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Professionalism, the Rules, and Entering the Public Sphere

The notion of librarian ‘professionalism’ is something – for one reason or another – is something that is discussed with great frequency by librarians. As a whole, we appear to have a lot of existential angst about who we are, the future of the field, and how to best embody that ideal librarian (with related angst about just how this ideal librarian is delineated).

Not too long ago, I tweeted about my worries about starting a blog and introducing politics into my professional life. While I appreciated the encouragement I received about starting out and contributing my voice to the pubic discourse on librarianship and other topics, none of my kind supporters did much to alleviate my fears. One of the responses, by @Bibliocracy was particularly interesting

I think if more librarians were courageous in their politics we’d be in better shape.

Which, yes, there is a great deal of truth here. However, encouraging more people to be political without considering the Rules about who gets to speak out (and when), doesn’t do much to make it safe for marginalized persons to actually enter the public sphere of discourse.

Particularly when participation in professional/public life is inevitably tied with a certain liberal/bourgeois set of values that structure the public sphere in ways that actively create barriers of participation, should you not belong to the dominant group (for whatever reason):

The constitution of the modern public sphere in capitalist societies is paradoxical due to its a priori openness as a “civic” realm oriented towards political inclusion and its de facto closure as a “bourgeois” realm based on social exclusion. To the extent that the discourses generated in the bourgeois public sphere are motivated by the dialogical exercise of critical perspective-taking, they can claim to represent, or at least seek to represent, the interests of society. To the extent that the discourses produced in the bourgeois public sphere are based on the perspective of the dominant class, they serve, first and foremost, the interests of a particular social group. (Susen 2011, 48)

Which, theoretically at least, supports the Library Loon’s hypothesis:

Yes, the Loon is entirely prepared to hypothesize (in the apparent absence of librarianship-based research) that MLSes, women, people of color, queer folk, and trans folk are more frequent targets of Rules-based attacks than Ph.D holders, men, Caucasians, straights, and the cis. source

Of course, given the complexities of intersectional oppression, it should be noted that the barriers to participation in the public sphere – particularly if it involves breaking the Rules – are not rigid, but shifting based on whatever nexus of privileges and oppressions that particular individuals embody.

This point is important. It was particularly highlighted in a twitter discussion that the Library Loon started on Twitter about the gendered differences in professionalism (something I think that applies across the board in librarianship, not just those of us in the library tech world). It was somewhat sparked off by the gender imbalance of this year’s Access conference (which is quite notable… although not nearly as notable as the racial imbalance).

And existing at the locus of intersecting marginalizations that I do simply means that it is a somewhat more dangerous thing to attach my professional self to my politics and begin to speak out. On this note, it is why the Library Loon’s story of becoming unemployable, in part due to her:

abrasive, vocal iconoclasm; she is disliked or feared or both at many employers she might otherwise move to, and her reputation “in the cloud” is not good.

Is far more influential in how I must assess the potential benefits or costs of not only expressing a (possibly) unpopular opinion in the field, but of expressing deeply critical thoughts about the disparities in librarianship – particularly when I’m still very much at the beginning of my career.

So when I read something like this

Public dissent is considered gauche in a profession that proudly supports the societal provocateurs, miscreants, and iconoclasts but wants to keep discontent in-house. (source)

from someone who appears to embody the sort of voice that is typically privileged in public discourse, it gives me a great deal of pause. Particularly when I read the Library Loons account of “How to find the silenced” and while mostly focusing on different kinds of librarians mentions this class of silenced people:

the self-silencers, those distinctly unlike the Loon (and the meeting attendee in the story that opens this post) who pick up on library culture norms fast enough not to expose themselves by being silenceable.

The sad reality is that, as a person of colour, I knew long before I entered librarianship that any opinion I might have about either institutional or individual racism would be unwelcome and that voicing any dissent along these lines was a quick way to the unemployment line, it certainly doesn’t feel like as if this is something that can be talked about.

It is important to remember that the Rules that the Library Loon mentions are often unspoken but almost always designed to privilege some while disadvantaging others. It is literally the whole reason why they exist (and not, as is usually thought, to ensure a certain level of professionalism, since there are many characteristics of the ideal librarian that are not only impossible for any human to embody but explicitly ensure that marginalized groups are almost always perceived as failing to meet them).

I’ll leave this post with an anecdote to illustrate. In one of my mandatory (and very useless) library school classes, one of my white classmates asked the white instructor if the lack of racial diversity in librarianship created problems. He said that it didn’t (or that he didn’t think it was a significant issue). If my memory serves, the class was around thirty students and only about five of us were people of colour. And, lo, not a single one of us said a word (and, after the instructor’s comment neither did any of our white classmates). We did, however, exchange a few very meaningful looks amongst ourselves. This was a moment of silencing for all of us, since we were given the message that race is simply not an important issue as far as most librarians are concerned (something which has only been underscored in my professional life, since I rarely see it discussed in blogs, professional publications, etc. or how many times I’ve heard people mention the Ada Initiative but not Black Girls Code).