Monday 31 December 2018

Our endgame as librarians.

It's the end of the year, and this month's GLAMblogclub theme is "End".

As an annual milestone, the end of a year is often a time of reflection on the past year of our ongoing journey; where we were this time last year, then things that we've achieved, the challenges and setbacks, and the direction in which we're headed. And it got me thinking: where does this road lead, what is our endgame as librarians, and most importantly, how do we make it happen?

Firstly, as many of us know, the cultural sector is a very difficult nut to crack, and for many, the endgame is simply getting a coveted ongoing job as a librarian. It doesn't even have to pay that well, so long as there's a modicum of job security. The process of getting to that point as a new graduate can be so frustrating and fraught with setbacks that, once we finally get there, there's a feeling of, "Yes! I've made it! I'm a librarian!"

But then what? I was reminded of this question recently when I spotted the following tweet:

It seems that vocational awe is a concept that only librarians appear to be obsessed with - an online search will bring back many references to it, almost entirely in the context of libraries. For a good rundown on the topic, see this article by Fobazi Ettarh, who explains it far better than I can.

So, what do you do when you realise that all that glitters isn't actually gold? I'm often surprised when I ask librarians about their aspirations for effecting change, and they say words to the effect of, "Oh, I'm not really career-minded. I'm just happy to do this job as long as the work is interesting."

And I feel conflicted, because on one hand, we work in a sector where change is necessary on so many levels, and we need to be the ones doing that. At the same time, I feel like that's my vocational awe taking over, and that, at the end of the day, it's just work. For many, we're only paid to do the job that's in front of us. We're certainly not there to dismantle systems of oppression that are inherent in the institutions that we serve.

But if not us, then who? This is the stuff that keeps me awake late at night.

More importantly, how? In his latest post, Nathan Sentance highlights various ways that cultural institutions have contributed to colonial destruction of First Nations cultures. "As history institutions, they have helped in supplanting First Nations history with a newly created colonial memory, working almost as propaganda distributors for the settler state." He proposes that these institutions need to share their power with grassroots organisations that actively seek to repair colonial damage and prevent further harm.

And it's certainly not the first time I've heard the suggestion that librarians need to relinquish the power that they hold in their roles. Whether it be through enforcing oppressive vocabularies in their subject headings and classifications, or supporting cultural biases in the collections that they build or even in the application of library fines, we are supporting inequality in our society.
Of course, librarians are the best when it comes to making excuses for themselves - which are often justified. Whether it be a lack of support from peers / supervisors, limited resources, or it simply "out of our hands", too often we find ourselves in a situation we we have to stand by and watch on, frustrated that we can't do better. Especially when we should do better.

So, back to the original question: What is our endgame?

Do we keep our head down and work hard for years for that promotions so that, 5-10 years down the track, we're in a position where we might finally be able to effect the change we want to see - knowing the risk that, having reached that point, we might still be impotent to actually effect this kind of change?

Do we accept our fate as being implicit in supporting systems of oppression, since it's not just librarians but most professionals that are in this situation, and just try to make change where it's possible? After all, we all need to work, firstly, to put a roof over our heads and food in our mouths. Our jobs are not our lives.

Do we take up academic pursuits? If we can't effect change from within, then we critique our practices through academic research and published papers - though there's no guarantee than any critique - no matter how well it's based on evidence - will lead to changes in practice. If anything, it's just further supporting a system of observation and interpretation from a place of privilege, without motivating real social change.

Do we leave librarianship? After all, if we're so passionate about social justice, wouldn't it be better to work in an organisation that directly deals with these issues, and it's from those platforms that we can critique cultural institutions and externally lobby them for change. (Or better still, move into politics where we can legislate the change that's needed - much easier said than done, I know!)

At a dinner party last night, I raised this question and, other than a general consensus that I shouldn't be preoccupying myself with all this during the Christmas / New Year break, one of my friends stated, "I'm completely aware that I'm part of the problem. We all are. But I'm also selfish, and I can live with that."

It's not really a satisfactory conclusion for me to reach in this post, but it's an important reminder that, whilst it is a kind of selfishness, I also need to be kind to myself.

Happy new year.