June 18, 2018

Shannon O’Neill | Movers & Shakers 2018 – Innovators

Shannon O’Neill


Director, Archives and Special Collections, Barnard Library, Columbia University, New York


MLIS, UCLA, 2008


@barnardarchives on Twitter

Photo by Abby Lee


An Ethics of Care

As director of archives and special collections at Columbia University’s Barnard Library, Shannon O’Neill practices “radical empathy,” both in the materials she selects and in the way she interacts with colleagues. The concept of radical empathy in archival practice comes from Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor’s “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives,” explains O’Neill. In practice, she says, “we allow ourselves to be open to and affected by one another, and we acknowledge and actively confront oppressive structures—ones that are colonial, carceral, and racist—in archives.”

Radical empathy scaffolds O’Neill’s everyday efforts. “As a manager, she is always sensitive to power dynamics and carefully facilitates discussions and projects with frequent check-ins and sharing of decision-making,” say her nominators, Barnard librarians Jenna Freedman (a 2003 Mover & Shaker) and Martha Tenney. This ethos guides her choices regarding materials as well, with a focus on collections that document reproductive justice, zines and zinester culture, feminist organizations, women artists, and more. She has attracted substantial new acquisitions, including the papers of poet and Barnard alumna Ntozake Shange. O’Neill’s radical empathy has also prompted her to reject libraries’ and archives’ “notorious” practice of using unpaid interns, say her nominators. “Shannon…immediately…set out to create a paid fellowship program [at Barnard] for archives grad students that was eventually emulated by other divisions in the library.”

O’Neill encourages other librarians to use their resources to advance equity. “Our world is abundant,” she says. “Let’s work together to find ways to share that abundance.”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Shannon is an inspiration.

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