Critical Approaches to Libraries 2021(CALC) Day 2

It is once again Conference Season, where academic librarians would usually be collecting a variety of colourful lanyards, discussing who had the best snacks with mid-morning coffee and which exhibitors had the best swag. It’s a great time to network with colleagues from other institutions or sectors, and to make new contacts and finally put a face to the name of those twitter accounts. However, as we rounded the bend on a year of online working, we’ve all become quite well versed in the pivot to not only online teaching but also online events. Although we’re used to communicating through a screen – and the related Zoom Fatigue – CALC was an event to get excited about. The speaker list was diverse and exciting. The topics felt relevant to the work we’re doing, or want to be doing. The days looked well thought out and not too overwhelming. The ethics of the conference organisation included an optional additional fee to allow the organisers to provide bursary places free of charge to those from marginalised backgrounds.

My colleague Christine has already written about the sessions she attended on the first day of the conference on the 5th May, here. This post follows with information about some of the sessions from the second day, 6th May 2021.

I joined during the welcome meeting which always includes a bit of housekeeping even in an online event. However the CALC organisers were clearly experienced in the ways of opening sessions as they decided to kick things off with a bang, with a virtual visit to an alpaca farm! While the camelids didn’t exactly contribute to the meaningful content of the morning, they certainly made their presence felt and Twitter was abuzz with the notion of alpacas at all conferences going forward.

A screen grab of a tweet by CILIP Scotland. Text reads: We interrupt this broadcast to introduce the beautiful special guests at this morning's #CALC2021 - Primrose and her fellow alpacas (llama emoji). There are two pictures attached, screencaptures from a zoom call with an alpaca farm featuring two white alpacas.

A tweet from CILIP Scotland introducing Primrose the alpaca

The first parallel session I attended was Using student focus groups and curators to diversify reading lists at Northumbria University, presented by Dr Biddy Casselden, Dr Kelly Stockdale and Rowan Sweeny. The session introduced a study the researchers from Northumbria had completed where they asked student focus groups from two disciplines (Criminology and Computer and Information Sciences) to consider the bias in their reading lists. The intention was not only to publish the findings in academic papers, but also to employ two student curators to develop student-led resources in relation to the project.

They discussed the recruitment process, the different approaches each subject took, and some of the challenges of conducting this research before describing how the focus groups ran. This included asking students to plot reading list titles on the Stockdale & Sweeney intersectionality matrix (2019).

The intersectionality matrix: a square split into a 2 by 2 grid is shown. Top left is female/white. Top right is female/BME. Bottom left is male/white. Bottom right is male/BME. in the centre of the grid is a square which contains the term 'Non-binary'. To the left of the grid is an arrow with points at both ends labelled 'Class'.

Intersectionality matrix (Stockdale & Sweeney, 2019)

The results of the plotting were not surprising, but the student response was interesting. Computing studies students cared less about the authorship of the texts and more about the way the text was written – whether they could absorb information easily, whether it resonated with them – but importantly the exercise of plotting the texts on the inclusivity matrix acted as a trigger for them to consider how biased the material may be. Most didn’t see the background of the author as important, so long as the information was high quality, and many didn’t see or consider class an issue in representing diversity. The majority of students thought it was important to look at diversity going forward, but were split over whether it would influence their behaviour.

“I think it has raised my awareness, I’m not sure that it’s going to change anything I do at the moment. I think the reason for that is that there is so much to do, I’m not sure I feel I have got the time to be worrying so much. That sounds awful, doesn’t it?”

“For me I would like to go and research female BME background authors in my subject. Because I am quite astonished that I don’t know any authors form that background”

The matrix was a useful tool to begin discussions with students, and many hadn’t considered the authorship of texts before. STEM was considered a white, male subject by many, and the students believed that for some topics, and niche areas, it is not always possible to read a diverse range of voices. The speakers left us with questions about where to go from here, and what the role of the academic librarian could be in helping students critically assess the resources they use. While it wasn’t the intention of the session to provide answers to these questions, I feel that I’ll certainly be looking out for forthcoming publications from these researchers on this topic to further inform my praxis.

Another session I attended was Critically Appraising for Antiracism, a talk given by Ramona Naiker, an Information Specialist at the Northern Care Alliance, which is a combination of two NHS trusts in the North of England. In her presentation Ramona examined:

  • What is critical appraisal
  • Appraising for antiracism
    • Underrepresentation & Interpretation
  • Thinking critically (exercises to help going forward)

Beginning with a quick look at how to critically appraise any research publication, Ramona then looked at what the impact of racism on the data produced by these studies could be; it can affect the relevance, reliability and validity of the results. An unsurprising (but concerning) statistic quoted showed:

In the USA only 5% of clinical trial participants are African-American, but they make up 13% of the population. Caucasians make up 67% of the population, but make up 83% of trial participants.

This is only the start of the problem. Often data on ethnicity is not published at all, leading to a huge data gap which can adversely affect people from BAME groups; if people from non-white backgrounds are equally or more likely to suffer from a condition, they need to be included in trials. It’s important to acknowledge also that race is a socially constructed concept which is not grounded in genetics. The problems are not biological, they’re societal and systemic.

Race is a social category that has biological consequences… because of the impact of social inequality on people’s health. (Dorothy E Roberts, 2011)

Ramona went on to cite several studies and ask the audience to think critically about ways to alleviate racism and correct the bias. As an NHS librarian she mainly focused on examples from health studies but I think the updated checklist for critically appraising research for racism would be helpful to all subject areas, and the questions she posed are useful reflective tools in general.

She ended with a call to action:

  • Check that BAME participants have been recruited and are representative of the study/wider population
  • Make sure the ethnicity data on BAME participants is full and accurate
  • Expect a full interpretation of differences in outcomes between ethnic/racial groups, including impact of discrimination which prevents ‘race’ itself being assigned as a risk.
  • Question genetic interpretations of race!

I would highly recommend watching the full talk on CALC’s Youtube channel if the topics covered by this presentation are of interest to you or your work. Ramona also mentioned a new workshop being developed in order to work further with researchers and professionals in this area. For more information you may want to follow her on Twitter (@bakedbeanpizza).

The ASL team have had a number of requests recently from academic staff looking for resources to help them begin or continue anti-racism work in their own schools or departments, which is one of the reasons I’ve focused on these talks specifically from the second day of CALC. The ASL Equity Diversity & Inclusion group will also be working on creating a new page on the Race & Decolonial Studies Subject Guide relating to anti-racism resources for course organisers so watch this space for more on that as it develops.

In summary, I felt that every session I attended at this conference was interesting, useful and inspiring and so I would highly recommend watching out for registration for next year’s event to library and information professionals across the University – and not just to see how they’re going to top a visit to an alpaca farm next year.

SarahLouise McDonald

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