This morning, I spilled coffee all over my desk. I also finally had a chance to sit down and read Cathy Eisenhower and Dolsy Smith’s excellent “The Library as ʻStuck Place’: Critical Pedagogy in the Corporate University.” (Full disclosure, my original copy of the article was tragically destroyed in the aforementioned coffee disaster.) I am glad that I read that chapter before sitting down to do my #critlib homework… in part because it’s prompting me to answer Kevin’s excellent questions more honestly. I am also grateful for the end-of-semester lull that is allowing me the time to sit and reflect about my work.
Why are you a critical librarian? Why do you identify with these ideas?
One answer: “Information” is not neutral. The ways that information is organized and made legible/accessible are often the result of broader configurations of social power (including systemic/structural dynamics rooted in social relations: racism, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, etc.). Re-configuring information (i.e. by articulating what counts as “credible” information through instruction and collection development, redesigning the digital and analog interfaces that necessarily mediate how people access information, etc.) can be a way to reconfigure social power. Librarianship is basically in the business of reconfiguring information, and I see critical librarianship as a way to mobilize that practice to help dismantle racism, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, etc. Alternatively, if practiced “uncritically,” librarianship can be yet another mechanism for extending and enabling racism, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, etc. So… that’s one answer.
Another answer: In their book chapter, Eisenhower and Smith write, “…the term ‘critical’ itself masks the particular work scholars and teachers are doing by coding anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist, etc., with the ambiguous word that surely represents critique, but of what sort?” Prompted by this question, here are a few other reasons I identify as a “critical librarian” (for better or worse):
- “Critical” is a convenient umbrella term.
- To fly under the radar and/or strategically mobilize resources in spaces where encouraging “critical thinking” is a stated goal, but more explicitly political articulations might be met with resistance.
- Out of anxiety that the work that I’m doing is not “enough” to be explicitly labelled as anti-racist or anti-colonial, etc.
Both answers are true for me and, to me, a big part of practicing “critical librarianship” (used here as a convenient umbrella term) is learning to hold multiple conflicting truths in tension and using ambiguity as a productive starting point.
Why do you participate in these chats?
Since tomorrow’s #critlib chat is about feelings, I should probably own up to some of mine: As a new academic librarian, I often feel ambivalent about libraries, and especially, universities. In particular, how these institutions (and our work in them) enact and create various oppressive social structures. As Eisenhower and Smith write, even “[our] discursive resistance to the corporatization of higher education….is subsumed in its Foucauldian way into numbers thatscaffold the very discourses we critique” (emphasis mine). For me, #critlib chats are a space where I feel safe to express that ambivalence, reflect on it with others, (hopefully) identify some seams, “stuck places,” or other spaces where enough prodding might allow us to not only imagine and, in some small ways, enact social structures that are somehow more just. Feelings-wise, #critlib chats can be generative, re-energizing, (and yes) validating for me.
In a lot of ways, this is what I get out of reading theory and pursuing research/writing projects as a practitioner, but with the added benefit of dialogue in real time. (This not to argue that #critlib is essentially about theory… just that it occupies a similar place in my thought-processes.) Where I can, I try to have these conversations in my face-to-face life, but I like the fact that #critlib chats mean I can also have them with people I would probably not know otherwise.
Community is a big part of it for me as well. There’s a lot of people I’ve “met” through #critlib that I interact with on twitter beyond the chats. Those interactions are usually supportive and affirming, and I am grateful for them. This professional community of geographically dispersed students, new librarians, and established librarians is probably one I would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Not to mention, a couple of my #critlib friends are now plain-old, we-don’t-only-interact-on-twitter friends. That’s pretty cool.