From a Lone Librarian and Maverick Wannabe: Notes from Tammi Jalowiec, LSLS17 Student Scholarship Recipient

It was a privilege and honor to receive a scholarship to attend the 2017 Lake Superior Library Symposium in Duluth, MN, June 8 & 9. As the new lone librarian at White Earth Tribal and Community College (and University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, MLIS student), I found the speakers and topics not just interesting and timely, but extremely relevant to my current position. Keynote speaker, Dr. Loriene Roy, rightfully held the spotlight, having previously served as president of both AILA and ALA, and having direct ties to Minnesota and the White Earth Nation. However, it was a metadata and cataloging librarian that most captured my attention and spoke directly to an issue with which I’ve been struggling – inadequate, biased, and/or offensive subject headings and cataloging standards.

Catherine Oliver, from Northern Michigan University, lead one of the day’s lightening round sessions entitled, “It Says on the Label,” which briefly described the issue. She noted that although the American Library Association’s (ALA’s) interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights limits book labeling to, “viewpoint-neutral directional aids,” the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classifications themselves are not neutral. In fact, both systems are rife with cultural biases. (Examples: DDC has seven distinct classifications for Christianity, but only one for, “other and comparative religions”; LCC classifies Native American materials as history, separate from the whole of human knowledge.) Oliver also brought up historical denialism and described an actual record for such an item, classified as non-fiction, containing a note about the work winning an award, but nothing indicating that the contents were later proven false. Given such, “acceptable,” examples, she asked why we should not take steps to rectify these situations, especially within our local cataloging systems and standards?

Oliver continued her line of reasoning with colleagues, Violet Fox of the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University and Stephen Nonte of the University of North Dakota in the breakout session, “Mavericks!: How Embracing Your Inner Nonconformist Makes Our Catalogs Better.” These catalogers suggested that libraries consider utilizing local metadata values (labels/keywords) and recommended using the following strategies:

  • Consider the unique needs of your community.
  • Consult with other librarians, instructors, and community experts.
  • Create rules, training and documentation explaining the local metadata values, including the justification behind them.
  • Review and repeat the process periodically.

I very much appreciated this perspective, which reflected the overall theme of LSLS17, “Beyond Neutral.” As librarians, we are trained to value neutrality and to defend the First Amendment. I believe it is hypocritical of us to ignore the preexisting biases within our own systems and passively wait for national or global standards to change.  I have been wrestling with these issues for some time, unsure of how to proceed. I am now inspired to be a library, “maverick,” and to take the first steps toward positive change, at least in our local catalog.

#LSLS17: About our Theme

Our 2017 Theme, “Beyond Neutral” is a departure for LSLS. Our team of volunteers isn’t normally a very serious group. Our past conference themes reflected that: our first conference in 2012 focused more on the awesome taco bar than on a unifying theme, and for LSLS16: NOW That’s What I Call Libraries! we created this epic promotional video. But this year, when discussing possible themes, we found ourselves reflecting on recent events in our communities, nation, and world, and thinking intently about the role of libraries in our current information environment.

To be honest, our decision process was influenced by the November 2016 election cycle, which many of us found deeply unsettling. Each member of the team genuinely cares about their communities. Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota are in the rust belt, and our communities have struggled with funding, advocacy, and equity for the past 40 years. As the political pendulum swings, many of us were having doubts about whether our welcoming message to all users was being heard by our leaders. As information professionals, we often provide access to information and facts and let our users make their own judgements. But in an age of partisanship, fake news, and acrimony, we felt a need to step away from the role of arbitrator and into that of information advocate.

Discussion around these issues led to our 2017 conference theme: Beyond Neutral. At LSLS17 we hope to challenge the traditional stance of libraries as neutral spaces. When factual information is routinely ignored or considered partisan, can librarians remain neutral? When certain community members suffer and are made to feel unwelcome because of false information, how do we respond? In the current political climate, how do we navigate our institutional restrictions while upholding our professional values? How do we become radically welcoming spaces for everyone while retaining our commitment to information literacy and actual, not alternative, facts? How can we become active sharers of data, replacing anecdotes and spin with truth? At LSLS17 we will look outward to connect with our community, and inward to reflect on ourselves and our profession.

We hope you will join us in this dialogue, at LSLS17 and beyond. Let’s learn from each other as we bring our libraries beyond neutral!