Academic Movers Q&A: Barbara Alvarez on Using Information Science to Track Reproductive Health Care Availability

Barbara Alvarez is a PhD student in Information Science at the University of Wisconsin (UW)–Madison and adjunct faculty at multiple universities. Her work using information science to study the pandemic’s effect on abortion services in Wisconsin won her a 2022 Movers & Shakers Award. Library Journal recently reached out to learn more about her other work in this area.

Barbara Alvarez head shotBarbara Alvarez is a PhD student in Information Science at the University of Wisconsin (UW)–Madison and adjunct faculty at multiple universities. Her work using information science to study the pandemic’s effect on abortion services in Wisconsin won her a 2022 Movers & Shakers Award. Library Journal recently reached out to learn more about her other work in this area, including the upcoming publication of The Library’s Guide to Sexual and Reproductive Health Information (ALA Publications, March 2023).

LJ : What was the impetus to write a book about sexual and reproductive health information for libraries?

Barbara Alvarez: I’ve been active in my community for many years on social justice issues, and reproductive health is one that I’ve always cared deeply about. In 2019 I went back to school for my PhD, and it made sense to integrate the area that I’m personally passionate about, which is reproductive health, into an information focus.

I found that reproductive health information, especially abortion information, is woefully inadequate in Library and Information Science fields. I’ve done preliminary literature reviews to see what type of research has been done on this topic, and there isn’t much on how libraries share or collect information about reproductive health. However, in the literature review, I found that there are public health groups that have researched how social networks share abortion information or how information can be facilitated in areas where abortion is illegal or criminalized. I’m trying to bring that Library and Information Science focus on reproductive health.

Why is it important for libraries to be involved in reproductive health issues?

We can’t make decisions about our health unless we’re given information access. In terms of sexual and reproductive health, there are many ways that information isn’t accessible to us. Many states don’t require sex education to include medically accurate information, or they don’t include information that’s LGBTQIA+ inclusive. It’s very heteronormative. That’s happening in school systems where information about sexual and reproductive health is already minimized. Beyond that, we have state legislation that for decades has required physicians to share misinformation about abortion to patients. In some states, doctors are legally required to say that abortion can lead to mental and psychological distress, or that it could lead to infertility or breast cancer. All of that is false. Science has debunked that. But legally, physicians are compelled to share this misinformation. We’re seeing [lack of fact-based information] in school education. We’re seeing it in legislation that isn’t backed by science. We’re seeing it in crisis pregnancy centers, which outnumber abortion clinics by major ratios throughout the whole country. They’re fake clinics.

Some people might not feel comfortable looking up information on their phone or on their computer [because of fears that someone might trace their searches], but they could go to a library, perhaps get the information that they need through books, or use the computers there.

What are the potential problems for libraries in dealing with reproductive health information?

Book banning is at an all-time high. Librarians and library directors are being targeted, their children are being targeted and harassed. Librarians have been working through the pandemic, they’re stretched thin. I’ve spoken to some public librarians about how they feel about sharing sexual and reproductive health information. While they agree and think it’s important to do, they also realize there’s a lot of potential to be targeted again. It’s social and legislative issues that are making it difficult to share information about sexual reproductive health.

What did you learn during your study of abortion access during the pandemic?

I was a research assistant for UW Madison’s collaborative of reproductive equity. Initially, I was to track the people in Wisconsin and how long it might take them to get an appointment for an abortion in a surrounding state. The researchers wanted to track what would happen if Roe [vs. Wade] fell. I was calling clinics in Minnesota, Illinois, and upper Michigan weekly for three months, finding out when the next availability would be for an abortion appointment and track[ing] the trends. One of the first weeks that I started doing this was right after the shutdown, so it wasn’t intended to be a pandemic research project, but it became one.

We found that Wisconsin requires in-person mandated counseling. Some states allow people to have counseling over the phone or via Zoom. Wisconsin doesn’t. Wisconsin also required a 24-hour waiting period back then [but no longer]. Not only did you have to come to Milwaukee, Madison, or Sheboygan, which could be many hours [away], you’d have to come down for your initial appointment. Then you had to wait at least 24 hours to have the [abortion], which had to be with the exact same physician that you had for the initial appointment. That creates a whole scheduling catastrophe. What this showed was [that] the pandemic exacerbated existing inequities.

Another one I participated in, researchers looked to a subreddit on Reddit about abortion and how people made decisions for whether they wanted a surgical abortion or abortion with medication. It’s interesting because it shows that people are looking for this information. They’ll go to community networks, just like [they did] long before Roe was even passed. There are books that talk about how women shared information about abortion, in their own ways, in their own spheres, in their own community networks. We’re seeing that now.

What role have libraries played in reproductive health information access to date?

I did a survey last year with almost 200 librarians throughout the country from March to May, before Dobbs [vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization], about if their library shared sexual and reproductive health information. Several people said no, because nobody asks for that information. But just because people aren’t asking at the reference desk doesn’t mean that people don’t need the information. The whole Reddit forum was fascinating to me, because it showed people want this information and they’re looking for it.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a mapping project for minors in Wisconsin, because Minnesota and Illinois recently stopped requiring parental consent for an abortion. What I’m doing is creating a map that shows the nearest abortion clinics in Illinois and Minnesota. If we have a minor who doesn’t have a supportive family, and they’re trying to figure out how they can get an abortion, they’re going to have to get funds—hopefully from an abortion fund—but also they have to navigate transportation, potentially find a hotel, come up with a cover story if they don’t want their parents to find out. People that don’t tell their parents probably have a pretty good reason. My goal is to share the map so people could embed it on their website or share it with other people. When I research, I want the outcomes to be things people can actually use.

What would you recommend to other academic librarians interested in developing research projects like these?

Choose something you’re passionate about and perhaps something you already have field experience with, whether in your own library or through community work. And don’t be afraid to choose a topic that’s new to Library and Information Science. Partner with other disciplines. I’ve worked with scholars in sociology, feminist studies, Latino/Latina studies, and public health. The library is a source of information, and you have to keep expanding that foundation of information.

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