library mgmt tech anguish

we need to have a talk about “censorship”

It’s not news at this point that Midwest Tape (MWT), parent company of digital library resource aggregator hoopla, has a major content problem. Back in February, Library Freedom Project (LFP) and Library Futures wrote a Medium post demanding accountability for the company’s platforming of white supremacist, fascist, homophobic, and disinformation-filled invective (for samples of the titles in question, see the #VendorSlurry hashtag on Twitter). Vice Motherboard, LibraryJournal, and WGBH covered the situation, and a group of public library directors put pressure on Midwest Tape for a meeting with leadership at the Public Library Association (PLA) 2022 conference in Portland, Oregon. At the Massachusetts Library Association (MLA) 2022 conference held just a few weeks ago, company leadership was back to speak at a one-hour session hosted by MLA’s Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility Committee (IF/SRC). I wasn’t at PLA, but I was able to attend the MLA talk, and let’s say I was not impressed by what I heard.

Before I get to what happened at MLA, some additional background: LFP members not only worked on the Medium statement that went out into the world and spoke to media about the problems but also sent letters directly to MWT/hoopla CEO Jeff Jankowski. We received no response, but found that library directors who initiated conversations with the company about potentially unsubscribing did; this isn’t really surprising, given they aren’t missing out on money from people like me (wrong market) and LFP as an organization. The directors who spoke to company reps were disappointed by what they heard. It seems like it’s been a hodgepodge of hoopla folks falling back on their position that they must be “neutral” and work in accordance with the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, a bunch of promises for functionality that both have no timeline for implementation and don’t address underlying concerns, and an oft-repeated desire to provide as much content as is possible for the platform to do. What was presented at MLA was all of this, plus a weighty tone of defensiveness that managed to make things even more off-putting.

At MLA, we heard from two customer relations types about the discovery of this content on the platform from their perspective and then a whole lot of half-explained statements about how they might fix the problem. This took up 2/3 of the allotted time in the session, which was a failure in and of itself as the room clearly wanted far more time for Q&A. I can’t recap everything that was said verbatim, but I did snag this photo of one of the slides in their deck:

This says “As a partner to public libraries, we aim for neutrality,” showing a screencap of the aforementioned Library Bill of Rights. On the one hand, this shows an impressive lack of understanding of current professional discourse; on the other, we need to have a serious chat as a field about whether or not we want to keep this document in its present form. In particular, we need to talk about these bits regarding “views”:

  • Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
  • Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.
  • A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
  • Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations (views) of individuals or groups requesting their use.

Applying this inclusion of “all views,” as hoopla insists they do, means you get books in their collection on Holocaust denialism (Debating the Holocaust), COVID denialism (Fight COVID with Melatonin), conversion therapy (Attack on the Family), and defenses of the alt-right in their own words (A Fair Hearing). They acted to remove at least some of the Holocaust denialism texts from their platform, but hundreds if not thousands of titles in these other categories of xenophobia and disinformation are still on there, and they seem to believe it is the responsibility of individual libraries to report these books when they see them. That said, there are very limited collection management tools for library staff to use to actually deal with this trash – the default is for it to be included in hoopla’s library – and in the words of the hoopla reps at MLA, over 20,000 new titles are being added to the platform every month.

Saying “we need to present all views” is a close relative of the old chestnut “I don’t agree with everything on the shelf in my library!” which I heard a panelist announce at another MLA presentation last month. Both show a woefully facile understanding of the relationship between intellectual freedom and social responsibility, something that underscores the ineffectual and performative nature of diversity, equity, and inclusion statements and commitments to anti-racism that suddenly appeared for the first time in the summer of 2020. It makes me seethe when I hear librarians defending shelf space for this propaganda and hate speech while they also prattle on about their buildings being welcoming and accessible to all. Some of them – and hoopla is also along for this ride – will also go on about how we need to keep this stuff somewhere for a mythical public library patron who needs it for “research.” Yes, there are disinformation researchers in academia; no, they do not rely on hoopla’s collection targeted at public libraries (and in many cases, targeted at K-12 schoolchildren, as they depend on public library resources where school libraries have ceased to exist). Next door to this, you also get the librarians accusing each other of censorship by removing titles like the #VendorSlurry from their collections; I’ve been told I’m a censor for weeding, and how we need to keep weeding as “bias-free” as possible. Well, frankly, fuck that, because I am biased against xenophobic lies. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: if that makes me a censor, I’m happy to be one.

Zooming back out, the Midwest Tape folks talked about a few of the actions they’re taking in response to their content crisis, in particular the establishment of a content review board and the improvement of their “algorithm” (in particular, it sounded like adjusting how relevancy ranking works). I have to say, it’s always remarkable to me when I see tech companies operating in 2022 like they have paid absolutely no attention to the ever-growing body of research and recommendations coming out of critical technology/data studies, or even just what’s happening in the industry in general. (I feel like MWT would deny they are a tech company, even as they are acting an awful lot like the toxic bros of surveillance capitalism.) Facebook has a content review board that is famously a useless front. Our presenters informed us that 40% of the board would be made up of library-adjacent people – not even actual librarians, per se, but people who have had some sort of experience in the field, whether it be taking one class or working at another library vendor. The other 60% sounded like a random assortment of people at Midwest Tape. When pressed for details, like whether we could know who is on the board, we were told probably not because hoopla is concerned for their “safety.” This is quite the sidestep. Even if one assumes that means safety from fascists (and not safety from librarian activists, which is honestly what I think they mean), they are putting librarians making content decisions in the line of fire as they are public servants whose identity is necessarily and unavoidably known.

So, this leaves us with the technical fixes they did a whole bunch of hand-waving about. hoopla loves telling everyone about how their content selection happens via a mix of “human and automated processes,” but will never give anyone a lick of detail about what either the human or the automated processes in question look like. Now, one could argue this is the result of some NDA enforcement, but if that is the case – if we truly cannot know what these processes look like – that means libraries should not be using them. Just as you wouldn’t let the patron who got their umbrella stuck in the book drop suddenly take over your Ingram ordering, libraries cannot rely on random unknown actors, whether they are “human” or “automated,” to do collection development. hoopla should understand and respect the need for transparency on how these processes work; a library’s collection development policy and the staff resources spent on selecting and deselecting are core to the operations of the institution, and some might say a library isn’t a library (and is instead just a meaningless collection of junk, which is also what adding 20,000 titles per month to a digital library will get you) without those things in place. Until they can wrap their heads around this and stop with the “we’re improving our processes” crap by muttering some sweet nothings about search ranking, there’s nothing to be done here. And, guess what, guys – we aren’t concerned about whether Debating the Holocaust is number #2 in the results or number #2000. What we’re concerned about is why the shit it’s on the platform in the first place.

The MWT/hoopla situation is awful, no doubt, and Library Freedom Project, MLA IF/SRC, and our various allies are going to keep the pressure on. But librarianship has got to have a reckoning about this whole censorship/intellectual freedom/neutrality debacle. If our colleagues are defending hoopla’s selection of A New Nobility of Blood and Soil by a literal former SS Captain, a book not even sold on Amazon, in their obsessive quest for free speech absolutism, where do they draw the line? Books that encourage pedophilia, rape, suicide? I’m not sure I even want to know, considering how disappointed I am in this field already. But if they say they want all views, hey, well, those are views, too. 🤢

library mgmt navel gazing tech anguish

why does everyone think they know more about libraries than the people who work in them do?

That is the question, my friends. I’m writing this not in response to one particular instance, but rather the seemingly uncountable number of times Library Twitter has found itself ensnared in the typical social media outrage cycle lately. I’m not writing to shame people who engage with trolls, nor am I saying I took the high road when I called some guy a poopface a couple nights ago; rather, I’m trying to identify some patterns and propose some explanations.

First, let’s talk about patterns. (Note: I’m going to keep this anecdatal for now, based on what I’ve seen out there; this is not empirical in any way.) There seem to be patterns of library-related topics that come up, and there seem to be patterns of people asking them. The former is more easily identifiable than the latter; the big four topics that readily come to mind include:

  1. Libraries/library workers are destroying knowledge/promoting censorship/failing at their core duties if they weed/discard books or decline to buy/accept books that don’t fit their collection policies.
  2. Libraries/library workers are no longer needed in the age of Google/Amazon/Starbucks/Netflix/Craigslist, etc. See also, no one goes to libraries anymore (this is semi-related to libraries are ruined because they aren’t dead silent anymore).
  3. An unimaginable cartel of library mafiosi often known as “Big Library” (I picture The Consortium from The X-Files) is destroying publishing.
  4. Libraries/library workers should take on, without exception, every duty suggested to them to make up for a country with no social infrastructure. If they don’t want to do this or express discontent on/about the job, they are not just bad people, but people who want others to die.

In terms of the patterns of people who’ve started in on Library Twitter about these things, they tend to be journalists, people in knowledge-related tech jobs, people in publishing, and small authors/self-publishers. In my experience, I’ve seen lots of middle-aged white men with self-published works, or one or more other things they believe they should have more notoriety for. These are certainly not the only categories, but the one thing they definitely have in common is that they’re not library workers.

Now we know what people are starting shit with library workers about, and we know a tiny bit about the usual suspects. So, why are people so convinced they know all about the work that happens in libraries and feel they must not only share an opinion about it, but then refuse to listen to actual workers who respond? Well, we’ve got to take a step back to the question before that: “How does this person feel about libraries, period?”

At the end of the day, having seen enough of these interactions to theorize about them, I think you’ve got two options – either they dislike libraries/library workers/particular people they’ve encountered at a library, or they don’t think of library workers as people. In the first version, library workers are all stereotyped; in the second version, library workers are non-player characters. Start with that and we’ve immediately got some bad faith a-cookin’. Someone who dislikes a whole field or doesn’t see its workers as having personhood is not going to speak to those workers with positive intent, or intent to listen at all.

Before we move to why these library-hating non-librarians have decided their tweet-sized takes are more valid and important than those of the responses of the people who actually do work in libraries, I want to say it loud and clear: the people who bait Library Twitter are people who dislike or stereotype libraries/library workers. They aren’t fans. We will never know why, whether it’s because of the conventional crappy grade school cronebrarian that shushed them and their friends one too many times (#lifegoals) or if they had a bad breakup with a tattooed MLIS student, but we can surmise they’re not down with libraries or the people who work in them.

And that brings us to why these people are weighing in on library things – they think that because library workers suck so bad and/or are mindless drones, non-librarian opinions must be more valid. Their distaste for the field probably didn’t do much to inform them about the disciplinary nature of LIS, so you can assume they have no idea that library workers are trained in any specific manner and instead believe them to be making arbitrary decisions. (They also probably assume library school consists of drinking tea, knitting, and putting your pronouns in your bio.)

This is hardly unique to Library Twitter and applies just the same in other feminized care labor “Twitters” – nursing, teaching, etc. – and reflects the larger-scale dismissal of the importance or legitimacy of that work. Within libraries, it reflects reality in far more places than just on social media. Librarians are often not seen as educators and LIS as a discipline is largely illegible in academia. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen countless articles in mainstream media about libraries that avoid speaking to any workers. It is also true that Library Twitter has developed a reputation for pile-ons in response to bad takes, and part of the reason why the posters of this content do what they do is absolutely for the guaranteed engagement. Most of the people who engage in the baiting have very high numbers of followers. And it can be especially easy to bait exhausted, underpaid, and underappreciated people.

At this point, we could ask ourselves, “Why don’t they listen when library workers disagree or try to enlighten them?” Do we really need to, though? They don’t want to listen. They don’t like library people and they come into it already thinking they know better. There’s no there there.

Another piece of this worth examining is the tendency of bystanders to leap in and trash-talk library workers. I’ve noticed a few patterns with these incidents; you tend to get the “pronouns in bio” crew, comments on appearance, or “all library workers are just bad people”-type comments. Often, they’re not directly related to whatever the OP said; they’re just random insults. Some other tertiary reactions I’ve seen recently were especially disheartening. A researcher working on social media and bullying chimed in on a recent Library Twitter pile-on, saying library workers missed “context” about the original posts, but never acknowledged that the library workers’ own context – their knowledge of the very jobs they go to every day – even existed.

The word “context” is getting used in some interesting ways online these days. A Library Twitter tussler, one who came under fire for unnecessarily criticizing libraries for closing during a snow emergency instead of opening as a warming shelter because of dangerous road conditions, recently posted Fobazi Ettarh’s iconic paper on vocational awe without understanding the central argument, but with a whole lot of insults for the library workers attempting to explain it to her. She told them they didn’t understand “the context;” a few people leaped in from the sidelines to shame the librarians without “reading comprehension skills.” It was truly something to see, an attempt to transform the misreading of an important paper in the field of LIS–one many librarians have thought about and discussed for years–into yet another thing library workers just don’t understand.

If the last couple of years are any indication, we will be seeing a lot more of this library baiting and hating on Twitter (and undoubtedly other social media platforms I spend less time on).* Given that, I’d say do what thou wilt, o menace that is Library Twitter. I’ll never post things negating your desire to make fun of these dipshits because they do deserve it, and heaven knows I’m not gonna stop dragging these fartknockers. But it seems wise to keep in mind that in all kinds of insidious little opaque ways, Twitter is temping us to act like that. I’m not scolding or telling anyone to stop anything; just encouraging a certain mindfulness to try to counter the social media brain-warp effects. As long as engagement is rewarded in this way, we’re stuck with these assholes. I guess we could try to get comfortable and accept it for what it is.

P.S. That book warehouse guy is a supermassive transphobic asshole.

* The original language here before I edited it: While I doubt even I will hold myself to this because of the gross Internet-brain drive for getting in scuffles with these people, I do think the best thing for all of us is to stop engaging with it in the way they want. I will never, ever shame anyone for feeding the trolls; I do it myself often enough. But looking at this with the question of “Why do they hate us so much?” in mind, I worry that if we continue to pounce, we’ll keep giving them reasons to dislike and resent us, and there will be a vicious cycle of these garbage takes from an ever-increasing number of tools who think you can judge a whole swath of humanity based off one anonymous interaction. I’m not saying that’s a valid reaction from them; I’m just always wondering about the ways our brains are getting warped by these websites attempting to “normalize” communication (particularly during a pandemic, where communication is degrading faster than you can say “hey, can you see my slides?”).

navel gazing

cmrb 2021 annual report

First, some words from last year:

“We’re down to the last 48 hours of 2020, and I’m not joining in the chorus of people saying we’re sure to have a better 2021. I’m not sure we will, frankly, and I’m not sure which spheres of existence (personal, social, political, economic) folks are expecting to have that better year in. And better in the eyes of what beholder? I’m at least aspiring to spend my time and energy differently… 2020 wasn’t personally that bad in many respects, but I know I worked harder than I should have, and took things out on myself more than I deserved. No matter what happens at the levels I can’t control, I hope I can be a little nicer to myself next year.”

Oy. I’m laughing at myself a bit for the degree to which is this something I could have typed out verbatim sitting here tonight. While I was considering whether or not to try writing this post today, I was thinking about strategies to help remember things that happened before September or so, but as I’ve said many times in other places, the last few months blended together and beat so much out of me in a way that it’s kind of stolen the rest of 2021 from my brain. I’m going to try to persevere despite that.

I remember spending New Year’s at home, playing board games and listening to New Wave New Year on WMBR. I also remember our trip to frozen New Hampshire at the end of January for my birthday. It was below zero and people were driving trucks around on the iced-over lake. We still went in the outdoor hot tub, though. It was a great trip, lots of cake and solitude, plentiful X-Files, and me reading Naomi Klein as I had started working on a paper–the first one I’d ever work on for publishing in a peer-reviewed journal–referencing The Shock Doctrine.

I started co-teaching for a class with a lot of tech criticism and social theory, a.k.a. my dream come true. February is largely a blur. I remember following along with our assigned readings and homework submissions, even for the weeks I wasn’t teaching. It was cold but I know I went for a lot of walks and listened to a ton of Citations Needed and You’re Wrong About. And the Dark Trilogy by The Cure. I kept doing my radio show.

In March, we had early warm days, in particular the days after the shortened spring break. We took our class outside one day, a balmy Friday ensconced with early spring sun, and wrote in erasable marker on the dorm windows, mapping out the social entanglements of race, technology, and education. On the following Sunday night, I learned one of our students, 21, had died between then and that gorgeous Friday morning.

I spoke at a conference right after a memorial service for him, and I should have bailed but I pressed myself to do it anyway. A bunch of people really didn’t like it when I said the word “fuck.”

I saw one of my best friends for the first time in nearly a year and we sat outside on their porch under heated ponchos a few weeks before we got vaccinated. I got my first shot at Fenway Park on the lower concourse. I remember I got an absurd parking spot that day, like literally in front of Boston Beer Works.

We tie-dyed masks at work with the students (outside). I helped another of my best friends move out of the house she’d lived in with her ex-husband, where my friends and I had hung out many times over the years. We helped her do a yard sale. I went to visit my family for the first time since the summer of 2020 and bought the two beautiful Boston ferns that now flank the library doors. We had a Zoom call with Frank the red panda at the Greenville Zoo and had our first in-person library event in over a year, the community weaving workshop. A student designed laser-cut looms and my student workers and I put together a few dozen kits with all of the parts and yarn, and our former colleagues ran it. It was lovely.

The class of 2021 graduated and I got some free petunias for my garden. I took over landscaping for my elderly landlords in May. We met Chris’s parents’ new dog. My student workers helped me save a big dying cactus at work. I helped my aforementioned friend move to Providence and put her bed together before we went out for humongous margs and tacos. I bought a kayak that I managed to get into my Honda Fit. I began working on fixing the lopsided lilac in the backyard.

I went kayaking a bunch in May and June. Mostly, I busted my ass in the front and back gardens. I biked to work most of the time. I had awesome summer student workers who worked with me on an extremely cool space redesign project. We began replacing the library’s furniture and carpet over the summer, a project that I never dreamed would succeed. We said goodbye to many coworkers. I bought a new pair of Tevas at REI and didn’t realize the shoes were two different sizes until I brought them home.

The lunatics at LibraryJournal picked me as a 2021 Mover & Shaker and I got some fancy photos taken and did some interviews. Our new dog friend got bigger and we got a new niece. We went to Maine a lot. We went to the 4th of July fireworks show in Pawtucket, the first time we’d been around crowds in well over a year. In July, my radio show, Outback Witch House, made its way to its new home and time, Wednesday nights from 8-10 on Our vacation was in Provincetown right after Delta and it rained all week, but we watched The Fate of the Furious.

I came back to a very different looking library, a thing that still makes me immensely proud. I got a new co-worker. My friends and I went to the Marshfield Fair and saw prize-winning livestock and an epic demolition derby battle between minivans. The semester started and I resumed teaching the class, in a more central role this time. Things on campus were too emotional and they felt so…idk, fragile. We went on a short trip at the end of September for Chris’s birthday, to the three-season cabin we’d visited the year before.

By the time October was underway, it was clear that this was not going to be an easy, or even coherent, semester for many of us. We got out to Worcester and I set the Tetris records at Free Play, as is my wont. At work, we made a very silly but elaborately designed haunted house in the library. I carved a pumpkin with my friend who’d worn heated ponchos with me in the spring. We watched lots of UFC and ate many chicken wings with our best friends. Thanksgiving break came at a time when things at work felt like they were going to implode. Some problems were specific to our class; some were much larger. I have many thoughts and realizations about these matters that I am choosing to not post on a public blog. Let it be said, though, that Sara Ahmed’s new book COMPLAINT! was a vital partner for making sense of it all.

We went to Thanksgiving in Maine and split the Christmas/New Year’s week between Maine and New York. I started taking Level 1 classes at Improv Asylum in Boston. The journal article I started co-writing in January/February was published after two rounds of peer review in December. I submitted applications to a few PhD programs. I have no idea what the next few weeks will be like. We had a small gathering last night–five people who see each other frequently–and it was fun enough to make me feel some optimism about 2022. But Omicron is a mess, and all levels of the response to it are like, “leadership has left the buildinggggg :)”

I think this is about where we came in.

I have seen and heard far fewer “2022 will be better than 2021”-type statements than I did when it came to the 2020/2021 changeover. I think many of us are too tired and burned out to have the optimism right now. But I will recycle this conclusion I made last year. While I’m not optimistic, I’m at least aspiring to spend my time and energy differently… 2020 and 2021 both weren’t that bad in many personal respects, but I know I worked harder than I should have, and took things out on myself more than I deserved. No matter what happens at the levels I can’t control, I hope I can be a little nicer to myself next year.

(see also: my 2021 year-end reading recap and the 2020 annual report)


2021 year-end reading recap

I read 92 books this year, ten more than last year and one more than my goal of 90. 52 were fiction and 40 were nonfiction, a slightly more even distribution than last year’s 58 to 33. Much like last year, most of these books were great. Some were incredible. Some sucked. Also, much like last year, I’m starting this new one off with another takedown of Silicon Valley (An Ugly Truth by Sheera Frankel and Cecilia Kang.)

A few trends stand out to me, looking back at this year’s list. I read more science fiction than usual (intentional, for collection development purposes and curiosity). I also delved into more series this year than I normally do (Murderbot and the Three Pines mysteries, which couldn’t have less in common but I find both to be delightful). There were also more than usual titles that had multiple authors or editors.

Looking back at last year’s recap, I’m going to pull a quote that feel very relevant at the current moment: “As shitty as this year was, I’m grateful I had the time and stability to read as much as I did, and for the fact that my brain still finds so much solace in the written word. Books got me through, folks. Whatever got you through was the right thing for you.” Same deal this time around, and also it’s nice to look back at this list and last year’s and remember that there was a time before the nonstop misery/anxiety spiral that was the fall of 2021. And I super miss listening to books while gardening.

Note: I’m not going to do a list of favorites from 2021 this time just because so much of what I read this year didn’t come out this year. I’m looking forward to reading the best books of 2021 when people stop placing so many holds on them, lol.

Top 5 fiction:
Dana Spiotta – Wayward
Rory Power – Wilder Girls
Rumaan Alam – Leave the World Behind
Maggie O’Farrell – Hamnet
Kim Michele Richardson – The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

Top 5 nonfiction:
Danielle Henderson – The Ugly Cry
P.E. Moskowitz – The Case Against Free Speech
Jathan Sadowski – Too Smart
Xiaowei Wang – Blockchain Chicken Farm
Bryan Stevenson – Just Mercy

Top 5 that taught me the most:
Sara Ahmed – Complaint!
Cliff Kuang & Robert Fabricant – User Friendly
Margaret O’Malley – The Code
Mariame Kaba – We Do This ‘Til We Free Us
Naomi Klein – The Shock Doctrine

Top 5 that will probably have the most significant and/or lasting impact on me:
Andrea Bonior – Detox Your Thoughts
bell hooks – Teaching to Transgress
Dean Spade – Mutual Aid
Chana Porter – The Seep
Robin Wall Kimmerer – Braiding Sweetgrass
(bonus – Ash Sanders’s essay in All We Can Save, “Under the Weather,” was one of the best things I read all year.)

5 best audiobooks:
Margaret Atwood – Oryx & Crake
Donella Meadows – Thinking in Systems (also relevant in all of the other categories, save for fiction)
Rory Power – Wilder Girls
Raynor Winn – The Salt Path
Laura van Dernoot Lipsky – Trauma Stewardship

The complete list of my 2021 reads:

  1. Wendy Liu – Abolish Silicon Valley
  2. Tommy Orange – There There
  3. N.K. Jemisin – The City We Became
  4. Aaron Benanav – Automation and the Future of Work
  5. Chana Porter – The Seep
  6. Alexis Henderson – The Year of the Witching
  7. Ursula K. LeGuin – The Dispossessed
  8. Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji
  9. Naomi Klein – The Shock Doctrine
  10. Kim Stanley Robinson – Red Mars
  11. R. Eric Thomas – Here For It
  12. Bryan Stevenson – Just Mercy
  13. Colson Whitehead – Nickel Boys
  14. Yaa Gyasi – Transcendent Kingdom
  15. Emily M. Danforth – Plain Bad Heroines
  16. Margaret O’Mara – The Code
  17. Olga Grushin – The Charmed Wife
  18. Maika & Maritza Moulite – One of the Good Ones
  19. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha & Ejeris Dixon – Beyond Survival
  20. Mariame Kaba – We Do This ‘Til We Free Us
  21. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky – Trauma Stewardship
  22. Lori Majewski & Jonathan Bernstein – Mad World
  23. Kate Bornstein & Caitlin Sullivan – Nearly Roadkill
  24. Nnedi Okorafor – Binti
  25. Charlie Jane Anders – All the Birds in the Sky
  26. Nicholas Carr – The Shallows
  27. Jathan Sadowski – Too Smart: How Digital Capitalism is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking Over the World
  28. Kim Michele Richardson – The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
  29. Clare Pooley – The Authenticity Project
  30. Robin Wall Kimmerer – Braiding Sweetgrass
  31. P.E. Moskowitz – The Case Against Free Speech
  32. Lee Vinsel & Andrew Russell – The Innovation Delusion
  33. Mateo Askaripour – Black Buck
  34. Annalee Newitz – Autonomous
  35. Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen – Thanks for the Feedback
  36. M.L. Rio – If We Were Villains
  37. Matt Haig – The Midnight Library
  38. Tara Dawson McGuinness & Hana Schank – Power to the Public
  39. Patricia Lockwood – No One Is Talking About This
  40. Naomi Alderman – The Power
  41. Fredrik Backman – Anxious People
  42. Xiaowei Wang – Blockchain Chicken Farm
  43. Rumaan Alam – Leave the World Behind
  44. Torrey Peters – Detransition, Baby
  45. Brene Brown – Braving the Wilderness
  46. Becky Chambers – To Be Taught, If Fortunate
  47. Tommy Wallach – We All Looked Up
  48. Megan Devine – It’s OK That You’re Not OK
  49. Dana Spiotta – Wayward
  50. Joanne McNeil – Lurking: How a Person Became a User
  51. Kevin Roose – Futureproof
  52. Terry Miles – Rabbits
  53. Cliff Kuang & Robert Fabricant – User Friendly
  54. Tsedal Neeley – Remote Work Revolution
  55. Martha Wells – All Systems Red
  56. Lulu Miller – Why Fish Don’t Exist
  57. Jenny Offill – Weather
  58. Brandon Taylor – Real Life
  59. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson & Katharine K. Wilkinson – All We Can Save
  60. Charles Yu – Interior Chinatown
  61. Martha Wells – Artificial Condition
  62. Taylor Jenkins Reid – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
  63. Dean Spade – Mutual Aid
  64. Donella Meadows – Thinking in Systems
  65. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai – The Mountains Sing
  66. Robert I. Sutton – The Asshole Survival Guide
  67. Naomi Kritzer – Catfishing on CatNet
  68. Alexandra Kleeman – Something New Under the Sun
  69. Rory Power – Wilder Girls
  70. Rory Power – Burn Our Bodies Down
  71. Louise Penny – Still Life
  72. Kiese Laymon – Long Division
  73. Maggie O’Farrell – Hamnet
  74. Donna Tartt – The Secret History
  75. bell hooks – Teaching to Transgress
  76. Martha Wells – Rogue Protocol
  77. Diane Musho Hamilton, Gabriel Menegale Wilson, Kimberly Loh – Compassionate Conversations
  78. Jay Caspian Kang – The Loneliest Americans
  79. Danielle Henderson – The Ugly Cry
  80. Raynor Winn – The Salt Path
  81. Andrea Bonior – Detox Your Thoughts
  82. Margaret Atwood – Oryx & Crake (re-read)
  83. Tressie McMillan Cottom – Lower Ed
  84. Lindy West – Shit, Actually
  85. Sara Ahmed – Complaint!
  86. Tim Hwang – Subprime Attention Crisis
  87. Erving Goffman – The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
  88. Jessica Bruder – Nomadland
  89. Katherine McKittrick – Dear Science & Other Stories
  90. James C. Scott – Seeing Like a State
  91. Keller Easterling – Extrastatecraft
  92. Louise Penny – A Fatal Grace
tech anguish

resisting crisis surveillance capitalism in academic libraries

I had the pleasure of working with three fine fellow Library Freedom Project members on this paper, published last week in the peer-reviewed open access Canadian Journal of Librarianship. This was the first time I’ve written anything for an academic journal, and it was a delight. Thank you, Zotero group libraries!

In this paper, we consider what we identify as crisis surveillance capitalism in higher education, drawing on the work of Naomi Klein and Shoshana Zuboff. We define crisis surveillance capitalism as the intersection of unregulated and ubiquitous data collection with the continued marginalization of vulnerable racial and social groups. Through this lens, we examine the twinned crisis narratives of student success and academic integrity and consider how the COVID-19 pandemic further enabled so-called solutions that collect massive amounts of student data with impunity. We suggest a framework of refusal to crisis surveillance capitalism coming from the work of Keller Easterling and Baharak Yousefi, identifying ways to resist and build power in a context where the cause of harm is all around and intentionally hidden.

navel gazing

on solidarity

or What ‘90s Rap, Role-Playing Games, and Labor Activism Can Teach Us in Times Like These

One of my earliest exposures to the concept of empathy came in the form of Everlast’s 1998 one-hit wonder “What It’s Like,” a slow rap on a backdrop of folksy guitar with all the requisite sound effects and turntable wiggles of the era. It’s no masterpiece, but it was overplayed on the radio beyond all measure of sensibility when I was in middle school, meaning it’ll stay lodged in my head for the rest of my days. Still, with its lyrics about the pain of addiction, poverty, and loss, it was among the first times I can remember hearing and thinking about the phrase “walk a mile in [someone else’s] shoes.”

This article is not about the bizarre pop hits of the late ‘90s, though hit me up if you ever do want to have that discussion. I bring up “What It’s Like” because, musical merits notwithstanding, it has an important lesson to share: empathy isn’t possible without understanding. And understanding isn’t possible without the story, detail, and background of what someone else is going through. The word “narrative” serves as a good catch-all for story, detail, and background. In society writ large, certain narratives get more airtime, representation, and discussion than others. The system of U.S. higher education is no exception to that, nor is any given institution of higher education as a particular location within that system.

Because we live in a society, the narratives of certain groups do not tend to get attention at any of our institutions.1 But we need information in order to empathize, and because the narratives of certain groups do not get attention, information that could lead to empathy for those groups goes unheard. Without that informed empathy, people become akin to non-player characters (NPCs)—characters in games that are not controlled by a human player, like the iconic “Hello, my friend! Stay a while and listen” guy from Diablo.2 They are creatures without agency that do not exist as ends in themselves but rather as a means to an end for others, perhaps moving one narrative along while not having a narrative themselves. It’s also tempting to assume you know what’s going on with NPCs when you don’t, because it’s easy to stereotype someone or assign their motives when you don’t consider them to be fully human.

Understanding and empathizing with each other takes effort, though, and if there’s one thing we don’t have a surplus of right now, it’s energy. Earlier this semester, I had a conversation with students about the cognitive dissonance between acknowledging that people are burned out and over capacity and needing to try harder than we normally would to be patient and understanding with each other. A friend at another institution who serves as a vocal labor advocate in her faculty union suggested to me that the extra expenditure of resources—if it’s truly in the name of supporting one another—is worth it, even (if not especially) when we’re this exhausted. It’s a rare case of pushing ourselves in a way that does not have to be exploitative, but instead can lead to what labor activists and sociologists call solidarity. Quoting the Wikipedia3 entry: “Solidarity is an awareness of shared interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies creating a psychological sense of unity of groups or classes4, which rejects the class conflict.” You could think of students, staff, and faculty as separate groups or classes, and you could think of what might unite them as solidarity. To know what might unite these groups, you need some amount of understanding about what each of them is experiencing. Without that, you’re prone to start seeing members of groups other than your own as NPCs.

As I’m writing this in late November, there are abundant reasons to be annoyed, scared, and furious at larger forces in the world, at the U.S., at late-stage capitalism, at the criminal justice system, at tech giants, at the construction of pipelines on stolen land, at the COVID cases ticking back up yet again, at the effing Omicron variant. Not one of us asked to be living through history, and here we are, muddling through a watershed event with no end in sight. It’s valid to feel overwhelmed and hopeless in the face of these things. That said, if we work to build understanding, empathy, and solidarity, we might find ourselves with a way forward. This is not a solution, nor is it a new construction, but instead is a common ground we might be able to stand on if we try to find it.

There are many barriers to solidarity at our college, as there are anywhere (again, we live in a society), but the big one I want to leave us thinking about is the compartmentalization of students, faculty, and staff. These roles have a meaningful functional difference and this is no argument for dissolving them, but true solidarity can and should overcome categorical distinction. If we can find no solidarity between students, staff, and faculty, this effectively denies the potential, and perhaps the very existence, of higher education. We also need solidarity between faculty and staff because as we try to walk the walk of incorporating ethics, inclusion, and humanities into our mission and offerings, we cannot deny the importance of expertise and lived experience of all kinds in this work. Not to mention, a lack of solidarity between different types of labor in any workplace is a liability when any one of us wants to push for better working conditions.5 Many members of our three groups want to see a better world, and many of us have quite similar visions of a better world, and that looks like a path to solidarity. This is not healing, or resilience, which asks us to impossibly return to a “before” state that can no longer be accessed and often negates our experience. This is not turning a crisis into opportunity. Instead, solidarity asks us to find a shared reason to come as we are, broken and mistrustful, from different levels of the system and with our pain validated. It’s a shift away from deficit logic, not toxic positivity6 or a denial of what we’ve been through, and therein lies its power.

The last line of the bridge in “What It’s Like” is this: “You know, where it ends, it usually depends on where you start.” We might try to start from a place where we acknowledge there are many larger and smaller intersecting systems impacting us inside and outside our bubble, where all the players are seen as human, where we’re patient with each other’s mistakes, where solidarity helps us keep going as a group even when individuals feel as if they’ve got nothing left. In the uncertain times of COVID, we are all “stuck in a route of confusion, changing and waiting and seeking the truth of it all.”7 So let’s try to walk it together, if for no other reason than that the forces in the world we want to stop and reverse would like nothing more than to see us breaking off alone.

  1. See “An ‘Alien’ Perspective” in Frankly Speaking vol. 14, issue 3.
  3. Spoiler alert: Librarians actually love Wikipedia, and many of us help keep Wikipedia entries up to date.
  4. Note that this is an oversimplification; of course there are many subgroups of identities, class years, job types, and much more within these three, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll keep it zoomed out.
  7. I’m quoting a Swedish death metal band here in hopes of balancing all the Everlast.
library mgmt

director disorientation

I’ve been debating whether or not to share this for a few days, but ultimately I’m going to in the spirit of library disorientation. This is a story about your credentials and experience being devalued, and outright ignored, to make someone else feel better about their actions.

After a recruiter contacted me to invite me to apply to an open director job, I went through a few rounds of an interview process with a library that will go unnamed here. I mostly applied not because I’m looking to change jobs, but because I had never been headhunted like this before. It’s a very flattering experience. Long story short, though, I did not make it to the final round. The municipality in question, of course, did not inform me of this outcome, but I heard what happened through the grapevine.

I was very surprised, then, to receive a call from a trustee one morning this past week. This trustee informed me that they had moved ahead with other candidates and assumed I had heard this news from HR – nope. They proceeded to see if I would be interested in the job soon to be vacated by the finalist, so they could “soften the blow” for that person’s current boss (at another nearby public library) by offering me up as a potential replacement. The job in question did not make any sense for me at this point in my career. And yet, the trustee said I needed more experience managing “a bigger town library” and that I would “make a great director one day.”

I *am* a director right now. Today. And for almost three years, I was the assistant director for the largest town library in Massachusetts, with three times the buildings and three times the staff as the library this trustee represents. I attempted to explain this, but it was clear that the trustee was not expecting my response and did not want to hear it.

Now, I could go on about my interpretations and feelings here, but this is a public blog, so I’m going to leave you with what I’ve already said. I am relieved this trustee will not be my boss and I’m fine with the outcome, but the only way we will move on from trash behavior in the field is if we call this stuff out when it happens.

library mgmt

on the #blossom2021 debacle

If you’re a Library Twitter person, you probably saw a good amount of stuff today about the closing panel at the BLOSSOM conference, which I mentioned in my last post. Alex Brown wrote an excellent piece on their blog that should catch you up to speed if you want more details than what I’ll share here, but the gist of it is that I was on this panel and Alex and I swore a few times. Instead of choosing to interact with us privately or directly, the conference organizer, Bobbi Newman, elected to write a blog post condescending and criticizing our language choice and when called out on it proceeded to block me and at least a handful of other supportive folks.

I wanted to share a few things from my perspective, not because mine is the one that should in any way be centered during this, but because it will be cathartic for me. On Friday afternoon, for two hours almost right before the panel started, I attended a memorial service for one of my students who unexpectedly died on March 14; he and I had grown close this semester. In a year already pockmarked by tragedy and loss, this has broken our little community, and less than an hour before I was scheduled to speak at BLOSSOM, I was on a Zoom call grieving with my colleagues. I could have stepped down from the panel given the timing, but I decided not to because it was a challenge to pull it together in the first place. Bobbi asked me to be on the panel almost two months ago and I loved the sound of it, but I did not want the panel to be majority white voices. I reached out for help to a colleague who initially intended to be on the panel and recruited Alex, but this person ultimately had to step down due to medical needs. I asked Ray Pun, who I know from Library Freedom Project, to join us as well, and he found our fourth panelist, Nicollette Davis. All in all, it took about a month and a half to get the panel pulled together. Ray was instrumental in writing our questions, and as Alex notes, we discussed other logistics like Alex’s preference for not speaking first. Bobbi was minimally involved in this planning, and she did not even add the description we came up with for our panel to the conference website (and before the recording of our talk was taken down at our request, the page it was embedded on only contained the title of the talk and a content warning).

By the time 4:35 rolled around on Friday and we got to the final question on the panel, I was exhausted and ready to blow off some steam. Alex had said two swears and I decided to validate their ability to do that, thinking there’s strength in numbers (and I hold privileges that they do not). Did I say “fuck” and “shit” a couple times each? Yes. Did I do it because I thought I was in a safe space where I could speak honestly? Yes. Did I do it because I was exhausted from grief and nerves? Yes. Was it intentional? Yes, because I felt as the sole white person on the panel that I should try to absorb potential criticism, and because I wanted to release some of my feelings. Were these things we could have talked about with Bobbi like colleagues instead of stumbling across the equivalent of a post-it note from a roommate indirectly telling you to put the dishes away? Yes. Did she give us an opportunity to do that? No.

I didn’t find out about Bobbi’s post until I saw an email from Alex about it. In the post, she writes about a separate instance of fatphobic comments made by another presenter but – intentionally or not – winds up likening that with the swear words used during our panel. She also makes a few comments that dismiss the expertise of me and my fellow panelists, and goes on to deny that she could possibly be engaging in tone policing despite how others might hear her message. After consulting some friends early this morning, I decided to reply to Bobbi’s tweet about the post to try to shed some light on how she was manipulating the truth: “I really appreciated all of your work last week & standing up about the fat talk–I was cheering for you. But re: swearing, I’m disappointed you made this public in your post and didn’t reach out to me and the members of the panel first with your concerns. We are all pretty hurt.” It wasn’t exactly guns-ablazin’, but I still didn’t get a response.

As the day went on, the other presenters and I decided to write a joint statement:

On Friday, March 26, we spoke on a panel at the BLOSSOM symposium titled Reframing Library Work: A Discussion on Centering Staff Agency, Advocacy and Well Being. While we were impressed by and appreciative of many of the other talks offered during the event, we were deeply dismayed to see yesterday’s blog post by conference organizer Bobbi Newman, On moments of courage and the lack thereof.

In the post, Bobbi likens the use of profanity (specifically the “s-word” and “f-word”) during our panel to the use of fatphobic language used during another talk earlier in the week. Instead of speaking to us privately, Bobbi decided to air her concerns about our panel publicly and implies in her post that she spoke to us about her concerns. This did not happen; she had a chance to speak to us privately after the panel and congratulated us, leaving us with no impression that we had done something “wrong.” She also writes, “[the swearing] wasn’t used to make a point, it was used because the presenter felt they could.” Both of the panelists who swore did so intentionally, which is something that could have been discussed during a conversation between colleagues, but we were not given the chance.

While we are appreciative of our many fellow panelists and speakers during the event, Bobbi’s words feel very underhanded and hurtful, undermining the community vibe that BLOSSOM had seemed to so successfully knit together. We understand that this was posted in Bobbi’s own personal blog and although we acknowledge that she has a right to share what she feels on her own page, we disagree with how this situation was handled. As a result, we have asked that the recording of our panel be removed from the conference website. We apologize to folks who were looking forward to catching it later, but we felt this was our only choice given how things were handled.

Not long after this was posted, I found myself blocked by Bobbi. I have to say I was surprised and disappointed by this, too – I’ve worked with her twice in the past, most recently jumping on a panel at the ER&L conference she was moderating at the last minute. I would not expect this kind of behavior from her or anyone else I’ve worked with on multiple occasions. As Alex writes, “To discover Bobbi’s post by chance was hurtful and frustrating to me personally. If we’re going to talk about professionalism in the field, then this is a good example of what not to do.” Blocking me and other folks who backed us up is another shining example of what not to do.

While I was driving home from campus on Friday evening, I remember thinking “wow, that felt so great; I hope we can do this again next year and I can be involved again somehow.” It was so affirming to go to a conference where being frustrated about the administrative failures of our field and unreasonable expectations for each other and ourselves were being aired out in such a frank, solidarity-building way. Now, though, I feel like I was tricked into believing this event to be a safe space where if I did legitimately step on a rake, someone would talk to me about it and try to understand my perspective before passive-aggressively taking me to task on a blog post I may not have even seen if it weren’t for my co-panelists.

Today, I spent most of my waking hours being stressed out and anxious about the ramifications of all of this, having already experienced potentially devastating tone policing in the form of a letter written to my employer last summer. I also had to do my job, and right now that includes consoling grieving students and helping them deal with the last slog of an academic year that has felt like traversing the circles of hell. It was kind of a classic situation of the sort I at least thought we were trying to steer away from at an event like BLOSSOM. I thought we were focusing on the whole self, preventing over-extension, fostering empathy and clear communication, and recovering from the trauma we’ve all experienced since the pandemic began. But thanks to this unnecessary kerfuffle, I did not have a day where my morale, outlook, or well-being were in anything resembling a good place. We have a long fucking way to go if we can’t even make good on these things during the confines of a conference.

library mgmt

normalize accountability

I went to two conferences I very much enjoyed this month – the Conference on Academic Library Management and BLOSSOM (Building Life-long Opportunities for Strength, Self-care, Outlook, Morale, and Mindfulness). Both of them had a ton of great information and ideas to unpack around being a better manager with a more holistic, empathetic approach. Both had sessions that dealt with how “burnout” narratives are framed – i.e., usually the blame for them falls on the individual rather than underlying concerns, power imbalances, or other systems that lead to worker struggle. I learned a ton and I am eager to rewatch the sessions that were recorded when I have the time. We had a great time commiserating about the myriad failings of our top administrators. But I couldn’t help but notice there was something that didn’t really get covered: what do we do with problematic colleagues or reports?

I bring this up because we have a serious toxicity problem in libraries. There’s a Green Book that exists for BIPOC library workers to help them avoid the most racist workplaces. I’ve been in several conversations lately where folks have said we need a whitelist of places that aren’t miserable, filled with drama, or under-resourced to the point of constant crisis. I am all about treating every staff person as a whole human being deserving of dignity and safety, but we need to talk about what we do with the individuals that actively add to the toxicity, whether that’s in the form of the -isms, chronically shirking responsibilities (and therefore sticking more work on the plates of their already overworked colleagues; a surefire way to get that resentment going), or being socially destructive, manipulative, etc.

Early this morning, because–to be frank–I am stressed out about work to the point where it’s interfering with my ability to sleep, I posted some semi-related thoughts on Twitter; I’m going to gently reword them here.

I think some of us library folk put up with dysfunctional, if not toxic, situations because we care so much about our patrons. And certain…architects of dysfunction know this and take advantage of it. This can go for caring about your colleagues, too. I’d say it’s not even intentionally malicious from the powers that be at times, and I’d expand this dynamic beyond libraries and to education as a whole. I think the blame for this is not on individual “carers,” but on patterns of neglect (lacking accountability for problematic colleagues, deficit logic, devalued work/life balance, lack of direction & vision, failure to acknowledge the importance of the library or congratulate its accomplishments, and territorial or siloed behavior). This is something different than vocational awe, although it’s a compounding factor. It’s maybe more like vocational exploitation: it’s not only our vision of ourselves as carers or helpers but the ways that makes us vulnerable (in a way that’s not our fault) to dysfunction.

So what I’m saying here is because I am able to self-motivate with things that are relatively consistent and separate from institutional whims that may or may not have my best interest in mind, I can get pretty far on the energy and reward I get out of helping students. Most of the time, that’s enough to take my mind off the underlying issues, but is that how we should be handling this? Should we continually be running down the lists of pros and cons in our heads and trying to find ways to justify sticking around when things are bordering on or crossing over into toxicity? There are situations where that may legitimately be the best option, like when you’re unable or unwilling to leave a job and need to actively compartmentalize things, but can we even measure how much energy that sucks up?

It pains me to try to write this because there is nuance beyond what my brain is capable of right at the moment, but if we’re going to deal with how rampant toxicity has become in this profession, I think we need to balance whole-self management with accountability. There are unfortunately people in this field who reproduce poisonous, outdated, and/or hateful ideology. They can be malicious; they can thrive on drama and undermining their colleagues instead of what keeps many of the rest of us going (helping patrons). We should not be trying to open the hearts and minds of absolutely everyone we work with, particularly if they’re xenophobes, but also if we’ve tried to do that for a long damn time and gotten exactly nowhere with it. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as “the boss” in the last almost-two-years is that management is a two-way street. The person being managed has to, on some level, want to be managed. If that’s not the case, I feel like it’s a Top Chef/Project Runway situation where they sometimes let people go when they don’t feel like they can impart any new knowledge or mentorship to them.

It’s an incredibly delicate balance to strike. I want people to not lose their jobs and livelihood, but I also don’t want them to stay working in places where they are miserable and shittily taking it out on other people. And it’s clear that the toxicity is out of control. In no way do I fault CALM or BLOSSOM for not covering this – they were excellent experiences, and both were free. But I’d like to see a lot more discussions about this, because the situation has got to change.


woburned part 2: people don’t actually want “the neoliberal library”

(NOTE: This post does not in any way represent the views of my employer or any professional organization I am a part of. The information here was based on conversations I had with multiple current and former staff members, members of the Support Woburn Librarians Facebook group, and articles in the Woburn Patch. It is presented here with my best faith attempt to describe things accurately and with appropriate context. There is a small amount of editorializing because this is a personal blog.)

Back in July, I wrote a post on here called “Woburned” with the following tl;dr disclaimer: “A library director with a questionable past is trying to union-bust and furlough 17 of her employees not for budgetary reasons but because, in her words, ‘many skills of library staff do not translate to the digital world of the pandemic’ and an increasing number of people both in the city and in the wider library community are begging to differ.”

That director, Bonnie Roalsen, announced her resignation today, claiming the library had been “reduce[d]… to a political tool.” It is true that Woburn mayor Scott Galvin has begun to seize an awful lot of power over the library in the last month, but it may have been his best option for cleaning the mess up there. The gridlock of trustees who placed their loyalty to Roalsen above concerns from citizens and refused to comply with Galvin’s attempts to discontinue her contract–not to mention racked up countless open meeting law violations and acted with bald-faced hostility to fellow board members in multiple public meetings–might have left him with few alternatives. Still, it’s a solution that I and others are hoping is temporary. To wit, Galvin wasn’t exactly an ally to library supporters over the summer; he not only criticized the Support Woburn Librarians Facebook advocacy group for being “hysterical” but also chastised sympathetic administrators of nearby libraries for getting involved in the city’s business.

So what brought us to this moment, and why now? It has been months since staff were suddenly denied access to email, replaced with volunteers in the spring, and forbidden from running library programming (or doing any work from home at all). The volley of Open Meeting Law complaints kept coming one after the other through the summer and the fall, but it seems like the final straw was the disastrous trustees’ meeting on January 19. Members of the Support Woburn Librarians group had begun asking questions about the library’s decision to hire a public relations firm in October, filing an Open Meeting Law complaint as it appeared this happened without a quorum. When two dissenting members of the board questioned this at the January 19 meeting, they were aggressively shot down. Ex-chair Jan Rabbitt told them she didn’t ask them to vote on certain decisions because she “just knew” they’d say no. This caught the mayor’s attention in a way we hadn’t yet seen. He called it “unconscionable and unacceptable” and within two weeks, he had begun working on preventing lifetime appointments for Woburn trustees and forced Rabbitt’s resignation.

Things escalated quickly; it’s been a little less than a month since that meeting went off the rails. But this saga started back in the spring, and though Roalsen and Meehan attempt to paint a very different picture in their resignation letters (available at the end of this article), we didn’t arrive at this moment because of the “political takeover…that goes against our core values as Americans,” or because of an expectation to only “serve middle-class white mothers of seven-year-olds.” We’re here because even though the library’s FY21 budget was increased, Roalsen allegedly attempted to eliminate 17 of 25 jobs in the library during a pandemic and over 7,000 people said “NO.” We’re here because Roalsen and Meehan insisted there was no work for staff members to do while the volunteer organization that was called in to help provide book pickup services figured out they were supplanting union jobs and refused to continue. We’re here because 2,000 concerned citizens have aired nine months of complaints about everything from ADA non-compliance to substandard services for children to lacking acknowledgments of cultural heritage months to the dissolution of fundraising bodies like the Friends of the Woburn Public Library.

Put another way, we’re here because Woburn residents did not want what Roalsen & Co. were selling. They wanted the qualified staff – their trusted neighbors and community members – to be able to do the jobs they were hired for. Meehan calls this “defiant ignorance of the future, coupled with naked political agendas and cronyism.” Roalsen says it’s “a modern building without modern ideas [that’s] just four walls and rooms full of shelves.” Both appear to rely on an undercurrent of technochauvinism, invoking the spectre of automation and the “challenges and opportunities of post-pandemic America” as justification for their attempts to disempower (and dismiss) their staff.

A quick web search of Roalsen leads to a number of past presentations at Computers in Libraries and Internet Librarian in which she paints herself as a harbinger of the future of our profession. I suppose that’s so if the future of libraries is Sunday hours sponsored by Raytheon, storytimes put on by gig laborers, and four walls and rooms full of shelves with no staff members around to talk to you or help you with all the new shiny tech. Refusing that vision isn’t “defiant ignorance of the future” – it’s a rejection of one person’s ill-advised neoliberal doctrine, which is itself defiant ignorance of what the community wants (and what lies at the core of librarianship, no matter how hard you namedrop Ben Franklin). And can you blame the people of Woburn for wanting something else?