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402: Critical librarianship in action with ALA president Emily Drabinski

Information changes everything: the podcast. Emily Drabinski, Associate professor, Queen's College, & President, American Library Association. News and research from the world of Information Science.

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Information Changes Everything

News and research from the world of information science
Presented by the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI)

Episode 

402

Released

May 28, 2024

Guests

Emily Drabinski, associate professor at Queens College and president of the American Library Association 

Summary 

In this episode of Information Changes Everything, we spotlight the critical role libraries play in providing safe spaces. Join us as we revisit a talk by Emily Drabinski, the 2023-2024 president of the American Library Association, librarian, educator and scholar. Drabinski shares her personal journey, discusses the importance of critical librarianship, and explores how libraries can promote equity and access for all. 

Resources and links mentioned

Reach out to us at [email protected].

Timestamps

Intro (0:00)

Information news from UMSI (1:12)

Hear excerpts from Emily Drabinski’s 2024 seminar “What’s Critical About Critical Librarianship?” at UMSI (2:42)

Next time: The path to global AI regulations with Merve Hickok (20:16)

Outro (21:07)

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About us

The “Information Changes Everything” podcast is a service of the University of Michigan School of Information, leaders and best in research and education for applied data science, information analysis, user experience, data analytics, digital curation, libraries, health informatics and the full field of information science. Visit us at si.umich.edu.

Questions or comments

If you have questions, comments or topics you'd like us to cover, please reach out to us at [email protected].

Emily Drabinski (00:00):

For many of us, I think figuring out who we are, especially as queer people, requires this kind of privacy and it's why we go to the library. These books matter. The institution of the library matters. It matters most to our young people, to our most vulnerable.

Kate Atkins, host (00:14):

That was American Library Association president Emily Drabinski speaking at the University of Michigan, and this is Information Changes Everything, where we put the spotlight on news and research from the world of information science. You're going to hear from experts, students, researchers, and other people making a real difference. As always, we're presented by the University of Michigan School of Information or UMSI learn more about [email protected]. I'm Kate, your host. Today we'll hear more from Emily Drabinski. She's a librarian and educator. A scholar, and again the 2023-2024 President of the American Library Association. She was invited to speak at an event organized by the archives records and digital curation research group At UMSI. They explore information science from the perspectives of archival studies, digital curation, record keeping, and library science. Before we jump in, a few other people and projects that you should know about.

(01:19):

Nazanin Andalibi, assistant professor of information is sounding the alarm about the rise of emotion artificial intelligence in the workplace. She says over 50% of large employers are already using some form of this technology, whether it be in call centers or other places. And even though there are potential benefits, employees are concerned about invasions of privacy and job security. 

(1:43):

UMSI undergrad, Aayana Anand doesn't shy away from bringing her passions into the classroom like a final project titled How Starbucks uses Technology to trick us all. Healthcare is another area where many of her interests intersect. She'll be working at Stryker this summer as a marketing analytics intern. Aayana was also featured on the UMSI site. Check it out to see what else she's working on. 

(2:11):

Congrats to UMSI assistant professor Abigail Jacobs who won a 2024 Microsoft Research AI and Society Fellowship to develop new AI measurement standards. The work will help support her team's goal to create research papers and methodologies for measuring the harms caused by AI.

(02:32):

For more on these stories, check out si.umich.edu or head to our show notes and check the links. 

(2:42)

Now back to Emily Drabinski. During the ARC Group's event, attendees have the chance to listen to her talk and ask her questions. Emily Drabinski is an associate professor in the Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences and the 2023-2024 President of the American Association. She's made it her mission to promote an activist role for librarians and libraries, but her work has also turned her into a focal point for backlash. Today we'll be sharing her talk where she discusses her personal journey, what it means to challenge the powers that be through the lens of the librarian, and what's next for the future of libraries in America.

Emily Drabinski (03:21):

Critical librarianship involves the study of structures that undergird the selection, acquisition, description, circulation and preservation of information. Critical librarians ask how the systems we use to complete these core library functions, which don't change if you ask me. I've been traveling the country and the world for the last year and a half in this ALA role, and everywhere I go, everywhere, someone asks me the question, what about chat GPT? And every time my answer is the same. I got nothing to say about that. I think technology is important. I'm sure it will shape something. I'm sure all of you can tell me what it's doing. Please do. I'm not going to figure it out on my own. But even in the face of technological change, the core functions of libraries are the same. We select, we acquire, we describe, we circulate, and we preserve information.

(04:10):

That's why I got into the job. So we ask as critical librarians how the systems that we use to do these things came to be and how they enable and don't access to some forms of knowledge and not others. We interrogate their origins, how they work in the present and how we might change them to facilitate equity and access for readers, writers and researchers from all socioeconomic, cultural and political locations. For me, critical librarianship is crucial to this kind of interrogation. My interest in these essential questions emerge directly from my experience as a library worker. I've got a lot of identities. Maybe you've seen me talk about some of them on Twitter, but the one that's most important to me is as a library worker, my first job out of library school, which I want to tell the students how many students are here. I want to tell you that it took me a year and a half to get a job in a library and it took me six months to get my first job.

(05:04):

It's going to take a little minute, but you'll get it. Hang in. My first job out of library school, which I got by answering an advertisement in the New York Times was as an indexer at the HW Wilson Social Science Index. Does anybody remember those big yellow books? It was housed in a cubicle farm on the banks of the Hudson River in the Bronx, just up the hill from Yankee Stadium, which meant leaving work after a one o'clock game was not ideal. I indexed 40 articles a day at that job. It was a quota that was progressively easier to meet as I got a handle on the 20 or so terms that I used to index everything no matter what it was about. So I used those sort of 20 or so terms to index political science area studies, public administration and sociology journals and others as assigned. essential to their argument in sorting things out is that classification and cataloging are human projects that our catalogs reflect the repeated decisions of people like me and the people like my colleagues who tend to obtain efficiencies by keeping a handful of the source terms or medical billing categories or death codes in our minds, assigning them to most items even if they aren't precisely correct.

(06:10):

And that's what I did too. It was a good way to ensure I met my quota early in the workday, freeing up time to read. my next job from that was as a reference and instruction librarian at an elite liberal arts college just north of New York City called Sarah Lawrence College. Among my tasks, which included filling this ballpoint pen dispenser that they still have there and weeding the reference section, which oddly they gave to someone just out of library school as if I had any idea what should be in a print reference collection, I was given collection development responsibilities for the HQ section. I think because I was a big, huge homosexual and like many identities in the academy, if you own it, they think you know about it. So they gave me that job and if there are other queer people in the room, you probably know where I worked.

(06:54):

I worked in the HQ seven five to seven 6.8 section homosexuality, lesbianism. This is where we queers hang out in the library in a short digression. We hang out here. I think because books are for many of us essential tools in our work to understand ourselves, who we are, who we might become, where we come from, where we're going. Of course there are other ways for us to find out what it means to be queer. books were all that we had. When we read a book about who we are, I think the encounter is really different from what we get when we Google lesbian, which I don't recommend that you do. The encounter between the reader and the text when we're with a book, when we're with print is a private one. It has an interiority to the encounter that distinguishes reading from scrolling. For many of us, I think figuring out who we are, especially as queer people, requires this kind of privacy and is why we go to the library.

(07:50):

I keep returning to this study that I read from the human rights campaign that was sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign as well as ALA's Association of School Librarians Division. And the study reported that while a majority of trans and gender variant students reported feeling safe in the library to the tune of 60% every day felt unsafe in their school, more than 90% reported feeling safe in their school library. These books matter. The institution of the library matters. It matters most to our young people, to our most vulnerable. For those of us who approach libraries from positions of marginality or from outside dominant ideologies and narratives, the systems come automatically broken. We don't have to discover that we encounter it when we search for information about our identities, our histories, and we find nothing or we discover we are described using terms that offend or oppress.

(08:40):

I didn't have to read queer theory and in fact I haven't read a lot of queer theory and I'm just going to admit that to the room. I'd have to read that to understand immediately that something was wrong in how the Library of Congress described my experience. Queer people either have a medicalized disease or we're social problems that need to be managed. These are the kinds of stories that the library classification and catalog systems tell us about ourselves and they map quite cleanly to the stories that you hear in the rest of the world. I'm talking to you now in a time of extraordinary violence against LGBTQ plus people in this culture, right? It doesn't take the library to tell me that that is how they think of me. And these kinds of questions lead us to this one that I think is the sort of most important one for me.

(09:25):

What are we going to do about it? So I've been traveling the country. I've been to two dozen, five dozen places. This is I think my 50th talk as the ALA president. And everywhere I go, I see library workers solving problems. I was in New Mexico in November and heard a librarian at a small rural county who was telling me that through a partnership with the University of New Mexico, that library provided the only drinkable water for residents of that county. Saw a problem and they solved it. When people ask me all the time why I ran for president of the American Library Association, I ran because I believe in the power of librarians and library workers to solve problems, to solve these problems, to find solutions not just for the issues facing libraries, but the issues facing the world. Now I know what you're saying, the ALA, what does it really do?

(10:22):

And I know I got complaints, but the tools are there. The infrastructure is there for us to meet, gather, talk together to build the collective power necessary to win the world that we want. It's one of those systems and structures that we can leverage in our work toward equity, justice and the world we want. In the face of unprecedented levels of book ban and censorship attempts, ALA has launched a public facing campaign that pulls people and groups together under the banner of the Unite Against Book bans. We have the Merit fund for, it's called the Leroy C Merit Humanitarian Fund that provides cash grants to librarians who are facing employment discrimination due to their defensive intellectual freedom and it's real. A good friend of mine was placed on administrative leave, pending investigation into her distribution of pornography for photographing herself, holding the book Gender Queer and posting on Twitter.

(11:15):

I can't wait to read this book with my child so that we can better understand who they are. And a merit fund was able to give her an immediate cash grant to hire an attorney to help her navigate that issue. We've provided resources for chapter based mutual support hotlines, book resumes that can support collection development decisions. We've put a lot of resources into the current fight. That's what we can work on behalf of within the ALA. But something terrible happens when you become the president of a large national nonprofit organization. It's not terrible, but you end up speaking on behalf of the organization. You get read as the person who is the face of the association. I knew this when I ran for office. I understood it when I took on the position last June in Chicago. Was anybody at that party? I'm from Idaho originally.

(12:03):

So we had a baked potato bar and it was amazing and you should have been there, but I'll admit that I didn't fully appreciate and still I'm learning every day the amount of scrutiny that I would be under as a representative of the field that is under attack by an organized group of people who want to wrench one of the last public goods in our country, one of the last remaining institutions that's open to everyone because what else is there? Last week I received a call from a school board member, the president of a school board in a small town in Kansas who found my phone number. I'm not sure how, but I'm guessing it's everywhere. I picked up the phone and he said, one of our board members is telling me that you choose the books in our school library. Is that true? It wasn't.

(12:46):

It's not true. I’ve been lucky and blessed to meet so many school librarians on this journey, and they're so crucial. It's so important to the lives of our children, and I could never do that job. That that fiction about me and that fiction about American libraries is out there circulating and telling the stories of what it is we do in libraries. I didn't anticipate someone following me to a conference in Chicago and taking cell phone video of me when I got to the microphone to ask a question. I didn't anticipate this part of the project of being an American librarian in 2023, 2024, that I would be weaponized against the very institutions that I ran for a president to champion and promote. That didn't occur to me at all, and that's something that I have in common with library workers across the country. So the fight that we're up against is this fight against fear and this fight against the story that's being told about us by forces that want to eliminate us as institutions.

(13:44):

And yet we must continue talking and we must continue talking to each other. So the question that animated the talk today, what is critical about critical librarianship, first is the insight that the world could be otherwise. I wake up every morning believing that the world could be different. The only thing that is eternal and constant is that we are the champions of the west right here at the University of Michigan. That's it, right? That is the only thing that cannot be changed. Everything else subject to change, that refusing to exceed to what are norms that exclude us is a crucial piece of what we do as librarians. And then finally, that librarianship is the most intensely collaborative project in the history of the world. All of us work in concert with others. None of us works alone.

Kate Atkins, host (14:35):

After the talk, Emily Drabinski took questions from the audience. I'll share a few with you now. To start a look into the process of running for a president.

Emily Drabinski (14:46):

Here's how it happened. I was at work, it was one of those days when I was bored and I was sitting in my chair. It was like I was running the library at the graduate center at the city University of New York. And the provost had told us to open the library to students, but nobody wanted to come back. And I was in charge. So it was me and one other library worker and just the two of us. And so it was like we opened it for the students would come back, but then they didn't come back. I don't know, maybe you've experienced this at the University of Michigan, but it was a very challenging time. And I was like, what are we going to do? And then I saw the call come out and I was like, well, I want to lead the American Library Association.

(15:23):

I believe in libraries. And I put my hat in the ring and then they picked me and then I was like, okay, it's on. I like a campaign. I love running for stuff. I can't wait to run for something when I'm done here. There's nothing more fun than a campaign. You have a very direct ask. I always like it when the ask is clear. Vote for me. Nothing complex about that. You've got a list of 50,000 members got 'em in, they give it to you in a spreadsheet and then you just call as many of them as you can and you say, Hey, here, I'm running for ALA president. This is what I believe in and see if you can get their vote. It's fun. I did not totally believe that I was going to win. And so then I ended up here standing before you as the president of the American Library Association.

(16:01):

But I have to tell you, it is such an extraordinary opportunity to see the good work of American libraries. I had a strong understanding of what academic libraries do, what they make possible within the enterprise of the university. Like you're welcome. We make it possible. We're the infrastructure of curiosity of all of that. But meeting school librarians and seeing the communities they're able to create for children who would otherwise have would've been like me, right? I ate lunch in the library every day and not ’cause it was cool. And then the school librarians what they make possible for their students, just extraordinary.

Kate Atkins, host (16:39):

Many attendees asked questions about advocacy efforts and what we can all do to help push bills like the Right to Read forward. Here's what Emily Drabinski had to say.

Emily Drabinski (16:50):

Yeah, I mean, I think it's important to remember that the American Library Association is the only body advocating at the federal level for legislation that benefits libraries. That's things like the budget of the IMLS, which funds the lots of programs here at Michigan, I'm sure. But it also means things like the Right to Read Act, which comes from our Senate champion Jack Reed and Raúl Grijalva from New Mexico. That bill, the reason it's coming out from those people is because of the advocacy organization, like the advocacy work done at the federal level by the ALA and our library policy office. We have an excellent platform for mobilizing people. So I hate to be like, go to the website and sign up, but go to the website and sign up. Go to library policy on Twitter or library policy and any of the social media or just Google ALA public policy and you can sign up for action alerts that will alert you to things happening in your area and a platform for adding your voice to the collective voice of librarians around that federal legislation. We also offer to our state chapters, since this is someone from the Michigan Library Association, you probably know about this, but we offer a platform for states to track legislation in their own areas. Because most of the rules that come out about libraries, most of the funding for libraries is state and local. And so making sure that we're on top of those state and local issues is crucial, and we use a platform for that that you can access as a chapter leader.

Kate Atkins, host (18:16):

Finally, as a lot of us know, libraries have become the heart of many communities. They're working as food banks. They help with immigration and legal services and a whole lot more. Librarians are trained one way, but end up wearing many more hats. So is there a limit to what role a library serves?

Emily Drabinski (18:35):

I think it has a lot to do with where we locate the problem. So for a lot of people, I think the problem is located and the library is taking on all of these extra services and projects and duties. So that's one problem. But the real problem that we have to solve in order for that to stop happening is the problem of unchecked mental illness and drug abuse and the disappearance of opportunities for people to live full lives. Like the sort of growing gap between people who can afford to go to the University of Michigan and people who can't even entertain the idea of that because of economic conditions. And so you have to sort of solve that problem. So I think there's a tendency to want to solve for the library, taking on too many things and putting limits and walls around that. And I get that, but I don't meet a lot of librarians who feel ready to give up on that, right?

(19:26):

And I've spent a ton of time with small and rural library workers in the past year, and they can't do that. They're like, this is my community. And if I don't run the afterschool program out of the library, there's no afterschool program, and I believe that kids need it, so they just do it. And so I think in terms of training, I do think we need more of us to understand our skillset as librarians, as an organizing skillset that can be contributed to the kind of social movements that I think are necessary for us to relieve the burden on libraries a little bit.

Kate Atkins, host (20:01):

You can watch the full talk and Q&A by clicking the link in our show notes. To learn more about upcoming events and conversations like this, visit us at si.umich.edu and tune in next time to hear from Merve Hickok, founder of AIethicist.org. She's a globally renowned expert on AI policy ethics and governance. She's also the president and research director at the Center for AI and Digital Policy, and a lecturer at the School of Information.

Merve Hickok (20:30):

This has been a really interesting year from the White House as well. President Biden, as was VP Harris had taken this on personally. I think for the first time ever, we have seen a US president writing an opinion piece in Wall Street Journal, asking both the Democrats and Republicans to work together for a bipartisan legislation saying We need bipartisan legislation, we need enforceable legislation and regulations, the guardrails.

Kate Atkins, host (21:03):

That's in our next episode. Before we go, did you know that the University of Michigan offers three different master's degrees in information science? And you can start with an undergraduate degree in almost any field. Check out all the possibilities at si.umich.edu. The University of Michigan School of Information creates and shares knowledge so that people will use information with technology to build a better world. Don't forget to subscribe to Information Changes Everything on your favorite podcasting platform. If you have any questions, comments, or episode ideas, send us an email at [email protected].

Information Changes Everything: The Podcast

Information Changes Everything: The Podcast

News and research from the world of information science, presented by the University of Michigan School of Information.