Sunday, February 10, 2013

Navigating the Whiteness of Librarianship

Snow and Trees
Winter Wonderland with Trees
On February 8, 2013, I awoke to about 4 inches of snow--a beautiful winter wonderland. This event did not surprise me. Winters in the Midwest tend to include moderate snowfalls. According to local weather reports,  4 to 8 inches were expected over night.

Because I live within walking distance from my library, I was not even surprised to find  my very dark silhouette being contrasted against all this whiteness as I hiked to work the next morning.

I was surprised however, to hear my colleagues (many who are Michigan natives)  engage in fairly detailed narratives about their adventures in the whiteness of this winter wonderland. They discussed the dangers of navigating in it. They share anecdotes of how they overcame obstacles associated with this whiteness. They complained that the University should have closed for the day. I thought it was ironic that largely white and female colleagues would critique and criticize this natural landscape of whiteness without ever analyzing or complaining about the Whiteness of their own profession.  For me and many other African American male librarians, navigating this professional winter wonderland is equally dangerous. But like my colleagues, we manage to overcome various obstacles.

How do we navigate this landscape?  Hard work and perseverance are key for many of us. We counter racial and gender stereotypes with innovation. Whenever we encounter the mountains of information technology and the myths of equal access, we reinvent.

When others focus on facilitating access to information, we focus on creating cultures of information--epistemological spaces where the social construction and dissemination of information and knowledge are acknowledge and contested. We become change agents and leaders. Edward Christopher Williams, E. J. Josey,  Robert Wedgeworth, and Arnuad Bontemps are prime examples of what hard work and perseverance can accomplish.

Of course, I cannot and do not put myself in the same league as the above. But every day I try to emulate their hard work and perseverance. An academic librarian, I try to transform the profession with innovative approaches to reference desk service and information literacy instruction.  Although effective access to information is crucial to our profession, I concentrate on the active construction of knowledge from that information. I encourage undergraduate students and patrons to deviate from a positivist assumption--that knowledge is something outside of themselves, something that can be found easily with a Google search or a very expensive proprietary database.
Snow and Bridge
Winter Wonderland with Bridge

Unfortunately this positivist assumption is endemic in librarianship. Along with racial and gender stereotypes, it is one of the more dangerous obstacles that we African American men must overcome in our profession. It reduces our role to highly educated search engines who can be easily replaced when (not if) a highly cognitive reference librarian program is developed.  Although this obstacle is threat to every librarian, it is particularly dangerous for African American men.

Often we are the first ones to be replaced.

Navigating the whiteness of librarianship, like navigating the whiteness of a recent winter wonderland can be a challenging but rewarding experience for African American male librarians. But as we admire the shining vistas, we must remember to overcome the snow drifts, the icy roads, and other obstacles that threatens us.  The glare of this beautiful landscape can blind us.

We cannot afford to be blind.

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