November 12, 2015

What about the iceberg?

by Emily Drabinski

I spend a lot of time in critical librarian spaces. I am an active tweeter in the #critlib community. I’m organizing a colloquium on critical perspectives on gender and sexuality in the field (abstracts due Monday!) and edit a related book series. I’m working on a talk this spring about critical pedagogy in a time of compliance, trying to figure out how to make social change happen in contexts that sometimes make that feel impossible. I have lately been struck by the relative smallness of our conversations, and feel myself straining to talk more about bigger pictures, to understand the structures that produce the problems and solutions that we engage.

Last week, I talked about critical librarianship at the Charleston Conference. Rachel Fleming (Appalachian State University), Nora Almeida (New York City College of Technology, CUNY), and I developed a “Lively Lunch” presentation titled #critchs, an effort to rough out a frame of what would constitute a critical acquisitions and technical services activist agenda. As we brainstormed topics, I was struck by how much the issues we defined—open access and open educational resources, consolidation in the vendor marketplace, the relentless desire for universal technical solutions to complex and contingent human problems—were the same issues that mainstream librarianship takes up again and again. Ours was hardly the only time set aside to discuss OERs.

The same issue crops up when we talk about critical information literacy. If the self-consciously political project is simply one of replacing rote lectures with guide-on-the-side active learning, well, that’s what they teach in Immersion, about as mainstream as professional work gets. What can a critical or political librarianship offer the field that is potentially transformative of librarianship and the world?

Charleston was a particularly apropos location for these thoughts. Walking between the conference hotels and the sessions at the Gaillard Center took us right past Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, site of the horrific murders nine people engaged in prayer. We walked right past it, on our way to coffee and meetings and drinks with vendors. Organizer Katina Stauch offered a moment of silence as the conference began, and opening keynote Courtney Young pointed to Emanuel AME as a sign of how much more work there is to do in terms of disrupting and upending white supremacy. But then we did what people always do, we went about our business.

Of course, the uncomfortable conjunction of past and present in Charleston is much older than that. The city’s port was the entry point for more than 40% of enslaved African people forcibly transported to North America. (The National Park Service site at Fort Moultrie chooses to tell the story of America’s coastal defense history instead.) Plantations surround the city, pitching themselves as sites of genteel Southern grandeur rather than as the sites of America’s evil origin story. Cabins built to house enslaved people in the 1840s—small, overcrowded, without heat or running water—remained in use until the 1990s, when they were steps from the bank branches and gas stations of the outskirts of town. History is very present in Charleston, as it is everywhere, but distinctly so for me in this place I had never seen before. Sure, Charleston has a hot restaurant scene and cool film festival. But I could feel the blood oozing up from the sidewalk. It was difficult not to know where I was.

But what does this have to do with open educational resources or library classrooms? For me, Charleston was another reminder that the field could stand to look up from our close reading of library problems to the social, political, and economic forces that structure those issues for us. A call to more critically engaged teaching librarianship emerges simultaneous with the adjunctification of higher education, including librarianship, demanding more from people being paid less and less. We talk a lot about digital humanities and open access online publishing, but a lot less about extractive industries and electronic waste. We want to make lifelong learners, but what are we doing to extend those lives, to address premature death caused by maldistribution of wealth and white supremacy? How does the future of libraries account for the radically different futures we face depending on the historical forces that have structured our presents?

There’s always something parochial about a professional conference, of course, especially one with a narrow focus. The opportunity to talk among ourselves about the issues of our daily work lives matters. (How *are* people dealing with reference stats these days, anyway?) But in these spaces, I’d like to think bigger about what critical and political librarianship has to offer the field. At its best, I think this means richer analyses of the structural issues beyond our conference rooms and vendor dinners. We can’t talk about the Big Deal without talking about capitalism. We can’t talk about student learning without talking about student debt. If we want a librarianship that does more than embroider a pincushion while the Titanic goes down, we must generate a better account of the iceberg.