There was homework for this week’s #critlib, a Twitter chat/community (and website) about critical librarianship that I participate in. Without going and finding the actual definition, according to the folks who started it, I’ll say that it seems to me that “critical librarianship” means librarianship (and information science) practiced through a social justice lens, including lessons from advocates and activists for feminism, racial justice, disability, [anti-] poverty, etc. (There’s a long list, when it’s being done right.)
First, why NOT participate in #critlib
I find myself somewhat dissatisfied with my definition of what #critlib is.
Part of the reason I held off on participating for as long as I did, despite the participation of quite a few people I look up to, was that it felt too scholarly and too removed from the experiences of librarians (not to mention patrons) in marginalized groups, when I first looked into it. It seemed like a lot of smart people navel-gazing about queer theory, feminist theory, etc., but it did not seem like a vehicle for action.
“Scholarly” can be a compliment, and its complimentary form absolutely can be applied to #critlib. I’m using it as a critique, above, though; I mean it to imply two things: 1) the remove, the attempt to be “objective” in a way that can feel like the issues being discussed belong to other people, not to the people participating in the discussion, and 2) an inaccessibility, a “you must be this smart and well-read to enter” kind of feeling. I know the community tries to be welcoming, and I think it is getting better at this over time; but I still hear echoes of that “I’m not smart enough”/”I haven’t read enough” feeling coming from people who would otherwise like to join in. (I do what I can to help, there. We can all do better at this, though.)
I still feel some of this. So perhaps I should modify my definition above, to say “… librarianship (and information science) examined through a social justice lens…”
On a bad day, when it all seems too theoretical, or like it is wandering close to the line of being patronizing to members of marginalized groups (too much “us” and “them” in the discourse, maybe), I admit: I quietly walk away.
Now, why I (sometimes) participate
There’s value in examination and theoretical understanding, though. Arguably, action is not worth taking without it. So while #critlib may have frustrated me, at first, in its distance from practical solutions, I recognize that it is a Good Thing™ and worth participating in, or at least supporting. Awareness is important. Discussion is important. Both are prerequisites for worthwhile collective action.
Like I said, also: there are a lot of people in the #critlib community whom I greatly admire and whose thoughts I am interested in. And, although I have endeavored to do my homework on various social justice issues, I know I have a lot to learn—even about issues that affect me. (I am, for instance, not a good disability activist, despite having lived with a disability for several years.) So spending some time listening to theory—and, one hopes, to the lived experiences of my peers—is absolutely a good use of my time.
Over the next year I’d like to see #critlib start to grow into more of a vehicle for concerted, collective action. I’d like to see us capture [anonymized?] stories of critical librarianship being applied in real situations. I want practical applications. (That comes as no surprise to anyone who’s met me. :))
I’d really like to see us doing more to support our colleagues whose lives are directly affected by the issues #critlib discusses. And, to that end, I want #critlib to be a space where the voices of people in marginalized groups are actively invited in, welcomed, listened to, and amplified. I am confident that we can be scholarly (in the positive sense) without being exclusionary.
This is just one example, out of many things we could do, but it’s an achievable one: I’d like us to push for data transparency—perhaps follow tech’s lead (something I didn’t expect to say) and push libraries and library associations to release their demographics publicly (including a breakdown of the demographics of library leaders). I’d like to help chart the differences between our demographics and those of our applicant pools (or at least MLIS graduates?); and between our demographics and our communities’ demographics. That won’t solve any problems on its own, but it will help us to demonstrate that there are problems and to push for change. (And, like I said, it’s just one thing we could do.)
For that matter, I’d love to know #critlib’s demographics.
More broadly, I’d like us to help teach/push one another to be better activists, and I would like to see #critlib’s effects—and be able to point to them—over time.
For now, talking and theory are a good start. I just don’t want us to stop there, you know?
Image at the top of the post via nicolecat1 on deviantart.