ShoutOut: Ismail Abdullahi, Ph.D.

Ismail Abdullahi, (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh)  is currently Professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Library and Information Sciences (SLIS), but I know him from my time as a Clark Atlanta University SLIS graduate student (I completed my master’s degree in Spring 2004).

From its opening with 25 students in 1948 to its eventual closure in 2005, the Clark Atlanta University SLIS mission was to prepare African American (and eventually, people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds) to enter into library service in their communities. The school has an illustrious history – the first dean of the school, Eliza Atkins Gleason, was also the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in LIS and the first African-American on the ALA Board; other leaders of the school or graduates of note include:

As I matriculated through my graduate program, I encountered instructors who worked diligently to improve the program or impart expected (and unexpected) knowledge to me.  Dr. Abdullahi was a person who did the latter particularly well. I enrolled in several of his courses, including Multicultural Information Resources and Academic Library Management. During those classes, we covered expected topics of organizational culture, structure or how to develop, parse, or consult finding aids. It was in his lectures that he covered those things and also introduced intriguing pieces of American history, development, or experience – always with a hope, I expect – that we would use this information to better inform interactions with our future diverse users. As a (undergraduate) student from a PWI, one can imagine all that was left out of my Euro-centric curriculum. I can still remember being enthralled by, at the time, what I thought were meandering commentaries about random topics, including:

  • The arbitrary meaning and application of race (and Whiteness) in America (See, Ozawa v. United States)
  • The promotion and codification of informal racial/ethnic segregration via access to mortgage funding in the United States (See, Redlining)

Through these conversations, I gleaned that my work – my very presence – as a minority librarian would be vital, even critical to many communities that continue to suffer outright or subtly from these and other equally destructive jurisprudence or practices. Years after these lectures, the ideas surrounding these topics have stayed with me. I’ve read books about immigrants groups’ aspirations to Whiteness and pages on the history and development of neighborhoods and links to racial/ethnic marginalization.

Most importantly, Dr. Abdullahi’s lectures – and the ensuing class discussions – were the impetus of my early work.  Soon after I began my first academic position, I decided that I would focus on the history and development of minority American librarianship. To that end, I wrote and published a bibliography and an article. Dr. Abdullahi’s talks still influence my work as I have turned my focus more broadly to issues of professionalism and ethics – always remembering that these career fundamentals keep me aware of my responsibilities to my users in all the ways they appear before me.

SHOUT OUT (apologies for the colloquialism in this instance) to the esteemed Dr. Ismail Abdullahi, for his formal instruction in librarianship and informal teaching about the real life surrounding the practice of community and information service.

Recommended Reading

Asim, J. (2010).  A taste of honey. New York: Broadway Books.

Benjamin, R. (2009). Searching for Whitopia: An improbable journey to the heart of White America. New York: Hyperion. 

Roediger, D. R. (2007). The wages of whiteness: Race and the making of the American working class. London: Verso. 

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ShoutOut: E.J. Josey, Ph.D. (Emeritus)

Elonnie Junius (E.J.) Josey, Ph.D. (1924 – 2009) (University of Pittsburgh) was a champion and pioneer of racial diversity, civil rights, and human rights activism in and outside of the LIS field. As a graduate student at the Historic Clark Atlanta University School of Library and Information Science (SLIS), part of my informal LIS education was understanding my role in the legacy of Professor Josey’s work. 

At some point during my LIS studies, one of my professors – Dr. Ismail Abdullahi -arranged for Professor Josey to visit our SLIS, and I went to that meeting, in awe. I don’t even remember what I said to him – or, more importantly, what he said to me – but that meeting resulted in my ongoing – and sometimes conflicting – commitment to doing scholarly work that tells the unpopular truths of our profession in the hopes that it may improve and live up to the values it touts in our ethics and resolutions.  I am not alone in this endeavor – there is an increase in work reminding librarians to be careful of false nostalgia when it comes to our field (and such warnings are shown in popular culture, as well).

Professor Josey was there – and railed against – a time when librarians (nationally and locally) actively chose unethical behavior in their practice and service.

Professor Josey was there – and led bravely and honestly – in a time when librarians would rather have not had an African-American leader.

Professor Josey was there – and predicted – the role of the library in the commercialization of information.

Professor Josey remains with us in spirit as PoC LIS students work to gain education in our field; as PoC librarians work against their colleagues’ or institutions’ allegiance to superficial nods and apathetic engagement with diversity initiatives; and as PoC librarians use or leverage their education, scholarship, personal friendships, and social media networks to gather solidarity and renew and own their place in the profession.

As we continue our march into the 21st century, I am thankful remembering that we have a past that guides us (and Professor Josey literally made the maps(s)). SHOUT OUT to Dr. Josey for his guidance, fortitude, and commitment to peaceful – and vocal -progress. 

Recommended Reading:

Josey. E.J. (1970). The Black librarian in America. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press.

Josey, E.J. (1972). What Black librarians are saying. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press. 

Josey, E.J. & Shockley, A.A. (1977). Handbook of Black librarianship. Nashville; Libraries Unlimited.

Josey, E.J. (1994). The Black librarian in America revisited. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press.

Josey, E.J. & DeLoach, M.L. (2000). Handbook of Black librarianship. 2nd ed. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

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ShoutOut: Fobazi Ettarh, MLS

Fobazi Ettarh (MLS, Rutgers) is Student Success Librarian at California State University (Dominguez Hills) She is also an ALA 2017 Emerging Leader. and designer of the game Killing Me Softly, which was created to show the physical and mental impacts of microaggressions and acculturative stress. 

As a result of my low morale study’s spread through Twitter,  I came across Ettarh’s conceptual framework of vocational awe and its role in upholding white supremacy in American librarianship. What is vocational awe? Ettarh defines it in her blog discussing the origin of her term:

Well simply put, it is the idea that libraries as institutions are inherently good. It assumes that some or all core aspects of the profession are beyond critique, and it, in turn, underpins many librarians’ sense of identity and emotional investment in the profession.

See also, occupational mythology, coined by Everett C. Hughes as “the social and social-psychological arrangements and devices by which men make their work tolerable or even glorious to themselves and others.”(1958, p. 48) For more reading about myths perpetuated in librarianship, please read this.

Ettarh expounds on the vocational awe/white supremacy link during her 2017 Pushing the Margins Symposium keynote presentation, which you can view below.

As I listened to her presentation, I considered and agreed with the tweet that brought me to it.  Vocational awe can be mapped to the low-morale trajectory. For instance:

-“Beyond reproach”: libraries are traditionally perceived and promoted as havens of quiet and refuge; in fact, many libraries strive to become official “safe spaces” on their campuses or in their communities. Moreover,  while we do celebrate modern librarian images, de facto practices of dress, activities, and even our April Fool’s spoofs show that we derive great comfort from having others believe in traditional stereotypes (even into the far, far, future). How it plays out: an abused library employee belays (or doesn’t) report the abuse because they can’t believe the abuse is happening in “a profession like ours.” In my research, this delay of or decision to not report workplace abuse was contextualized with disbelief that the abuse was happening, whom was meting out the maltreatment, disillusion with the profession, and subsequent self-blame about the abuse and its development. 

In essence, library-as-refuge tropes increase the likelihood that an abused library employee will not be believed – their abuse complaint(s)  a) disrupt users’ (including campus administration) perceptions of the library as a place of retreat, quiet, and serenity and/or b) reduce the stereotype of the librarian as a person who is in control of the quiet and serenity of the library (See Also, shushing). 

-“Work-life balance”: Librarians should always be ready to work (more) lest their commitment to the profession be questioned. Long hours and busy-ness are badges of honor while issues of under-compensation, underemployment, and abuse are glossed over by the overvalued idea that librarianship is a calling. In the low-morale experience, you hear it in statements like “I believe I’m doing good work (often conceptualized broadly as “helping people”), so I will endure [protracted exposure to workplace abuse or negligence] [for the sake of the people I’m helping].” Participants in my study recalled verbal or emotional abuse in the context of being told that they weren’t “committed enough” when they refused overload projects, rejected working longer hours, or tried to take time off for illness or even earned vacation time.  Additionally, participants wrestled with their own notions of professional commitment and sometimes acquiesced to abuse because of guilt  (See Also, Martyrdom).

“Job creep”: being asked or expected to do more with less. This sort of maltreatment (often via administrative negligence or systemic abuse) also manifests in library staff and faculty attrition trends. Often, those left in the gaps may not be trained to do the jobs that are not being filled; however, they are still expected to perform those duties well while maintaining similar or improved levels of service. Participants reported taking on new duties while being assigned to supervisors who didn’t know how to run their new departments. The results of attrition also sparked the beginning of reduced advocacy for library employees, which contributed to the negative emotional, physical, and cognitive impacts of low-morale. Moreover, if the library administrator is not respected by or has a contentious relationship with institutional administration, voiced concerns about attrition/job creep are met with institutional schadenfreude, which underscores…

-“Lack of institutional advocacy and support”: When a library employee reports workplace abuse, they may be met with responses about the library-as-place trope, that they invited the abuse due to (stereotypical or real) personality profiles,  or  because the ombudsman has oversimplified the work of the librarian (e.g., “But it’s always so quiet when I come in there!” or, “Did you shush someone one too many times?” or “How could you all not be getting along? All you all do is check out books and sign people onto computers!”). In other words, the rejection is: do not cancel the dream/ideal that libraries are sacred spaces of retreat and safety or that, outside of that aforementioned strict noise monitoring, librarians are docile people who are incapable of bullying and related acts.

My study reveals that the low-morale experience is in part incubated by negligent institutional administrators who undervalue or misunderstand the role of librarians on their campuses. They often rebuke reports of abuse and send affected employees back into harmful situations, regardless of the status of their relationship with library administrators, but especially if the relationship with the library leader is historically contentious. 

Considering the original context of vocational awe (white supremacy/institutional oppression) – and mapping vocational awe markers to low morale – begs the question of how low morale affects librarians of color (I’m working on it!).

In her work on toxic academic leadership, Ortega mentions: 

Work cannot and should not be everything to librarians, because toxic leaders will abuse their dedication. These dedicated librarians will in due course burn out … Work-focused lives seem to have in some cases unintentionally assisted toxic leaders with their exploitative behaviors (p. 20).

Bringing it back to Ms. Ettarh, she notes in her blog,

Vocational awe is f*cking toxic and we as librarians need to stop spreading this rhetoric that libraries are this beacon of democracy and critical thinking. Libraries are just buildings. It is the people who do the work. And we need to treat these people well.” (emphasis mine)

Agreed.

SHOUT OUT to Ms. Ettarh for her important, applicable, and very relevant work. 

Works Cited

Ettarh, F. (2017, May 30). Vocational awe? Retrieved from https://fobaziettarh.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/vocational-awe/ 

Ettarh, F. (2017). Vocational awe. Presented at the Pushing the Margins Symposium, UCLA, July 14. Retrieved from http://pushingthemargins.com/symposium/symposium-keynote

Hughes, E.C. (1958). Men and their work. Glencoe: The Free Press.

Ortega, A. C. (2017). Academic libraries and toxic leadership. Cambridge, UK: Chandos Publishing.

Recommended Reading

Ettarh, F. (2018). Vocational awe and librarianship: The lies we tell ourselves. In The Library With The Lead Pipe. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2018/vocational-awe/ 

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ShoutOut: Pauline Wilson (Ret.)

One work I’ve often returned to whenever I ruminate on issues of LIS professionalism – especially concerning the act of teaching and its links to perceptions of academic librarians – is Pauline Wilson’s seminal article, “Librarians as teachers: A study of an organization fiction.”  Within the framework of LIS as an undefined profession, Wilson explores Dubin’s concept of organization fiction and applies it to librarianship; additionally, Wilson discusses the detrimental outcomes of holding on to the fiction.

Dubin defines organization fictions as “those fictions that are necessary in order that action within the formal organization may proceed” (1968, p. 494). Wilson focuses her discussion on known fictions; more specifically, she zeroes in on the kind of known fiction that hides truth.  Dubin shares that such truths are disguised because they are “disturbing, so by a kind of silent agreement among members of the organization, this truth is clothed with a fiction.” (p.496) 

Wilson asserts the idea that librarians are teachers is an known organization fiction promoted by librarians. This fiction is perpetuated due to the amorphous nature of librarianship as a profession (which in turn has caused librarians great difficulty in both explaining their work and crafting a respectable identity in society). Add to that the general unflattering stereotype of librarians – which applies to both the female and male gender (crotchety Caucasian old maid or bumbling effeminate, respectively), the general and enduring concern librarians have for status (especially in academia), and conflicts regarding how library work relates to the education system, and you have a solid argument why librarians co-opt the “teaching” duty into their work, and why no one outside the profession believes this (formal) role, at least as it is presented.

I’ve been a librarian for over ten years and I see librarians asking the same questions/topics on LISTSERVs and social media groups:

  • how to get faculty to sign up or engage their classes/students for “library instruction”
  • best practices for integrating information literacy classes into the curriculum
  • how to be invited to/recognized by campus administration orteaching faculty on discussions/planning/implementation of critical thinking/information literacy/general education courses and curricula. 

Also,

  • should academic librarians have faculty status? (and various other related questions on how to make our teaching assessments/tools/ etc “look like” or be comparable to teaching faculty). And related even though not specific to teaching,
  • should a MLIS be required to be a librarian? (a riff of “what is a librarian?” and a question that has seen more than its fair share of uncivil discourse).

These questions have persisted even as bibliographic instruction has evolved to information literacy, even as librarians created intensive professional development for pedagogy, developed scholarly communication channels for the same, have standardized and (re-standardized) pedagogical outcomes, and unfortunately, while the status of academic librarians remains nebulous and institution-dependent.

It should also be noted that Wilson’s assertion includes that holding onto such a fiction causes division among librarians and prevents those in the profession from developing  a cohesive professional identity….so…

Anyway.

Wilson’s work partially informed my first published study, which focused on teaching anxiety in academic librarians. I’ll be revisiting this topic (and re-reading Wilson’s article) soon.

SHOUT OUT to Ms. Wilson for offering up this intriguing – and persistent – perspective of professional identity and practice!

Works Cited

Dubin, R. (1968). Organization fictions. In Human relations in administration. Pp. 493-498. Englewood Cliffs:  Prentice-Hall.

Wilson, P. (1979). Librarians as teachers: The study of an organization fiction. The Library Quarterly, 49(2): 146-162. 

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