Sunday, November 29, 2015

Who Are We Serving?

“As a former public library director, I am well aware of the many challenges that staff members face in providing services to an extreme range of users. However, there is little utility in the identification of homeless persons as "problem patrons." The same can be said of classifying senior citizens, young adults, or others as problem users. Individual behaviors that are well identified are reasonable arguments for denying access to services. Although it can be difficult to provide day in and day out, a cheerful, helpful attitude goes a long way in making a homeless person's day. Conversely, the homeless are often on the receiving end of disapproving attitudes or worse, being treated as if they are invisible. As professionals, let us assess service needs in the context of a person's homeless environment while not making personal judgments of their situations.” — Julie Hersberger 

(Full citation: Hersberger, J. (2005). The homeless and information needs and services. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 44(3), 199-202.)

If I had just one wish today, it would be that everyone who works in a library anywhere would find and read this short, yet vitally important, article (.pdf) from 2005. Even if you think you may have read it before, perhaps in library school, it’s worth revisiting and even printing and sharing with your staff. 

Before I go into the reasons for this post, I want to clarify that I am not writing this post to criticize any one specific person or organization. Rather, I want to point out something that I think is indicative of a much larger problem systemic to our field, from library management to LIS education. We have created a climate in which we continue to problematize certain patrons/users without addressing (and sometimes even ignoring) the root causes of their needs.

Over the weekend, I was looking through the schedule for the upcoming PLA Conference in Denver. I was actually looking to see how many sessions were focused on diversity and inclusion, when I stumbled upon this preconference. I had originally planned to briefly mention this preconference in another blog post (the forthcoming “Praticing What We Preach”), but I was so saddened by the language, tone, and implications of this type of preconference that I felt it deserved its own post. 

It saddens me on several levels:

The "problem" patron misnomer—Julie does a great job of detailing how often we are selective in applying our policies more heavily toward certain types of users than others. I would follow this by saying that we are really good at claiming to serve everyone, while actually serving some more positively than others. Even when we aren’t creating policies that automatically privilege the middle class, we are applying other policies in ways that do privilege. 

The "holistic" claim—The preconference includes both a law enforcement officer and a security person, but no homeless advocate (beyond the social worker, who may or may not be an advocate, given the focus on mental health). A quick Google search revealed that there’s a group called the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, based right in Denver. It would seem that an actually holistic approach would include advocates, if not at least one person affected by homelessness.

The centering of "safety" above actual service to the homeless—Whose safety is this session focused upon? It seems to not be the safety of library users who are homeless, even though victims of domestic violence often have periods of homelessness. In addition, people who are homeless are often the victims of crimes and much less likely to report those crimes. Are we really talking about safety or is this just a euphemism for our own prejudices and the prejudices of the users we allow to dictate our policies? Are we acting under the assumption that homeless=person without a home (short-term or long-term) OR the prejudice that homeless=drug user=violent criminal?

Conflating mental health issues with being homeless—I am thankful that the term “mentally ill” wasn’t used; however, it was the implication. I actually tried to find good statistics on the percentage of people who are homeless who also have mental health “issues,” but mainly found sites erroneously quoting the HUD annual reports on homelessness, which actually only have mental health-related statistics for those in permanently supportive housing (PSH) in the U.S. The disability statistics of those in these types of facilities in 2014 could make it seem that the mental health disability rate among the homeless is quite high, with the disability status for mental health at 34.3% and dual diagnosis (both mental health and substance abuse) at 22.2%. However, the report also notes that “In many PSH programs, only people with disabilities are eligible. As a result, 8 of every 10 adults in PSH had a disability (82.7%). This is significantly higher than the 42.2 percent of adults using shelter who had a disability.” (2014, 7-7). There are so many other ways to better address the specific needs of the homeless than by focusing on their mental health (which hopefully any public library would already be focusing on for all patrons). For example, based on the 2015 report, 23% of the homeless on a single night in January 2015 were under the age of 18. Thirty-six percent of the homeless that night were families. Racially/Ethnically, 20% were Latino, 48.5% were White, 40.4% were African American, 2.7% were Asian/Pacific American, 2.7% were Native American, and 5.8% were multiracial (Latino overlaps the racial categories). Roughly 11.8% were veterans. Why aren’t we focusing on any of these other demographics among people who are homeless? Instead, we further stigmatize both mental illness and homelessness. 

“Hostile and upset patrons”—I’m not even sure which patrons are being referred to with this phrase. The assumption would be homeless patrons, but in my experience addressing homelessness in both public and academic libraries, I’ve dealt with more “hostile and upset patrons” who were hostile toward library staff and the homeless patron(s) and upset toward all of us because we weren’t “dealing” with the situation in the way that that entitled patron wanted it to be dealt with. The mere presence of the homeless (sometimes not even inside of the library building itself) was enough to make some patrons hostile and upset, wanting to know why we weren’t doing something, why we were letting “those people” ruin the library experiences of “taxpayers” or “people who actually belong here.” 

And all of these problems above don’t even scratch the surface about how we as a profession still too often focus on "fixing" small problems (like dealing with an individual who is homeless), while ignoring the things we could be doing at the macro level to alleviate larger problems (creating services, policies, programs, etc. that address the root causes of homelessness in our communities). I am a bit hopeful about what Salt Lake City PL and other libraries are doing to address this but they're definitely atypical.

I also want to point out that there are two other conference sessions at the PLA 2016 Conference on serving the homeless. One will focus on adult users, while the other will look at serving LGBTQ youth. A look at the language of these two sessions, in comparison to the preconference, is much more encouraging as both sessions include input from the users themselves. While both are included in conference registration, each of these sessions is only one-hour long, while the preconference is 3 hours in length and seems quite expensive ($150 for PLA/CAL member, higher for others).

How do we get to the point where we start refocusing our efforts on actually serving everyone?
1)      I start with LIS curriculum as I went into LIS education with the hope and belief that it was the best way to make the largest, most lasting impact on the field. The curriculum has to change across the board, rather than serving the homeless being one week in a diversity class as it is in most places (if that). This change applies across the board to all types of inclusion. Looking at the new ALA Standards for Accreditation, the following statement addresses the nature of the standards: “The nature of a demonstrably diverse society is referenced throughout the Standards because of the desire to recognize diversity, defined in the broadest terms, when framing goals and objectives, designing curricula, and selecting and retaining faculty and students.” However, the standards aren’t very specific, allowing programs to continue to pay lip service to diversity and inclusion.
2)      Critical librarianship, scholarship, and education would go far toward addressing some of the root causes of many of the perennial issues in the field. As Emily Drabinski wrote in a recent blog post I encourage everyone to read, “For me, Charleston was another reminder that the field could stand to look up from our close reading of library problems to the social, political, and economic forces that structure those issues for us.” Every day in LIS spaces, we make decisions buried under a cloak of “neutrality” and “equitable access,” yet most of us fail to recognize the systems that make this impossible without critical engagement. We ignore these systems at our own peril, and in the end it may cost us the profession.
3)      We need to really innovate in the ways in which we provide services. We complain about how tired we are of the “we tried that in 1989 and it didn’t work” mantras that plague the profession, yet we balk at the thought of having social workers provide services within our walls? We can spout all day (particularly at conferences) about being “Yes, and…” leaders, but are we actually innovating for everyone we serve? Or just certain types of users?
4)      Professional development and continuing education should also be included, at local, state, and national levels. This means more programs like the two sessions mentioned above. And articles in spaces that aren’t behind subscription paywalls.
5)      Simply remembering the principle out of disability activism, “Nothing About Us Without Us” would go a long way toward improving a lot of the things we do in libraries.

I’m sure there are other options that aren’t even occurring to me, now that I’ve reached the end of this (really long) post. If you have solutions, please feel free to share them!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

We Can Be Heroes*

“We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Attributed to June Jordan

In the time since I’ve joined the library world, from my first days as a circulation tech in 2001, all through my MLIS program, and into to my doctoral program and teaching, I’ve gathered strength from the writings, actions, and legacies of those who came before us. I tend to refer to these as my library heroes: people like E.J. Josey, Augusta Baker, Sandy Berman, Ruth Brown, Elfreda Chatman, Pura Belpré, Arnulfo Trejo, Oralia Garza de Cortes, Eliza Dresang, Kathleen de la Peña McCook, Lorienne Roy, Elizabeth Martinez, Sandra Rios Balderrama, etc. (I could go on and on.) Some of these people are no longer with us, while others are still active in the field. 

As I’ve spent more and more time in LIS, I’ve also met others, more experienced people in the field who I had thought (hoped) would rise to the challenge of questioning/changing the status quo in library practice, education, and research. Some have, while others have disappointed me by getting caught up in ALA or library system politics, putting their own interests above the interests of those they serve, or just giving up altogether. 

Over the eight years I’ve been teaching, I’ve had students who’ve asked me who I thought the new heroes of LIS were and have had to scramble to think of who those heroes are now. While I’ve always been able to give them some names (including many of those above), they were more interested in younger people (20s, 30s, & 40s). 

Relatively recently, I had a Facebook exchange with a former student who helped me realize that I had been approaching the situation from the wrong direction entirely. She told me that, upon one of her first opportunities to hear me speak/teach, I had reminded her of Sandy Berman. Besides being one of the best professional compliments I’ve ever received, this was also the wake-up call I needed to realize that we are already here. We can be and are our own heroes. We are already challenging the LIS status quo in places around the world. 

In many ways, we have opportunities our heroes never had. Through the power of social media and other virtual spaces, we can and do find each other in ways that weren’t possible in the past. We’re having conversations around critical librarianship, social justice, and human rights outside of physical conferences, snail mail, and letters to the editor. New open-access journals are starting in the field (including the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies) that will provide further opportunities for those of us who use critical perspectives. More books are being published including a number of edited volumes on how race, gender, sexuality, and class impact LIS. More conferences are focusing on these topics as well. Given the challenges many of us have faced in presenting and publishing our work in traditional LIS venues, we need these types of conferences, journals, and books. 

We also need to find even more ways to use collaborative technologies to work together to bring about change in LIS. I know that many of us are working individually in our own spaces to make changes at the institutional level. And I am thrilled with all of the ways we’re expanding conversations across Twitter, blogs, etc., and I think this public writing needs to be a part of our efforts, but we can’t let it stop there. I know that many of you, like me, constantly critique the profession/discipline for the glacial pace of progress, for being all talk and no action, so I think it is crucial that we not fall into the same trap.  We’re already good at what we do in our own spaces. Collectively focused on a single list of goals, imagine what we could accomplish on a larger scale!

*Used in a non-gender specific way throughout and with compliments to David Bowie.

BONUS: Fitting Harry Potter quotation I couldn’t resist adding as a postscript (with minor spoiler):

“Come on!” he muttered, staring about. “Where are you? Dad, come on—“
But no one came. Harry raised his head to look at the circle of dementors across the lake. One of them was lowering its hood. It was time for the rescuer to appear—but no one was coming to help this time—
And then it hit him—he understood. He hadn’t seen his father—he had seen himself
Harry flung himself out from behind the bush and pulled out his wand.
And out of the end of his wand burst, not a shapeless cloud of mist, but a blinding, dazzling, silver animal. … He saw it lower its head and charge at the dementors…. Now it was galloping around and around the black shapes on the ground, and the dementors were falling back, scattering, retreating into the darkness…. They were gone.

From J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Sunday, November 22, 2015

On My Agenda

“Teachers and librarians are forgetting that their primary responsibility as educators is not to an author or illustrator they like, but to the children in their classrooms. As parents, we trust you to do right by our children and what they learn from you. What you give them is something they will carry with them as they grow up.” Debbie Reese
This fall, the word “agenda” has been bandied about quite a bit on social media related to children’s literature and library service to youth (for a good overview, see this post from Debbie Reese, this post from Ellen Oh, and this post from Charline Jao). I’ll have an upcoming post exploring the absurdity of this label (spoiler alert: everyone has an agenda!) and how it seems to be most often dragged out of the drawer, dusted off, and thrown into conversations during times when social justice issues are receiving public attention as a way to silence those people trying to challenge the status quo.

Before I get to that post (and others looking at neutrality, the power of librarians, etc.), I wanted to use this post to talk about my own agenda. 

On my agenda
Me: I am accountable to myself and the way I represent the core values of librarianship to my students and the world. When I see that organizations, libraries, and librarians aren’t acting on these core values (or are acting against them), it is my responsibility to point this out to my students (and, oftentimes, the larger library community). It is also my responsibility to help students engage critically with the contradictions inherent within these values and other organizational and disciplinary policies, tenets, actions, etc.

C & S (my stepdaughters): I am accountable to both, wanting them not to be as ignorant as I was at their ages (12 and 14, respectively). This means having difficult conversations, questioning assumptions, offering them books and media outside of their experiences, and sharing biographies and histories beyond what they see in their textbooks and classrooms.

J (my niece): As an African-American preschooler near the birthplace of both Ben Tillman and Strom Thurmond, J will live a life that I will never be able to completely understand. I hold myself accountable to her by finding and offering mirror books to serve as talismans and by having sometimes difficult conversations about race, inequity, and injustice in a family that would often seek to avoid those conversations.

J (my nephew): Now a toddler, my White nephew also gets talisman books, in the form of windows and mirrors, so that he can realize the beauty of his interracial family and his potential to be a different sort of White Southern male.

The youth of South Carolina (particularly Orangeburg County): I hold myself accountable to the children and teens of my home state and county in hopes that they can see the truths amidst all of the silence, secrets, racial code words, and Whitewashed curriculum and libraries. May they benefit from teachers and librarians who can help them understand the historical and ongoing impact of a state built on the forced labor of enslaved people, the theft of tribal lands (through the Indian Removal Act and other legislation), the horrors of Reconstruction (violence, land loss, and the Black Codes that would become Jim Crow), and the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement (the Orangeburg Massacre, White Citizens’ Councils, etc.) that led to a state where structural and environmental racism are woven into the very fabric of daily life. (Not to mention how prevalent sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are.) I know how difficult it is to live amidst that stifling silence, where racism is everywhere but nobody (White) wants to acknowledge it, where racial coding (if not outright hate speech) is as common as pimento cheese sandwiches at a picnic. 

My students: I hold myself accountable to my students (past, present, and future) by being honest, even when it is uncomfortable. I use critical theories in my classes to help push the boundaries of the profession and LIS education. Sometimes I succeed (which is what keeps me going some days), and sometimes I fail (I have been called a “race traitor” on my student evaluations and often have vocal resistance in the form of my courses being “too difficult.”). But I never want a student to look back on one of my classes and be angry at me for not being truthful, for leaving out the reality of the problems they will face as librarians. Tempered with this critical approach, I also speak to the hope and belief that they can make changes (daily and long-term) to provide more equitable collections and services to everyone.

The communities libraries serve (in theory, if not in reality): I hold myself accountable to everyone in every community in this country, of every race, color, belief/nonbelief, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age, ability, veteran status, spoken/written language, citizenship status, legal history, economic level, and literacy level, recognizing that White, heteronormative, cisgender, Christian males still continue to be seen as the default (AKA status quo) in too many of our collections and services. 

By holding myself accountable to all of these people on my agenda, I recognize my responsibility in questioning the assumptions and decisions of many librarians, educators, researchers, institutions, organizations, publishers, authors and illustrators, corporations, and others who would seek to privilege the status quo through the silencing, policing, stereotyping, tokenizing, and/or marginalizing of anyone who falls out of their version of “America.” In short, I seek (as do so many others, many of them listed in the blogs to the right) to do my part in creating a better future for everyone. That is my agenda and I own it completely.