The stories we tell ourselves

Sunrise over Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, with the National Library on the right. Photo courtesy Glenn Martin Photography

Around 10.30pm last night I had a brainwave.

I lay in bed despairing at the election results, where a lot of money had swayed a few votes in a few seats in a manner not to my liking, when I suddenly remembered a book I needed to read. I’d had this book since February (courtesy of Hugh, who had read it in one sitting) but knew it would need to be read in a certain mood. Polemics are better heard, not seen, so I began to read the foreword aloud to myself.

‘Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to take away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.’

Rebecca Solnit wrote Hope in the Dark fifteen years ago, in part a response to the invasion of Iraq and the despair felt by millions who watched it unfold. The foreword to the third edition was written in 2015 and, to be honest, it shows. Yet it reminded me that one electoral result is not failure, that change is incremental, that we do not know the future for certain, and within that uncertainty there is space for hope.

Hope. Not optimism.

This is not a political blog, much as I have become a political person, and much as my employment brings with it certain restrictions on my political speech. But politics and librarianship go hand in hand. We fiercely defend the freedom to read, the freedom to collect, the freedom to describe, and the freedom of library users to go about their business unbothered by neo-Nazis. These all involve making political choices. We are not neutral spaces. We are not merely vessels for the stories of others—we have a role in amplifying those stories, and for telling stories of our own.

I keep coming back to what David Ritter said at GLAMSLAM, the recent one-day symposium for GLAM workers hosted by the Australian Centre for Public History. GLAMSLAM itself was a bit of a mixed bag for reasons that aren’t relevant right now, but I’m still glad I attended. I wrote a lot of notes during David’s keynote, titled ‘GLAM Power as clean energy? Bring it on!’. Reading over my scribbles, I can’t always tell where the speaker’s thoughts ended and mine began. But one paragraph stands out to me.

Yes! We can do the thing against the odds! // Convince people that human ingenuity can get us out of this mess. [Even if] it won’t get us out. It’s a future we won’t see. And perhaps, since we are the problem, we deserve to go. But he will never say that—we need to tell ourselves that humans can make change.
ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE

It was a rousing and inspiring speech, though my notes are peppered by a well-developed streak of misanthropic nihilism. David knew what story we needed to hear, and told it to a roomful of librarians and cultural heritage workers so that we might repeat the message. This is how we can use our GLAM Power™: by telling the stories that will drive the transition to a more just and liveable planet. To build a better future, we first need the ability to imagine it. (You can listen to David’s keynote on the GLAMcity podcast.)

David Ritter wasn’t the first person at GLAMSLAM to make the connection between libraries and public narrative. The New GLAM-er fringe event the day before included a speaker from a NSW regional public library (whose name I sadly neglected to write down), who came to librarianship with a PR degree. She emphasised the role of the library as a natural home for storytelling, but with facts to back those stories up. I can’t imagine ever working in public relations. I wouldn’t be able to tell a story I didn’t believe.

I often think about the stories we tell ourselves. But today I wonder about the stories we’re clearly not listening to, the stories going unheard. Libraries enthralled so many of us as children. Magical places of safety and story. These memories inspired many of us, me included, to pursue careers as library workers, to become story curators. But who is telling the stories we collect? Whose narratives go unrecorded? What relation do these stories bear to others’? To our environment? To our history? To others’ histories? What stories help us make sense of our lives? What choices do our stories prompt us to make? What do we tell ourselves so that we can sleep at night?

Not all stories are hopeful. Some are actively harmful, told in bad faith, designed to mislead, deceive or frighten. I hope that we all might one day reconcile our stories with the abundant evidence available to us, weaving a stronger and more truthful set of inclusive narratives that lead us toward a better future. I hear librarians are quite good at that.

I find solace in nature and nature writing, grounding me in every sense. Last week I picked up the newest Griffith Review, Writing the country, which I’ve looked forward to for some time. David Ritter has an essay in it, ‘We all took a stand’, telling a remarkable, Solnit-esque story about how in 2010 the locals of Margaret River, Western Australia, took on the coal prospectors and won. We both marvelled at how this story isn’t more widely known. ‘As a movement it is so important that we narrate and remember every success. There is power in our stories if we choose to tell them.’

Hugh is notorious for annotating his books, so I took this as permission to read Hope in the Dark with a pencil in my hand. The book felt like an emergency bandage for an open wound, holding in all my emotions to stop them from falling out. Many passages were already underlined, asterisked, or pencilled in the margins. I’m not sure how long I can staunch this flow; at some point I will mourn the future it clearly wasn’t time for. But one sentence neatly encapsulated my current goal. I underlined it, with a sharper pencil.

The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.

Or, as David himself tweeted earlier today, in an eloquent and uplifting thread I saw just a moment ago:

Great change is non-linear. History is unpredictable. Elections come and elections go but we must retain belief in what is possible and execute our best plans to make it so.

Putting my money where my mouth is

This month for GLAM Blog Club we are invited to consider what it means to ‘donate’—our time, our labour, our organs, our money. To give freely with no expectation of return. Supposedly. In practice, sums of money are moved around all the time under the cover of ‘donations’, when they’re really a method of currying favour with the powerful.

Coincidentally, my ALIA membership is up for renewal this month. Having finally gotten around to graduating at the end of last year, my membership dues are now at the ‘Associate (New Graduate)’ level, and at $199 have doubled from the ‘Student’ level dues I was previously paying. I am under no illusions that giving ALIA more money will somehow increase my influence within the organisation. They know exactly who I am. But because paying dues is a requirement of membership, it’s not really a donation. More like a payment in anticipation of services rendered.

So what services do I want? I decided to continue receiving InCite online, rather than in print (though I wouldn’t mind a copy of the issue with my face in it, I think my mum would like that). I’ll keep reading the ALIA Weekly, PD Postings and RecruitLIS newsletters. I’ll go to local ALIA events, but I’ll probably also have to help organise them, and it’s a bit disheartening when few to no people show up.

But I know my membership is not just about me. It’s about our profession as a whole. It’s about ALIA’s leadership of the Australian library sector and the tone they set for the national discourse. Their embodiment of the values and ethics of librarianship. Their support for various parts of the sector in the face of social, governmental, financial and ethical challenges.

These are the services I anticipate. I hope one day to see the ALIA CEO give a speech akin to that recently given by CILIP CEO Nick Poole. He admitted, frankly and refreshingly, that the CILIP of today is not what CILIP ought to be. He pledged to transform the UK’s library and information association into a dynamic, forward-thinking body that collectivises and amplifies the wishes and concerns of its members. ‘The work of becoming an activist organisation, an organisation that campaigns for and celebrates social justice, belongs to us all.’

ALIA is not an activist organisation. I strongly believe it should be one. And yet ALIA belongs to us all, or at least those of us who are members. It’s ultimately why I choose to remain a member, because that $199 gets me a seat at the table. I might not like much of what is being served, but I at least have the ability to demand something else. If enough of us make these demands, the menu might just change.

I also recently donated, freely and with no expectation of return, to two GLAM organisations whose values I share: the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, a community archive of LGBTIQ materials and histories based in Melbourne, and newCardigan, a progressive GLAM collective based in Melbourne and Perth. (Regular readers may be familiar with my strain of cardivangelism.) Both organisations are run by volunteers, doing good work in and for their communities, and could use any funds you can spare.

While cleaning my house earlier today I found my ALIA member’s pin, after many years of forgetting I owned one. I decided to affix it to my Badge Hat, between the ‘Libraries are not neutral’ and ‘GLAM Pride Vic’ badges. I like seeing ALIA in this context. I hope to continue seeing it in many others.

What is a student worth?

This morning, as I was getting off the bus and into the rain, I tweeted about the first day of my professional placement. This tweet turned into a giant thread about the nature of work experience within LIS, whether placements should be compulsory and/or paid, and the difficulties inherent in taking time off paid work or other responsibilities. I am slightly stunned by the response it got. I hope this doesn’t make me some kind of influencer. :/

You might have to click on a few different tweets to see all the responses. I was typing on my phone and so was slower to respond. Plus I was, yanno, doing a placement. I’m concerned that some of my thoughts on the topic may have been buried or misinterpreted, so here is a very quick overview. I also want to make very clear that my views on this topic are, as always, my own. They are definitely not those of my former employer, my placement host, my future employer or my uni.

In short: I have no issue with work experience or professional placements. I fully appreciate that for many LIS students, a placement may be the only practical experience they get before they graduate. Placements can lead to great networking or job opportunities, and we all know how hard entry-level jobs are to find these days. Plus with so many of us studying online (me included), every little bit of library experience helps. Many students find their placements to be enriching and rewarding experiences that allow them to apply their theoretical knowledge in a practical setting.

I do have an issue with unpaid placements—if they are unpaid, they should not be compulsory. Being a student is financially precarious enough as it is. By forcing students to attend unpaid work experience, we are implicitly sending the message that their labour is worth nothing. That in order to be professionally recognised and accredited, they need to have invested their time, energy and enthusiasm in a host organisation that couldn’t even be bothered paying them. That they ought to have enough funds from somewhere else to support themselves, and that if they don’t, they’re not welcome here. This kind of attitude only further entrenches the class inequality within LIS. The payment wouldn’t have to be much—even a small stipend would help immensely. Something to take the sting out of that fortnight’s rent.

In addition, being on placement should not be an excuse for the host organisation to use the student as free labour doing the crappy jobs. I am fortunate that this is not the case for me. I am doing my placement in a well-regarded institution, doing some interesting stuff. I also had to quit my job in order to do it. I am sandwiching my placement in between short-term contracts; scheduling has been very difficult for me, and I don’t even have children or caring responsibilities (it must be ten times harder for those who do!). I am also fortunate to have good finances, a second job, and a week’s worth of annual leave payout. Plenty of students don’t have this to fall back on.

The issue of who would pay a placement stipend is a tricky one. I believe organisations who take placement students should consider a stipend part of the cost of doing business. After all, most hosts are already investing staff time (ergo money) in training the student and showing them the ropes. The flipside, of course, is that places that can’t afford to pay students will simply stop offering placements, and only the richest libraries will take students. I’m not convinced. I think they would find a way—after all, students are going to be running this profession one day, and wouldn’t you want to make sure you taught them the right things?

I’m glad that we’re talking about unpaid placements. I hope that our conversations today might be a catalyst, however small, for some reform in this area. Professional placements are not, strictly speaking, work—but they prepare students for the world of work in LIS. And they are worth paying for.

Games without frontiers

With warning / No warning
Peter Gabriel has a song for everything.

I hope you’ve read the recent articles about Cambridge Analytica, the secretive data-mining and -laundering firm that used data illicitly extracted from millions of Facebook profiles to microtarget American voters, and ultimately interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. I learned a lot the other day, including a troubling new-to-me phrase: ‘information operations’. Information as a cyberweapon, against which the public has little to no defence. In many cases, individuals have no idea that they have been targeted at all.

I look at this news as an ‘information professional’, long on morals and short on pay, and I despair. We are powerless against information mercenaries who will acquire personal data by any means and sell it to anyone. We are pawns in international cyber-wargames. How can we possibly arm people against threats like this? How are we defending our communities against this onslaught?

Our profession relies on the goodwill of people, chiefly middle-aged white women, who just want a comfortable job and a secure income. Fighting is a risk few librarians are prepared to take. Fewer still are adequately prepared. How often have you heard people say ‘ooh, I’d like a nice quiet library job’? Who wants a flaming argument at the reference desk with someone neck-deep in their News Feed? How many of us have shared inflammatory content on social media, unaware of how it came to us in the first place? Who among us knows where our patron data is going? (Hint: it’s going to Big Vendor, and we’re not calling them out on it)

What can we do? What good are our morals if we have no impact?

The March/April issue of ALIA’s member magazine InCite is themed ‘Libraries in the post truth society’. The day before deadline, I decided to write a short piece. That’s me on page 24. I’m surprised it was published, to be honest. I don’t think it’s my best work. But it’s also the most optimistic take I could possibly come up with (and believe me, I tried!). InCite readers want optimism, positivity, progress. They don’t want to hear about the slow disintegration of civic society and the planet at large. They don’t want to know how much Facebook has on them. They don’t think about the nature of their library’s relationship with their vendors. It’s not going to help them get through the day.

We seem to want it both ways. We painstakingly teach fake news detection strategies to people who aren’t listening. We want people to trust us. Yet we’re still buying (crappy) library software from commercial entities that naturally place profit above privacy. We’re still using Facebook to promote our libraries, even as we discover what happens to the data of Facebook users. Personally, I quite like the idea of a profession with an inbuilt set of morals and ethics. (I know there are varying views on this.) But we certainly don’t always act in ethical ways.

Librarianship is not innocent. We are complicit in the takeup of unequal systems and unethical practices. The sooner we all take a good hard look at ourselves, our society, and the Delete button on our workplace Facebook accounts, the better. We cannot hope to defend—and change—a world we don’t understand.

Response to ALIA’s updated statement on marriage equality

As I’m sure everyone has seen by now, the ALIA Board of Directors today made an additional statement on marriage equality. This statement was prompted, in large part, by the negative response from ALIA members to ALIA’s formal response to NGAC of 11 September (released online on 18 September), culminating in the open letter I wrote to the Board on Tuesday 19 September, and the further letters and feedback that followed.

(I feel like I need a timeline, to be honest.)

Firstly, I’d like to sincerely thank the ALIA Board for reading my letter and those sent by others (including James Nicholson and @Preprint_). I received the same email response that James did, which echoes the statement on the ALIA website.

I was heartened to see my letter strike such a chord with the Australian library community. I was especially thrilled to have inspired others to write to the Board as well, and to have helped fellow librarians to find their voice. I was so, so happy to see so many supportive Twitter comments and likes and retweets and engaged, thoughtful commentary.

However, I must admit I am not as thrilled by the Board’s statement as I would like to be. My views on this are quite complex, with my earlier attempts to condense them into 140 characters ending in complete failure. I want to be careful in how I phrase these views, and I apologise in advance if I am wordier than usual.

For perpetuity, the Board’s revised statement is as follows:

The ALIA Board agrees that the current Commonwealth legislation dealing with marriage is discriminatory, and that a yes response to the postal survey is required to right this discrimination. At a human level, we regret the divisions that are forming and the impact on the well-being of our Members. We believe the majority of our personal members will support a yes vote and we, as a Board, do so too.

We continue to encourage ALIA Members to participate in the postal survey; to support our LGBTQIA+ colleagues and clients; and to ensure that library users have access to the information they need to help them understand the issues.

Note that ALIA’s institutional position has not changed—that is, there isn’t one. Where the Board previously spoke as individuals, they have decided to speak together, and lend the weight of their collective Directorships to their speech. This statement, like the one before it, has come from the Board as people, not from ALIA as an institution. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

By comparison, Andrew Vann, the Vice-Chancellor of Charles Sturt University (where I studied for my MIS) issued a searing, powerful statement affirming CSU’s support for marriage equality. Professor Vann clearly agonised over this statement and gave it a lot of thought, yet ultimately decided to commit not just himself as an individual, but the university ‘as a corporate body, an employer of staff and a community of students’ to supporting LGBTIQ scholars and the broader cause of marriage equality. It’s a beautiful piece and I can’t thank Professor Vann enough for writing it.

I love Professor Vann’s statement because it hits all the right notes. It affirms a university’s role as a defender of intellectual freedom and a place to discuss sometimes difficult ideas. It acknowledges the existence of other views and the right of people to hold and express those views. It also makes clear that if the university is to uphold its stated value of inclusivity, being neutral is simply not an option.

The Board’s revised statement does not do those things. The opening phrase ‘the ALIA Board agrees’ (with whom? with me, presumably) kinda gives away that this statement wasn’t ALIA’s idea. There is no mention of the existence of opposing views (a concession that, for the record, I would have completely supported) and no defence of the library as a space for the exploration of ideas.

Note also the expression of ‘regret [for] the divisions that are forming’ within Australian librarianship. This is not the first time the Board have brought this up; it was also mentioned in their response to Katie Miles-Barnes’ resignation from NGAC. I’d like to be wrong, but this tells me the Board are more preoccupied with the idea of librarians (publicly) disagreeing on this issue than on the issue itself. Because, you know, we were all one happy family before the postal survey was forced on this country, and librarianship totally wasn’t dying a slow death, right? Right?!

In what is surely a complete coincidence, NGAC advertised today for new members. There has been a lot of talk on Twitter over the last week about the relevance of ALIA to newer, more progressive librarians. The cynic in me suggests these advertisements were timed to capitalise on this wave of dissent, to provide a way for those disaffected librarians to contribute positively to the future of their organisation.

I was once asked, long before all this blew up, if I were interested in joining NGAC when the opportunity arose. I was then, as I am now, reluctant to join an organisation and advocate from within, when I felt I could be more effective working from the outside. (I was also hesitant to give up some of my hard-won internet semi-anonymity.) ALIA’s treatment of NGAC over the last month has only cemented my position. Sustained lobbying by NGAC and the resignation of an NGAC member over this issue were not met with an appropriate response. It took a few letters from ordinary Personal Members, and a flood of Twitter discussion, to galvanise the Board into taking a stand.

I truly feel that ALIA’s response is not enough. I wanted ALIA as an institution to take a position. It didn’t happen. But this new statement of support from the Board is more than we had. NGAC, Katie, yours truly and many others have worked hard to make it happen. I am grateful that the Board took the time to read and discuss my letter, and I am gratified that they have responded at all.

If nothing else, it demonstrates that this system works. Andrew talked today about the value of remaining an ALIA member, a topic on which I continue to seesaw. It’s true that I couldn’t have written my letter were I not an ALIA member. I know it spoke for librarians who, for various reasons, are not ALIA members themselves. Yet I find it difficult to support an organisation that had to be cajoled into supporting its members. I wonder if other groups are a better fit for me.

I’ll finish by clarifying an important point. I am not a queer person. I am, so far as I know, a straight person. This fight is not about me. It is about you, rainbow librarians of Australia, who deserve all the love and support and empathy and advocacy I can muster. I was not asked to fight this battle. I choose to fight it because it’s the right thing to do. I can shout pretty loud, so I choose to use my voice to amplify others.

I’ve made my point. I’ve cast my vote. I encourage you all to do the same.

Please vote yes. 🙂

An open letter to the ALIA Board of Directors on marriage equality

Board of Directors
Australian Library and Information Association
PO Box 6335
Kingston ACT 2604

By email: aliaboard@alia.org.au

19 September 2017

To the ALIA Board of Directors

I write regarding your recent statements on marriage equality in Australia, a topic currently the subject of a voluntary postal survey, to be issued to Australians on the electoral roll. While I have debated writing you for several days, your response to NGAC dated 11 September 2017 and released by NGAC on 18 September has compelled me to speak.

As a Personal Member of ALIA, I am extremely disappointed by your handling of this issue. It has been apparent from the outset that ALIA, as a professional organisation, clearly cannot bring itself to say ‘We support marriage equality’. Your actions are a source of intense professional shame.

Your stated reasons for this reticence demonstrate ALIA’s priorities loud and clear—that you prioritise the interests of Institutional Members (including faith libraries, whom you did consult) over those of Personal Members (including the ALIA LGBTQ SIG, whom you did not consult). You prioritise the rights of members ‘to hold an alternative opinion’ on what you claimed to agree was a human rights issue. You consider this topic so important that you relegate your recent statements on it to the ALIA FAIR Twitter account, which has just 12% of the followers of ALIA’s main account, and which seemingly enables ALIA to distance itself from its own political advocacy. Even then those statements are issued from individual Directors, not the Board itself.

You have gone out of your way to disassociate ALIA from any statements of support made by Directors, members, SIGs or committees. This suggests that ALIA is fearful of potential backlash from opponents of marriage equality. I don’t want my professional organisation to be so terrified of backlash that it refuses to stand for anything. I want ALIA to take a stand. I want ALIA to speak for me.

Compare your statements with those of the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA) and Professional Historians Australia (PHA). The ASA’s statement demonstrated their willingness to stand up for their members and the wider LGBTIQ community. PHA’s statement went even further, recognising the work of LGBTIQ individuals in historical pursuits and the right of all Australians to be regarded as equals before the law. Neither statement told their members how to vote, yet both organisations affirmed their support for marriage equality and the welfare of their members. There is nothing stopping ALIA from taking a similar approach.

Your responses to this issue smack of an organisation trying desperately to be neutral. To please all parties. To tick all boxes. Yet this survey presents us as voters with only two boxes, and we may tick only one. To abstain—to claim neutrality—is to do just as much harm as it would to vote no, for abstention is both an implicit endorsement of the status quo and a sign that you do not consider this issue important enough for you to voice an opinion.

Librarianship is not, has never been, and will never be a neutral profession.

You campaigned for months for the release of Ukrainian librarian Natalya Sharina from house arrest. The language you used then to defend her was noticeably stronger than the language you use now to defend your own members. You were not neutral on that issue—because being neutral would have been inconsistent with library values.

ALIA’s core values include a commitment to ‘respect for the diversity and individuality of all people’. The debate on the scope of Australia’s marriage laws—for that is all it is—presents a golden opportunity for you to walk that walk. To respect the diversity of library workers and library users alike. To support the right of all couples to have their relationships recognised by law. Your actions so far have sent a very clear message that you do not respect our diversity, and by extension, that you do not respect us.

It is not too late for you to set this right. The survey is still in progress, and you have ample opportunity to show your support for, and solidarity with, LGBTIQ library workers and library users. You do not have to tell people how to vote. You can acknowledge the breadth of opinion on this issue, and how the influence of Institutional Members had previously guided your stance. All you have to do is issue a brief statement affirming ALIA’s position, as informed by NGAC and Personal Members across Australia. It can, in fact, be four words long.

‘We support marriage equality.’

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Alissa M.
ALIA Member