The community based archive as a tool for activism

Author’s note: I wrote this paper for my major assignment in Mad People’s History, a course I took through the Chang School at Ryerson. My first dabble into the world of archives – fascinating stuff and a much different tone than the library literature I am accustomed to reading. I felt pretty good about what I wrote (my professor agreed and I got a great mark!), so I thought I’d share here.

The idea that nature is constructed, not discovered – that truth is made, not found.” – Donna Haraway.

According to the Association of Canadian Archivists, in response to the question, “Why archives?”, archives exist to ensure records of historical significance are preserved in order to help society understand their history. This is turn, allows society to learn from the past to create a better future (ACA, 2007). Traditionally, archives are the domain of public and private institutions, however, community based archives are increasingly being created and viewed as powerful tools for activism. In fact, the role of archivist as activist is the topic of in-depth study with a rich body of literature that explores this fundamental shift in the professional identity of the archivist. This paper will explore how the Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto (PSAT) is an ideal example of the power of community-based archives and will discuss the ways in which such an establishment challenges the status quo and helps support an activist community and how they can be used to help create a better future for individuals in that community.

According to PSAT’s mission statement, “The Archives seeks to reflect the broad diversity of views that are expressed by all people with a psychiatric history however they choose to self-identify. (Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto, 2015) The collection itself is made up of 14 fonds from across the world. Only two are described in detail via an online finding aid – the Collective Fonds and the MindFreedom fonds. The remainder are fonds about individuals, both alive and deceased, and for entities such as the Queen Street Outreach Society. The original order has been preserved in the accessioning, as per standard archival practice, however non-standard subject headings have been applied to the records, which is not customary archival practice. This is significant given some of the subject terms listed; for example, ForcedTreatment, PoliceBrutality and MadPride are all emblematic of a survivor-centered approach to archives.

Of particular note is the Collective Fonds (CF), one of the two that have been described in the PSAT Guide.

The CF is produced for and by the broader community of psychiatric patients/clients, ex-patients/clients, users/consumers, and survivors, prisoners, and detainees who have donated flyers, posters, poetry, writings, audio-visual media, realia, etc. The CF was started by former PSAT board member, Kevin Jackson, and has been highlighted here to encourage people to donate materials. Their contributions connect PSAT to many ‘mad’ communities and augment the older, larger accessions sent by more ‘established’ activists and organizations. (Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto, 2015)

In a paper that examines three different community-based queer archives, the authors stress that an archive’s relevance to the community is founded in the reliance on the community for donations – this ensures that the collection reflects their interests (Wakimoto, Bruce & Partridge, 2013). PSAT’s Collective Fonds are crucial to its functioning as a community based archives, allowing PSAT to create its own collection mandate and raison d’etre, unshackled by the conventions and standards to which traditional institutional archives are beholden. Among the items in the CF are letters, poetry, zines and leaflets – all items that have one common thread – they are tied to the psychiatric survivor movement. Traditional archives are largely focussed on institutional history and official documentation – the items contained in the CF would likely not fit into this mould, and therefore, their preservation would be at risk without PSAT. As Caswell observes, “community-based archives serve as an alternative, grassroots venue for communities to make collective decisions about what is of enduring value to them and to control the means through which stories about their past are constructed.” (Caswell, 2014). David Reville stated, “My memory will fail me sometimes. I am hoping that those who remember more and different stories than I do will share them with me. The more shouts of “no, no, no, it wasn’t like that at all!” and “you’ve left out the most important part (person, event, idea)” the more complete history we will have.” (Reville, 2015) Archival documentation is crucial to create primary source material; it remembers when people don’t, or can no longer.

Archives have the power to tell the story of someone’s life. Particularly for marginalized populations, archives must be handled carefully in order to ensure that the stories are accessioned in a way that does not further marginalize. As evidenced in the Who Am I project, archival practice that does not take a survivor-centered approach can prolong trauma and re-open old wounds. This interdisciplinary research project explored issues of creating, storing and accessing records using tools from the fields of social work, history and archival studies and focuses on children in care. In interviews with survivors about the effect of mishandled records, one survivor expresses that she “would have liked to have some input in a story that’s going to be written about me.” (Centre For Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, 2011) The issue of agency in archival record management is more fluid in the realm of community-based archives as compared to institutional. In her paper that focused on survivor-centred approaches to human-rights abuse documentation, Caswell asserts that “The past victims of human rights abuse depicted in these records did not choose to be documented; the least we can do as memory workers is honor their ongoing sense of agency by centering them and their wishes in our present decision making processes…” (Caswell, 2014).

The conventional sources used to study madness in history have typically been from the institutional perspective – hence, the genesis of Mad Studies as we are learning it today. In a paper on historiographical trends in the study of madness, Wright and Saucier analyze the issue of using patient records as primary sources, among them anonymity requirements and the lack of perspective that these kinds of sources contain. After all, madness did not exist solely within the walls of asylums, nor are we assured that the privacy of patients and their families are being protected for a universally held cause – namely that of embarrassment to be associated with madness. (Wright and Saucier, 2012) Buchanan and Bastian, in their paper on the potential of community based archives in activist work, ruminate on formal approaches to history: “emphasis on producing a coherent interpretation limits our ability to understand the potential of archival records for developing more poetic and multitudinous accounts of “what might happen” … trajectories of where this information might lead the participants left unspecified.” (Buchanan and Bastian, 2015). PSAT has a rich and varied collection of records from the survivor community, formal and informal organizations, and it holds a multitude of formats. This variety in perspectives creates a rich resource for community empowerment, regardless of institutional affiliation or professional designation. One needn’t be a doctor or academic to access and use the archives to tell and re-tell history. A survivor has a safe place to preserve their own story (on their own terms), so that in the future, it may be part of a greater and ever-shifting narrative. This is the power of archives.

Linda Morrison, in Talking Back to Psychiatry, tells us what the consumer/survivor movement is not: “[it] is not a centralized national movement with well-defined leadership, membership, goals and objectives. It has no official leaders, no official hierarchy, and no ongoing organizational structure.” (Morrison, 2005, p. 58) Much like the movement itself, PSAT, as a community-based archives is non-traditional in that ownership and control over it is in the hands of a fluid group of people who have significant personal investment in its existence, and to see that it is used as a tool for progress. Schwartz and Cook, in their paper on the role of archivist as activist, posit that “They (archives) can be a tool of hegemony; they can be a tool of resistance.” and that they are “a reflection and often justification for the society that creates them.” (Schwartz and Cook, 2002). Indeed, as found in the study of queer archives, “In preserving their own histories, queer community archives protected and made visible that which had been considered unmentionable by mainstream society.” (Wakimoto, et. al, 2013) The sin of omission in record preservation can have the effect of erasure – making entire communities feel invisible. Marginalized groups are thus reminded that they cannot trust established authorities to collect and preserve their history. A community based archive, such as PSAT, takes control of their collection direction and therefore, achieve what Caswell recommends for the activist archive: “a multiplicity of formats and perspectives on past atrocities ensures that archives allow space for contestation, disagreement, and debate rather than reify singular or dominant metanarratives.” (Caswell, 2014)

To illustrate this dichotomy, we can look at the documented record appraisal practices of an official institution such as the Fairfield Psychiatric Hospital and the Bedfordshire Record Office. One can immediately see the advantage of an independent archive unshackled by the bureaucracy that drives decisions made via government records offices. The appraisal process leans toward doctor’s perspectives, worker’s reports and only preserves representative samples of patient records, while all others were destroyed. Personal life testimonies were only to “be retained for their Social historical content (information on employment patterns, population movement, housing, and ethnic minorities in particular).” (Collet-White and Ward, 1994)

The following statement by Schwartz and Cook has just been clearly illustrated: “…some can afford to create and maintain records, and some cannot, that certain voices thus will be heard loudly and some not at all; that certain views and ideas about society will in turn be privileged and others marginalized.” (Schwartz and Cook, 2002) PSAT has taken the narrative of the consumer/survivor movement into the communities’ own hands by virtue of its very existence. Community archives counter the inadequacies in the official record (Buchanan and Bastian, 2015) and thus create opportunity to challenge the dominant narratives of madness in society, and create the possibility for future dialogue as yet unknown. Caswell reminds readers that self-representation is key in the creation of the community/survivor-focused archive – this is embodied in the simple yet bold statement “nothing about us without us”. (Caswell, 2014) David Reville teaches Mad Studies students “the Consumer-survivor-ex-patient movement in constant flux – the history of it is recorded, but needs to be centralized for stories to be told. Many activists want to tell their stories; they have ideas about how they want to change things.” (Reville, 2009) Without organizations such as PSAT, those stories would be in grave danger of being lost to history.

Works Cited

Association of Canadian Archivists. Why Archives? (2007). Retrieved from http://archivists.ca/sites/default/files/Attachments/Outreach_attachments/Why-archives-OC-07.pdf

Buchanan, A., & Bastian, M. (2015). Activating the archive: rethinking the role of traditional archives for local activist projects. Archival Science, 15(4), 429–451. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-015-9247-3

Caswell, M. (2014). Toward a survivor-centered approach to records documenting human rights abuse: lessons from community archives. Archival Science, 14(3-4), 307–322. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-014-9220-6

Centre For Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, (Director). (2011). Who Am I? Making Records Meaningful [Motion Picture].

Collett‐White, J., & Ward, K. (1994). Appraisal of mental hospital patient case files: The Bedfordshire record office experience. Journal of the Society of Archivists, 15(2), 181-186. Retrieved November 23, 2015, from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00379819409511745

Morrison, Linda J. (2005) Talking Back to Psychiatry: The Psychiatric Consumer/Survivor/Ex-Patient Movement. New York. Routledge.

Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto. (2015). Mission statement. Retrieved from Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto: http://www.psychiatricsurvivorarchives.com/

Reville, D. (Writer), & The G. Raymond Chang School of Education, R. U. (Director). (2009). Mad People’s History – presenting the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement [Motion Picture].

Reville, D. (2015). C/S/X Movement: A Social Context for a Mad Movement. Mad People’s History, DST504 – Module 6 . Toronto, ON, Canada: G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education.

Schwartz, J. M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, records, and power: The making of modern memory. Archival Science, 2(1-2), 1–19. http://doi.org/10.1007/BF02435628

Wakimoto, D. K., Bruce, C., & Partridge, H. (2013). Archivist as activist: lessons from three queer community archives in California. Archival Science, 13(4), 293–316. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-013-9201-1

Wright, D., & Saucier, R. (2012). Madness in the Archives: Anonymity, Ethics, and Mental Health History Research. Journal of the Canadian Historical Association. Retrieved November 11, 2015, from http://www.erudit.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/revue/jcha/2012/v23/n2/1015789ar.pdf

 

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The down side of “fake it ’til you make it”

It’s not an uncommon sentiment to hear people encouraging each other with the saying “fake it ’til you make it.” Most of us would be paralyzed if we didn’t embrace it, but it’s recently occurred to me that there is a pretty major downside to it, and it may just be a contributing factor to the dreaded (and also common) impostor syndrome that plagues us.

I’m a few months into my study leave and have found myself paralyzed by my feeble attempts at understanding critical theory. As I’ve done for 10+ years now, I figured this would just be another hurdle I would stumble through somehow. Instead, I’ve anguished over concepts like the spatial triad as theorized by Henri Lefebvre. I’ve tried to understand social reproduction and reproductive labour over several sittings, only to find my mind wandering and abandoning my books and notes with that awful feeling of failure, that constant refrain in my head “you don’t get this stuff, you never will.” Over a pint, I confessed this self-loathing transgression to the kind ear of a friend who miraculously assured me that SHE FELT THE SAME WAY! She’d managed 20 pages of the Production of Space before re-shelving it with a snicker. This coming from a person who, to me, is an intellectual giant. And then she gave me what I really needed – reassurance that my ideas were good and that they bloody well didn’t need a theoretical framework to prop them up, that I should just get writing and see what comes out in the wash. Take THAT, academia.

I can list oodles of examples of how faking it has created FUD (and for those afraid to ask as I once was, that stands for fear, uncertainty, doubt) in my identity as a professional librarian. Among them, my persistent inability to distinguish between gold and green OA (seriously), my utter lack of comprehension of what OCLC actually does, and really, can someone please explain a triple to me again? Sure, I probably make other people feel better when I admit to my own vacuums in knowledge, but I think we really need to examine why we’ve created this culture where a significant number of us go about our business with half-hearted confidence, afraid to ask questions that we think we should already know the answer to even though we’ve never been given the chance to learn.

Sure, there’s the argument to be made that I don’t actually need to know what a triple is, but as librarians are expected to do more with less and juggle several different balls at once, we need to create a culture of openness and honesty where it’s okay to ask a question like “So, why doesn’t our discovery layer search everything when we call it Search Everything?”* Another example is our over-use of acronyms (see above re: FUD) and assumptions about models of governance. How many of us actually have a thorough understanding of how new programs are proposed and approved in our universities? How many of us can explain the hierarchies of administration and who makes what decision? And, don’t even get me started on general knowledge of data collection practices for the ranking and statistics we invest so much in. Budgets? Mysterious black holes. When we do finally learn some of these concepts, so often they defy documentation and they become innate institutional knowledge. You forget how you learned it in the first place, and are stumped when you need to pass it on. All of this, undoubtedly, leads to way more anguish than is healthy or necessary.

While “fake it ’til you make it” can certainly be an empowering way forward, I don’t think it’s necessarily the wisest maxim to continue repeating. We all need to slow down a little bit and ask whether or not we have covered the basics sufficiently. So, perhaps in the new year, we could all try a bit harder to ask questions without fear, document something you know how to do that you are pretty sure others don’t, and when you are presenting information, check your assumptions. I once spoke at a staff meeting about open source software. It occurred to me that very few people in the room likely knew what that was. So, I stopped, asked, and sure enough, most of them shrugged. I gave a 60 second explanation and we moved on. As librarians, we may know how to find all of the answers, but we really need to work on asking the questions.

*h/t to @archivalistic for this great example. Also, the (simplified) answer is because not all publishers have made their data available to/compatible with our discovery layer vendor.

It’s business time

Libraries buy stuff. A lot of stuff. Not even just books and journal subscriptions, but computers, furniture, and myriad supplies. We are in charge of really, really big budgets. Basic accounting in and of itself is not inherently complex, but long term strategy in how that money should be invested is a big deal … and one that, if done well, should be guided by some pretty fundamental business acumen. And I sometimes wonder if librarians would benefit from some more formal business training (myself included).

I recall a post on The Scholarly Kitchen by Joe Esposito that made a casual reference to the slippery slope of wishing more and more content was available via YBP, thus ultimately creating a “towering giant”. I scoffed at such a notion. Little ol’ YBP? Why, they are barely eeking out a profit! And thus, in February when it was announced that EBSCO had purchased them, I felt a little bit blind-sided, and a lot naive. Upon reflection, and the subsequent announcement that Proquest scooped up Ingram in response, this all makes a lot of sense. I can’t help but think that if I had a bit more grounding in business strategy, I would have seen this coming. A market strategist would spend more time looking outside their own context, and have a better understanding of the general landscape. A simple SWOT analysis of the companies with whom we do business may have revealed this vulnerability.

But, what difference does it make? Do we have a choice? It’s not like we are going to drop YBP because all of the sudden they have a different owner. True. However, in the grander scheme of things, I truly believe that we are at a disadvantage when we don’t acknowledge our significant purchasing power, and ergo, our influence that comes with that. If the Rowecom debacle taught us anything, it should have been to diversify our interests. With EBSCO now at the helm of both our subscriptions and our monographs (not to mention many of our databases), it should be a call for concern.

As the so-called culture war embodied in the dust-up after Jenica Rogers’ Charleston keynote demonstrated, there is a significant percentage of us who are convinced that vendors and publishers have libraries’ best interests in mind. I’m firmly in the camp that they don’t. It’s not that they are “the bad guys” – it’s quite simply that they are businesses, we are not. They aren’t in this for values-based reasons. They have to make profit, we have ever-shrinking budgets. These facts alone demonstrate that actually we are not on the same team. They are selling us a product that we can choose to purchase or not. And if we can’t afford what we are selling, then we don’t buy it. It should be as simple as that, but it’s not. Why is that? What is it about the way we do business that sets us apart from that basic economic principle?

Well, I think it goes back to culture. From on high, we are told that vendors are our partners and they are just doing their job. That soldiers buy what the people want – what they need. Budgets that are only growing 2% are failing because they won’t meet the ever-increasing demands of the publisher (Yes, for real. It’s on p. 8 of this report – among other statements, I found this one particularly eye popping). And then, we go to conferences that are heavily subsidized by them, parties where they buy us drinks, and are members of associations who accept their dollars to keep afloat. Shit is fucked, guys.

I once heard of a provost whose reaction to the assertion that his library ranked poorly in terms of money spent on collections, was “Good.” Initially, I recoiled. But, after I thought about it a bit more, I realized, maybe there was something to that. As a budget manager who trots out those stats regularly when advocating for more funding, I think to myself … to what end? To keep the publisher’s coffers overflowing? Or, should I instead be focusing attention on doing the hard work of advocating for a shift in tenure and promotion to embrace OA, and for the library to provide infrastructure to support that? The alternative means that we turn toward the library as Buyer’s Club where a 2% increase is scoffed at. It will never be enough if we just keep asking for more.

Walmart buyers have a reputation for being ruthless in setting their suppliers prices. It may sound like heresy, but we could take a page from that strategy. If your budget is being cut by 3%, why on earth would we accept a 3% increase (as we routinely do, at minimum) from our suppliers? Having conversations with faculty about how much resources cost are difficult, but you’d be surprised how many of them will be receptive once you get started. “Look, we just can’t afford this stuff anymore. Here’s why, and here’s how you can help” is a great way to get started. It’s certainly not the path of least resistance, but it’s the one toward real and substantive change.

Leavin’ to study

There’s more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line.” – Closer To Fine, Indigo Girls

As of September 1st, I’m fortunate enough to be taking my first study leave (i.e. sabbatical, research leave). I’ll be gone for a full year. This is a benefit that librarians at Ryerson only had afforded to them a few contracts ago and I feel incredibly fortunate to have the support of my administration and colleagues to enjoy the greatest perk I could ever want – time.

I’ve got a few projects up my sleeve to keep me busy. I thrive on routine, so a year of unstructured time ahead of me is actually a little bit terrifying. Here’s a taste of what I’ll be up to:

1. Little Free Libraries and Why I Inherently Dislike Them

This will be my main squeeze. Ever since the LFL “movement” became a media darling a couple years ago, there’s been something that irritates the heck out of me about them. I’ve got a few hypotheses about why that is, and I’m going to explore them a bit more empirically. I’m going to learn how to map socio-economic data and see what’s what in the neighbourhoods where they are most prevalent. I’ll do a discourse analysis of the media coverage of them. And, like any good researcher, I’m going to get up close and personal to my subject and run one myself. I’ll be blogging that project, so if you’re interested, stay tuned! Hoping to get a publication out of this one as well.

2. I’m taking a course! A real live course!

I haven’t taken an actual course since I graduated and swore off formal education forever. Another amazing benefit of working at Ryerson is free tuition, so I shall also avail myself of that and am enrolling in the introductory course on Mad Studies. We’ve started working closely with the Disability Studies department with exploring Special Collections in this area, and I’d like to get more grounded in their approach to activism and research. Figured it was a good start (also, super interesting).

3. Self-guided study

I’m going to read. I’m going to listen to audiobooks. I’m going to tinker with technology. All of the theories and philosophers whose names get bandied about so casually by people I work with and admire – I’m going to get a base level of knowledge of what the heck they are talking about. Or, I’m going to try anyway.

4. I’m going to be a mom and a wife

Last, but not least, I’m going to turn my attention toward my family. I went pretty hard at this whole work thing when I got back after mat leave. I don’t regret a thing, but I am most certainly intent on dialling things back a bit now that my son is developing permanent memory. I don’t remember the last time I didn’t have a work trip planned. It feels good. I’m going to walk my boy to school everyday, and be there to pick him up. I’m going to do little things to make my husband’s days a bit easier, just as he’s done for me. As a family, we are goinjournalg to take it easy and live the good life for a while.

I bought this journal while I was in Portland. I’m hoping to fill it up with all of the thoughts I’ve got time to think, and with any luck, by the end of it, I’ll be a bit smarter, a lot more rested, and ready to tackle whatever the next chapter in my career might be when I get back to the grind … whatever that may entail.

My tour of duty on CLA Executive Council

Sometimes your cards ain’t worth a dime, if you don’t lay ’em down.” – Truckin’, Grateful Dead

I’ve written this post a million times in my head over the course of the past year or so. In some versions, it’s a multi-part rant, in others, it’s a short book. I’ve settled on keeping it brief(ish) and constructive. If our myriad associations are going to stay alive (which I have serious doubts about – and not just CLA, but that’s another post), I feel like we need to have some honesty out there about what is really involved in running them. So, here goes – the unvarnished truth about my experience on CLA executive council. Take this to heart if you intend to stand for an association council, or if you enjoy calling them out from the sidelines – it will be relevant to both camps.

It’s a lot of work. Like, A LOT. And if it’s not a lot of work, you’re not doing it right. What struck me was the stoicism of my colleagues as we all sat around board room tables for multi-day meetings that started on Sunday morning. Granted, this was only a few times a year, but depending on your role on council, this was a common occurrence. Weekends, evenings, holidays… doesn’t matter. The work of the association chugs on. Because it’s never enough. The work will never be done. The action lists are behemoth to behold, and no matter what does actually get done, there will always be loud voices calling out what isn’t done. It’s exhausting, defeating and demoralizing.

You will work with (and occasionally disagree with) powerful people. Like it or not, seasoned administrators often step up for the leadership roles – there’s a reason for that. Being an association leader usually requires institutional support in terms of funding for travel, and for the time that needs to be invested. This sort of work is often expected of administrators, and less so for those who are newer or less established. “But, but … SKYPE.” Yes, the panacea that is tele-commuting. It doesn’t work to run a large association. Certainly there are many tasks that can (and are) done via teleconference, but there are fiduciary duties as well as employee relations that simply cannot be done on the web. If your association has a board president and a treasurer, they will be required to travel – a lot. And that costs money. As we well know, associations don’t have a lot of that, ergo, we have people of privilege running them. Do I wish it was different? Absolutely.

But here the’s thing – powerful people are still just people. If you’ve got something to say, they will listen to you (and if they don’t, keep repeating yourself until they do). They didn’t get where they are by not experiencing dissent and consensus. Speak your truth – it’s yours and you have the right to defend it, just as others on the board do. That being said, inclusivity of varied views sometimes means watering down the message. To assume we are all working from the same core values is naive; being a librar* does not implicitly mean that you’ve signed on to a shared code of ethics. Not only is a board made up of different representatives of various sectors and roles, it’s also made up of different people. Humans gotta human and emotions are involved. We will not always agree. If you’re not okay with that, don’t sign up. But … speak up. You still have the opportunity to have your voice heard. And every now and then, you’ll get a win. You’ll still lose sometimes, but at least you’ll be on the record.

And even if you’re not on the board, you can still disagree and take part. Send email. Write blog posts. Use social media. Talk about what you want to see happen.Talking to people is almost always more effective than talking about them. Executive can’t fix what they can’t or just don’t see – you’d be surprised what gets missed in the maelstrom of everyday business, especially when most of the board are also leading large organizations. Shit gets overlooked. It’s not necessarily intentional ignorance, as fun as that narrative seems to be for a good yarn and some faves/clicks, it’s often simply that they haven’t gotten around to it yet.

I decided to run for CLA council because I was disillusioned and couldn’t understand why it was so dysfunctional. I needed to see how it worked. I understand a lot more now, but still remain somewhat disillusioned. Do I regret it? No. I forged relationships with some pretty incredible people, and got to have experiences that would have never happened in my regular professional life (*cough* met Bob Rae *cough*). Would I do it again in the future? Yeah, probably not. It’s thankless work and sucked up way more of my emotional energy than I was happy about. But I can at least say that I gave it a go, and am a better professional for it. After all these years, though I was tempted many times, I did not break up with CLA. I probably still won’t because I genuinely believe a national association is a necessary body. There remain many systemic issues with the organization that I hope to see addressed, and I don’t think bailing will help it on its way. And so it goes.

Indeed, what a long strange trip it’s been. Thanks for the memories, CLA.

So, that happened.

“And when it comes it’s so so disappointing.” – Let Down, Radiohead.

I spent the better part of a year focussing a lot of my mental energy on a contributed paper for the ACRL conference. While it was certainly a worthwhile experience, I can’t shake the feeling of letdown that I felt once it was all said and done in twelve short minutes. Now what?

I think part of this mini-existential crisis can be attributed to the fact that the first day of the conference, I attended a panel that presented the precise opposite of my thesis, titled ever so charmingly “The Neoliberal in YOUR Library: Resisting Corporate Solutions to Collection Development.” I attended because I felt that I could learn from those who did not hold my opinion. It was the subtitle of the presentation that hooked me. Trouble was, they never really got around to talking about resistance. Instead, the audience heard straw man arguments premised on several false grounds. For my very first “peer-revered” ACRL presentation ever, I was pretty deflated.

Citing Chris Bourg at the outset, the first assertion I took issue with was the position that libraries are not economic realms. While I understand the issues with the neoliberal university pretty well, I think that to dismiss the millions of public funds that flow through library acquisitions budgets as a non-economic realm is false and perilous in terms of carefully examining how that money is invested. I prefer Jenica Rogers’* take on the issue wherein she suggests that libraries could do better if librarians recognized the economic force that they are, rather than willful denial of a matter of fact. For example, the team I lead is charged with spending $4 million of my universities funds on collections for the community. That’s a lot of dough and a lot of responsibility for me to not approach it as an economic realm.

Secondly, I was gobsmacked to see two articles** that I cite heavily in my paper (for an apparent misunderstanding of the function of demand driven acquisitions***) frequently used throughout the panel – for the exact opposite reason I cite them. The peer-reviewed journals that originally published them in all their fear-mongering “librarian as threatened expert” glory was galling enough, now here they were being repeated back as gospel. Let’s dispel a few of those straw men, shall we? Fact: there is no “request to purchase button” as suggested in the panel; discovery records are invisible to the patron – they look like any other record. Fact: the free market does not determine what is going into a library’s catalogue – the librarian does. Fact: publishers/vendors cannot force discovery records higher in a search – the only difference between an owned record and a discovery record is a locally determined fixed field. Fact: perpetuating misinformation does not move the conversation about collection development tools such as approval plans and DDA/PDA forward. I wish we could move past these hollow claims so that we can have a real conversation about the (legion) issues inherent in modern collection development.

Thirdly, collection development as taught in library school was fondly recalled by a panelist as a thorough education in the finer points of building enduring research collections through deep knowledge of one’s subject area’s publishers and scholars. The panelist was confused upon getting her first job and realizing that what she learned at library school had little to no relevance to a world that had been outsourced to vendors. I had a similar experience. Approval plans garnered nary a mention in my collection development class. However, instead of laying the blame at the feet of the libraries using these tools, I posit that perhaps library schools should be doing a better job at educating students on the tools that are actually used. Which brings me to my final point…

When we got to Q&A, the first person to speak was a rep from YBP. He wondered why approval plans, designed and maintained by librarians, were undermining the work of the collection development librarian as had been suggested. The response was a bit of an a-ha moment for me – apparently the intended message of the panel was not that the tools themselves were the problem, but that librarians are so far removed from them that they don’t know enough about how they work to question them. The fact that this thesis was only revealed in a response to a question was deeply disappointing to me. I completely agree with it – but the trouble is, they didn’t actually speak to it, preferring to speak in hyperbole that denied fact. I likened it to listening to anti-vaxxers at an esteemed medical conference. I didn’t get it.

Here’s the thing – I get that the corporatization of education is a problem. I read and loved Karen Nicholson’s recent piece on the McDonaldization of Academic Libraries. I get it. But there’s nuance in these issues that are skirted over when we make sweeping generalizations. Tools like DDA/PDA can co-exist with serendipity and critical IL. About 75% of my reference transactions end with me directing students to browse the physical stacks despite the fact that our collection policy features DDA quite extensively. I have one of the least critical IL ready subject areas (Marketing) but I still manage to sneak in some points about the commodification of information in my classes. The existence of one does not preclude the other from being used or discussed.

I carried on through the rest of ACRL feeling sort of disillusioned. I was heartened by a couple of great sessions on diversity, but otherwise, I just wasn’t feeling it. Maybe it’s just run-of-the-mill academic isolation. Maybe I just need a new topic or area of focus. Maybe I need a break from library conferences. I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure I’m all out of patience for hand wringing without meaningful calls to action.

*I’m paraphrasing from Jenica’s CLA 2013 Collections preconference keynote.

** See Walters and Sens and Fonseca as cited in my bibliography.

***See also this post from Ian Gibson, inspired by a reading of the Sens and Fonseca article. Ian also articulates the issues surrounding DDA/PDA that I believe should be the centre of the conversation.

How I learned to be a leftie (and still am)

When you see a hand that’s held out toward you, give it some love, some day it may be you. – Janis Joplin, Down On Me.

The hot topic of last week was radical librarianship – what it is and what it isn’t. There was a general consensus (in my echo chamber, anyway), that crossing a picket line wasn’t a particularly radical act. There was some discussion about how one comes to know that – it’s not tacit knowledge for a lot of people. This got me pondering my own path along the political spectrum. It goes a little something like this:

I was raised in a pretty (small c) conservative family. My mother fancied herself a flower child and listened to a lot of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and so on. But really … my dad worked for IBM, we had two cars and I was indoctrinated with a libertarian ethos that those who work hard will prevail and those who don’t get what they deserve. Unions were frowned upon and tax bills grumbled about.

Thus, progressive politics were not my default. When I started working at Ryerson, I agreed to take on Rep’s Council duties for my faculty association. It took me a couple of meetings before it dawned on me, “Hey, wait a minute…. this is a union meeting! And, I’m a … union rep?” It was a long time before I wrapped my head around that, never mind how long it took me to able to articulate what the librarian’s role was in the association. If you had asked me even seven years ago if I would cross a picket line to attend an event, I wouldn’t have been able to give you a quick answer. Maybe I’m just a slow learner, but it’s taken me a good ten years, with a fair amount of involvement in the faculty association, to really be able to understand academic labour issues, and in turn, social justice issues and the vocabularies of resistance that accompany them. And, I’m still learning all the time.*

The way I see it, I prefer to be on the side of the argument that is fighting for the greatest good, for the greatest number, regardless of ability, wealth, or class/race/gender. Often, that side tends toward the left. I came to understand that being progressive means looking for ways to champion policy that will make the world last a little longer, and make it a more pleasant place to live in for everyone. Sometimes that means challenging assumptions, asking questions, and being willing to speak out when you see imbalance in power being wielded in an unjust manner. Granted, this is much more in reach for an individual of great privilege – as I have – but we won’t progress as society unless those who do have that privilege recognize it for what it is, and work toward sharing it. Could I do more to become more radicalized? You bet. Am I working toward that? Indeed. There’s always room for development, and it’s okay for you to change your mind. Just because you used to think one way, doesn’t mean you can’t think a different way today, or even tomorrow. You just may help make the world a little bit better for a few more people.

*Major influences include being part of PLG-GTA. You should check them out!