We Need to Start Caring About Caring Work

The pandemic has been a serious wake-up call regarding the fragility of our socio-economic systems, laying bare many of unresolved inequities associated with race, health, ability, and gender. While many hope that life will return to “normal” sometime soon, this normal has largely been a charade – a dance, choreographed in laws, policies, and other social behaviours that have simply reinforced the way men’s lives and livelihoods are privileged over those of women.

This is crystalized in the growing discourse of how women will be “set back” by the pandemic because of child-care issues. Consider articles relating to this that appear in the Washington Post (Coronavirus child-care crisis will set women back a generation”), The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Fall’s Looming Child-Care Crisis”), and the Globe and Mail (“Parents, trapped: Lack of child care could undermine economic recovery and hurt women, but the solution is expensive”). As Jessica Valenti pointedly observes in her Medium article, the problem only impacts women more profoundly because men do not equally share the burden of caregiving. When children cannot attend school or daycare, it is the lower wage earner (woman), the caregiver (woman), the household manager (woman) who is significantly and negatively impacted.  It is clear that the social systems that enable women to engage in waged labour continue to exist on a foundation built on patriarchal systems that made space for women but were not created in equal partnership with them. Otherwise, we would see a world where child-care and education are financially prioritized and where men and women equally share the burden of crises like this pandemic. Instead, we exist in a world that is entirely dependent on unpaid caring and service work.

Workplaces are sites of significant inequity, despite a century of unionizing, legislating, and educating. Workplaces have largely evolved from systems that benefit men, having to later make space for women (largely because they were a source of cheap labour that could be “controlled”).  Librarianship provides a stellar example of how women could enter pre-formed “professions” that were historically rooted in male leadership and design (and, like many other fields, also white and middle class)[i] that has influenced its contemporary shape and struggle. For instance, this history has generated workplaces that are largely devoid of feminist approaches to the work and to the ways this work is organized. Hiring practices, scheduling, promotion, and the hierarchical power structures reinforce patriarchal (and racist and ableist) practices that narrow the possibilities for the profession and its workers.

The pandemic brings this into sharp focus when employees are expected to adhere to regimented work schedules for the purpose of demonstrating productivity, asked to “pitch in” and do more without additional remuneration, or expected to engage in completely new forms of work at home with few additional tools and resources. In addition to their work, employees must juggle limited daycare services (that are already chronically expensive and hard to access), children in modified schooling (schooling that is used to do so much more than deliver curriculum), partners also working remotely in spaces that were never designed for such activities, care for other family relations, and cope with the general pandemic anxieties. Our existing social systems, always at work, make it seem that these struggles are inevitable in the face of our current crisis. However, if caring work was privileged and valued at the same level as economic conquest and if workplaces were designed to better balance the needs of workers with those they serve, the social impact of the pandemic (and our responses to it) would be focused more directly on limiting its spread and caring for the ill. Instead, we are pushed into tight corners where we scramble to hang on to our homes, our jobs, and our sanity.

When our employers talk out of both sides, telling us “we are in this together” and “we will get through this” while also demanding that we show up to meetings (more now than ever) and continue to produce pre-COVID volumes of work without any (or very limited) additional support, it becomes clear that the problems of gender equity remain unresolved. In a world where data collection and analysis has largely ignored women[ii], it is perhaps not surprising that economic discourse completely ignores the fact that 75% of all UNPAID caring work is performed by women[iii] and that world economies would collapse without it.   

Libraries, as workplaces, have been complicit in the reification of gender norms, harming women as well as racialized, disabled, and gender diverse people. It is why we continue to struggle with creating spaces where transgender communities feel welcome and why library workers who work with children or perform front-line service work continue to be devalued. The pandemic has merely highlighted what has always existed for those working in libraries.

Those who use library services experience most of their connections with front-line staff. Most of these folks are the lowest paid members of the library workforce and possess the least amount of power when it comes to policy development. They are also mostly women and often engaged in precarious work (auxiliary, casual, contract work). However, many are also part of unions. For example, CUPE represents more than 22,000 library workers in Canada. Unions have been extremely busy during the pandemic, working with employers to represent and protect workers. Even though these organizations can help mitigate some harms, their power is contained within legislation and policies that favour systems that are deliberately constructed to silence the experiences of gendered, racialized, and disabled people. It is simply not enough to assume that unions can single-handedly represent and protect the interests of our communities. Rather, it is our collective responsibility to make a conscious effort to see what has always been here/there and confront the assumptions that shape our inequitable world and, specifically, our immediate working environments. Union engagement is one approach but years of anti-union rhetoric and corporate work-arounds has weakened their power and influence.

As we face the economic fallout of the pandemic, there is deep apprehension about library budgets. There will be a tremendous push for austerity and decisions on spending that will be informed by what is valued. If the current phases of reopening during the ongoing pandemic are any indication of what we can expect, substantive change may be undermined by the urge to “unsee” what has been revealed to us, to turn our backs on the ugly realities that frame our social world and to double-down on preserving systems of power built around the worldview and experiences of men.

The risks of inaction can include:

  • Severe job losses for professions numerically dominated by women,[iv] many of whom are precariously employed.
  • Unpaid caring work will continue to increase, falling, largely, to women.
  • Children experiencing educational, emotional, and material setbacks.
  • Ongoing gendering of labour that limits women’s opportunities (significantly compounded for those who are also racialized, disabled, etc.)
  • The loss of opportunity for economic prosperity that stems from a fully engaged and empowered population.

Ways of taking action can include:

  • Advocating and developing gender-aware work policies and practices in the workplace. These take into account the challenges associated with unpaid labour and make necessary accommodations for staff like flexible work schedules, family leave days, adjustments to evaluation processes, etc.
  • Refusing to accept the inevitability of women having to “pick up the slack” with caregiving. Women are only disadvantaged because we refuse to openly acknowledge and change that men are not sharing caring work equally.
  • Compensating work in service and caring industries like we value them. We need to examine how it is that those who oversee or “manage” others are valued, monetarily and socially, more than those who do the bulk of the work.
  • Supporting unions. Get involved when and where you can. They are far from perfect organizations but the groundwork that they have laid should not be thrown away. Find ways to modernize them to be more inclusive, diverse, and relevant. Use them as conduits for turning up the volume on these issues. Even if you are not a member of one, learn more about them.
  • Acknowledging that the “normal” pre-COVID world was far from ideal and that there is an opportunity to demand change while the broken systems continue to be so visible. Changes can include the prioritization of service industries in corporate and government budgeting.

* WIDE provides a number of interesting articles relating to feminism and the pandemic. https://wideplus.org/2020/03/26/covid-19-crisis-from-a-feminist-perspective-overview-of-different-articles-published/

[i] Stauffer, Suzanne. 2016. The work calls for men: The social construction of professionalism and professional education for librarianship. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 57(4), 311-324. doi:10.12783/issn.2328-2967/57/4/5

[ii] I highly recommend the 2019  work of Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, on this matter.

[iii] Moreira da Silva, Jorge. 2019. Why you should care about unpaid care work. OECD. https://oecd-development-matters.org/2019/03/18/why-you-should-care-about-unpaid-care-work/

[iv] See the European Institute for Gender Equality: https://eige.europa.eu/news/coronavirus-puts-women-frontline

Library Meetings Rooms & Librarianship’s Existential Crisis?

The recent struggles over who has access to library meeting room spaces clearly marks a great divide in thinking about libraries as safe spaces and librarianship’s role in championing values of intellectual freedom. There are many thoughts on both sides of this issue, including Alvin Schraeder’s stance articulated in his piece with the Centre for Free Expression and Sam Popowich’s rebuttal. Community members, like Jane Schmidt, various authors, and the pride community have taken action in ways that illustrate the extremely complicated nature of protecting intellectual freedom when doing so has immediate and harmful consequences for marginalized people.

The fracture lines are incredibly visible to anyone followingthe issue. Pilar Martinez, Chair of the Canadian Urban Libraries Council (CULC), issued a letter supporting TPL’s decision to provide meeting space to a well-known TERF advocate (guised as a feminist), Meghan Murphy. Another letter of support was issued from the Canadian Federation of Library Association’s(CFLA/FCAB) Intellectual Freedom Committee. Yet the British Columbia LibraryAssociation, a member of the CFLA/FCAB immediately followed with its own statementin a tweet[1]that CFLA/FCAB did not act in a manner that represented an open dialogue with its member associations. In fact this had been raised in a letter earlier in the year over a very similar issue when Meghan Murphy presented in space at the Vancouver Public Library.

The division among library folks that is playing out in the online sphere is about a lot more than this one issue. Associations like CFLA/FCAB and CULC are built around the voice of those who occupy significant positions of power in Canadian library institutions. Practicing library folks, working directly with communities who face marginalization in their everyday life, are generally not represented in such organizations. Ironic when you consider that librarianship espouses simplistic and rather “wholesome” values of democracy. Power structures in library organizations largely limit democratic decision-making among the very people who work in libraries (just think “hierarchies”). Thus, the voices representing the interests/views of Canadian libraries are those of the most powerful, not the most representative.

In the face of broader social divisiveness, fueled by deeply problematic popular media, we are seeing the power structures within the library community tested, exposing librarianship’s internal discord around views of social justice. Becoming a resistant library worker is about taking positions – taking sides – despite many of us “older” librarians having participated in an education that assumed we could be neutral. Yet, taking sides is tricky when you have a library that needs funding and library workers who need to eat. The first step, though, is having an open dialogue about the fact there are, in fact, sides at all.

As I wrestle with the meeting space issues, I am actually thinking about how it may be possible to find ways of coming to terms with what I must do by turning to other ways of knowing. In fact, I had a bit of on “aha” moment while listening to a brilliant podcast hosted by two indigenous women called All My Relations who “discuss our relationships as Native peoples– relationships to land, to ancestors, and to each other.” Through the lens that everything we must do must be framed in an effort to look after each other and to the land, for me, means that I must act in ways that will conflict with certain values I hold in an effort to care for those who need it the most.  Librarianship must evolve to explore and understand the principles of access, intellectual freedom, social responsibility, etc. while also developing skills and knowledge that empowers us to act in ways that attend to the needs of people negatively impacted by relations of power. Librarianship is rooted in colonialism and this legacy (and the legacy of the patriarchy) has led us to a growing professional dissonance that can only be overcome when we see that these fractures are the product of white heteronormative power. Dismantling this power requires debate but it also requires us to question who has a voice in our field and how they get it.

[1] TheTweet Reads:

“BCLA (@bclaconnect)

2019-10-24, 9:28 AM

BCLA supports inclusive dialogue, discussion anddebate. BCLA voted “no” to sending ⁦‪@CFLAFCAB⁩letter of support for the TPL. The decision to vote “no”keeps with BCLA’s position, articulated in an earlier letter, which can befound on our website: bit.ly/2MMxaTD”

Renting Versus Owning: Libraries, Ebooks and Missed Opportunities

As part of the commons, libraries occupy a shrinking space in the contemporary world. Co-existing with the ever-increasing property rights of individuals and corporations, the commons represents ownership by a community. Interestingly, before colonialism, “commons were the rule rather than the exception across much of the planet.”[i]Colonialism, however, facilitated the Lockean (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke-political/#Pro) view that a man’s labour could turn natural resources into property, facilitating the exploitation of the natural world and indigenous peoples. While property then became increasingly “enclosed” – i.e. private – libraries evolved from largely elite and private collections to “public” spaces that broadly served the educational and literacy needs of communities. Although a growing body of scholarship complicates this history, revealing libraries to be colonial institutions that were intended to facilitate cultural assimilation,[ii] libraries continue to be viewed as communally held spaces that collect materials (digital and physical) to share.

This is not an easy space to occupy. Despite operating as an aspect of the commons, libraries are part of a world that engages in free markets, having to acquire resources, engage in labour practices, and serve patrons within a capitalist framework. Söderholm and Nolin describe the modern library as “a place built around a collection and a collection built around a place”[iii]where members of communities engage in “everyday consumption strategies”[iv] by borrowing materials that support/satisfy their needs. These materials are acquired through processes that are directly informed by belief in private property, including intellectual property. Publishing houses negotiate the domain between creators and distribution of their creations. Libraries have become extremely dependent on their relationships with these corporations in paying for the “right” to share the materials that publishers “produce.”[v]

Manley and Holly reveal the surprisingly long technological evolution of ebooks that began as early as 1945.[vi] Similar to the early days of the Internet and search engines, library professionals missed the opportunity to fully participate in the development of ebooks and their distribution, enabling proprietary systems to dominate. The problem that has emerged is one of control over content. Libraries are beholden to private corporations for access to resources on subscription models (i.e. “renting”), rather than owning. In addition to the reduced (or total lack of) control over package configurations, privacy protections, and user experience, libraries are being priced out of options. This has been a long-standing issue for academic libraries and the always-increasing and exorbitant costs of subscriptions to journals but it is now spilling into the sector of mainstream ebooks accessed by public libraries.

While print began its early transition to digital during the 20th century, the library profession had an opportunity to insert its expertise and lead in the print-to-digital evolution. Despite the massive opportunities for paradigm shifts in how information could be shared and developed, the field deferred to tech companies and publishers. This resulted in missed opportunities for establishing systems that default toprotecting user privacy, allow for collaborative sharing (e.g. open source), and centre on community-defined (rather than consumer-defined) end-user experience. Reacting to change rather than demanding a role in the development of ebooks, the library profession allowed the publishing industry to simply draw on its traditional structures and corporate interests to shape ebooks, pushing (and not meeting much resistance) library purchasing/ownership models to leasing models. Looking at the long-standing battles held in academic libraries around exploitative subscription services, it is hardly surprising to see publishers making a similar play to public libraries. Despite the decreasing costs faced by publishers for print materials (i.e. reduction of physical materials and their handling), publishers are changing the conditions of ebook access to libraries by both increasing costs and limiting access through embargo periods for new releases.[vii] Interestingly, however, there is evidence that publishers could be shooting themselves in the foot. A report from BookNet Canada, a non-profit organization that supports the book trade industry in Canada, indicates that people who use the library also buy books. This calls into question publisher claims that borrowing ebooks from libraries is “too easy” and is somehow harmful to them.[viii][ix] Creators do not seem to be benefitting either. In fact, the Author’s Guild argues that publishers are doing “less than ever for their authors.”[x]

In the thick of all of this, Canadian libraries find themselves suddenly facing changes that grossly undermine their ability to provide access to materials. Further, libraries have built up community expectations for ebooks and other digital subscription services, promoting and allocating more and more of their library collection budgets to such materials. This highlights the incredible tension in libraries serving communities as partof the commons while also having to function as business organizations that interact with external corporate entities.

The emerging situation with publishers and ebooks also illustrates how the lack of coordinated policies around information access has prevented the profession from acting more strategically, proactively, and politically. Sharon Farb’s examination of the changing focus and role of academic libraries and archives in the digital world highlights the significant lack of overarching information policies in the field. She suggests that such policies may better address the challenges of restricting digital content licenses and the need for reliable, ongoing preservation practices for digital content.[xi] This necessitates collective action and educating our communities on the importance of protecting a part of the commons that, while far from perfect, strives to protect access to a range of materials that document our histories, our stories, and our cultures more broadly. This is a resistive effort in a world that assigns value to creative “products” that frequently erases historical contexts that make such creations possible, denying “the claims of everyone who came before you.”[xii] Libraries offer an important site for the preservation of those claims and they might be able to offer something different in the face of a digital world that is steadily becoming enclosed, privatized, and full of questionable truths.[xiii]


[i]Derek Wall. (2014). The Commons in History: Culture, Conflict, and Ecology.Cambridge: MIT Press.

[ii] See nina de jesus’ article “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression” for an introduction to the topic that complicates the historical role of libraries. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2014/locating-the-library-in-institutional-oppression/

[iii] Söderholm,J., & Nolin, J. (2015). Collections Redux: The Public Library as a Place ofCommunity Borrowing. Library Quarterly, 85(3), 244–260. https://doi-org.proxy.ufv.ca:2443/10.1086/681608,p. 257.

[iv] Söderholm& Nolin, p. 256.

[v] Itis easy to assume that the creator-corporate publisher model is inevitable inthe production of works but there are models that disrupt this notion. For example, academic libraries and researchers are wrestling with open access models, the Digital Public Libraries of America project (https://pro.dp.la/ebooks) provides access through partnerships like the Indie Author Project eBook Collection, and various forms of self publishing.

[vi] Manley,L. & Holley, R.P. (2012). History of the Ebook: The Changing Face of Books,Technical Services Quarterly, 29:4, 292-311, DOI: 10.1080/07317131.2012.705731

[vii]For specific details on this issue, consider looking at the Canadian Urban Libraries Council’s statement on digital loans for public libraries at http://www.culc.ca/cms_lib/CULC-CBUC%20Statement%20on%20Digital%20Loans.pdf

[viii]Booknet Canada. (2019). Borrow, Buy, Read: Library Use and Book Buying inCanada. https://www.booknetcanada.ca/borrow-buy-read?utm_source=BookNet+Canada+Media+List&utm_campaign=3d22e99613-press_librarystudy_28052019&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_71c57dac98-3d22e99613-710667029

[ix] Interviewwith Rina Hadziev. (June 27, 2019) “Changes to library lending.” Live fromStudio 5 on AMI-audio. https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/live-from-studio-5-on-ami-audio/id1235751531?mt=2

[x]Author’s Guild. (2015). The Authors Guild Fair Contract Initiative: A FreshLook at the “Standard” Contract. https://www.authorsguild.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Fair-Contract-Initiative_mission_Final_6.pdf

[xi] Farb,S. (2006). Libraries, licensing and the challenge of stewardship. First Monday,11(7). doi: https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v11i7.1364

[xii] Cory Doctorow. (March 4, 2019). “TerraNullius.” Locus. https://locusmag.com/2019/03/cory-doctorow-terra-nullius/

[xiii] I acknowledge that libraries are not innocent or neutral spaces, serving as colonial sites of cultural reproduction. They are, however, what we have and, perhaps, they can evolve to become something far better.

Librarianship Must Become a Feminist Profession

Unlike other fields numerically dominated by women, librarianship¨ has been extremely slow in incorporating feminist values and approaches to work. It is a long way from being a feminist profession. Certainly, there are feminists among us but their critical efforts to resist have not yet led to a significant transformation of the profession. The ways in which work is recognized/rewarded/organized has remained largely unchanged since the early 20th century. Librarianship continues to overlook the importance of women as people who inhabit different spaces from men, who experience the world differently from men, and who face discrimination and obstacles that are different from men. Not only does this result in a perpetuation of values that privilege men’s worldview, it also prevents us from developing solutions to problems inside and outside of libraries. In other words, the ongoing invisibility of issues that specifically affect women undermine our broader efforts to tackle social justice problems as well as issues like inclusiveness, information access, and intellectual freedom.  

To illustrate how this invisibility works, consider library design. Most libraries continue to be designed by men in coordination with community planners, a field also dominated by men.[1] Much of our built space assumes that “male needs are universal.”[2] To illustrate, consider bathrooms. While building codes and other standards require these spaces to be equally dedicated to men and women, women use them with more frequency and for longer periods. They are more likely to accompany children and others who have mobility issues, including the elderly. Women also require these spaces to change menstruation products, which requires more frequent visits and for longer periods of time. Because of the smaller footprint of urinals, more men can utilize public facilities at any given time than women who use stalls. So, how are library bathrooms constructed? Are they situated in ways that accommodate their physical needs, including their safety?

Feminist author Caroline Perez describes how men do not face “the extra mental hurdle”[3] that women must frequently overcome when moving in and through public spaces. Public transit, often assumed to be equitable, often fails to take into account women’s (statistically legitimate) fear for their safety when standing at bus shelters, waiting on empty train platforms, walking to transit stops, etc.  Perez notes that changes like improving lighting, having more security people (not more technological surveillance), digital timetables, and improved visibility on paths to transit stops are easy ways to improve safety. Making such changes requires planners to turn their mind to the experiences of women.

Women’s fear and anxiety around public spaces are grounded in their everyday experience. For example, Holly Kearl’s study of street harassment reveals that women experience harassment early in life (87% of respondents were harassed by age 19 and 22% by age 12).[4] Her work highlights how women learn early in life that they are vulnerable in ways that men are generally not. Women must think about the ways they move through the world very differently than men and, when systems do not work for them, they are expected to change their behaviour. However, it is the poorly designed spaces that ignore women’s perspectives that is the problem. What consideration is made when thinking about accessing library spaces? For example, is there reserved parking for women at night? Because women are more likely to be pedestrians than men, are nearby transit stops and paths to buildings well lit and visible? When new libraries are constructed, what consideration is made for the lives of women and other groups who have been historically and systematically excluded from public decision-making?

In addition to safety, women’s health is also impacted by gender bias. Standard building temperatures, for instance, were established in the 1960s based on “the metabolic resting rate of the average forty-year-old, 70kg man”[5] – the “ideal” subject. Recent research reveals that women’s metabolic biology necessitates a different approach to building temperature.[6]  Not only do colder office temperatures lead to productivity issues,[7] it exacerbates symptoms of chronic conditions like arthritis and elevates stress.

Even when women are in leadership roles, they must confront long-standing systems that are informed by men who do not face the same experiences. Men do not breastfeed, experience pregnancy or have periods. Women around the world continue to bear the lion’s share of caring and domestic labour, even when they do work full-time. Perez points out that fifty years of U.S. census data shows that

“when women join an industry in high numbers, that industry attracts lower pay and loses ‘prestige’, suggesting that low-paid work chooses women rather than the other way around.”[8]

This is contributing to women’s poverty, particularly in old age. This necessitates government policy that actively works towards improving women’s chances for financial success but also for greater participation in how the problems of the world are understood and addressed. Libraries have an important opportunity to assist but this is only possible if those who work in libraries adopt a feminist, even critical feminist, approach to their work.

Recently, Taryn Grant of the Toronto Star reported that “Halifax libraries [are] ‘making history’ with free menstrual products in every bathroom.”[9] The bigger question is why has it taken libraries so long to recognize this as an issue when 80% of the library workforce is intimately familiar with the struggles of menstruation? Indeed, why is this change only following the work that has already been done in many municipalities, unions, and school districts in Canada? Our slow uptake on such issues illustrates how difficult it has been for us to shake loose the gender bias that structures our workplaces and the very essence of how we perceive our work.

A feminist perspective that privileges the lived experiences of women disrupts how we think and this is imperative if we are going to survive the kinds of disruption that comes with technological, economic, social, and environmental change. It is how we can better interrogate what data we need, how we collect data, how we use data, how we build collections, design buildings, staff libraries, and support our communities (particularly as they experience more frequent and more complex forms of crisis). It can also assist us in confronting the social difference and problems of inclusivity we face within our own workplaces and the profession more broadly.

While I have not attended to intersectionality here, it is also an important extension of feminism in that it, too, allows us to shift our thinking by bringing our differences into the light where they can be thoughtfully examined. We have to constantly remind ourselves that libraries are colonial institutions that were designed by the world of men to systematically organize diverse cultural identities under a singular narrative of Western “progressive” thought. How different would libraries look today if they were structured around the experiences of women? Of people of diverse cultural backgrounds? How might we resist ongoing efforts to corporatize and bureaucratize our public spaces so that we might get to the real work of seeing people for who they are and serve them as they are, not who we wish them to be.


* I use “librarians” and “librarianship” to refer to all library workers because our communities could, largely, care less about our internal hierarchies.

[1] The American Institute of Architects documents significant issues with diversity of its members, including gender with women only 22% of their membership being women in 2014. https://www.architecturalrecord.com/ext/resources/news/2016/03-Mar/AIA-Diversity-Survey/AIA-Diversity-Architecture-Survey-02.pdf. Not only has urban planning also been male dominated, it has “assumed a male subject” (p. 3). Susan S. Fainstein and Lisa J. Servon, Eds. (2005). Gender and Planning: A Reader. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers.

[2] Perez, Caroline Criado. (2019). Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. New York, Abrams Press, p.86.

[3] Perez, p. 53.

[4] Kearl, Holly. (2010). Stop street harassment: Making public places safe and welcoming for women. E-book. Praeger, p. 16.

[5] Perez, p. 111.

[6] Kingma, Boris and Marken Lichtenbelt, Wouter van (2015), ‘Energy consumption in building and female thermal demand,’ Natre Cimate Change, 5, 1054-6.

[7] Khazan, Olga. (May 22, 2019). Frigid Offices Might Be Killing Women’s Productivity. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/05/warm-offices-women-productivity/589966/

[8] Perez, 77.

[9] Grant, Taryn. (June 8, 2019). “Halifax libraries ‘making history’ with free menstrual products in every bathroom.” Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/halifax/2019/06/08/halifax-libraries-making-history-with-free-menstrual-products-in-every-bathroom.html

Why Libraries Must Stop Using the Word “Customer”

For the last several years I have been musing a lot about words, particularly the way in which they construct ways of knowing – working to shape our assumptions and our actions. Recently attending a local library conference, I could not seem to escape one particularly problematic word.


Language can both expand and contain our thinking. For example, accustomed to the rain of Vancouver, Canada, locals use various terms to describe that rain – drizzle, shower, downpour, spitting, sprinkle, misting, etc. For a Vancouverite, a “drizzle” is immediately understood to be a kind of rain that represents a grey, monotonous, and dreary day. Yet, it can also be something familiar and even reassuring. A “drizzle” captures a feeling and a knowing.

What knowing is available to us when we use the word customer? What underlying assumptions shape our use of the term and the way it is applied? What do we actually mean when we invoke this word and what messages does its use send to others, like those who support and use our libraries? What values are at work beneath its surface?

The lack of open debate about the term’s use, while troubling, is not surprising. Through “policy borrowing,”[i] libraries have normalized the use of corporate language while also shifting their role from collections to people. Shifting ideas around the role of libraries has taken place within the context of neoliberalism and corporatization where public institutions adopt managerial practices that are based consumer-market models.[ii] This has led to the re-imagining of libraries as organizations that must be “competitive” while supporting the interests of individuals who must also compete as consumers and producers.

Although community is also a concern for library workers, the privileging of individuals as market agents (customers) can generate a critical tension between “community” and “persons”. What is good for a community, may not be in the interest of individuals, as seen in the struggle for libraries to balance the interests of various community groups when making space available in room bookings (e.g. VPL room rental , TPL memorial service). On a daily basis, library workers must confront the material effects of a shrinking middle-class and the expanding needs of people who find themselves in economically and socially unstable situations. The term “customer” has a dehumanizing effect and does little to elevate the role of libraries within communities. It positions libraries within the competitive marketplace – a place where the public good and social responsibility cannot easily thrive (or, perhaps, exist at all).

“Customer service” has become the way libraries describe service. This form of service is constrained within the limits of capitalism and speaks to values associated with supporting the economy through production and consumption. As a dominant term that circulates at the highest levels of library decision-making, it frames policies, procedures, and general discourse around service, limiting our conception of how libraries can serve. It essentializes service by constructing it around temporary transactional experiences rather than experiences that are built on deep personal and community connections. Yet, by challenging things like customer sovereignty (a concept that frames the individual consumer as someone “whose preferences are to be privileged and catered to whenever possible,”[iii] enabling consumers to feel they have a hand in the development of the marketplace), libraries may find new ways to balance public interest.

While there has been some debate over the use of other terms like “patron” and “user,” [iv] the use of customer continues to dominate LIS literature. There is likely no single, universally recognized term to describe the people who use libraries, signalling that we should think more deeply about all the language we use, when we use it and why we use it. This is because in “recognizing that community is something that does not simply exist but instead must be built, recognizing that community is always complex, negotiated, multifarious, and recognizing the forces that are arrayed against the formation of community,”[v] we can reshape our services to better reflect contemporary social need.

Avoiding the use of “customer” may create new space for library workers to develop programs, services, and collections that shake loose the neoliberal agenda that underwrites the global socio-economic and environmental collapse that we may realistically face. Further, this kind of resistance may assist us in grappling with some of the conflict and discomfort that we experience in our daily practice, challenging efforts to deskill/deprofessionalize/devalue the work we do and the people we, in turn, serve. Such work can build solidarity in our institutions and in our communities so that we may “reconnect and recommit to a sense of the common good.”[vi]


[i] Ball, S. J. (2016). Neoliberal education? Confronting the slouching beast. Policy Futures in Education, 14(8), 1046-1059. doi:10.1177/1478210316664259

[ii] Hutton, J. G., Leung, V., Mak, A. K. Y., &, R. J. V., & Watjatrakul, B. (2011). Students, Patients, Citizens, and Believers as “Customers”: A Cross-National Exploratory Study. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 23(1), 41-70. doi:10.1080/10495142.2011.548758

[iii] Brooks, A., & Wee, L. (2016). The Cultural Production of Consumption and Achievement. Cultural Politics, 12(2), 217-232. doi:10.1215/17432197-3592112 -p. 219.

[iv]E.g. Molaro, A. (2012, March 28). Just Whom Do We Serve? Patrons? Users? Clients? The name foreshadows the interaction. American Libraries. Retrieved from https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2012/03/28/just-whom-do-we-serve/;  Stauffer, S. M. (2012). “Patrons” Versus “Customers”. American Libraries, 43(5/6), 12-13. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/stable/23278069; Pundsack, K. (2015, March 2). Customers or Patrons? How You Look at Your Library’s Users Affects Customer Service. Public Libraries Online. Retrieved from http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2015/03/customers-or-patrons-how-you-look-at-your-librarys-users-affects-customer-service/

[v] Fitzpatrick, K. (2019). Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 13

[vi] Fitzpatrick, K. (2019). p. 13.

My Research: Why it Matters

Not only is academic research hard to do (well), it is often hard to read – especially if academic work is not part of your everyday experience and expertise. At the same time, it is crucially important that others can understand if we are to expose, analyze, and suggest solutions to our social, medical, economic, technological, and political problems.

Inside the Canadian Parliamentary Library. Person posing in the foreground.
A visit to the Canadian Parliamentary Library – closed now for Centre Block Renovations.

While my work is focused on an analysis of popular culture representations of librarians in modern media, the underlying messages revealed in my selections offer some explanation of why the work women do — wherever they are — is so frequently devalued. Further, it suggests that work in caring and supportive roles is devalued because it is women who are associated with such work.

My scholarship specifically looks at how messages about gender shape our assumptions about what work is valued and not valued. Just as librarian Sam Popowich blows up the idea that neutrality and making decisions from an unbiased standpoint is impossible for librarians (and anyone, for that matter), I argue that the social world is always subject to relations of power. We can resist this power, we can be coerced by it, and we can be complicit in its use. In our daily lives, it can be hard for us to see or be aware of this power. This power functions as “truth” and helps in explaining why women continue to be subject to discrimination, sexism, exploitation, and other forms of devaluation. This is part of the interconnected systems of power and oppression and I strongly advocate for intersectional feminism because “Western women [are not the] only legitimate subjects of struggle” (Heidi Safia Mirza 2015, p. 4) .

Using librarianship as the launchpad, I explore how modern pop culture examples assert/reassert “feminine” behaviours in problematic ways. For example, caring work, frequently associated with women, emerges over and over again as something that is tied to mothering. Women who fail to care are often revealed as failures as women. They become the butt of jokes, people to be pitied and/or disliked, and/or not worth our attention (just think of the “old maid” librarian). Such views about femininity contribute to our material circumstances because they build truths around what kinds of work deserve to be acknowledged and which do not. The hegemonic (dominant) narratives of heroes and “strong” leaders (just think of Marvel movies) leave little room for other approaches to living/leading, including approaches that are seen as “feminine” (e.g. caring, nurturing, supporting). This results in an ongoing preference to reward strength, restrained emotions, and control that are highly gendered and women, who exhibit such characteristics, are judged differently because they are supposed to practice femininity well. Consider, for example, the fictional character of Cersei Baratheon in Game of Thrones whose hunger to wield/retain power, her failure to mother properly, and her infidelity characterize as positively villainous, even though that world is saturated with male characters who are not so dissimilar.

In the less fantastic realm of everyday labour, the “othering” of women (i.e. made to feel that they fall outside of systems of power) reinforces value systems that privilege men and “professionalize” work through an emphasis on order, control, and rationalization. Prestige and status are associated with managerial control, not caring work. Women’s professional advancement continues to be informed by male-dominated value systems that limit women’s access to power. In the library world, this is illustrated in the disproportionate numbers of male library leadership and tenured faculty in Canadian Library and Information Study/Science programs.

The privileging of male worldviews means that even professions like librarianship, numerically dominated by women, are historically rooted in patriarchal knowledge systems that continue to shape the ways these professions function and how they “valued” in broader culture. This means that certain ways of leading are also better acknowledged and rewarded than others. For example, emphasis on leaders to demonstrate effectiveness and accountability through a neoliberal lens diminish the value and importance of actually caring about people, showing empathy, and not always being right.

Reconfiguring work to better align with notions of management, rationality, and accountability actually denies the value of certain kinds of work. As an example, librarianship is a field that has struggled to define itself as a “real” profession and in that struggle there have been numerous calls for librarians to behave differently, orienting them to the dehumanizing practices associated with efficiency, effectiveness, and quality assurance. There is a need to openly debate and explore how the social structures that perpetuate racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination limit who gets to lead and in what ways. For librarians, there has been a long history of male-dominated leadership (alarming when 80% of the field is women). Even though there has been an improvement in historically troubling ratios, leadership has become more rationalized over time, indicating that patriarchal influence remains a powerful element in the field’s leadership. This is because what is understood to be knowledge is based on the experience of (white) men, diminishing creative and diverse approaches to work because there is little space for other ways of “seeing” the world, including feminist perspectives.

Librarianship has an extensive legacy of blaming itself for its professional woes, turning on itself by advocating for greater management and computer science training/education, credential inflation, renaming job titles, changing behaviour/appearance, and just working harder. Yet, the material conditions of library workers has improved little. In fact, the field continues to face issues with diversifying its workforce, confronting the
“white supremacy and racism [that] has permeated our profession and our professional events,” (Hathcock, 2019) and improving salaries. This is because the field has not made more concerted efforts to turn its attention to the alienating social practices that depoliticize and depersonalize our lived experiences.

There is hope, however. As more librarians engage in critical discourse, whether it is through scholarship, informal exchanges of stories, or through social media. (e.g. critlib), we can shine a light on why it is we frequently, “routinely make decisions that oppose our declared values,” (Yousefi, 2017, p. 92). As my project on librarian representations reveals, we need to turn our critical eye on the ways broader culture characterizes our profession if we are really going to understand where our profession “fits” in the 21st century. In addition, we desperately need to explore these ideas in our education programs.

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A New Beginning…

I kept a blog for a number of years, talking about library-related issues and ideas. Returning to school in 2013 consumed so much of my being that keeping up a blog was just too much. Now that I have come out of that journey (intact and only a little bruised), I am ready to write for fun again. My blog had to change because I have changed. Today I have become a resistant librarian (and a resistant teacher) who seeks to push against assumptions and question my own practice.

Blog Scope: This space will encompass my thoughts and feelings about the intersection of work and life, peppered with references, sometimes “academic” and sometimes “popular,” because my writing is really about the fusion of my scholarship, teaching, service work, and subjectivity as a human being. (Dr. Hannah McGregor shares an excellent podcast episode (3.15 Doing Feminism in the Classroom) exploring this kind of intersectionality in more depth – a great listen).

Because I love media and find great inspiration from popular culture and books, I will also review selected materials that pique my interest.

My Title: “Resistant” comes from my doctoral work in which I explore representations of librarians in popular culture who push back against common and problematic stereotypes. It also describes my internal frame of mind, which is often in a state of resistance – to various kinds of oppression, apathy, ignorance, and general unkindness. I believe that although we all have agency, we are also caught in ongoing forms of social relations that constrain us — “resistance” is part of the process of being a 21st century human.

About Me: I am a white middle-class woman. My roots are poor, working class folks who farmed, worked in coal mines, and basically did whatever it took to survive. I have had a career in libraries and higher education for more than 20 years and I consider myself someone who is generally very fortunate. I feel a deep responsibility to help others and, while I may not always get things right, I try to not bring harm onto others.

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