Critical Approaches to Libraries 2021(CALC) Day 1

On Monday 5 May I attended the Critical Approaches to Libraries 2021 conference, a really interesting and dynamic gathering exploring all aspects of critical practice in libraries. My first session was A novel data solution to analyse the diversity of reading lists – The case of Imperial College London Masters in Public Health by Robyn Price (Bibliometrics Manager) and Mark Skopec (Research Assistant – Primary Care and Public Health) at Imperial.  This was a research project piloted on a masters course at Imperial, which aimed to create a decolonisation reading list checklist/toolkit, addressing diversity and geographic representation in reading lists.

One of the drivers for this project was bibliometric analysis showing disproportionate amount of research from US and Western Europe, potentially creating an echo chamber of research arguments. The project asked:

  1. Does geographic bias exist in this reading list?
  2. How can we provide data to evidence this?
  3. How do we make this method replicable?

The project used Leganto as its system for online reading lists and wrote sql script to create the decolonisation tool. This worked using these steps:

  1. Computer retrieves reading list citation
  2. Imports geographic affiliation data from Web of Science
  3. Imports GNI data per capita rank from World Bank
  4. Calculates weighted average for citation

The end result was a quantitative insight into reading list geographic affiliation, i.e. a score. A score closer to 0 indicated that more lower income countries were represented and closer to 1 indicated more higher income countries.

Of course there were issues to consider with using the tool. There are technical limitations – the tool is journal article and DOI dependant, and reading lists have to use Leganto. The tool uses the institutional affiliation of an author as a proxy for a country but is making huge assumptions as the background of an author could be quite different. And can a systems tool really dismantle colonialism? Colonialism could be baked into systems like Web of Science.

Working Class Academics in the Library : Panel Discussion was held with Andrew Preater, Jo Forster, Kay Sidebottom, Shona Smith, Hina Suleman and Lisa Taylor.

The panel started out by discussing how libraries can be seen as holding a large reserve of cultural capital (cultural knowledge) which we then make available to our users. A librarian’s function in selecting and making available that knowledge makes us an agent in that capital.

A key question is who is in the library? Who do libraries make most welcome? We need to be careful about shared assumptions of middle class common sense and neutrality.

Social class as a lens is one way to understand this, and the effects of the pandemic on working class / low income family students has brought this into focus. The virus has imploded inward onto universities producing an additional inequality – e.g the belief that all students can access online learning disregards the fact of socioeconomic inequalities.  JISC has written to Gavin Williamson about a lost generation of young people and the potential for creating inequalities long into the future through digital poverty. For instance, there’s an assumption that students have a suitable space to study at home. In reality libraries are important for a warm space to be – heating – as well as space. We know that international students have been using food banks.

What can libraries do? We can take responsibility for representation of students’ diverse identities in our content. Buildings are important e.g. if built on the profits of slavery inequality is built in to the system through names of buildings, statues. How can we identify working class voices to include in our collections? This can be difficult to identify from writer biographies as many writers present as middle class. However, because students feel “I need to see you to be you” –  diverse representation is important.

A really fascinating session at the end of the day was Colour blind: Investigating the racial bias of virtual reference services in English academic libraries, by Sally Hamer

This was a research project asking the question : Do virtual reference services ensure an unbiased service? The study looked at 24 academic libraries across England, and sent each university a different reference question each week from six different fictional users with names representative of distinct geographic identities. Responses were coded and given detailed analysis – here are some of the themes that emerged.

  1. Unequal treatment – the lowest number of responses were received by the enquirer with a Nigerian name. However the highest number were sent to the enquirer with a Chinese name, who was twice as likely to have her question answered as the Nigerian.
  2. Name-based micro aggressions. This was particularly the case for the Chinese name, who was frequently called by an incorrect part of her name or her name omitted entirely from response. This could act as a hostile reminder for non-Western name holders that they are ‘other’. Research has proved that Asian students who adopt an anglicized name do better in their studies than Asian students who don’t. There are real world push factors that encourage students to adopt an Anglicized name. But we need to be aware of cultural differences in naming for courtesy.
  3. Lack of adherence to best practice guidelines for library enquiries. Elements of courtesy were often not included, and 10% of responses didn’t address the user by name. It’s also important for a librarian to indicate that they have understood the research question being asked.

The project recommended best practice enquiry policies and guidelines which must explicitly address race. The use of guidelines is a tool to counter effects of unconscious bias. I noted, however, that this research project had taken place recently and had approached academic libraries with enquiries as an external user. In difficult times when academic libraries were having to focus their resources on their own students and staff, the external user status of the fictional enquirer is also likely to have had a bearing on the quality of the enquiry service they received.

Christine Love-Rodgers

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