February 17, 2018

Making Space for the Silenced | Peer to Peer Review

Barbara-Fister-newswireWhen I read Nina de Jesus’s blog post “Locating the Library in Institutionalized Oppression,” I stashed it away so that I could mull it over. I am a bit of a library Pollyanna, making grand claims for the values libraries uphold, but I also remember the many times I went into libraries and felt intimidated. I am, as many undergraduates are, loath to announce publicly my ignorance by asking questions that I can’t quite articulate. Where is everything? How does it work? Am I in the right place? Should I even be here?

There is something about a library that speaks volumes about insiders and outsiders. When you walk into a library with other people who are more familiar with it, you notice that they head purposefully for some place they already know about, or stride up to the computers and start searching without asking permission. They belong in the library, or, perhaps more accurately, they feel the library belongs to them.

New students feel intimidated, as we know from observation and from the recent Project Information Literacy report, Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Research When They Enter College. They’ve never been in such a large library before. They’ve never had to do this kind of writing. They’ve never read an article in a scholarly journal. They have lots to learn, and it’s both exciting and a little terrifying. That’s true of students who grew up knowing college was in their future, whose family members have told them about their college days, who have to figure out how to fit in but know they will. It’s even harder for students who are first generation, or came from a school where college was never assumed, who look around and see nobody who looks like them and wonder who they’re kidding. As welcoming as we try to make a library, it may well be saying in various ways, “This is not yours. You don’t belong.” And those messages are invisible to us insiders.

As I was thinking about this issue, the American Library Association’s (ALA) new Code of Conduct was released, and Will Manley read it as an alarming development that could chill speech and limit intellectual freedom. The response to his post was heated and vigorous, and Manley has since removed it from the web. Lisa Rabey put together a very good roundup of the prelude, the post, and the responses. I found Andromeda Yelton’s personal reflection on why we need the code (and why that need is invisible to many people) particularly moving. We need a code because people who attend ALA conferences should feel safe and welcome. And sometimes they don’t.

My knees have strong reflexes when it comes to free speech, and I can see how many librarians who haven’t had the experiences that the code is intended to address would be puzzled and might think that it is designed to put some topics or forms of expression off limits. Will potty-mouthed poets be ejected from the exhibit hall if they read their latest sexually explicit book? Will people with controversial views about race be punished? Are we banning certain kinds of speech?

No. The code suggests something fairly radical: that free speech and respect for all people are compatible. This is a truly tricky thing. Some beliefs do run absolutely counter to others, and expressing beliefs passionately could be seen by some as threatening behavior. I suspect implementing this code will include situations that aren’t easily resolved. But what the code does is announce that harassment happens and the association has your back. It says in no uncertain terms, “We know some of you have felt silenced. We want to create a space where you feel able to speak.”

We need to think about this in our own libraries. The debate about the code illustrated that we are often blind to other people’s experiences. Privilege is particularly hard to deal with because it is invisible to those who have it—unless they look carefully and with an open mind. How do we address the needs of students who come to the academy and experience intimidation or exclusion or ignorance-based insults? How do we help students feel ownership of a library that may at first seem like it belongs exclusively to people with entirely different life experiences? How do we create safe and supportive places where the silenced can speak? What are we not seeing?

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. In my work on information literacy in disciplines, I have argued that students are outsiders everywhere in their academic lives. The professor is the expert, and it is the essence of expertise that there be a divide between the expert and the non-expert. We can, indeed, carry this kind of thinking into the library, where the variety of tools and services can be truly off-putting to those who do not understand them.

    For freshmen, then, everything is alienating and intimidating. Dare I suggest that even professors feel increasingly alienated from academic libraries with their increasingly complex digital tools and resources.

    I think the answer comes from the model that turns alienated students in disciplines into doers of the disciplines, from outsiders to insiders. It is simply guiding them into an understanding of how it all works. For libraries, this is more than information literacy. It is creating a culture of invitation and guidance that enables our students to move from alienation to a sense of personal ownership in their library experience. The best thing librarians can do is to recognize student alienation when they first spot it and have both plans and procedures in place to enable students to start feeling like they belong.

    One simple example – Why do so many libraries bury their “Contact us” information on their library web pages? Our library, while far from perfect, has made a conscious effort to promote research help and contact points on our site, with gratifying results: http://www.twu.ca/twu-library/

    • Bill, thanks – this is what Bartholomae called “inventing the university” – recognizing how difficult it is for undergrads to suss out what we mean by disciplines, by the weird way scholars talk, and the very different assumptions they will run up against in Bio 101 and American Lit II. Librarians, too, need to be sensitive to how much we expect students to invent the library.

      But beyond inviting students to be more like us, I want to think about what they want to take with them when they move on and will not be scholars of biology or literature but will have learned valuable things that stick. What sticks? What is just playing dress up and enforcing rules that nobody else cares about? What really matters?

      So yes to belonging, but also yes to allowing students to resist or to occupy the library.