Friday, March 02, 2018

Booknote: Librarians With Spines

Yago S. Cura and Max Macias, Librarians with Spines: Information Agitators in an Age of Stagnation. Los Angeles, CA: HINCHAS Press, 2016. ISBN: 9780984539888.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: library and information science (LIS), essays, activism, librarianship
Format: paperback
Source: print copy from editors provided in exchange for honest review 

This book is a collection of essays from librarians doing a variety of things in the field. We get a look at activities and voices that we rarely see or hear within the "polite" circles of librarianship. This  is a book that more librarians need to be reading so they can break out of the usual milquetoast practice and perhaps even free themselves of the illusion that our profession is neutral, an illusion that can be particularly dangerous in these "Hard Times."

The book is arranged as follows:

  • A short preface
  • Two short introductions by the book's editors
  • Nine essays
  • A short conclusion
  • A list of the references from the essays
Editor Yago S. Cura notes in his introduction that this book was a private endeavor. The editors used donated money to fund its publication and published it as  "private information professional citizens" (vii). This frees them to publish items of interest without corporate restrictions. The book also shows that there are good, radical librarians of all colors doing great work in their communities, making a difference very often one patron at a time. These are not librarians likely to get named "Movers and Shakers" or receive "major" accolades that come and go and are often nothing more than a resume line. These are stories of hard working librarians in the field doing some good. They do what they can very often with what little they have. They are the kind of librarian I aspire to be.

The book covers a good variety of topics ranging from LIS education to youth services to graphic  novels and zines. Personally, I found the essay by Mary Rayme on prison librarianship interesting largely because I see little on that topic in the library literature; she also does a good job to demystify the work a prison librarian does, and she humanizes her patrons as well. In terms of style and presentation, the essays vary from informal to academic. Essays mainly look at librarians in their work, but we also get a look at LIS education as well as a look at our professional organizations. When you put it together, for a small book as this, the editors cast a very wide net in their quest to show the many colors and diversity in librarianship. In doing so, the editors challenge us to ask ourselves: who do we serve? who are we really working for? why do we become and continue to be librarians?

Overall, library schools need to buy copies to hand out to their incoming students. Just like some colleges do that "freshman common reading" thing, maybe this book becomes a common reading for incoming library school students. In a time when much of library literature is just pretentious, overwrought, often too theoretical, and  barely read, and mostly colorless, the editors here offer a solid collection representing librarians of colors presenting their work, showcasing what works or not in an accessible way. I am glad to have read it, and I highly recommend it.

5 out of 5 stars

* * * * * 

Additional reading notes. I took a lot of notes while reading this book. I am not including them all here in order to keep this blog post at a manageable level. As always, the review part is already done. You can stop or keep reading as you wish:

Why the editors published the book:

"Max Macias and I are primarily publishing this book to highlight the thoughtful, innovative work so many radical librarians are doing across the country. You know who you are. We see the work you concoct, day in-day  out, at your information laboratories" (vi). 

They also published it to remind us all why we really do what we do. They also define what is a librarian with a spine:

"A librarian with  a spine is a resourceful, buoyant information professional that feels an obligation to the community they serve and, so, they act with that community's best interests in mind when they create programs, events, and initiatives" (viii). 

Anthony Bishop on the issue of diversity at library conferences. This is something I have certainly witnessed and experienced. This is especially applicable at so-called "diversity" conferences:

"I find the same types of librarians attend these conferences: low-level librarians with little or not authority to affect change and in turn the conferences become large venting sessions where great ideas are discussed but no real action can come out of it" (14). 

Bishop goes on to point out that he has no fear of reprisal in being brave, but we have to be honest, realistic, and sympathetic to those who fear job loss or other reprisal if they speak up. Librarianship is a very small world, and if you get labeled as a "trouble maker" (or as having as "bad attitude" if you speak up a bit too "aggressively" to the powers that be), retaining and/or keeping employment can be an issue. I am personally in a bit of a better situation now (though perhaps not by much), but I have been in the boat of "you can speak up and be all activist" or you can stay employed and put food on the table. I tend to like not starving, and so does the family I provide for. The point is that as idealistic as many want to be, risk can be very real, and those of us who can need to speak and act for those who cannot, and we need to work for the day when we can all do and speak what is right freely.

A reminder from Lopez and Winslow:

"Librarians of color have an obligation to mentor young librarians early and often" (78). 

And as tiring as it can get, we have to mentor cross-racially as well.

A simple definition of "critlib":

"Critlib, or critical librarianship, is the discussion and application of social justice in the library field" (Branum quoted  in 84). 

Critlib does need to include library managers, and those managers do have to be willing to stick their necks out. Personally, if there is one lesson I learned from library managers in my life, especially the bad ones, is that you need to be ready and willing to "take the bullet" for your subordinates if need be. Your job is to make sure they can do best job they can, support them to the best of your ability and provide them the resources they need, and stay the hell out of the way so they can do the work. And when higher ups somehow try to muck things up, as they often do, your job as manager is to run interference and keep those mucking higher ups out of the way. You step in, and you do not simply expect those with the most to lose to do all the work.

In this regard, as supervisor, I am often guided by this quote attributed to General George S. Patton, Jr. of all people:  

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."
Then again, one of my personal mantras is also attributed to General Patton (which I think more librarians with spines need to use too):

"We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way."

Finally for these notes, why neutrality is not an option for decent librarians:

"The act of neutrality is the act of siding with  the status quo and refusing to be an ally. For librarians of conscience, neutrality is not an option" (Branum quoted in 91). 

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