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Before getting down to it, I recommend watching the stream of Christina Harlow’s c4l2017 keynote “Resistance is Fertile: Building a Manualfesto for LibTech”. Go, do it now. While you’re there, check out the rest of the c4l2017 talks too.

The 2017 Code4Lib conference ended yesterday with a stirring keynote from Christina Harlow. The tweet above appeared this morning on the ever-provocative anonymous LIS_grievances bot. There are a few things I’d like to unpack about this tweet, one of which is the idea that there’s a #critlib tribe. I have a chapter forthcoming in a book called The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship which I suppose makes me a member of this so-called tribe…?

(As an aside, the notion of a critlib tribe reminds of of this other recent LIS_grievance:

This unfortunately connects critlib with the narrative of, for example, Gamergate, Men’s Right’s Activists, and other deluded components of the “alt-right”, for whom anyone who suggests that what they personally want isn’t of primary concern must be a rabid “social justice warrior”.)

Within librarianship, then, I’m concerned about the idea that anyone who engages in critical theory must be a member of a “tribe”, but even more worrying is the idea that there is a constituency out there who positions themselves on some kind of “alt-right of librarianship” looking to dogwhistle others of their ilk by equating critlib with the (perceived) SJW menace.

The other assumption made in the first LIS_grievances tweet is that the “critlib tribe” (whatever that is) and the code4lib community are mutually exclusive. This is demonstrably false, even if we take for the sake of argument the idea of a critlib tribe. There are code4lib attendees who actively engage in critical theory and vice versa. And just as the code4lib community is not monolithic or well-defined - and that’s how we like it - neither is the critlib community.

Code4LibYEG, which I helped to found in 2013, takes pride in its inclusiveness, while still recognizing that we have a long way to go. Our events include participants from all sectors of librarianship active in Edmonton, and we have strong participation among some under-represented groups within technology, primarily women. We don’t do so well on race, possibly because of the lack of diversity within the wider Edmonton population. And, in my opinion, we don’t do very well among non-professional staff (e.g. library technicians). We would like to improve on these fronts. Code4LibYEG, like the wider code4lib community, has just enough structure to be a viable group. At one of our recent meetings, the “anarchist” nature of Code4LibYEG was discussed - and while I would necessarily go that far, it’s an interesting idea.

So, I’m both part of the critlib and code4lib communities, however those are defined. But the first LIS_grievances tweet was decrying a lack of engagement between the “critlib tribe” and the code4lib conference. So, taking Christina’s closing keynote to stand for the code4lib conference for the sake of space and argument, let’s engage.

[Caveat: there’s no way I can do justice to everything Christina talks about in this keynote, so I reiterate the importance of watching her talk.]

What struck me most about Christina’s talk was how she more-or-less led with a very critlib statement:

we are in a highly polarized and dangerous political climate. White supremacy groups are more active - or perhaps, simply more visibly active in the public eye; bias incidents are up in our communities; black, brown, and trans people are being murdered; Muslims are stopped from returning to their homes; journalism and truth is being blocked. (…) This is not a time for status quo, this is not a time for our silence on these questions. (All quotations taken from Christina’s speaker notes)

This is precisely the attitude that the Social Responsibility Round Table takes with respect to the ALA (for example, the contentious issue around the ALA making a statement against the Gulf War in 1991), the Progressive Librarian Guild stands by, and would not be out of place in any critlib discussion.

I earnestly think we don’t know what we believe until we see what we do. (…) So, how do we make our ethics and politics apparent in our daily actions? Especially if we don’t work in some explicitly political or ethical space? How do we “walk the walk”?

To me, this is exactly the space in which critical librarianship operates. Knowing what our ethics and politics are requires critical reflection (with a very broad definition of what that is) especially since our spaces are - or pretend they are - not explicitly political or ethical. It would be hard enough to act ethically/politically in a space that supported such a stance, but in librarianship, as in many other fields, we have to also expend energy fighting to open up such space for practice. And Christina is absolutely right that a focus on technolog(y|ies) is not the answer. As I’ve written before about the stifling effect of too much process, the idea that reaching for the next technology will be the silver bullet for all our (ethical, poltical) problems is ridiculous.

I’d present that our data technologies and our seeming incompetence on the whole to implement them in any wholesale, meaningful, or ecosystem-aware fashion, highlights shifts happening not in how we define data, but in how define professional relationships, our skillsets, our power hierarchies, our interactions with ourselves and with systems.

The question this raises in Christina’s talk is precisely how we can actually go about making concrete change in the world, how can we connect abstract theories about things to practice and action.

The “making it work” spirit is another important aspect of code4lib for me. We want to get stuff done, and iterate, and experiment, and tinker, and build, and maintain - not just theorize, plan, or idealize.

I see every action I do, from spreadsheets to Git repositories to staff meetings to workshops to documentation, as political - not in terms of Republican or Democrat, but as a chance to be anti-fascist, to be inclusive, to be open, to be working towards an evolving, shared vision of a community. Each datum is a chance for meaningful action, in my view, in everyday work.

I really appreciated Christina’s enumeration of the cultures and movements that have informed her (Riot Grrrl and Queercore), because we all do take different routes to get where we are. My own experience was shaped largely by frustration at working on a post-Fordist call-centre assembly-line from ages 18-23, as well as anger and resentment of the university where I was intent on not being indoctrinated. Christina’s point that it’s important to “[take] discontent based off of a number of reasons and [make] into a work ethics and an aesthetic” is crucial and often overlooked.

Christina goes on to discuss three areas which, to my mind, serve to expose the false dichotomy between theory and practice. The first area - “seeing our work outputs as tied into our politics and ethics” - precisely identifies the unity of theory and practice. Of course we need to raise our head above the theoretical weeds and engage in practice, but these aren’t mutually exclusive, independent operations. Theory and practice are entwined and engaged with each other. As an example of this Christina cites the amazing work being done by for example, the Library Freedom Project, and also calls attention to the importance of InfoSec (information security, broadly covering all aspects of electronic surveillance and the protection of privacy).

Christina’s next area - “I believe transparency and openness all circles around the idea of open organizing of our communities as well as rethinking our power structures and dynamics” - posits a democratic hope for library technology communities, one that both Code4Lib and Access are often confronting and debating. Recognizing how we fail in these areas is vitally important in order to improve, but we can only usefully fail if we do it openly and transparently. But Christina rightfully critiques our own unconscious bias in favour of closed vs. open.

Openness for our information systems – in whichever way that manifests – is again, going against a bias that we know better than others what the work is about or how to manage it. It is a community issue as much as a day to day work issue - how often do you see closed processes, tools, events even between our working areas within a library?

There isn’t enough space here to engage with Christina’s ideas at the level that they merit. Have I said you should watch the video of the keynote yourself. There is so much more in Christina’s talk than I can even remotely do justice to here. Needless to say, Christina’s ideas are informed not only by Riot Grrrl and Queercore culture, but also by her experience within the profession and her deep, deep technical understanding of metadata, systems, and software development. This keynote was rightly making a huge impression on Twitter while it was being given (and afterwards) and it contains a huge amount of information that deserves to be deeply engaged with not only by members of the code4lib, Access, and critlib communities, but librarians in all fields. Christina closes her keynote with a call to arms that aren’t out of character for code4lib and, I hope, it resonates with members of many “tribes”.

And whether or not you care about this idea of the library data technology manualfesto, I hope some of these points lands for you too. Riot grrrl or no, metadataist or developer, librarian or administration, you do you, and lets aim for engagement so we can head for shared, intersectional, engaged work based on our community’s goals, ethics, politics and wishes.

The idea that critlib isn’t engaging with c4l17 is, to me, absurd on its face: I consider many of the code4lib talks, and Christina’s keynote in particular, to be critlib. Nothing is gained by drawing arbitrary borders around permeable communities.


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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