Categories
librev navel gazing

The view from the ivory tower

The first time anyone ever accused me of being “Ivory Tower” happened in the last 24 hours, and I was leaving MPOW when I saw this statement for the first time. I had just stopped by to check on our book drop because I knew a lot of seniors were coming back to town to move their stuff out of the dorms and I had reminded them about dropping their library items off while they were around for that. I also got some measurements and mental models in my head for the sake of coming up with a concrete plan for social distancing, and practiced running between my office and the downstairs workroom, knowing it may well be part of my job to be vigilant on two floors very soon. Thing is, I have only two staff members, may have no student workers in the fall, and the library is one of the most well-loved and well-used places on our little campus.

I initially only got through the first few paragraphs of this post, a rebuttal to my LibraryJournal piece from earlier this week, and as I biked back to Boston, this is the part that stuck with me:

“The Ivory Tower mentality of privilege is blowing my mind. The emotional argument of ‘librarian as sacred being’ will come back to haunt us…No one else is in government work is exempt from doing that.”

There are two reasons why it stuck: one is that positioning a nationwide campaign to advocate for library workers’ safety in this moment as an “emotional argument of ‘librarian as sacred being'” is misleading, unfair, and wrong. As Donna Lanclos said more eloquently than I can right now, “#VocationalAwe is not a “double edged sword,” it is a description of the constructs used to oppress library workers when they attempt to assert that they have rights. ‘Don’t you care for your community??’ when library workers shelter at home is straight-up [vocational awe].” This accusatory language of “librarian (notice not ‘library worker’) as sacred being” is more of the same construct. And lest you think think this is a quote taken out of context, or that I didn’t read the rest of it when I got home, the post goes on to say, “There is a heavy and heartbreaking dose of privilege that comes with librarians expressing they are too precious to roll up their sleeves and get to work.” Is this what we are saying, or are we saying that library workers deserve basic dignity, rights, and safety before they roll up said sleeves? Is it fair to say that in advocating for ourselves, we’re ignoring every other type of worker out there? Or is this another fence drawn around cutting us off from broader labor solidarity?

The other sticking point is that to accuse me of being Ivory Tower is just absurd. I’m a fucking millennial daughter of the Rust Belt with crooked teeth and tattoos, not some pant-suited dean who hasn’t been on the front lines in 20 years. I empty the book drop, open the mail, and help my students with every single thing they come to me with, whether or not it’s “library-related.” Did I mention I have two staff members? I’ve used my position, privilege in being a director and at an institution where we’re expected to stay home, and connections to the Massachusetts library community to try to affect some kind of meaningful protection for my colleagues for the last two months. It’s defined many of my weeks, I’ve given it every brain cell I didn’t allocate for my day-to-day job, and it still seems like it’s been a drop in the bucket against the rapid pressure to reopen right this second. This image of me kicking up my (sneaker) heels and saying “nah, I’m too precious for this shit” is offensive, so belittling and dismissive of how I approach my work, and the path I’ve taken to get to this current job (though my LinkedIn profile is, intriguingly, linked to in the post).

But I wonder if there’s something more to this, something that even goes beyond the fixation of me as an academic library director up in my ivory tower, when we get to this part:

And why should people listen to “people who are no longer working making declarations about how we should direct our energy in the first place?” Because we just may have a clarity of vision about what it is really like, on the other side, to use the services libraries are providing their communities.

To me this sounds at best like, “We have decided who has privilege and voice in this current system and it is not you, o young academic library director who is putting uncomfortable pressure on those of us already in power,” and at worst like, “Oh honey, someday you’ll understand.” I have been in this game long enough to see this pattern of certain female-identifying directors worshiping the ground walked on by young male-identifying directors, but treating young female-identifying directors as if they are problematic trash that should be disposed of forthwith. I know this when I see it, just as I know the public vs. academic crap when I see it.

I was on the other side of the public vs. academic line not long ago, and I will readily confess that my perception of academic library life was way off base. Maybe I also believed in this ivory tower, but didn’t call it as such; I thought academic librarians had a work experience at a distance from their patrons and didn’t form relationships like we did with them at the public library I worked for at the time. I thought that there was a privilege and stability in academia that blanketed over all of the myriad realities of staff and students. I was wrong. I have developed deep relationships with my patrons now that go far and beyond what I experienced in the public world. And I am out on the floor in sensible shoes, not only emptying the book drop and opening the mail but reshelving the books, weeding, ordering, cataloging, working with student groups both in “traditional” instructional services and in the role of a community organizer, of sorts–we read books about systemic oppression’s influence on technology, and have long meandering conversations about the better world we dream of. I challenge students to fight their way through the anodyne trappings of engineering education and embrace activism. And you know what? I had no idea this kind of work was possible as an academic library director until I saw the need and found myself doing it.

My point here is, I get the divisiveness between public/academic, but SHUT. UP. Have you seen the common refrain on library Twitter that we need a national union like, a thousand times over by yesterday? While I’m not going to be the person to provide that, I can say that if we’re going to be pitting publics vs. academics, we’re getting nowhere fast – certainly not to the “disrupted, innovative” future. This past week, everyone’s favorite grievance bot had some juicy posts about the notion of vocational awe being a mechanism for academic librarians to oppress and criticize their public counterparts from positions of relative safety. Guess what? No matter what your thoughts are about the application of that term, you’re fundamentally undermining the future of your field by making unsubstantiated, intentionally polarizing claims like it’s an academics vs publics thing. And similarly, to claim that you are interested in innovation for libraries right now but do not want to produce this in alignment with worker needs, you are not acting in the best interest of your field! Like, I’m sorry that you’ve worked with people who have been “resistant to change,” but as a wise librarian once said on Twitter,

“I resist changes that are done to me, for me, in spite of me. I am usually a reliable booster of change done with me, alongside me.”

I’ve had employees who’ve refused to meet baseline expectations, too, but no matter how much they pissed me off on a day-to-day, I would NEVER want them on the frontlines with no protection and no cohesive guidelines for safe operation. The argument I can’t help but hear in this post isn’t so very different from the GOP ghouls who think it’s okay to sacrifice COVID-prone folks for the good of the economy. Wouldn’t it be convenient for some directors to get rid of the workers “who want to do a job that doesn’t exist any more, if it ever really did?” And the thought that haunts me through all of this is one Ruha Benjamin quotes in Race After Technology:

“[To] take the place of progress, ‘innovation,’ a smaller, and morally neutral, concept arose. Innovation provided a way to celebrate the accomplishments of a high-tech age without expecting…too much in the way of moral & social improvement.”

We’re in the same boat if we keep lionizing these stories of perseverance with no context about the jobs, health, and emotional and financial stability lost. But do go on about me being up here in the ivory tower. If we can’t band together behind the acknowledgment that 6,000-10,000 layoffs and furloughs is a professional crisis, all of our realities are about to get a whoooooooole lot more miserable.

Categories
navel gazing

A graduation speech no one will ever ask me to give and that’s ok

Hey Class of 2020,

Shit is rough, but you are wonderful. And the wonderfulness of you will endure, in the exact way that the rain pouring in my backyard right now will not. Uncertainty defines everything, yes, but I know this because I’ve seen who you are and what you can do.

I had a conversation with some of you today about how you come to trust people and the expectations you have for the relationships you’ve got and the ones you’ll build, and the courage that’s taught you how to understand and embrace criticism, and to speak truth to power. People might laugh this off as “wokeness,” or your would-be employers might avoid you because your school has a reputation for producing graduates that say what’s on their minds. That’s because they’re afraid. They’re afraid of embracing a new mindset, a new way of framing things that may require them making concessions or redistributing their power, a recompense for their own conservative actions and shortsightedness, especially in your chosen realm of STEM.

Though it may not happen immediately, and though you will no doubt find yourself at the unforgiving whims of a tanked economy, you will one day find workplaces that do not see your brave curiosity as a liability, but rather as a benefit, a key part in their strategy. Whether your work fulfills you or you yearn for something more, you can become an activist. You can engage with your community in so many ways that are sorely needed – you can volunteer, teach, discuss, mentor, build. The skills you have brought with you to your learning and have honed throughout your education will keep you going in this work, in ways that many folks (including me) have had to develop through studying and peer guidance much later in life.

If you struggle to find your feet beneath you as you move on to this next stage, fear not; this is the natural course of things. Maybe the most important things millennials like me can bestow upon Gen Z is that 1) the “insert college degree, expect economic prosperity” model has been proven a myth for some time now, 2) your life is going to feel like a series of fits and starts, “forever delayed,” 3) it’s really alright if you don’t go straight from point A to points B and C, etc., and 4) all of this is not a personal indictment of you. You are living through history, as are we all–and what’s more, subject to a timeline that is not human.

I want to spend a little more time on point 4 because this is where I stumbled the most when I graduated in 2009. Shit was rough then, too, but there at least was no global pandemic to contend with. I moved just outside Boston a few weeks after I received my degree on a frigid day in upstate New York. I tagged along with a group of people I hardly knew but, I thought, had the right idea in bouncing out of town. That summer was cruel, and our painstaking spring this year brings it back; it rained 27 of 30 days in June. I had nothing much to do, though, no job and no prospects, so I walked the streets of Waltham until I knew them like the hilly, curving roads of my hometown.

Eventually my money ran out and I took a job at the CVS in Wellesley that’s closest to campus. I was the photo lab manager, but I still felt a shame that I carried around like an unshakeable aura; I felt like I’d failed myself, my parents, my brother who was currently working on a PhD in computer science, my boyfriend at the time, a chemistry major who had snagged a job downtown. We didn’t have a proper darkroom at the store so I used to have to go down to the basement with the lights all turned off, stumbling over the off-season merchandise, to change the photo printer paper cartridges. I got told to smile more about 40 times a day. My shift leader, Elio, was from Peru and had a master’s degree in mechanical engineering but he was stuck working at this stupid photo lab-less CVS along with John, another 2009 grad who was trying to get on the fast track to store management. They tried to entice me down that road, too; at the time, the chain was targeting an expansion in Hawaii, and I remember being told I could wind up there if I wanted to stick with it. “They’ll need all kinds of managers in Honolulu, Cal!”

I quit a couple weeks into the new year, 2010. I had decided to go back to school at this point, to get my Masters of Science in Library and Information Science from Simmons then-College-now-University. I still needed money–needed it more, with that first tuition bill in my hands–but a phone call with a customer on Christmas Eve, amidst all the last-minute purchases of tape and candy canes, so many candy canes, had put me over the edge.

“CVS Wellesley Central, this is Callan speaking, how can I help you?”

“I’m calling to see if you have any Snuggies1. They’re the last thing on my list and I know you have them.”

“Let me go double-check – I haven’t seen any in the store, but I’ll look around. One moment while I put you on a quick hold. … Ma’am, are you still there? We don’t have any Snuggies on the shelf or in storage, unfortunately.”

“(scoffs) Are you lying to me?”

“… What?”

“I said, Are. You. Lying. To. Me?”

“No, ma’am. I just checked our stock and -“

“I know you’re lying. I’m going to come down there and I’m going to get you in so much trouble when I prove that you lied.”

“Um -“

“Don’t try to explain yourself, liar. I’m coming down there right now.” *click*

For the record, she never came down, but after a few months of this kind of nonsense and men throwing newspapers at me when I asked them to walk five feet over to an open checkout station, I was all set. I left CVS and took a job north of Boston at a hair salon software company and built websites for stylists and spas in New England for a few months, and it was also terrible and unpleasant for a different set of reasons, and then started my program at Simmons almost exactly a year to the day after I arrived in Massachusetts. I lived in a different apartment with different people by then. I’d lost some friends and made some new ones. I got my cats.

So, happily ever after, right? Lol, no. It took me years, including a cross-country move, a stint in a mildly successful electronic goth band, a failed marriage, and the death of my grandmother and near-death of my brother to get me even close to “on track.” I went from point A to point Q to some point not even identifiable in this alphabetic system before I got to point B. When I thought I’d gotten all of the deliberate fucking up out of my system, I got involved with a person and almost ruined my career, or ran myself out of it, in the aftermath. The day the sense got knocked into me wasn’t even when I woke up in the hospital after a hit-and-run, but probably the night two months after that when a set of stairs collapsed under me in Allston while I was carrying my bike out of the house of a giant asshole who was not only two-timing me with someone half his age but also constantly texting her while I was around (thanks loads, Tinder). And even after that, I have continued to fuck up. I have fucked up prodigiously in these last ten years and I’ll probably fuck up routinely forever, but you know what? That’s the deal. We’re all on board for it. There’s nothing you can do to stop the majority of your own fuckups, but you can do one thing to help you through it. You can remember point 4.

4) all of this is not a personal indictment of you

I have gotten to know some of you better than others, but all of you are impressive to me. The things I’ve seen you build, the teams I’ve seen you working with, the speeches you gave before we all scattered to the four winds. Your tolerance for ambiguity, your willingness to speak up, your honesty and your knowledge of the importance of consensus, something folks my age and older struggle with, sometimes indefinitely. I didn’t have much time with you, but the 5-6 months I had was enough to make me a little weepy as I sit here and imagine not seeing you on campus anymore. “Man, your shoes are hard to replace.” But that’s part of the deal, too–you must go on, and you must fuck up outside the bounds of our campus, and that may well mean that for fuck’s sake, you must be the change you want to see, even if people might think that makes you a know-it-all fuck, because we’ve never fucking needed it more.

I’ve been sitting here staring out at the rainy dark for a while without many ideas for a good closing paragraph, so I’ll leave you with someone else’s words. They are a more eloquent way of stating the first sentence of this speech: “Shit is rough, but you are wonderful.” You were, after all, challenged to “do something” when you came to us, and I share this in the spirit of challenging you to keep at it after you go, even if your life is a mess because you’re stuck at point Q trying to placate the Snuggie lady.

“Nature teaches persistence and perseverance, because in the end nothing stops nature. If a rose can grow out of the concrete, so can we.”

Micah Hobbes Frazier, kind of quoting Tupac Shakur, quoted in adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy
  1. I’m pretty freaked out about how quickly culture shifts nowadays, so in case you don’t know, a Snuggie is an “As Seen on TV” sleeved blanket that became something of a cult during my CVS days.
Categories
navel gazing

Wtaf

What am I doing here? Idk, man. I’m a day late and a dollar short with this, but the WordPress block thing is pretty cool. Honestly, it’s kind of inspirational for getting the words flowing. I always like when a company doesn’t just talk about design thinking but seems to have actually created something with users in mind, y’know?

Well, okay, I have some real answers. On the one hand, my co-author and I are about to submit a final draft of the book we’ve been working on for the past year, and I don’t like the thought of not having something to write when I was able to make the time for, and enjoyed the time spent on, writing. In November, participated in NaNoWriMo in solidarity with a class at the college I work for, and I realized the void left in my life when I’m not writing regularly, which is a long story for another time (or never, who knows!). The last few months of rewriting, tweaking, and editing have been great, but we’re about ready to put a bow on this thing, so here I am.

The other thing is what I stuck in the “about” page for this blog: “This is largely an endeavor to stay off social media as much as possible.” I’ve been on Twitter a ton, and involved with a ton of different groups via email, and the whole “see the notifications, read the messages, respond to them, get pissed at the content firehose” cycle is just… not good for me. It’s not helping me hear my own voice, and I’m not saying that in some kind of weird self-aggrandizing way. Maybe it’s self-aggrandizing no matter what if you have a blog, but I’m okay with that, I guess. I like having an audience, or rather, the potential for one. It helps me write.

But what I mean by not hearing my own voice is, I’m tired of participating in the way that a company like Twitter wants me to, tired of sharing thoughts (especially in the current moment, with life being so very online) or thinking things that are all shaped and trapped by the structure and biases of the platform. And yes, I am writing this on a WordPress site, so I’m not saying this is beyond its own problematic paved paths. It’s just something else, somewhere else–a place where I can drop out a little, but not the whole way.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last month and a half thinking about how my profession needs to radically change in response to the ongoing crisis and writing about it in forms that generally haven’t taken a blog shape, and I don’t intend to just hang up my hat about that when it’s “done” or whatever, in part because it’s never going to be done but also because I want to help make that radical change possible, and I want to have a way of explaining thoughts and ideas I have that in a public forum because I don’t want this work to transpire in the vacuum of my own mind. I want to have critical conversations and hear constructive pushback and feedback; I want this to be a place for generating ideas as well. I’m going to do what I can to build this space to honor that, and I might mess up, and probably already have, but if you’re cool with bearing with me, let’s do it.

Just to give myself some kind of roadmap for what will be happening here, and to help anyone who shows up with figuring out if they want to stick around, this is what I expect I’ll be writing about:

  • a worker-oriented future for libraries
  • my experiences as the library director at a small, weird engineering college and a participant in library stuff at the local & national level
  • books and other things I’ve been reading & thinking about
  • music, inevitably
  • the unique anxieties of the present moment, both personal and professional

So there you have it. I hope I can hold myself to keeping this thing going because I’m excited to see where it goes. For now, I’m off to keep re-reading How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, the book that helped me wrap my head around how to exit the attention economy in part but not fully, and still be present to do the work that needs to be done. Goodnight!