Friday, July 29, 2016

Stew Pot of the Soul: Some Professional, Political, and Personal Reflections

Not long ago, while attending the annual Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) annual conference,[1] a professional gathering of folks concerned with those rare or special marvels found in many libraries or archives, I found myself posting this short online note to Twitter:

A professional stew simmering in my soul, made w/ ingredients from Suarez, @wynkenhimself, @mchris4duke, Light. What will result? 

My shorthand ingredient list referred to past and present talks or writings given by professional colleagues Michael Suarez, Sarah Werner, Chris Bourg, and Michelle Light.[2] Their thoughts, and others, distress my mind. Bourg, ever alert and timely on social media, replied to my post: “I’ll be watching!”

Bourg, Light, Suarez, and Werner entered my intellectual/professional/spiritual geography over the last few years. My tweeted reference about them was, in some ways, unintentional. I could have easily mentioned other names. Yet, for whatever reason, they collectively triggered something in my mind, something I’ve not been able to shake or dismiss. On the surface, it might appear they are talking about different things—user fees and access, digital surrogates, diversity, professional standing. Look carefully below the surface, however, and what I saw were conjoined currents of concern regarding civil rights, social justice, diversity, and equity. In short, what Bourg, Light, Suarez, and Werner provide—random though it may seem—is a way to navigate this region of my personal and professional topography. Together, they give me thoughts and a vocabulary for what it means to be fully human, or to seek after such humanity, while working as an archivist, curator, or librarian in American higher education.  

Here then, in answer to my tweeted question (and for those ever watchful among us), is a contemplative—and perhaps cathartic—meditation on this simmering stew of the soul. Part imprecation, lament, introspection, and supplication, these words endeavor to make professional sense in an increasingly senseless world.
* * * * *
The Biltmore, Coral Gables, Florida. May I accuse you of triggering my occupational discontent? I find your opulence disconcerting. You’re photogenic from every perspective. God knows, I revel in your architecture, your status as an historic landmark, late-night swims in your pool, your elegant service. Never, in over thirty years of employment, have I stayed at a place like you. Slippers by my bed, chocolate near my pillow. You really outdo yourself. Your luxury—Frette robes and plush Bamboo Orchid towels—maddens me even as I slip into your European feather bedding topped with 340-thread-count Egyptian cotton duvet covers. What am I doing here?

I don’t have far to look beyond your manicured landscapes, brightly painted walls, and hidden courtyards to find a different reality, one filled with hunger, homelessness, and illiteracy. According to a recent study, 306,330 people in Miami-Dade county—about twelve percent (including children)—are “food insecure.”[3] In South Florida (Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties) 280,630 children (almost 23 percent) go to bed hungry.[4] The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust’s annual “Point-in-Time” census showed a total of 4,235 sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals.[5] In 2003, 52 percent of Miami-Dade’s population lacked basic prose literary skills.[6] In two years, between 2010 and 2012, Miami-Dade’s population—64 percent of which is Hispanic or Latino—increased by almost 95,000 people, mainly due to migration. A little over half of the county’s residents are foreign-born. Nearly 23 percent of Miami-Dade’s Black, African American, Hispanic, or Latino residents don’t have a high school diploma compared to about 5 percent White non-Hispanics.[7] The Census Bureau tells me “that more than one in six Floridians lives in poverty” and that the state ranks 16th in the nation for children living in poverty, almost a fourth of the childhood population.[8] It would not be difficult for me to find similar numbers in these categories for my hometown. What am I doing here?

I don’t want to find any more numbers. Professionally speaking, I’m good at finding numbers—we’re good, as librarians, at finding numbers—but this is more than a numbers game. This is a game for much higher stakes. In the time I’ve piddled around thinking about this little piece of writing we’ve witnessed horrors in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas, Nice, Baton Rouge, again. Chicago, home to the American Library Association and the Society of American Archivists, recorded seventy homicides in June 2016.[9] We’re talking about mind, body, and soul. We’re talking about the very essence of our being: as individuals, professionals, citizens. What am I doing here?

And yet, the numbers—and the money involved—pull me back, demanding further reflection. I could point a reproachful finger toward my professional association, habitually securing, as they seem to do, plush surroundings for our annual gatherings. It is mildly exasperating—a feeling too easily sloughed off—explaining to my business office, after submitting travel reimbursement forms, why lodging costs are higher than the rate allowed by the Federal government (the baseline we use for reimbursement). We should be about the people’s business, conscious of how we spend public monies (even if some—or most—of our support comes from gift or private funds). Professional norms and expectations conspire against frugal sensibilities. With nary a twinge of guilt, I agree to reimbursement. What am I doing here?

But reimbursement for our professional pleasures (um, development) is perhaps the last and least of our worries. Long before, yet still in conference, we blanketed ourselves in wealth and privilege. Consider, for argument’s sake, an annual conference event we innocently name a showcase. This year’s event featured forty dealers. Let’s assume each dealer offered forty items to show, at $1,000 per item. In that luxurious long Biltmore room—assuming those numbers are close to accurate—we enjoyed treasures conservatively valued at $1.6 million.  How many of us did the math as we leisurely strolled, wine and cheese in hand, among the tables? How many of us considered our privileged position as we perused rare volumes or exquisite maps? What are we doing here?

Or consider the overall wealth represented by our individual earnings as we convened in Coral Gables. It’s an easy calculation, given the event’s cap at four hundred souls: 400 multiplied by $56,880 or $27.35/hour (2015 median pay for librarians according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) equals $22.752 million. I find it hard to complain about what I make when the annual household income worldwide is around $10,000 and the median per capita household income is around $3,000. In Miami-Dade county 2012 per capita personal income was $38,860 and median household income was $41,400.[10] Miami-Dade’s median hourly wage in 2012 for people working in education, training, and libraries equaled $21.37.[11] Is it possible to remember or consider our privileged economic position even as we complain about our non-existent or meager increases in salaries? What are we doing here? 

Now, throw into this stew other disquietudes offered by Light and Werner.[12], [13] Two years ago, Light invited us to consider the marketplace of ideas as it relates to our digitized content and higher education’s mission: “to disseminate knowledge, encourage appreciation of our cultural heritage, and inspire creativity.” She contended that “making public domain material freely available is consistent with this mission” and also “consistent with our professional values that emphasize access.” Our responsibility as librarians is to promote “the public good,” not treat “our content as goods we control in the marketplace.” She argued “that we improve our society by increasing the distribution of our heritage, by making it more visible and available for inclusion in public discourse…. Widespread visibility of our content would make for a better, not a worse, world.” To this end, Light rewrote her institutional permission policies and eliminated use fees. She ended her talk with three probing questions:
  • What values do you want your institution to represent?
  • What role should your institution have in the marketplace for historical content? 
  •  How do you want to help, or hinder, the progress of our culture?
Light asks me to freely give away much of the content under my stewardship—some of it acquired and preserved at great cost—in order to achieve a greater good. What is this greater good? Our public domain materials, as well as other materials for which we own rights, need to be forcibly interjected into, and inform, our public discourse. Not to do so hinders cultural progress and degrades our world. What public conversation(s) do we engage, and how? John Overholt[14] recently offered this comment on Twitter, as if in confirmation: “If your collections are a treasure-hoard you hide and guard from users, You. Are. No. Librarian. You don't know the meaning of the word.” Who am I? What am I doing here?

Werner, in a more recent presentation, pushed us further as she looked “for a radically open digital landscape.” She saw evidence of “a potentially radical way” in the manner institutions are opening physical collections to novice scholars and younger students, increasing online access to digital facsimiles, and engaging audiences proactively. “It’s a shift from modes of limited access, expert authority, and control to ones of openness and sharing.” At the same time, Werner chided us on the care, keeping, and use of our physical items while enumerating places, permissions, policies, and procedures that intimidate the very people we wish to serve. She concluded by observing that “special collections libraries are not like libraries that most people use, for reasons that are very good but also have the effect of sending the message that THEY ARE NOT FOR YOU (emphasis hers).” What are we doing here?

Werner saw much the same on the digital landscape. Theoretically, she speculated that this space should be “more welcoming, navigable, [and] open” than its physical counterpart. “You don’t need to be an expert, you don’t need anyone’s permission to enter, no one needs to know what you’re looking at, all that information is there for your use.” In reality, she found the scenery very different. It is a fragmented, haphazard, nightmarish panorama, difficult to navigate or comprehend. Should this surprise us, given fiscal inequalities, political realities, and the “corporatization” of higher education? “Images are hard to find, the same canonical works are digitized repeatedly, little attempt is made to provide context or to educate users on what the images are, and licensing restricts their uses.” “The radical potential of digital tools for special collections,” Werner asserts, “is they let everyone use rare books and manuscripts. They let everyone read them and destroy them and remake them and carry them into the future. We haven’t reached that radical openness yet.” Destroying and remaking are powerful, existential, elemental actions. Werner, echoing Light, pleads for us to let “go of the need to own the access to and uses of our images.” How do I let go? Can I think and act radically? What are we doing here?

On top of this, throw a continuous Bourgean mash of contemplative ferality, comments, ideas, and provocations into my simmering pot.[15] Here, I am willingly unsettled, finding (and prodded) toward social justice in the interweaving of personal, professional, and political concerns. For Bourg “the personal is political…the personal is professional and vice-versa…personal and political events tend to find their way into my work.” Unapologetic in this, she pushes me toward a conditional proposition: “If we want to do work that contributes to a fuller, richer, more varied understanding of our world, then we need inclusive and diverse teams collaborating on that work. Full stop.” How do we do this? Is it possible for the conditional to become unconditional? She also proclaims “that libraries (and archives) matter now more than ever not just because of google and technology; but also because of the very real and urgent social and human problems and challenges facing our nation and our world.” We share many of the same questions and concerns, from different (white) perspectives: Bourg, self-described as cis woman, butch, queer; me, self-described as cis man, straight, ally. I take her questions seriously and make them my own. “What does it mean—what could it mean—to be doing the work we do at a time like this?”

In the context of a digital world, Bourg believes that libraries and technology “can be forces for social good in this world….BUT only when intentional, critical, deeply value-laden (NOT neutral) choices are made in how we define, develop, and deliver the set of things we call Digital Libraries.” The same might be said for analog counterparts. What are our intentions? Who is part of this conversation? Who makes the choices? Is consensus possible on the “deeply value-laden?” As I write this, a reminder pops up on social media as yet another black man is shot by police in North Miami: “Librarians are not neutral, librarianship is not a neutral profession, libraries are not neutral spaces, and black lives fucking matter.” How does non-neutrality jibe with a professional code of ethics that dictates that we “not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions” and that “we distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties?”[16]What, for heaven’s sake, are we doing here?

Bourg’s vision includes “the notion that our libraries ought to provide safe, interdisciplinary, inclusive, ecumenical gathering spaces—physical and virtual—where community members have access to scholarly resources and to experts to support their research and learning goals and their personal growth and well-being.” A greater goal is to “help us make sense of the world around us. I see libraries, digital and physical, as platforms for equipping all of us to be more informed global citizens, able to participate effectively in the public sphere.” Her sense of urgency is palpable. Given our current state of affairs, this requires “all of us to participate at our fullest capacities—together.”

I am drawn to Bourg’s notion of ecumenical space as a place for dialogue. In this age of fear and primal screams do we still possess the art of dialogue? Or is the library a place to learn, to reclaim this art? Here I’ll embrace one of Bourg’s favorite quotations from bell hooks in her book Teaching to Transgress

To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences.[17]

Bourg concludes: “That notion of dialogue as education and the idea that authentic, messy, hard, critical conversations can break down barriers and create spaces for empathy and opportunities for us to experience our shared humanity is what has motivated most of my career in higher education and in libraries….” Can we handle authentic, messy and hard? Are we really interested in breaking down barriers and creating new spaces? Am I equally motivated? What are we doing here?

Finally, consider those spiritual longings and discomforts occasioned by Suarez in remarks offered a year ago.[18] He led with a quotation from de Tocqueville: “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.” Suarez bids us recognize those who went before, to see their creativity, and claim our citizenship in an [historic or academic] continuum, however noble or ignoble. The library, he argued, asks us profound questions about our humanity and endeavors. I am a student of the past, yet I feel darkness closing in. Did I claim citizenship in an historical or academic continuum as Philando Castile lay dying? Did I seek answers to profound questions from library stacks while Dallas police were assassinated?

At the same time, Suarez offered hope (or at least challenge) in how we think of time, space, and station. We were asked to change how we view time; to alter our notion of time from the tick-tock consuming nature of chronos (χρόνος) to the due season or opportune moment—imbued with the eternal or holy—of kairos (καιρός). In the same way, we should consider our steps into the stacks, vaults, classrooms, or galleries as hallowed. To be where we are, to do what we do, to walk where we walk is to be on a pilgrimage—a bibliophilic Camino de Santiago—where we no longer walk in darkness. “The library is a sacred place because it is...where I go to situate my humanity.” Can we understand or comprehend the sacred in a secular world? How many of us think of our places of employment—our libraries and archives—as sacred space? Did I go to a library to situate my humanity when forty-nine people were murdered in Orlando or when Alton Sterling was shot? What am I doing here?

Lastly, we were asked to claim our high station, not only in the academy, but in the world. As an aid to this task, Suarez offered seven pieces of practical wisdom—phronesis (φρόνησις)—to help us attain this status. His first piece of advice, to publish, prompted me to write this essay. Many other pieces of his counsel are woven into thoughts and questions peppering these paragraphs. Suarez, for his last piece of prudent mindfulness, urged me to “advocate for the public importance of what we do; it is nothing less than essential for the long-term survival and flourishing of humanity. If we don’t do that we only have ourselves to blame.” In memoriam to these victims, and in the name of other unfathomable horrors past, present, and future, do I enact sacred rituals in consecrated library space, seeking to engage others in the difficult work of reconciliation and restoration? What do those rituals look like? What should I be doing here? What more will result?

My stew pot of the soul—supplied with ingredients by Light, Werner, Bourg, Suarez, and others—still simmers. Questions remain. Yet my path toward whatever banquet or sustenance such a stew might offer—still veiled in self-doubt and hesitancy—seems clearer. As a pilgrimage, it is time to take next steps, with greater intentionality and engagement: to cultivate deeper understandings, build bridges, give my stuff away, seek “extramural consecration,” attend to communities of makers, uncover human presence, find moments of “unselving” and radical decentering,” craft “a place where transformative moments happen,” and conspire to create “the possibility for wonder.” In doing justly, in loving mercy, in walking humbly, wisdom tells me lives will be changed for the good, forever. This is what I’m doing here.

[1] RBMS is a professional organization, or membership section, of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), which in turn is a division of the American Library Association (ALA).
[2] Respectively: (Suarez) Director of Rare Book School, Professor of English, University Professor, and Honorary Curator of Special Collections at the University of Virginia; (Werner) Self-described “book historian, library enthusiast, digital tools explorer; (Bourg) Director of Libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and self-described as a “sociologist by training, and not a real librarian” (or, as she describes herself elsewhere, a “feral” librarian; (Light) Director of Special Collections at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Fellow of the Society of American Archivists.
[5] “Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust reports homelessness is down slightly in Miami-Dade County.”
[6] National Center for Education Statistics.
[7] Ibid, page 6.
[8] Florida Department of State, Division of Library and Information Services. “Strengthening Libraries and Services. Florida’s Library Services and Technology Act Plan 2013 – 2017.”, page 6.
[9] Chicago Tribune. Chicago Homicides.
[10] Miami-Dade County. Dept. of Regulatory and Economic Resources, Economic Analysis and Policy. “Miami-Dade County Economic & Demographic Profile 2014.”; page 5.
[11] Ibid, page 12.
[12] Michelle Light, “Controlling Goods or Promoting the Public Good: Choices for Special Collections in the Marketplace.” 2014.
[13] Sarah Werner, “Looking for a Radically Open Digital Landscape.” 2016.
[14] Curator of Early Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library, Harvard University, and current chair of RBMS.
[15] Chris Bourg. My quotations are from two of her posts: “Digital Library Matters: DLF Liberal Arts College Pre-conference”; “Librarianing to Transgress: Closing Keynote ACRL OR/WA 2014.”
[16] Code of Ethics of the American Library Association.
[17] bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 130.
[18] Michael Suarez, “Historical Scholarship 2.0: The Way We (Could) Live Now.” All quotations or paraphrases are from his talk.  

My thanks to those who read earlier drafts of this essay and offered comments, suggestions, and encouragement.

No comments: