library heterotopias vs. library bullshit

I gave my five-minute talk about rapid change and strategic-planning-that-isn’t-really-strategic-planning this week, and there were two big takeaways: 1) that people who aren’t librarians actually kind of want to just talk about library stuff, so I didn’t need to try to reframe the narrative for them and it may have been more accessible if I hadn’t and 2) the premise probably sounds like bullshit because there is a huge leadership crisis in general right now, and libraries for suuuuure in particular. Let’s unpack why I’m saying that.

The year of covid was like one of those fluorescent lights you sit under and every single acne pockmark you’ve had since the age of 12 is made visible. The long-standing toxicity and ineffectual leadership present in the field was so thoroughly, utterly exposed for what it is, and instead of trying to cover up the ugliness, there were many people in positions of power that chose to lean into the light, to bask in it. I’ll give you some specific examples without naming specific institutions because lord knows I don’t need anyone else baying for my blood at the moment. We had libraries try to get rid of all of their staff during a pandemic, ignore hundreds of community members, and indicate that automation was making their jobs unnecessary anyway – these efforts were led by librarians. Not McKinsey consultants or their icky ilk. We had libraries open for curbside pickup when everything was closed except grocery stores and hospitals. We had professional organizations and administrations pledging allegiance to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” but not fully understanding what that means and condescending and punishing members for attempting to improve that understanding. In one professional org I’m part of, when I brought up concerns about language in a policy/procedures doc that came off as racist and ableist, my qualifications and experience as a manager were questioned and it was implied that discussing power imbalances in the workplace was merely a new fad.

On the other hand, we saw some incredible organizing, pushback, and reform coming from other places than the usual mouthpieces of the field. Meredith Farkas describes this succinctly in American Libraries mag; the latest issue of The Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship (CJAL) is all fire but particularly focuses on this phenomenon in Danya Leebaw’s piece, “Critical Library Performativity: Toward Progressive Change in Academic Library Management and Organizations.” Leebaw’s description of alternative initiatives and movements in libraries, such as the Library Freedom Project and we here, as “heterotopic,” or occurring in unexpected/non-traditional places, resonated with me. As I was doing a deep dive into the latest CJAL, I discovered Jane Schmidt’s remarks at a 2018 conference, “Innovate This! Bullshit in Academic Libraries and What We Can Do About It.” She rightly points out that one of our defenses against bullshit is to stop always fetishizing our leaders:

We live and work in an era of unprecedented shameless self promotion and absurd reward systems. The proud display of the mundane to the remarkable are often indistinguishable. We reward our students with badges for coming to the library and we offer our explicit approval to colleagues by endorsing them for completely obvious skills on LinkedIn. It is hardly surprising then that we seek ever more accomplishments to enumerate and share. The often derided but always noticed annual ​Library Journal​ Movers and Shakers list is probably the most clear example of rockstar librarian bullshit, with apologies to those have moved and shook here in the room, of course. If I had a fiver for every time I saw announcement of yet another event featuring a panel of Thought Leaders, I could buy Congress a round of beers.

– Jane Schmidt, “Innovate This! Bullshit in Academic Libraries and What We Can Do About It”

I am a library director, but I try really, really hard to not engage in bullshit. I try not to make my colleagues do bullshit tasks. I try not to invent unnecessary work or problems for people. Rather, I listen to and observe the needs of our users instead of defaulting to tried-and-untrue library operations because “that’s just the way we’ve always done it” (shudder). This is what drove me to co-write a book for ALA Editions and give the talk this week. But I know when I speak to fellow directors, I’m probably not preaching to the choir for the most part. Hey, I’m sure most of them think I’m some weirdo manic pixie 25-year-old from Bah-ston (cue that sound from the Sam Adams commercials), so I can rag on them a bit if I want. Let’s be real, though–what I have written in the book and presented about on the topic is better spent on people who aren’t in conventional leadership positions (or in leadership at all), and I want to embrace this heterotopic idea as a defense for how the bullshit and toxicity at the top of (and throughout) many institutions can undermine what I’m suggesting at the outset.

In another stellar turn in that same CJAL issue, Sam Popowich points out something that I feel is at the twisted core of so many of librarianship’s problems:

“…any conception of social justice as a goal of intellectual or academic freedom can only take the form of an affirmative rather than a transformative model of redress (see Fraser and Honneth 2003, 74), in which minor adjustments, like Indigenous intern positions or statements of LGBTQIA+ solidarity, are seen as affirming a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) while leaving the fundamental structures of marginalization and oppression unchanged. The way to achieve social justice, in this view, is through recognition, statements of solidarity, or rhetorical commitments, rather than through material transformation of the structures of injustice themselves.”

Sam Popowich, “The Antinomies of Academic Freedom: Reason, Trans Rights, and Constituent Power.”

Popowich hits a nerve that comes up in the discussion of the recent Association of Southeastern Research Libraries (ASERL) panel “Why Did I Leave the Profession? A DEI Perspective,” something I want to force everyone from several committees I serve on to watch. (As I said on Twitter the other day, “Believe it or not, antiracism isn’t just a passing craze your ‘intergenerational workforce’ is into right now.”) We repeatedly see a lack of desire for change, especially within the DEI context; change would mean a massive amount of power shifting, tons of difficult conversations and open interpersonal conflict, and accepting discomfort and forcing ourselves to feel it instead of blaming seen or unseen forces or making it about us (I’m a cisgender white middle class lady).

Now, I want to pause here for a moment and point out that change can itself be total bullshit, in the way that word is often thrown around. I talked to a lot of people this year and I’m sorry to say I’ve forgotten which lovely soul among them shared the term “weaponized innovation” with me, a great example of that being the aforementioned library that thought it should fire everybody during a pandemic and replace them with Roombas. It is not, however, bullshit to analyze the brokenness and bias of existing structures and to commit to tearing them doing and doing better. It’s not bullshit to be self-aware and honest about what we’re fucking up and to own the responsibility for fixing it.

This is true of things other than just DEI, where we are content to make statements all day long and mention amazing Black speakers we caught who “just have so many things to say that are important right now” in the affirmative fashion Popowich describes but shut down when self-critical analysis or redirection of resources is expected of us. I also can’t remember who said this year that libraries are great at creating problems for themselves, but man, was that any more obvious than in March when people were like, having patrons put their library cards in a basket and then using those trash collecting claw things to pick them up, trigger holds, and bringing stuff out to people’s cars in full hazmat gear while the rest of the goddamn country was in a lockdown and contending with a massive PPE and cleaning supply shortage? That’s what the early days of curbside were like. When I called out the absurdity, they did not like that. Who was this bitch from Massachusetts and why was she haranguing us in northern California? WELL SORRY BUT EVERYONE IN YOUR TOWN HAS LOST THEIR FUCKING MINDS, SO SOMEONE FROM SOMEWHERE HAD TO SAY SOMETHING.

This is all to say ideally we need better leaders who don’t pull bullshit like that, but we also need heterotopic structures that allow leadership throughout the profession instead of hierarchies that place one person unerringly at the top(s). I’m not sure if I’m advocating for flat org charts, at least not at this particular moment, but rather there needs to be a distribution of power that doesn’t tie up the biggest decisions with one person and maybe a board that are pretty disconnected from the day-to-day realities of boots-on-the-ground work. We also probably need to stop expecting sweeping, meaningful change from the traditional sources of power and influence in the field (I’m looking at you, state/regional and national organizations). Anyone who reads anything I’ve written or has seen me rant on a stage for five minutes to an hour (all 2 of you) knows I’m a huge fan of strategic plans, but I need to point out a critical caveat there: I am not a fan of the smoke-filled room approach to them. What you’re going to get out of a plan written with the director and the board, or the director and a dean or whatever, behind a closed door is a ton of people who go “wtf is this” when you try to do anything–not because people are change-hating sticks in the mud, but because you didn’t ask them what they thought and your conclusions probably make no sense with what they’re seeing in the day-to-day.

I want to go back to a point Leebaw makes that is also essential to creating plans that aren’t C-suite bullshit:

“…the principles to which we wish to adhere are not always reflected in our current practices, and in some cases might not be possible to achieve even if we diligently try… This misalignment between principle and practice has created uncomfortable dissonance for our staff… [T]he “growing chasm between our stated values and practices” is “ultimately alienating library workers” (Nicholson, Schmidt, and Slonowski 2019).

– Danya Leebaw, “Critical Library Performativity: Toward Progressive Change in Academic Library Management and Organizations”

How do we get better alignment between principle and practice? We need to stop hogging the decision making for our practices, and stop defaulting to doing the easiest thing because “tbh my calendar is a garbage tornado for the rest of the month and I just want to get this over with.” We also need to stop defending bullshit takes in the field and start walking the fucking walk. It’s 2020 and we still have dinguses on the Trash Tank who can’t see how letting the Nazis use the meeting room is in conflict with our professed value of access and welcome to all. In fact, I think we might have more dinguses saying this shit now than ever before. I don’t have an answer to everything and please ignore anyone who has ever said they did, but y’all, librarianship is deeply screwed up and acknowledging that is a good first step as any. We have such enormous importance and potential, but with ineffectual diversity messages, rampant toxicity in our workplaces, and the vice grip of doing more with less, we must know we aren’t delivering on that promise. These heterotopias give us a chance to step around the baggage and imagine what could be, and they might be our only shot at saving us–not from ourselves, but from our leaders.