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.