Making Power, Making Change: A Discussion with Keynote Speaker Emily Drabinski

Emily DrabinskiEmily Drabinski is the Interim Chief Librarian at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She’s also the liaison to the School of Labor and Urban Studies and other CUNY masters and doctoral programs. Her research includes critical approaches to information literacy instruction, gender and sexuality in librarianship and the intersections of power and library systems and structures. Ms. Drabinski is one of the keynote speakers for the Exchange. Her address is titled “Making Power, Making Change,” and will take place on Monday, May 4, 2020, at 12:10 p.m. EDT.

The following is a Q & A with Ms. Drabinski.

1. Critical pedagogy is defined as a progressive approach that connects social and political change to education. What led you to become involved with critical pedagogy? Please discuss how you apply critical pedagogy in your current position.

ED: I have always found cataloging and classification work to be the most intellectually fascinating and necessary part of what librarians do—ordering and describing everything in the universe in a single system is such a grand and impossible goal, and what got me interested in being a librarian in the first place. I worked briefly as an indexer for H.W. Wilson in the early part of my career, discovering quickly that I was more interested in thinking about classification than I was in doing the job. When I started as a reference and instruction librarian at Sarah Lawrence College, I saw that I could bring those interests into the classroom, teaching students about the knowledge organization systems we’re all required to use, and what those systems do and don’t enable as we read and work in libraries. Since then, teaching at that nexus where the patron meets the system has been the focus of my scholarship and my practice.

In my current role, I work primarily with graduate students who are researchers and teachers. Equipping these patrons with critical perspectives on how we interact with information structures can shape their scholarly work and the way they talk about research with their students.

2. What role does advocacy, particularly for marginalized and underrepresented groups, play in critical pedagogy and change management?

ED: In order for change to make a difference to groups that have been on the outside of white supremacist structures like libraries, we have to grapple directly with power: what it is, who has what kind, and how to build ours in order to shape the world we want to see. Advocacy feels too small to me, especially when we think about what change is going to look like post-pandemic. I don’t see myself as advocating on behalf of other people or groups—I don’t know what other people want! Rather than advocacy, I think power-building is what we need. That means identifying demands, shaping campaigns, building majorities, and pushing to control agendas and resources.

3. What are some ways that librarians can use their expertise and experience to have an immediate impact and bring about change? Can you provide examples of transformative change that librarians have made?

ED: Transformative change only happens when there are people around to do the quotidian work of making that change possible. For all the crowing of library futurists, at the end of the day our work is about a pretty simple set of values and commitments that I don’t see changing much. We select and acquire, organize and make accessible, circulate and preserve, connect users to resources. Our expertise lies in making those systems and structures work. Change requires that we understand something about how the present came to be, what steps we take each day to reproduce it, and what we could do differently to make a different future. Librarians have made lots of transformative change happen, much of it so significant that it’s just common sense for all of us now. Purchasing materials with shared funds to be shared among a public—how much has that changed the way schools and universities and the public operate? We’re the ones who made that happen, and who make it happen again and again every time we go to work.

4. The COVID crisis and administrators’ refusal to close libraries could have seriously endangered the lives of library personnel at the expense of continuing to serve our user communities. Providing remote access, extending due dates, eliminating fines, etc. enable libraries to continue to serve users during the crisis. Of course, such strategies fail to meet the needs of people who lack computers, cell phones, internet access, and are homeless, for example. How could this have been avoided? What strategies could librarians have used to leverage a positive outcome to effectively meet the needs of all their users?  Is that possible?

ED: Libraries are about circulation. We circulate print materials, we circulate people and ideas through our library spaces, we circulate access to broadband internet, computers, wireless networks. We have seen how important that work is in the context of this pandemic: the solution requires circulation to stop. I think this is what kept so many libraries open for so long. If you want to circulate something to the public, from tax forms to the census to healthcare coverage sign ups, the library is your go to. But in this case, circulation is exactly what makes the pandemic worse. The best thing for libraries to do in this moment is to stop doing what we are best at. We have to stop people and objects from moving around and from congregating together. Closing libraries is not just about protecting library workers—though that would be enough! —but also about protecting our publics by keeping them away from us and each other. It’s a big cognitive shift for a lot of us.

5. What are ways that library personnel can shape the library of the future? In your opinion, how might that library look?

ED: I don’t think the library of the future is all jet packs and 3D machines and entrepreneurship. The library of the future is the same as all other kinds of futures: precarious and contested. We need to be ready to fight for the future we want. We often talk about the future as something that always gets better, history as an endless march of progress. In this moment, it is difficult for me to maintain that kind of optimism, if I ever could. Maybe virtual and augmented reality is coming for libraries. Maybe not. Regardless of what technology we do or don’t buy, can or can’t afford, libraries will surely also contend with reliance on contingent labor that is underpaid and without benefits, the hollowing out of publicly funded higher education and libraries, catastrophic climate change, and ongoing class war that leaves less and less for more and more of us. Organizing and mobilizing together to increase our collective share of the social wage must be a part of any library future we imagine.