This is a post for the upcoming #critlib chat: “#feelings”.
Libraries exist as spaces for transformation and change. Without being convinced about the effects of library access on his own life, Andrew Carnegie almost certainly wouldn’t have helped fund so many libraries with free public service and open stacks plans that encourage direct access, browsing, and discoverability.1
As spaces for transformation, libraries are not intended to be neutral. They have been funded, built, and organized with particular outcomes in mind.
I’m a critical librarian because it is important—both for patrons and for myself—for me to recognize that libraries have never been neutral, then do the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable work of uncovering and questioning my own assumptions. How might libraries have been unintentionally complicit with systems that oppress? How might I be perpetuating these systems? Whether due to oversight or overt bias, when policies, collections, programming, etc. make access or service less welcoming or accessible for some patrons than others, that’s a problem that needs to be recognized and remedied.
I grew up on the campuses of a couple different state schools for the Deaf/deaf, surrounded by people with different abilities and attributes than my own. If being part of this type of diversity taught me anything, it’s that another, more inclusive and just world is possible, but it will not happen on its own.
As an infrastructure that places profound potential for access in the hands of patrons and also respects their agency in determining what they want to pursue, libraries remain more open and accessible than our educational systems.
By identifying as a critical librarian, I hope to make this type of goal more visible & more common in libraryland, as well as just make it easier to find more like-minded people. As with other facets of identity, “critical librarian” is something I work with, through, and sometimes even against. I definitely believe that critical theory—particularly cultural studies—equips us with ways of investigating humans, human society, and producing social theory that can improve librarianship.
While I realize that some excellent librarians find the critical theory elements of critical librarianship off-putting, elitist, or otherwise exclusionary, I approach it as a set of useful tools for us to think through to improve what we do. More specifically, it’s a set of tools that work for me and my ways of thinking—I not only expect that your mileage will vary, but I’d love to learn more about what tools you’ve found most suitable.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I gravitate toward “why?” questions. I wanted a discussion group that addressed social issues in librarianship and hadn’t found one yet in my library school program. One thing I love about the chats is that it’s a unique opportunity to learn from a wide swath of people, some of whom are far more focused on “how?” questions.
I was quite close to deleting my Twitter account, but the #critlib chats & the people I’ve found through them kept me around! My understanding of library history, library pedagogy, and the many critiques of library practice would be completely impoverished if I didn’t have this network of people to learn from. More importantly, my toolbox of lenses to articulate, reflect upon, and improve my library practice would be far smaller—meaning that I’d be that much more likely to perpetuate systems of exclusion I don’t want to have existed in the first place.
Just as I hope to instill a life-long love of learning in my students and patrons, I hope to be a life-long learner. I’ve learned tons from these chats, and I look forward to learning much more.
I don’t actually know whether Carnegie’s primary intention with open stacks was to minimize staffing requirements, with increased discoverability merely a felicitous by-product, or whether he viewed direct access as desirable itself. I’m still delving into these parts of library history, starting with Dee Garrison’s Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920. ↩