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Note: what follows are my own impressions and evaluations, and don’t necessarily represent the views of the other organizers, presenters, or attendees.

Yesterday was the first annual (we hope) Politics of Libraries conference, held at the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta. The conference was organized by myself, Michael McNally of SLIS and a group of SLIS current students and recent grads. The idea grew out of an informal conversation Michael and I had last year about having something at around the same time as the annual Alberta Library Conference that questioned some of the assumptions of the dominant discourse of librarianship. Given that it’s the 50th anniversary of the 1968 protests we felt it would be good to connect the politics of libraries to the 1968 moment.

From the initial announcement and call for papers earlier this year, I think the idea of the conference touched a nerve. Despite criticism (often anonymous!) of things like the critlib movement, the interest in things like the “#critlib” twitter conversations and Nicholson and Seale’s recent Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship, indicate that there’s a need for places and forums to ask critical questions and discuss things more critically than we are usually able to inside our organizations. I think our conference fit into that niche as well.

The proposals submitted all touched on interesting topics - we had a little overlap, but no two papers ended up being on the same topic. We were able to accept all the proposals submitted, which is always nice. Subjects included in the proposals were: colonialism and its effects on international librarianship; the monopolization of third-party library services; neoliberalism (both from a Marxist and a Foucauldian perspective); academic freedom and research; fair dealing, copyright, and open access; and freedom of expression and the “marketplace of ideas”. What was especially interesting to me was this: the theme of the conference left space open for the support or championing of mainstream views of librarianship and its attendant technologies, structures, cultures, etc, but without exception every paper was, to some extent, critical of the dominant library discourse. I think this indicates a far more generalized discomfort with the cultural hegemony in effet in librarianship than many within the profession would like to admit. (And in this, it is in line with the participation of the “#critlib” conversations, for example).

We had presenters from many different parts of Canada (from BC to Ontario, and even a remote presentation from Halifax), and we even had a presented fly in from Jamaica, for which we are really grateful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, but still dishearteningly, the presentations were dominated by academic librarians - only one of the presentations was by someone currently working in a public library - this imbalance is one of the ongoing problems within our profession and especially, I would say, within critical librarianship. I don’t really know how we overcome this imbalance, but we recognized and talked about it yesterday.

Another aspect that was lacking in the conference was much discussion of specifically Indigenous issues. We tried hard to acknowledge our presence on Treaty 6 territory in a way that was more substantial than what often seems like a rote repetition of standard, university-sanctioned language, and the issue of Indigeneity was part of some of the discussions of difference and how we accomodate or support difference/diversity within librarianship, but none of the speakers addressed the issue head on. And I’m torn on this point. On the one hand, I don’t want to pressure any Indigenous colleagues into the affective and emotional labour of presenting to a group of predominantly white librarians; it ought to be on us to address Indigenous issues, but then at what point are you speaking for someone else? And I know the answer to this is to speak with Indigenous people about their experience, but even that involves a level of affective labour that it’s unfair to impose, I think. It’s a hard question to resolve - hopefully we will do better in this regard next year.

As expected from this kind of conference, there were many critiques and grievances expressed, but very little in the way of concrete, practical proposals for change. After the presentations, the attendees broke into three groups according to themes that had arisen through the course of the day: Colonialism, Language/Terminology, and Hegemony. I think these three themes offer an important, overarching set of obstacles to resistance and positive change. All three things - colonialism, language, and hegemony - are so deeply embedded in our culture and society, that it is difficult to think ourselves outside or in opposition to the dominant ideologies they support. We can do worse than bear all these things in mind as we move forward, but as Archibald Macleish (whom I quoted in my paper) said, “we must do more”.

The plan is to have another conference next year, probably on the topic of labour (since it will be the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, which grew out of labour dissatisfaction and organizing across the prairies), and we have an even more provocative topic waiting in the wings for 2020.

I want to thank all the members of the organzing committee, all our presenters, and all 40 or so people who attended for making this a modest, but engaging and useful event.

Website for the conference
Organizing committee


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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