This article first appeared in inCite, the magazine of the Australian Library and Information Association, January/February 2020, volume 41, issue 1/2, page 24.
Are you a critical librarian? You might already be, but maybe didn’t know your actions and philosophies fit within the name. Perhaps you’re the type to advocate for changes to subject headings, or your workplace is actively making library spaces more welcoming for disadvantaged people. Perhaps these are really the same thing.
For some, critical librarianship, or ‘critlib’, means bringing social justice principles to library work, such as a commitment to equality, diversity and solidarity with marginalised people. For others, it means aligning their library practice with critical theory, a ‘framework that is epistemological, self-reflective, and activist in nature’. These are related but distinct approaches to how libraries interact with their communities. It’s one thing to advocate for social justice in the library, but it’s quite another to use the tools of critical theory to explore why and where there is social injustice in the library in the first place.
Critical librarianship involves deep, considered analysis about the structure and theory of library work. It doesn’t mean criticising in a rude or disparaging way. Nor does it mean believing that libraries are necessarily bad. Critical librarianship aims to make the profession better by recognising harmful and oppressive structures, dismantling those structures and building better ones in their stead. We critique because we care.
All areas of library work can incorporate critical perspectives, including reference, information literacy, outreach, IT systems, collection development and cataloguing. Each area strives to recognise who is harmed by prevailing library practices, what message they send, and how they might be reformed.
For example, advocating for changes to subject headings, such as the notorious Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) ‘Illegal aliens’, involves recognising how terms like these reflect social and political mores of the United States Congress, the institution served by the Library of Congress and its subject headings. Australian libraries use these headings mostly out of convenience, but many terms are clearly inappropriate, such as ‘Dreamtime (Australian Aboriginal mythology)’. The equivalent term in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) subject headings is ‘Religion – Dreaming’, which repositions the Dreaming as contemporary spiritual practice and not ancient mythology.
Neither term is neutral, because nothing about librarianship is neutral, but choosing to replace an LCSH term with an AIATSIS one demonstrates a recognition of the rights of Indigenous people to describe their culture their way, and the obligations of libraries to uphold those rights. It sends a message that these are the terms the library prefers, and in so doing makes the library catalogue a more welcoming and inclusive place. It’s about taking social justice principles of diversity and inclusion, applying critical theory to our controlled vocabularies, and ultimately making better choices in the service of our users. This is critical librarianship. It’s also the least we can do.
Bringing social justice to the library is deeply admirable. But critical librarianship should also involve bringing the library to social justice, listening to our communities, and incorporating critical theory into library practice. Perhaps you’re already doing these things. Turns out these practices have a name.
ALIA Sydney recently hosted their first Saturday School of Critical Librarianship, a gathering for critically- and radically-minded librarians to talk shop and take stock. It was a seriously full-on day. I spent most of today sleeping it off, and there’s a worryingly large memory gap where a lot of yesterday should have been. But I did remember to jot down a few not-terribly-insightful thoughts.
We are worthy. I awoke in a spaceship at sunrise, to a blistering Twitter discussion on the merits of metadata. (Sounds blissful, really.) I was staying in a capsule hotel, because it turns out Sydney has one and I wanted to try it out, but it was very poorly ventilated and I didn’t get a great sleep. The hot topic of discussion at 6am turned out to be the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), broadly the American equivalent of Trove or Europeana, laying off several staff, apparently including their metadata librarian. Cue spirited conversation about the value institutions place, or don’t place, on their metadata workers. Perversely it was a bit of a personal mood boost:
Honestly existential cataloguing angst at 6am on a Saturday having slept in a spaceship is the mood boost I needed to explain to a bunch of people today why this shit matters. Genuinely. Metadata is just as important as other facets of LIS, and today I’m gonna demonstrate why.
We are facilitators. The word ‘facilitator’ kept cropping up, and it wasn’t just because a few of us had been asked to ‘facilitate’, or lend our expertise to, various breakout sessions. Instead the word arose organically as a way to describe how we might envision a future, more critical (or radical) librarianship. Historically our profession has been structured around either having the answers or knowing where to find them (that is, in our collections), but might we instead take our lead from our patrons and communities? Whether it’s building collections, planning programs or cataloguing our library’s contents, there’s a lot to be said for not just listening to, or consulting with, our patrons—but actively listening to how their collections and programs and knowledge and memory ought to be managed, which we could then use our LIS skills to make happen.
We are, um, not all cataloguers. I stayed for all three iterations of the rotating breakout discussions on cataloguing, as I had been asked to help guide this discussion (I tried to move to another topic but found myself blurting out ‘my people need me’). I’m sorry to say that I don’t think I did a very good job. I wish I’d been better prepared and had more structured discussion topics. As it was, the conversation drifted from cataloguing into collection development, preservation of time-based media art, and systems librarianship. This suggested to me that people didn’t really know what to say, or felt they had nothing to say, or waited for me to do all the talking (and I still feel like I talked too much). But perhaps that in turn suggests that critical tech services in general is under-theorised and under-discussed, especially in Australia, and especially by non-tech services staff.
I was reluctant to steer the conversation back to cataloguing, figuring that people were talking about what was interesting and meaningful to them. If you were hoping I would do more active facilitating then I am sorry. But I hope people enjoyed the discussions nonetheless.
We are critical radical librarians! So this happened:
I think my group(s) have decided that instead of ‘critical librarianship’, a very American term, they’d prefer ‘radical librarianship’. Less negative-sounding, more empowering, inspires action #SydCritLib
I know there was more to this conversation that my poor memory chose not to retain, but I found it interesting that we chose to critique the very name of our fledgling local movement. I think a few attendees took ‘critical’ to mean ‘criticising everything, unproductively’, rather than the more nuanced meaning assigned it by critical theory. The hashtag-critlib movement began in the United States, I understand principally from infolit and instruction librarians in university libraries, and it is running the risk of becoming a bit cliquey. I also had Nora Almeida’s chapter ‘Interrogating the collective: #critlib and the problem of community’ from the LJP critlib book in the back of my head during this discussion. Personally, I think ‘radical librarianship’ sounds friendlier and has a more activist tone. But I also really liked Andrew’s take on it from afar:
It’s a good point – though I like the association of “critical” with being inward-looking and identifying the things that need to change internally. I feel that, too often “radical” is associated with changing the external world to meet a fixed agenda.
We can’t do it all. I really liked a point Kirsty Thorpe made about gaining power through focus—as library workers, choosing an area to focus on and directing energies towards making that area better, focusing on a couple of select things we can do, rather than spreading ourselves too thinly on things we can’t.
This was part of a broader discussion near the end of the day about power, and it prompted me to reflect on how much power I have within LIS. At my workplace, an institution fond of bureaucracy, I often feel powerless because all the decisions are made above me and I can’t change established practices or standards. Yet people from elsewhere look at me and go ‘You work where!? You have so much power! You can get things done!’ Plus I have managed to accomplish a couple of things in cataloguing entirely independently of wherever I have worked. And I wondered if this meant I had power because… people think I do? As in, they recognise power in me and they act accordingly? (Is this Schrödinger’s power?!) So what can I do with this power that I may or may not have, to push for change within LIS, and within my institution?
Also, we give a crap. We all showed up on a Saturday, some of us (including me) having come from out of town, because we care about our profession and we want to do better and do differently. There was a lot of talk about further critlib schools in Sydney, as well as opportunities to coalesce around shared or common goals. I really hope these come to fruition, because there’s really nothing like an in-person gathering to network with like-minded people and galvanise us into action. But next time I’m in Sydney, I think I’ll stay somewhere with functioning windows. And maybe a door.
Last Sunday I went on an expedition to Sydney for Rob Thomson’s annual NSW library technicians’ unconference extravaganza. This year was an inclusive affair, with the title of CoGLAMeration attracting participants from across the industries. I learned SO much and had a great time, even if I needed the Monday off to recover from all that networking. I may also have volunteered to catalogue a capsule hotel! I know I learned way more than five things, so here are a few selections. (They are metadata-heavy, because that’s how I roll.)
We are already doing the thing! Upon announcing the first curated session, Rob also invited attendees, if they so chose, to a breakout session either on ‘cataloguing’ or ‘critical librarianship’. These are basically my favourite things in the world to talk about, so I asked if we could combine them, to which Rob responded (I paraphrase) ‘of course you can! it’s an unconference! do what you want!’ I therefore became the unexpected and slightly unwilling leader of a combined breakout session, which about 10 people attended. Fortunately everyone was enthused and ready to chat, starting with ‘so what is critical librarianship exactly?’
I reckon just about everyone in that session was already a critical librarianship practitioner—they just mightn’t have known it had a name. It was gratifying, and a little humbling, to realise that my fellow attendees didn’t need me to teach them how to ask ‘why?’. They were already asking the right questions, coming up with ways to improve their catalogue (most of which they couldn’t implement due to policy, budget or skillset, on which more later) and striving to provide the best library experience possible. Of course they were. They were seasoned library experts. I was the ring-in fresh out of library school, who still had so much to learn. They were all very nice to me, though. (Special thanks to Bonnie who helped steer conversations and provided great insights!)
Good metadata is another facet of the class war. The #critlib/#critcat 2x combo breakout session was populated mostly by school librarians, who expressed some frustration with the limited resources at their disposal. Never having worked in a school library, their stories were a huge learning experience for me. They spoke of the divide between top private schools, who can afford to subscribe directly to Libraries Australia or WorldCat, or to otherwise pay for top-quality metadata; and all the other schools, which generally use SCIS and can’t always afford a skilled library tech to improve their catalogue. (NB: I have never used SCIS and so cannot pass judgement on it.)
While I’m used to cataloguing with limited resources (I’ve never used WebDewey or ClassWeb and have grown used to using FreeLCSH), I’ve always had the luxury of a) access to Libraries Australia b) the time and space to create good metadata and c) the policy and technical abilities to modify others’ data so it meets my library’s needs. The idea that metadata is not created equal was a bombshell. Every library should have access to the right metadata—and be able to make it the right metadata for them. Seize the means of metadata production! Cataloguers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your sanity!
Cataloguers need to sell themselves. Not necessarily monetarily, unless they’re into that kind of thing, but there’s a definite need for metadata workers to take a more active role in the promotion of our work. Look, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t love having to do this. I am an introvert. I find people really hard. I like being able to work quietly and efficiently without too much interaction with other people. I also recently took a job as a reference librarian for exactly these reasons—because I know I need to get better at this stuff, but also because reference and cataloguing are two sides of the same coin. Getting first-hande experience of patrons’ reference and information needs will help me build a better catalogue. It will also help me extol the virtues of good metadata to the people in charge, because I’ll be able to better vocalise where it’s needed.
I appear to have become something of a cataloguing and metadata evangelist, and it’s certainly not something I ever thought I’d be doing. Honestly, though, it comes down to spotting a need. We’re not selling metadata as much as we need to. Our skills are decreasingly valued, decreasingly taught and decreasingly visible. Good metadata is not valued for its own sake. It’s up to us cataloguers to prove our worth. Just… give us a cuppa first.
I specialise in the art of good fortune, and also metadata. The breakout session touched on the issue of generalisation versus specialisation within LIS, as many participants were solo librarians and needed to be able to do everything. I was held up as an example of a specialist, and to the extent I know anything about metadata I suppose I am, but it got me thinking later on about how that came to be. What factors enabled me to specialise? Why am I afforded this luxury, while others are not?
I am, of course, a product of demographic fortune. Young, white, well-educated women have an easier road in this sector. But two things stood out. Firstly, that I was born and raised in a city with a comparative abundance of libraries. LIS punches well above its weight here, with the public, private and higher education sectors all still employing librarians. It’s meant I’ve had a plethora of library jobs to choose from, and I could afford to do what I love. Secondly, I have a single-minded focus on my career goals. I wanted to be a librarian. I now am! I wanted to catalogue for a living. I now am (and soon will be doing so full-time)! I wanted to work at a particular institution. I now am!!! These things happened because I worked hard, but also because other people took a chance on me, and because I got very, very lucky.
My tweetstream brings all the threads to the yard. Speaking of wheels of fortune, Bonnie’s fabulous talk ‘Critical making: rethinking access and engagement in GLAM’, prompted a delightful exchange on my twitter feed. At one point, Bonnie spoke of using the online screenprinting company Spoonflower to produce the fabrics used in her amazing #redactionart and #digitisethedawn dresses, the latter of which she wore to the event. (Love a dress that comes with its own hashtag!) This prompted American metadata magician Scotty Carlson to muse:
I've considered having some metadata-themed Spoonflower fabric made…
Scotty designed the ‘No Metadata No Future’ t-shirt I was wearing to #coGLAM18 (if you want one, he has a teepublic shop!). His tweet tied in beautifully with earlier conversations around cataloguing outreach, the subversive nature of textiles and the power of statement dressing. Also pockets. Such wondrous fabric might even convince me to learn to sew.
Enjoy all your successes, no matter how small. This is a sneaky sixth thing because it was a lesson I really needed to hear. I was thrilled to finally meet Bonnie in person and say ‘you’re awesome!’, and in return she bestowed upon me a large quantity of wisdom. One of these things was a reminder that success comes in all sizes: some earth-shattering, some minuscule. Not everything has to be a sector-changing event for it to be considered a success. Even getting people to think critically about Dewey, or wonder about critlib, for the first time, for even a second—these are all successes! These are all wins.
I have long expressed my frustration about the glacial pace of progress in LIS. I dislike the fact I can’t achieve three revolutions before breakfast. But Bonnie graciously reminded me that success doesn’t have to be big. It’s okay to take the long view, but don’t lose sight of the small victories.