i dream of being possible

on the implications of 'Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression'

My last blog post about Nice White Ladies(tm) kind of delved a little into what the implications are of my recent article, “Locating the Library in Insitutional Oppression”. The general implication of the post and article is that working within a library necessarily means to be complicit in white supremacy (as institutional oppression)1.

As should be clear, the meaning of ‘complicit’ depends on the subject position of the labourer within libraries. For people of colour to be complicit in our own oppression generally means making bargains with power that allow us to obtain individual and singular gains, at the cost of selling out our people and selves. This doesn’t imply, however, that we are ‘oppressing ourselves’, rather it means that we have to compromise and allow our selves to be subjugated by power in order to continue to survive. Indeed, living with the cognitive dissonance and mental strain of making these bargains is part of our oppression, rather than a contribution. Recall Foucault and the panopticon, which describes how power operates to get its subjects to police themselves, rather than having to use overt force.

For white people working within libraries, however, the case is different. They do not make bargains with power, because they are power. They, collectively, constitute an important and necessary part of the ‘institution’ which oppresses via white supremacy.

As noted in the blog post, this isn’t about individuals and their actions. Since the library itself is structured and maintained via (both external and internal) mechanisms of institutional white supremacy, it becomes hard for individuals to enact or engage in any meaningful resistance to this structuring logic.

Again, great examples are taken from cataloguing. We have entire books written about how institutional oppression works within cataloguing. If you are a cataloger and work using either the LoC or DDC classification schemes (which I imagine is most cataloger’s working with Canada or the US), how exactly are you to resist the white supremacy encoded by these classifaction schemes? Yes, you can propose new subject headings. You could re-classify stuff and put in a call number that would be incoherent outside of your individual library (possibly even within your own library if you are the only person doing this).

So what can be done? This sounds like just a bunch of theory with no praxis, doesn’t it? It also seems so huge to attempt to change/transform/etc an insitution when individual actions appear to have very little impact on the institution itself…

This is where collective action comes into play. No, it is very true that individually white librarians can do very little to effect any real, substantive change on libraries to resist or dismantle white supremacy. The solution is for white librarians to begin working collectively towards these goals (and, obviously, librarians of colour should most definitely get involved where safe for us to do so2).

But the collective action has to be aimed at big changes. Not incremental or reformist ones. Note the cataloguing examples. From radical cataloguing we can see that some headway has been made to revise subject headings with the LCSH to use less offensive language and to stop erasing the lives of marginalized people… but this is too slow. The clearest solution is to either entirely revise the LCSH or entirely get rid of it and make a new system of classification. The clearest solution, but also the most difficult and time consuming one. Also, not the most ‘efficient’ one, which is a positive in my mind, since efficiency is desired by capitalism.

Or, if we want to talk about another low-hanging fruit. We often talk about the difficulty in diversifying collections. One of the biggest problems I find with how collections development discussions go re: diversity, is that they never, ever truly identify the real problem. The problem, of course, isn’t that librarians are terrible at making diverse collections (some are and some aren’t). The problem is that the publishing industry does not produce diverse products. Which also feeds into the lack of diversity in reviews (which are a key resource in collection development). For me, the solution here is for libraries to seize the means of production. Or to simply stop being only consumers of published materials. We can (and I think should) be publishing material from our communities. And, better yet, sharing this material with other libraries. Can you imagine the library collection ecosystem if we did this?

I recently saw a kickstarter for a platform intended to get self-published works into libraries. To me, this is easily the most ridiculous thing in the world. Here is an absurdly easy way to diversify collections. Individual creators are doing the hard work of producing and publishing. And libraries are doing what, exactly?

Anyway. One of the major implications of my article is that showing up (as a white librarian) and doing your job cannot be understood as a ‘doing good’. I know a lot of passionate librarians who think that just being and working as a librarian is doing good. Which, on a institutional level, simply isn’t true. Yes, if you help a unemployed person gain computer skills and find a job, this is a good thing. But it isn’t wholly good, because it maintains a system of capitalism whereby an individual’s worth is based on how productive we are. Obviously, the solution isn’t giving this individual a copy of Das Kapital and telling them to riseup against the bourgeoisie.

It isn’t easy (or perhaps even possible) to resolve the difficulty of knowing that your intentions are good and that you are helping people, with the reality of being complicit in someone else’s oppression. This is something that everyone needs to struggle with3. But this is a struggle that can often result in the conviction necessary to go out and change the world.

  1. Again, while white supremacy was what I focused on within the article, it easily could have been any other institutional oppression. 

  2. I’m partly focusing on white librarians here because it is a simple fact that librarians are mostly white women. Thus, they (and white men) hold the majority of power within libraries. 

  3. Yes, this includes me. I have my own privileges and struggle all the time with the ways I contribute to other people’s oppression. This is life in the world we live in.