The End of 2016

I’m writing this on my last workday of the year, so I thought I would look back on what 2016 meant for me personally and professionally. It’s all very odd–in a year I suspect will carry notoriety for the next several decades, I had a lot of successes. While the headlines seemed to go from bad, to worse, to all-out surreal, life and libraries kept going. I got into a pattern of waking up, reading the news, becoming terrified, then commuting to work and doing my job. I’d teach a class or two, go to some meetings, work on a few projects, then go home and yell or cry at the nightly news. It’s a weird mixture of privilege, numbness, and routine that marked this year, and I’m not quite sure what comes next. Still, I want to look back on the high points.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the nice things that happened in 2016:

  • After a rocky first year, I started to feel like I was making a difference at my job. We were able to move the needle on developing new curriculum, and we’ve begun consulting with faculty across campus to change some of their perceptions of what we can and should be doing as librarians. It’s been so much slower than I could have anticipated when I started here eighteen months ago, but we’re starting to build momentum, helped in no small part by some excellent hiring decisions this year. Next year will see two more faculty hires in my department, and I can’t wait to see what energy and ideas they bring with them.
  • I traveled to a lot of conferences, and was able to see and do remarkable things. I ate cactus with a bunch of critlib friends in Tucson. I gave a keynote presentation in San Francisco, then walked along Ocean Beach in Golden Gate Park. I stayed in a yurt just outside of Moab and showed up at Library Instruction West with red dirt under my fingernails. Then I ended my presentation year with a trip to Orlando, a place that had a huge influence on my teenage years, but that I hadn’t seen in a decade. I never imagined I would have these opportunities as a librarian, and know that years like this one are rare, so I’ve done my best to savor it.
  • I learned from a lot of really, really smart people. In a year full of amazing work, my highlights remain Dave Hudson’s keynote from CLAPS, along with April Hathcock’s blog that came shortly thereafter. I also continue to be in awe of the brilliance of my friend and collaborator Jessica Critten, who said and wrote some stunning things in 2016.
  • Seeing three graduate assistants I’ve supervised get hired as full-time librarians. As I’ve developed as a librarian and begun supervising MLIS students, I’ve tried hard to demystify the job search process and do whatever I can to help them get that first professional job, which I know can be a daunting experience.

Still, underneath all of these, I’ve felt a persistent sense of concern, doubt, frustration, and terror. Part of that lunch in Tucson involved discussing with friends from outside the U.S. an election scenario that seemed impossible at the time, but has now come to pass. The trip to Orlando happened just a couple of weeks after the shooting at Pulse. I’ve been advising MLIS students through a job search process I know to be broken, and I find myself explaining archaic rules and exclusionary policies. Dave, April, Jess, and a hundred other librarians have all written and said things that point to deep flaws within librarianship, and yet the ALA seems to be leading us deeper in a dangerous and wrong direction.

And so I find myself trying to navigate the tension between things that are going well, and the simultaneous reality that things are going to hell. It’s an exhausting exercise. It’s exhausting to hear students express fears in one setting, then hear administrators deny those feelings in meetings a week later. It’s exhausting to meet with campus departments who say “we agree with what you’re trying to do, but we’re not going to help you.” It’s exhausting to hear calls for nuance and critical thinking met with infographic and checklist solutions.

If there’s been a motif for my blog over the last couple of years, it’s the phrase “I’m not sure what comes next,” and that accurately summarizes my sentiments here at the end of the year. I do know that 2017 is coming. I know that a lot of people are going to stand up for what they believe in. I know that a lot of things are going to change.

I also know that we’re not going into this alone. My weird little corner of librarianship includes some of the most brilliant people I’ve met in my life, and I know that there are other weird little corners of the world with still more brilliant people. I also know that brilliance isn’t enough. There are power dynamics that were exposed this year that I can’t comprehend, other than to know that they are more powerful than I am.

I hope they’re not more powerful than we are.

Who Benefits?

Ahead of a critlib chat that’s happening today, my friend Lisa Hubbell asked that we take some time to write up how we engage in critical reflection, and how that reflection informs our practice.

For my part, I journaled for my first year or so as an instruction librarian, keeping notes on what worked in class, what didn’t, and how I wanted to improve. That was mostly driven by my feelings of being an impostor, and as I got more confident in the classroom, I journaled about my experiences less and less. I picked it up again once I moved jobs, because those same feelings of being a fraud appeared again, and now I write about work once or twice a week.

Most of that journaling is of the small scale, day-to-day, “here’s what’s going on” variety, and I wouldn’t consider it “critical reflection” (though it’s still very helpful and meaningful to me). No, the larger reflection I engage in, the question I use to interrogate my practice as a librarian, came from the brilliant Donna Witek, and it’s a relatively simple one:

“Who benefits?”

Whenever I’m conflicted about what I should do, whether it involves teaching or not, I ask myself that question. “Who benefits from this?” And if I don’t like the answer, I try to do something about it. I make changes to lesson plans, I speak up in meetings, I do whatever I can to make things better, even if only incrementally.

It’s also the question that’s guided most of my scholarship for the last couple of years. “Who benefits from hardline plagiarism policies?” “Who benefits from disparaging popular media?” “Who benefits from presenting evaluation of information as a binary?” I ask those questions and spend time researching them to see if the answer is “students,” though it almost never is.

And so I speak up at meetings and publish things and give presentations and try to get feedback, because I recognize that there are going to be gaps in my reasoning, and collective reflection gives way to new insights. I want to know if other people see the same issues, and hear what they think about how to fix them.

That’s how I benefit from working at a large library with a bunch of smart people, from participating in critlib chats, from attending conferences. I’ve been able to develop as a librarian and a person because of the ability to ask critical questions and openly discuss the underlying issues with other people. It’s how I’ve been able to grapple with many of the frustrations and disappointments that cast such a pall over 2016, and it’s what still gives me some shred of hope that we’ll manage to get better.

I know that Twitter chats aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, and lots of people don’t feel comfortable sharing things so publicly, which I absolutely respect. But in the interest of supporting my friend Lisa, and in the hopes of preparing us for whatever comes next, I really hope more librarians will critically interrogate their actions, and I hope at least some of that reflection becomes visible. This is a strange time for the world, and librarianship has been responding in strange ways, so I think we could all benefit from asking ourselves how we’ve reached these decisions, and if we really want to continue with them in our practice.

Against Simplicity

Earlier this semester I was in an assessment meeting with a bunch of people from my department, going through student work samples and evaluating them with a rubric. The specific assignment had involved students comparing two articles–one from The Atlantic and another from a scholarly journal–and asked them to compare things like style of writing, the amount of research that went into each, and the intended audience. It’s a pretty standard first year assignment, and I’ve been doing some version of it for as long as I’ve been a librarian.

Now, just to be clear, the assignment is worded in such a way to point out that both articles are useful. As you might already know, I’m not a fan of denigrating popular media in library instruction sessions, and we wanted the in-class discussion to focus on how different formats apply in different contexts. And while some of the student responses got to that point, several also took a really hard line against the magazine article, essentially describing the reporting as sensational or otherwise not credible.

In reading those responses and talking about it with the librarians who were assembled, we started to guess why that was. The article in question was a great example of well-researched, longform journalism that focused on a fairly innocuous topic, and yet students were really tearing into it, while at the same time praising the scholarly article as being “reliable” and therefore “better.”

As we went around the table, it was my colleague and friend Zoe Fisher who said something to the effect of “They’re writing that because that’s what librarians have been telling them.” From there we started comparing stories of lesson plans or research guides we had seen that essentially trashed popular media in an effort to highlight the usefulness of academic research, and how now we were seeing that reflected in student work. Zoe then added “You do realize we’re going to spend the rest of our careers trying to correct all of the stuff that librarians have been telling students for the last fifteen or twenty years?”

It’s that last point that’s been on my mind as we move forward into the weirdness of life after the election. There have been discussions around “post-truth,” and now “fake news” is the story of the week. The response from many instruction librarians in this atmosphere has been “Job security!” or otherwise “See? We’ve been telling you!” But I’m not so sure this is a time for exuberance, mostly because I don’t think we have the best track record in this area.

Looking back at how information literacy programs demonized popular media for so long, is it really so surprising students have a cynical view of newspapers and magazines? And while we’re on that subject, why did we do that in the first place? And why are so many librarians still doing it? (I’m not going to link to specific examples, but there are plenty of LibGuides that still say things like “journalists don’t do research and have no expertise.”)

I likewise think about guides and assignments that include phrases like “Don’t use Wikipedia!” or even “Don’t use web sources!” And when we have talked about evaluating websites, a big part of our approach relied on looking at domains, with librarians saying things like “.gov is good and .com is bad.” I’m assuming we adopted these tactics in the interest of saving time (because at some point in time we agreed that we can teach everything about research in an hour?), but we’ve also come to internalize a lot of these gross over simplifications and false binaries, and repeat them reflexively in our scholarly communication and learning objects.

My point is that this time calls for critical thinking around information, and while I think it’s something librarians could do, we historically haven’t done it very well, and instead settled for simplicity. For example, the last week has seen plenty of criticism of students, sparked by a study from researchers at Stanford, but as Eamon Tewell and Barbara Fister both pointed out yesterday, this problem is likely not localized to students. My feeling is that adults (even librarians!) are as susceptible as anyone to be duped by the information we encounter, and the response on library listservs hasn’t exactly filled me with confidence regarding our ability to discuss the nuance and complexity of what is happening in the world.

Instead of reflecting on our practice and thinking about how we’ve made mistakes in the past, we seem to be falling into our old roles. I’ve seen lists of “good” and “bad” sources making the rounds, as well as documents with checklists for evaluation, including encouraging people to make sure they review a website’s domain to make sure it’s credible. I get that we’re confused, but this doesn’t seem like the time to reprise our role as gatekeepers, and adjudicated bibliography is inherently reactionary and insufficient. (I get that people want to do something, but I just don’t think another LibGuide is the solution.)

No, I’m fairly certain that this situation is going to call for a discussion of bigger concepts, which leads me to (cynically) assume that a significant portion of the profession is going to oppose it on its face as being divorced from practice and overly complicated. To that, all I can say is that simplified instruction didn’t work, so maybe it’s time to try out something else? I’m not wholly sure what that “something” is, but I think the conversation is now shifting, as evidenced by what Lane Wilkinson posted yesterday. I hope to write more in response to Lane soon, but in the meantime I appreciate his admission that what we’ve done as information literacy instructors hasn’t always been concerned with “truth,” so perhaps we shouldn’t position ourselves as the solution to the “post-truth” that surrounds us.

I’d really like to end on a positive note here, but it’s been a rough few weeks. I suppose I should write that I still love my profession, I just wish we would embrace complexity a bit more, especially in the face of such dauntingly complicated events.

Is Information Enough?

Tomorrow I’m flying to Orlando to attend ALA Annual. I’m participating on a panel with some brilliant people, and I’m really excited to see some old friends, but I’m also having a hard time reconciling how I feel about the whole endeavor. I know that several of my colleagues requested this conference be relocated in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin, and more recent responses from ALA and its affiliates addressing still more targeted violence have left me wondering how much I want to be a part of this meeting, at this time, in this place.

The truth is that I want things to change, and in the wake of the shooting at Pulse, I’ve been crushed by the routine. The shock, followed by grief, followed by finger pointing, followed by inaction, and on and on. I don’t have anything insightful to add to the discussion around gun control or racial profiling or hate crimes that hasn’t already been voiced in the news and shared on social media, and I won’t go off on how there are creepy echos of a lot of bad ideas showing up in our national discourse. I’m very frustrated and confused about a lot of things right now, but I’m damn near certain that I’m not going to change anybody’s mind on these topics with a blog, so I’d just as soon not go down that road.

The thing I did want to write about, though, is the role “information” plays in these discussions. If you’ve followed the debate around this shooting, or any of the dozens of other shootings, then you might have noticed how nearly every side is claiming some sort of data or information to substantiate their calls for action (or inaction). And in many cases, the collection of still more information is hailed as the solution, such as the push to allow the CDC to research the effects of gun violence, or for the federal government to develop the database of gun owners that is currently prohibited by law, or to expand the FBI’s program of secret surveillance.

As a person who talks a lot about “information literacy,” this is an interesting situation to observe. There isn’t a shortage of information being exchanged right now, and yet it doesn’t seem like many minds are changing. Which leads me to wonder—is more information really going to improve the situation? I know Congress’s intransigence isn’t the most accurate measurement of the country’s sentiments, but I was still disheartened by the same tired arguments that were voiced as the votes were tallied on Monday. Awash in another round of testimony from the public, things more or less split the way they have for the last two decades, and there was minimal discussion of who was actually targeted in this attack, with “Orlando” being presented as the victim, rather than people of color in the LGBTQIA+ community.

So what can I do as a librarian interested in changing things? As someone who has access to information that can answer my questions, and the means to teach other people about that process, what should I do in these moments?

Most of the time, I’ve learned the importance of shutting up. As I mentioned, this was an attack focused on the Latinx community, and the last thing the world needs is the perspective of another cis-het white guy rambling on about what we should really do. So the role I’ve been happy to play in this, and other tragically similar events, is to listen and amplify. Listen to the people whose lives are threatened, whose existence is questioned, and share their stories with people who otherwise might not hear them. Use my privilege to connect People Like Me with information from outside their bubble. Hope that I can help provide them with a means of finding answers to their questions.

But the past ten days have solidified my suspicion that information is not enough. It’s not like we have many doubts about how many people get shot in this country, and we’re pretty clear on the fact that racism and bigotry are still happening. And yet the outpouring on social media and in public has run into the same ramparts of prejudice and denial.

Frankly, these are some of the same concerns I wrote about a couple of years ago, coming back up again. But this is also a little bit different. In 2014 I wrote in the context of how frustrating it was that our society generally and librarians specifically didn’t have a shared understanding of what counts as “evidence.” This time around, we’re witnessing once again a national conversation around information, with people on all sides using it to support conflicting views of what should come next.

But at this point, we do know what comes next. What comes next is that something like 30,000 information professionals are going to descend on a city where a lot of people were murdered last week. In the middle of a national debate about “getting the facts,” a bunch of us are coming together to talk about organizing and ensuring access to information. The whole country is paying attention and looking for answers, and we’re the people who often help them in that role.

So instead of just talking about how we do our jobs, I want us to talk a lot more about why we do them.

The conference that is about to begin is our chance to talk about the “why” that lives at the heart of librarianship. If our profession claims to be about equity and inclusivity and justice, then we can’t go into this claiming neutrality or an apolitical position. This isn’t a time to let things play out “naturally.” We need to talk to each other about why we feel frustrated or angry or sick or confused, and then we need to talk about what we’re going to do about it. More than that, we need to listen. We need to listen to our colleagues whose backgrounds our profession has marginalized, and we need to listen to the city and its communities who are hosting us.

I’d like for all of us to look for how each session, each conversation, relates back to what happened at Pulse, and how we can make things better. And if we’re taking part in sessions that we cannot relate back to this event, we need to ask why that is, too. Honestly, I’ve spent the last few days trying to think of a part of librarianship that doesn’t intersect with what happened that night, and I haven’t been able to come up with something—an observation that’s both affirming and challenging. Affirming in that this profession is so ingrained in the culture, and challenging in that we really do need to do something.

For my part, I’m thinking a lot about what it means to be “authentic” in the classroom, and how I talk about “authoritative” information. I’m thinking a lot about how I see students, and how I want to do better by them. And mostly, I’m wondering if talking about “information” in the abstract is worth anyone’s time. I’ve been optimistic that more information will help us take better actions, but the last ten days have tested that. Still, I’m hoping that there will be a few more answers in Orlando.

With that, safe travels for those who are making the trip, and happy summer to those who are staying home. This has been a lot to consider, but I’m glad to know I have so many friends in this profession, many of whom I’ll see this week.

Locations and Residents

I wrote this entry as part of the December 15, 2015 CritLib chat about #feelings.

The first time I ever used the #critlib hashtag, I was sitting on a bench in the Park Blocks at Portland State University. It was the second day of Library Instruction West, and I was getting ready to give a presentation that I had been agonizing over for the past year. I had practiced it twice the night before and twice that morning, but was still feeling that gross mixture of excitement and dread that comes to me in the moments leading up to a presentation. So I skipped breakfast and was nervously pacing up and down the street, pausing every few minutes to check my phone and run through my slides.

I think my vulnerability in that moment is why I worked up the nerve to use the hashtag. I know that reads rather absurdly—working up the nerve to tweet something?—but for me, the CritLib chats were something of which I was in awe. I had followed them for a month or two prior to that conference, but I had only lurked. I didn’t feel qualified, or even allowed, to join in. Yes, I cared a lot about the issues they were discussing, and had things I wanted to share, but I felt like I would be crashing a party. Plus, there were people in the chats who had written whole books about some of these issues. Who was I to say something?

But in that moment of anxiety leading up to my presentation, I decided that if I was going to talk about these ideas in front of an audience, and do so in a personal way, I might as well do the same thing online. If it turned out to be a disaster, sobeit, but I wanted to at least try to be part of that conversation, and do it in a way which felt authentic to me.

So I sat down on that bench and tweeted a link to my slides, along with the hashtag. It wasn’t during a chat, and I wasn’t expecting a response, but I figured someone might see it in a few days and maybe take note.

But then, a minute or two later, a funny thing happened. A star appeared on my phone. “Donna Witek favorited your Tweet.”

At that point, I had never met Donna, and mostly knew her through her work on metaliteracy. But she was also in those early CritLib chats, and was one of those “I am in awe of this person” people for me. (She still is.) That star meant that Donna was looking at this thing I had worked on… and if she was looking at it, that meant others would too…

Very quickly, a new layer of excitement and dread came over me.

Although I had published and presented before that day, in a lot of ways that presentation marked my beginning as a critical librarian. I had read some things and thought some things before then, but that presentation was the first time I went on the record and said what I really felt about my work and my profession. I believed in what I was saying, and that somehow made it all the more terrifying.

That was also the day that I realized the work I was doing was connected to the work of other people. Not anonymous names on articles I was citing, but actual people with personalities and feelings and quirks—all of those things that scholarly publishing seems to strip away. That presentation, and the subsequent response from the people in the room, let me know I wasn’t alone in thinking some parts of our profession didn’t add up, and other parts were actively doing harm. That day was when I started to realize that there were other people like me.

It’s now clear to me that while that day was important for my development as a librarian, I got something wrong. My feeling at the time, which stuck with me for the next year or so, was that CritLib was a group. Not that it had formal membership, but it was definitely a collection of people with roughly similar ideas. The more I interacted with them online, and the more I participated in the chats, the more I thought that I was a part of that group. It was very much a feeling of “these are my people.”

As time has gone on, I’ve come to see things differently. Mostly that if CritLib is a group, that means there’s a price of admission, or some other means of establishing residency. I really don’t like that idea. I want these discussions to be open, but I know my assumptions about people who join the chats—what they think, what they’ve read, what they find funny—make that much more difficult. I need to stop assuming everyone agrees with me, or is comfortable saying these things openly, or is privileged with a situation where they can put them into practice. I fully accept that making these assumptions is my problem, and that I need to do better in the future. I hope my friends will help me through it.

So if CritLib isn’t a group, what is it? That’s the question I’ve mulled for the last few months. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to see this thing we have as a location. It’s an open place we can go to have discussions about topics that we find important and challenging. A place to compare notes, find inspiration, disagree with each other, and figure out how things could get better. Overall, that is a very positive and open idea, and one that I support.

My concern, however, is that this location has occasionally become an echo chamber, where we all talk around each other and feel self-important, but never break through to engage what’s around us. I suspect this situation is what prompted at least of a few of the criticisms that CritLib is exclusive, intimidating, or obnoxious. Many of these critiques have been spot on, and I am so thankful for those who voiced them for knocking me out of my daze. They made me question why I took part in these discussions in the first place, and why I felt so at home with the people who participated.

So why do I do continue to do this? Why am I critical librarian? What am I getting out of these discussions?

I think the answer to all three is that I like to be respectfully challenged by my peers, and to respectfully challenge them back. I increasingly find that disagreements in the discussions bring about much deeper learning for myself, and I hope that sentiment is shared by others. We shouldn’t strive for a unified front or monolithic theory, other than “things need to get better,” and CritLib can be one place for us to talk and disagree about where and how that progress takes place. It also invites those outside of the chats to recognize these ideas and critique them, even if they do so indirectly. I think that helps make us all better.

And at the end of the day, that’s what critical practice is all about, right? Questioning and disagreeing, but still trying to make it better?