This past Friday I attended the Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium (GSISC18) at Simmons College in Boston, MA. It was an empowering, invigorating, and thoughtful conference that left my heart and mind so so full. Please forgive me as I spend the next few blog posts working through some of the thoughts and and feelings that surfaced during this day and have been percolating ever since.
I had the privilege of presenting at the end of the day with my colleagues Joanna Gadsby, Sofia Leung, and Jennifer Brown on Deconstructing Service: Identity and Expectations. We wanted to have an informal, semi-structured discussion on the idea of service in libraries, and the ways in which it is complicated by different facets of our identities and expectations surrounding people like us in libraries. I feel like I could listen to Jo, Sofia, and Jen talk for hours about anything and everything. They are brilliant women. One theme that kept resurfacing as I listened to them address different topics we raised during our presentation was something I mentioned early on in our panel session:
My service is not selfless.
I don’t see myself as selfless or giving to a fault. I do the work of helping and teaching in libraries because I gain satisfaction from this work. I enjoy facilitating learning in and out of the classroom because I want to help people recognize the critical thinkers and researchers inside themselves. I feel like in doing this, I am doing some good in the world. I am helping to build an educated, critical populace. In helping to empower others I am also empowering myself.
BUT (of course there is a “but”), I want to be valued for this work. I want to be paid adequately. I want to feel as though the relationships I engage in through my work are reciprocal and genuine, not exploitative. This is a job I enjoy, but it is still my job. I offer my care and good work at this job, and I expect care in return.
How does service play out in practice?
That was my ideal. This is my reality: I feel as though service is performative. The ethos of service in libraries makes it solely for the benefit of others. I have to actively work to prevent my service from becoming a drain. Maria Accardi and Megan Browndorf have both explored the phenomenon of librarian burnout, which is often rooted in a mismatch in affect (performative vs. genuine), job ambiguity, and overwork. Fobazi Ettarh’s groundbreaking article on vocational awe talks about the dangers of this selfless altruism, and the ways in which it is used to silence critique and further exploit library workers.
Jo, Jen, and Sofia all brought up the ways in which our service-oriented job culture contributes to the exploitation of librarian hidden labor, particularly for women of color. The effort behind our service remains hidden, because we don’t want to show, or, more likely, people don’t want to see, the hard work that goes into reproducing the work of libraries, scholarship, teaching, and learning. At one point, a conference participant stated that she often felt like The Giving Tree, giving of herself to others at work until there was nothing left! I don’t want to be that tree.
A feminist version of service
I want to reframe my service through a relational-cultural lens. I want my service to be rooted in empowerment for myself and others. I want libraries to value service when it comes time to promotion and pay increases, and not just traditional service on committees within the library, university/college, and profession. I think we need to value the emotional work we do as teachers, researchers, and librarians and compensate it accordingly. Just because we can’t quantify our relational work doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It is the bedrock of our profession.
I understand we are working within the confines of patriarchal academia, and that academic libraries often replicate that structure, but I also see opportunity–thanks to adrienne marie brown’s Emergent Strategy–to start small and begin a culture change within our libraries/departments/units. I want to be the start of a new fractal that replicates outward, replacing a harmful version of service with one that feeds and nurtures ourselves. I want to see libraries replicating the helping behavior we want to put our into the world within our own working structure. Our ethic of care should be ourselves as well as others.
More to come
As I mentioned at the start of this post, this is likely going to be the first of many reflections from GSISC18. I’d love to hear from other participants and continue conversations we started on Friday. Also, many thanks to the conference organizers:
Emily Drabinski, Long Island University, Brooklyn
Derrick Jefferson, American University
Allison Gofman, Tufts University
Rebecka Sheffield, Simmons College
Stacie Williams, Case Western Reserve University
If you didn’t get a chance to attend, you can also read through the live notes from the conference thanks to the many volunteer note-takers. Your service is appreciated and valued!