the impact of managerialism, of a ruthless focus on the utilitarian, becomes “not serious.” It becomes no longer part of the core discourse of the profession. When we allow this to happen, we abrogate our responsibility, our public trust, instead transforming ourselves into bureaucrats of the books. We squander our own revolutionary potential and the potential of this institution itself.
Critical librarianship, as an intellectual movement within LIS offers a means of critiquing these larger forces that impact upon our libraries and our information system.
So let’s look at the objections to introducing this kind of work into our professional discourse. First, practicality. Practicality is a problematic dictate in research because it serves to limit our scope of inquiry–if we must present a solution each time we define a problem, our ability to articulate the problems in our profession and that our profession faces is greatly curtailed. The mandate of practicality stifles our professional range and scope. In doing so it leaves an enormous range of problems unarticulated. Unarticulated problems can NEVER be addressed. Because they are unrecognized, at least officially in the literature, they get redefined as what the late great Douglas Adams called SEPs–Someone Else’s Problem. You’ll remember the SEP field from Hitchhiker’s Guide? In the Hitchhikers world an SEP can run for years on a single torch battery and, once erected, renders things completely invisible, as Ford tells Arthor, “An SEP is something that we can’t see, or don’t see, because we think it is Somebody Else’s Problem. . . . The brain just edits it out, like a blind spot.”
To give an example of how this plays out, take a look at the scholarship surrounding “greening libraries.” I assume it isn’t going to come as news to anyone here that climate change is the most urgent problem facing humanity today. And yet, the so far half-hearted project to decarbonize the information system is almost entirely absent from our professional literature. Instead we talk about recycling. A lot. And green book mobiles. And sustainability oriented programming. And building collections that support researchers who do climate research. What we don’t talk about, what we don’t question–is why, when we evaluate new electronic resources, we don’t include any criteria about the impact of those resources on the environment. It’s an SEP, and so we don’t talk about it.
I think that part of the reason we don’t talk about it relates back to the second point: our understanding of ourselves as a social science. And by that I mean that we privilege certain methodological approaches that are commonly used within the social sciences. Namely, we have a bias and a tendency to privilege positivist methodologies. Positivist approaches are what we teach in our research methods courses, articles using them comprise the vast majority of our professional literature–it’s even embedded in the name of our discipline: Library Science. And I do think positivism has a place. Positivist methodologies are good tools–but they can only build certain kinds of knowledge. Surveys, case studies, data analysis–these are methodologies that can only tell certain kinds of stories. And those stories often need telling, but in privileging them so greatly within our professional literature, we are walking away from other kinds of stories, ones that are just as, if not more, compelling.
Let’s look at two articles on roughly the same topic, from different authors using different methodologies. I’ve altered the first abstract substantially because I think it would be a jerk move to call out anyone specific and that’s not my goal here. Variations of that article have been published at least a dozen times. The first article I found in LISTA, which is the primary index for scholarship for the LIS discipline in the United States. It’s where library students, LIS researchers, and practitioners go when they want to answer the question “What does the literature say?” The second I heard about in a presentation at a conference. It is not discoverable through LISTA– It’s already been literally excluded from the professional literature. This exclusion has erected an SEP field around it.
Let’s look at the first abstract in more detail. This article was published in a major LIS journal; one that has all kinds of fancy bibliometrics. If I told you the title, you’d recognize it.
So it’s a survey, right?
It tells a story that goes like this:
The demographic make-up of the US is changing and yet the demographic make-up of LIS professionals is not. To best serve our clients in the future, we should bring in more librarians of color. Work-life balance plays an important role in attracting and retaining employees, so understanding what influences the work-life balance of current librarians of color is an important step on the road to attracting more into the profession.
The problem is that in telling this particular story, other stories that we could and should be telling are obscured–the more so when we consider that this story is the one in the prestigious journal. In telling this particular story, a number of important issues are buried behind the facade of the “neutral and objective observer.” The stories that this article can’t tell–and that we should be telling as a profession — require that we step out of our “methodological comfort zone.” They require us to reimagine what it is we are doing when we do “research” and in our practice.
So, the fundamental buried issue in this article, and other articles like it, is that it makes an important assumption–namely that the problem of race in LIS is representational. The argument goes like this–Libraries serve a racially and ethnically diverse range of clients, so librarians themselves should reflect this diversity. The problem is the embedded assumption that by changing one particular variable–the number of librarians from traditionally marginalized groups, you thereby change the profession in such a way as to cause it to better serve that clientele. This might be an accurate assumption, but if you look at this critically, there are more than a few holes. We can turn to the second article to see a critique of this kind of thinking: By focusing on numbers, we deflect attention away from genuinely liberatory struggles. The consequence of the problem has been redefined as the problem. In other words, by examining how to get more librarians from traditionally marginalized groups, we have neglected to ask why there are so few in the first place. This neglect is by no means benign –it absolves us of our obligation as human beings to examine the systems of oppression and domination that we have created and in which we are complicit. Critical methodologies force us to confront these systems and transform them from Someone Else’s Problem back to where they rightfully belong–at the forefront of our analysis about our own profession.
The production of articles of the first sort poses a set of challenges to us as scholars that are fairly easily resolved within the context of the neoliberal university. The problem is one of training. To do this kind of work you need to learn a set of rules, how to use some mathematical software, and then the proper structure to use when writing up your data. It’s the kind of teaching that the contemporary university most prefers: training. Articles of the second sort pose a much more serious pedagogical challenge. To do this kind of analysis requires a deep understanding, a transformation of the consciousness, most especially in those whose relationship with power has been largely obscured by their own place at the top of the hierarchy. It requires education, transformative education– of the sort that university administrators are currently working feverishly to eliminate.
But this also brings us to our third point. Articles of the first sort have an even more basic assumption hidden within them: That the only, or most “appropriate” response to finding ourselves embedded within a mysterious situation where important members of the human community are excluded from practicing our profession–or opts out of it–is not to transform the larger system itself. Instead it is to document this exclusion and then tweak some variable–to alter some portion of this system while leaving the larger structures of domination intact. It removes the structures of oppression from analysis and in doing misplaces the onus of reform on to others–often those victimized in the first place. Or it results in calls for library administrators to eliminate “discrimination” without offering a roadmap that would allow an administrator so inclined to recognize and understand what discrimination looks like and how it is perpetuated within a library environment. In other words, despite claims to practicality, it offers empty solutions, ones destined to fail.
More than that though, by placing this kind of work at the center of our professional literature, we turn away and turn off those who are most likely to see through it, to see its fundamental failures– librarians who themselves come from marginalized backgrounds: indigenous librarians, Black librarians, librarians from places burdened with a history of colonization. By privileging a form of analysis that anyone whose experience with power is not wielding it but rather having it wielded upon them, can see is insufficient, we marginalize their experiences and force them to become complicit in the very structures of their oppression if they want to join our work. By defining “scholarship” so narrowly, so tightly, we put everyone into a methodological straightjacket, one that not only limits the scope of analysis, but also of voice. We place upon those who stay an undue burden–that of explaining to us why our professional literature is inadequate, why we keep grappling with the same problems over and over again without making real progress. Or they are left with the choice to remain silent, which itself comes at a personal price.
As librarians we find ourselves at the front lines of the neoliberal attack on public services and goods. At the front lines of the enclosure of the information commons and the transition of the scholarly record into a commodity to be sold and resold for private profit. Only by bringing critical methodologies to bear on this problem can we hope to develop a counter narrative, one that has the potential embedded within to transform the system. Only by creating this counter narrative can we stand in solidarity with others across public life who are fighting on other front lines. We do a good job at sharing tips and techniques to do our jobs, but our responsibility as professionals goes beyond that: We are also obligated to examine the systems that we work within and to work to bring them into a more just state.
So that’s my perspective on what critical librarianship is and why it’s important–but I want to pull around to practice. I’m a practicing librarian. I teach workshops, build online teaching materials, buy books, answer reference questions . . . and I think critical librarianship should be as much about practicing librarians as about the scholarship side. I don’t actually think that the scholarship side and practice side are separable. This is work that those who practice the profession of librarianship should both do themselves and should incorporate into their daily work. As human beings we are always operating within a power structure of some sort. If we fail to critically examine that structure, if we try to ignore it and go about our lives as though it doesn’t impact us or our work–we are susceptible to becoming subsumed within it. We become complicit. Our humanity requires active resistance. We are not only workers. We are human beings and citizens.
Which brings around to what we can do, how we start to do this work if it isn’t already part of our professional lives. For those who don’t know me, I’m an anarchist and my preferred methods are prefigurative, meaning that I believe that structures that we create to fight injustice should themselves reflect the kind of society we want to build. For me, I want to see us work together–mutual aid– to do the kind of study that we need to do to do this work well. Rigor matters and by working together and building communities of inquiry and practice, communities defined by equality, solidarity, and democracy, we can learn a new methodology and apply it to our work. We can do things like workshop our projects, have reading groups, discussion groups. We can participate in the international conversation surrounding this kind of work–there are regular Twitter meet-ups and discussions. More and more journals are being founded to publish this work. The pace of book publishing is quickening in this area. There are a large number of people coming together across the globe right now to support each other in this work. I’m still very new here, but I have absolute confidence that if we work together to figure out how to support each other, we can create strong communities of practice and inquiry that can do the kind of work that we need to do to transform the information system and our libraries. To help us to realize the liberatory potential of our profession and of the institution each of us has dedicated their working life to building.
Shaundra Walker is the Associate Director for Instruction and Research Services at Georgia College. She holds a B.A. in History from Spelman College, a Masters in Library and Information Studies from Clark Atlanta University and Ph.D. in educational leadership with a concentration in higher education administration from Mercer University. Her work and research in libraries and education is deeply influenced by her experience attending and working in minority serving institutions. Her research interests include the recruitment and retention of diverse librarians and organizational development within the library. Dr. Walker is teaching a class for Library Juice Academy next month, titled, Cultural Competence for the Academic Librarian. She has agreed to be interviewed about this course and her background for teaching it. [Read the interview…]
Ramsey Kanaan of AK Press and PM Press talked to Derrick Jensen on Resistance Radio again. (You can listen to a previous interview from August 16, 2015.)
Resistance Radio introduces him thusly:
Ramsey Kanaan has been involved in attempting to disseminate the good word for well over three and a half decades now. As a young teenager, he founded AK Press (named after his mothers initials) from his bedroom in Scotland. Hes co-founder and Publisher with PM Press. You can check out his current efforts at www.pmpress.org. Today we talk about the collapse of the book industry, and the implications for social change.
Don’t worry about the animal sounds at the beginning of the program. That’s how Jensen introduces his shows, instead of using theme music.
CHICAGO – The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) is pleased to announce that Nicole Pagowsky, research and learning librarian/ instruction coordinator at the University of Arizona, has been chosen to receive the 2016 University Libraries Sections (ULS) Outstanding Professional Development Award.
The $1,000 award and plaque, donated by Library Juice Academy, will be presented to Pagowsky at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida.
“Though early in her career, Nicole Pagowsky has made a significant impact to academic librarianship through broad professional engagement, scholarship, and service,” said award Chair Rebecca Blakiston of the University of Arizona. “In addition to being active in social media and professional blogging, Nicole has already co-edited two books, taught an ALA eCourse, presented an ACRL webinar, created the ACRL student retention Discussion Group, presented as a keynote speaker at a state library conference, initiated #critlib chats, and organized the first Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium. She has initiated and provided innovative opportunities for the professional growth of librarians nationwide. As librarianship continues to advance, it is library leaders such as Nicole Pagowsky who act as proactive agents of change and provide the necessary support for successful information professionals.”
Pagowsky received her M.A. in Information Resources and Library Science and M.S. in Educational Technology and Instructional Design from the University of Arizona.
For more information regarding the ACRL ULS Outstanding Professional Development Award, please visit the awards section of the ACRL website.
The Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) is the higher education association for librarians. Representing more than 11,000 academic and research librarians and interested individuals, ACRL (a division of the American Library Association) develops programs, products and services to help academic and research librarians learn, innovate and lead within the academic community. Founded in 1940, ACRL is committed to advancing learning and transforming scholarship. ACRL is on the Web at www.acrl.org/, Facebook at www.facebook.com/ala.acrl and Twitter at @ala_acrl.
About Library Juice Academy
Library Juice Academy offers a range of online professional development workshops for librarians and other library staff, focusing on practical topics to build the skills that librarians need as their jobs evolve. With customers in 30 countries and 100 courses in the catalog, Library Juice Academy is bringing online continuing education to a new level. Library Juice Academy is online at http://libraryjuiceacademy.com/.
Alison Macrina is a librarian, privacy rights activist, and the founder and director of the Library Freedom Project, an initiative which aims to make real the promise of intellectual freedom in libraries by teaching librarians and their local communities about surveillance threats, privacy rights and law, and privacy-protecting technology tools to help safeguard digital freedoms. Alison is teaching a class for Library Juice Academy next month, called Everything to Hide: A Toolkit for Protecting Patrons’ Digital Privacy. She has agreed to do an interview here, to tell people about the class and also to talk about the Library Freedom Project.
Hi Alison, thanks for agreeing to do this interview.
Hi Rory, thanks for having me.
I want to start by asking you to briefly describe the Library Freedom Project and a bit about how it got started.
Library Freedom Project is an initiative to bring practical privacy education and tools into libraries and the communities they serve. We teach librarians about threats to privacy from government, corporate, and criminal actors, privacy law and our responsibility to protect privacy, and privacy-enhancing technology tools that can be installed on library PCs or taught to patrons in computer classes. We work closely with the ACLU — particularly the ACLU of Massachusetts — and with The Tor Project, who are the technologists building a few of the privacy technologies we recommend.
I started Library Freedom Project after Edward Snowden began his revelations about mass surveillance in the summer of 2013. The Snowden revelations showed me that the problem was much more massive than any of us could have imagined — and this includes those of us who opposed the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act back in 2002. I was working as a library technologist at the time, and I saw libraries as the ideal places to fight back against this kind of pervasive surveillance. For one, we have a historic commitment to privacy and recognize the relationship it has to intellectual freedom and censorship. We’re often the only spaces offering free computer instruction classes, and our computer terminals are for many their only computer access. Furthermore, libraries have long prioritized service to marginalized populations — such as immigrants, Muslims, people of color, formerly incarcerated people, and people who are or have been homeless — and we know that surveillance affects these populations much more significantly than the general population. So it seemed to me an obvious way of combining our values and our commitment to our communities with a very real social need, and I began traveling around my home state of Massachusetts with staff of the Massachusetts ACLU, training librarians on surveillance resistance.
Is the training you’re giving them similar to what you’ll be teaching in your class with us?
There are overlapping topics, yes. But the class will cover a lot more ground.
So what will the class cover?
The class will start with some of the issues around surveillance and privacy, as well as threat modeling — understanding the capabilities of our adversaries and determining which particular ways we want to protect ourselves. We will cover many of the ways in which the internet is a hostile and insecure place. Then we will learn how to use the technology, getting into more advanced topics like PGP for email and OTR for chat.
Full disclosure: I’m planning to sit in on your class, because I want to learn about these things. I’m a little embarrassed to tell you, but I think I’m typical of librarians in that I am aware of privacy issues in general but tend not to do much to address the problem in my own work life. I use Google services heavily, along with Dropbox and Evernote, often for important things. I anticipate that your course will help me feel empowered and encouraged to make changes in my own work life, as well as to equip me to help others. Do you find when you do trainings that you have that effect on librarians? What are your thoughts on that?
I don’t think that’s something to be embarrassed about. You’re where most people are. And I do find that our trainings are empowering, because at the very least they give people a framework to understand these issues, and they can start making small, meaningful changes immediately. Privacy is ultimately about control, and the loss of that control can feel very discouraging. Taking back even a little of it certainly helps people combat their feelings of despair.
You’ve been doing the trainings for a little while now. What are some of the common issues that come up, that you expect to address in the class? What are some of the more problematic issues?
There are a great number of challenges — pretty much all of this information is new to the participants, the issues around privacy and surveillance are too big to know, the problems are massive, and the adversaries are powerful. Plus, most people are nontechnical (not an insult) and privacy-enhancing technologies can be more difficult than technologies that trade privacy for convenience. I will try to address those issues in the class the way that I do whenever I teach: people should know that even small changes can be significant, and that security is a process. The internet is a hostile place, and we have a lot of work to do to overcome that, but we can be successful if we take it one step at a time, adopt new strategies and get comfortable with them, and then move on to something new when we’re ready.
I just want to clarify that when you say “the internet is a hostile place,” you’re not talking about people who are assholes in the comment section; you are talking about spyware and things like that, right? In your experience, are we less than fully aware of the extent of the hostility you’re referring to?
Well, in some ways I do mean both. There are hostile individuals who want to dox feminists and marginalized people online, and they use some of the same resources that the intelligence agencies do. But mostly I mean that the internet was never designed to be secure or private, and the adversaries have so much power. People are DEFINITELY unaware of the extent of the hostility, and who can blame them? So much of it is invisible. For example, most people don’t know that Flash is ridiculously hostile, because they go on using it. Most people don’t know that leaving your software updates for days or weeks or longer is putting you in a lot of danger of exploitation. Most people — even those who followed the Snowden leaks — don’t have any idea of the capabilities of the intelligence agencies and how those are used against real people in our communities. I honestly don’t know anyone who knows the full extent of the internet’s hostility, because so much of the internet is essentially secret — proprietary, closed source technology that can’t be examined for security flaws or malicious code, and agencies that operate under incredible secrecy. Fortunately, the technology exists to protect us — but making that mainstream is its own Herculean task. That’s why libraries are the right places to teach this stuff. We have to make it mainstream.
It strikes me that we’re still under the strong influence of an idealistic cyber-utopian vision of the internet, as a technology that links the world together benevolently. What you’re saying is that people need to be made aware that the opposite is true, and that libraries should have a central role in teaching people to defend themselves in an environment that we formerly cherished for its openness. Is that right? If so, what does it mean for the library ideal of information sharing? I mean, I remember Sandy Berman quoted as saying, “I can’t have information I know would be of interest to someone and not share it.” Privacy education is about teaching people how not to share information. Is there a tension here, and do you think it reflects changing times?
The internet does need to be open, but that doesn’t mean that individuals should be exploited by its openness. I believe in transparency for governments and corporations, and privacy for individuals. There doesn’t need to be a tension, because you can define it easily across those lines. Libraries have long recognized this — providing information access has *never* meant “freely handing over patron records to the police with no warrant”; we know that privacy and intellectual freedom depend on one another. And Sandy Berman, bless him, maybe didn’t consider how much advertisers might want information about his lifestyle habits, his intellectual interests, and his associations, and maybe he didn’t consider how they’d use that information to shape public opinion and filter the results we get on the web — thus making it less open and free. He also probably didn’t imagine that those advertisers would use means totally hidden to the average user…not exactly openness or transparency. Furthermore, he probably never thought about how secretive and powerful intelligence agencies would grow in the Global War on Terror-era, to the point where they, too, have access to all that advertising data, plus anything else we share with a third party, plus a whole lot of other stuff too.
Now, simultaneously, my belief in a free and open internet means that I value free and open source software — software where the source code is shared openly and can be scrutinized for security holes or other privacy threats — thus making it the best option for people who want to defend against these adversaries. Using FOSS protects internet freedom, including privacy, and is one way we can make the internet a more democratic place.
Thank you, you’ve drawn the key distinctions that I needed.
So the Library Freedom Project trains librarians to do patron education about privacy. I wonder if you’re also interested in addressing library policies around patron privacy. What are some of the issues there? And is that within the scope of the project?
Yes, but we are a tiny organization and so we haven’t been able to make this a priority. I did help a small amount with the best practices guidelines created by the Intellectual Freedom Committee and the LITA Patron Privacy Interest Group. The guidelines address some of the major issues — that is, we’ve given 3rd party vendors so much access to patron data, we have not demanded secure transmission and storage, and so on. That’s how we wound up with the Adobe breach, something that we should be deeply ashamed of as information professionals. It seems to me that in our push to get more electronic content for our patrons, we left privacy out of our policies and contracts almost entirely, and now that’s come back to bite us.
Right after you answered that question you did a webinar, which I attended. I noticed that in your presentation you were addressing the librarians in attendance as the users of the tools, rather than explicitly as patron educators, or stewards of patrons’ privacy. It probably isn’t a meaningful difference, because either way the librarians need to know the tools they are going to be teaching. But in teaching to an audience of librarians as direct users of the tools, you assumed a degree of motivation that may not be as high as it is for political activists whom librarians may find themselves helping as patrons. Not that privacy isn’t something everyone should be interested in, but I know that in my case, if I decided to get involved with Deep Green Resistance I would start to get very concerned about privacy and would want to use Tor and PGP a lot, when in the course of my daily work I am not concerned to that degree. How do you navigate that issue in teaching and doing in-depth workshops? Are there any issues that have a different shape depending on whether the librarians are the users of the tools or the stewards and educators?
Well, when I only have 15 minutes to speak, my approach is quite different than when I have an hour or more. Also, I don’t think I was really addressing the librarians only as users of the tools — I referred back to April’s part of the presentation frequently, mentioning how tracking affects our communities, etc. I can’t really get into teaching strategies in a 15 minute presentation, but some of the resources I referred to on our site include a teacher’s guide.
I’m also not really sure what you mean about assuming a degree of motivation — people showed up to a webinar about privacy, which tells you something already about the motivation they have in learning about privacy tools. I don’t think it’s wrong to believe that they are thus motivated to, you know, do what I suggest that they do. Also, it is my experience that librarians are HIGHLY motivated to help their communities protect their privacy — whether those community members are political activists or domestic violence survivors or whatever. Librarians are service-minded people, and they tend to care very much about the ways their patrons are affected by privacy issues. April brought up a lot of those issues in the first half of the presentation — for example, how advertisers use algorithms to target people of color with predatory lending ads. If there are librarians who hear about how these issues affect our communities in serious ways, and they still don’t care to help them…I’m not really sure what to tell those librarians, frankly.
Also, our longer trainings go into much more detail about specific threats, cover a much wider range of tools, and offer teaching strategies as well. In those in-depth trainings, we cover the reasons why all people, not just political activists or people with more serious threats, have a reason to use these tools. For example, you mention PGP encryption. Maybe you’re unmotivated to use it, but if I explained to you how insecure and nonprivate email is, you might change your tune. You surely have had to send tax forms or other sensitive material over email, and that is incredibly unsafe without PGP encryption. Tor Browser also might seem like too much for you, but if you knew how much advertisers, analytics companies, A/B testers, and the like were collecting information about you and using it to filter your web content and create an information profile about you to sell you products, you again might feel differently. Those are only two examples. My assumption in teaching librarians is always that they are both users and teachers of the tools, because in order to be good teachers, they have to use the tools themselves and understand them.
That makes good sense. It will be good to see how you get into issues of patron education in more depth in the class. Patron education, and do you also get into issues of ensuring greater privacy for patrons in their use of the internet in the library? I recall you mentioning in the webinar that you have helped a couple of libraries install Tor on public computers. Is that a complicated thing, as far as getting admin to go along with it? Do you find issues with untraceable, anonymous services? I am thinking of this because I remember hearing a story about something that happened at my last place of work. There was a patron who used a public computer to send a serious threat, and the IT department tracked the computer using its IP, and then used the surveillance footage to ID him, and the police ultimately made an arrest. I know that the people in IT and in the admin office, at that place anyway, were interested in helping law enforcement, and they didn’t hesitate to violate the patron’s privacy in order to help the police. And in this case, he wasn’t just exercising his first amendment rights. I am pretty sure that at that library the administration would be reluctant to install a system that got in the way of their cooperative relationship with law enforcement. That’s not very nice to think about, but I bet it is common. Have you ever gotten pushback about things like installing Tor on a public terminal?
Yep, I will talk about teaching strategies. And yes, half the point of teaching these tools is trying to get libraries to install them on public PCs. As for the difficulty in getting admin to agree to things like that, it really depends on the library itself. Some libraries have agreed immediately — like the library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, where we installed our first Tor relay. Their board and director agreed to join the project unanimously. Others are harder to convince, but as more and more libraries start making this a norm, it won’t be as hard.
As for the situation you outline, that sort of activity is exceedingly rare, and most libraries will never have to deal with something like that. But what is incredibly common is that our communities face surveillance threats every time they use the internet, from pervasive advertising to overzealous intelligence agencies, and all the malware and criminal hacking that comes with using insecure tools. A browser that makes it easy for the police to identify the source of criminal activity also makes it easy for a domestic violence survivor to be tracked by her abuser, or for a poor person to be targeted by predatory lending schemes, or for children to be followed by malicious people, or for anyone to have their online activity tracked step by step. That is not a free internet, but an internet ruled by adversaries. That worries me much more than the rare occurrence of criminal activity on library computers. Furthermore, criminals have many options, because they are willing to break the law to achieve their ends — they can use proxies or spoof MAC addresses or find some other way of conducting their activities. Other people who need privacy don’t have those options, and we should prioritize their needs, because there are many more of them than there are criminals. It is of course a risk to give people the freedom of anonymity online, but in a democracy, we are often confronted with such decisions. As the ALA Freedom to Read Statement says: freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.
Thanks for saying all of this so well. I’ve been provoking you a little bit and I’m really glad that you’ve said all of this. I’m excited that you’re going to be teaching this class for us, and I hope you keep inspiring people to take control of their online privacy. Thanks for the interview.
Thanks Rory. I am really excited to teach the class — I’ve never had the chance to teach so many people over such a long course of time — and I’m excited to see what we can all learn from each other.