Acknowledging the wear of uncertainty.

This week’s midterm elections were a rollercoaster for the US. There was a ballot proposition in California that was was really close to home for my library: Proposition 6, which if pass would have repealed the recently enacted gas tax (SB1). The $5.1 billion raised from the the higher gas tax will go to repair and maintain transportation infrastructure across California. The institute my library is a part of gets a fraction of a percent of the money raised from that tax to perform research, an often overlooked and necessary component of any big program. If Prop. 6 passed, a steady form of funding for the institute and my library would disappear overnight. As soon as SB1 was signed into law, we had muted celebrations because it seemed politically certain that a proposition to repeal it would be on the November ballot. As I started developing new services and expanding operations for the library to help track and disseminate our research, I knew that we couldn’t fully commit or plan until the election and we had a better idea of our available resources. It became clear that until this week, that there would be limited financial commitments because we needed to see the result. The voters in California rejected Prop. 6 and the gas tax repeat by a 10 point margin, transportation in the state is valued, and I brought in a dozen donuts to the library to celebrate. (And if you’re not from California, you might not fully understand the California proposition system, which can be interesting. C.f: The infamous Prop. 13, the less infamous Prop. 187, Prop. 209, and Prop. 8.)

So now I have a better idea of a path forward and can start doing things that had to be put on hold until we knew the budget situation. Thanks, California voters!

My particular example is pretty acute and extreme. Most people’s work mission isn’t hanging in the balance of a voter initiative (and we’ve learned never assume anything about an election until the votes have been counted), but it seems like the current trend in workplaces is agility because you need to respond to priorities that might drastically shift in a moment’s notice. In a recent workshop on librarian peer review here at Berkeley the question was raised, how do you account for not accomplishing tangible things with deliverables because the mission changed? (The answer was note that.) And while my mission changes with political shifts that often lead to funding or research priority changes, this kind of continual change seems to be rampant all over. For libraries, it makes long term planning and thinking extremely difficult which is a major part of our core mission. That big idea you have to improve instruction? Put that on hold because you’re going to be a liaison to a new subject since that librarian just left. Have a research idea about publishing models and digitization? That’s great, but right now the focus is on assessment. (I’m making these examples up, FYI.)

More stable, less capricious funding models would make it easier to plan, but that’s not how things happen in 2018. It seems like dealing with constantly evolving missions, regular crises for new funding sources, and all the requisite competition (in terms of actual fighting for funding and balancing priorities) is just the way things are for now. It’s time we open acknowledge it and that it’s exhausting to work like that at times. It’s wearing. And since we’re a society (and profession) hell bent on quantitative metrics, recognize that these impacts are super hard to measure because it’s a kind of void.

Putting the U in unions: The power in a union is people.

I started this post when I was in a membership meeting for my union local. I’ve been thinking unions a lot since there’s been a lot of energy in the air: The recent AFSCME/UPTE strike across UC, which received support from several other unions. I helped organize a demonstration for my union, which included a march to the Chancellor’s Office. (In case you didn’t know, my union went out of contract in October.)

Last week American Libraries published an article called Unions 101. It starts with my union’s struggle for a new contract and then goes into why libraries need unions. The one quote that really stood out to me was from Aliqae Geraci:

“If you think the local union is bad, if the leadership is incompetent, there’s only one way to change that, and it’s to participate in the democratic process.”

I’ve seen (and participated in) how much work it takes to democratize a union, but it is more or less the same work needed to democratize government. When people talk about “grassroots”, they mean people – the rank and file, your neighbors, citizens, whatever. It’s you. You are the grassroots.

One of the things that’s become painfully clear to me since I got really active in my union is that they are an important mechanism for feedback within your workplace and community. Have concerns about some institutional policy? Unions are a great mechanism to address them in a way that has more traction and influence than an individual. One recent example is when ATU Local 689 workers shutdown the notion of special trains to protect racists at the Unite The Right rally in DC. There’s an established process and relationship between unions and workplaces, which can be effective if members are engaged. I think it’s something that people take for granted or ignore, which is why many unions are faltering. They might be bureaucratic or calcified, which means they need democracy more than ever. (Kind of like the USA…) When people say, “What can the union do? It has no power.” I fight everything in my being not to yell back, “NOT WITH THAT ATTITUDE!”

And unions are just one mechanism for engagement that feeds into others like community groups, religious organizations, professional groups, or political parties. Want to make a change and help canvas, get out the vote, or whatever? Unions are doing that. Don’t like the political stance your union takes? Let them know and get involved in the process making those endorsements. It will carry more weight and influence than a social media post. (I finally joined the Sierra Club just to help push out their weird pro-parking agenda and go for something actually green.) Unions, like the other groups, are part of the whole system and I feel like that’s something that people forget. My union, UC-AFT, cares deeply about higher education and lots of other policies that affect higher education – like housing and taxation.

And in closing, all this union stuff has made me think more about the role of professional associations and what I need or want to get from them. I’ve talked before about my feelings on SLA’s lack of advocacy when it comes to the profession. I’ve kind of cooled my enthusiasm for SLA because of that and because I realize that union activism and agitation can also support and defend the profession. We talk about wanting to make librarianship more diverse, but a concrete action to take for that is fighting for a new contract for 300 librarians that pays enough so that single people with student debt don’t have to work side jobs to be able to afford to work here. Our asking for academic freedom in our contract has demonstrated why this is an issue for all academics, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. (Please sign our petition if you support academic freedom for academic workers!) We talk about the need to advocate for new publishing models, and unions can work together to push legislation like the recent AB2192 to do that. I think worker/union solidarity is a very important part of supporting your institution, particularly the public sector. Again… if you are concerned about the segregation of racial and economic classes in the Bay Area because of the housing crisis, supporting local unions fighting for fare wages and access to housing is an actionable step to that end. Unions, unlike professional associations, are bound to support the individual collectively – the worker. Professional associations never seem to figure out if they are for the individual or for the institution, which can at times be problematic.

There’s definitely room for all groups, but I think some people who are disaffected, frustrated, and want change should really consider getting involved with their union (if they have one – or start one if they don’t) because that’s where change can really start. And of course if you’re in the USA and a citizen, you voted today because that’s one of the most important steps to change. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

We’re all in this together.

Radical Librarians Revisited: What’s next?


[crass] flickr photo by RHiNO NEAL shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Back in 2015 I wrote about being radical through our actions, not just or words. This week I was reminded of that post when somebody in a union setting referenced “radical” R. David Lankes and I quipped, “I guess crossing a picket line is pretty radical.” They didn’t know the story and I had pretty much forgot about it too, except not enough to just say, “oh him” when his name was mentioned.

Looking over that post, I found it striking how far things have progressed. Today at ALA, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden has a keynote discussion with Michelle Obama. Critical librarianship is a pretty well known and established concept. I mean, even SLA has a Diversity, Inclusion, Community & Equity (DICE) Caucus now. We as a profession still have a long, long way to go to really be diverse and inclusive but I think we’re on the path there. We’re more conscious of who’s on stage, who’s in the room, and who isn’t but should be. People are finally listening and doing stuff. We just need to keep doing it.

And then I think about our actions. Man, 2015 seems like a completely different timeline. But I know more librarians are engaged in actions, but we all need to be active and to see how we all play off one another. I’m still involved with SLA, focusing on creating opportunities and support for students and new professionals, paying it forward to all of those librarians who helped me stick it out for a decade. That’s just one piece though. Locally I am more active in our union because that is another concrete way to give back to the profession. I want to have a vibrant and diverse profession, so I am working on making it accessible to people by fighting for living wages and adequate professional development. Putting a philosophy into action. That’s one thing union bargaining across the board has taught me: it’s not just having good ideas and dreams of utopia, you need to have concrete steps to get there. It’s sometimes iterative but it’s a start. It’s an action.

So I think a lot of us have been activated in this post-Trump era because we recognize that being idle isn’t an option. That gives me hope, but we have to keep fighting. Keep it up.

And of course for the history lesson. In the last post I talked about the iconic punk band Crass. This picture is for the single of “Asylum” with the b-side “Shaved Women” (which was about French women who were Nazi collaborators). “Asylum” or “Reality Asylum” was also supposed to be on their first album Feeding the 5000 but the Irish pressing plant refused to press the record with it because the song is straight blasphemy. So the first pressing has blank space or silence labeled “The Sound of Free Speech” going into “Do They Owe Us A Living“. And in typing this whole thing up, man… every song is still powerful and relevant 40 years later. So, go listen to it.

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.