Issue 28, 2015-04-15

Code as Code: Speculations on Diversity, Inequity, and Digital Women

All technologies are social. Taking this socio-technological position becomes less a political stance as a necessity when considering the lived experience of digital inequity, divides, and –isms as they are encountered in every-day library work spheres. Personal experience as women and women of color in our respective technological and leadership communities provides both fore- and background to explore the private-public lines delineating definitions of “diversity”, “inequity”, and digital literacies in library practice. We suggest that by not probing these definitions at the most personal level of lived experience, we in the LIS and technology professions will remain well-intentioned, but ineffective, in genuine inclusion.

by Sharon L. Comstock, Jerica Copeny, and Cynthia Landrum

All technologies are social. No matter the discipline-bound definitions of our most closely allied fields of library and information science (LIS), human computer interface design (HCI), and computer science (among others), our understandings are grounded in socially constructed experience. This obvious statement bears repeating and requires scrutiny when we are faced with the very practical concerns of a community recognizing educational inequities, secondary and tertiary digital divides (if not primary), and indistinct -isms that may be barriers to solving the very concerns we in libraries are attempting to address in our respective communities.

As library colleagues and women—and two of us as women of color—we are discovering core, shared questions about our perceptions of the afore-noted inequities in the community in which we work; and—perhaps more urgently—in our personal, lived experiences of our roles in addressing those inequities. Over coffee cups and behind closed office doors, in after-work texts and late-night Tweets, we explore complex socio-technical territory. Together, we realized we need to enter that public intellectual space where emerging questions can be given more careful attention than those twilight conversations allow. In fact, the very informal channels we have been using serve to marginalize the very lines of inquiry we are co-discovering.

Lines of inquiry: Probing practice

Our initial questions center around our experiences in our work that we address in our respective spheres: “What responsibility does the library have to work as social justice leader—not merely as traditional participant? How do we facilitate and strategically align considerable community resources to solve identified education and digital literacy inequities along racial lines? What lines of legitimacy do we take: as women, as digital advocates and leaders of color, and librarians: a trifecta that can disempower (and all three which we have faced on personal and professional levels)? “

We are not alone in examining the problem of inclusion and diversity in our chosen profession, library and information science (c.f., The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Vol. 85, No. 2, Special Issue: Diversity and Library Information Science Education, [April 2015]). However, the discourse of diversity itself needs to be engaged as a topic: where inclusion alone may not be enough to address the enduring barriers to sustained agency and power beyond mere “access” to education and technologies.

We are compelled to voice our emerging questions—and in so doing frame a practitioner-based research study grounded in everyday work-life. Our positions of understanding and roles are distinct, yet intertwined: a digital services librarian trained in human-computer interactive services and an active digital advocate; an information behavior and informatics literacy researcher, evaluator, and strategist whose role is to inform and assess the library’s role in the community; and an administrator responsible for a robust public services agenda and library leader in both local and national library arenas.

Legitimizing lived experience: A library study

Considering the workplace socio-technologically, we take seriously our position within it as parts of a complex system. In fact, to neglect our lived experience would be reductivist at least and falsifying at worst. We are consciously choosing to make visible our experiences; making explicit the public-private lines we cross and re-cross in daily work culture(s) in general, and two projects in particular. Adapting auto-ethnographic method—as part of a triangulated, mixed-methods approach as appropriate for a public library applying evidenced-based practice—we hope in the coming months to tease out and directly address what “diversity”, “coding”, and “inequity” mean in situated contexts. Necessarily, our past informal “debrief” sessions, will be formalized; intra-coding our work-place field notes in the context of two library projects. Specifically, we are examining our public library’s implementation of two technology-based initiatives with stated objectives of addressing digital literacy and education inequities: (1) assessment of library technology classes relative to stated needs to address digital literacies in the village that have implications for learners’ needs for employment, social interaction, and functional technology skills; and (2) the launch of a State of Illinois History Digitization grant award, “Hacking Hemingway: Cracking the Code to the Vault” that will digitize Ernest Hemingway artifacts and allow us to work with local middle-schoolers to build “computational thinking”.

In the first of these two, we are six months into what will be an 8-month evaluation of current on-site technology classes, using observation, librarian-teacher reflections and focus groups, and participant focus groups. Thus far, we are seeing clear incongruities in at least two areas: learner-participants’ stated perceptions of “learning” relative to observed digital literacy behaviors; and librarian-instructors’ desire to solve what they call a “digital divide” in the absence of a shared definition of “digital divide” or criteria of what successful outcomes may be in addressing it. The second project, Hacking Hemingway, while only just begun January 2015, has been designed to build over 15 months a community of middle school learners who engage with these digital objects in ways that have meaning for them. The key for us has been how librarians, the public, and teachers use the terms, “encode”, “code”, and “coding” in seemingly distinct ways to signal or signify status. We particularly want to probe what these mean in the very real context of documented achievement gaps between African American and white students in the school district. Most recent Illinois assessments in the district of grades 6-8 show a sustained achievement gap of 36% (Reading) and 46% (Mathematics), with African American students alarmingly at the disadvantage. We want to unpack what we are only beginning to see: “coding” as magical—or worse–out of reach.
Both digital literacy initiatives require a nuanced understanding based on thick data if we hope to address their stated intentions, much less identify outcomes. Building practitioner-research into the natural cycle of evaluation-design-reflection-redesign is a formative process that can inform both library accountability and librarian communities of practice. We believe by using these two programmatic areas of strategic emphasis, we may find a way in—and through—the complexities of diversity and inclusion when we consider digital fluencies. We believe by addressing the very personal and real -isms of being women and women of color–where negotiated roles and boundaries of self and other are narrative evidence—we can align ourselves with those in the community we serve. It is a conscious choice to identify with—not separate ourselves at seemingly safe distances from—the community we seek to serve.

De-coding “coding” in context

We suggest that by not probing LIS’ definitions of “diversity”, “inequity”, and digital literacies at the most personal level of lived experience, we in the LIS and technology professions will remain as well-intentioned, but ineffective in genuine inclusion. We question the editors’ statement “…we strengthen our libraries if we enjoy and engage with these differences.” Will we? How do we know? What evidence of success do we have? In the coming months, we will be challenging legacy beliefs anchored in privilege that may contain, limit, and exclude.

By applying formative reflective inquiry in intentional and structured ways, we are seeing the opportunity to bring tacit experience into the forefront as legitimized data. Therefore, our perspectives will truly be “in the mix” of mixed-method research in applied environments such as we need in a library. We see data and our writings as multi-purpose: assessment, evaluation, and research. Personal narratives provide powerful insights that can inform public action. We hope to bring into question the very underpinnings of how we represent knowledges and legitimize–dare we say, “codify”–our socio-technologies of everyday library practice.


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About the Authors

Sharon Comstock earned her Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, studying everyday life information behaviors of young adults as legitimizing knowledge (Comstock, 2012); and her M.A. from Northwestern University studying folklore motifs. Applying John Dewey’s theories of Pragmatism, her research addresses informatics in socio-cultural, technological contexts. Drawing on her work in evaluation of National Science Foundation grants, among others, she applies ethnography, qualitative inquiry, and discourse analysis to make visible the tacit ways communities pose—and work to solve—new questions. Her email address is

Jerica Copeny, M.L.S., M.S. student at DePaul University in Human Computer Interaction, Chicago, Digital Services Librarian, Oak Park Public Library-She is currently on the Board of Directors for Literacy Volunteers of Western Cook County where she is working to incorporate concepts of Digital Literacy into the strategic plan for the organization. She loves the great intersection, of when technology can be used as tool to learn and learning can be used as a tool to explore technology. She is an avid believer that coding can be an art form of self expression. Her email address is

Cynthia Landrum has worked in academic, medical and public libraries in Arizona, Illinois and Pennsylvania. A member of several community and professional associations, Cynthia serves on ALA Council and the Spectrum Advisory Committee. In her current role as Assistant Director for Public Service at the Oak Park (IL) Public Library, Cynthia provides strategic direction, and leadership in the areas of community engagement, organizational development and learning, stewardship, and assessment and evaluation. Cynthia earned an undergraduate degree from Northwestern University, MLIS from University of Southern Mississippi, was awarded the BCALA E.J. Josey Scholarship as a graduate student and has been trained as a Public Innovator through the ALA/Harwood Libraries Transforming Communities initiative. She is a doctoral student in the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston with interests in diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice in LIS practice and leadership, use of narrative methodologies and critical theory in LIS research, spiritual leadership theory and transformative leadership in LIS practice, and organizational development in public libraries. Her email address is


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ISSN 1940-5758