Making a New Table: Intersectional Librarianship

Reviewed By: Jodi dela Pena, Katie Vanous, Crystal Lanoucha, Melissa-Ann Reyes, Sean Smith

Link to article: http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2014/making-a-new-table-intersectional-librarianship-3/

SYNOPSIS
In “Making a New Table: Intersectional Librarianship,” Ettarh elucidates the concept of diversity or lack thereof in the MLS/MLIS profession. The article explores how libraries and those within the profession often discuss the lack of minority populations or people of color in libraries, yet still fail to understand how this discussion impedes progress. The author asserts that segregating diverse and underrepresented populations into distinct categories, or silos, does nothing to alleviate the problem. Ways in which diversity can be increased in the MLS/MLIS profession are addressed within the article through the theoretical framework of intersectionality. Intersectionality is described as “the study of how different power structures interact in the lives of minorities, specifically black women, a theory Crenshaw coined in the 1980s” (2014, http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could/). This theoretical framework was first used to describe the lived experiences of battered black women and domestic violence survivors and the ways that sexism and racism intersected in their stories. It was later adopted in the academic feminist community and as the author asserts, “Intersectionality is a tool for studying, understanding, and responding to the ways in which axes of identities intersect and how these intersections contribute to unique experiences of oppression and privilege.”

RESEARCH QUESTIONS
Rather than attempting to answer a question or to prove her point through statistics, Ettarh broaches this topic by posing questions and explaining why it is important to rethink how we approach the concepts of diversity and neutrality in the library. Ettarh asks, “What is intersectionality?”, “How do we make sure that both existing and aspiring librarians interact with patrons and other librarians in a manner that is respectful?”, “Why does [intersectionality] matter?”, “How can librarians make their respective libraries safe for these populations, if people in the field don’t feel safe?”, “Whose table [are we sitting at]?”and “What now?”

METHODS TO ANSWER RESEARCH QUESTIONS
From experience, our group is aware that librarians can adhere to the role of an ally by “educat[ing] ourselves on how these intersecting oppressions affect our community.” Ettarh says, “LIS theory is based on a foundation of understanding and interpreting the information seeking practices, behaviors, and needs of patrons.” As librarians/associates we find ourselves interacting with patrons of many backgrounds and identifiers, both in gender and race. Librarians need to welcome all who walk through their library doors with a variety of techniques including, but not limited to, Ettarh’s suggestions like “[Challenging] all of the assumptions about your patrons, your collections, and your attitudes toward your employees and coworkers.” Openness and advocacy will provide a safe space. Libraries must enforce the policies that ensure that open, diverse spaces are maintained. Upholding library policies and making the public aware of them is important. These policies should stem from a familiarity of the community and the needs of patrons. Rules protecting the rights of all who wish to use the library should be emphasized.
Additionally, librarianship in the 21st century is about service. Service is for all who can benefit from it, without prejudice. Hiding behind the terms “neutrality” and “objectivity” are no longer viable in the current model for librarian behavior. In order to best serve those who wish to use our services, we must advocate for all. Instead of representing no specific group, we must provide resources and service for all, including those who come from communities who may experience intersecting oppressions.

CONCLUSION
Ettarh states, “No one lives a single-axis life” meaning humans are intersectional, multidimensional, and created and defined by a multitude of factors that make an individual unique. The author suggests librarians should “no longer hide behind neutrality and objectivity” especially because an Americanized neutrality is not necessarily neutral. By making a “new table,” librarians are no longer inviting patrons to sit at a table previously set by a “dominant white, heterosexual male society.” Current-day librarians are instead inviting patrons to a table that will take shape via the variety of influences, personalities, cultures, and beliefs brought to the table by the “guests.” With the theory of intersectionality influencing discussions, conversation between librarians are more versatile, taking into consideration not just a single factor or trait of an individual or population, but a combination of qualities that make up an individual or group. Ettarh states, “Engaging in conversations and then turning those conversations into action is paramount. If librarianship at its core is a service profession, then we must do everything to ensure that the culture in the libraries and archives and in the field serves all populations.” In essence, the larger the scope in library conversation, the more response and positivity will flow between patron and institution.

QUESTIONS
While Ettarh makes a strong argument for what is to be done in the context of furthering diversity and intersectionality among libraries, some unanswered questions we had and what we feel future research can and should address include documenting the experiences of minority groups or people of color (POC) currently working in these libraries and how they feel libraries overall can advocate for more diverse collections and develop programming that meet the needs of our communities’ intersectional experiences, which could then address critiques of neutrality raised in this article. Additionally, further research that interrogates and problematizes the concept of neutrality in libraries needs to be done, as this concept is foundational within the core values of the contemporary American library. In order for librarians to shift or deepen the concept of diversity, how can trainings be systematized across different libraries that can influence the way libraries operate? How can we help librarians internalize that the work we do is actually deeply political and not neutral? All of these questions connect to what Ettarh has outlined, including which collections are selected and how marginalized experiences are tokenized or only featured during certain months or seasons. How can libraries better represent the intersectional experiences of our communities in more authentic ways? How do we individually and collectively develop an intersectional perspective and practical framework for it?

ANSWERING THE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
The good news is that there are ways to start with a fresh perspective and rehash what already exists. The author suggests,“While it is not their job to educate you, engaging in a dialogue with people from underrepresented communities and listening to how their oppressions intersect can go a long way.” By inquiring about the needs within an underrepresented community, a library can begin by having a thorough understanding of the population as a whole, like traits unique to individuals within a particular group. Ettarh also recommends a change in perspective and states, “By treating these issues as separate entities, we as librarians fail to fully understands how oppressions work in various contexts.” To resolve this issue, “We need to educate ourselves on how these intersecting oppressions affect our community.”
In order to both begin with an intersectional perspective and reconfigure old ways, Ettarh says libraries should, “Provide staff with diversity training, address signs of microaggression and injustice in the workplace, investigate complaints quickly, thoroughly, and sensitively, and take disciplinary action against those who break the policy.” You might also consider defining the term “neutrality” within your work space. What does it mean? What should it mean? How do we eliminate bias?
In total, the article recommended creating what the author calls a “new table” where everyone is invited and there isn’t preconceived influence. The author sections the theory of intersectionality the idea that both identity and marginalism exist simultaneously and interact on many levels (Ettarh, 2014). Librarians should form a perspective and sense of neutrality alongside this multidimensional theory in order to best serve their patrons and the community.

REFERENCES
Adewunmi, B. (2014, April 2). Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality: “I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use”. Retrieved April 29, 2017, from http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could

Ettarh, F. (2014). Making a new table: Intersectional librarianship.
In the library with the lead pipe. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2014/making-a-new-table-intersectional-librarianship-3/

One thought on “Making a New Table: Intersectional Librarianship”

  1. Hello! Wonderful article find and discussion about the need for intersectionality not only for patrons, but also within the library profession! Programs, services, and outreach efforts may be one way of creating opportunities for dialogue between library staff members and between libraries and communities. The very idea that libraries are open to all might be recognized within American public libraries, but it is not universally so, for instance, in other countries. One thing about library research that may need to be kept in mind, however, is the difference between identifying specific intersection identities and experiences and learning to recognize layered or multiple “silos” as Ettarh has described. Library policies on diversity may also need to be further explored and reviewed in the sense that, while it may appear to be a clear goal and mission, it needs to be openly supported and advocated by library staff. Much like how libraries may promote literacy skills by encouraging family storytimes and conducting school outreach, in a similar way, libraries can also promote their “new tables” and safe spaces to the public, and to prospective library staff as a whole.

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