Terminology matters: When the personal informs the professional – safety edition.

Ghost Bike – Emeryville CA flickr photo by roger jones shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

(If you aren’t familiar with them, go read about ghost bike memorials.)

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about this topic for a while. There have been discussions in library circles about the need to change the language we use to describe things (a cornerstone of the profession) to better reflect society today, and to start to dismantle structural biases. The focus has largely been around race for good reason – like the 2016 example of Congress intervening to prevent the LCSH term “illegal alien” to be deprecated in favor of something less charged and racist, like “noncitizens” or “unauthorized immigration”. Some of my colleagues presented their work in this area at the 2018 JCLC, and also wrote about it for the 2019 ACRL President’s program – how they use “metadata justice” to better connect and reflect the communities their library supports.

And I didn’t really think much of social justice and metadata for my direct work until this year, when I noticed my colleagues — transportation librarians, other transportation professionals, librarians, whatever — using incorrect terminology. I was used to pushing back on outdated terminology around mobility, working on the SAE shared mobility glossary and continuing to bring those terms to the TRT and the larger transportation community. I work with cutting edge researchers pushing the boundaries of the field, so I kind of expect to be leading the charge when it comes to classification. It’s one of the functions I bring to the community. But then, through a discussion on a transportation librarian listserv it was clear we also had to have a communal discussion about safety, after somebody posted something about getting into an “accident” with a pedestrian or a cyclist. I didn’t want to engage, especially because I didn’t want to diminish any trauma my colleague might have experience when they hit the other person, but it became clear after some exchanges that my colleagues (mostly from highway focused state DOTs) were still using accident – a term we took out of the TRT in 2015, opting for crash or collision as appropriate. This came after a movement from safety circles to use “crash not accident”, a move that was promoted by the FMCSA. Here is most of their statement, which is so clear and rational:

Changing the way we think about events and the words we use to describe them affects the way we behave. Motor vehicle crashes occur “when a link or several links in the chain” are broken. Continued use of the word “accident” implies that these events are outside human influence or control. In reality, they are predictable results of specific actions.

Since we can identify the causes of crashes, we can take action to alter the effect and avoid collisions. These are not Acts of God but predictable results of the laws of physics.

The concept of “accident” works against bringing all appropriate resources to bear on the enormous problem of highway collisions. Use of “accident” fosters the idea that the resulting damage and injuries are unavoidable.

“Crash,” “collision,” and “injury” are more appropriate terms, and we encourage their use as substitutes for “accident.”

“A Crash is Not an Accident” by George L. Reagle, Associate Administrator for Motor Carriers. Updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Furthermore, through the research I help support and catalog I realized it’s also important to change the way we describe the participants in crashes and collisions. LCSH still uses “accident”. One of my new projects is to work with my cataloging colleagues to start the process of changing that. I know this will be a hard slog, but it’s just too important not to engage in the process.

Cars don’t hit pedestrians, drivers do. (Unless it’s a fully autonomous vehicle, but there is still so much to be worked out with liability and responsibility and that’s just a distracting edge case.) By ascribing responsibility to the vehicle, it erases the responsibility and the agency of the operator. Transportation safety advocates are pushing back on this idea, highlighting how pedestrian safety declines despite vehicles being safer for drivers. In 2019, there have been several cycling deaths because drivers were reckless – one notable example is of DC cycling advocate Dave Salovesh who fought for safer biking conditions and was killed by a speeding driver. (Another cyclist was killed on the same block days later, and Salovesh’s ghost bike has already been wiped out by a negligent driver.)

I bike commute most days – rain or shine. I do this because I prefer it to driving and parking, but also because I think it’s the most responsible way for me to travel given my geography and the climate emergency. It’s hard not to think with every pedestrian and cycling death or injury at the hand of a car or truck, “That could have been me.” And then yesterday, it almost was me.

That whole Twitter thread is basically me freaking out as I rode away, angry crying to pick up my kid. I’m so thankful they weren’t with me, because it could have been so much worse. At the scene, both the driver and the passenger kept saying it was an “accident” that the driver couldn’t clearly see if it was safe to turn left yet kept going for it. I was ready to go into a long, angry rant about how there was nothing accidental in the situation, that it was their responsibility to proceed with caution if they couldn’t see oncoming traffic, and that they didn’t look for bikes in the bike lane on a bike boulevard – well, their disregard for the safety of others was very clear.

And the next morning, I’m still angry about the incident but it did get me to finally post thing thing about why we need to change the way we describe traffic collisions and crashes, and that we need to assign agency to the people involved. As I noted above, this is a social justice issue. It touches upon environmental impacts, public health, public safety, accessibility to opportunities, mobility. If we continue to prioritize single occupant vehicles (private or shared) at the expense of active modes of transportation or transit, nothing will change and people will continue to die.

I just hope that I won’t be another bike fatality at the hands of a careless or impatient driver.

Thank you all for your help in reaching mid-career.

1950s — Children’s Librarian Hazel Keedle with Reading Club birthday cake, at OLD Ann Arbor Public Library on East Huron Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan. flickr photo by In Memoriam: Wystan shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

A couple of weeks ago over lunch with a colleague, I decided it was really time to call myself a “mid-career” librarian. I’ve been feeling kind of mid-career for a while, but it wasn’t until making some comment about not sweating a lot of the small stuff (like presenting at any conference that will have me or serving on any committee that asks) because it doesn’t actually matter, that I realized I’ve attained that point of not sweating the small stuff the way I did 5 years ago. It was liberating to admit I’m old.

Then this week the SLA 2019 Awards Class was announced. Congratulations to all who are being recognized! You should go read the whole list of award winners. It’s a pretty good class! And then there’s me. This isn’t false modesty – it’s really kind of weird to become an SLA Fellow, but a recognition I was mildly prepared for having accepted becoming mid-career. See, long ago… I gave up expectations or dreams of getting awards for my work because it was inherently selfish and lead to disappointment. I engage because I value those connections and want to help the information profession evolve and grow in a way that benefits society. I saw so many others working hard for the betterment of SLA and the profession without much of a personal agenda, with a genuine commitment to service, and I decided to follow their path.

And that’s the thing that has been the most rewarding thing so far about being named an SLA Fellow – the outpouring of support and recognition from all of those colleagues who have helped me out over the years. Those who gave me advice, gave me opportunities, gave me their time and feedback. Many of them are SLA Fellows, and to join their ranks is a huge honor. (I do feel kind of like a fraud – have I actually done enough work for the association to join this cadre? – but I will try to let those feelings pass and accept that others value my work with SLA.) I can’t really give a full run down of all the people I especially want to thank, since you are numerous and I would hate to leave people out, but I know most of my conference in Cleveland will be thanking you all in person. I couldn’t have reached this point without your support and belief in my abilities.

This also has reaffirmed my commitment to the profession though, and sustaining pathways and opportunities for new professionals to contribute for the betterment of all. I still strongly believe that as you progress in your career, you owe it to those coming after you to help them in the ways others helped you. Like writing letters of support. Or giving people opportunities to present and share their knowledge and perspective. The people I have grown to respect and admire in SLA are those who continue to do that hard work, even (or especially) if there is no direct, immediate benefit to themselves other than satisfaction in helping others. (I’ll save my screed for those who pull the opportunity ladder up behind them for another post.) And I’m excited to see this new crop of Rising Stars and what they will continue to do with SLA.

Let’s go have some library cake.

Can You Calculate the ROI of Academic Freedom and The Public Good?

Angela Davis at UCLA in 1969

On Monday UC-AFT Unit 17 Librarians ratified a tentative agreement on a new contract with UC. I’ve talked about the contract campaign a lot on here, social media, and the local media. Also on Monday, UC issued a proposed new policy on academic freedom for non-faculty academic appointees – librarians, researchers, clinicians, and more. This came about partially because UC-AFT raised the issue in bargaining, and it became clear that all non-faculty academics needed some process for adjudicating issues around academic freedom. The proposed policy does that. (And yet another example of union power… kind of…)

Last night I went to a discussion about academic freedom with Joan Scott, who spoke about her book Knowledge, Power and Academic Freedom, Hank Reichman, who spoke about his brand new book The Future of Academic Freedom, Wendy Brown (tenured faculty), Khalid Kadir (contingent faculty) and I-Wei Wang (librarian and a member of the UC-AFT Unit 17 table team). It was a very interesting discussion that imparted a sense of action and urgency – academic freedom will only exist if we continue to fight for and defend it. Particularly as the notion of the public good has eroded over time, and the creation of knowledge is measured and valued in economic terms.

I flew to Philadelphia today to attend a meeting, and I took the opportunity on the flight to read Scott’s book. It’s a very tight collection of essays exploring the history and different facets of academic freedom, and what it means in today’s Trumpian world. It’s clear that the more things change in this regard, the more they stay the same. The essay about academic freedom and the state (Chapter 4) resonated with me the most, because it touched upon many topics that I’ve been particularly concerned with, given the tension between research in academic settings and funders, and how that influences the production of knowledge. Academic freedom is supposed to reflect the separation of academia from the state (funders). One of the early examples of academic freedom Scott presents is that of Edward Ross at Stanford in 1900 – who was fired for making remarks criticizing the practice of importing workers from China and calling for the municipalization of the railroads. Leland Stanford, who started the university and was at one point a governor of California, made his fortune building railroads in the western United States with cheap Chinese labor. Ross’ comments were too much for Stanford’s widow Jane, who called for his resignation. He was fired, faculty protested and this eventually lead to the creation of the AAUP. I use this example to show how long this has been happening (and also because people who know me, know I despise the legacy of Leland Stanford and the Big Four).

Another, more recent example is that of Angela Davis at UCLA in 1969 (as pictured above). She was a member of the Communist Party, and then Governor Reagan urged the UC Regents to fire her and they did. Students and faculty protested, citing a violation of academic freedom. There was a lawsuit. She was allowed to teach a few classes in the 69-70 academic year. I think this part of her story is usually obscured by what came next. This example hits close to home because it is the UC Regents interfering at the request of the governor (particularly one who actively tried to dismantle the growth of UC under Brown/Kerr!), something that worries me still.

And given today’s state of public higher education and research, and the lack of autonomy for academia because state funding comes with clear and explicit strings, it’s hard to see how academic freedom isn’t being defined and dictated by the state. Knowledge production is regarded as a means to the end of productivity. Students are in school to get jobs, to feed back into the economy. Research is measured by its impact in society, but largely that impact can be distilled into economic factors. (But also remember, Thatcher famously said “there’s no such thing as society“.) Inquiry, research, critical thinking, and the collective notion of the public good are becoming after thoughts to the neoliberal need to have an ROI. This is evident by the politicization of research topics, and became very clear how high the stakes were during the transition from Obama to Trump. Many federally funded programs and projects looking at ways to protect the environment, moving to clean energy, were soon gutted. Programs had to shift their focus, not because the facts and science called for it. No. It was because that was how they could get funding from those programs. Funding they desperately need since guaranteed, baseline state funding doesn’t really exist anymore. This makes me think that despite the new UC proposed policy, academic researchers will never really have academic freedom as long as they need to keep pleasing funders with an eye on the next grant. I’m not arguing that there should be no accountability in how public money is spent on research, but that it shouldn’t be focused on bottom line ROI with the greater good as an after thought (if it’s mentioned at all).

But I don’t think this is really news to anybody. It’s important to keep that in your mind as we all fight for scraps.

I’m going to read Reichman’s book tomorrow on my flight home, so expect another post next week.

Many names means many access points.

Howard Jarvis eating a sandwich

A personal anecdote before we get to the meat of this post – At home we’re teaching the kid about names and how you can call people different things and all of them are correct. Like I am Kendra and mommy. Or they are Eddie or Edmund (despite their fierce protests). It’s a hard concept for a toddler to grasp, which is kind of cool to see unfold and try to explain.

This week I’ve been thinking about the mess of talking about government legislation and rules because the names are either too generic to be useful, repeated and therefore confusing, or have multiple names that shift overtime. Not every piece of legislation can be ISTEA (sounds like “ice tea”). When my editor asked me to clarify what I meant when talking about SB1 in a recent thing I wrote, I realized that though I could call it the Road Repair and Accountability Act nobody really does. It’s SB1. Like there will never be another piece of legislation in California called SB1.

And you can’t confuse AB375 from 2018, the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 and SB375 from 2008, the Transportation and Land Use Planning and the California Environmental Quality Act. (That’s kind of meta since it’s an act that references another act!)

Last week somebody asked me for material related to the Transportation Development Act of 1971, which was SB325 but also frequently called the Mills-Alquist-Deddeh Act. So looking for it requires a few different avenues and hoping people get it right. That’s easy.

This reminds me of some confusion I had recently when reading contemporary sources about California politics in the 1970s. They kept talking about the danger looming about “Jarvis Gann” in terms of the state’s finances. A little bit of context and knowledge of history makes it clear they’re talking about the 1978 ballot proposition Proposition 13 (colloquially known now as just Prop 13, there is only one Prop 13). But of course, growing up in a California where Prop 13 has been around the entire time, Howard Jarvis (seen above eating a big sandwich) and Paul Gann are sometimes obscured by it. (Prop. 13 did just turn 40, and it still is messing with the state is so many ways. The current teachers strike in Oakland is a symptom of it.)

I think there was a hope that linked data and semantic searching would make this all so easy. So that you wouldn’t have to know if you want the full discourse around Prop 13 in the mid to late 70s, you need to search “Jarvis Gann”. Or that if you want to know more about TDA before it passed that “Mills-Alquist-Deddeh” was the ticket (it rolls off the tongue). This leads me to a passion project I would love to tackle: Using text mining to curate resource guides and bibliographies on topics with evolving terminology.

Stay tuned.

Helping the next generation stand your shoulders: Pay it forward for the profession

Tor197, Cragside School, Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1969 flickr photo by Newcastle Libraries shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

I’ve been feeling old lately. I have a kid. Things from my youth are cool again, but in an ironic nostalgia kind of way. I find myself listening to jazz semi-regularly. I’m mid-career. I’m management. I’m in a position to help new professionals get a foothold. I have wisdom about life to dispense. For somebody who was usually the youngest person in the room, it’s been kind of weird. But it’s also been kind of gratifying. I’m not an angry young upstart anymore, but I’m in a position to support and give a platform to angry young upstarts. It’s the circle of life. I appreciate it.

I’ve been ruminating on this for a while since I’m turning in my promotion packet this week – making the leap from Associate Librarian to full Librarian. It’s forced me to look back at my career and see how far I’ve come and evolved in the last decade. It also forced me to reach out to colleagues and ask for external letters of support. I didn’t approach people lightly, since I recognize it’s asking for a limited resource (their time) with abstract compensation (feeding the academic reputation machine). Most the people I approached to be considered understood the system, and were happy to help me out. Not everybody did though… and this is where I got annoyed.

I’m not annoyed they didn’t write the letter – while my promotion case seems like the center of my universe (actually, so many other work things are the center of my universe), I don’t expect it to be a priority for others. I’m annoyed that they flaked, that they said they’d write a letter and then didn’t. I’m annoyed that these people want to be regarded as respected members of the professional community, that we should look to them for wisdom and guidance, that their opinion matters because of their stature, but then they won’t take an hour of time to help another member of that community. This sort of behavior is especially galling from other academics who rely on the social and professional capital of others to climb the ranks, but then don’t return the favor for others. And while the peer-review process for promotion has gigantic problems, we are still stuck playing the game. So yeah – this week when I handed over my promotion packet to my boss, I am pretty annoyed with some of my colleagues that I asked to write letters who I’m pretty certain flaked.

And this is where instead of stewing in my ire, I’m going to put out the call for us to do better. If you are in a position of power, authority, leadership, prestige, remember how you got there. Remember how many people helped you out along the way. People who wrote letters of recommendation or support for you. People who nominated you for awards. People who served as references on job applications. People who appointed you to committees. People who took you out for coffee and listened to you figure stuff out, and maybe gave you some advice. You did not get to where you are in your career alone. It took a community. So when you are asked to give back to that community in small ways, like write a letter of support, you really should do it if you can. Don’t pull up the ladder and cut off opportunities for future generations just because you made it. If you want to be regarded as a leader in the profession, it means taking some time to give back to others. It’s vital for the next generation to have a chance to make their mark.

And hey – if you ever want me to write a letter of support or recommendation for you? Just ask. If my calendar isn’t too slammed, I’m happy to do it. If I don’t have time to do it, I’ll give you a sincere, apologetic decline.

And to everybody who has taken time over the years to help me out in a variety of ways, you have my eternal thanks and deepest respect. I have been fortunate to work with awesome people around the globe.