Review – The Disorientation Guide to Librarianship

My very first week of library school, my assigned reading for my intro class – LIS 601: Information Contexts and Perspectives – was “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves” by Fobazi Ettarh. At the time I had raised my eyebrows – week one seemed a bit soon to start disillusioning these starry-eyed new library students. But now that I’m a wizened and jaded second-year student, I appreciate having those rose-colored glasses taken off so early.

Libraries have the reputation of being bastions for democracy, a place of refuge for truth and information. But libraries exist in the same world as everything else, and are not exempt from the same inequaliy and injustices we see everywhere else. Library workers, regardless of whether they have a master’s degree, know that these injustices exist within the profession. Their voices deserve to be heard and their concerns taken seriously.

The Disorientation Guide To Librarianship is a zine compiled and edited by library metadata expert Violet Fox and published in October 2021. For the uninitiated, a zine is a self-published magazine or booklet, usually produced on a small scale and distributed by the creator. While there are zines on every topic imaginable from fandom to art and poetry to personal stories, they have a long history of being used by alternative political movements and minority groups to educate and share information. In the same vein, disorientation guides are alternative publications that have been created by students in higher education for decades. The antithesis to orientation guides published by institutions, disorientation guides usually map student activist issues, protests, and call out inequalities within universities and colleges.

As soon as I read Disorientation I knew I wanted to write about it for Hack Library School. Aimed at LIS students and others who are new to the field, Disorientation features writing from librarians both named and anonymous critiquing structural oppression and injustice in librarianship. The essays’s topics range from microaggressions to abusive management to the actions and legacy of Melvil Dewey. The writing is frank, concise, and easy to read, and each essay usually takes up no more than a page or two (some are not even essays – the zine also contains poetry, comics, and collages). It is available for free online, in both screen reader-accessible and printer-friendly formats. 

At 46 pages it’s a fairly short publication, but I found myself either nodding along or needing to pause and reflect on almost every page. Some topics – such as how LCSH describes transgender folks and the popular declaration that “librarians are superheroes” – are ones I am already very familiar with. Others – such as library building accessibility (or lack thereof), and the unconscious biases of hiring committees – were things I have heard mentioned in passing, but never had a reason to stop and think about before. As is often expected with an independently-published anthology, the writing can be inconsistent, and sometimes I wished the essays were a little less brief. 

I think that Disorientation is a necessary primer for any incoming LIS students to have. As important as it is for future information professionals to understand cataloguing, reference, and how to manage collections, it is equally important to understand how structural exclusion and oppression affect our future workplaces, colleagues, and the people we serve. While talking about these things can feel pessimistic, both people and institutions need to be challenged in order to grow. To quote Disorientation’s webpage, the zine “isn’t negative for the sake of being negative—as individuals and as a profession, we need to understand the problems in the structures we live within to make substantive change.”

While I am much more critical of libraries now than I was as a brand-new, starry-eyed LIS student almost a year and a half ago, I still love them just as much as I did then. And it’s because I love them that I want to challenge them to grow, and be better, for everyone working in the profession, and for everyone who walks in through the library’s doors.

If you get through Disorientation and want more, I recommend checking out some of the many excellent articles on Hack Library School regarding diversity and social justice.

Robin is the Community Manager of Hack Library School, and a student at University of Wisconsin Madison, focusing on academic libraries. They really love zines and comics, and would love it if you told them about your favorites on Twitter at @robinmgee 

Photo by Becca Maree from Disorientation Guide To Librarianship.

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