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?