Thursday, July 27, 2017

Academic Libraries and the False Promises of Resiliency

This is a joint post from Angela Galvan, Eamon Tewell, and myself, and contains the slides and text of our presentation at the Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene Colloquium. Audio and slides from an earlier version of this presentation at the Association of College and Research Libraries Conference in Baltimore, Maryland is also available.


Resilience is everywhere nowadays, from preparing for environmental catastrophes to being a more effective business leader. Regardless of context, resilience is often assumed to be fundamentally good and beyond reproach, something we should all strive for. And we’d like to change that.

Resilience is a metaphor used to describe withstanding or adjusting to stressors of various kinds, whether we’re talking about individuals, environments, or structures. It’s considered the ability to bounce back from a severe setback; to successfully adapt to a disturbance or disaster of some type. In the 70s and 80s resilience was adapted by researchers in ecology. The term was developed by C.S. Holling in 1973 to describe ecosystems that continue to function more or less the same despite adversity. Decades later, resilience has become part of the dominant discourse in disaster management, architecture, and urban planning.

The popularity of resilience has skyrocketed along with the increased pace and severity of catastrophes and disasters. Resilience is increasingly used in discussions as diverse as international finance, the psychology of trauma, public health, urban design, and even libraries. We see how resilience is conflated across wildly different areas with this quote. From its beginning in ecology, it’s gradually been reconceived as a property which people naturally possess and simply need to cultivate, and that’s a problem.

It’s important to ask what work resilience does socially. What are we being resilient from? Who does resilience benefit?

At its core, resilience individualizes. It serves to reproduce an ideology wherein people are entirely responsible for themselves. Resilience tells us that if we aren’t able to find 10% in our budgets to cut and still provide the same service, or if we aren’t able to take up the work that an unfilled position leaves, it is our problem and our shortcoming. Resilience outsources the work of addressing and coping with systemic inequality to individuals. If you feel the negative effects of sexism, resilience says, it’s your fault because you haven’t learned how to bounce back well enough.

Here is a poster from Tracie Washington, an attorney and activist in New Orleans, that she put up after Hurricane Katrina struck and the residents were receiving praise for their resilience. Resilience has the effect of naturalizing that which is not natural or given--complex social systems, environmental racism, and so forth. It encourages us to accept these relations at face value and take them for granted. Resilience doesn’t ask “how can we change this system to make it better?” It asks, “how can you cope in order to maintain the system?”

Those most vulnerable to the shocks of modern capitalism are the ones charged with becoming more resilient against them. This demand for resilience is especially troubling considering the widespread precarity in the library and archives workforce and the adjunctification we see in higher education. Resilience amplifies already existing privilege by relying on the myth of meritocracy, but in reality it takes resources to be resilient. The result is that racial and gendered discrimination is hidden by a facade of objectivity and personal perseverance.

There are aspects to resilience that are important to encourage. Sometimes simply persisting in the face of adversity is the most significant act of resistance there is. The problem is that resilience is used to prop up dominant ideologies. We should remember that people are already extremely resourceful. We don’t need this narrative of resilience along with it. Because risk and vulnerability are outcomes of political and economic power being exercised, confronting risk and calling out resilience means confronting power. The most effective way to confront power is collectively, whether that’s in a union or through another mechanism. If we truly want to respond to shocks and crises in our workplaces and libraries, that requires collective action and can’t be done effectively on the individual level. It means organizing to build our own power.


If your mother is 17 when you’re born and you spend a month in an NICU, you get called resilient all the time. It’s always meant as a complement, and it never feels like one. In particular in recent days, as we’re seeing a great unwinding, and unmaking of the institutions which allow someone like me to end up speaking somewhere I’m not supposed to be, like NYU [our LAAC host].

As a student, university marketing was always quite eager to use my image to convey the power of resilience, effectively turning that trauma into a kind of performative currency people in power are fond of, it being useful that I’m white for such purposes. Energy is spent upholding these stories, which capitalism effortlessly creates through inequalities and consumes for pleasure, rather than resisting the reasons I and others had to be resilient in the first place.

Resilience offers opportunities for survival but only if it comes from institutions and not to exploit workers, which is how resilience is currently modeled in higher education in particular. Resilience in libraries is point blank exploitative.

"Do more with less and be proud of it"

The end result is burning out staff and inadvertently creating a class of mercenary practitioners with the ability to  leave toxic administrations but in doing so take institutional memory and workflows with them, ultimately hurting productivity. Just like archives shouldn't collect everything, it's not appropriate for libraries to do everything and I think yesterday's questions about what services do we migrate forward because of tradition vs not is a useful one. Librarians don't say no, we're a profession of martyrs.

We hear continuously how much the public values libraries, except when it comes to calls for funding. FEMA, post-Katrina considers libraries essential to the recovery of a community and yet we are always under threat, must always compete for resources. Libraries matter until we have to pay for them, which is to say they don’t matter. We buy what we value at all levels of funding and power.

With apologies to this librarian - most likely she didn’t ask to be portrayed as a savior but rather as someone familiar to her community. Libraries produce images like these all the time, with and without the consent of workers. I wish School Library Journal had picked a different photo from this shoot, as I think it does a real disservice to everyone in the image.

Eventually, we take on the shape of our oppressors in the dialogue. We don’t assume libraries have value because we’re constantly having to say so, or otherwise discuss our relevance. You don’t hear people discuss how the Provost has value, or the university president. This has dramatic implications for how the library behaves. It shouldn’t be “save libraries” it should be “libraries save”.

This is a great post. That they had to say it at all means this campus doesn’t value it’s library enough to understand what they’re searching. This is the endgame of resilience, where things are more important than people.

Here’s how that looks taken to the extreme.


On that website: “Resilience requires community involvement – encouraging individuals to make decisions that help prepare for and prevent the impact of disasters, providing resources and information to help them make informed decisions, and offerings programs and services that allow individuals to respond to issues as they arise. Libraries and information professionals may be ideal partners or providers in helping individuals adopt resilient practices in their communities.
Resilience may also align with library values of equity and access. Truly resilient communities would embrace distributed renewable energy, support diversified local agriculture, and foster social equity and inclusion - all ensuring that communities can adapt to disruptions and avoid situations where the greatest impacts are felt by the most vulnerable members of the community. "

This conception of resilience, in the face of staffing and budget cuts, yet again asks libraries to "do more with less." It also places libraries in a competition with other institutions for capital that comes with the rise of resilience.

I’ll give you bingo, have some buzzwords, again from the Center for the Future of Libraries. Thanks, ALA!
Anyway, an overview. The relationship between collection development and counter-narratives.

I’m going to open with what I see in terms of Resilience at the State Department, how a focus on this was sort of mandated, and why it makes sense, given that we’ve got a bunch of stressed out adults being sent off to far away places to explain incoherent and at times counter-productive policies, sometimes with family in tow.
Also, the current administration is “encouraging” some people to retire.
We’ve got a Center devoted to it, the concept is literally baked in to our mission.

Here is an actual course description. I added that “Um…” Because, well, you know. That is some good angst.

All of this is on the open internet, don’t worry, these aren’t state secrets. That quote is from State Department regulations, and those are courses that we offer.

So you see, when you develop collections to support courses, here’s what we’re up against.

Given that mandate, I'm trying to give some time to the opposition. Buy these four books, have your catalogers make sure “grit” and “resilience” show up in the metadata so they can be found. Hit those 650 fields!
People at State do not like the Angela Duckworth book on grit, which may be the most popular in the field. There was some push-back to that in the media, so I wonder if that played a role in them not liking it.
Tough in some ways got the ball rolling on “grit,” but he says that we don’t know how to teach “grit” and “resilience,” it’s a much more nuanced argument than he gets credit for.

Collection development is a way to introduce counter-narratives, for example: Resilience as capitalism, used to extract labor.
Resilience is the practice of making evident a lot of noisy damage so that you can then spectacularly overcome it in a way that produces surplus value for both you (in the form of, say, human or social capital) and for society as a whole. You can think of it like shock-doctrine capitalism for the individual psyche, especially the individual psyches of people from oppressed groups. Resilience is a specific type of therapeutic overcoming. It has three steps: (1) perform damage so that others can see, feel, and understand it; (2) recycle or overcome that damage, so that you come out ahead of where you were even before the damage hit; (3) pay that surplus value–that value added by recycling–to some hegemonic institution, like white supremacist patriarchy, or capital, or the State, something like that. This isn’t just coping–it’s a very, very specific form of coping designed to get individuals to perform the superficial trappings of recovery from deep, systemic issues, all the while reinforcing and intensifying the very systemic issues it claims to solve. Resilience is how patriarchy hides behind superficial feminist liberation, how white supremacy hides behind superficial multiculturalism. - Robin James
James uses “melancholy” as a counter to resilience. “Melancholy can look identical to resilience in its first two steps (damage, coping), but the main difference is in the third step: melancholic strategies do NOT support or amplify hegemonic institutions.” Applies it to Rihanna.
The “system” wants to see you recover, wants those Horatio Alger stories. You don’t have to give it to them. It’s ok to mourn, to be vulnerable.


At the least, counter-narratives are hard. It’s on us, people in positions of power, white people, to do something about it. Maybe it’s not easy for everyone in this room, but it’s certainly less hard for a lot of us.

Think like a Marxist, ask who benefits from narratives of resilience.

Resilience and grit as individual, agent-based “solutions” to structural issues. Focus on the structure, ask “why” and “what could/should be.”

“Why rise from the ashes without asking why you had to burn?” - Pahrul Seghal in the NYT Magazine
What would you ask people to put up with? What are we showing resilience and grit in the face of? Name the adversity.

The analogies to disasters, in a library context, can be a bit hyperbolic, no?

Guess what, persistence is not necessarily a good thing. Can be wasteful.

“In aggregate our results suggest that interventions designed to enhance grit may only have weak effects on performance and success.” - Crede, et al at Iowa State in a meta analysis.

Per Ris: “Grit it is an eminently useful concept, but not because it can help the prospects of disadvantaged students. Instead, it helps middle and upper-class adults explain and counteract the shortcomings of their own children, and it also helps them put off the sacrifices that could break down the American caste system.”

Yes, it’s nice to have these character traits or what have you, but it’s nicer to have….

Part of my job here is to make sure that other supervisors and managers do right by their employees. Don’t ask people to be resilient. Ever. And I say this knowing how fraught middle-management is.


There was an ACRL MD conference on failure, held in this city. Fail 4 lib as part of code 4 lib.

Thank you.

Image Credits:
   Center for the Future of Libraries. Trends. [Image]. Retrieved from
   Gemme, Salome. Tweet. Retrieved from
   Information Science Antelope tumblr. Get put on library materials committee. [Image]. Retrieved from
   Keywords for the Age of Austerity. New Orleans after Katrina, ca. 2005. [Photograph]. Retrieved from
   Learn2post. Overcoming the First Hurdle. [Gif]. Retrieved from, original at
   Milanese, Erin. Tweet. Retrieved from
   Play Juggling. G-FORCE 70 MM 180 GR. [Photograph]. Retrieved from
   Persistence. [Photograph]. Retrieved from
   Resilience (tree). [Photograph]. Retrieved from
   Rihanna. Side eye. [Gif]. Retrieved from
   Rolf, Kirsty. Tweet. Retrieved from
   Willis, Jonathan Robert. Iroquois Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library. [Photograph] Retrieved from School Library Journal, 10/2016.
   Yeffett, Gilead. Broken Spring. [Photograph]. Retrieved from