Legitimate access

A couple weeks ago, I attended a workshop by the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond up in Portland. A couple pieces stand out as especially salient for libraryland.

The Institute uses the definition of racism = race prejudice + power, which I had been familiar with. However, their definition of power was pretty specific: power is legitimate access to systems and institutions sanctioned by the state. Throughout the history of the United States, Black folks and other racialized groups have been denied access to everything from personal liberty to voting rights to banking to education. For me, it was a good reminder that even when I feel powerless, I am overlooking the legitimate access I have to many, many resources and institutions. Of course power is not equally shared, but I cannot forget that I have access.

Now, the vast majority of library workers also actually work for the state. So, not only do we have legitimate access, we also control that access for other people. The People's Institute analysis asks us all to consider the ways in which we are gatekeepers, controlling access to information and resources. Honestly, "controlling access to information" could describe the overall work of libraries. While we might aim to expand access, expanding is one form of control: making decisions that shape how people can or can't get to the stuff.

I had an interesting conversation with my group about some of the specific gatekeeping issues in libraries. The facilitators asked us to think about how we can shift accountability in our work towards the marginalized folks we all work with. Given that all the systems we work within were designed to exclude certain people, how do we purposefully center those folks in our work? One of the facilitators gave an example of an Upward Bound program where students in the program were part of all hiring decisions. You know who had the best sense of who could teach them? Those students. When is the last time that a group of students got to vote on hiring in your library? (As I write this, I am reminded of what I learned this summer about the university in Padova, where Galileo taught -- in its early days, students voted on which professors would teach which classes. Now that's running accountability toward the population most affected, eh?) During the workshop, I thought about the student advisory board model, and how it can be either focused on getting what the library wants (student support, feedback on topics driven by the library) or more focused on accountability to students.

The small-scale example of gatekeeping that came to my mind is a classic library one-shot. In my own experience, while I certainly want the best for the students in a class, accountability generally ends with the instructor of record. I may do my own little minute paper to try to gauge how things went, but if I am honest, the relationship that generally matters most with the instructor. Will they ask me back? Will they spread the word to their colleagues? This can e directly at odds with student experiences: once a student literally fell asleep in my one-shot, but afterward the instructor raved about what a great job I had done. Um, okay. Yet, the instructor is the one who generally gets to define most of what happens in the session -- even if I do a pre-survey asking students something, the perimeter has been set by the instructor. In my group at the workshop, we talked about ways to at least acknowledge this: say, "Your professor asked me to cover x, y, and z so you can complete your assignment; based on what other students have told me, it also seems important that we discuss a, b, and c." I can find as many points as possible to solicit student involvement, and create meaningful opportunities for choice.

Of course, libraries do so much work besides the one-shot, and I'm hoping to do this exercise with folks in my department. At the very least, I think it will be helpful for us to consider who it is in our community that we rarely have to answer to...and how we might answer to them.