My Thoughts on the ACRL/NY Symposium: Money and Power

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I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the recent ACRL/NY Symposium on December 2nd, 2016. I arrived at the ACRL/NY Conference bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and very interested to hear about the symposium theme of money and power. However, my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by the  specter that hung over the conference in the form of the president elect. Donald Trump’s name was mentioned many times throughout with fear and apprehension, and the opening remarks framed his ascension as a reminder of the brute powers at play in our society. The impression I received is that it would be naive to think that libraries – open, sharing, and caring as we are or aspire to be – are minor players in someone else’s game. And, who better to embody the modern capitalistic epitome of money and power than Donald Trump? Perhaps this is why the talks of the day mostly focused around changes that librarians themselves can make, rather than the powers that be that control us. To be sure, libraries have a responsibility to be more inclusive and to criticize power imbalances. Yet, what this conference really left me thinking about was library agency more broadly. How can libraries become more powerful agents, and transfer this power to our patrons?

The best talks of this conference touched this issue, calling out systems barriers, invoking the power of critical thinking, and using plain language to call a lack of funding a lack of respect. Here are my summaries of a few noteworthy presentations. I’ve added in my own thoughts and reflections, but I hope not to have altered the core of what anyone presented on.


Money, Power, Respect: Archival Labor as a Reflection of Neoliberal Values

The focus on Lil’ Kim that went throughout this presentation was really great. The presenter Stacie Williams spoke about how she sees Lil’ Kim as a representative of 3rd wave feminism due to her ability to represent herself though crossover identities, including gender and race. What I took from this was a fantastic reminder of the fact that power is constructed. A singer doesn’t inherently have less value than a politician or a trades person. We assign that value. We, as a society, say that knitting is less valuable of an activity than golf, or that care-giving is less valuable than working for a wage, to pick a few personal, inherently absurd, and somewhat gendered examples. Archival work has been undervalued and undervalued others in turn, and it’s time for that to change.

Stacie Williams brought up some really salient points about money. She argued that we’ve been afraid to talk about money, focusing our discourse on working for love and passion instead. This is a major issue because money is a way to allocate value. We pay for what we value, and when we rely on unpaid and invisible labour that doesn’t respect the mission of the archive or the students who do the work. Working with too little money means that we continue to use broken systems, such as discriminatory Library of Congress Subject Headings. A lack of funds can also foster toxic workplaces – think of the inequality between the female workforce and male management. The archives have lost respect and power, and it’s time to get these back.

With that said, the archives also possess power when it comes to the communities that they serve and the people whose lives are tied up with the collections they manage. Archives should ask: “how can we help our community find and harness power?” Respect extends way beyond the question of wages. We have to address the effect that archives have on a community. Another important question is, “are we respecting people who don’t want to be part of the historical record?” As I listened, I thought about how applicable this is to the issue of archiving residential school materials. Residential schools are so recent of an atrocity, and the colonial abuses of power that they represent continue on in so many ways today in Canada. Archives relating to residential schools need to take into consideration the desires of the native peoples they intend to represent.

I loved the very direct way that Williams addressed the issues at hand: she didn’t tiptoe around the major issues as she perceives them. Directly talking about money is something that libraries and archives need to do, emphatically and unashamedly.


Teaching with Data: Visualization and Information as a Critical Process

Question the information that you’re given is a basic library skill, but it’s one that we often forget when we look at data. This talk by Jill Conte and Andrew Battista was a good reminder of how data is shaped by the methods used to collect it, with a key question being “what is missing from the data?” The presenters described their experiences teaching this subject and outline a lesson plan. I thought the data that they chose to scrutinize for this class was well chosen but bold – FBI data on rape statistics. This openly available data set has changed in meaningful ways over the years, including re-definitions of what constitutes rape. Depictions of this data in graphical or topographical form show drastically different information. When the stakes are as high as rape and the associated trauma, it means that much more when the statistics show a distorted image of reality. Still, it was a sensitive subject for some students.

One takeaway that the presenters had was to consider the value and use of trigger warnings while not shying away from hard topics. I think that’s good advice for all information literacy lessons where a difficult topic, such as rape, may be discussed. Librarians need to teach the importance of critical awareness without alienating students. On a personal note, I sympathize with the difficulty of addressing a topic like this. I imagine that rape statistics are incredibly upsetting for some students, but at the same time, this data is so impactful that this is precisely why it needs to be discussed.


Instructional Standards and Professional Power

Emily Drabinski’s talk about standards was both general and far-ranging; excellent to listen to but difficult to sum up. She said that standards are akin to infrastructure: they’re invisible until it they aren’t there. Standards exist as a way to structure our profession: to communicate with others on an infrastructure level. Standards, like the standard size of train tracks, are essential for the base level of functional operations. Standards also are “about world-making” and they pull power and resources towards the standards-makers. If I understood the talk (and it was very nuanced), standards need to be understood for what they are and can do. Outdated standards should be reformed and useful standards, such as the ACRL Framework, should be adopted.

Drabinski’s talk was far different from the others in that it didn’t give a “how to” or any concrete advice. It was more of a discussion about the topic of standards generally and how these interplay with professional power. Since the conference, I’ve been thinking about her point that standards are a basis, a ground to stand on. Recreating standards in a new way of defining what is acceptable out of the vast array of options available and standards can either let in, or leave out, what you do not want. (Through the accident of differing standards, the different standard size of rail tracks in the USSR majorly impacted the ability of Nazi troops to advance in WWII.) The task to build infrastructure is enormous, and to connect it to Williams’ point, without enough funding libraries and archives cannot hope to reform old, broken standards that include offensive and inaccurate materials.


Architecture of Authority

Angela Galvan’s talk centered around the idea that by mediating access to information through vendor platforms, libraries have given up power to entities that don’t necessarily share our values or ambitions. Her talk was probably the most controversial at the conference, prompting some startled looks and “well I never!” comments from vendors and librarians alike. She has nicely summed up her presentation on her blog, and addressed some of the criticisms she received after the fact.

I think she makes some excellent critiques of library systems, and her focus on vendor relations was on point for the subject of “Money and Power.” A few of the most salient arguments:

She points out that, generally speaking, a vendor’s goal is to make money while a librarian’s job is to freely share information. These goals are sometimes aligned, but not always. This is a point that I have made myself numerous times, but it’s at odds with neo-liberal values and the way that some librarians think about lending as analogous to selling (our patrons are our customers!). Even within the same conference, there was a poster presentation endorsing library corporate sponsorship (Power, ethics and corporate sponsorship: Samsung Library, Yonsei University, Seoul, Korea). I think acknowledging the difference between business and what it is that academic libraries do (communal sharing of research materials) is a good basic starting point for a discussion about why library-vendor relations can be thorny. When our goals are different, our values are different as well. This is why it’s problematic, Galvan argues, to place copious amounts of patron data in the hands of vendors who don’t share our same concern for privacy. One privacy violation that she used as an example is that her name was included in the metadata field of a political book that she purchased. This metadata is useless to patrons and it could be harmful to librarians. She left the implications of this privacy violation wide open, but one that I would point out that in Trump’s America, left-wing academics are going to be the subject of increased scrutiny (see the Professor WatchList as an example).

On the topic of privacy, Galvan argues that given how much information vendors have about patron system use, vendors should be able to provide libraries with perfectly customized systems. This isn’t the case, and for some reason librarians are more willing to accept sub-par software than any other profession (whether or not this is true is a subject I would very much like to explore). We then invest our own time and energy to customize the software. These improvements are then rolled out to neighbouring libraries, and sometimes incorporated into the next systems upgrade. In effect, we’re doing the work that vendors should be doing for us, and sometimes having it sold back to us. While some vendors acknowledge the issues with this process – SpringShare offers free access to Libguides for library school students in an odd sort of compensation for all of the Springy Camps it holds – most do not.

Galvan notes that job requirements are increasingly requesting that users are familiar with particular platforms. She argues that we shouldn’t be hiring systems users, but systems thinkers. Particular platforms may not exist in the future, but the skills necessary to navigate complex systems will always be relevant. I agree. This is the way that Liwen Vaughan at UWO teaches all of her technology classes, and I think it’s the best approach. After having studied databases with her, I know that all relational databases have the same core architecture. It’s frustrating to have friends who are searching for work and are turned down for positions because they don’t have enough experience with a particular ILS, even though they have experience with another and the core skills to learn any system.

Library systems are essential to our mission of providing access to information. Galvan completed her talk by quoting Cody Hanson, stating that: “We must face the fact that when we relinquish control over the software we provide, we effectively relinquish control of our most visible and effective public values.” I have only lately become aware, through my new job as an electronic resources librarian, of how deeply reliant libraries are on vendor platforms, how unstable these can be, and how deeply interwoven our different delivery systems are with one another. There is no divorcing the platform from the content, and due to this there is a power imbalance who controls access to information. Her bullet points for reclaiming agency are an excellent start to address this issue, including the poignant call to action of “Ask for better contracts.”

While it wasn’t a point that Galvan made, one of the most interesting aspects of this presentation was that there were audible gasps in the audience whenever a vendor was mentioned. This was the case even when the speaker didn’t criticize the vendor in question. I don’t think her comments on SpringShare were particularly negative, but perhaps because of the fact that they were conference sponsor, this name became sacrosanct. Why should we fear to name names? What does that say about the kind of power that exists in our relationships with vendors? How can we speak truth to power if we can’t talk about the vendors who control information, many of whom are reaping incredible profits off of libraries? As Galvan says, and as most librarians say who speak about the serials crisis, it’s unsustainable. I would like to point out, as well, that Elsevier was another notable sponsor of this conference.

It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t point out a few issues that I also had with Galvan’s talk, in addition to her many well-said points.

Galvan urged librarians to regain agency through curiosity and exploration. This is problematic, because librarians are often encouraged to exploring coding and new technology, and to make our mark by fixing and building things. Isn’t this a little contradictory to the message of “get the vendors to build it right the first time?”

Galvan alleges that Summon (she named names) prioritizes ProQuest materials over other resources because this is in their best interest. I don’t have a criticism for this, but I would like to see some more empirical facts to back this up.


To read more about these and the other talks, I’d encourage you to have a look at the program. While I don’t have enough to time to summarize the other presentations here they did raise interesting questions, including: Do consortia actually always benefit libraries financially (The Library & the Consortium)? What would it look like if libraries received direct government funding, and what’s the future of (the commendable) Sci-Hub (Sharers Gonna Share)? What can we do to end the myth of the neutral classroom and support students who are people of colour (Displacing the Neutral Classroom)?

For myself, I’m going to continue to think critically about systems: the power structures that entrap libraries, and the systems that we maintain.

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Criticizing DH: Response to “Right Reaction and the Digital Humanities”

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To a newcomer such as myself, the digital humanities can be an awfully intimidating field. DH is inclusive: you have to be in the club to know who’s who. And DH is constantly evolving as a discipline: today’s hot text may be discarded tomorrow.

I wouldn’t mind the rapid flux and the insularity if it weren’t the case that DH is often presented as being only the best of these things. It isn’t inclusive: it’s communal but equality-challenged; it’s not in flux, but rapidly-paced and multifaceted. A certain positivity covers the surface of DH. What I am sceptical of is jingoism, and DH is certainly on a mission to prove itself a worthy endeavour, one that humanities departments should dabble in. Though, dabblers may find themselves jumping into the deep end of what is actually a discipline, complete with internal feuds and conflicting canons. Personally, I find that too much positivity is a frightening sign. I want to know about the dissent and criticism, to see politics laid out flat. In short, I wish that I could find a primer of who’s in and who’s out, the latest tools and texts, and the state of the discipline

This is a dream, and I know that. DH is a new field, and politics even in well-established disciplines are rarely ever laid out flat. For adventurous souls, not knowing is half the fun. But it was a delight to me, at least, to discover David Golumbia’s blog. He discusses politics and he criticizes DH and its practicioners. He has also identified some of the vitriol that I’ve been looking for beneath DH’s shiny veneer – and confirms some of my worst fears.

In his recent post “Right Reaction and the Digital Humanities” Golumbia talks about some of the very personal attacks that can take place in DH, which he argues are the product of a certain unexamined conservative political leaning. He argues that there is a “brutal incivility” associated with the “politics that persists very near the ‘nice’ surface of DH.” He goes on to tell how after delivering a talk he was attacked with ad hominem barbs by a prominent DHer. He argues that illogical arguments, like those that were thrown at him, are meant as cover up for a “poisonous political agenda” common to some in DH.

Golumbia argues that opposition to his talk was prompted by a difference in politics. His general thesis is that:

“as a politics its function [DH’s] has been to unseat other sites of authority in English departments and to establish alternate sites of power from existing ones, and in no small part to keep what I broadly call ‘cultural studies of the digital’ out of English departments, and generally to work against cultural studies & theoretical approaches, while not labeling itself as such.”

The DHer who was so infuriated with Golumbia denied that DH has inherent power imbalances. Golumbia argues that denying that these exist is an argument that is heard “only from the political right, which is to say, the party that benefits from its alignment with power, an alignment it often tries to downplay even as it benefits.” DH has a “facade of neutrality” that enables this kind of right wing political manoeuvring. When two of the DH speakers present at the talk ignore the angry attacker’s remarks, they are participating in this poisonous neutrality.

I have been studying DH for close to three months now, which is not nearly enough time to know whether Golumbia is closer to the truth than his attacker or not. I am glad that he is able to express his opinions; it seems clear from his interactions with the purported angry DHer that there are those who would prefer that he is silent. Reading over his blog, he makes some excellent points elsewhere, such as here on big data and here on Wikipedia. I find a discussion around power balances in DH to be essential reading. It’s a wonderful palate cleanser between other, more best-face-forward blog posts.

The apprehension that I have towards DH is still with me, however. This is an apprehension that I share with my classmates, who have wrestled to define DH (see here and here), although my fear is that I will be complicit in a neutrality that helps those who would be my enemies. Exactly who is in the right, though, is hard to tell. While I find Golumbia’s points convincing on a quick read through, I might feel differently if I were a committed DHer, for whom even the title of his blog would be untoward – Uncomputing. He himself remarks that he is a black sheep in DH. Is this for a reason?

Like Golumbia, I too believe that “Power and capital in our society are inextricably linked, and in many ways identical.” I also believe that critique holds a strong place in DH and that it deserves a future. I’ll be on the lookout for more political posts like this, and go forward a little more confident that DH can be critiqued and that criticism has a valid purpose within the discipline. It isn’t all sunshine and roses: what a relief.

 

 

Image Credit: Ruth Hartnup