Issue 35, 2017-01-30

Editorial: Introspection as Activism, or, Getting Our Houses in Order

Those of us in libraries like to trace our history to Alexandria or to the French governmental system of record-keeping, but the construction of the modern GLAM world is far more recent, almost as new as coding. It has evolved almost as rapidly. And its future is on us, whether we choose to passively accept a status quo others build or to act and grow and develop ourselves and our workplaces.

by Ruth Kitchin Tillman

This editorial could not have been written without Stacie Williams, Angela Galvan, Andromeda Yelton, April Hathcock, Rachel M. Fleming, nina de jesus, Eira Tansey, Cecily Walker, Sam Winn, Chris Bourg, Kate Deibel, Stephanie Sendaula, Alison Macrina, Allana Mayer, Tara Robertson, Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet, Jarrett Drake, Bergis Jules, Hillel Arnold, Jacob S. Berg, and others who elide my memory as I sift through names of all my influences. Through keynotes and blog posts and conference presentations and tweets, over coffee and continental breakfasts, you have shaped the parts of me which wrote the better parts of this editorial. I write it also with gratitude for the many others who have shaped the skills I may use to follow through on it and those kindred souls with whom I stand in mutual support while doing so.

It is difficult to prepare an issue of the Code4Lib Journal in light of the daily floods of news in the United States. Those taking power threaten to eliminate programs which enable art and culture. We fear losing fundamental access to health care. We see doors closing and walls rising. We fear further destruction of the environment, the risks to clean water and clean air, or how rising sea levels and temperatures put towns and their associated cultural heritage at risk. We worry over how fragmentation in the EU will affect our professional collaboration or our livelihoods. We see the effects of years of disabling cuts to the British public library system. We don’t know what the shape of things will be. And in the middle of such uncertainty, how does one stop to focus long enough to edit an article about archival integrations or thesauri or oral history solution packs? How can we sit down at the keyboard and care about our projects and processes against such relentless and monumental risks?

But I see in this last year and these last few weeks the material for a call which I intend to make here, a call for action by every library worker and in more countries than the United States. The action I am asking for is not taking to the streets, although that is a worthy effort. It is not taking to the phones, although that is a worthy action. It is something any library worker of any political persuasion can do, or at least can try. It is getting our own houses in order. It is assessing how well we live up to the fundamental principles of our profession.

I will start from the close, the familiar, the code or at least code-adjacent. But while this is a Code4Lib Journal editorial, our work is situated in the broader context of libraries, archives, museums, and galleries—in GLAM and in the world.

The Records We Keep

Library workers espouse values of privacy, access, and respect and, in the best of times, we live up to these ideals. We have just cause to be proud of Zoia Horn, the first librarian to be jailed by the US government for refusing to testify about the activities of her patrons. When the FBI tried to recruit snitches in New York City libraries for their “Library Awareness Program” (possibly also called “Development of Counterintelligence Among Librarians”), the library workers turned right around and told the New York Library Association, who told ALA, who issued guidance not to collaborate. The attempts were exposed to the public and the people demanded hearings. When the Patriot Act sent federal agents again into libraries, looking for records, the workers fought back, even under the chilling effect of National Security Letters which left them unable to call for the profession’s support.

These are the high points in our legacy. But between the highs, there are the lows I will address in “Ways We Treat Each Other,” and there are far more periods of mundane activity. There is administrivia and there is assessment. Library workers love data. We love metadata (and data about our use of metadata), usage data, research data, BIG data… When we collect data about our patrons, it’s often with the best intentions. We want to design a better website. We want to compete with commercial services in offering relevant suggestions. We want to provide convenience. We want to do our jobs better and to prove our worth.

Angela Galvan recently spoke about a practice she encountered at her institution where the MARC 970 (local) field of a book requested for purchase contained the name of the person who had made the request. An administrative practice. A local field. Yet, because that field existed, it could be used to track people who requested books on particular research topics—books the library willingly purchased, but books which a hostile administration might consider seditious. And, unlike borrower records which require a subpoena, the MARC display[1] exposed it to anyone who knew enough about the system and cared enough to look. The very existence and retention of such data opened the institution to risk of subpoena for a comprehensive data dump. When Angela discovered this, she didn’t shrug it off as currently not causing harm. She brought it to her administration, who approved immediate removal of the field from all records.

And do borrower records require a subpoena? Andromeda Yelton’s 2016 LibTechConf keynote walks the audience through wireshark, insecure HTTP, and the ways in which patron data may get exposed through self-check machines, whether transmitting over wifi to a physically-hosted ILS or across the cloud. Hackers, and even hackers working to advance particular governments’ agendas are not a new phenomenon, but when our low expectations of vendors lead to bad security practices, it is on us if that data is harvested and used in any way to harm our patrons.

Dorothea Salo has written on the topic of collecting the data in the first place at length and better than I will do here. Anyone who has not read her on the subject should start with this quote:

I want academic librarianship to feel uncomfortable about accumulating patron information behavior data, even anonymized, even in aggregate. I want that discomfort to cause us not to collect patron information behavior data at all without a clear need for it, to collect the scantiest data possible when it is needed, to guard that data well, and to throw it away like a hot potato as quickly as feasible to keep ourselves and others from the temptation to abuse it.

and then read the entire linked article. It is hard. It challenges. But data collected with the best of intentions can be used to perpetrate great harm.

And so we must ask ourselves as we do our work, whether we really need that cool map which uses IP addresses to show downloads occurring in real time and historically. Times may come when we must ask whether we should even build the system. Times may come when we need to undertake the act of destroying records, because not to do so would bring even greater harm.

For more on privacy in libraries and how library workers may act to educate ourselves and our patrons, I strongly suggest visiting the Library Freedom Project

Our Partners and Our Role Models

The crux of the piece by Angela Galvan cited above wasn’t actually the MARC field that she found. Much of that story played out over Twitter, although she references it in her talk. The talk, however, focused on issues of authority in libraries’ complex relationships with vendors. She calls on us to assess and reflect how much we give to vendors and how little we ask in return. When library workers speak of vendors, it’s as often with a sense of resignation and helplessness as it is of the utility of the service. Why should libraries have to accept a self-check system which sends unencrypted patron data over the web? Why do we allow vendors to retain patron data we discard? Angela presents a series for steps we can take toward reclaiming our agency.

There are the external partners we choose: prospective donors, organizational sources of funding, and the government who either directly funds our institution or may fund our work through grant-based initiatives. We may be tempted to focus on the alignment of mutual goals for positive actions while ignoring where their actions directly contradict our own ethical standards. When the ALA published a press release about libraries’ overlap with the new administration’s stated agenda items, it set off a backlash from members who pointed out the ways in which other stated goals of the administration were in direct opposition to ALA’s code of ethics. Whether it’s choosing not to partner with a multinational corporation whose practices do not align with our values or risking government reprisals, library workers may experience negative consequences, from inability to fund a great program to the loss of jobs. It is on us to accept that these repercussions do not outweigh the injustice of collaboration.

And then there are those whom we seek to emulate. In her LibTechConf 2016 keynote, Safiya Noble addresses algorithms and ethics. Too often, we desire to emulate Google’s dominance of the search market. We want that same ease and relevance in our systems. Yet what are we to make of the radicalization of Dylan Roof? Should we implement Summon’s Topic Explorer when a result for “rape in united states” brings up the Wikipedia article “Hearsay in United States Law”? Or “mental illness” “The Myth of Mental Illness”? (Matthew Reidsma explores this at further length) Will we fix our own imperfection with the same Google imperfection that, more humorously, proudly displays “Traffic Collision” when I search for “death of the author barthes”? When we choose our role models, we must choose carefully and we must ask what we are not willing to accept.

The Ways We Treat Each Other

In the section on privacy, I said library workers have just cause to be proud. The bad news is that arguments from history also locate the library in institutional oppression, colonialism, and the destruction of indigenous ways of knowledge. For a fair number of us in libraries, Jim Crow policies existed within our or our parents’ lifetimes. To unveil how they affected the archives sector, Alex H. Poole traced researcher access to archives in the Jim Crow South and documented ways in which white archivists and professional organizations treated black researchers (and archives workers). Such policies are within the recent and familial memory of our patrons, too. As he accepted a National Book Award, John Lewis spoke of being denied access to the local library as a child, in the mid-1950s.

We may dismiss such instances as part of our past, yet what of the common practice of including private police forces or off-duty officers in our libraries in the interest of “security”? In Kansas City, library workers experienced pushback from their security about the content of a display, then off-duty officers arresting a patron against library worker wishes (and charged their director of public relations with interfering in an arrest). We must consider allegations that a bad $10 check for library fines led to a patron’s arrest. In other systems, fines over $10 or $20 go to collections agencies after a period, not necessarily exposing the patron to police violence but to harassing phone calls for money which they may not have. Is this in any of our best interests?

Librarians (a word I choose here as differentiation from “library workers” throughout) are still overwhelmingly white, female, and middle class. Librarians undertake diversity initiatives to support bringing people of color into the profession but these professionals become exhausted by the profession’s expectation that they will “perform whiteness,” downplaying difference and brushing off microaggressions in order to “fit in.”” These initiatives focus on bringing in those who can act enough “like us” to get through the door without addressing retention, mentoring, and the workplace shifts that will come as true diversity occurs. We white librarians have much work to do. It begins by listening to what people are willing to share about their experiences in libraries, but it requires intentionality and effort that is informed but not carried by the people who already fight for inclusion.

We must confront our practices in creating precarious employment through grant funding. We see digital project positions posted for 2 years at 20 hours/week, or 1 year, or 1 year at 15 hours/week. Young professionals are expected to leave behind support systems and fund cross-country moves chasing temporary jobs in the hopes they’ll finally find a permanent position. Besides being a byproduct of institutional funding cuts, this practice reflects our desires to jump on the new and “shiny” instead of focusing our resources and respect on the critical maintenance work necessary for a healthy long haul. Although the site’s last post was in 2014, we are still Eating Our Young. We must exercise care when creating new projects, and particularly temporary positions, to ask what we are expecting of the person we intend to hire, how we intend to commit to that person’s growth as an individual and a professional.

There is also the devaluation of the “non-professional” library worker, the other-than-librarian. Emily Drabinski addresses the concept of “professionalism,” how it unites and isolates, both within librarianship and among library workers as a whole.

In order for some people to be professionals, other people must be nonprofessionals and excluded from the circle of privilege that professionalization affords.

In the world of libtech, the distinctions between librarians, library-coders, and librarian-coders, are known sources of stress and disrespect. Such strains also exist between librarians and paraprofessional library workers, including paraprofessionally-classed workers who hold MLSes but, because of job markets, remain in or can only find non-“professional” positions. How to ensure respect for the experience and value a person without an MLS brings to a library? How to show sufficient respect for a person’s real skills and need to earn a living while also wanting that person to have a job which requires the skills of their MLS? Respect and care for our coworkers should be at the foundation, but solid answers on what this looks like in hiring practices and day-to-day hierarchies still often elude us.

In talking about how we treat each other, the keynote Stacie Williams delivered at the Digital Library Federation Forum 2016 provides us with our grounding and also our path forward. All labor is local, she reminds us, and centers us in the care-based labor which our society so regularly devalues. Whatever it is that we will get through, we will get through it by centering ourselves in our communities, beyond our own doors. By caring for each other and for those we serve. By choosing to value our patrons’ privacy as a way of valuing their humanity and their inquiry. By valuing coworkers’ contributions even if we’d have done it another way. By listening to each other and building the code for the people, rather than forcing the people into the code.[2]

Affirming Our Humanity in Code and Beyond

And I will say a word for the archival integrations and thesauri and oral history solution packs. Because besides providing us with direction for our daily labor and stimulation for our problem-solving brains, they all support the good which we can accomplish in the GLAM sector. Consider oral histories. Visit StoryCorps and listen to people from over the United States sharing experiences that mattered to them. Start with the highlighted stories from the Civil Rights Era. Then listen to stories collected in the Righting the Record Oral History Project. These reflect a variety of experiences and identities which are traditionally not centered or lifted up. They make explicit that the struggle for Black liberation continues today. For some, this is not news. For others, especially those of us who are white, these oral histories open a window into a world we have never known and experienced, a challenge for action as well as a reminder of others’ fundamental humanity and how some attempt to deny it.

At their best, GLAM institutions offer space for stories, personal and fictional and the mix of personal-fictional in which so many of us live. They offer a place for rest, escape, and respite for the weary activist, the student whose school reflects institutionalized racism, the veteran experiencing homelessness. They offer art—whether hanging on the wall or tucked away in books or digitized and “up” on the web in a gallery. They offer histories, of people who have prospered and of people who have experienced suffering. They offer us the opportunity to see the overlap and the places where we may seek inspiration from the past or resolve not to repeat mistakes. They offer the chance to create and discover—whether art, science, mathematics, literature—at their best, they give people the support they need for what they want to make in this world.

We like to trace our history to Alexandria or to the French governmental system of recordkeeping, but the construction of the modern GLAM world is far more recent, almost as new as coding. It has evolved almost as rapidly. And its future is on us, whether we choose to passively accept a status quo others build or to act and grow and develop ourselves and our workplaces.[3]

Just as we discover and develop new code bases alongside others, we discover and develop new and better ways to be alongside others in our institutions. As we go into our workplaces, we must remain mindful of the value and humanity of our coworkers, of the nature of the systems we create and their effects on the lives of those who use them, of how the data we collect represents real humans, and of the ways that we retain or lose agency in the contracts that we sign. We must strive to make our work a place in which we may grow in community, whether with those who walk in the door or those on Slack five hundred miles away. We will get it wrong. And when we get it right, we will not always succeed in our bids to administration to effect the change. But we must do it anyway.

If, after reading this, you want it cosmically darker and deeper, I recommend Bethany Nowviskie’s remarkable keynote “Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene.”


I’m deeply grateful to Kate Crowe, Eira Tansey, Hillel Arnold, Christy Tomecek, and Sam Winn for reading through drafts of this text in that order and advising me on ways I could make it better and to Carol Bean for proofing the final draft. I would also like to particularly thank Kate and share the advice she gave me earlier this year: that we can make use of every commitment we make as part of advancing our careers to bring about the changes we wish to see in our profession and our world.


[1] A personal note, please don’t ever get rid of the function of the public MARC display as it is so valuable to those of us who’ve had reasons to use it.

[2] This had already gotten very long before I started on accessibility. I have so much to say on the subject of accessibility that I finally had to redact it. There is still much work to do, particularly for us Code4Lib folks. I will say—listen to Kate Deibel when it comes to accessibility. And listen to disabled people.

[3] On this subject, I am acutely aware of how precarity and workplace climate force some to be silent as an act of self-protection. A staffer in a precarious situation may risk harm when speaking up to an administration and see no actions taken. At a previous place of employment, I saw more senior coworkers physically harmed by policies about which we had objected to the director and all I could do was be there with them in that time. But where you have the agency, use it. And where you have a spark of light, share it.

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