Knowledge is power: an introduction to critical librarianship: transcript of a recent talk

This is the prepared transcript of ‘Knowledge is power: an introduction to critical librarianship’, a talk I was invited to give at a professional development day for the NSW branch of the Australian and New Zealand Theological Library Association (ANZTLA). It was my first time delivering a virtual talk, which I found a lot less stressful than doing a regular talk because there’s no roomful of people creating a tense atmosphere. The Q&A was great and overall it was a really nice experience.

You will note that this is a very gentle talk. I was acutely aware that for a lot of attendees I represented their first experience of critlib theory and practice; a search of the literature for ‘critical librarianship’ and ‘theological libraries’ brought up precisely zero results, which strongly suggests to me that critlib isn’t (yet) a thing in this sector. I wrote this talk for a very particular audience. I tried to meet them where they are by using rather less fiery rhetoric than I’m known for, in an effort to ameliorate, rather than alienate. It’s broadly based on the article ‘Recognising critical librarianship’, which I wrote for inCite in January. I hope I could help kickstart some new conversations for theological librarians.

Thank you all for having me. It’s an honour to be invited to speak today. I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands we’re meeting on, and in particular the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, custodians of the land I live and work on, which we now know as Canberra. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and extend that respect to all First Nations people who have joined us today.

My name is Alissa McCulloch and I believe that knowledge is power. The knowledge held by libraries, and distributed through the work of librarians like yourselves, can empower our users to do incredible things.

But knowledge, much like power, is not evenly distributed. Librarianship is steeped in tradition, but those traditions aren’t all worth keeping. The structure of librarianship can work to exclude, marginalise and harm people even before they’ve walked in the door. We like to think of libraries as spaces where everyone is welcome. But not everyone is made welcome in a library. What can we do about that?

We can start by exploring something called critical librarianship. You might also hear this referred to as #critlib. Applying a different ethical lens to the work we do every day. Doing things differently, in order to do them better.

Before I go on, I do need to emphasise that this talk represents solely my own opinions. These views are all mine and definitely not my employer’s! (But I think they’re pretty good views, so you know what, maybe they should be.)

The term ‘critical librarianship’ has come to describe two related but distinct approaches to library work. The first is the idea of ‘bringing social justice to library work’, or, How might libraries advance social justice issues, or achieve social justice goals? How can we make librarianship fairer, more accessible, and more equal to all our users?

The second is ‘bringing critical theory to library work’, an approach that “places librarianship within a critical theorist framework that is epistemological, self-reflective, and activist in nature”. It involves examining the ways that libraries support, and are in turn supported by, systems of oppression and injustice. It emboldens library workers to recognise and challenge those systems and reposition our professional work. And in turn it empowers our users, who can see the library reflecting the kind of society we all want to live in.

Throughout this talk I’ll use the words ‘librarian’ and ‘library worker’ interchangeably: critical librarianship applies to, and can be practised by, everyone who works in libraries.

In other words: it’s one thing to advocate for social justice in libraries, but it’s quite another to think about where and why is there social injustice in libraries in the first place.

Overdue fines, for instance. We’ve been fining people forever as an incentive to get them to return their books on time. We kept doing it because we thought it was effective, but it turns out the evidence for this is ambivalent at best. More importantly, in many cases fines can actively deter people from wanting to use the library, particularly low-income people who might already have racked up a heap of fines they can’t repay, or are scared of doing so (or their children doing so by accident). The kinds of people who can least afford to pay library fines are often the kinds of people the library most wants to attract—people who may also have lower literacy levels, who have small children, who are socio-economically disadvantaged, and (in academic libraries at least) people who might be first-in-family to attend university, or who might otherwise be struggling academically. Library fines are a social justice issue. It’s great that many public libraries have gotten rid of library fines, but I’m not so sure that many academic and research libraries have followed in their stead.

Much as we might like to sometimes, as librarians we can’t fix everything. We can’t solve these kinds of systemic injustices out there in the world. We can’t address the factors that contribute to library users being unable to pay their library fines. But we can do something about how those injustices manifest in the library. We can counteract that here, in this space that we maintain, in this time that we have. (We can do that by getting rid of library fines in the first place.)

Let’s come now to some key tenets of critical librarianship, which include:

  • Bringing progressive values to professional practice—using libraries and library work to build a more equal and just society, and to actively address systemic harms as they manifest in the library (so things like systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, colonialism, capitalism, and so on).
  • Part of this means actively questioning existing library structures, standards and workflows, and doing so through a particular ethical lens. Not just going ‘why do we do that thing’ or ‘how can we do this better’, which should be a normal part of good library practice, but ‘who does this harm’ or ‘whose interests are best served by us doing this thing’?
  • Being a librarian doesn’t automatically make us better or more virtuous people. It just means we get paid to help people find stuff. It’s not a calling. It’s not the priesthood. It’s just a job. (But it’s a job worth doing well, and in some respects worth doing differently)
  • There is no such thing as library neutrality—libraries are not, and cannot be, neutral. The core business of librarianship involves making a lot of moral and ethical decisions, such as ‘do we buy this book’ or ‘do we let this group use a meeting room’ or ‘do we pay this vendor this amount of money’. Those decisions are made in line with a given set of values. Not making a decision is a value choice. Trying to present ‘both sides’ of a given issue is also a value choice. I might disagree with a lot of traditional library values, but they are not the bastions of righteous neutrality they claim to be. Critlib values are a bit more upfront about this fact.

Traditional library values, like the ones you and I were taught in library school, place a high premium on things like intellectual freedom and Western liberalism. We say we’re not just about books anymore, but libraries are a key part of a book-based knowledge system. For the most part, the knowledge we store and deliver, and the knowledge we tend to trust, is stuff that’s been written down, and a traditional library is a building where that written-down knowledge is kept and safeguarded.

Critical library values, on the other hand, focus on things like harm reduction (which I’ll come back to a bit later) and progressive, socialist values (which you might think of as being a bit ‘left-wing’ but I don’t think the left wing–right wing dichotomy is terribly useful these days). Critical librarianship recognises the validity and deep importance of Indigenous and other non-Western knowledge systems, that oral histories and Dreaming stories are valid sources of truth and knowledge, just as much as books. I’ll never forget Jacinta Koolmatrie, an Adnyamathanha and Ngarrindjeri woman, teaching her audience at the New Librarians’ Symposium last year that for Aboriginal people, the land is their library, that knowledge and wisdom inheres in the landscape, and it deserves our care and protection in the same way libraries do. The recent loss of Djab Wurrung sacred Directions trees east of Ararat in Victoria is just as great a cultural loss as the destruction of a library.

Sometimes people can misinterpret the ‘critical’ part of ‘critical librarianship’, and think that we’re all just about having a big whinge, or that it’s a professional excuse to be rude or disparaging about library work. And I just want to make clear that that’s not what we’re about.

It’s about making the profession better by recognising harmful practices and oppressive structures, dismantling those things and building better ones in their stead. It’s about leaving the profession in a better state than when we found it. We critique because we care. I have a lot of feelings about librarianship! And I care very deeply about what I do. If people didn’t care so deeply about the profession, we wouldn’t be spending all this energy on making all this noise and doing all this work.

Over the next few slides I’ll take you through some of the ways critical librarianship intersects with my work. I’ve spent my career largely in back-of-house roles, what you might traditionally call ‘technical services’, so things like collection development, cataloguing, and my newest role in library systems. Naturally critlib happens front-of-house too! And there is quite a lot of literature on critical reference and critical information literacy. But I’ll leave that analysis to others.

Critlib comes up most often, and is probably most immediately visible, in the realm of collection development and acquisitions—looking at the materials your library collects and provides. Think for a moment about who your library collects. Are the bulk of your materials written or created by old white guys? Now I get that in a theological library, the answer is likely to be yes. Think about how many of your materials are written or created by women? People of colour? Indigenous people? Queer people? Disabled people? Combinations thereof? It’s not just about a variety of theoretical or academic views, and it’s also not about collecting other voices for the sake of it. It’s about making different perspectives and life experiences visible in your library’s collection. It sends a message that the library doesn’t just belong to old white guys—that it belongs to all whose views and life experiences are included here.

Everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in a library space, but it is also critical that everyone doesn’t only see themselves reflected in that space, that our diversity reflects that of the communities we serve. (I’m reminded of a quote from Nikki Andersen, a library worker I deeply respect, who said last year “When someone walks into a library and can’t find a book that represents them or their life, we have failed them. Likewise, if someone walks into a library and only see books that represent their life, we have also failed them.”

It’s one thing to have materials representing the diversity of human experience, but it also matters what those materials say. It’s no good having materials about Indigenous issues that were all written by white people thirty years ago, or things about homosexuality written by straight people who deny our humanity. The adage of ‘nothing about us without us’ holds especially true.

Theological libraries are naturally quite specialised and so you’re unlikely to be collecting material that doesn’t fit your collection development policy. A book on landscape architecture or whale-watching might be very interesting, but not relevant to the work of your institution. If you choose not to purchase it, it’s not censorship. It’s a curatorial decision. Whale-watching’s not in the CDP.

Similarly, a public library (in my view) should not feel obliged to purchase a copy of a text by a far-right provocateur if they feel that doing so would not be in their community’s best interests, or would cause demonstrable harm. They’re not denying their community the ability to read the book—they’re simply choosing not to stock it. In this instance, they’re applying the concept of harm minimisation to library collection development, prioritising community wellbeing and cohesion over the intellectual freedom of an individual. This situation might be different in an academic library, where they may feel the research value of such a book outweighs the potential harm it could cause. Potentially this decision could be contextualised in the book’s catalogue record, which I’ll come to in a second. But these are individual curatorial decisions for each library. They are made in accordance with that library’s values, and they are certainly not neutral.

Now, you might hear this and go ‘well how is that any different to, say, a parent demanding a school or public library remove a picture book about gay parents, claiming it is harming their child’? How is that different to the library I’ve just described deciding to remove, or not purchase, a hateful rant by a far-right author? Besides, shouldn’t we be trying to present ‘both sides’ of an issue, for balance? My answer to this is: by retaining the book about gay parents we are affirming their humanity and place in society; we recognise that they are not seeking to harm anyone just by existing; and we are validating their story. By not purchasing the far-right book we are doing the opposite; we are choosing not to do those things. We’re not censoring the book—we’re just not validating it. False balance is harmful and does our users a deep disservice. That’s a values decision, and if it were up to me it’s one I would stand by.

Or, put slightly differently… ‘something to offend everyone’ is not a collection development policy.

Until last week I was a full-time cataloguer, so critical cataloguing and metadata is kind of my speciality. I’m endlessly fascinated by how libraries describe and arrange their collections, whether it be on a shelf or on a screen.

As many of you will likely be aware, the religion section of the Dewey Decimal Classification has traditionally allocated quite a lot of space to Christianity and comparatively little space to other religions. You may be interested to know that the editors recently released an optional alternative arrangement for the 200s, which attempts to address some of these structural biases and make the distribution of religions a little more equitable.

Dewey has also historically copped a lot of flak for classifying works on Indigenous and First Nations spirituality, including Dreaming and creation stories, as ‘folk tales’ in 398.2 and not in the religion section. Dewey itself has instructed since about the mid-90s that such works should be considered religious, and classified as such. The fact this grievance has persisted for so long suggests a pattern of unconscious bias on the part of the cataloguer—they might not have recognised Indigenous spirituality as a ‘religion’ in the Western sense, and so didn’t classify this stuff there. But this lack of recognition is very obvious to Indigenous people, and it matters.

By the way, has anyone ever thought about how weird it is that we use Library of Congress Subject Headings? Like, we’re not the Library of Congress, we’re not Americans, we’re not government librarians, but we use their vocabulary and we inherit their biases. We do this mostly out of convenience and because it’s more efficient to use somebody else’s record, but I often wonder how useful or meaningful this language is in Australian libraries. I’d love to see more widespread use of things like the AIATSIS vocabularies for Indigenous content, which are designed to reflect an Indigenous worldview, and specify—that is, give names to, and therefore surface in catalogue records—issues and concepts of importance to Indigenous Australians.

For example, consider the difference between these two headings for Indigenous Australian creation and origin stories. LCSH calls these ‘Dreamtime (Aboriginal Australian mythology)’, while AIATSIS uses the faceted term ‘Religion — Dreaming’. Now, neither of these terms is neutral, because nothing about librarianship is neutral, but while the LCSH term is pretty clearly from a Western perspective classifying these stories as mythology and not religion, the AIATSIS term does the opposite, in line with Indigenous conceptions of their lore, and recognising their right to describe their culture their way. Using these terms in a library catalogue sends a message that these are the terms the library prefers, and in so doing makes the library catalogue a more culturally safe place for Indigenous people. 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. And in my opinion, it’s also the least we can do.

While researching this talk I was really struck by how so many of these historical biases would have traditionally really suited theological libraries—lots of classification real estate for Christianity, detailed LCSH subdivisions for the heading ‘Jesus Christ’, and so on. But I don’t work in a theological library, and I don’t know if that still holds or not.

This week I’ve actually started a new job as a systems librarian, so I’m particularly interested in this facet of critical librarianship. We might not immediately think of systems as being particularly problematic, but systems reflect the biases and perspectives of the people who build them, and to a lesser extent those of people who buy them.

For example, most library catalogues and discovery systems will allow you to rank results based on ‘relevance’. How, exactly, does the system determine what is relevant? How much potential is there for bias in those search results, either because your metadata is incomplete, outdated or otherwise unhelpful; because your system autocompletes what other people search for, and people search for really racist and awful things; or because your system vendor also owns one of the publishers whose content it aggregates, and it suits them to bump that content that they own up the rankings a bit? This happens, believe it or not—there’s a whole book on this topic called ‘Masked by Trust: Bias in Library Discovery’ by Matthew Reidsma, which is excellent (and also sitting in a moving box behind me).

We could also consider the kinds of data that library systems ask for and keep about people. When you sign up new users to the library, which fields are compulsory? Do they have to specify their gender, for instance? Why does the library need to know this about somebody in order to loan them books? What kind of data are we keeping about the books people borrow, their circulation history? How long do we keep it for? Who has access to it? Would we have to give that data to the police if they asked, or had a warrant? (If we didn’t keep that data, we couldn’t then give it to the police, hey.) Is your system vendor quietly siphoning off that circulation data in the background to feed it to their book recommendation algorithm? Do we want them to do that? My local public library actually does this and I really wish they didn’t, to be honest, it makes me very uncomfortable, and frankly it makes me not want to go there.

We want our library systems to have the same kinds of values that we have as people. But more often than not libraries end up functioning in ways that suit our systems. To me, that seems a bit backward. I firmly believe that systems should work for people, not the other way around.

Just before the American presidential election, the Executive Board of the American Library Association released a statement in support of libraries, library workers and library values. They noted that: ‘Libraries are nonpartisan, but they are not indifferent.’

To me, this sentiment lies at the heart of critical librarianship. So much of this discourse gets tied up in misunderstandings over whether libraries are, or should be, political. You’ll notice I’ve avoided using the word ‘political’ in this talk for this reason, because people interpret the question of whether libraries should be political to mean ‘supporting one political party over another’ or ‘supporting the activities of government’, and that’s not what critlib means. Everything I’ve outlined today is a political act. Many of them are progressive acts. But they are not partisan acts. They are acts that are conscious of the power they wield, and consciously try to direct that power in support of building libraries that better reflect and support the communities they serve. These acts are steeped in an ethic of care. Libraries do not exist in a moral and political vacuum. We are part of society, too. And we as library workers can do our bit to help make our society better.

It has taken a very long time for organisations like ALA to come to this party. I have lost almost all hope that ALIA will ever show up, but we will welcome them when they do. There’s a lot of work ahead. Let’s get started.

Thank you 🙂

Divided we stand

pile of notebooks on a desk, the topmost reading 'don't just stand there'

They say that ‘staying apart keeps us together’, but everyone I know is slowly disintegrating. I was slightly ahead of that curve, but the futures of many appear just as bleak. Most of my social circle lives in Melbourne, back in lockdown and under increasing strain. People are stressed, exhausted, weary, afraid for their health and their livelihoods. To think I almost moved there earlier this year. To think I’m now grateful I was forced to stay put.

It’s been a hard slog, though. After I got out of the psych ward in early April I spent 3 1/2 months at my mum’s place, learning how to be well again. We watched almost every episode of Great American Railroad Journeys. Mum watched a lot of Essendon football matches (especially the old ones where they won). I watched a lot of flowers bloom. Moving back into my own place a couple of weeks ago was almost an anti-anticlimax. It wasn’t the cute little flat in St Kilda I’d had my eye on, but it was still here, and for the moment, so was I.

Each person’s anxieties manifest in different ways. Until recently mine included a lot of shouting on Twitter. I need to stop doing this because it only makes the noise worse. I also have a lot less energy these days to scream into the void. I’d prefer to spend my time on more constructive pursuits.

Regular readers of this blog will recall my long-term criticism of the Australian Library and Information Association, including my unflattering appraisal of their response to the pandemic back in April. I considered not renewing my personal membership this year, and not just because for a while I couldn’t afford to pay it (though I did at one stage donate some of my renewal money to the GRLC casuals’ fund). Discontent with ALIA in Australia’s library community has simmered for some time. Library workers whose views I respect, such as Bonnie and Danielle, have chosen to leave. Others openly question the association’s choices in event management. Planning a large in-person conference for next February seems particularly foolhardy.

Despite all this I ultimately chose to renew my ALIA membership, albeit three months late. I did so for one primary reason. It wasn’t because I’m an ACORD office-bearer (and therefore obliged to hold personal membership for as long as I’m on that committee). It wasn’t because I felt my seat at the broader ALIA table was really getting me anywhere. It was because I was genuinely excited by this year’s elections to the Association’s Board of Directors. After years of waiting and wishing (and whining), I felt like we finally had some solid progressive leadership. I wanted to put my money where my mouth is and support those new Directors to start making necessary strategic change. This won’t happen overnight. It might not be anytime soon considering how much else everyone has on their plates right now. But there are some good foundations in place, and for the first time in my five years of membership I was optimistic about ALIA’s potential. I wanted to support that.

I was concerned, however, that my renewal would be interpreted as an endorsement of the status quo. I want to be very clear that it is not. My membership is an act of faith, not an act of trust.

It has also finally dawned on me that ALIA will never truly be the kind of organisation I think it should be. CEO Sue McKerracher made clear back in January (in InCite’s critlib-themed issue, no less, submissions for which were curiously never advertised) what she sees as ALIA’s core function: ‘taking the facts about libraries and shaping them to fit the interests of government’ (p. 7). Lobbying, in other words. Advocacy. Public relations. Media management. I know ALIA does quite a few other things, but lobbying appears to be its primary focus. It’s why the Association moved to Canberra in the first place. Certainly there are good reasons for librarianship to establish—and fund—such a body. I just resent funding it personally, is all. I don’t feel particularly advocated for.

ALIA put out a pamphlet-type thing recently listing some of the ways it had responded to the pandemic. Curiously, none of those ways included advocating for casualised library workers who lost all their shifts, or academic library workers facing forced pay cuts and mass redundancies, or LIS students graduating into a non-existent job market. They did encourage libraries to hire authors to do talks, which I would find more admirable had they also encouraged those libraries to not lay off their staff.

There’s a bit of a gap here. ALIA advocates for libraries as institutions, while our trade unions advocate for library workers within their workplaces. There’s no organisation that advocates for library workers as a whole, as professionals1, as workers with valuable skills, as people who deserve stable employment, as individuals who have so much to offer. So many of us are screaming ourselves hoarse, but it feels no organisation is listening. Globally, many library workers have had enough of their professional associations, and are investing in real change. Lindsey Cronk’s exhortations to #FixALA and Callan Bignoli’s #LibRev[olution] conference and subsequent organising point to a groundswell of support for radical change in the library sector. What kind of united future could we create for ourselves? How might we go about building a different kind of power?

Picture this: a national library workers’ association. A separate entity to ALIA, uniting library workers across all sectors, at all stages of their careers. One big library union, perhaps. I’m intrigued by the Danish model: in 1968 the librarians of Denmark collectively revolted against their library association and formed the Danish Union of Librarians, ‘to secure wage and working conditions and to cultivate their profession’. The union has both an industrial and a professional role, supporting librarians at work and in their careers. Meanwhile, the Danish Library Association takes the lead on lobbying and public outreach efforts. Interestingly, their org structure includes politicians as well as professionals, and one seat is reserved for a library student. It was the inclusion of the former that so riled the latter.

Australia’s industrial relations are very different, with library workers divided into unions based on their sector: schools, healthcare settings, levels of government, higher education and so on. There can be real advantages in organising with fellow workers in one’s sector, irrespective of role. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that some library workers can struggle to find appropriate union representation, including special librarians, employees of vendors, and those working outside a formal library environment.

Such a national library workers’ association could resemble the Danish model, and become a formal trade union, ensuring that all library workers could have someone in their corner. Or it could be a different kind of organisation, taking after the Casualised, Unemployed, and Precarious University Workers (CUPUW, formerly the National Higher Education Casuals Network), a cross-sectoral alliance of non-permanent university workers fighting for recognition of their worth as people and workers in the face of structural collapse. We could all start imagining what this new association might look like. Would people join under their own steam? Would we want ‘delegates’ from different library sectors or states, or specific representatives for students, casuals and the unemployed? How could we best set ourselves up for success and longevity?

Another benefit of such an association: it would enable library workers to speak publicly and collectively on issues that matter to us, rather than waiting for ALIA to do it on our behalf. I feel like a lot of us have spent a lot of time over the years trying to get ALIA to say particular things. Like many others, I was surprised and impressed by ALIA’s recent statement on Black Lives Matter. It was strongly worded, it came from ALIA directly (not its Board), and it was seemingly issued without members having to ask. I hope to see more of this kind of advocacy from ALIA. If only they’d spoken up for marriage equality like this before we begged them to.2

Brendan Bachmann wrote a searing piece on many libraries’ shameful treatment of their casual staff during the pandemic. I will note that MPOW, to its credit, has continued offering shifts to its few casual workers, and has moved heaven and earth to enable the vast majority of us to work from home. But many library workers have been treated far more poorly, and it is precisely the kind of behaviour Brendan discusses that a library workers’ association would stand against. Workers need to feel seen, to feel heard, and to feel like someone’s prepared to stick up for them. I’m realistic about the chances of policy reversal, but even just having that solidarity would make a world of difference.

Brendan is completely right. We are better than this. But we deserve better than this, too.

… It does seem to be a pattern though, doesn’t it? New librarian joins ALIA, chills for a bit, realises how cooked it is, agitates for change, gets nowhere, is crushed, leaves ALIA. Over and over.

So why have I spent so much time and energy over the years being cross at my professional association? Despite outward appearances I’m not naturally a ‘burn it all down’ kind of person. I don’t enjoy being angry all the time (in fact, I’m much worse at being angry now than in the Before Times, and it gladdens me). I’d much rather try to make things better. And generally speaking I prefer to be a member of things rather than not. It takes a lot for me to consider quitting something. I do think that ‘Together we are stronger’, to echo ALIA’s motto, but it’s time for a deeper introspection on who ‘we’ are.

I wrote in late March, a lifetime ago:

I don’t know why I keep looking to ALIA to demonstrate leadership in the Australian library sector. I don’t know why I hope they will stand up for library workers. I don’t know why I think they will change.

It’s deeply frustrating because we, as workers, want so desperately for our professional organisation to advocate for us. But ALIA doesn’t do that, and it’s not going to do that for as long as Institutional Membership is available. The conflict of interest here is insurmountable. So we need a separate association focussing on library workers. I had thought for a while that newCardigan would be ideally placed for such a role, but I would understand if they wanted to remain a radical social group rather than something more formalised. I don’t think the organisation we want really exists yet. I think it should.

I have a long personal history of sinking my time and energy into people and things that didn’t or couldn’t reciprocate. The time for that is over. If the Australian library sector is to have any hope of getting through these tough times, we as library workers need to build our own platform, and find our collective voice. Staying apart won’t always keep us together—it’s time for a national Australian library workers’ association. Let’s make it happen.

  1. Irrespective of how (or even if) such workers have degrees or other professional accreditation. 
  2. Man, this was three whole years ago and I’m still bitter about it. 

Recognising critical librarianship

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.

Five things I learned from #SydCritLib, the Saturday School of Critical Librarianship

A priceless piece of critlib ephemera, now taped proudly to my wall

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:

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 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:

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.

Five things I learned at #coGLAM18… and a bit extra

I am the future. It’s me. #coGLAM18

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!

Next year!

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:

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.