Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why Critical Librarianship? Or, the #whyicritlib Post

Many moons ago, when I was pursuing a PhD in political science, a professor I looked up to told me something that's stuck with me. Marxists, he said, don't often have the right answers, but they ask the right questions.

Gif via ina.fr and gifwave.com
So why am I a critical librarian?
  • Because it's important to ask "who benefits?" and I wish more of us in the library and information sciences would follow in the footsteps of Sanford BermanE.J. JoseyHope Olson, Rory Litwin, and others in asking these kinds of questions.
  • Because critical librarianship is, in large part, what you make it. It's one of the few places where I feel like I have a significant degree of agency in librarianship. I hear the critiques of the #critlib chats being an echo chamber, and while on some level I think that opinion is a valid one (this blog post might be evidence of that), if someone wants to propose a chat on a topic they think is under- or unexplored, they can and should do so. Last June I moderated a chat, attempting to critique whatever critlib is (movement, mindset, group, place,...) from the inside, and I suspect that with his questions above, this critique is something that Kevin would like to explore as well.
  • Because I'm not neutral, and neither are libraries. There are intended and unintended policies and consequences that do real harm that I think we can mitigate. But only if we ask "who benefits, how, and why?"
  • Because one of the highlights of my year, or any year, really, was being in a room with Jessica Critten, Donna Witek, Kevin Seeber, and Kenny Garcia, listening, talking, and learning. I've found fellow "critlibbers" to be friendly, kind, patient, smart, and caring, among other positive traits.
  • Because as a community, critical librarianship keeps me accountable to myself, my ideals, and challenges me to continue to listen and learn and refine, among other things. 
  • Because before I lurked in critlib chats, I was a critical political science student. A professor introduced me to the work of Michel Foucault, and that was as close to an "a ha!" moment as I'll have (I maybe even crossed a threshold, if you will). I got to spend a day with James Scott, one of my professional heroes. And then I got to apply critical theories from the social sciences and humanities to libraries, in theory, and in practice, thanks to people like Maria Accardi
  • Because this is my life homey you decide yours.

Why do I identify with these ideas?
  • Because I've never not been critical. I grew up in New York City in the 1980s. My parents told me not to walk on Amsterdam Avenue (also called Murderdam or Cracksterdam), to take Broadway instead, and I began to ask questions. I saw how people who weren't white were treated. By police, by teachers, by peers, by the law. That was the start. It took me a while to find the theoretical frameworks to help me process what I saw, but I'm glad I did. 
Why do I participate in these chats?
  • It's more often the case that I lurk, listening, liking tweets, saving things for later. I feel like I have a voice, however limited, in this profession, and I want to hear what others have to say. The last thing librarianship needs is another cis het white dude taking up space. That being said, thanks for reading, and thanks to Kevin for asking. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Academic Library Job Market is Broken

Here are some blind items from my interactions with academic libraries over the past few months. They don't paint a pretty picture of the hiring processes therein.
  • The university that schedules a phone interview, then, out of the blue, a second phone interview three weeks later with an entirely different search committee and no explanation.
    • That same university, when asked during the second phone interview, has no timeline to bring anyone in for an on-campus interview, a clear sign that they have no idea who or what they're looking for in the position.
  • The multiple instances in which the person you report to isn't part of the search committee.
  • On-campus interviews where the people you'd manage aren't part of the hiring process.
  • Places where you're told "the position is what you make it" even though there's a long, almost unicorn-like job description and a title that strongly suggests which area of academic librarianship the position falls into. Again, a clear sign that they have no idea what they're looking for in the position.
  • Places where more than a third of the students are non-white, but all the librarians are Nice White Ladies. 
  • Place that check your references and then ghost. 0_o 
  • Places that ask for a salary range and when supplied with one, with tons of wiggle room, might I add, feel the need to note that they're a non-profit. Passive aggressive much? 
  • Places that have lost a significant percentage of their staff, but those that remain are clinging to their silos rather than trying to reorganize, reward versatility, and become more agile and open. 
    • The counter: Places that awkwardly combine two or more positions into one to compensate for budget cuts. See that unicorn-like job description, above. 
  • Places where it's clear you'll be punished for wanting to publish, to share knowledge, whether that's peer reviewed, presented, or blogged.
    • "So, I see you publish," I was told, with a tone and body language that made it clear I shouldn't aspire to such things. 
    • "I've read your blog and twitter," remarked one hiring official, who did not and would not expand on that when I asked them what they thought of my online presence. 
    • "Why can't you stick to beer?" is something that I was told by someone in human resources at one institution. If I weren't a cis het white male, I'd send that into the LIS Microaggressions zine. 
All directors, with no exceptions, think that if I, as an ex-director, interview for a librarian position, then I'm out to steal their job. Meanwhile, other library staff at these organizations can't fathom why I'd give up a directorship, not understanding how fraught middle management in academic libraries can be, often feeling trapped between library staff and academic administration, which can sometimes be at cross-purposes. Why is it not okay to be a librarian, a part of a team? We don't all have to aspire to management, even those of us in management. 
A sign you're in a good place: when someone eats a fruit cup with both breakfast and lunch and not once touches the honeydew. Honeydew is a garbage melon.  
The performance of whiteness is an important barrier to diversity in library and information science. I was aware of this before job hunting, but nowhere is this more true than when you're on the market. "Small talk" is crucial to determining whether or not one "fits" in an organization. I mentioned farmers markets, Cub Scouts, homebrewing, and many other topics, some consciously, some not, to show employers that I'm "like" them. No doubt it helps that I look like them, too. If you're looking for a job in libraries, I encourage you to read Angela Galvan's "Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship," and April Hathcock's "White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS," both published in In the Library With the Lead Pipe
Do you have horror stories you'd like to share? If you're able to, I'm here for that.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Beerbrarian Moves On

Over the course of eight years, I held three positions at my former place of work (MFPOW). For more than half that time, I served as Director of Library Services. I started as a paraprofessional, with "Specialist" in the title, got an MLIS on the job, and worked my way up. I'm grateful to them for the opportunities and growth, and I hope they're as proud of what we were able to accomplish as I am. No doubt they took a risk in making me a director. Working with other library and university staff, faculty, and academic administration, we were able to
  • modernize the library, including adding discovery services and a link resolver.
  • promote the use of open educational resources (OERs) to the point where every introductory science course uses them, saving our students a lot of money.
  • hire, train, promote, and maintain a diverse library staff 
  • break down silos by cross-training all library staff on both public and technical services, with robust documentation.
  • create a culture of experimentation, where staff aren't afraid to fail and learn from it.
But all those things cost a lot. They cost political capital. They cost emotional labor. And after those eight years, I got the sense that there wasn't much more I could do except maintain. I got the sense I wasn't wanted anymore, but I tried to stick it out. I was lonely as a middle manager, operating between university administration and library staff, and balancing those two often-competing roles was tough. I wasn't happy. I let it get to me. To their credit, the powers that be realized this. The timing wasn't perfect, but hey, it rarely is. I should have started my job hunt earlier, and I shouldn't have taken MFPOW for granted-- if you're thinking about going on the job market in "six months," start now! Though we occasionally disagreed on strategy and tactics, the mission of my former place of work remains a worthy one, and I wish them the best of luck. It's telling that the staff who remain, including the current university librarian, are people I hired and trained. It's a nice legacy to have. Onward. 

I came to librarianship as a failed academic, having dropped out of a political science PhD program. This new job gives me a chance to put that other Masters to good use (I applied for pretty much every Political Science Librarian position on the east coast, but never got past phone or Skype interviews--more on this later), and is right in my wheelhouse in terms of what my dissertation was to be: an examination of the role, or lack thereof, the globalization of the English language plays in state language policies, if you're wondering. I'll also get to work with area studies materials and other resources from my poli sci days.

In addition, I hope to bolster my skill-set. Some front-end web development, often involving integrated library systems (ILS) and learning/content management systems (the LMS is the scene of one of my better failure stories); more project management; more committee work; and maybe more instructional design. Also, a chance to turn a weakness, marketing and outreach, into a strength; and an opportunity to explore what critical librarianship looks like in a special library, as this position is in the academic wing of a federal library.

That being said, it's not an academic library, at least not in the traditional sense. I want to find out what I like more: librarianship or higher education. I want to make sure I'm not in the former as a way to stick around the latter.

I wasn't the job I left. I am not the job I just accepted. We are not our jobs. Not the ones we left. Not the ones we want to take. You are not your job.

Let's see where the day takes us.