I’ve been reflecting recently on my role as a ‘librarian’ or ‘information professional’ or whatever you want to call it. I was fortunate enough to attend UX Libs in Sheffield earlier this month and also attended a CILIP Leaders Network event at Newcastle City Library this week, where I listened to some presentations that really made me think about how the ‘profession’, and myself personally, will benefit from more critical reflection into our own assumptions about what we do and who we are.
Our services are trusted because librarians and information professionals are trustworthy.
The quote above is taken from CILIP CEO Nick Poole’s presentation from the CILIP event I attended at Newcastle City Library on 26th June. My main question about this statement is: are we REALLY?! After hearing from people such as Dr Janine Bradbury and Dr Kit Heyam at UX Libs in early June, I would argue that some of our practices could mean that some members of our communities don’t see us as trustworthy at all.
Dr Janine Bradbury’s talk was my favourite presentation at UX Libs and, in my opinion, is the kind of thing that is well overdue from most other library-specific events that I’ve attended over the years. Janine talked about her experiences of libraries as a young, black woman in the UK; navigating through public library spaces as a child in South London, through to university as a student, and on to how she now uses the York St John Library as a teaching space in her current role as a senior lecturer. Janine recalled an experience as a student when she was searching for material on black literature. The catalogue information was unclear as to where these books were held and Janine had to approach a member of staff to ask. It turned out that the books she was looking for were held in the basement of her university library, hidden away in a windowless room that she didn’t necessarily feel safe in. The reason they were there was because “not many people asked for them.” What message does that give to people of colour studying black culture in that space? They are almost an afterthought, hidden away from the ‘main’ collection out on the open stacks.
The idea of decolonising the library to make our spaces safer for students of colour was one of the key points of Janine’s talk. I would argue that it’s dangerous to make sweeping assumptions about librarians being ‘trustworthy’ when, for some members of our communities, the library is a difficult place to navigate and they feel conspicuous because they are the ‘other’ in that particular space.
— Bryony Ramsden (@librarygirlknit) June 7, 2018
We are a predominantly white profession working in institutions that usually have predominantly white academic staff designing the curriculum, teaching our students and putting together reading lists of predominantly white authors. There is more work to be done to ensure that our academic library spaces are seen as safe and ‘trustworthy’ to people of colour, starting with more people of colour actually staffing our academic libraries and wider institutions! Representation is important and if we were doing this properly, then groups such as DILON wouldn’t need to exist. The Library and Information profession is thought to be around 97% white in the UK. I’m not saying that we’re not nice, helpful people. I am saying that we need to work harder to get rid of our unconscious biases, both on an individual and organisational level.
— Dr Kit Heyam (@krheyam) June 7, 2018
If you want to find out more about being an ally, I can recommend the blog post on the DILON site quoted below.
A new must-read blog post by Natalia Gordon – “So you want to be an ally?”
A list of useful, actionable steps for all of us and a bibliography for those who want to learn more (and after reading the blog post, I think you will)https://t.co/La1i00IYlo pic.twitter.com/5AT90qbZwN
— DILON (@libdiverse) June 11, 2018
Dr Kit Heyem’s talk at UX Libs was also a favourite of mine. Kit explored the university library from the point of view of trans students and staff members and talked us through some case studies of how the way a library works or how their staff behave can inadvertently (or deliberately) alienate trans people and make the space very unsafe to navigate. Simple things such as having gender-neutral toilets and educating your staff to understand how and when to use gender-neutral pronouns would make a huge difference, as well as asking staff not to make assumptions about someone’s gender based on their name over email or voice on the phone.
Anybody who works as a manager should work hard to examine their own biases, educate themselves and provide safe environments for staff and students to approach them if they need help. Unacceptable behaviour should always be challenged, especially by those in positions of privilege who have less to lose by challenging these things. Do not leave all of the emotional labour to the only/few people of colour, trans, disabled, queer etc. people in your workplace. We all have some individual responsibility to educate ourselves and affect the cultures that we work in.
I could write forever on topics such as this, but I do not proclaim to be some kind of expert. This post is only scratching the surface and I am constantly learning, reflecting and getting it wrong. The biggest challenge is sitting with the uncomfortable feeling of knowing that my assumptions and beliefs about the world are probably wrong and will be ever-changing. I have so much to learn from others and I’m going to sit up and listen.