Back in May, I went to the Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries (IACAL) Conference in Los Angeles. There were some really great presentations, but it took a greater emotional toll than some conferences. I started writing this post shortly after I got home, but left it sitting as a draft for a while, did some revisions, left it as a draft, and am finally getting around to posting it in July!

In the first session after the opening keynote, I went to a panel titled “I love being a librarian, but…” Reconciling Vocational Awe, Emotional Labor, and Social Change in Librarianship, presented by Sveta Stoytcheva, James Castrillo, Fobazi M. Ettarh, Kelly McElroy, and Charissa Powell. One of the themes they discussed was the emotional labor involved in working to improve libraries when that includes calling out some of the oppressive practices that are just the way things have always been done or objecting to problematic behavior.

They discussed how exhausting it is when you take a stand in a meeting or take a risk in speaking up about a problem, and are left hanging out there all by your lonesome… But then after the meeting, people want to come take your time to tell you how much they appreciate what you said, how much they agree, how frustrated they are by the situation. Great, so why didn’t you say that in the meeting? And why do you expect the person who did speak up to continue to discuss this one-on-one with you, demanding even more emotional labor?

I’ve had this song in my head for like a week after that:

Some chick says
Thank you for saying all the things I never do
I say
The thanks I get is to take all the shit for you
It’s nice that you listen
It’d be nicer if you joined in
As long as you play their game girl
You’re never going to win
(Ani DiFranco, Face Up and Sing)

This hit me especially hard because I’m that person that tends to speak up where I work. Too often, what I’m speaking up about has to do with one particular person. So at what point does me speaking up start to look like I just have a personal beef with this one person, when I’m objecting to the things they’re doing?

One of my take-aways from this conference was that I need to stop giving my time to listening to the complaints of people who will not stand up. When people want to just complain about a situation, I need to start responding to those complaints by asking whether they’ve expressed those concerns to the person they’re complaining about or to the interim dean (who is regularly the associate dean). If not, try that route, and then you can fill me in on how it went… Until then, I’m busy. And if people who stayed quiet in a meeting want to comment on what I said during a meeting, I need to just tell them I’d love to hear their thoughts on it at the next meeting. Of course, this is easier said than done, since sometimes I need to vent, and it’s not realistic to be like “listen to my complaints but don’t share yours”. But it’s something to work toward. Also, this only applies to people with a comparable level of privilege to mine. I’m fine with taking the heat to call out shit on behalf of those who feel less safe speaking up because of their structural position.

Being in this position is exhausting. I’m relatively privileged – I’m white, cisgender, able bodied, and have tenure.

How much worse would it be to face this from a less privileged position? No wonder this profession is so full of Nice White Ladies – we drive everyone else out by failing to support them.

Another thought-provoking presentation was Creating Gender Equity in Library Leadership, presented by Melissa Kalpin Prescott and Robin Ewing. As you might guess from the title, this presentation talked about gender disparities in libraries. When somewhere around 80% of librarians are women, having a 50/50 balance in leadership positions is not good enough. I don’t remember the figures the presentation cited, but they focused on the over-representation of men in leadership positions in libraries.

Writing this post 3 weeks later, I don’t remember many of the specifics. Instead, I remember the reflection the presentation sparked.

I came to librarianship as a phd dropout. In both of the graduate programs I attended in anthropology, at University of Missouri and University of Virginia, the department chair position was a service performed in three-year terms. It was a chore you took on for the benefit of your department, not a position of power that you should want to take. At Mizzou, we had the same chair for multiple terms, but that was because they were short on tenured faculty at the time, and he made that sacrifice to keep the department running smoothly. It was seen as a sacrifice, because it takes away time that you could otherwise spend teaching, advising, and doing research. I dropped out, and went to get a library science degree, but kept those assumptions about what faculty should value.

And then I got a job where department leadership roles are calcified. I assume this was an effect of someone trying to run the university like a business, but chairs are defined positions here, not rotating responsibilities. The head of my department definitely aspires to power. At one point, she expressed jealousy at someone who became a library dean/director before they were 40. This is pretty much the opposite of how I learned faculty should be. I also have had some conflicts with her that have reinforced my prejudice that the person who really wants a position of power should not be given power.

So I hadn’t really thought about even considering other roles for myself. I’m faculty at a library that offers a credit bearing course – of course I’d rather focus on teaching than on administration! And being rank-and-file faculty gives me room to fly under the radar to take actions that those in middle-management positions can’t get away with. At a state university that is part of a statewide university system, even deans are middle management, limited in how much they can do or say.

Is this a cop-out, though?

I’m still thinking through this part.