{{ site.title }}

ARL Fall Forum 2020 Explores Leading Libraries toward Anti-racism in a Changing World

Last Updated on November 19, 2020, 3:21 pm ET

photo of Nix Mendy
Nix Mendy

As the 2020 recipient of the Julia C. Blixrud scholarship, I attended the ARL Fall Forum, titled “Leading Libraries toward Anti-racism in a Changing World,” which remains a clear highlight of this unpredictable year. Though the digital format (set as a webinar over a traditional Zoom call) did not offer me the same chance to casually mingle with or privately message Julia C. Blixrud’s family and friends to personally learn more about her lasting legacy, receiving congratulation emails and social media responses was warming. If the Fall Forum is redone virtually, I would suggest a reflection space on Blixrud, similar to the happy hour breakout rooms, where those stories could continue to enrich the overall experience. That said, to all that made the scholarship possible, including Blixrud herself, thank you! I am honored to be seen as reflection of her dynamic spirit and thrilled that her vision and investment in our profession lives on in an impactful, communal way.

Safiya Umoja Noble, this year’s Julia C. Blixrud Memorial Lecturer, opened the Forum with her lecture, “New Paradigms of Justice: How Librarians Can Respond to the Knowledge Crisis,” where she argued that the library science profession cannot fully cede the distribution of knowledge to big tech companies. Those with the most technical expertise seek influence and often replicate the same social inequalities virtually that exist in our physical world: they misrepresent and content- police communities that are already underrepresented and over-surveilled; they “balance” marketing and engagement (which are financially tied) with ethical review, so the former wins out more; and their algorithms can be hacked and manipulated, instead of consistently providing accuracy. Instead of spending so much time replicating their tactics, library professionals should consider how we can define the culture away from misinformation. We can help our patrons think critically about the sources, intention, and context driving any creation. Universities and the libraries within them have a responsibility in rebuilding the public good–namely the interests of validity, democratic access, and user privacy–and Noble recommended some clear steps:

  • Reject neutrality and acknowledge the consequences instead. Assuming neutrality means masking why and how choices have been made, and any harm stemming from those decisions. Acknowledge and assess your stance instead.
  • Educate yourself [and others!] on social issues around race, gender, and economic class. Living out our values should begin in our own field. Librarians of color leaving the profession is not a pipeline problem, but instead points to a clear lack of opportunity: they are underpaid, tokenized by often-defunded diversity positions, and hit a “cement ceiling” in professional growth through temporary work and mismanagement. We cannot point fingers at other industries without analyzing how we imitate their damages.
  • Address the above through required courses in iSchools. We should not only embed critical theory and ethical consideration into the beginning of the professional pipeline, but should also continue to build on these frameworks throughout our careers.
  • Educate yourself [and others!] on the harms of Big Tech. Demand repair and restoration, especially in holding them accountable for civil and human rights violations.

Inherent in Noble’s call to action was a commitment to and beyond self-awareness. Big tech companies show us again and again that having and harvesting the data is not enough. You must have the fortitude to use the details to move against harmful, unethical trends.

Noble’s lecture really set the stage for the lively discussion in the “Fresh Perspectives on Making an Impact and Taking Action” panel, moderated by the dynamic Tracie Hall, executive director of the American Library Association. Hall noted that because “institutions are now judged as much for their action as their inaction,” tokenization and co-optimization of ground-level movement work may be the first impulse. Those in power are concerned with preserving their reputation and legacy in an immediate sense, which can create tension against the long game of building a sustainable, inclusive culture. Yet, equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives cannot exist just to protect the institution and hoard power; these efforts should share and distribute power throughout the ranks. When panelists were called to define their pre-work, i.e. the vision, planning, and foresight, Patrick Sims and Patricia Hswe focused on the stories of the overlooked. Those who have been sidelined have a unique and necessary point of view on the challenges and pitfalls of the current system. Issues as disparate as assessing curriculum and equitable grant funding still had one core need: learning their desired audiences more deeply. Tara Robertson also offered that creating professional engagement programs where field experts consistently come in to discuss pressing topics (such as diversity and power dynamics) also generated space for structured discussions with workers of all levels. This kind of move can shift power by fostering an environment of learning for everyone. Integrating and engaging the feedback remains a crucial step for transparency and accountability. The panelists suggested matching the needs and urgency of those who offered their observations with overarching principles that can be funded and resourced. Creating lasting values that match the drive of your community will go further than loose actions taken just to pacify the moment. We were then encouraged to go the extra mile to make up for missed time; when “we’re good at working right up to the edge, but not over it”, we never actually break the barrier.

The quieting shift from many voices to Minelle Mahtani’s singular one in “Risk, Relation, Revolution, Repair: Refusing Closure, Accepting Ambivalence” was a great ending note. One key point from her reflections on her personal and professional challenges as the radio host of “Sense of Place” was her challenge to one of the most traditional questions in interviews: “What do you mean by that?” While often seen as a way to clarify the intention of a statement, the inquiry can become an extractive tool that “drags information out” and forces the interviewee to reanalyze and decide how to rephrase on the spot. Being expected to satisfy the host, instead of offering and relying on their own expertise, erodes trust and causes shame over not getting a story or issue “right.” An interviewer should be careful to steer away from questions that change the dynamic from open and self-reflective to closed off and self-critical. Similarly, information professionals should be careful in assuming that our confusion or lack of understanding on a topic is universal, and instead interrogate why we may not have the same experiences, context, or resources to better bridge gaps. I also appreciated Mahtani mentioning that the interviewees’ stories came from “familiar sites of pain, shame, and trauma”; while she valued the work, she also had to make peace with releasing the stories to the world emotionally. Anti-racist work requires considerable emotional labor, especially the necessary humility to admit and assess how and when we failed, the courage to actively listen and repair former harm, and the willingness to pivot in the future. We have been called to move from intention to action to policy and back again, keeping in mind that each stage informs and holds the others accountable. Policy that does not match our values; actions without transparency, documentation, and/or analysis; and intention without follow-through break the cycle down to just lip service.

After ARL took up the charge on this timely topic, the library community represented within the Fall Forum was not only responsive, but also energized in reflecting on the day during the happy hour, which was a clear surprise after nearly four hours of lectures, panel discussions, and papers! To ensure that anti-racism stays a commitment “despite pandemic, despite budget cuts, and despite our own fatigue” (per Gwen Bird in the final wrap-up), we need more spaces like these to share ideas and bolster each other in the work ahead. It’s clear that reflecting the diverse communities around us, while also addressing/repairing our role in advancing/upholding certain standards and forms of knowledge over others, will take all of us. Meeting new ideas, co-conspirators, and communal effort was validating and encouraging. Thank you again ARL, and keep the momentum!

See also tweets shared with the #ARLforum20 hashtag.

Nix Mendy is the recipient of the 2020 Julia C. Blixrud Scholarship. They are a 2019–2020 Spectrum Scholar and library associate at Tulane University where they arrange a large literary collection, build reparative description projects alongside the collection management team, and enhance accessibility to five distinctive units.