i dream of being possible

the biggest obstacle to diversity in libraries

This morning I’m tickled by a confluence of events in libraryland. First is Cecily’s comment about how this year’s National Diversity in Libraries Conference was again focused on being at the starting line. Filled with 101-level discourse and personal confessionals about how un-diversity (ie structural oppression) has harmed people. Then is reading a rant about how all librarians are morally obliged to read diverse books. Then seeing the (predictably) garbage thread about this article on ALATT. All of which brings me to the glowing knowledge of why diversity is always doomed to fail in librarianship…

Because ‘we’ don’t want it. I say we because I’m still technically a librarian and thus in the field (although since I’ve stepped away from academic activities and advocacy and I only work part-time its a tenuous connection now). But look. Much like the diversity discourse in tech, all of this is just about posturing and all these conferences, papers, discussions, twitter chats, etc, will all amount to nothing. Which is unfortunate and sad, tbh.

Part of the problem is described in my post about Nice White Ladies(tm) and their role in the library. This problem isn’t limited to white women, of course, with white male librarians being equally has awful in this exact same way. This problem is further compounded by the history of librarianship as being inextricably tied to the white saviour complext.

Modern librianship (marked by the rise of the public library) is and always has been about ‘saving’ the poor, uneducated masses and indoctrinating us so that we can be ‘good citizens’. This same spirit infuses the core ethics of the field today, as we make sweeping claims about universal access to information, about how we support democracy, and necessary we are for ‘free’ information.

Again complicated by narratives about why white women (since most of the field is white women) get involved with librarianship. The field is gendered as a whole and we often treat it like a vocational calling. A thing we do because of a desire to help, rather than the rather paltry economic rewards. More than anyone else, librarians love to mythologize the librarian as heroic hero to the people. We are the robin hood’s of information!

In such a context it becomes fairly impossible to make substantive changes addressing institutional oppression because we are too heavily invested in a narrative wherein the institution we exist in is Good and we are Good for working within it. And this is the primary value/assumption/myth that was the entire point of “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression”. A way to contextualize our institution and field in relationship to the historical processes that surrounded their current manifestation. A way to move beyond myths and start grappling with the reality of librianship.

Except…. This isn’t something a lot of people in the field really want to deal with. Its an umcomfortable truth that gets brushed aside whenever signs of it manage to break into our ‘somebody else’s problem’ bubble of ignorance. Social justice/ethics/political philosophy is one of the few areas where you’ll regularly spot information ‘professionals’ pretending like their uninformed and ignorant opinion is as solid as fact.

Example: One of the comments responding to the ‘everyone must read diverse books’ command was that this was unnecessary so long as we keep up with reviews and such in our literature. Which sounds like a reasonable thing until you remember that: the publishing industry as a whole isn’t diverse so poc and other marginalized people are vastly under-represented. And then until you remember that, there are actual LIS studies that show that LGBT literature simply gets fewer reviews from library journals – even when these are award winning books.1

From the sounds of it (admittedly I haven’t looked that deeply) it looks like NDLC16 was attended by a lot of the usual suspects. People I like and admire and who I know care a great deal about the issue. But we long ago reached the point where we are just preaching to the choir. The people who need to hear about this stuff the most aren’t ever likely to bother attending such an event.

Fuck, most of them aren’t even willing to do the most rudimentary research into what racism is (as an example). At least not beyond the standard ‘reference resource’ we call the dictionary. You read that ALATT thread and realize that most white librarians care more about being called a racist than they do about their complicity in a white supremacist institution like the library2.

The thing is, is that your average librarian is exact the kind of person who is the worst type of person to discuss this sort of thing with. White liberals in general react the most viciously when you start bringing up institutional racism and how it functions.

Recall the Nice White Lady(tm). Recall the myth of the (white) librarian as white saviour. How do you tell people who’re 100% convinced that what they are doing is Good? That simply going on as they are is already a net positive for the world. I mean… they are democratizing information! They help create knowledge! They provide social programming!

Look. After “Locating the Library” was published, people I know who’re otherwise engaged in this discourse still tried to get my agreement that, overall, libraries are Good even if they are literal institutions of white supremacy. Like. Sure. They are white supremacist, but it isn’t like libraries are the police right? Or the judicial system? Couldn’t we be reformed? Isn’t there still something fundamentally good about libraries (and thus librarians) even if our current execution is flawed?

At that point I think I did believe that libraries could be redeemed and reformed. After the Case? No. It can’t be. And the problem lies within us. It is because we, as a field, have very little desire to change in the radical, necessary ways that could make reform possible, that reform will never be possible.

You look at that ALATT thread and several other’s I’ve had the misfortune of reading and you realize: this is not a field invested in change. Its impossible to convince people who already believe that they are Good that change is necessary. Why change when what we do and what we are is already Good?

So yeah. Libraries like the police, the judicial system, the current governments, absolutely need to be dismantled. They are not better (and not worse) than those institutions, as the all belong to the same complicated web of oppression. People tend to point to our values as evidence that there is something good at the core of libraries. Except that all the other major institutions of oppression also have high-minded ideals. Police are to ‘protect and serve’. The judicial system is about justice. The govt/democracy is about our freedom. And on it goes.

All of these institutions have admirable values and ideals. All of them fail to come even close to touching any meaningful manifestation of those ideals. All of them must be dismantled in order for us to be free and for us to move forward.

At the end of it. Because (most) librarians don’t want change, libraries aren’t redeemable. And librarians are the main reason why libraries as we know them today must be dismantled along with all the other oppressive remnants of enlightenment ideology.

  1. While I have other reasons for disliking that rant, the responses to it are far more informative than the actual article. 

  2. “How dare you call me a racist!? I put up a display for Black history month!”