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Social justice: the LILAC keynotes

Social justice was a key theme running throughout the conference. Not least in the three keynotes, which were all excellent! I really enjoyed the way the keynotes were run this year, which was using a flipped model. All delegates were sent videos to watch beforehand, recorded by the keynote speakers, and asked to watch these and submit any questions online. So the actual keynote sessions were discussion-based, rather than lecture-based. I thought this was a great way of doing it, and the fact that the speakers had all seen the questions in advance and were able to consider their responses made it a much richer discussion. More of this at conferences please!

The first keynote was a panel discussion with four current LIS students from Manchester Metropolitan University, who were discussing wellbeing in libraries. I was incredibly impressed by their poise and eloquence, I couldn’t have done that as a student! 

One point that resonated with me during their discussion was about how library workers (particularly in education sectors) are often expected to take on wellbeing work such as holding wellbeing workshops or creating resources to support mental health. Whilst this is important work, and I would argue that it is core to the library’s mission to support all learners as whole people, library workers may feel unprepared and unsupported to do it. There was a suggestion that, for example, hosting a mindfulness workshop in the library may suggest a level of expertise that library workers do not necessarily have. (As an aside, I recently read this paper on wellbeing initiatives in libraries which argues persuasively for thinking critically about the kinds of activities we host and how these are aligned with the library’s goals and expertise – this was in my head a lot during the discussion!).

I had a few conversations with other people at the conference about this, and I think where I’ve landed is that all student-facing services at a university (I’m using this as an example as it’s the sector I know best, but I’m sure this could apply in other sectors too) should be prepared to act as an entry point for students seeking mental health support. Students may be more likely to approach the library for help as it is less intimidating than asking their academic tutors, and less stigmatising than approaching any central wellbeing or disability services directly. If a student reaches out for help and is turned away because they didn’t ask the right person, they may never ask for help again. But the other side of that is, all staff must be trained and supported to deal with such occurrences, which requires investment in staff development.

The second keynote was Marilyn Clarke from Goldsmiths, talking about “Decolonisation as a means to creating an equitable future”. This was a wide-ranging and insightful discussion, taking as a starting point the Liberate our Library initiative at Goldsmiths, and covering topics such as the difference between diversifying and decolonisation, allyship and how we as librarians can leverage our power in different ways, and how certain types of knowledge (e.g. peer reviewed papers in prestigious journals!) are elevated in academic settings, perpetuating existing power structures.

If you were watching the hashtag on Twitter when Marilyn was talking, you may have seen some reactions to That Question. One of the pre-submitted questions was a textbook example of white fragility. I don’t remember the full question (it was quite wordy and detailed!), but the gist was essentially: why should it matter if a black student isn’t taught by someone with the same colour skin as them? Shouldn’t we move past thinking about skin colour at all, and just allow progress to happen naturally?

Marilyn addressed this with incredible grace and compassion, while also leaving no doubt about the harm of it! She discussed her own experience of having no black teachers until well into university, and how important representation is to enable black children to imagine themselves in positions of authority. I would also add that the racial disparity in academia (there are very few black women professors) gives the message that the source of education and authority is whiteness. The point about “ignoring” skin colour was profoundly ignorant of the history of social justice! “Colour blindness” simply ignores the complexity and history of systemic racism and allows this to be perpetuated. 

I understand Marilyn had seen the questions in advance and agreed to address that one: I wanted to note that as some commenters on Twitter expressed concern that it was unfair to put her in the position where she had to defend herself like that if it was unexpected. I am grateful to Marilyn for her compassion in answering that question, and I hope the person who asked it is able to take the response on board and learn from it. It was an uncomfortable moment, but I think also an important one. It can be easy, in our lovely woke Twitter echo chamber, to assume that such opinions are a thing of the past, so it was good to have a reminder that not everyone in the profession is on the same page, and to address these attitudes head on.

The final keynote was Emily Drabinski, who since LILAC ended has been announced as the new president of the American Library Association! Massive congratulations to Emily on this 🙂

Emily talked about issues of structure and power in information literacy. This was a fascinating take on where our power and expertise lies as librarians: in understanding how knowledge is produced, disseminated and structured. As librarians we have power in that context, and we also have the knowledge to make visible the power structures inherent in scholarly information that our students may not recognise without help. Emily made the excellent point that it isn’t as simple as power=good or power=bad, it’s about acknowledging power and choosing how to wield it. 

The main point that has stuck with me from the discussion was a question about what to do when no matter how hard we work to educate students about other sources, they just return to Google! Emily pointed out that we all use Google. Rather than try to dissuade them from using it, it’s better to talk about how it works and why. E.g. Emily asks the question: what are you searching when you search Google? Most students don’t know. She will also talk about how scholarly databases work and how understanding how they work enables you to get better results, but because Google’s algorithms are proprietary data, “capitalism prevents me from sharing that”! 

I couldn’t agree more with Emily on this point, and it’s something I’ve also tried to apply in my own teaching practice. I see my role as not to warn students away from Google, but to help them understand when it is a good tool to use and when they’d be better served by something else. I have also tried talking a little about how Google works compared to how library databases work, as Emily describes, as well as discussing Google Scholar. Scholar is basically a pet project for a handful of people at Google. It doesn’t earn any money, so if those people leave Google has no incentive to keep it going. Students are always shocked to hear this, and it’s a good way of highlighting how capitalism affects what knowledge is available and discoverable (although I must admit I rarely describe it explicitly as an effect of capitalism – inspired by Emily, perhaps I should!).

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