Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries

This is a belated report on the excellent Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries conference, where I was grateful to be part of a panel with Fobazi Ettarh, Sveta Stoytcheva, James Castrillo, and Charissa Powell. There were other excellent presentations, including standout panels The Art of the Introduction: Encapsulating Identity, Agency, and Culture in Library Outreach & Engagement, and Invisible barriers and subversive practice: Critical librarianship in higher education. So many smart people sharing perspectives on how to do the work, and challenging us all to do better. 

As a fitting coincidence, the very location of the conference got me thinking about the roots of my own identity/career as a librarian. See, it was on the USC campus, where I was an undergraduate over a decade ago. When I was a student at USC, I got a job at the Southern California Library for Social Studies Research, a badass community archives/library in South LA. My wages were paid for through the USC Libraries – and in fact, they made an exception to pay me even though, because of my scholarship, I didn’t have work-study. During this same time, I also volunteered at the ONE Archives, the national gay and lesbian archives. I had taken a course with Dr. Joseph Hawkins, and I think I started going to ONE for a class project, but I kept going back weekly to sort news clippings with a lovely older gentleman who had been volunteering for ages. (He would often have to explain why he’d included certain articles with no over queer or trans content – often about supposedly gay-but-closeted celebrities. I wonder now what researchers make of some of those files.) The reception for IACAL was held at ONE, and Dr. Hawkins was even there giving tours! ONE has processed an unbelievable portion of their collections since my volunteer days, and I got kind of giddy strolling around inside. Hearing the overview of their collections and realize how much my own knowledge of queer and trans history has grown. (And hoooooly cats, apparently some of the early homophile activists were sci fi zinesters? CanNOT wait for the book to come out about that, but in the meantime, one more reason Lisa Ben is a forever hero.) During Pride Month TM, ONE is a place collecting the history of unapologetic queerdos who have been doing their own thing.

After the conference, I stuck around for an extra day in Los Angeles. I went to the Japanese American National Museum, which I highly recommend. There is currently an exhibit up about Executive Order 6066, which Franklin Roosevelt signed to enact the incarceration of Japanese-Americans. The exhibit opens with clips from the hearings from the early 1980s from survivors and their families, speaking out about their experiences. After the conversations at IACAL pushing white folks to change our behavior and our institutions, my eye was caught by a panel about Clara Breed, a children’s librarian in San Diego during the period of Japanese internment. Because many of her young patrons were interned, she wrote letters and sent gifts to many children in the camps and also speaking out publicly in protest of internment. At the risk of pulling the kind of vocational awe that our panel warned folks about, it strikes me that that this is one model for the kind of hybrid work-work/personal work that white librarians can do to combat oppression: maintain relationships with the people being wronged, while using your position and power to speak/act out against it. Robin DiAngelo has written about how white fragility can be an excuse white folks use to avoid speaking up – heaven forbid someone call me a racist for pointing out racism! – but this is an example of what that can look like.

Just to be crystal clear: there’s a reason this is just one panel in a whole museum. Resistance to internment was centered in the Japanese-American community, which as was the movement for reparations. But, for white librarians grappling with how to resist white supremacy -- and maybe processing the article out this month about desegregation of public libraries in the American South -- this is an example of how to be an accomplice, rather than an ally.

And to wrap up my trip, I went out to the UCLA iSchool to speak with a class taught by Dr. Safiya Noble and Dr. Sarah Roberts. It was flattering to be asked to speak about my work as a critical librarian, and also super heartening to see these new librarians and archivists being incredibly thoughtful about how they want to do this work.