APALA President's Program Looks at Strategies for Community-Driven Justice in Library and Archive Work | ALA Annual 2021

The Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) President's Program at the 2021 American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference continued the theme of social justice prevalent in many of the conference offerings. The session’s title, Community Driven Justice in Our Work: Library and Archival Workers of Color Advocating for Self-Preservation, Solidarity, Change, and Justice in Communities, Workplace, and in the Profession at Large, proposed a wide cross-section of work; panelists kept the focus on their own advocacy efforts within their libraries.

APALA logoThe Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) President's Program at the 2021 American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference, held virtually on June 26, continued the theme of social justice prevalent in many of the conference offerings. The session’s title, Community Driven Justice in Our Work: Library and Archival Workers of Color Advocating for Self-Preservation, Solidarity, Change, and Justice in Communities, Workplace, and in the Profession at Large, proposed a wide cross-section of work; panelists kept the focus on their own advocacy efforts within their libraries. The session was cosponsored by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA), Social Responsibility Round Table (SRRT), and the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT).

APALA President Candice (Wing-yee) Mack spoke with Bernadette Birzer, archivist for collection management and digital initiatives at Tulane University’s Newcomb Institute, New Orleans; Deimosa Webber-Bey, director of information services & cultural insight at Scholastic Inc., New York; Holly Smith, college archivist at Spelman College, Atlanta; and Sine Hwang Jensen, Asian American studies/comparative ethnic studies librarian at the University of California–Berkeley Ethnic Studies Library about how they are fostering community advocacy and anti-racism in their workplaces.

The Newcomb archives collect and preserve documents about Newcomb College and the history of women and gender in the Gulf South, said Birzer, and are also transparent about the college’s racist past as a 19th-century white women’s art and science institution. Birzer became interested in connecting the dots between feminist theory and her work there, using what she described as an ethical feminist framework approach. Newcomb relies on community readers to help apply cultural vocabulary to the archives from a community perspective, she said.

Webber-Bey is responsible for Scholastic’s archive, but also for readers’ advisory and reference for current materials. In collaboration with the company’s diversity committee, she has been working to connect pockets of knowledge across different divisions, and make sure that the library is an intellectual and physical safe space in the building. Colleagues come to her with work questions but also ask about reading materials for their own children, she said. Webber-Bey added that she has been advocating to get herself into more decision-making spaces, to uplift not just books but authors and editors.

Spelman is one of two existing historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) founded to educate women of the African diaspora, Smith noted. Spelman’s archives are part of the Women’s Resource and Research Center, a space that has allowed Smith to practice advocacy and radical empathy—“in collaboration, not co-optation,” she said—and engage deeply in Black feminist and LGBTQ issues.

Jensen was drawn to libraries and archives through their own experience as a Chinese American, queer, nonbinary person. Berkeley’s ethnic studies department, which emerged from the late 1960s student strikes and a coalition called the Third World Liberation Front, and the library share a mission of supporting racial justice and the fight for self-determination of communities of color. Jensen works with the community both on and off campus, and is part of a grassroots project called API [Asian/Pacific Islander] Equality Northern California (APIENC).

 

SELF-CARE: NOT JUST PEDICURES

Often, self-care is spoken about in superficial ways, said Smith. Caring for yourself is advocating for yourself, she noted, and therefore for the communities you represent. As archives and memory workers, she and her colleagues work collaboratively to build relationships—fortunately there is a strong archival community in Atlanta, with organizations such as the Atlanta Black Archives Alliance.

Webber-Bey seconded the concept of collaboration as advocacy. Working for a large company with many divisions, her coworkers may feel like they’re operating alone; the diversity committee enables introductions for people who may be facing similar challenges in their work. “It gives you a sense of excitement to work together, to be proactive instead of reactive,” she said. Webber-Bey tries to listen for commonalities in the reference questions she fields—the stated need and the actual need. When certain topics are trending, she knows to pay special attention to them and incorporate them into her advocacy. With the Scholastic employee reading club, she has a chance to elevate timely books that aren’t getting the same attention as the big titles.

There are large and small ways to do advocacy, said Jensen. People often come to reference meetings feeling like they’ve been searching in vain, and it helps them not only to find the sources they need but to bear witness to their work. Self-advocacy also means not falling into normalized burnout or martyrdom culture, they added.

Birzer has taken advantage of professional development opportunities to educate herself on topics such as feminist theory and social justice, which helps her coach and mentor student workers. “I stand up for myself and try to be an example to them,” she said, adding that she likes to put bring into projects that will enrich their experience. “I feel like once they’ve worked with me, they love archives,” Birzer said. “We want the repository to be a home for collections and not a cage or prison for objects”—an inclusive belief that includes eliminating ID or driver’s license requirements and security cameras in the archive reading room.

 

FINDING SOLIDARITY

“Surviving is thriving,” stated Mack, and asked panelists how they affirm their solidarity with BIPOC communities during difficult times?

Webber-Bey pointed to the work of New York University School of Law professor Kenji Yoshino, author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Random House), in which he talks about the ways people betray their ideals when they try to fit into the workplace. Webber-Bey tries to do the opposite and to be as authentic at work as in her personal life—in her appearance, her advocacy, even keeping protest signs in her office—and to create space for other people to do the same.

Solidarity is the basis of so much of what we need right now, said Jensen, but what isn’t always mentioned is the work necessary to build and maintain relationships; it takes a lot of stretching, learning, accountability, and making mistakes. Identifying with any group—in their case Asian American—is a commitment to be in solidarity with other communities as well.

“All the networking in my own community that I was working on in 2019 just kind of broke down when the pandemic happened,” said Birzer. She’s been rebuilding those efforts, aligning herself with groups she wants to be in solidarity with by participating in virtual events around diversity and inclusion programming, staying current on important issues, and continually trying to learn more about the history of colonialism and capitalism.

Smith likes the word “accomplice”—not that “ally” is bad, she said, but accomplice is strong—and gave a shout out to the We Here virtual space for BIPOC people in library and information science professions and educational programs. The fact that the panel participants were there to learn from each other, she noted—as were the session’s more than 1,200 viewers—showed the strength of solidarity across communities of color and others. “Something that strengthens us, that knits us together personally, engenders the love that we have for each other in humanity.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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