Diversity, Equity, & Justice Talks: In & Beyond the Library

Aerial view of a black woman working on a Macbook. The image is framed so that we see the keyboard and her hands but not her face or her screen.
Photo courtesy of WOCinTech Chat on Flicker.

The program “Diversity, Equity, and Justice Talks: In and Beyond the Library” took place at the 2019 ALA Annual Conference on Saturday, June 22. Sponsored by the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the session featured three panelists: Christine Smith (collections services librarian at Concordia University), Monica Figueroa (music cataloging librarian at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and JJ Pionke (applied health sciences librarian at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

Setting a tone of collegiality and understanding, the session began by affirming the ALA diversity statement and articulating a community agreement for the presentations and Q&A:

  • Lean into your discomfort.
  • If you’re normally the first one to race up during Q&A, perhaps let other folks ask questions first.
  • Your voice is valued. Please have courage and speak up.
  • Use the mic when asking questions.
  • Please ask actual questions. Save comments for individual discussion.
  • Feel free to use social media in this space, but ask before mentioning anyone else in the room. Respect their wishes.
  • If at any time you need to leave, please feel free to do so.

Smith began the presentations with her talk on “Humans, Power, Technology, Critical Librarianship, and Information Retrieval.” In this portion Smith argued that neutrality is impossible when it comes to information retrieval systems, but that awareness of biases can be achieved and — coupled with critical librarianship — can affect change. However, this awareness of biases goes beyond understanding our own individual biases because we are no longer the only gatekeepers of information. We must understand how algorithms are a new form of managing populations or gatekeeping of information, and the creators of those algorithms have their own biases for librarians to understand. Smith argues that by using the five W’s librarians can be more critical of retrieved information:

  1. What is the system, at what scale does it operate, and what is its creator’s purpose?
  2. Why should users use this particular system, why did the creator make the choices they did, and why are certain attributes emphasized and others not?
  3. Who creates, catalogs, searches for, and is using the content? Diversity of creators or lack thereof can affect the diversity of the content.
  4. Where are we, our users, and our information providers?
  5. When was the algorithm implemented?

By applying a critical lens to librarianship and understanding algorithms at least on a basic level, we can better handle the biases in this new technology. Additional information about critical librarianship can be found at the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Keeping up with Critical Librarianship site.

Figueroa presented on her work at UNC-Chapel Hill. Figueroa looked at the library profession’s demographics, which is predominantly people who are cisgender, white, and women, often leading to those not in those categories feeling isolated, frustrated, and alone. In order to change these demographics it will take new ideas; however, these ideas cannot just be in public services or forward-facing positions, but also in technical services because description matters. UNC-Chapel Hill tried to create a space where anyone could ask questions where there might not be an answer, but where important discussions could take place. The library’s Diversity Committee hosted a lunch series called “Critical Conversations” where participants could discuss inclusive description, under-representation in STEM fields, library web content accessibility, etc. These conversations seemed to break down silos, but there are still more challenging conversations regarding structural racism that must be addressed. We, as librarians, must break down these structures, rebuild our profession, find leaders who are willing to take this on, and be inclusive about how we think of our library spaces — front to back and top to bottom. Figueroa argued that one we can move beyond just diversity, equity, and inclusion is to move toward a framework of social justice.

Pionke then provided a personal tale of disability in the library during his presentation titled “Disabled in the Library: A Tale of Macroaggression, Accommodation, and Exclusion.” According to the World Health Organization (WHO) approximately 15% of the population has one or more issues that affect daily living, but the average time from onset of a mental disorder to seeking assistance is 10 years. Pionke shared his personal struggles with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and related issues. His work-related issues began with his first office which was open to a high ceiling, near public access computers, and overall not acceptable for his disabilities. For the accommodation process, the employee must go through a long and at times arduous practice. Pionke’s was particularly difficult with his employer dragging their heels and extending the process. As a result his mental health deteriorated. Eventually, after hiring a lawyer, Pionke was able to get the accommodations he needed to be successful at his job. However, with his feeling more secure, ability to be more productive, and general relief came a great number of cons due to the process. He was alienated and excluded both socially and professionally, marked as a troublemaker, received a poor third year review, and experienced broken trust on both sides. Pionke shared this story to shed light on the fact that people think accommodations are something you try to get when you are lazy, but that is far from the truth. He asserts that disability is often forgotten about during conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion. There is still a stigma related to disability and we are not accepting as a profession of those with disabilities.

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