Conversation with The Collector and the Collected: Decolonizing Area Studies Librarianship authors, Megan Browndorf, Erin Pappas and Anna Arays

This is the first installment of our Author Interview Series with Library Students where prospective information professionals meet with authors to discuss the research process and engage in a deep dive on important topics of the field from concept to publication. 


Conversation with The Collector and the Collected: Decolonizing Area Studies Librarianship authors, Megan Browndorf, Erin Pappas and Anna Arays

This interview was conducted by Ryan Zohar, Middle East Studies Liaison & Reference Librarian at Georgetown University, an NYU/LIU Dual Degree Program Alumnus who studied Archives and Public History at New York University and Library and Information Science at Long Island University.

Ryan Zohar: Thank you all so much for participating in this interview. I was wondering, first, if we could step back and talk about the title of the work. What were you trying to get across by invoking these hardened roles of ‘the collector’ on the one side, and then ‘the collected’ on the other? Could you talk a little bit about what these roles have historically meant and in what ways your book challenges the neat ascription of these roles of collector and collected?

Megan Browndorf: I would say that some of it comes from these ideas in anthropology of this separation in scholarship between the scholar, on the one side, and then the group that that scholar is studying, on the other. That dynamic that comes up again and again in scholarship is not somehow magically absent from librarianship and the work that we do. A lot of the history of area studies, in particular, is in that separateness between the person who is doing this collecting from a group and not someone from within that group itself. Even when you have curators and collectors who are from these communities, they are still within this larger framework that pushes a separateness.

Anna Arays: I will add that at one stage of the project’s development, I think we were actually trying to reformulate the title a little bit to make it more explicit that this is not the paradigm that we are endorsing — it is the one that we see but it is not the one that we were interested in perpetuating or that we feel is right for the field. This is where the realities of publishing came in and we could not find a less unwieldy way to retitle it and make that clear. It turned into just a punchy title being the best choice in this particular case. I do want to let Erin speak a little bit more about just the genesis of the project because I came in last. Still, I would echo most of what Megan mentioned about the extractive nature of what we do, often being kind of elided when you are talking to people in the field. They think of it as this good or value-neutral type of profession in that sense. Having not seen it yet interrogated is what spurred an interest in it for a lot of us, but I will throw it to Erin.

Erin Pappas: So, my background is in anthropology and I came to area studies librarianship from that field. I had been especially interested, as a visitor of museums and other kinds of GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) institutions, in the way they were grappling with these issues. I went to a First Nations Museum in Vancouver that had done a really great job of curating by not only displaying objects the way they would have been historicized in the past but also by adding to that. So they had brought First Nations elders to come in and talk about the objects or had covered certain items that were on the walls because they should not actually have been displayed, or they had replaced those items with a plaque. So, I thought that was a very interesting way of trying to do recuperative collecting. Because the fact of the matter is that the collecting of these items has already happened, and you cannot go back in time and undo it but,  I think coming at it from that perspective and asking, “What can we learn from these histories?” 

We had been talking together about these issues because of the kind of job we all have–and the kind of job that you have–and we can recognize that we still needed to do our jobs because it is not feasible to refuse to do the work. However, we wanted to ask, “How can we do the work critically and rethink the paradigm in which we do the work?”

Regarding the title, we wanted to show that these roles were not actually what we believed in, but rather the inherited artifactual way of talking about collecting, in all senses. Hopefully, the introduction unpacked it, but we wrestled with the title a lot.

RZ: It is interesting that you bring up the example of the museum that you visited in Vancouver because it was great to see how the methods and praxis from Indigenous Studies really come through in several chapters of the book as well. Even just in the anecdote that you’re describing reminds me of Jessie Loyer’s chapter discussing the logic of curating and collecting historically built around what she calls a “singular, white man’s joy” cleaves these items from their actual contexts and that this is the history that museums such as the one you have described have to contend with.

I do want to get into some of the solutions that are proposed later in the book, but I also do want to talk a little bit more about area studies librarianship, in general, and why the reflexive turn that you point to in the introduction as happening in other disciplines maybe took a bit longer to occur or had not really occurred in the same way. What, in your own careers, brought you to the feeling that the field needed this reckoning and it needed it now?

MB: One thing is that these conversations have been happening in librarianship. It is not like they were completely absent nor is it the case that they have not been happening within area studies librarianship. All three of us, though, are Slavic Studies librarians and many of these conversations are happening in Southeast Asian Studies librarianship, in Middle East studies librarianship, and they have been going on for a long time in African studies librarianship. A lot of these conversations have been happening in the more ‘traditional’ places that people look to for conversations about colonialism. I think we had this realization that these conversations were going on and our field–area studies–was not necessarily ingesting them and listening to them. Despite this, we had been thinking about how all of area studies are complicit. Certain ‘areas’ are not separated from these questions just because they are not working with so-called colonized populations or areas with anti-colonial history.

One of the things that has been really fascinating actually is watching these conversations taking off in Slavic Studies now with the incursion of Russia into Ukraine. Suddenly, making this realization that Ukrainians are this people with this colonized history with Russia and that it is inextricably connected to our work. These issues are a part of our field.

EP: I think that is a reason that Slavic Studies, in particular, seems like an outlier. Its colonial history is obfuscated in a weird way. It does not look as explicit as, say, the Belgian colonial presence in the Congo. So, then, I think there has been more resistance in the field to talk about a decolonial movement because it is a different-looking conversation to try to have. It is not something where you can point to a proliferation of anti-colonial and independence movements happening after World War II. It looks really different. It is not that people are not aware of this history in an implicit way. On some level, everyone understands what was happening in Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union but it does not take the same kind of framing. 

For those of us who have had the chance to work beyond our immediate geographic purview of the Slavic world, too, we could see the conversations that people were having in Indigenous Studies or African Studies and reflect on why our subfield has not quite done that yet. So, we wanted to ask both, “Why is this conversation not really happening in our subfield?” and also “How can we look at these issues, more broadly, as symptomatic of issues relevant to all area studies librarianship?” I think that might have been a slightly convoluted way of saying that colonial legacies in this type of work can be obfuscated in a lot of ways, based on geographic region and history. Yet, we were all aware of it enough that we wanted to bring this absence to light.

AA: I will say that the process of working on the book really–in my mind–brought three things into a much harsher light. One was that–as Megan and Erin are saying–there was a distinct group of colleagues who we would approach about this project who worked on areas that did not have to do with what one might call ‘the developing world,’ or a part of the world that the US has not been at war with, say. They would reply to us that they do not really see how a project like this fits into what they do. They did not think that their area of focus should be a part of this conversation. I found statements like that really surprising because, of course, everybody is a part of this conversation just–as Erin says–in ways less obvious than others sometimes.

The second thing this project really made evident to me is how cleaved-off area studies librarianship is from librarianship as a whole. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and decolonization conversation in the field are happening in a separate sphere from area studies. Area studies are not brought into these more general librarianship conversations at all. I think that is partly because, within the wider world of librarianship, area studies are already viewed as outmoded and also partly because historically our field has not been in conversation with the larger field of librarianship but has been in conversation with our disciplines (i.e. Slavic Studies librarianship with Slavic Studies). We talk about this in the introduction as well. We have siloed ourselves off from what the field is doing, and now, as a result, we find ourselves weirdly trying to break back into it.

The third piece I wanted to mention is related to both of these two prior points. To me, it also seems like there is a reluctance on the part of some area studies librarians to engage with these issues because there is the feeling that there has already been a loss of power. This all has to do with library politics and administrative expansion in the past several decades. I am a librarian at a large Ivy League institution with a really long history of this type of collecting. My predecessor and the predecessor before her had extraordinary power, leeway, and leverage with what they could do with the collections. I have looked through a lot of our institutional archives and these people were one or two steps away from the University Librarian. They could speak directly to library leadership. We very much cannot do that anymore. Not only that, but I think that most people are experiencing the feeling of being increasingly marginalized within the profession when it comes to day-to-day work.

So, I think it is a double anxiety of what is happening at individual institutions and why librarians feel like their jobs are in danger or their field is dying, and on top of that having the sense that these conversations about area studies have been happening for a while have only just reached them and they feel like they have been out of the loop.

RZ: Well, I feel like you broached so many of the different crises in librarianship right there. That was amazing.

I did want to just follow up briefly about the scope of the project, because, as you mentioned, all three of you work in Eastern European and Slavic Studies. Yet, the book weaves together voices from so many different areas studies disciplines. Even if the conversations around the historically extractive nature of area studies librarianship or about decolonizing the field have been happening within individual areas studies disciplines–or even area studies librarianship conferences and professional organizations–there is something powerful about having the different areas studies disciplines in conversation with each other and seeing how they reckon with different issues and propose different solutions to the challenges that they deal with. So, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the scope of the book. Was it always intended to be this broad? What were the kinds of conversations you had with each other about that?

EP: I remember Megan and I had gone to a Digital Library Federation (DLF) session where there was talk about a number of global issues such as different scripts, different collecting policies, and different digitization priorities. We had both thought it was interesting but had come to the conversation in a different way, by asking, “Why is Slavic Studies librarianship not part of this conversation?” It is not that we came in thinking that we knew better than everyone else. No, we saw all these conversations about Indonesia and Latin America, and thought “Why do we not, within Slavic Studies librarianship, look towards that broader community?”

There had been a brouhaha at the time about Slavic librarianship joining European librarianship in the American Library Association-Association of College & Research Libraries (ALA-ACRL) structure and that was already a hugely contentious issue. Slavic Studies librarians had felt European Studies librarians could not possibly understand the work they do. And of course, we thought, well, no, no one can really understand that but there are shared concerns as well. Thinking about these shared concerns leapfrogged into us thinking about what all of the different geographic silos in librarianship could learn from each other. We asked, “What should that conversation begin to look like? And, can we be a part of it–rather than showing up very late to the table as Slavic Studies often is?

MB: So, one crucial factor for me, at least, was that I went to a critical librarianship institute in Montreal. They had us do a lot of reading and we had conversations. I was in a group that focused on anti-colonialism and postcolonialism, in particular, led by David James Hudson. At that point, I was at Towson University where I was basically an instruction librarian for history. So, I came in with this background in instruction librarianship where many of these conversations had been going on for years and years on a very deep and interesting level. 

I was hearing all of these conversations about critical, anti-colonial, and anti-racist approaches among instruction colleagues and then was not hearing them among my Slavic Studies colleagues. I wondered why there were these rich multiple-topic discussions in instruction librarianship, while the scholarship in area studies librarianship tended toward the immediate and practical, generally focused only in one geographic subfield. So, from the very beginning, this was definitely going to be a book trying to cross area studies subfields because we just do not talk to each other enough. 

What happens frequently is that we will talk to our colleagues in our specific areas across institutions and then we will talk to colleagues at our own institutions who focus on different areas–and sometimes we will be on committees together–but there just are not enough of these discussions happening cross-institutionally and across geographic areas. This was the impression we had from the beginning and was part of our thought process.

AA: For my part, I was really excited to be invited to be a part of this because I had just gotten a new manager not too long after I had gotten on board with the project. She did not come from an area studies background, she was trying to learn more about it, and she said there really is not theoretical literature on area studies librarianship. That bore out when we were trying to write the introduction and literature review. We found that there is plenty of literature on the practices of area studies librarians–how you do it, what you do. There is plenty of interrogation of the area studies paradigm within academia, but not really within librarianship. No one has really written about what area studies librarianship is on this level and why we do it.

So, articulating that “why” as a field and not just as a series of disciplines feels really important. This sprung up during the pandemic when I became a part of an organizing group for a conversation series called “At Home in the World” that did big Zoom conversations across area studies disciplines. This might be getting into the boring, practical side of the rationale but one of the things we heard, particularly from administrators that attended those conversations was that it is very important to have a sort of pan-area studies solidarity these days.

It does feel like in our field, specifically, there is this impetus to advocate for your subfield aggressively by talking about what you need and what your constituents need. We often hear things like, “This is how my particular branch of librarianship works and if you do not understand that we are doomed.” That works less well than ever these days when it comes to the issues of administrative expansion, shifting priorities, and the shifting paradigms of librarianship as a whole, as mentioned earlier. You are not going to get very far by talking about how unique and special you are–for lack of a better way to put it

And it does seem like crossing those boundaries is valuable, not only from a perspective of understanding more about what your colleagues do and how you are part of an interconnected philosophy of collecting. It is also helpful in terms of advocacy for a branch of the field that is important even if, in practice, it is flawed and has been flawed for a long time. As we also talked about in the introduction, area studies are one of the sites where interdisciplinarity really got cooking. It was one of the earliest sites where that way of thinking really happened, and in a way that traffics in particularity rather than generalizing. It draws out differences and also the importance of engaging with local indigenous populations. This has all been going on; it is just not part of the broader way that the field has been practiced over time.

RZ: I want to step back, again, and talk about what area studies is because it has always been this slippery category and yet I thought in the introduction, the way that you ground its meaning in this tripartite definition with conceptual, financial, and practical elements of area studies was compelling.  I was wondering if you can maybe speak a little bit more about how you’re thinking of area studies in this project.

EP: Speaking to “what area studies is” was actually really a headache. On the one hand, in libraries, it exists as a line on a budget where “area studies is X.” Still, we wanted to talk about the genesis of the field and its history of it, but finding a point of origin is really very difficult. Where does one start with a history of Orientalism, colonialism, Othering, and alterity? So, in this respect, I think we chose a paradigm that was fairly practical. 

Most of our authors, of course, are very aware of the conceptual framework. Still, we were also interested in seeing how these things looked on the ground while situating them in a more theoretical framework. It is very hard to define area studies as this singular thing but you can see the way it shakes out in practice, translating into certain people with areas of expertise used to funnel physical, tangible materials to particular institutions that produce knowledge within a certain context. Speaking to the practical as well as the conceptual, I think made things more accessible to practitioners working in the field.

RZ: It was exactly this combination of the theoretical underpinnings and also the practical funding models that have sustained it–and that are very much linked to empire and colonialism as well that I found most interesting. It almost reminded me of the way that Edward Said sees Orientalism as, at once, an academic tradition, a frame of understanding, and a corporate institution, that is, how it bears out on the ground. So, to me, having those different aspects addressed at once was important.

I think it is important to note that there are three sections of the book. The first one challenges theories of curating and collecting. The second one talks about the center and periphery, or the relationships between libraries in the West and ‘their areas’. Then, lastly, the book focuses on praxis and the types of approaches that area studies librarians or scholars in the field have developed to wrangle with the challenges that are described so well in the first few parts.

It seems to me that the last four chapters of the book pose these bold methods for wrangling with issues of empire and colonialism in area studies librarianship. Yet, there is also a sort of skepticism in those chapters about decolonization-in-name-only. So, I was wondering if you could speak about this unease with some of the solutions that have been proposed in the past.

MB: One of the conversations that we had multiple times during this was actually about the role that we wanted collections and collecting to play in this. One of the solutions that we hear again and again to these issues is that we simply need to collect more from this particular region or that group of people, then that through this we would be decolonizing the collection. Yet, this does not really interrogate why these collections exist, why this knowledge was needed in the collection, what is being done with that knowledge, and how that knowledge is actually useful to the group that you are taking that knowledge from. Saying, “Let us sprinkle a little bit more material from X culture and call it a day” is not decolonization.

We were very conscious of these approaches while we were putting this together and we are all quite skeptical of that kind of approach. The other thing I would say is that there is no actual solution. Everything is just half-measures, everything is operating within an imperfect and sometimes kind of terrible paradigm, that you have to work in. Some of the approaches are maybe more useful than others, but it comes down to being able to actually articulate what the end goal is and why. If the end goal is just to have more knowledge in your institution about other groups, you need to ask, “Well, why do you want to do that? Why is that the answer here?

AA: You probably noticed so many of our authors citing Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” This idea became a pretty central part of our thinking early on. This work definitely highlights that we need to be intentional about our language with these things. Phrases like “decolonizing the syllabus” are still articulated in academia itself. The library is not the only place where these conversations are happening–and are happening metaphorically–with a sense of having your hands tied behind your back and not knowing how fully you can commit to something like this. I think it is important to acknowledge that decolonization, as a dictionary definition, is pretty specific. People who advocate for decolonization want to see a specific thing happen and that is the repatriation of land and life to people who were deprived of it, and if you are not doing that you are not decolonizing. And, in that case, why hold on to that language? Is it because it does something to your own sense of self or your own sense of your profession? 

I do not think that it is shameful to say that what you want to do is diversify your collection and diversify your workforce if that is literally what you are doing. A lot of us have an impetus to do that, now especially. Yet, with that comes an acknowledgment that diversifying means bringing diversity into a system that already exists in order to make it different and more varied. It is not dismantling something and giving it away or re-orienting it to someone else’s needs and goals. I do think that it is hard to believe, in many cases, that decolonization is something that institutions are honestly committed to. It would be easier to contend with if there were more frankness and honesty about what is in an institution’s power to do, what it desires to do, and what its inclined to do, rather than making grand statements toward an ethos and a philosophy that looks good on paper but is not within that institution’s power or its desire to make actual change.

So, yeah, I think that the solutions that people propose are all really oriented toward making human connections with people in marginalized areas. I think that in their best incarnation they will harness the entire academic apparatus, not just the library, to really change the way scholarship is conducted and to bring everybody into it by making scholarship accessible, no matter what language it is in, or making scholars more mobile so that they can build their careers in institutions that have more power than the ones that they are currently in. These are the types of paradigms that seem doable. Seeking some version of making academia more global resulting in a more even distribution of power across all these academic apparatuses rather than just the Ivory Towers in the West and everybody else that we barely ever read or listen to–that seems attainable in the long term.

By contrast, the things that people tend to pledge nowadays–which seem to rest more on getting more types of things into your library, or different types of short-term fellowships–are not bad goals but they are not decolonizing goals. They are marginal diversification goals, at best.

EP: Anna, to your point, there has been this interesting move where some in the field think they cannot decolonize because they were never colonialists in the first place. They see their motivations for entering the field as altruistic or their motivations for collecting related to legacy. Whereas on the other hand we see those who use the term decolonization as a DEI-adjacent buzzword: they want to “decolonize the university,” or “decolonize the syllabus.” Yet, a lot of those moves are ultimately about ceding power and we are in institutions that do not want to cede power to anybody–whether that is students, faculty, or any kind of community that they may have obligations to. So much of what we wrestle with as librarians is the fact that, comparatively, we do not have a lot of power and so for many it is very hard to give up the control that they do have. Many see this as a zero-sum game and ask, “If I no longer have the little power that I did, who will get it?”

There are some real problematic issues with trying to implement decolonization as a paradigm because it is not a metaphor and you can not decolonize something without replacing it with an entirely new system. You cannot simply decolonize the stacks, that is not how it works. Efforts to diversify, to amplify underrepresented voices are not an end in themselves. They are not just a box that needs to be ticked. I do not think anyone with expertise in these areas would ever say, “You are done. That is it. You have finished.”

RZ: Related to the point Megan made about developing these approaches within already limiting parameters or already bad systems, one of the things I found helpful in the chapter written by Zoë McLaughlin is that she looked at different examples and discussed the impact of each in the Indonesian context, putting each case in conversation with the other. I really appreciated that method.

To close, what was something during the publishing process that challenged or surprised you?

Erin P.: I think the whole thing was a surprising challenge. I had taken on one editorial role for prior work on digital pedagogy and it was, in some ways, a much less ambitious project but involved a lot more contributors. Still, I was working with someone who was extremely organized, a project manager type, and I think she was like very good about being “these are the people we need to contact, these are all of our meetings and check-ins.” For this project, there was a lot more wrangling than maybe we had expected. Part of it was because of the timing: a pandemic, someone switched institutions, someone else was stepping back from their role, etc. There was a lot to orchestrate, not only in terms of the communication between the three of us but then with each individual contributor too. It was wonderful that we were able to do it all remotely and within a reasonable timeframe. I think communicating with individuals about extensions–because they have lives, because they have jobs–that was a learning experience for me.

AA: Given that more than half of the production timeline was during the COVID-19 pandemic, I think that truly every bit was challenging. In general, I think the process of making a thematically cohesive book out of this particular topic was definitely a challenge that surprisingly had not occurred to me before we started. In line with the editorial guidelines we were given, it was up to us to determine what goes in, and what changes, but for a topic like this one that guidance is challenging because much of what was written about is very new and is evolving.

It required us communicating with authors in a way that they could unpack what they were thinking about or clarify whether we both understood a concept in the same way. These were educational moments in the editorial process, I would say.

MB: The process took longer than expected, partly because I changed institutions and life got crazy. Then, on top of that, COVID happened. One of the things, though, that was positive about that was that it was able to give us a little bit more distance between iterations. When you are working with material and seeing it over and over again, the elongated timeline was helpful.

Related to this is just the extent to which you are in a lot of other people’s brains. You go over these pieces and become very familiar with them–sometimes too familiar–so you need that sort of distance.

RZ: Just out of curiosity, what has the reception or the engagement with the book been like so far?

MB: I have had a lot of people talk to me about it and tell me they are really excited about it.

AA: Generally, there has been a lot of enthusiasm. People are glad that there is something addressing the topic out in the world. And, it seems like a fair number of libraries have it which is nice.

EP: The response has been fairly positive. It is nice to hear people tell us they had not thought of things in that way and nice that colleagues in other fields are benefitting from it. It is great to even have it on people’s radars. The intended audience was never going to be huge; it is never going to make ripples in the world at large, but it also is not just our group of small dedicated Slavic Studies librarians. It is nice to see that others see a utility for it.

RZ: Definitely. Beyond Michael Erdman and Kit Condill’s chapters which relate in some ways to my particular area of focus–the Middle East–there was not a particular area where I was like, “this is exactly what I do.” And yet, I find myself returning to chapters pretty regularly. I even stopped by the Litwin Books booth at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference & Exhibition and the Litwin team told me there had been a lot of interest during the exhibition. I am excited by that too.

Thank you so much again for–along with your contributors–bringing this book into the world, and for sharing your time with me. I really enjoyed the conversation and I hope that these kinds of discussions will continue in the field moving forward as well.