Protecting Library Workers’ Discourse around Social Justice | ALA Annual 2018

Many people documenting microaggressions in higher ed, faced with the resultant backlash, found that their institutions were not ready to back them up. At the 2018 American Library Association annual convention, a panel titled “Bullying, Trolling, and Doxxing, Oh My! Protecting our Advocacy and Public Discourse around Diversity and Social Justice” examined that gap.

Clockwise from top l.: April Hathcock, Cynthia Orozco, Miriam Sweeney, Stacy Collins, Nicole Cooke

As the #metoo movement galvanized support in the face of widespread sexual abuse and harassment across many sectors, research demonstrating pervasive microaggressions inside of higher education and out helped validate many of those who felt marginalized or voiceless. However, the people doing that work, faced with the resultant backlash, often found that their institutions were not ready to back them up. At the 2018 American Library Association (ALA) annual convention in New Orleans, a panel titled “Bullying, Trolling, and Doxxing, Oh My! Protecting our Advocacy and Public Discourse around Diversity and Social Justice” examined that gap.

A LACK OF INSTITUTIONAL SUPPORT

Nicole Cooke, associate professor and MS/LIS program director at the University of Illinois (UI) at Urbana-Champaign School of Information Sciences (and a 2007 LJ Mover & Shaker [M&S]), and Miriam Sweeney, assistant professor at the University of Alabama (UA) School of Library and Information Studies, led off with their experiences after they received an ALA Diversity Research Grant for their project, "Minority Student Experiences with Racial Microaggressions in the Academic Library." The grant, which funded research into specific examples of microaggressions directed at racial and ethnic minority students in the context of accessing campus library spaces and services, was announced in late June 2017, and “by July all hell broke loose,” recalled Cooke.

A reporter from Campus Reform (CR), a conservative news site focusing on higher education, contacted Cooke and asked her to comment for an article. Aware of the site’s reputation, she declined to respond. The story that appeared on CR’s website was innocuous, but contained what Sweeney termed “lots of messages wrapped in dog whistles, in order to bait groups of readers and get recirculated.” The site feeds directly to a number of alt-right and hate blogs, and those sites’ articles linked out to Cooke and Sweeney’s institutions and ALA, as well as posting Cooke’s work address and her photo, with a typical caption reading, “Paid to Believe in Racism.” For the next two weeks—the typical length of a trolling cycle, Cooke noted—the two received harassing phone calls and emails.

The emails Sweeney got, she said, were mostly directed at the project, but Cooke, a black woman, was personally targeted. “The fear is something I can’t quite describe,” recalled Cooke, who locked herself in her house for two weeks. “I didn’t know if anyone was going to show up at my office.”

What was equally upsetting, the two said, was the lack of support from their institutions. Cooke’s request that her contact information be taken off the university website took longer to be fulfilled than she expected, and even then it would reappear with an automatic page refresh. When she went to UI’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Access, it took staff another two weeks to get back to her, asking why she couldn’t just block harassers’ email addresses. They also suggested she go to campus police, who ended up briefly investigating Cooke herself. She also received no support from ALA or any other professional organization to which she belonged, she said.

Eventually one administrator at UI took her seriously enough to set up a policy addressing faculty harassment; Cooke isn’t sure how effective it will be, but it will at least take the onus off of the person being targeted.

Sweeney, too, was given advice along the lines of “Don’t feed the trolls.” She reached out to her dean, asking what kind of protocols and reporting channels were in place for such a situation. Her case was passed on to the provost’s office, reviewed, and pronounced a low risk assessment.

After reaching out to colleagues who had been subject to similar attacks, Sweeney put together a task force to look at UA policies and procedures, which has just begun to scratch the surface, she reported. A UA legal representative sat down with them but explained that the university was the representative’s client, not the task force.

COLLEAGUES CAN HELP

April Hathcock, scholarly communications librarian at New York University Libraries (and a 2018 LJ M&S), was targeted after writing on her blog, At the Intersection, about race fatigue—“the exhaustion of being one of just a few brown faces in the crowd”—she experienced at last year’s ALA annual conference in Chicago. Hathcock writes, speaks, and posts on social media about racial justice, and getting reactions to her work from random people isn’t new to her, she said. But that post, she recalled, “exploded.” Not only was it the subject of a CR article, but students on her own campus picked it up. Hathcock would get approximately five voice mails and ten to 15 emails a day, with abusive messages ranging from “How dare you—you’re such a racist” to comments about her anatomy, threats to her person, and slurs about her origins. People left harassing messages on the library’s online chat reference line, and contacted university and library administration about her.

Hathcock worked from home for a few days and then returned to her office, thankful that campus security is strong. When the university did not take initial steps to support her, Hathcock declined to ask for further help. “I was already scared and traumatized,” she said. “I didn’t want to be disappointed on top of that.”

Colleagues, however, were a major source of support, Hathcock noted. Coworkers sent upbeat postcards to counter the offensive mail she received, and librarians all over the country reached out in solidarity. A colleague with a background in IT cleaned out her online information, and people would comb through her Twitter feed and faithfully report every bullying tweet to the platform’s administration. Hathcock left Twitter for a while, and took a break from her blog. As Cooke had said earlier, the cycle lasted a few weeks and died down, with a brief resurgence later.

Higher level responses from institutions are important, Hathcock said, but there are many ways friends, coworkers, and even supportive strangers can help enormously. “[As targets of harassment] we feel so alone,” she noted. “We feel like there’s a spotlight on us and there’s no one around to support us.”

PERSONAL EMAIL FOIA’D

Cynthia Orozco, librarian for equitable services at East Los Angeles College (and a 2017 LJ M&S), and Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez, assistant university archivist at the University of California, Irvine, are cocreators of the LIS Microaggressions (LISM) blog (also an analog zine), which offers people in the LIS field from marginalized communities a space to share their experiences with microaggressions within the profession.

In 2016, after Orozco received some pushback in the wake of a talk the two gave at the California Academic & Research Library Association (CARL), Arroyo-Ramirez had emailed her: “FUCK THEM HATERS! Trolls gonna troll. It is our job to silence them with the strength of our voices.”

In early November of that year, Arroyo-Ramirez was emailed by a person identifying as a reporter from Heat Street, a now-defunct site that identified as center-right and Libertarian. The reporter asked for commentary on Arroyo-Ramirez and Orozco’s email, which she had found through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The two collaborators were shocked that critics would uncover and publicize their personal correspondence; the reporter also contacted Princeton University, Arroyo-Ramirez’s employer at the time.

Princeton, it turned out, was fully supportive, and handled the situation in a professional manner. But Arroyo-Ramirez, who was unable to participate in the ALA panel, said in a post on Medium that she—and Orozco—“froze.” The two stopped posting on LISM, and are still figuring out how they want to proceed. “I do apologize for not keeping up with that work,” Orozco said.

In the meantime, she advises people doing potentially controversial work not to discuss it over university email—their correspondence began in her work account before they moved it to Gmail—and to make sure they understand public records act laws in their states if they do find themselves the subject of a FOIA request.

HARASSMENT THROUGH MISREADING

In 2016 Stacy Collins, research and instruction librarian at Simmons College, developed a set of Anti-Oppression LibGuides in response to a series of demands presented to university administration by students of color. The students had expressed the sentiment that, while there had been a lot of community conversation around the subject, community members did not feel backed up by college support services. The LibGuides offer a place to point people seeking information and resources, so that students who experience marginalization don’t have to expend additional emotional energy explaining it if they don’t want to, Collins said.

In March 2018, a colleague was asked for commentary about the site by a CR reporter, said Collins. As with Cooke and Sweeney’s experience, once the CR article went live, the library began receiving harassing phone calls and email. While library administration backed Collins up and assumed responsibility for LibGuide content, the resulting articles on various sites contained a wide variety of misinformation that Collins and her colleagues are still working to correct.

The site’s anti-transmisia tab was targeted first. The suffix “-misia” is used in place of “-phobia” to differentiate prejudicial behavior from true phobia—an anxiety disorder that is not controllable. The articles, however, claimed that the LibGuide’s authors were “making up words.”

The following week, the Islamomisia page was picked up. This time it was not the site’s terminology that came under criticism, but one line misread to claim that saying “God bless you” is offensive to Muslims. The item actually reads, “Comments or behaviors that convey people’s presumption that their religion is the standard and behaves accordingly (e.g., greeting someone with ‘Merry Christmas’ conveys one's perception that everyone is Christian or similarly saying ‘God bless you’ after someone sneezes conveys one’s perception that everyone believes in God).” No matter that it was incorrect, the story received national coverage once former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly picked it up.

Reactions to those articles lasted three or four weeks, said Collins, including numerous calls to the college’s administrative offices expressing concern that it was anti-Christian. And while library administration stood up to demands that the site be taken down, the school’s administration began questioning how information for the site is vetted. Currently the LibGuides are in what Collins describes as “a holding pattern”—she has not yet been able to post new content on anti-Semitism.

POLICY IS NEEDED

Universities are so student-centered, noted Cooke, that all their resources for protection and anti-harassment are focused on students. Yet when faculty or staff are targeted because of the research they’re encouraged to conduct, their institutions are neither prepared nor equipped to protect them. And while an editorial in the online journal In the Library with a Lead Pipe titled “Harassment in Scholarship is Unacceptable—and Requires Your Action” has served to get the issue some attention, it is still not addressed systematically.

Sweeney noted that many current policies are based on an outdated, brick and mortar model of the campus community, and need to be updated; faculty are encouraged to be on Twitter and do this kind of research, yet are then asked to moderate their behavior when it draws flak.

Eventually, Cooke said—and her fellow panelists’ stories bore her out—people will stop doing important work because of the risk. We need policy within our organizations to address these issues, she added. “[The harassers] have moved away from us, but how long until they circle back? Because they’re aggressive, and this is what they do.”

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