Less than four months into my MLIS, I have already become immersed in the library world within academia. Not only do I wish to be an academic librarian after I graduate, but being in a library program, working within an academic library, and doing service work in library-related activities has basically taken over my being. And I like it. For the past year, I have wanted libraries to be my life because I felt like I finally found my passion. But now that I am fully immersed in this deep dive, I also see the danger of academic elitism, an elitism which underpays adjunct professors and reflects neoliberal ideals. Will being an academic librarian make it difficult for me to effect change in the “real world” because I am so entrenched in academic lingo? Will lengthening my CV remove myself from applying the principles I promote? I often question if being a part of the academy will distance myself from those that are marginalized.
So…do I still want to do this? Well, yes I do, because I still think the research produced by academics can be transformative. And as future academic librarians, I feel it is critical to have a transformational mindset grounded in collaboration and community and removed from the common ivory tower stereotype. There are a two tangible ways to connect the bubbles in which we reside: (1) connect with other college/university entities (2) engage in community work.
As academic librarians, depending upon our role, we are often mediating between departments in a college or university. Whether we are subject librarians, preserving or archiving content, curating research data, or examining copyright issues, it is necessary to work with the relevant groups affected. However, if you’re working at a four-year college or university, what about connecting with local community colleges? What about engaging with student groups? While these groups may not seem relevant to your job, they can likely provide insight into what students are passionate about and need. So, in fact, this is extremely relevant to work in the academic library. How can we provide dynamic services if we only focus on the academic portion of students’ lives?
Nelson Flores discusses how it is possible to be a community-oriented activist researcher, using academic writing practices to produce a counter-narrative to challenge dominant academic ideologies. Ultimately, this can be community-based and address underserved and marginalized populations. The perpetual question is how. It’s the question that may be asked but is soon forgotten since many academics are at the mercy of the tenure-track system; this goes for many tenure-track librarians as well.
What We Can Do
So as a student, I have had to take a step back to determine where my personal social justice ideals fit into the big picture, yet also embrace academia. I have realized that this is not just about me. This is about anyone interested in academia. Unless there is a critical mass, this is not sustainable. I don’t think this needs to start when we get that first job. If anything, I am seeing how important it is to do this NOW, as students. We can then carry over this mindset when we leave our respective programs.
As the more research-oriented and elitist bubble within librarianship, academic libraries have a responsibility to community. We can be that bridge. But we cannot even start building this bridge without a contextual basis, without feminist, anti-racist, non-binary, inclusive, and overall non-oppressive ideologies. And this is HARD. So, this will take time. It will take many, many dialogues, trial and error, and critical reflection so that we can draft a blueprint for this bridge. There is no end game here – this engagement emerges from curiosity and is process-oriented rather than deliberate and goal-based.
As students, we have the power to start conversations and be agents that disseminate scholarly research in order to effect change. I want to add a caveat that these are only suggestions, and there is also some overlap. You are one person, and you do not have to do everything! In fact, it is very important to know when to say no and avoid burnout. As Kristina wrote, allow your intention to drive this involvement. Here are some options to apply that curiosity whether you are in an on-campus program or in an online program:
- Meet with Librarians: Reach out to librarians for informational interviews, in person or over the phone. Ask questions about outreach they are doing with other departments, local schools, and/or with community organizations. Give suggestions and possibly create your own project! Many MLS/MLIS programs have independent study and practicum opportunities where you can even get credit for such initiatives.
- Meet Non-Library Faculty: Is there a professor at your university you admire? Read their research, attend their talks, and ask questions! If a little voice in your head is curious, let it be heard.
- Research Public and High School Librarianship: The fact is that most students entering a university have only had exposure to their local public libraries or school libraries. Isn’t it important for us to understand how these libraries implement programs? Shouldn’t we be asking public librarians and high school librarians what they think students may need as they enter a community college or four-year program? While I do not want to work in these settings, there is a huge benefit to taking a class or at least engaging in dialogues with those who do.
- Write or Present: I’m sure I’m not the only one with some papers to write this semester! Think about writing or presenting about how your academic library connects with other departments, student groups, and/or community organizations. This will force you to reconcile how these entities are (or are not) integrated.
- Twitter Chat: For those that may prefer connecting with others virtually, lurk or participate in a library Twitter Chat. Some notable ones I have become involved with are are #critlib, #radlibchat, and #inaljchat. This is a great way to provide input and create connections. I have made fantastic connections this way, and library Twitter has even suggested some resources that I have used for papers!
- Books to Prisoners: Urbana-Champaign has a robust Books to Prisoners program, which also has a Jail Library program. While this type of organization isn’t everywhere, there are quite a few within the U.S. This is a great way to be of service and also learn about the prison industrial complex.
- Attend Community Events: To truly remove yourself from the academic bubble, attend a local YMCA event. Volunteer with a local community garden. See if there is a Human Library event nearby. This will allow for your research to be informed by community perspective.
- Join Student Groups: Whether it’s your local student ALA, Progressive Librarian’s Guild, Society of American Archivists, Black Lives Matter, or other interest group/chapter, join! See how you can connect your professional interests to reach a community-oriented goal.
- Be an Activist: Nothing within academic librarianship is neutral. We are in a political profession within a political institution, and we have a voice. Regardless of how you choose to do this, know that this inspiration will spill into your other work. They inform each other and will create even more opportunities to improve your skills as a librarian.
OK, this seems like a lot. But the fact that you cannot do everything is more reason to collaborate. It promotes inclusivity, diverse perspectives, and, most importantly, human connection. It is OK to not be passionate about it all because there is someone else that probably is. Feel free to provide other ideas of how to ground yourself from the elitism engendered in academic librarianship!
Nisha is a first-year MLIS student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Feel free to find out more about her at www.nishamody.info.