Conferences, professionalism, and all those unwritten rules


Conference flickr photo by Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Next week is the SLA 2018 conference and I’m already starting to worry about packing. What am I going to wear? What’s the weather going to be like. Do I need to wear a suit? Are any of my suits clean? What about shoes? Will it be monsoon weather?

These are things I ask myself before any conference: How many days will I be actually conferencing? (How many work outfits do I need?) What will the weather be like? (Do I need layers? Will it be hot?) Am I presenting/running a meeting? (Do I need a suit or something else kind of nice?)

Conference attire and conduct is so hard to talk about in terms of professionalism because it’s a nebulous definition and often used to exclude people. Oh you’re too casual? Unprofessional. Oh you’re wearing a suit when nobody else is? You’re out of touch with “professional norms”. You’re wearing heels? Trying too hard. You’re wearing flat? Not professional enough. Let’s also not forget that professional dress norms are historically inherently sexist.

So my advice to new (and old) conference attendees – particularly those going to SLA next week – is this: Wear what makes you feel comfortable, professional, and powerful. If that means a suit – then do it. If that means jeans and tennis shoes, OK! Heels? That’s cool. You will be on your feet a lot, you will be wandering around rooms with unpredictable climate control, you might be outside with East Coast humidity. So do what works for you. For most people at SLA in particular, this veers from business casual to professional business attire (suits) and it will vary. If you don’t feel comfortable in a suit and you’re not on the executive board, you’ll probably be fine. (Even if you’re on the board, you’ll probably be fine.) If you feel more comfortable in a suit, then wear it.

Which then brings me to what we as colleagues need to remember – these rules (as describe above) are really arbitrary and these norms are really meant to discriminate against those who don’t know the vague rules. I recognize that I’m in a position of privilege because I’m established in my career and my organization, that I’m a kind of hip West Coast person working for a public university who dresses pretty masculine. As a result, I get a lot of leeway other people don’t get. If you’re from a more formal organization, remember your workplace norms are not universal. If you’re a more formal person, remember that your personal preferences aren’t universal. As we talk about barriers to the profession, we need to look at small things we can change now – and nonsense like “oh you must wear pantyhose” is low hanging fruit.

I still don’t know what I’m going to wear, but I also know whatever happens it will be fine. And if it’s not, I’ll know which colleagues are arbitrary snobs and need some help understanding that “professionalism” is often a form of gatekeeping.

See y’all in Baltimore!

More on library worker solidarity: Librarians need to make amends.


Two young children push a dolls carriage and carry signs in support of their parents’ strike. Their signs read “Strike!” and “I Need a Healthy Diet!” flickr photo by Kheel Center, Cornell University Library shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Since I last wrote about library worker solidarity last month, something has really been weighing on my mind about ways to actually achieve worker solidarity in libraries. I’ve asked other union librarians about this, and the lack of answers is kind of telling. When librarians organize and unionize- just like every other union – the focus is on their situation. Eventually, they might look to other librarians but it’s still the profession sticking to its class. But what about other workers and their unions, particularly those in our libraries? The strike this week across the UC system put this into focus again for me, as many aspects of campus and library services were disrupted despite efforts to minimize its effects. When we were told there would be no mail pickup, or when I had people cancel meetings, I rolled with it (and though good on them).

Librarians – you need to look at your whole organization.

And then the obvious…. Librarians – we need to do better in supporting our colleagues across the organization in their struggles for an equitable workplace.

This seems pretty obvious, but I think we as professionals (and often academics) have behaved in a way that puts us apart from other kinds of library workers that has been quite divisive and damaging.

The classic example is how librarians talk about deprofessionalization. We’re not staff, we’re professionals. Which makes many rightly bristle – aren’t all of our colleagues professional? Just because a library’s administration created a position that probably should have been classed a librarian but wasn’t, you still need to support the people in that position. It’s not their fault the job that was open doesn’t have the same rights, responsibilities and privileges that a librarian would have. One way to do that is to work to get them those rights and support them in that way.

At a time when my union is bargaining for a new contract, it’s made me wonder how can we meaningfully support our colleagues in other unions achieve more equitable contracts and working conditions? The quick answer is to show up and support them when they strike.

The long answer is that librarians need to eat crow and apologize for past slights and insults. We need to begin with reflection and self education. Recognize the importance and dignity of all work, and embody that belief. Libraries are complex systems and operations that need lots of different kind of workers to function. When I hear librarians laughingly plead ignorance about bib records because why should they actually need to worry about them, it’s embarrassing and offensive. (And also reflects the deprofessionalization of tech services…) So think about what you are going to say and be careful with how you say it. I know for a profession of people who tend to be driven by words, we can often be very pedantic and precise with our own, but also carelessly punch down. So much that I think most people don’t think they’re going to do it.

I will probably have more to say about this in the future, but I just had to get this out today.

Open Textbooks Playlist

For those of you who saw Tara Robertson‘s presentation on open textbooks at Access 2015, “Can I actually use it?” Testing open textbooks for accessibility, that I provided a Creative Commons licensed musical augmentation for, and you want the full playlist — HERE YOU GO!

  1. Willbe, “Introduced Beats”
  2. Jared C. Blaogh, “Proven Groove”
  3. Wake, “Glytch Funk”
  4. Podington Bear, “Trundle”
  5. Charlie Salas-Humara, “Sequence”
  6. C. Scott, “Enjoyable to Know”
  7. Niak, “Melody Maker”
  8. Cory Gray, “Someone Kill JT”
  9. Chapelle 59, “Funky Beat”
  10. Bix Beiderbecker, “Black Bottom Stomp”
  11. Smiling Cynic, “Do Robots Have A God?”
  12. Springtide, “Little Pink Guitar”
  13. Black Ant, “Government Funded Weed”
  14. Kosta T, “Train 007” (Questions)

 

SLA: Speak up, I can’t hear you.


flickr photo shared by Ape Lad under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

Update: On 21 May, 2015 SLA signed on to the COAR statement. Way to go, SLA!

This morning an announcement hit my inbox from ARL about a number of library groups denouncing Elsevier’s new sharing and hosting policy.  (I wrote about it recently, so I won’t really address the issue again now.) I looked at the list of signatories to COAR’s statement hoping to see my library association of choice (SLA), but wasn’t really surprised when I saw they were absent.  It reminded me of FASTR and how they were slow to speak out against it, though after some prodding they did. This situation is different because this isn’t directly about legislation or regulation, but about a major publisher’s policies (that kind of relate to regulation).

The realist in me understands why SLA hasn’t yet (and likely won’t) comment on the change in Elsevier’s policy. This has been a somewhat tumultuous year for the association as we collectively figure out what SLA means and what the way ahead will be. If you’re a member of SLA, please go read the SLA Recommendations Report and comment on it! These sorts of advocacy issues may be relatively straightforward and require little effort, but they are not really a priority for SLA right now. We have bigger issues. There’s also the fact that it’s difficult to speak against a large “vendor partner”, especially when SLA needs to strengthen its relationship with vendor partners for survival reasons.

At the same time, I want to belong to a professional association that speaks up about these kinds of issues. I want them to advocate for access to information. It’s in the interest of many of SLA’s members and our library users. Not only would making these statements support members who are working on these issues, it would also position SLA alongside many other library associations like ALA. It’s a form of publicity or marketing, showing that we are interested in access to research that impacts everybody. If you’re a member and want SLA to do something on the issue, I recommend contacting the Board of Directors. I wrote them this morning.

And this is where it gets difficult for me to see how I fit in with SLA if they don’t speak up on these kinds of issues. After reading the recommendations, I felt somewhat out of place within the association structure, but I am used to that. I’m also used to SLA being conservative when it comes to policy positions, but I’m tired of it. I think this constant inward focus and reluctance to push back against policies that negatively impact the core mission of library and information centers needs to stop, but I also don’t think SLA is in a place right now to do it. That makes me sad. Many SLA members look to the association for professional development opportunities. Advocacy, for the profession and our services, is one of these opportunities we’ve been neglecting. It would be great if members could cultivate the skills to speak up when issues directly affect our professional interests, and learn to communicate respectfully with our vendors partners to establish mutually beneficial relationships.

I’ve seen many energetic and enthusiastic SLA members drop their membership in recent years because the association wasn’t for them. I understand there will always be churn, but it shouldn’t be from Rising Stars and Fellows. When the people who were heavily involved with making the association strong and viable for the future fade out because they feel their energy would be better spent elsewhere, it’s worrying. Everybody has reasons – money, time, other commitments, but the disagreement on direction is I think the most troublesome because it’s the easiest to do something about. Unfortunately, this might be the thing that makes me fade away. I hope not because I truly do value my membership with SLA and have benefitted greatly from my involvement with the association, but if it continues to go in directions that go against my values I will probably go elsewhere.

Need a reality check? On peer-review and domain knowledge

Entering the Subway by rosemarie_mckeon
Entering the Subway, a photo by rosemarie_mckeon on Flickr.

Last week I attended IDCC14 in San Francisco, where I was immersed in digital curation. Naturally, things like peer-review and domain knowledge/expertise were on my mind, as things to consider with research (data) publishing. Then I saw this story about a Twitter data scientist “hacking” BART. I immediately retweeted it with a remark about not understanding how BART works (which is true). Right now, particularly in the Bay Area, there are a lot of “hacks” to solve problems that aren’t actually problems. It’s just that the people who perceive the problems don’t have the full picture and “hack” the solution for them, which in the case of public transit is only a small segment of the users. Joe Eskenazi wrote a good column about this in SF Weekly that looks at both sides. (Disclosure: We play futsal together, or did until I broke my finger in a game. Miss you Kamikaze!)

Reading Haque’s paper on arXiv, it’s clear to me he’s got the math and science stuff down – it’s the transportation that he’s lacking. A common issue with data scientists is that they often have the analytic and technological skills, but lack the domain expertise. So they have to work with experts or learn enough to become an expert (which takes time). Even if he just ran some of these ideas past a transportation engineering or planning masters student, they could have helped him refine the “problem”. Haque seemingly wrote this in a vacuum, so when it saw the light of the internet the transportation folk just picked it apart based on the faulty assumptions of how commuter rail fares work. (Note: Everybody thinks they’re an expert on transportation because they use it. Sorry, you’re most likely not.)

This is where peer-review could have been a good thing. I looked at the paper on arXiv to see if it was published elsewhere, such as a journal or conference. arXiv is often used as an open access repository for pre-publication manuscripts. Haque’s paper was not (as of yet) published or submitted elsewhere, which means there’s been no obvious peer-review which explains a lot.

Peer-review would have pointed out the flaws in Haque’s methodology (assuming the reviewers had the expertise). Instead, he got the open peer-review of Twitter and lots of transportation professionals and advocates, many of whom are tired of tech workers “hacking” transportation in a way that doesn’t really help. (Seriously, fare evasion with the help of an app and surge pricing on transit? BART isn’t Uber!)

There is a lot broken with peer review, but this is one case where it could have helped. I really hope Haque can hook into the very passionate and knowledgeable transportation community here in the Bay Area and start “hacking” some real problems. Let’s do it!