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Critical Approaches to Libraries Conference, May 2020

Last week, I attended the first ever Critical Approaches to Libraries Conference (CALC). This was meant to have been hosted at Coventry University, however due to lockdown, the event was shifted to be fully online.

This was my first ever online conference, and I thought it was brilliant! The organisers (the ever-awesome Michelle Bond and Darren Flynn), did a phenomenal job setting up the online conference, reorganising everything to enable it to take place online, and moderating the whole day.

I took copious notes throughout the day, and have plenty to follow up on. Recordings are now available on the conference website. So I’m not going to recap the content of the presentations here. Instead, I thought I’d share my overall impressions and key takeaways from each presentation I attended.

Opening keynote: Quinn Roache

The opening keynote was from Quinn Roache, Policy Officer for LGBT+ and Disabled Workers at the Trades Union Congress. H discussed the research the TUC has conducted into workplace discrimination experienced by disabled workers and LGBT+ people. The findings shared were sobering, if not surprising! I won’t recap them here, but I strongly recommend reading both reports:

One of the things that struck me most from Quinn’s talk was his mention, early on, of the concept “nothing about us, without us”. This is a key slogan of the disability rights movement, and it emphasises the importance of involving marginalised communities in both research and decision making. Quinn mentioned that whenever he sees research conducted about disabled people, for example, and no people with disabilities are represented on the research group, that raises questions.

I think this is something that we in libraries would do well to remember. Librarianship as a profession is overwhelmingly white and middle class. There is always a risk that we fall into the trap of being well-intentioned white ladies imposing “solutions” on a community that we haven’t consulted and can’t speak for.

The other thing that stood out for me was the importance of unions! I’ve been a member of Unison since starting work at the University of Huddersfield, but this is the first workplace I’ve been at where there was a recognised union that I could join. The difference in working in a unionised workplace is striking – the pay, benefits and job security are miles ahead of anywhere else I’ve ever worked. We’re in for some rough times ahead, in probably every workplace and sector, so there’s never been a more important time to join a union, and get actively involved to help stand up collectively for better workplace protections.

Ageism and Libraries – Sheila Webber

The first parallel session I attended was Sheila Webber’s excellent talk on ageism in libraries. Sheila noted that although people can experience ageism at any age, drawing from personal experience she would focus on ageism experienced by older people.

Sheila noted how easy it is to slip into negative stereotypes about age, particularly about older women. She noted that information literacy and media literacy initiatives tend to focus on the information needs and habits of young people. Where older people are discussed it tends to be using a deficit model, and casual ageism is common in discussions about fake news (e.g. assuming technical illiteracy).

In discussing ageism in the workplace, Sheila noted that because the powerful people in an organisation tend to be older, that can lead us to assume that all older people are powerful. In fact, older people can be discriminated against for not having “moved up” the hierarchy. It’s assumed that as you get older you should have moved into management positions, so if you haven’t done this then it must be because you are lazy/incompetent.

It strikes me that this must be an issue for libraries, which tend to have flat hierarchies and little room for progression! I’ve certainly seen unpleasant, thoughtless comments about older librarians “blocking” posts that could be held by younger, newer professionals.

Read at Leicester – Heena Karavadra

Unfortunately Heena was unable to deliver her presentation in person due to illness, but thankfully she’d been able to record it in advance, so during the session we watched the video and then had a short discussion amongst ourselves. I was really interested in this presentation as I am jointly responsible for the leisure reading collection at Huddersfield, HudReads, so am really keen to learn from other academic libraries who have leisure reading collections.

The Read at Leicester collection grew out of an initiative that had been running for a few years, where the University had provided a copy each of the same book for each new first year student, to provide a shared reading experience. When the funding for this scheme ran out, Heena wanted to keep the interest in leisure reading going by setting up a permanent collection within the library.

Heena started by repurposing fiction that was already in the library (and not on any reading lists) and moving this into a new, prominent location. However, she quickly found that this did not result in a diverse, representative collection! So she approached the alumni association to request funding to allow the library to purchase some more diverse books for the collection. As the funding had to be spent by the end of the academic year, she did not have time to consult library users for suggestions, so selected the stock herself.

However, she was able to argue successfully for additional funding for the 2019/20 academic year, which enabled her to set up Represent, a scheme which collected suggestions for diverse literature from students and staff at the University (Heena noted the inspiration from Huddersfield’s Broaden my Bookshelf campaign, which made me happy – we’re very proud of this scheme!).

It was interesting to hear that Heena had experienced many of the same challenges with Read at Leicester as we have experienced with HudReads. In particular, the challenges of promoting the collection: despite a prominent location, a survey of library users found only 42% were aware of the collection. We found something similar with a survey of our own users last year!

Heena also discussed some ongoing challenges with format, such as deciding whether or not to buy foreign language materials, or ebooks or audiobooks (the latter two being particularly important now that physical collections are inaccessible due to COVID19!).

At Huddersfield we made the decision to only buy print for HudReads, due to the cost and availability of fiction in digital formats. Instead, we promote the online collections available from the local public library service, which has a much larger online fiction collection than we could hope to build! It will be interesting to see if Leicester, or any other academic libraries with fiction/popular reading collections make a different decision on this.

Sick systems: is cruelty the point of HE? Hannah Hickman

My last session of the morning was Hannah Hickman’s excellent discussion forum about “sick systems” in the context of Higher Education. I hadn’t come across the concept of sick systems before, but having now explored this concept a bit, I can absolutely see how it applies to HE! Sick systems are defined by four criteria:

  1. Keep people too busy to think
  2. Keep people tired
  3. Keep people emotionally invested
  4. Reward people intermittently

(I should note that I can also think of at least one former workplace that was not in HE where all these criteria applied, so I don’t think any of these problems are exclusive to HE!)

Hannah discussed the fact that value in education is tied to constant assessments, both for students and staff. For students, your grades are linked to your future employability, but this is undermined by a combination of grade inflation and a depressed job market. She referred to this as “cruel optimism”: attachment to outcomes that are either toxic, or simply impossible to meet.

For institutions, there is the tyranny of metrics! E.g. the REF and TEF. These exercises remove all human factors from research and teaching, and boil success down to easy to measure, but ultimately meaningless (and easily manipulated) factors. I recently came across the concept of the McNamara fallacy, which this seems a perfect example of!

After Hannah’s initial overview of the topic, we were split into breakout rooms to discuss the topic, and if we could see a way forward for HE institutions. From our group’s discussion, two main points stick out in my memory. The first is about 24/7 library opening, which Hannah had mentioned in her opening talk. It’s arguable that 24/7 availability of libraries upholds the idea that work, study and productivity are and should be your main priorities, and there is never a reason not to be working.

I have often wondered this myself: does 24/7 library provision enable unhealthy study habits, e.g. all-nighters? However, I am also well aware that for many students (e.g. those with caring responsibilities, shift workers, etc.), overnight may be the only time they have available to study, and many do not have the space (physical or mental) to be able to do so from home. So would removing this option be a paternalistic attempt to manage our students’ health for them, while also disadvantaging those who were already marginalised?

This made me think of the situation we were in just before the initial UK lockdown was announced, where in many cases university libraries were remaining open (albeit with reduced staff/hours) while the rest of the campus was closed. The rationale sometimes given for this was that without libraries, many students would have no way to complete their work. This was certainly true, but it struck me as reinforcing the impression that even in the face of a global pandemic, there was no reason to miss a deadline or prioritise something other than work or study.

The other point was about the effect we can have as individuals within the system. On a personal level, I know I have in the past tried to reassure scared and worried students that their worth is not tied to assessments or grades – but then they’re immediately spat back into a system (HE, but also CAPITALISM) that will and does judge them on this basis. So is there much we can really do on an individual level when we’re all inside a broken and cruel system?

Needless to say, we didn’t actually come up with any answers to any of this! But it was an excellent discussion, and I’ve found the concept of sick systems to be a helpful way of framing some of the aspects of HE that I find troubling.

Afternoon keynote: Dr Zainab Naqvi

The title of the afternoon keynote was “Academic libraries: a critical postcolonial feminist perspective”, which got my attention straight away! And the talk more than lived up to the title.

Dr Zainab Naqvi is Senior Lecturer in Law at Leicester De Montfort Law School. She started her keynote by talking about how her feminism and her antiracist practice informs her legal scholarship (she is editor of the journal Feminist Legal Studies). She said something great near the start of her talk about tending to go and research things that make her annoyed!

She said far too much for me to recap in enough detail to do justice to here, so I strongly recommend watching the recording. This twitter thread is also a good summary of the key points.

My key takeaways from the session: we need to remember that libraries are historically sites of colonisation, rooted in harmful ideologies, enforced assimilation and oppression. Education and knowledge production were key tools of colonisation, used to divide communities and instil the belief that white, western knowledge was logical, objective and neutral, and therefore the only acceptable form.

Citation is a political act, and the focus in academia on citing peer-reviewed scholarship excludes marginalised voices. If students look outside of conventionally published academic work and seek out marginalised voices, is this critical work recognised by lecturers, or will they be penalised for it?

Libraries themselves are often intimidating spaces. The architecture and the ways in which historical power structures are commemorated (e.g. by naming the buildings after powerful white men) can reinforce the view of libraries as places of elitism, exclusivity and class privilege. Zainab ended her talk with a plea: to think about the trauma and violence suffered through encounters with the library, both historically and into today.

How witches use the libraries: The information behaviour of contemporary Pagans and ritual magicians – Joanne Fitzpatrick

After the keynote was Joanne Fitzpatrick’s fascinating talk on the information behaviour of contemporary Pagans and ritual magicians. I know a little about contemporary Paganism from some exploration of Wicca when I was a teenager (yes, I know, along with every other teenage girl in the 90s…), but I had never thought about the information literacy implications of this kind of practice.

Joanne argued that IL is fundamental to most Pagan practice. There is no authority, no sacred text, no official theology in Paganism (which term covers a wide range of beliefs and practices), so all practitioners are reliant on their own self-education.

Joanne gave a brief overview of the ways of knowing and information seeking within Paganism, including “non-rational” ways of knowing such as divination, intuition, gnosis. These would typically be dismissed within an IL framework as “just guessing”, but Joanne challenged us to consider these as important and valid forms of knowledge. She talked quite a bit about the importance of serendipity and coincidence within Paganism, which made me think about browsing behaviours and how we try (not always successfully!) to replicate and enable these kinds of knowledge encounters in online settings.

Coventry University Decolonisation Read, Reflect and Discuss Group

The final session I attended was a discussion group. We’d been asked in advance to read this paper:

White, H. (2018). Decolonizing the Way Libraries Organize. IFLA WLIC 2018, Kuala Lumpur. Retrieved from http://library.ifla.org/2221/1/207-white-en.pdf

As a non-cataloguer, I found this really interesting but challenging to discuss. I’m used to using Dewey in my library, and am more than familiar with its problematic aspects, so it was interesting to discuss what practical effects this has.

In the comments, someone also shared the documentary “Change the Subject”, about student activism to challenge the use of the term “illegal aliens” in Library of Congress subject headings. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet but it looks really interesting and useful, so I’m leaving the link here as a reminder to watch later!

One of my main takeaways from the article and discussion is that tackling the legacy of fundamentally colonialist and racist classification schemes like Dewey is reliant on having staff who are a) trained in cat & class, and b) have the time and the power to do something about it. Sadly, in my own library (and I suspect many others), we have neither. We buy our catalogue records ready-made, so we are reliant on the classification decided by the supplier, which isn’t always suitable or appropriate for our users or collection. We can amend this at order point if needed, but we usually don’t have the time (or knowledge, certainly in my case!) to do this for every order.

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