Diversity in information resources: working towards inclusion
As librarians our job is to source and acquire information resources, and to work with our communities to support their use. We have the first hand ability to shape a library with the voices that can be found there. It’s not neutral or impartial, so we have to own the responsibility of what we do. We must recognise that our work has consequences. Consequences for a child who cannot see themselves represented in children’s books. Consequences for a teen who can’t find sexual health advice that recognises them. Consequences for a young adult who doesn’t find romance in books like they experience. Consequences for a student looking for queer perspectives in their knowledge discipline. Consequences for the lecturer wanting to include queer voices in their teaching. The consequences can be erasure, invisibility, mischaracterisation, not feeling welcome, being forgotten, and so on.
In honour of National Coming Out Day we reflect on LGBTQ+ representation in information resources, its importance for visibility and inclusion, and how we begin to fix representation. We write this as a community member and as an ally.
Since writing the blog post which follows, we have been preparing to launch a new initiative –
I AMplify – which aims to amplify marginalised voices in library resources and support work to include and uplift marginalised voices in reading lists and teaching curricula. Look out for the project launch later this term!
Tom Peach and Clare McCluskey-Dean
As a community member
“Those of us committed to a queer life know that forms of recognition are either precariously conditional, you have to be the right kind of queer by depositing your hope for happiness in the right place […] or it is simply not given”
Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness.
I didn’t go into librarianship to fix a problem of queer representation. It’s taken much longer than any of my school and career journeys to settle on what my queerness is before even thinking about that queerness in relation to reading. It’s also fair to say that the problem of queer representation in reading is actually a collection of intersecting ‘problems’. It’s the publishing industry. It’s society. It’s education, Section 28 and curriculum. It’s libraries, acquisition and knowledge organisation. It’s money. It’s creative writing pipelines and opportunities. It’s banned books lists. It’s “this is how it is”. It’s “we can’t read anything we won’t relate to”. It’s “I can’t find any queer writers in my subject area so they either don’t exist or it’s not relevant to this subject”. It’s inaction dressed as neutrality. It’s queerphobia baked into most, if not all of the systems, structures, processes, expectations and opportunities that touch anything to do with how a voice ends up in something we read.
I quote Sara Ahmed fairly regularly because I find her writing so applicable to most situations I find myself in. Above, Ahmed talks about ‘being seen’ as relying on being the right kind of queer in the right place, and this, to me, is a good summary of the issues we face with queer representation in the information we consume. In some times and spaces, in schools under Section 28 for instance, the right kind of queer is one who doesn’t exist and the right place is absolutely not in books and resources that support learning. In fact you could make this exact same analogy today with continued backlash at what is taught in schools and the cries of ‘identity politics’, ‘left-wing bias’ and ‘pandering’ in University curriculum and teaching. It surfaces the particular power dynamic that necessitates queer people refusing requests to ask for permission to exist in different spaces in different ways.
As a library user, I’m concerned with whether I see people like me in the resources I can access. Before coming out, the library was a formative part of figuring out who I was – and not in a good way. The post-Section 28 public library only had books about homosexuality as a medical condition. The Dewey Decimal System at the time had just changed its rules to stop harmful classification of books about homosexuality, but because this takes time and money to fix and correct, everything I found was shelved in mental health. Was I sick? Was I ill? I went to my School Library – I wasn’t in any of the books there. Erased. Invisible. Alone. The library plays an active role in shaping how we see ourselves and how we understand ourselves in relation to everything else. I want to be seen.
As a librarian, I’m concerned with whether my students can see themselves. I don’t want them to experience the kind of misinformation and erasure I experienced. To do this, I need help. I need queer voices producing things (academic, popular, fiction, non-fiction etc). I need publishers who publish these things in ways we can distribute and with prices which are fair to us and fair to the queer voices that make them possible. I need finances to buy them which means I need the help of academics and students to show the decision makers that they are needed. I need the help of a cataloguer who makes them findable but endeavours to liberate them from library structures which may describe them incorrectly, in an outdated and sometimes offensive manner. I need all of these things to do all of the things needed to fix the problem of queer representation in reading.
That’s a lot of things to do.
An ally to share this burden is how this all becomes even slightly bearable – an ally who can use their privilege and their place to lift up others. In our case, Clare’s allyship extends to more than sharing, but actually doing all of the work in recognition that the tasks of moving towards inclusivity and diversity should be shared and equal with those who benefit from these oppressions. This is why my section of this post isn’t a ‘how we did it guide’, but a thank you to Clare for how she did/does it. In that same way, whilst I already source and buy LGBTQ+ materials for the library, I’m able to use my privilege to do the same for people of colour and disabled voices, and the voices which arise thereof when we view them intersectionally.
Allies also help us to argue why this all matters. Allies help us to argue why it’s important for queer voices (and indeed other marginalised voices) to be present when we teach, discuss and research theatre, health, literature, computing, criminology, history, theology, counselling and so on. They help us to show why it’s not just ‘identity politics’, but that queer and marginalised existences are materially linked to how we experience life, and therefore how all the aforementioned knowledge and discipline areas impact upon us and are impacted by us. It should be a necessity for marginalised voices to have space at the teaching and learning table, at the library table, at the research table, at the University table. Allies help to share the burden of this desire for necessity.
A question for all: where are my allies, who am I an ally to, and in what ways can our work move us towards equity?
“Queer and feminist worlds are built through the effort to support those who are not supported because of who they are, what they want, what they do”
Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life.
As an ally
Being an ally is about doing something. As I have seen repeatedly, it is a verb, not a noun. So I can profess to be an LGBTQ+ ally all I like, but unless I am living that allyship in my work and in my life, it is an empty claim. When I did my MSc in Information Studies in the early 2000s, there was much about the social justice aspect of librarianship in the course. But there was nothing about the inherent heteronormativity and cisnormativity (amongst other issues) of the Dewey Decimal Classification system which is widely used to put those numbers on the library books to help you find them on the shelves, nor was the need to amplify marginalised voices covered in collection development. My awareness came from outside of the professional environment, and I had to seek a way of connecting this awareness to my work and what I could do to make any sort of difference.
Since I qualified, theories such as critical information literacy (Elmborg 2012) have come to the fore, in which the agency of the information searcher is centred, and the role of the librarian in uncovering and combatting the structural inequalities which impact information production, publication and accessibility is stressed. Alleged ‘neutrality’ is actually aligning yourself with the dominant culture and narrative. So in every decision I make and every interaction I go through, I do my best to be an ally. On a personal, emotional level, why the heck shouldn’t every member of our university community find their experiences reflected in the information we have available and the way in which we encourage that information’s use?
All very theoretical, I grant you. So what does this allyship mean in practice?
It means making sure that the School Library collection, with resources for 0-18 year-olds which those on our professional education and youth courses use in their placements, includes books representing families with two mums or two dads or any combination of parents. It means that it also incorporates Young Adult books that include LGBTQ+ characters, and those that cover relationship advice for gay and trans teens. That is both for teachers to take into schools, and with an awareness that we will have students arriving here who may have the freedom for the first time to find books to advise them on their own situation. (On that note, have you read Jack of Hearts and Other Parts by Lev Rosen? Go read it. It’s amazing.)
It means furiously reclassifying newly acquired children’s fiction books, because whoever assigned them a Dewey number at the suppliers decided that, unlike all of the other fiction which was placed (funnily enough) in 21st Century fiction, these ones should be placed separately, in social sciences, because they happened to include a trans character. (I am honestly still trying to puzzle out why on earth anyone thought that appropriate.)
It means looking at the collection of academic textbooks and ensuring that LGBTQ+ issues are covered in teaching and social work and educational theory titles.
It means including autobiographies and memoirs of members of the LGBTQ+ community in the collection, to help understand lived experiences. And that these are as diverse as possible to support intersectional understanding.
It means ensuring subscriptions to newspaper and magazine archives include titles from the LGBTQ+ perspective, as historical erasure of experiences via omission is all too frequent (Rupprecht 2019).
And much much more.
As Tom says, we can’t do this alone. Collection development budgets have been eroded, so librarians are generally allocated just enough money to cover reading list materials. That means we need the cooperation of community members and allies in the academic schools in making sure the funds to buy these texts are available. I could not have developed the collections in the way I have been able to thus far without academics in the School of Education, and also the Liberal Arts tutor team in Humanities, trusting in my professional abilities to order resources that I know will lead to greater representation and less ‘othering’, and working with me in developing new modules so that we can build this together.
Many of the titles I have added in the past few years have come directly from recommendations of LGBTQ+ community members on Twitter. Without them, I wouldn’t know that they existed, as they generally come from emerging publishers without the marketing clout of the big, traditional, academic ones. I am forever grateful to the authors, publishers, and those recommending these works for their time and labour in producing valuable resources. I do a LOT of bookmarking in Twitter!
I am putting more emphasis on adding non-textual sources to recommendations too, or at least fewer that fit into the traditional journal article and textbook categories (see Zevallos 2019 for more information on why this is important). So I used Box of Broadcasts to put together a Pose playlist, so that it’s easy for anyone in the university to watch this ground-breaking television series. Similarly I have made clips of news programmes where LGBTQ+ issues have been brought to the fore.
I can’t deny it has led to some brilliant personal opportunities too. Just the other week I was at a book launch for a new inclusive children’s text written by Olly Pike (who is behind the Pop’n’Olly LGBTQ+ education and edutainment company), hosted by a drag queen, and attended by the most fabulous group of folks.
And when, as happened last year, a student comes up to you, and thanks you for the fact an LGBT magazine archive has been made available in our subscriptions, and tells you it is the first time they have been able to relate their own experiences to their academic work, it makes me truly happy. And a little ragey that it is 2019 and they have made it to university before they found that.
Some of my favourite sources of resources…
ELMBORG, J., 2012. Critical information literacy: Definitions and challenges. In: C. WETZEL WILKINSON and C. BRUCH, eds, Transforming Information Literacy Programs: Intersecting Frontiers of Self, Library Culture, and Campus Community. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, pp. 75-95.
RUPPRECHT, A., 2019. Towards decolonising the BA Humanities programme core module ‘Critical Traditions in Western Thought’. Decolonising the Curriculum : Teaching and Learning About Race Equality, 1(July), pp. 16-17.
ZEVALLOS, Z., 2019. Whitewashing Race Studies – The Other Sociologist . Available: https://othersociologist.com/2019/07/29/whitewashing-race-studies/ [29 July, 2019].