Andromeda Yelton

Across Divided Networks

#libtechgender: the dangers of a single story

December 21st, 2013 · 4 Comments · Uncategorized

Let me tell you some stories.

One of my favorite TED talks is this, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The danger of a single story”:

“The discovery of African literature saved me from having a single story of what books were,” she said — a single story that could be gripping and wonderfully written, that inspired her to be a writer, but also made it unthinkable that girls who looked like her and lived like her could exist in stories. (But watch the whole thing.)

One of the stories I’m following today is Andy Woodworth’s airing of grievances about where we should stop wasting our energies in libraryland, and Cecily Walker’s (excellent) follow-up post on intersectionality and the librarian image — quite rightly calling Andy to task for using language that implies librarians come from a single story, and therefore have a burden of proof on ourselves to prove competence when we depart from that story.

We are not, of course, one story. We are many stories, overlapping and crisscrossing through “librarianship”, but pulling a million threads in along the way, and pulling the threads of librarianship out into many places. Nor is stepping outside the expectations of a single story always a choice. I can’t choose to stay inside the dominant story of tech by being male; Cecily can’t choose to stay inside the dominant story of librarianship by being white. We never stepped outside. We just are.

Another of the stories I’ve been following (part of) for longer has been that of conference codes of conduct. In talking about them with ALA leadership these last six months I’ve found that the stories evoked by the term “code of conduct” vary quite a bit depending on the listener’s background. Those of us whose threads include the broader world of technology have a particular set of (deeply held, terribly important) stories we bring to the table, a context that people from other worlds lack and may find surprising; sometimes they have their own stories (often, in turn, surprising to me).

ALA is committed to telling the code of conduct story more widely, and hence has asked me to moderate a panel on #libtechgender issues. I’m still finalizing the panelists (not least pulling strings in hope that Cecily can be one of them) — but it’ll be Saturday at 4:30 in the convention center, room 201C.

One of my guiding principles in constructing this panel has been that talk above, the dangers of a single story. It would be so, so easy for me to assemble a libtechgender panel which gave the impression that there is only one story of gender in library technology, and it is the story of white, cis, straight, thirtysomething (-appearing) women (such as myself). So easy.

And I would turn down the request to moderate sooner than I would run such a panel. Because libtechgender is not a single story; it is many stories, overlapping and diverging and sometimes in conflict. I cannot conceivably fit all those stories in a panel of reasonable size or in an hour. I’m already struggling to hold all the moving parts together. I’m already frustrated that the whiter, straighter, cis-er, and thirtysomething-er my prospective panelists are, the more likely they are to say yes — to have availability, funding and release time or the ability at least to manufacture it (or, alternatively, less competition for their time from the million other people who would also like to hear their stories at a conference). But we can and will scratch the surface of more than one story. We’ll be messy and provocative and leave unresolved threads so you can repair to a bar (or blogosphere) and argue afterward. And we, and you, I hope, will resolutely take all those stories seriously — to recognize that even if they conflict with our own experiences or assumptions they ring true for someone — and to ask, what would the world look like if I took it to be this way? What would that imply about everything else?

Saturday, 4:30, convention center, 201C (scheduler link). I hope to see you there.

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