Working through friction towards consensus

Anti Viet Nam Rally NYC 1969
Anti Viet Nam Rally NYC 1969 flickr photo by Winston J.Vargas shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Today I attended a forum for SLA 2021 Board candidates to meet and talk to members. After years of involvement and talking about the association, I’m finally standing for the board. You can read my candidate statement here. The questions and discussions were interesting and I wish I could have talked to some of the other candidates to get a sense of their positions beyond the statements, but it’s hard with a compressed election cycle and so many candidates.

I focused a lot on the need to define “member driven” and build opportunities for member engagement and feedback into association governance – to democratize SLA in a way, building on lessons I’ve learned from union organizing. Which led to an interesting question – if elected how would I work with members of the current board that have a different perspective and point of view?

When the question was asked, it definitely had an edge to it with some implied antagonism between myself and current board members that I don’t think exists, but it does reflect current concerns within the SLA membership. Rather than taking it as a “gotcha” moment, or some kind of trap, I tried to answer it honestly: First it depends on how the election goes, to see who is on the board. Secondly, I would expect there to be disagreements but I imagine we’re all in it to help SLA succeed. So assuming good intentions, we’ll work through the friction for an inclusive path.

This reminded me that not everybody is comfortable with friction, though some folks are all too used to it in different contexts. Growing up kind of weird, my life has always had friction. I never fit in at school, with my family, community. (I also recognize this is all very mild friction, growing up a middle class white kid in the U.S.) I had to assume people wouldn’t agree with me, or understand my point right away. That my ideas and philosophies weren’t always orthodox, and that was OK. The friction taught me to find ways to connect with others, to find common ground, and that it takes work, listening and sharing. As I have gotten older, I’ve gotten more at ease with the constant friction being a bit different. I just assume others don’t understand my perspective, nor I theirs, and that I need to engage and learn.

And the SLA candidate event this morning reminded me that I am not quite like some of the other board candidates – though not very dissimilar either. We all want what we think is the best for SLA. We have different approaches, informed by our different sets of philosophies and values. On one hand I feel kind of sheepish when I talk about my passion for engaging members, borrowing from the framework I’ve learned as a union organizer, because it’s not been a model talked about in SLA during my time as a member. I feel self conscious when I question the impact of neoliberalism on special libraries and the information economy, but it’s also genuine. I don’t know if SLA members would elect somebody openly anti-capitalist, and I don’t expect SLA to become an anti-capitalist organization, but I also think there’s a lot of be gained to be earnest in raising those questions. It’s through the friction from asking these questions, to cut through platitudes, and hopefully get a more defined value statement for SLA members, that I hope the association will be member driven in a democratic sense. Building consensus is a process, not a decree.

Thinking about libraries, data retention, privacy, and you.

Police Surveillance (LAPD)
Police Surveillance (LAPD) flickr photo by Popwerks shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

A while back one of my library’s regular users asked me about what data the library’s proxy server collected about their usage and how much information was retained by the university. They asked what should have been a fairly straight forward question and I was stymied. I looked to see if our campus had documented policies I could share with them, and couldn’t find much. I asked around – trying to figure out who would have such a policy, but not trying to create a mess – and couldn’t find any information. I kicked the question out to the collective wisdom of library workers and got no concrete information.

In the end this regular fell into a rhythm of asking me for PDFs of anything they needed to hand over information in order to access, or if they needed something and weren’t on the campus network. As a library worker who understood their concerns about privacy, I obliged. The concept of privacy is critical to the freedom of inquiry and intellectual curiosity, and central in the Library Bill of Rights. Here is a relevant section from ALA’s privacy interpretation of that document:

The right to privacy includes the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others, in person or online. Confidentiality exists when a library is in possession of personally identifiable information about its users and keeps that information private on their behalf.5 Article III of the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association states that confidentiality extends to “information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted,” including, but not limited to, reference questions and interviews, circulation records, digital transactions and queries, as well as records regarding the use of library resources, services, programs, or facilities. 

The privacy implications of the user data we retain from library proxies fits within the broader context which Kalliopi Mathios ascribed, “The Commodification of the Library Patron” – where we treat library users as customers, as if libraries were selling a product like coffee shops, online retailers, or media companies. It’s a logical outcome from the decades long trend of neoliberalism’s reshaping libraries. The question about data retention from proxies comes back into view with the publishers and NISO proposed RA21, oh I mean Seamless Access. It saw many raise concerns about the proposal’s privacy implications, such as ARL and Dorothea Salo. The piece “User Tracking on Academic Publisher Platforms” by Cody Hanson outlines many of the issues for library patron privacy as we rely on third parties who are driven by profit motives.

So that brings us to this week when Dorothea Salo published a dataset she obtained through a FOI request of her patron data from University of Wisconsin.

Her request led to the confirmation that the University of Wisconsin not only collects user data (which isn’t really a surprise), but also retains much of it (which is a really big deal). Here is where she describes more about her request for this information. I look forward to reading her further analysis on the matter. I doubt Wisconsin is the only library system that retains this much user data.

And let’s make it clear – this data set is bad. Remember 20 years back when libraries were the protectors of confidentiality and privacy in the face of the USA PATRIOT Act? Well that was then. I don’t think this kind of data retention happens out of any nefarious motives. There are probably some good intentions behind it, in trying to leverage this data to better serve users (just like Amazon and Google!), which could lead to student success! But of course, that feeds into learning analytics which are often in opposition to library ethics. The circulation data should not exist. I know it’s valuable for collection assessment but to the level of granularity tied to an individual? I guess all the talk around the PATRIOT Act was just bluster. The proxy data is something libraries need to look at their contracts with vendors for but again… if they’re going to retain that data we need to make it explicitly clear to library users.

So yeah… none of this is a surprise but it’s troubling as heck.

The Loneliness of a Special Dumpster Librarian.

I just want someone to love me !
I just want someone to love me ! flickr photo by CJS*64 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own existence as a special library worker in an academic setting lately. I’m on the peer-review committee for librarians at work, so I’ve been reading about all the impactful work my impressive colleagues have been doing. It’s humbling. It also brings into focus the many ways people can be librarians and how the size of a department or organization greatly impacts ones job duties. It also often reflects the drastic changes to library staffing we’ve seen in the last decade. When I was hired as a librarian, my organization had 4 full time librarians, 3 full time staff, and 10 student employees. Now it’s 1 librarian, 1 staff, and a handful of students (COVID not permitting). I went from only doing reference and instruction to doing everything – cataloging, processing, collection development, reference, research support, data management, community building, and knowledge management.

That’s a lot.

And to some people this sounds absolutely bonkers and a recipe for failure because they’re kind of Dumpster Jobs that include everything but kitchen sink. And the trend for large libraries, in large systems to make untenable jobs with huge mandates is definitely a thing we need to collectively push back against. But on the other hand, for some organizations and positions it’s just a fact of life. Christina Pikas just wrote about it in her post “Dumpster Jobs, Coordinator Positions, and Special Library Normal Operations” and rarely have I felt so validated as a library worker. I’ve spent my entire career in special libraries, and around special library workers who are responsible for everything information related in their organization. Juggling so many disparate tasks to keep library services functioning while also advocating for your position’s existence, and satisfying organizational needs (that often change with the winds) is exhausting but also unavoidable. One reason I still value being a member of the Special Libraries Association is the community of other library workers in similar situations – the ones who understand what I’m trying to balance! When I talk to other library workers from more traditional environments, it’s more surprising than not when they understand my role and that until we get the resources to hire more staff I have to be a little bit of everything to everybody. (Oh and I hope I will carve out the time to develop some new models and programs to get the funding to get that staff!) So of course I expect that response. I am used to tempering my expectations and kind of ignoring some of the critiques about jobs like mine because they’re not really saying anything new and aren’t going to help libraries like mine.

Which is all to say, being a library worker in a small library or department presents challenges that are hard for library workers in more traditional, larger organizations to recognize. And I’m used to it. And yet still sometimes the reminders sting.

Recognizing that everything is terrible.

Summit School student, 1935
Summit School student, 1935 flickr photo by Seattle Municipal Archives shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

This has been a long, traumatic year for everybody.

The pandemic, the reckoning for centuries of racial violence and oppression, the global economic collapse, neo-fascism, the unfolding climate collapse, and the building sense of isolation and despair. (Or maybe it’s just me.)

This week has been overwhelming with these compounding stressors here in the United States. Many families are still without childcare. Parents (mostly mothers) are trying to help their kids go to school remotely while also trying to work and hold the household together. That is if they are fortunate enough to still have a job. So many have lost their jobs or had hours reduced, but still have to pay rent or a mortgage. Business are going under. People are hungry. That’s aside from the the fact that COVID-19 is continuing to spread throughout communities, with thousands getting sick and dying every day. The level of tragedy is staggering.

So as the pressures we face continue to pile on us, it’s important to recognize how powerless we are as individuals. I feel fatigued from trying to carry on during a pandemic, where everything is uncertain. The grace and emotional labor I could carry in March is waning due to fatigue, but also the normalization of working through deeply traumatic times. I hate it. I hate knowing that my fear about my personal situation echo so many others.

This week I felt my own anxieties and worries come to a head — with news of the campus budget coming out, impending furloughs, discussions of our upcoming academic review cycle for librarians (how do you review somebody’s work during a prolonged global catastrophe?), not being able to see family for the holidays (a blessing and a curse) — and it hurts. But what hurts more is seeing the fears of anxieties of others — my friends, family, colleagues, union siblings, neighbors, basically all other humans — and feeling some of their pain. It’s overwhelming. We’re all collectively overwhelmed.

The thing that I sit with, other than everything really is terrible and we’re all freaking out to various degrees, is that there isn’t much we can do about it. I can listen and I can empathize, but I can’t fix anything. The people who can fix things won’t, and so we keep looking around and pointing the finger and hoping for something to change and it won’t. I’m not writing this to despair or say there’s no hope. I’m writing this to recognize and affirm that this is a dark and chaotic time, and that we all have understandable free floating trauma and pain that will be hard to remedy. I refuse to normalize this pain. To pretend business as usual will work. It hurts to say that because I love actionable solutions, but it’s good to remember that we’re all in this together and this is bad.

So I’m going to continue to feel the weight of this year on my shoulders and the hell continues to unfold, be thankful for my good fortunes, and try to help others. I just wish everybody else could remember to carry empathy and grace with them throughout their actions.

Solidarity forever. Solidarity means action.

Debs outside Attorney General’s office: 1921
Debs outside Attorney General’s office: 1921 flickr photo by Washington Area Spark shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

On this day in 1885, Eugene V. Debs was born. If you aren’t familiar with his legacy, Debs was an American socialist, trade unionist, activist, and perennial presidential candidate. You might have heard of him from Debs v. United States, a case in which the Supreme Court of the time ruled that Debs was not protected by the First Amendment when he gave (carefully crafted) speeches against the draft and military recruitment for World War I that went against the Espionage Act. Debs was incarcerated for 10 years as a result.

Debs’ biggest legacy is as an organizer. He was instrumental in so many important strikes and campaigns that radically changed US working conditions. There’s power in a union.

On election night 2016, I was in my local taqueria having a burrito with my partner filled with despair at the news that Trump was going to win the election through the undemocratic Electoral College. That moment helped us pick a name for our kid who was born days later, but it really made me recognize I was powerless to act. Instead of giving up, I started looking for opportunities to get involved. When I went back to work after parental leave some of my fellow library workers followed up with me about being more involved with our union. We were gearing up for contract negotiations but also we were showing up to campus actions against the Trump administration’s immigration bans and rallies for International Women’s Day. I started showing up. I got a t-shirt and I kept showing up because it was something.

The more I showed up and kept working, the more I realized the power of the union isn’t just in getting better contracts for my union siblings. It isn’t just improving working conditions for other workers on campus or in the field. It’s the network effect of all workers organizing together to make the world more just. And unions are a vehicle for political engagement that individuals can’t match due to collective action. I realized that the political work through my union not only would make the bread and butter issues, like pay and benefits, easier to win, but also help the community we’re a part of. Unions, and other political activist groups, are an important conduit for political education and power analysis, which only individuals with obscene amounts of money can achieve. I started living the lyrics of “Solidarity Forever”.

So election night 2020 was very different. Because I had been reading things like this essay by Jane McAlevey “Getting Out of Tight Corners,” I knew that regardless of what the polls said in October there was going to be a lot of work to do through November. Because I actually read the emails from CFT, I knew we had to make sure every vote was counted and the results were not going to be clear for a while. I channeled my nerves and anxiety into figuring out what that work would be and telling all my union siblings, friends, and anybody else how to join in. Not only do I feel like I’m doing something, but I also don’t feel alone. The support and community from fellow workers and my union siblings is a bulwark of despair.

I also know which side I’m on. That was one of the wake up calls I had in 2016, and I think many are having it in 2020 – this is the moment for us to demonstrate which side we’re on through actions. I remember reading about average Germans in the 1930s and through the Nazi era – how powerless they acted, but also complicit. I also think of all the nice white folks who didn’t do anything during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Phil Ochs’ “Love Me I’m a Liberal” is timeless.

That’s why yesterday I rode my bike to an action with my union siblings and I feel a lot better this morning.

See you in the streets.