Mandy Henk’s Hikuwai Event: What is Critical Librarianship?

As you may know if you read my interview with Mandy Henk a year ago, I am a big fan of hers. She is the author of Ecology, Economy, Equity: The Path to a Carbon-Neutral Library, published by ALA Editions, and an academic librarian now living in Auckland, New Zealand. A few days ago she gave a talk in Auckland, titled, “What is Critical Librarianship?” She gave me permission to publish her talk on this blog. So here it is….


So, I’m here to talk about critical librarianship. It’s going to really be a sort of meta talk about our professional discourse and our professional practice.

But before we get into the details I want to talk for a moment about the whys and whatnots of critical librarianship more generally. There aren’t 50 people sitting in here in this room on a Monday evening because you’re super excited to hear about a new methodological approach to LIS scholarship and practice. That is what we’re going to talk about, but first I think we need to talk frankly about why we’re really here: social justice. I don’t consider myself an LIS scholar; I write stuff, true. But I’m an activist who uses LIS scholarship, both my own and that of others, to inform my professional practice and my activism. My interest in this material, like other critical librarian-scholars, is in using it to influence the practice of this profession and to alter the fundamental relationships we have with our patrons, our vendors, and within our libraries. Critical librarianship–the application of various critical methodologies generally grounded in critical pedagogy to the study and practice of librarianship– gives us a set of tools to do that as a profession, from within our own professional discourse and practice.

Critical librarianship isn’t the first foray our profession has had into social justice issues. I don’t know enough about the history of New Zealand’s librarians to cite examples from here, but in the US we have Juliette Hampton Morgan in the civil rights movement, more recently we have the amazing work of Sanford Berman working to transform LOC subject headings, Jessmyn West in the Battle of Seattle . . . we’re a profession with a proud tradition of fighting for our patrons, all of our patrons. Where I think Critical Librarianship diverges from most of our previous tradition is its inward focus on the scholarship of the profession and its related willingness to critique our practice. I also think that Critical Librarianship is the first genuine intellectual movement from within the profession.

We never really talk about our profession as a discipline, as a site of inquiry, especially not once we finish our degrees. But it is. If we step back and take a look at how we do “research” within LIS, especially as practitioners, there are a few themes that really stick out. One, we want practical solutions. And we define “practical” as implementable–we want people to write stuff and give presentations that will tell us things that we can take back to work and use the very next day. Two, we see ourselves largely as a social science. This has implications for how we train future librarians, how we judge the quality of each others’ work, and, crucially, what kind of research we do in the first place. Finally, and I think most importantly, within mainstream library discourse we emphasize the maintenance of the status quo, we focus on how to work within a Westernized, capitalist, global economy and in doing so define the perspectives of other kinds of librarians, who might operate from within very different paradigms and very different knowledge systems, as unserious and not worthy of genuine consideration. We marginalize them. And in doing so we reduce the range of views within the profession to our great detriment.

At the same time, we also define away work that has the potential to be truly revolutionary. Work that critiques the impact of neoliberalism on our libraries. Work that analyzes the impact of managerialism, of a ruthless focus on the utilitarian, becomes “not serious.” It becomes no longer part of the core discourse of the profession. When we allow this to happen, we abrogate our responsibility, our public trust, instead transforming ourselves into bureaucrats of the books. We squander our own revolutionary potential and the potential of this institution itself.

Critical librarianship, as an intellectual movement within LIS offers a means of critiquing these larger forces that impact upon our libraries and our information system.

So let’s look at the objections to introducing this kind of work into our professional discourse. First, practicality. Practicality is a problematic dictate in research because it serves to limit our scope of inquiry–if we must present a solution each time we define a problem, our ability to articulate the problems in our profession and that our profession faces is greatly curtailed. The mandate of practicality stifles our professional range and scope. In doing so it leaves an enormous range of problems unarticulated. Unarticulated problems can NEVER be addressed. Because they are unrecognized, at least officially in the literature, they get redefined as what the late great Douglas Adams called SEPs–Someone Else’s Problem. You’ll remember the SEP field from Hitchhiker’s Guide? In the Hitchhikers world an SEP can run for years on a single torch battery and, once erected, renders things completely invisible, as Ford tells Arthor, “An SEP is something that we can’t see, or don’t see, because we think it is Somebody Else’s Problem. . . . The brain just edits it out, like a blind spot.”

To give an example of how this plays out, take a look at the scholarship surrounding “greening libraries.” I assume it isn’t going to come as news to anyone here that climate change is the most urgent problem facing humanity today. And yet, the so far half-hearted project to decarbonize the information system is almost entirely absent from our professional literature. Instead we talk about recycling. A lot. And green book mobiles. And sustainability oriented programming. And building collections that support researchers who do climate research. What we don’t talk about, what we don’t question–is why, when we evaluate new electronic resources, we don’t include any criteria about the impact of those resources on the environment. It’s an SEP, and so we don’t talk about it.

I think that part of the reason we don’t talk about it relates back to the second point: our understanding of ourselves as a social science. And by that I mean that we privilege certain methodological approaches that are commonly used within the social sciences. Namely, we have a bias and a tendency to privilege positivist methodologies. Positivist approaches are what we teach in our research methods courses, articles using them comprise the vast majority of our professional literature–it’s even embedded in the name of our discipline: Library Science. And I do think positivism has a place. Positivist methodologies are good tools–but they can only build certain kinds of knowledge. Surveys, case studies, data analysis–these are methodologies that can only tell certain kinds of stories. And those stories often need telling, but in privileging them so greatly within our professional literature, we are walking away from other kinds of stories, ones that are just as, if not more, compelling.

Let’s look at two articles on roughly the same topic, from different authors using different methodologies. I’ve altered the first abstract substantially because I think it would be a jerk move to call out anyone specific and that’s not my goal here. Variations of that article have been published at least a dozen times. The first article I found in LISTA, which is the primary index for scholarship for the LIS discipline in the United States. It’s where library students, LIS researchers, and practitioners go when they want to answer the question “What does the literature say?” The second I heard about in a presentation at a conference. It is not discoverable through LISTA– It’s already been literally excluded from the professional literature. This exclusion has erected an SEP field around it.

Let’s look at the first abstract in more detail. This article was published in a major LIS journal; one that has all kinds of fancy bibliometrics. If I told you the title, you’d recognize it.

So it’s a survey, right?

It tells a story that goes like this:
The demographic make-up of the US is changing and yet the demographic make-up of LIS professionals is not. To best serve our clients in the future, we should bring in more librarians of color. Work-life balance plays an important role in attracting and retaining employees, so understanding what influences the work-life balance of current librarians of color is an important step on the road to attracting more into the profession.

The problem is that in telling this particular story, other stories that we could and should be telling are obscured–the more so when we consider that this story is the one in the prestigious journal. In telling this particular story, a number of important issues are buried behind the facade of the “neutral and objective observer.” The stories that this article can’t tell–and that we should be telling as a profession — require that we step out of our “methodological comfort zone.” They require us to reimagine what it is we are doing when we do “research” and in our practice.

So, the fundamental buried issue in this article, and other articles like it, is that it makes an important assumption–namely that the problem of race in LIS is representational. The argument goes like this–Libraries serve a racially and ethnically diverse range of clients, so librarians themselves should reflect this diversity. The problem is the embedded assumption that by changing one particular variable–the number of librarians from traditionally marginalized groups, you thereby change the profession in such a way as to cause it to better serve that clientele. This might be an accurate assumption, but if you look at this critically, there are more than a few holes. We can turn to the second article to see a critique of this kind of thinking: By focusing on numbers, we deflect attention away from genuinely liberatory struggles. The consequence of the problem has been redefined as the problem. In other words, by examining how to get more librarians from traditionally marginalized groups, we have neglected to ask why there are so few in the first place. This neglect is by no means benign –it absolves us of our obligation as human beings to examine the systems of oppression and domination that we have created and in which we are complicit. Critical methodologies force us to confront these systems and transform them from Someone Else’s Problem back to where they rightfully belong–at the forefront of our analysis about our own profession.

The production of articles of the first sort poses a set of challenges to us as scholars that are fairly easily resolved within the context of the neoliberal university. The problem is one of training. To do this kind of work you need to learn a set of rules, how to use some mathematical software, and then the proper structure to use when writing up your data. It’s the kind of teaching that the contemporary university most prefers: training. Articles of the second sort pose a much more serious pedagogical challenge. To do this kind of analysis requires a deep understanding, a transformation of the consciousness, most especially in those whose relationship with power has been largely obscured by their own place at the top of the hierarchy. It requires education, transformative education– of the sort that university administrators are currently working feverishly to eliminate.

But this also brings us to our third point. Articles of the first sort have an even more basic assumption hidden within them: That the only, or most “appropriate” response to finding ourselves embedded within a mysterious situation where important members of the human community are excluded from practicing our profession–or opts out of it–is not to transform the larger system itself. Instead it is to document this exclusion and then tweak some variable–to alter some portion of this system while leaving the larger structures of domination intact. It removes the structures of oppression from analysis and in doing misplaces the onus of reform on to others–often those victimized in the first place. Or it results in calls for library administrators to eliminate “discrimination” without offering a roadmap that would allow an administrator so inclined to recognize and understand what discrimination looks like and how it is perpetuated within a library environment. In other words, despite claims to practicality, it offers empty solutions, ones destined to fail.

More than that though, by placing this kind of work at the center of our professional literature, we turn away and turn off those who are most likely to see through it, to see its fundamental failures– librarians who themselves come from marginalized backgrounds: indigenous librarians, Black librarians, librarians from places burdened with a history of colonization. By privileging a form of analysis that anyone whose experience with power is not wielding it but rather having it wielded upon them, can see is insufficient, we marginalize their experiences and force them to become complicit in the very structures of their oppression if they want to join our work. By defining “scholarship” so narrowly, so tightly, we put everyone into a methodological straightjacket, one that not only limits the scope of analysis, but also of voice. We place upon those who stay an undue burden–that of explaining to us why our professional literature is inadequate, why we keep grappling with the same problems over and over again without making real progress. Or they are left with the choice to remain silent, which itself comes at a personal price.

As librarians we find ourselves at the front lines of the neoliberal attack on public services and goods. At the front lines of the enclosure of the information commons and the transition of the scholarly record into a commodity to be sold and resold for private profit. Only by bringing critical methodologies to bear on this problem can we hope to develop a counter narrative, one that has the potential embedded within to transform the system. Only by creating this counter narrative can we stand in solidarity with others across public life who are fighting on other front lines. We do a good job at sharing tips and techniques to do our jobs, but our responsibility as professionals goes beyond that: We are also obligated to examine the systems that we work within and to work to bring them into a more just state.

So that’s my perspective on what critical librarianship is and why it’s important–but I want to pull around to practice. I’m a practicing librarian. I teach workshops, build online teaching materials, buy books, answer reference questions . . . and I think critical librarianship should be as much about practicing librarians as about the scholarship side. I don’t actually think that the scholarship side and practice side are separable. This is work that those who practice the profession of librarianship should both do themselves and should incorporate into their daily work. As human beings we are always operating within a power structure of some sort. If we fail to critically examine that structure, if we try to ignore it and go about our lives as though it doesn’t impact us or our work–we are susceptible to becoming subsumed within it. We become complicit. Our humanity requires active resistance. We are not only workers. We are human beings and citizens.

Which brings around to what we can do, how we start to do this work if it isn’t already part of our professional lives. For those who don’t know me, I’m an anarchist and my preferred methods are prefigurative, meaning that I believe that structures that we create to fight injustice should themselves reflect the kind of society we want to build. For me, I want to see us work together–mutual aid– to do the kind of study that we need to do to do this work well. Rigor matters and by working together and building communities of inquiry and practice, communities defined by equality, solidarity, and democracy, we can learn a new methodology and apply it to our work. We can do things like workshop our projects, have reading groups, discussion groups. We can participate in the international conversation surrounding this kind of work–there are regular Twitter meet-ups and discussions. More and more journals are being founded to publish this work. The pace of book publishing is quickening in this area. There are a large number of people coming together across the globe right now to support each other in this work. I’m still very new here, but I have absolute confidence that if we work together to figure out how to support each other, we can create strong communities of practice and inquiry that can do the kind of work that we need to do to transform the information system and our libraries. To help us to realize the liberatory potential of our profession and of the institution each of us has dedicated their working life to building.