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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.

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librev

#LIBREV opening speech

Posting this here mostly for my own posterity, but this is the opening speech I delivered at Monday’s #LIBREV(olution) conference.


Welcome to #LIBREV(olution). Hello to everyone on the live broadcast, and also hello to those of you watching the recordings. My name is Callan Bignoli, my pronouns are she/her/hers, and I am the director of the library at Olin College of Engineering. I’m about ten miles away from there at my home in Boston, Massachusetts. Thanks for joining us today. I’m going to say a few words before we get things underway with our first presentation starting at 10 AM Eastern.

Back in mid-March, which feels like it was years ago now, I had an idea to pull this together as I saw conference after conference getting canceled. I asked for volunteers to pull some kind of online gathering together and immediately found help. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge all of the people who have assisted with the idea and execution of the conference.

Specifically, they include: Jennifer Wertkin, Sarah Braun, Myrna Morales, April Mazza, Anna Popp, Kelly Jo Woodside, Patrick Sweeney, Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, Megan Schadlich, Stacie Williams, Matt Amory, Anaya Jones, Trisha Previtt, and Jennie Rose Halperin. These folks are acting as moderators and presenters today. Our phenomenal slate of speakers answered our call for proposals right away. They created the presentations you’re going to see today under duress and anxiety from the unforeseen challenges and pressures we’re confronting during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The conference organizers and I are both amazed by and very grateful for that. So here we are today: 2,242 people RSVPed for an event, not put together by an existing organization, but instead by a ragtag bunch of library misfits.

I set the maximum attendance to 500 when I first created the Eventbrite page, thinking it’d be great if we got even halfway there. 2,242 doesn’t feel possible, but if there is one thing we’ve learned in the time of this crisis–as we’ve seen our support structures bend and break; as we’re watching unimaginable numbers of our colleagues laid off or furloughed–it’s that our definition of what is possible, and what is “normal,” has got to change.

And that’s why we’ve recast this webinar as #LIBREV(olution), a deliberate choice to push away from, or beyond, the original name which was LIBRESILIENCE. RESILIENCE assumes response to and survival after ongoing stress; it doesn’t imply any change.

REVOLUTION, though–REVOLUTION is “a sudden, radical, or complete change.” What do you think we need right now? A continued response to the same old stress, or a sudden, radical, and complete change?

Right now, a group of library advocates are keeping track of layoffs and furloughs at libraries in the U.S. and Canada. That list has grown to about 200 institutions and may well be much longer. On Wednesday, we added my former employer, the Public Library of Brookline, to the list. 50 part-time workers, over half of the library’s staff, were furloughed. I worked with the majority of these people for two and a half years. We built a new library together; we mourned the unexpected loss of a colleague together; we had a lot of fun and put a lot of hard work into making our library and community a better place. And despite the efforts of the library director–the town, among the wealthiest in Massachusetts, decided to go forward with the furlough and all of them lost their jobs indefinitely.

This came after a month and a half of horror stories that weren’t as close to home for me, from Houston, Texas, where staff were told to fashion masks out of rubber bands and paper towels, to Hennepin County, Minnesota, where library workers were effectively forced to staff emergency shelters if they wanted to continue getting paid – regardless of their own health concerns – to countless libraries refusing to stop curbside pickup services and directors and mayors ignoring, or retaliating against, the concerns of their staff.

Libraries have been forced into a no-win situation. If they operate physically, they jeopardize the health and safety of their staff and communities. If they don’t, they risk furloughs or layoffs because county administrators and mayors say “workers can’t get paid taxpayer dollars to do nothing.” Either way, with tax revenue plummeting, county and municipal systems are looking at a long, dark road ahead, with threats of privatization or permanent closure looming larger than ever. We need to get ready to help each other. We must reject doing more with less, and that means we cannot go it alone.

Considering the reactions we’ve seen to the pandemic, and the impacts we’re feeling now and the ones still ahead, I say it’s time for a sudden, radical, and complete change. We need a system that advocates for libraries-as-workers, not just libraries-as-institutions. We need to start thinking together about what that looks like. A new professional organization? A national library workers’ union? A broad coalition of public support from beyond the field? I don’t have the answer, but we need to figure these things out. #LIBREV(olution) is an invitation and an invocation and a hope for continuing this work together.

A #LIBREV(olution) is possible – 2,242 people, including you, signed up for this event. The talks you’ll hear today are all a reach towards a revolutionary future from honest discussions of morale in the workplace with Kaetrena to transformative librarianship with Stacie and Myrna, from understanding the undercommons with Jennie to finding resources for healing with Megan. We’ll hear about wrapping your head around political systems with Patrick, alleviating the crush of student debt with Matt, and adapting to online teaching and learning with Trisha and Anaya. Our presenters today are offering you a set of new approaches to work and self-care, providing tools and techniques to prepare for today and what’s to come. 

We’ll make it down that long, dark road, but we need to help each other as we make the trip; we can’t just take marching orders from the top and stumble along without the resources and support we need. But we’re just getting started, and we need you to help us keep this mindset in motion, and help us, and help each other, shape the change you want to see.