Our Work, Our Selves: Using Our Tools for Resistance

In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each one of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation. -Audre Lorde

I’ve struggled to write this post. It’s been truly challenging to stay focused on the work we are trying to do. Our professional organizations and committees have responded the onslaught of executive orders and regime changes with a mixture of condemnation and resignation it seems. Archivist John Overholt has recently compiled a list of these statements as The Profession Responds, and one interesting commonality of these statements is their self-referential nature. Some use language of condemnation, others point to professional core values and outline why say, an executive order restricting travel for Muslims is an affront to our core values.

The need to respond and to do so urgently has made it difficult to do the thoughtful work of building a creative vision for the future of our info-centric professions, not just to survive the next four years but to lay the groundwork for revitalized professional practices. Much of the immediate responses to the inauguration and the ongoing chaos that is this Administration have signaled a reinvestment in our core professional beliefs of access, accountability, and intellectual freedom, but is it forcing us to similarly re-conceptualize our work?

Some of the most interesting responses I have read have come from writers and individuals within the LIS community. With the rise in conversations about information literacy as part of these core values that LIS professions provide for the greater social community, it continues to be important to acknowledge that the production of “facts” is only part of the problem. Positioning information professionals as purveyors of prescriptive wisdom in the Trump-era does not serve our long term interests. Ian J. Clark wrote in December questioning how focus on information literacy doesn’t ultimately combat the increased visibility and power of white nationalism in the United States: it’s never just been a matter of uneducated people knowing the facts, but also about our investment in particular norms and narratives on a larger scale. Former HLS contributor Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet also wrote recently about this buzz around info literacy, describing instead how “This framing, though, obscures the reality that our broken-seeming world needs all the librarian skills to fix it.” The post is deserving of a comprehensive read, but it was her closing thoughts that particularly resonated with me: that we as librarians/info science professionals (and more importantly as humans, I think) need the creative vision to believe that another world is possible.

This idea of hope is something that I have been very attentive to in these last few months. Junot Diaz wrote back in November for the New Yorker about radical hope, a term borrowed from the philosopher Jonathan Lear. Diaz writes “Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future.” Writing in the period after the United States invaded Iraq, Rebecca Solnit struck similar chords in writing that “hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty there is room to act.” (honestly just go read her whole book)

Speaking to an audience shortly after the election results, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke to the concerns of memory workers when describing the necessariness of this work in the present moment: “now is the time to refuse the blurring of memory…Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about.” This truth-telling also connected me to the ways in which Audre Lorde wrote about the power in writing, and more generally the necessity “to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it.” The language we use is important, and as organizers of information, the language we use in doing that is particularly important. Moving beyond the failures and efficacies of Library of Congress Subject Headings, how can we recognize and consciously structure the ways in which our language shapes reality?

And where does this leave us as info professionals? There has already been an incredible boost of folks working on projects like the #LibrariesResist Resource List and the creation of the Concerned Archivists Alliance that are seeking to bring resources as information and as like-minded folks together.  Zingarelli-Sweet in her piece references a tweet from librarian Emily Drabinski about the idea that librarian skills are most needed in areas as “knowledge infrastructure builders.” I think that another part of our skills particularly as archivists that are necessary in this vision-building is to also remain wedded to our principles of transparency and accountability. Cassie Findlay also speaks to this, suggesting that “those of us with the skills and inclination need to be concentrating on tools and techniques for keeping better, more authoritative and context-rich records of business, of government, and for enabling their wide sharing where we can.” While Findlay specifically addresses the shared interests of archivists and journalists collaborating, saying that “Questions of trust, power, authenticity and connectedness are central to understanding and responding to these changes, for both professions,”

I return again to how our personal vision for our work intersects with larger issues of power. We can all take steps in our daily lives, whether in our studies, our professional positions, or in our free time, to explore what our position is in these systems and how we can disrupt them. Our professional organizations should be responsive and representative of our interests as laborers and infrastructure builders, but they have also proven they will only do so when confronted by persistent calls for action. As we will be addressing in the inaugural #dearHLS Twitter chat next Tuesday, what is it that brought you into this field? What keeps you here? What has being an information professional contributed to your understanding of your role in the new political order, as an individual and a professional?

Featured image courtesy of flickr user Lena.

Correction: This post originally misspelled John Overholt’s name as “John Overton.” Apologies for the typo!


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