Monday, September 29, 2014

Rockstars as Red Herrings: On Librarianship and Safe Spaces

Two librarians are being sued in a Canadian court for making statements in public that were already made in private, via informal "whisper networks."
The ‘whisper network’ – if you’ve worked in an office, you probably know it. There are two sides to that network. One is destructive and full of gossip, one is empathetic and fiercely protective. I’ll focus on the latter side and its importance in supporting those undermined in a working environment. The ‘whisper network’ creates a safe haven to discuss problems and prejudices experienced, warn others of harassers, and bolster camaraderie. (Source)
Across multiple media, Lisa Rabey and nina de jesus wrote that Joe Murphy has made women feel unsafe at library and information science conferences. Murphy's response was not to reflect and reevaluate his behavior, but to serve the two other librarians with a lawsuit, presumably in an attempt to silence them and receive compensation for reputational damages, never mind that informal networks were discussing his behavior as far back as 2010. The details on the lawsuit are here.

Murphy is a frequent presenter and sits on at least one conference selection committee. Within the last week, at least three librarians have written on the topic of "library rockstars" that, one assumes, are at least partially directed at him. These posts are well-written and thought-provoking. Please read them. Later. Much later. As the title of this blog post states, focusing on rockstars, American Library Association Emerging Leaders, Library Journal Movers & Shakers, trendspotting conference presenters, serial keynoters, and the like, is a red herring, a distraction, a derail, and a smoke screen.

The implicit argument made by these librarian authors is that upon becoming rockstars, librarians' sense of entitlement grows, which may lead to sexual harassment. One author notes that rockstars are made, a cultural construct that implicates library and information science professionals, and that we can and should unmake them. This thesis ignores the many of acts of sexual harassment, microaggressions, and other behaviors by librarians that take place every day that make our colleagues feel unsafe and unwelcome. Getting rid of rockstars will not end sexual harassment, and will not create safe spaces for our colleagues. But that argument, placing blame on rockstars, does make librarianship, writ large, feel better about itself, and make librarians feel better about themselves. It is not us, not our fellow LIS professionals that create, propagate, and reinforce these norms. No, it is rockstars that are the problem. 

It is hard to look in the mirror in general, and harder still for many librarians. We make things accessible. We serve the public. We want information to be free. And we do this among budget cuts, hiring freezes, and salaries that do not always reflect our work and our value to the communities we serve. As such, there is a tendency to think that libraries are not oppressive spaces, and that librarians are free of bias when compared to other professions. Focusing on rockstars allows us to continue to think this way.
The library is an institution, which has policies to define who is and is not a member, channels to resolve disputes, as well as feedback mechanisms. These structures intentionally legitimate some behaviors, and just as purposefully discriminate against others. 
Many libraries deliberately practice social exclusion. Exclusion may also be an unintentional consequence, along with the illusion of community expertise where there is none.* The library is not unique or alone in this. Every institution has ways to include and exclude. Whether these actions and practices are intentional or unintentional is in many ways besides the point. Libraries, and librarianship, are implicated and often strengthen them. (Source)
Joe Murphy has Lisa and nina on trial. But they're on trial every day as women, and as women in technology. One is often an outspoken advocate for mental health and overcoming the stigmas that publicly discussing mental illness brings. The other is a trans woman of color who cannot use the bathroom at her place of work without suffering some sort of aggression, micro- or otherwise. In this sense, they are not the "perfect" people to speak out against Joe Murphy's behavior because their marginalized statuses make them easier to discount and dismiss. Librarians and librarianship have created and reinforced an environment, couched in cis white heteronormativity and suppression of dialogue on mental health, that enables people like Lisa and nina to be sued for speaking up. And writing about rockstars, blaming them, rather than interrogating ourselves and supporting Lisa and nina furthers these discourses.

There are worthy and important conversations to be had about how we as librarians place people on pedestals, how we create LIS rockstars, their demographics, and how they behave. Reflect on that, yes, after we reflect on the transphobic and ableist reactions to the defendants and what we as librarians and information professionals have done to bring us to this point.


Lisa and nina are looking for people who have witnessed or experienced the behavior they write about. If you fall into either of these categories, please consider coming forward. I understand that doing so may be triggering. Please take care of yourselves if this is the case.

If you would like to ask Joe Murphy to drop his lawsuit and reflect on his behavior, and I hope you do, please sign this petition.

18 comments:

  1. While I understand that your intentions are good, Lisa's mental health and nina's gender should be left out of this discussion.

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    1. Because it's not necessarily Jacob's place to "out" them, even if they are open with that information in certain contexts.

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    2. Stacy, I "know" both the defendants via social media and link to blog posts, which are not hard to find, where they discuss mental health, gender, and other sensitive issues. Both defendants discuss these on social networking sites as well. Part of my argument above is that the defendants' marginalized statuses are making it hard for some library and information professionals to support them, which points to larger issues of bias within the LIS community.

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    3. Stacy, are you suggesting that we do not see them for who they really are? For who they let us know who they are? It sounds a bit like that colorblindness that sometimes white people are afflicted with when you know "I don't see color, i just see a person". Is that what's happening here? I would hear what you said, but in all instances no one is hiding, just some of us is refusing to see.

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    4. *UGH BLOGGER KEEPS DELETING MY COMMENTS IF I TAKE TOO LONG TO COMPOSE THEM!*

      Jacob, you make good points. Context is important to understanding what's going on here. But there's sensitivity to disclosing others' identities ("outing" them), esp. if you come from a place of privilege. It's up to the individuals to disclose, if they want to, and prior disclosure doesn't always = wanting disclosure in other contexts. That said, I can't speak for #teamharpy. Maybe they don't care. I do, though, which is why I added my 2c.

      Myrna, I'm suggesting anything but. Please see my previous comments to Jacob.

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    5. Grrr, bad Blogger! Sorry it ate your comments.

      It seems like Meredith had a similar comment. Please see my reply to her as well. Thanks.

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    6. I'm following this discussion with interest, and appreciate the above blog post.

      I think Rory Litwin really hit the nail on the head yesterday when he pointed out that "rockstar" librarians aren't the issue, since they're far from the only people perpetrating this sort of ish.

      Thanks for taking the time to blog about it and engage in discussion here in the comments!

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    7. Thank you for reading and commenting. I liked Rory's tweet enough to share it, and his press does a lot of good to publish and publicize issues like these in librarianship.

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  2. What have people written that suggests that? The only objection I've read is that they were not actually witnesses of any of Joe Murphy's alleged behavior and therefore were not speaking from their experience, but publicly sharing a rumor. I think it would be completely different had they actually experienced or witnessed the behavior. Maybe that's a distinction that doesn't matter to others, but it does to me. I would never have called Joe Murphy a sexual predator because I don't know that it's true.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Ooops! I clearly can't type today. I meant to quote your statement "the defendants' marginalized statuses are making it hard for some library and information professionals to support them"

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    3. If we're looking for a smoking gun here, something like "I don't support the defendants because of who they are...," I don't think we're going to find that. Hegemony doesn't work that way. What I am suggesting is that if the defendants were not marginalized, and not outspoken on issues I mention above, I believe their supporters, and #teamharpy, would look different. And that should make us, as LIS professionals, pause and reflect on why that might be the case.

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    4. Personally, I don't read either of their blogs, so I didn't know any of these personal facts about Lisa and Nina until I read them here. I would bet that's the case with many other folks as well who are reading about this case on other blogs and Facebook where that personal information is not readily available or apparent. I think you're making a really big assumption here, but I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

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    5. Again, this is information that's readily and publicly available, and made so by the defendants across multiple media. It is your choice to see or not see it. What I wrote above has already been shared by the defendants, and if either one took issue with what I wrote, they would have let me know. For example, one of my tweets is part of Schedule A of Murphy's lawsuit, as is a reply from one of the defendants taking exception to it, and rightfully so. So we have that level of comfort.
      I would also refer you to Myrna's comment above.

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  3. Jacob, I think you misunderstand me. I don't have a problem with you sharing public information. I was suggesting that maybe not everyone was aware of that information, so that if they didn't know these were people of "marginalized status" (a term I dislike immensely because these women seem anything but marginal) how could they be basing their judgment on that status? That was the assumption I think you're making, not that it's ok to share their information (which, if they've shared it on their blogs seems like fair game to me).

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    1. Ah, I see. My apologies, Meredith. Thank you.

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