Coversation + Social Location = Headache Station

Whenever conversation theory has come up in class, we’ve never really grounded it in anything concrete.  But what I have learned about our role as librarians to facilitate conversation is immensely challenging.  Dr. Lankes’ famous metaphor of librarians as the blender, mixing up the isolated pockets of knowledge comes to mind.

How do I as a librarian facilitate conversation between two or more parties who hardly have the same language.  And to what degree does that conversation need to be even-handed?

Specifically, in a world where every message I’m sent in advertisements, popular culture, fashion trends, literature, professional codes of conduct, historical narratives, current politics and the media coverage thereof seems to have a stubborn myopia to my experiences as someone who’s not only non-white, but non-heteronormative, non-American and vegetarian.  These avenues reflect to everyone a portrait of what it means to “count” (Rancier) as an agent in this world, and has marked implications for what doesn’t count.  The exclusion, or peripheral relegation of anyone in any of my social locations, as well as the disabled, women and non-Christians creates a unidirectional flow of information.  This has immediate effects on group-based politics:

As librarians, we are entrusted to turn that decree roll into a dialogue.  But from the perspective of an agent whose been left bereft of a voice for so long, an even exchange won’t bring about the knowledge creation that we’re looking for to improve society.  We (the collective subaltern and our allies who are aware of their own provilege), already know what they (the superaltern who are not aware of their privilege, but stubbornly assert it) have to say.  They’ve been telling us from day one, and our responses have been met with whatever preformed defense from the white/straight/male/Christian-logocentric/classist apologetics bingo they happen to land on.


I recently attempted to get beyond the apologetics when expressing my criticism of the political and hegemonic dimension of Christianity to the wrong person.  When analyzing the failure of the conversation with a lens of guilt for even attempting that frisson of mutual knowledge creation, I was told by one of my classmates “F*ck him… it’s their turn to sit down, shut up and listen!”

The diatribe that I’m trying to bring to fruition here is that conversation theory is hella complex due to the inherent inequity of people’s voices.  The librarian profession is predominantly white in this country and I don’t think we can get anywhere creating a mutual understanding of our experiences on either side of white (or any) privelege without first recognizing that it 1.  exists, 2. we may or may not benefit from it  3. some voices need to be heard and analyzed before others.



See also:

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Scholarship in Action–iSchool Style

The “Little Free Library” project—for those unfamiliar—is a volunteer-based initiative wherein little book-housing structures are constructed and (literally) planted into the neighborhood under the premise of “take a book, leave a book.”   Modeled after the original Minnesota/Wisconsin strike of little libraries, the Syracuse undertaking, of which I’m a proud part, has the particular goal of addressing the egregious literacy problems in the Near West Side (linked to the severe poverty there no doubt) and highlighting the positive dimensions of a community (reportedly) rife with social problems.

I am so excited about the work we are about to do for more reasons than I should get into in this particular post.  That being said, my focus here will be a bit scattered because I wanted to discuss the application of Lankes’ new librarianship in this project.  The Syracuse Little Free Library Project is a beautiful consummation of multiple discourses implied and explained in the Atlas—particularly discourses that have struck me as either interesting or troubling.


Continuing my wrestling match with Lankes’ treatment of the role of motivation in new librarianship, I have begun to embrace it (if only to “try it on for size”) and it has informed a lot of my recent attitudes towards this project.  In a world where community members favor illicit, ultimately self-destructive activity to reading and learning at worse, or at best are consistently told that their community is inherently decadent, we are giving community members an opportunity to take ownership of a collection of their own books.  I can only imagine the sense of genuine interest that can come from that new relationship to reading material.  How can we make sure that motivation gets off to a powerful jump start?  How do we keep that motivation going?  How do we continue to expand the ways and degree to which we motivate the community without being obnoxious, tactless or creepy?

Conversation Theory:

Essentially, we are facilitating a conversation among the community members by providing a “venue” for community members to become conversants.  Every book left behind is a message sent; a contribution freighted with meaning and personal valence.  It describes the interests that someone has in the community; their hobbies/habits/personalities can all be conveyed in each book left.  Every book taken is a message received.  A sign of shared interests or interests soon to be shared.  An indication that someone cares enough to “listen.”  A connection, even if anonymous, made.  A decreasing distance between community members.

Improving Society:

This decreasing distance between community members can foster a germination of positive energy in the Near Westside, nurture a sense of pride and reduce the more unsavory activities in that area.  Together with the many other community based initiatives to “restore” the Near Westside, the Little Free Library Project has the potential to really change things for the better.

The issue that is tough for me to navigate is the implications that are bound up with a university-initiated project to “improve” a community that we have little ties to beyond geography.  There’s something vaguely imperialist about the idea—despite all of our collective altruism—that breeds a vivid sense of caution about every move we make in this project.  We’ve tried everything from allowing room for as much community participation/input in the planning of the project to prohibiting the prominent use of orange in the design of the structures to abate this sense of

I’m simply concerned about how both the perception and the reality of us, folk with a relative degree of privilege, going into their community to “help them” can breed problems rather than mutual respect.  Even if there aren’t any explicit conflicts or resentments, the concept itself may be problematic.  I suppose one way to ameliorate my anxiety about this is to inject myself into the community.  If the clear separation between “us” and “them” is narrowed, then perhaps this dynamic would be less problematic.  Idk.  Thoughts?

My expectations for self-development as a competent librarian are pretty steep in this project, but perhaps not unfounded.  A practical application of the theories introduced in Dr. Lankes’ book will definitetly give me a more salient understanding of just what the hell he’s talking about.  Further, I have an opportunity to make real change for the better.

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The Librarian and the Community

Dr. Lankes’ “The Atlas of New Librarianship” provides a very definitive lens for library students to consider–or, more accurately, reconsider–the relationship library professionals have with their respective communities. What strikes me in particular is the notion of the librarian as motivator.

“You must facilitate the knowledge from access, to knowledge, to environment, to motivation.”

The two questions this statement raises are:
“what CAN motivate your patrons?” and “how can we motivate our patrons?”

The supposition that fruits in the shadow of these questions is that everyone can indeed be motivated to (want to) learn. Librarians I’ve talked to about this have been fairly divided on this point. One of my supervisors posits that motivation in academic libraries goes as far as “empower[ing] them to find the resources.” The mindset here is that successful independent searches can lead to further attempts to search for information. An elementary school librarian on the other hand, is ALL ABOUT fostering that drive to learn any and everything and motivating students when that drive seems to languish.

In my interpretation of Dr. Lankes’ point, the role of the librarian as motivator should strike an appropriate balance for the particular user or group of users in question. I imagine that the larger/broader the audience, the more subtle the manifestation of active motivation should be.

So how do we as library scholars go about figuring out the answers to these questions? How will I know what will motivate my patrons? and how?

As I continue to participate in the near west side, Little Free Library project, I hope to find the answer to these questions. If they exist.


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“You Don’t Look Like A Librarian” by Ruth Kneale: A TLS Book Review

       I was recently lent the apparent must-read of the librarian sphere entitled, “You Don’t Look Like A Librarian.”  In her 2009 print publication, library professional Ruth Kneale takes on the issues surrounding the broad perception of librarians as professionals, tackling the persistence and consequences of stereotypes and offering a call to action for all those identified as librarians to actively challenge the harmful presuppositions all framed in a language so casual and so comic that she establishes herself as a co-sufferer and companion to the reader.

       She starts out introducing the reader to the urgency of the matter.  Kneale’s examples of real, serious consequences of the misperception of what librarians do, and moreover who librarians are got me to sit up and pay attention and gave me a vested interest in the topic beyond the humorous dimension of playing with stereotypes.  It’s not simply reactions of surprise to the identity of being a librarian that is the issue… it is the decisions that are made that harm libraries, library staffs and the whole nexus of departments and services we are involved in.  Ruth’s illumination of this criticality alone makes this book a must-read for anybody interested in our profession.

       In this book she also weaves in anecdotes, both humorous and harrowing, from librarians all over the nation (including a familiar face from the SU iSchool faculty), that detail their respective encounters with the stereotypes that plague their identity as librarians.  Along the way, we get introduced to a vast variety of unimaginable job titles, functions, organizations and events in the library professional world–which, for initiates like myself into the field is beyond any value.  If anything she does so to a fault.  At times, the lists of interesting organizations can become dizzying on the first read and trying to keep track of the things one wants to look up can distract one from the next anecdote, profile or even the point in general–we are library scholars after all.

       Another point at which I’ll voice some criticism is her lack of synthesis. She frames a problem and neglects to reintroduce that urgency in the conclusion, where she recapitulates her call to action.  I suppose that was a rhetorical decision on her part to launch her readers into action, but I would personally feel more of an impetus if she rearticulated the dangers of a future in which we DON’T actively reshape public thought on librarians.

       The interviews are a tremendous resource for librarians at any stage in their respective careers.  Having that collection of experiences goes beyond the intial argument of the book–which ends up being a REALLY good thing.  (I came for funny anecdotes and left with that plus a series of snapshots of different manifestations of librarians at work)!

       Also, the book has an appendix that illustrates the statistics that she employs throughout the text.  The appendix can actually prove an infinitely useful resource in and of itself in addition to serving as an effective tool to further Ruth’s call to action.


       “You Don’t Look Like A Librarian,” is more than just a comical survey of real librarians vs. the image that’s expected by the public.  It is a sociological report of the epistemic violence that widespread notions of gender, age, techical capabilities, livelihoods, sexuality and scope inflicts on our careers.  It is a study of the evolution of the portrayal of librarians in comic books, literature, television and movies.  It is a survey of the ways in which ignorance threatens our jobs.  It is a problem analysis with a mission.  A call to action.  And a staple of ANY library professional’s personal book collection.  Whether you are a student, professor, librarian MLS or not, or related professional, thsi book is a must read!  I’ll tell you one thing, I’m definitely going out and buying my own copy of Ruth Kneale’s text so that I can reread it whenever I need to reaffirm for myself the complexities of image and perception in my profession.

RATING: “Must Have!” aka 4.6/5 stars

PS:      Ruth Kneale’s book also cites it’s companion website, where the author maintains her vigilent study of the image of librarians.  There, you can also find a window to her blog.

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*For the purposes of this blog post, I’m omitting mention of encyclopedia companion websites, wikipedia and similar media-based wikia websites*

       Last week, two of my classmates expounded on Cassell and Hiremath’s guide to using encyclopedias as found in Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century: An Introduction (2006).  In the interest of accessing my ultimate thesis as expediantly as possible, I’ll simply convey the inner dialogue that I had throughout there (very astute) presentation.  They made a point to emphasize the limitations of a print encyclopedia (as a go-to authoritative multi-discipline information compendium) by highlighting the reality that information is in a state of flux, wherein research, findings, theories and facts are consitently being ammended or challenge–(I mean, my parent’s edition of Collier’s Encyclopedia is a little behind on the whole Pluto debacle for one thing).  In that respect, print encyclopedias are inherently ineffective as resources for broad references for facts and can become exponentially more ineffective as time goes on.

       What I’m interested in is how we can still draw validity from these printed compendiums and avoid completely throwing them to the waste-side.  According to one of the resident librarian classmates, subscriptions to digital encyclopedias can be quite pricey for a library and they must be renewed on a yearly basis.  This can tie up monetary resources for the library’s other endeavors.  Conversely, for libraries with less expendable funds the print encyclopedia provides the same function (though with transient accuracy), and only needs to be purchased as often as the company (like Encyclopedia Brittanica) publishes a new edition.  The information-literate encyclopedia owners, librarians and/or users are aware of the temporal and physical limitations of the encyclopedia.  The fact that the text is fixed in form bereaves the information of any ability to evolve and compensate for the lag between the time the volume is produced and presented to the public and the time that more current facts/relevant developments surface.

       But, can we draw meaning at all from the limitations of the print encyclopedia?  Surely an encylcopedic product of medieval China (random example) would still be valuable in a library collection.  The only difference would be the types of questions and information needs that such a resource would be suited to remedy.  If I were a patron and I wanted to accurately understand the mechanics of planetary motion in order to determine the next time I would be able to see a certain constellation from my house (and plan an awesome star-gazing supper event!), an encyclopedic product from the close of the 15th century (rife with bibliographic citations of Ptolemy’s published works) would be critically inappropriate.  However, if I were a comparative anthropologist seeking to compare the evolution of cosmology in Western society and the evolution of cosmology in the East and South Asian world, both encyclopedias would prove enormously relevant and effective resources.

       This perception of Encyclopdias that I am attempting to establish enters a territory in which the documentalist/archival dimension of librarianship and the epistemological dimension of anthropology.  Essentially, I’m proposing the usage of print encyclopedias as artifacts.  By extension, my proposition also implies–rather, it calls for the continued production of print encyclopedias to be used as artifacts preserving our conceptions, perceptions, “facts”, theories, cosmologies and most of all our current epistemic limits!!!

       I’m SOOO tempted to found my own study on the use of encyclopedic products as anthropological treasures.  Thoughts?

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Notes on Being Sorely Mistaken

       For those of you who don’t know much about my undergraduate activities, let me fill you in.  A little background on me:  I used to be an activist.  A sign carrying, march organizing, conference-speaking activist.  My major battlefield was LGBT equality and secondarily understanding and acceptance.  I also was very involved in highlighting issues of racial representation and sexism within the LGBT community.  I was, and still am, also a fervent animal welfare advocate [and imagine my chagrin when my professor annouced the origin of his sneakers].  I was vocal, I was vigilant and I WAS TIRED!

       I decided to hang up my superman outfit and become a librarian initially to escape “the battlefield.”  To have a nice quiet day job in meetings with budget people, working with classes and helping people with research projects that were only as urgent insomuch as they were just projects.  I didn’t imagine that by running away from the exciting but tiring world of activism that I was so passionate about.

       “The Atlas of New Librarianship” makes an unquestionale claim that just about inspires incontinence in this retired activist:  Librianship is about activism.  As a librarian, I am involved in the social project–responsible for bettering whole communities by leveling access to information and knowledge creation resources, and facilitating conversations that could lead to the erosions of social divides.  Everything I wanted to take a break from is what I’m being trained to do.  All that passion that I once had–and perhaps still do have–is now to be channeled and refined with skills and familiarity with systems and policies and procedures so that I can get back into the ring with a new set of weapons and skills.  The basic message that’s beginning to take shape in my head is that if I truly want to not be an activist, library science is not the place for me.

       Then I have to ask myself, whether or not I always knew that on some level.  I’m besieged with doubt at the prospect that I simply arrived here by chance.  Was it fate or something of that transcendant nature that brought me to the calling that I was attempting to run away from?  Or did I know that being a librarian would be more than just tweed blazers and book shelves?

       It’s pointless now to belabor the prospect any more as that question is not going to get answered satisfactorily in any regard.  A more fruitful use of my concluding paragraph would be to ask the right questions.  What is “my community”?  This question boils down to identity and also to ethics really.  I’m Trinidadian born… is my responsibility to the Trinidadian people to help wrest agency from an increasingly corrupt and detached government?  I’m a queer person.  Do I have responsibility to facilitate conversations that affect the rights and agency of the LGBT community?  Or do I facilitate those micro-political conversations within it?  I currently live in central New York?  Is my responsibility to level the educational gaps within that community as a means to improve urban Syracuse in the long run?  I could go on and on with this.  The problem I run into is the fact that my mission is to improve “society” as a whole outside of the scope of the niche areas that need to be addressed.  So even though I’m facilitating conversations and knowledge creation in “my communities,” I’m supposed to be doing it in the interest of society at large–does that render the question of “which community do I serve?” irrelevant?



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“Wait? So what exactly does it mean to be a librarian?”

       Last week in my intro course to Librarianship, I stumbled upon an abyss of possibilities when it comes to the occupational identity of librarians.  I was introduced to a variety of different schools of thoughts and paradigms of what a library is and the function of the librarians that attend to them.

       In many parts of Europe, the library functions more as a facility for the preservation of culture.  In the Americas, libraries are collections of primarily books, magazines and dvds.  In the ancient world, libraries were cultural centers where knowledge was being created and scrolls and artifacts and records were only incidental to that process.

       It seems to me that the role of libraries change depending on who’s describing the library, the time period, the location and the “cultural objective.”  Which brings me to the central question I was left to sort out at the end of class.  What exactly does it mean to be a librarian?

       If the library, as it is in parts of Greece, is to be a para-museum, are we cultural documentalists?  If the library, as it is in most of the Western sphere is a series of collections of recorded knowledge, are we mere organizers, categorialists, and stewards of books?  Even more provocative is the remaining possibilities:  if the library is a sort of cultural center for the transmission and inspiration of ideas, are we the disseminators of knowledge?  Are we cultivators of information literacy?  Are we stewards of information regardless of what form it takes, be it scroll or book or electronic file?

       The conclusion that we were left with at the end of class was that the Librain’s work has an activist spirit to it consistently.  Librarians are to “improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their [respective] communities.”

       WOW.  Talk about pressure!  Pressure to overcome biases and ignorances within communities to encourage the creation of unbiased information; to overcome our own biases and ignorances; to traverse and erode social, economic, linguistic, racial/gendered/ablist barriers in the dissemination of information to create nigh-universal access to information; to cultivate literacies and high-order thinking; and to stay relevant as people doing this work in a world where information isn’t stored in simply a “destination” like the library building, but is available on Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook (whose goal is increasingly to facilitate in the sharing of information themselves) and a variety of mobile applications.

       So now, I’m not so much left with a question of what a librarian’s purpose is.  The question I have now is, “how do we do it all?”

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