October 16, 2017

Joy Doan and Ahmed Alwan: Examining Status Microaggressions and Academic Libraries

Ahmed Alwan and Joy Doan

Ahmed Alwan and Joy Doan

Ahmed Alwan and Joy Doan are research, instruction, and outreach librarians at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Both joined the faculty in 2015—Alwan after serving as information literacy librarian at the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, and reference assistant at York University, Toronto, and Doan after working as Music Library liaison and instruction librarian, University of California, Los Angeles.

The two, who share an interest in diversity and inclusion, were brainstorming possible topics for research over lunch in late 2015. A discussion of Jaena Alabi’s work on racial microaggressions in academic libraries led them to consider other intersectional microaggressive instances in that environment—in particular, status-based microaggressions experienced by academic librarians in their interactions with non-librarian teaching faculty. From that conversation, their Microaggressions & Academic Libraries project was born.

LJ: How did you decide to focus on the subject of status microaggressions in academic libraries?

Ahmed Alwan: There’s been quite a bit of work done on the issue of diversity in academic libraries, specifically looking at individuals of color, how they’re included or excluded. We were trying to figure out where we would carve out our own niche, and how we could make a mark on the field. And Joy pointed out something very insightful. She said there’s so much anecdotal evidence that exists out there when librarians talk to one another—Joy and I would do this all the time when we would discuss our interactions with teaching faculty, at the reference desk, when we were doing something like collection development. We would talk about these microaggressive instances of behavior that would exist when teaching faculty were talking to librarians. But nothing had been done in a quantitative way. We always talk about this in a very anecdotal way. But nobody had sat down to see why that occurs, or document it. Are we being treated differently as librarians because of our status as librarians, and what’s causing that, if anything?

What was your methodology?

Joy Doan: [Our] survey attempted to address three specific points: 1) How do librarians walk the line (or where to draw the line) between collegiality and assertiveness when communicating/collaborating with teaching faculty? 2) Do librarians believe they have the ability to speak from a place of power? And 3) Do librarians feel comfortable and confident to report microaggressive behavior to their superiors, and is adequate support received?

AA: The survey included 43 questions. We [had] one section that looked at demographics, but the rest of it [looked] at microaggressive behavior in various capacities: when you’re interacting with faculty for instruction, [or at] the reference desk. We also wanted to make sure we integrated technical services into the mix. We didn’t just want this to be a public services study. We wanted to see if individuals working on the back end  may have also experienced microaggressions from faculty. We also included collection development. We got IRB approval from CSUN, and released the survey in late January 2016.

We put the survey out via a variety of different listservs. Joy targeted many that she’s connected with, specifically ones to do with ARL [Association of Research Libraries]. I targeted some international listservs and a few in Canada. We closed the survey in early March 2016, and to our surprise, we had approximately 550 respondents.

How are you working with the results?

AA: Our first experience with disseminating the data came at CARL [California Academic & Research Libraries Association conference]. We hadn’t done any analysis yet. We gave a survey review: what we had asked, the numbers we received, a little bit on the demographics, [and] a brief overview of what we had done.

The second dissemination happened when we attended the Clute Institute conference in Venice, Italy. Clute is a conference that focuses on education. Joy and I wanted to get the word out to faculty as well, so we thought, all right, let’s look for conferences where we can start speaking to faculty about what librarians are experiencing. There, we started to do a little more data analysis. We talked largely about the portion of our survey that focused on collaboration with faculty: when do they meet with you, what sort of information do they give to you, do they hold things back, do they make certain assumptions about you, that sort of data. That was very successful; we had some great feedback. And that brings us to the second phase of our research.

JD: We’ve taken some of the demographics, including gender, ethnicity, race, age, type of institution—are you at a two-year, four-year, large research institution, specialty college? We’ve also looked at how many years someone has been in the field. And we’ve taken that data and set it against a series of questions dealing with how teaching faculty are collaborating, and also looking at some of the technical services aspects during acquisitions or collection development. We presented that research from those correlations and that data at the RAILS [Research Applications, Information and Library Studies] Conference in New Zealand. Some of the feedback gave us really good insights on how we should consider the broader globalized aspects of teaching faculty—how that might affect the way in which they interact with academic libraries.

AA: Phase Three of our project will be a look at the qualitative data. Although the main aim was to gather quantitative data, we included in our survey three open-ended questions where we would allow participants to open up, tell us a little bit more about their experiences. We got more than 200 responses. All of those responses in their raw form have been included in ScholarWorks, our open repository here at CSUN, and we’ve made the link to that open to the public via our website. We’ve anonymized the data so there are no names and we removed anything that could identify any individual.

We’re hoping to start looking at that data and doing keyword analysis, starting to bring out correlations between quantitative and qualitative. And the last part of Phase Three is hopefully a publication in the form of a book. We’re hoping to do an edited work where we write a chapter and get other individuals involved in looking at microaggressions, or even in a broader way looking at diversity and inclusion in academic libraries.

What did you find that surprised you most?

JD: What really surprised us at first was the listserv responses that we were getting. We had people sending back emails saying this wasn’t an issue, that we “had a huge chip on our shoulders,” that we were just green librarians looking for anything to write about, that we were being the PC police, that we were being too sensitive. And then we had random librarians on the listserv who came to our defense saying, “Are you kidding? They’re doing great research. This needs to be done.” We just sat back and watched it happen.

AA: It was very polarizing. Very seldom did we find people in the middle.

The type of institution [involved] surprised us. We assumed that librarians employed at larger institutions, R-1 research institutions, [would] have experienced less microaggression. We thought, if you’re working at an institution where you’re on par with faculty, or you hold faculty status, or you’re working with them all the time, that they probably see you as one of their own. And we thought the people working at other institutions, community colleges, smaller universities, ones that focus on undergraduate studies, probably experience it much more. That’s not what the data show. It does not matter where you work, whether you hold faculty status. We were seeing that librarians across the board were all expressing around the same number of experiences with microaggressions.

What conclusions have you reached so far?

AA: Academic status microaggressions do exist. However, what the data tells us is that it’s not endemic. We make sure we open up presentations this way because we don’t want people to get a false notion that it’s all across the board, everyone’s facing microaggressions. But the fact that it’s happening is still concerning. We did see certain demographics reporting that they were experiencing microaggressions more than others.

We found that early career librarians showed greater instances of having experienced microaggressions that could be due to a variety of variables, and we found that some librarians who had been working the field a lot longer had very different perceptions of what’s acceptable and what’s not.

JD: We were trying to be very inclusive when it came to race and ethnicity, so we literally [documented] the gamut of every type of identity structure we could think that someone would [identify as]. We [thought] it was really going to make a difference, that people [would have] experienced microaggressions based on status differently depending on their race, and that was not the case. We found it doesn’t matter if you are an immigrant, it doesn’t matter if you are black, white, Native American, East Asian descent—we did not see that as making a difference in terms of the type of microaggressive behavior reported. That was interesting, because the groundwork in microaggressions had been based on race. We expected to see that there would be a very large correlation regarding race, and there wasn’t.

AA: In terms of the research, we kind of see this as a call to social justice for the field and the community as a whole, trying to get librarians to feel empowered. We started to talk about the idea that the only method to gain recognition in academia can’t just be outreach. That tends to be one of the first places librarians go to get faculty to recognize us, to understand what we do. And outreach is fantastic. We just don’t think it can be the only thing we do. Both Joy and I feel that, as a professional community, we need to begin by acknowledging that what we do is invaluable, and that we’re really an indispensable part of the university or college.

JD: [Librarians] engage in very self-deprecating behavior. We are service oriented, we are at your service, but we are not servants.

AA: We started to see this resistance, a lot of librarians [saying], “Well look, teaching faculty are really busy.” But you know what—we’re really busy too. So this sort of behavior among librarians, where you start to justify why certain things are happening when it comes to interactions with teaching faculty, really has to end. If we want faculty to take us seriously—and we all do—and want to be on par with teaching faculty, we have to start with that step. And I think we’re moving in that direction more and more in academic libraries. Young librarians are starting to say, “You know what? We’re doing amazing things.” And starting to demonstrate to the library—but more important, to the institution as a whole—that what they do is valuable.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. john krivak says:

    Young librarians are starting to say, “You know what? We’re doing amazing things.” , she said, microaggresively.
    Because. of course, only young people are doing amazing things.

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