An open letter to Heather Bresch

Dear Heather Bresch,

You lived in Morgantown. I did, too: born and raised. My parents are retired from the university you attended. My elementary school took field trips to Mylan labs. They were shining, optimistic.

You’re from West Virginia. I am, too. This means we both know something of the coal industry that has both sustained and destroyed our home. You know, as I do, how many miners have been killed in explosions: trapped underground when a pocket of methane ignites. We both know that miners long carried safety lamps: carefully shielded but raw flames that would go out when the oxygen went too low, a warning to get away — if they had not first exploded, as open flames around methane do. Perhaps you know, as I only recently learned, that miners were once required to buy their own safety lamps: so when safer ones came out, ones that would only warn without killing you first, miners did not carry them. They couldn’t afford to. They set probability against their lives, went without the right equipment, and sometimes lost, and died.

I’m a mother. You are, too. I don’t know if your children carry medication for life-threatening illnesses; I hope you have not had to face that. I have. In our case it’s asthma, not allergies, and an inhaler, not an Epi-Pen. It’s a $20 copay with our insurance and lasts for dozens of doses. It doesn’t stop asthma attacks once they start — my daughter’s asthma is too severe for that — but sometimes it prevents them. And when it does not, it still helps: we spend two days in the hospital instead of five; we don’t go to the ICU. (Have you ever been with your child in a pediatric ICU? It is the most miraculous, and the worst, place on earth.)

Most families can find their way to twenty dollars. Many cannot find six hundred. They’ll go without, and set probability against their children’s lives. Rich children will live; poor children will sometimes lose, and die.

I ask you to reconsider.


Andromeda Yelton

Be bold, be humble: Wikipedia, libraries, and who spoke

Today I’m at a Wikipedia + libraries mini-conference, as a member of both worlds but also, strangely, neither. I write software for the Wikimedia Foundation (specifically the Wikipedia Library, which is among the conveners). I’m a librarian by training, and the President-Elect of LITA. But I also don’t identify as a Wikipedian (my edit count is, last I checked, 5), I don’t work in a library, and I have never worked in an academic library (whereas the other convener is the Association of Research Libraries).

This is a great excuse to be an observer, and try out a tool that was going around Twitter a month ago:

It’s a set of paired timers: “a dude” and “not a dude”. You click the button that represents the speaker. At the end, you have a count of how much time each category held the floor. In our first session today, 52% of the speaking time was men.

Sounds equal! Except…42% of the room appeared to be men. And as I looked around, I realized that all but perhaps one of the 10 men had spoken at least once, whereas about 5 of the 14 women had said nothing at all in our morning session. (Myself included; I was too busy processing the meta-meeting, tracking all of this.)

“Be bold”, said the coffee mug in front of me. Who is bold?

Interrupters are bold; I tracked interruptions, too. About ⅔ of the interruptions were by men (though, somewhat to my surprise, most of those were interrupting other men). Of the other interruptions, the ones by women — I did not track so I cannot say for sure, but I believe 100% of them were by two women, both of whom are highly involved Wikipedians.

(I suspect, in fact, though I did not track this either, that women’s propensity to speak correlated with the status they had in these spheres coming into the room: all the women here are librarians, but for the most part the women who who spoke were either widely recognized Wikipedians or library directors.)

“Be bold,” says the coffee mug, but so many librarians have worked in places where boldness is not valued, where indeed they have been punished for it.

I tried tracking self-undercutting behavior — “Hopefully I’m not speaking for everyone too much…” and “I don’t know what other, more technical people than me might say” and a staggering number of instances of “just”, for instance — but I walked back on that, because there are so many grey areas (e.g. sometimes “just” is not deployed to undermine one’s competence or status) that I had no coherent way to code it. But insofar as I tried to count, when a speaker labeled her contribution as possibly lacking value or her competence as possibly being insufficient, in every instance but one it was a woman.

“Be bold,” says the coffee mug, but we know in the room that librarians new to editing Wikipedia will need some acculturation to thrive in that process, and vice versa that Wikipedians working with libraries have their own cultural knowledge divide to cross.

Because — it is vice versa, too, isn’t it. It’s so easy to look at that value of boldness, one of the most celebrated in Wikipedia, or at the ways that male-coded discourse patterns aid in gaining or establishing status, and think, dammit, women should stop saying “just” all the time. But — even though I am often quietly flipping out inside when people undercut themselves — I saw the value of not being bold in the room, too. These humbler discourse patterns serve to recognize others’ contributions, others’ competence. They serve to hold space in the room for others to contribute, to build on or critique what’s being said, to establish their own expertise. They can represent the shakiness of not recognizing one’s own skill, yes — but they can also represent the humility in recognizing others’ skill. They allow space for others to have feelings on the topic that may not accord with the speakers’, yet retain legitimacy.

This is…not really how Wikipedia works. The encyclopedia that anyone can edit is the encyclopedia where everyone has the right to the floor. And there’s a liberation in that — on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog and the things you say matter — but there’s also an oppression, in that it rewards everyone who’s never stopped to think that maybe they’re not the expert. It rewards an investment in being right, but not in noticing the emotional undercurrents of the room, in building relationships over time and ensuring stakeholders are identified and heard, which is very much how well-run libraries tend to operate. It rewards the quick and assertive, whereas I spent today watching participation be more equal and distributed when there was structured moderation, and slide into literally 90% male voices in the last ten minutes of the day, when people were feeling punchy and discussion was totally open.

The gender gap stalks this meeting, every moment. Wikipedia editors are about 90% male; librarians are about 80% female (unless, of course, you’re in a room that draws heavily from upper management, as we are today). Wikipedia has a notorious, unsolved, and frequently gendered harassment problem. Unless you are content to be exceptionally disingenuous, you cannot talk about bringing librarians into Wikipedia without talking about this.

And here I am today not talking, because I’m listening instead. Because I’m counting. (Because I am, if I’m to be entirely honest, uncertain if I have anything to say in this context, undercutting myself in this very parenthesis.) Because I’m seeing a problem so much more difficult and more slippery than training, or documentation, or policy…our genders as ghosts in the very language we speak. Boldness as liberatory only for the bold, creating a space where the strengths of female-coded discourse patterns are pushed off to the margins, where humility looks like weakness.

I may go through a lot of coffee tomorrow.

"Be Bold" Wikipedia coffee mug

what I learned about leadership from the Emerging Leaders

About five and a half years ago, I was sitting in a big room in conventionland (San Diego, but who’s counting) with my class of Emerging Leaders, as we brainstormed about the qualities of an excellent leader.

Someone was writing those qualities up on a flip chart and, gosh, would I have liked to work for flip chart lady. She was so perceptive and thoughtful and strategic and empathetic and not bad at anything and just great. Way cooler than me. Everyone would like to work for flip chart lady.

And then one of my brainstorming colleagues said, you know, there’s one quality we haven’t put up there, because it’s not actually a core competency for leaders, and that’s intelligence. And the room nodded in agreement, because she was right. You probably can’t be an effective leader if you’re genuinely dumb, but all other things being equal, being smarter doesn’t actually make you a better leader. And we’ve all met really smart people who were disastrous leaders; intelligence alone simply does not confer the needed skills. Fundamentally, if “leader” were a D&D class, its prime requisite would not be INT.

The whole room nodded along with her while I thought, well crap, that’s the only thing I’ve always been good at.

So I was in a funk for a while, mulling that over. And eventually decided, well, people I respect put me in this room; I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong. I’m going to find a way to make it work. I’m going to look for the situations where the skills I have can make a difference, where my weaknesses don’t count against me too much. There’s not a shortage of situations in the world that need more leadership; I’ll just have to look for the ones where the leader that’s needed can be me. They won’t be the same situations where the people to my left and right will shine, and that’s okay. And if I’m not flip chart lady, if I’m missing half her strengths and I’m littered with weaknesses she doesn’t have (because she doesn’t have any)…well, as it turns out, no one is flip chart lady. We all have weaknesses. We are all somehow, if we’re leading interesting lives at all, inadequate to the tasks we set ourselves, and perhaps leadership consists largely in rising to those tasks nonetheless.

So here I am, five and a half years later, awed and humbled to be the LITA Vice-President elect. With a spreadsheet open where I’m sketching out at the Board’s request a two-year plan for the whole association, because if intelligence is the one thing you’ve always been good at, and the thing that’s needed is assimilating years’ worth of data about people and budgets and goals and strengths and weaknesses and opportunities, and transmuting that into something coherent and actionable…

Well hey. Maybe that’ll do.

Thanks for giving me the chance, everybody. I couldn’t possibly be more excited to serve such a thoughtful, creative, smart, motivated, fun, kind bunch of people. To figure out how LITA can honor your efforts and magnify your work as, together, we take a national association with near fifty years of history into its next fifty years. I can’t be flip chart lady for you (no one can), but I am spreadsheet lady, and I’m here for you. Let’s rock.

Let’s measure the build of Measure the Future!

Bret Davidson and Jason Casden wrote this Code4Lib journal article I adore, “Beyond Open Source: Evaluating the Community Availability of Software”.

From their abstract:

The Code4Lib community has produced an increasingly impressive collection of open source software over the last decade, but much of this creative work remains out of reach for large portions of the library community. Do the relatively privileged institutions represented by a majority of Code4Lib participants have a professional responsibility to support the adoption of their innovations?

(Protip: yes.)

Davidson and Casden then go on to propose some metrics for software availability — that is, how can the developers producing this software estimate how installable and usable it might be for institutions which may not themselves have developers? The first of these is:

Time to pilot on a laptop. Defined as the time needed to install and configure, at minimum, a demonstration instance of the application, particularly for use in organizational evaluation of software.

Well! I now have an alpha version of the Measure the Future mothership. And I want it to be available to the community, and installable by people who aren’t too scared of a command line, but aren’t necessarily developers. So I’m going to measure the present, too: how long does it take me to install a mothership from scratch — in my case, on its deployment hardware, an Intel Edison?

tl;dr 87 minutes.

Is this good enough? No. But I knew it wouldn’t be; the priority for alpha is making it installable at all. And this took about two days; my sysadmin-fu is weak, and the Edison is a weird little platform that doesn’t have as big a software ecosystem as I’m used to, or lots of handy internet documentation (as far as I can tell, I’m the first person to have ever put Django on an Edison).

It’s going to be an additional chunk of work to get that 87 minutes down – it’s hard to make things easy! I need to bundle what I have into a shell script and package up the dependencies for faster installation (luckily fellow MtF developer Clinton Freeman has already done some work on packaging dependencies for the scouts, which will speed things up for me). The goal here is that, after end users have installed the operating system (which will unavoidably take several steps), they’ll be able to run one command, which will then take care of everything else (possibly prompting users for a little information along the way). After that, download and installation will probably still take some time (a lot of bits need to move across the network), but that time should be unattended.

Anyway. That’s the plan! I’m making a public record of my 87 minutes here so you can see how much progress I make in future, and also to provide some insight into the very real work that goes into streamlining build systems.

analyzing the Ruby Community Conduct Guideline

tl;dr I read the Ruby Community Conduct Guideline. There are some appealing elements, but it is not actually workable as a governance document. I see three key problems: lack of recourse, assumption of symmetry, and non-handling of bad actors.


The Ruby Community Conduct Guideline has an arresting blankness where I expected to see information on procedure. In particular, it doesn’t address any of the following:

  • How, and to whom, can conduct bugs be reported?
  • Who has the authority to mediate, or adjudicate, disputes under this guideline?
  • How are people selected for this role?
  • What sanctions may they impose? (What may they not impose?)
  • What procedures will they follow to:
    • Investigate situations
    • Reach decisions
    • Communicate those decisions to the aggrieved parties and the community at large
  • What enforcement mechanisms are (and are not) available after decisions are reached? Who is invested with the authority to carry out these enforcement mechanisms?

The absence of such procedures is obviously worrisome to people who identify with complainants and see themselves as being at risk of being harassed, because it indicates that there is, in fact, no mechanism for lodging a complaint, and no one responsible for handling it. But it should also be worrisome to people who see themselves as more likely to be (however unfairly) among the accused, because it means that if someone does attempt to lodge a complaint, the procedures for handling it will be invented on the fly, by people under stress, deadline pressure, and heavy criticism.

The history of such situations does not suggest this will go well.


There are, again, some appealing statements of aspirational values in the Guideline. But the values are written as if they apply equally to all parties in all scenarios, and this has serious failure modes.

I expect, for instance, that the first guideline (“Participants will be tolerant of opposing views”) is meant to avoid folding an ideological litmus test into the Guideline. And I actually share the implied concern there; poorly drafted or discussed codes of conduct can indeed shade into this, and that’s not okay in large, international spaces. Insofar as this statement says “if I’m a Republican and you’re a Democrat, or I’m on Team Samoas and you’re on Team Tagalongs, or I’m a vi girl and you’re an emacs guy, we should be able to work together and deal with our disagreement”, I am all for it.

But what if my viewpoint is “someone should be allowed to check your genitals to see if you’re allowed to go to the bathroom“? Or “there aren’t many black software engineers because they’re just not as smart as white people”? (To be clear, not only do I not hold either viewpoint, I find them both loathsome. But you needn’t look far to find either.) Well. If I have any position of power in the community at all, my viewpoint has now become a barrier to your participation, if you are trans or black. You can’t go to a conference if you’re not sure that you’ll be able to pee when you’re there. And you can’t trust that any of your technical contributions will be reviewed fairly if people think your group membership limits your intelligence (unless you hide your race, which means, again, no conference attendance for you, and actually quite a lot of work to separate your workplace and social media identities from your open source contributions). Some people will laugh off that sort of outrageous prejudice and participate anyway; others will participate, but at a significant psychic cost (which is moreover, again, asymmetric — not a cost to which other community members are, or even can be, subject) — and others will go away and use their skills somewhere they don’t have to pay that kind of cost. In 2/3 of these cases, the participant loses; in 1/3, the open source community does as well.

And that brings me to the other asymmetry, which is power. Participants in open source (or, really, any) communities do not have equal power. They bring the inequalities of the larger world, of course, but there are also people with and without commit bits, people recognized on the conference circuit and those with no reputation, established participants and newcomers…

If, say, “Behaviour which can be reasonably considered harassment will not be tolerated.”, and low-status person A is harassing high-status person B, then even without any recourse procedures in the guideline, B has options. B can quietly ensure that A’s patches or talk proposals are rejected, that A isn’t welcome in after-hours bar conversations, that A doesn’t get dinner invitations. Or use blunter options that may even take advantage of official community resources (pipe all their messages to /dev/null before they get posted to the mailing list, say).

But if B is harassing A, A doesn’t have any of these options. A has…well, the procedures in a code of conduct, if there were any. And A has Twitter mobs. And A can leave the community. And that’s about it.

An assumption of symmetry is in fact an assumption that the transgressions of the powerful deserve more forbearance than the transgressions of the weak, and the suffering of the weak is less deserving of care than the suffering of the powerful.

bad actors

We write code in the hopes it will do the right thing, but we test it with the certainty that something will do wrong. We know that code isn’t good enough if it only handles expected inputs. The world will see your glass and fill it with sfdeljknesv.

When interpreting the words and actions of others, participants should always assume good intentions.

I absolutely love this philosophy right up until I don’t. Lots of people are decent, and the appropriate reaction to people with good intentions who have inadvertently transgressed some boundary isn’t the same as the appropriate reaction to a bad actor, and community policy needs to leave space for the former.

But some actors do not, in fact, have good intentions. The Ruby Guideline offers no next actions to victims, bystanders, or community leaders in the event of a bad actor. And it leaves no room for people to trust their own judgment when they have presumed good intentions at the outset, but later evidence has contradicted that hypothesis. If I have well-supported reasons to believe someone is not acting with good intentions, at what point am I allowed to abandon that assumption? Explicitly, never.

The Ruby Guideline — by addressing aspirations but not failure modes, by assuming symmetry in an asymmetric world, by stating values but not procedures — creates a gaping hole for the social equivalent of an injection attack. Trust all code to self-execute, and something terribly destructive will eventually run. And when it does, you’ll wish you had logging or sandboxes or rollback or instrumentation or at the very minimum a SIGTERM…but instead you’ll have a runaway process doing what it will to your system, or a messy SIGKILL.

The ironic thing is, in everyday life, I more or less try to live by this guideline. I generally do assume good faith until proven otherwise. I can find ideas of value in a wide range of philosophies, and in fact my everyday social media diet includes anarchists, libertarians, mainline Democrats, greens, socialists, fundamentalist Christians, liberal Christians, Muslims, Jews of various movements, people from at least five continents…quite a few people who would genuinely hate each other were they in the same room, and who discuss the same topic from such different points of view it’s almost hard to recognize that it’s the same topic. And that’s great! And I’m richer for it.

And the Guideline is still a bad piece of community governance.

what I’ve been up to

Wow, it turns out if you have a ton of clients materialize over the fall, you have no time to tell the internet about them!

So here’s what I’m up to:

  1. Running for LITA president! Yup. If you’re a member in good standing of LITA, you’ll get your ballot in March, and I’d really appreciate your vote. Stay tuned for my campaign page and official LITA candidate profile.
  2. tiny adorable computer

  3. Coding for Measure the Future! This consists largely in arguing with Griffey about privacy. And also being, as far as I can tell, the first person on the internet to have gotten a Django app running on an Intel Edison, a tiny adorable computer that fits in the palm of my hand.
  4. Coding for Wikimedia! So…that happened. I’m doing an internal project for The Wikipedia Library, improving the usability of their journal access application system (and creating the kernel of a system that, over time, might be able to open up lots more possibilities for them).
  5. Coding for CustomFit! We’ve debuted straight-shaped sweaters along with our original hourglass (a coding process which was not unlike rebuilding an airplane in flight), so now you can make sweaters for people who may not want normatively-feminine garments. Yay! Also I implemented a complete site redesign last fall (if you’re wondering, “can Andromeda take a 12-page PDF exported from Photoshop, translate it into CSS, and rewrite several hundred templates accordingly”, the answer turns out to be yes). Anyway, if you’d been thinking of taking the CustomFit plunge but not gotten around to it yet, please go check that out – there’s a ton of great new stuff, and more on the way.
  6. Keynoting LibTechConf! My talk will be called “The Architecture of Values”, and it’ll be about how our code does (or, spoiler alert, doesn’t) implement our library values. Also the other keynoter is Safiya Noble and I am fangirling pretty hard about that.

Introducing Open paren: a podcast about libraries and code

should we write it all again
I’d end it with
a close-paren.
xkcd, With Apologies to Robert Frost

“I need an excuse,” I thought, “to talk to people and not just my cats,” because (great as my cats are) working from home is lonely sometimes.

“Gosh, there are lots of libraryland coders doing really cool stuff,” I thought, having brainstormed a giant list of them. “I could chat with them, and if I recorded it, I could call that a podcast!”

So here it is. Open paren is a series of conversations with coders in, and near, libraries, at all levels, with all sorts of use cases. It’s about starting something: conversations, projects, ideas. It’s about all these remarkable people doing fascinating things that connect tools, services, and values. Want to play along? You can!

In the first episode, the super-awesome Cecily Walker and I talked about Maptime, metadata, human stories, user experience, learning to code, digital humanities, inclusive librarianship, and more (I told you she’s super awesome). Soon I’ll talk to Francis Kayiwa about devops, and Ed Summers & Bergis Jules about their work doing rapid-response social media archiving of things like #ferguson (which may well be the coolest libraryland tech work happening today).

I don’t actually have time to do a podcast, so this is an exercise in incrementalism – what’s the minimum I can do to get this thing out the door? So there’s no fixed publication schedule, and I should probably get around to buying a proper mic but haven’t, and I definitely don’t have time to artisanally hand-edit audio, because the perfect doesn’t get to be the enemy of the good. I did have a pretty fun time writing scripts in a couple of languages I don’t really know to automate my production process, though, so maybe I’ll blog about that later. (Want to read the scripts? Go for it.)

Little white cat and big orange cat curled up together adorably
My cats are super great, though. FYI.


Last night I made myself a whiskey sour and curled up to start watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Prohibition.

The early activists, as I’d known, as you likely knew, were women. They were the ones who had to bear the costs of alcohol-fueled domestic violence, of children with no other caregivers, of families without economic support (and in a world where both childcare expectations and restrictions on women’s labor force participation reduced their capacity to provide that support). And they needed the costs to stop, but they didn’t have a rhetorical or legal space to advocate for themselves, so they advocated for the children, for God, and against the conduct of men.

They had some early and dramatic successes — how could it be anything short of terrifying to have two hundred women kneeling in prayer and singing hymns outside the door to your saloon? — but ultimately the movement was unsuccessful before the founding of the Anti-Saloon League, where the pictures all flip from women to men, and the solutions are political, using suffrage (a tool women didn’t have) and targeting specific politicians (who are best targeted through conversations women couldn’t have, in places women couldn’t go). After prayer and hatchets failed — after women constrained to situate themselves within or dramatically against a tiny range of acceptable conduct failed — the political machine, and the men eligible to be part of it, succeeded.

Things have changed less than I might have hoped.

My #IMLSFocus remarks

I had the honor of being on an IMLS Focus panel this Thursday in Washington, DC. The theme of the day was needs of a national digital platform, one of the core IMLS funding priorities; my panel (chaired by the inimitable John Palfrey, and also featuring Bethany Nowviskie, Kim Schroeder, and Margo Padilla) was on professional development.

I had an outline about the nuts and bolts of ongoing coding skills training for librarians, based on my experience teaching workshops and what I learned interviewing librarians who code for my latest Library Technology Report. And then I found I couldn’t deliver it because, well, I had to say this instead.

There’s more I was trying to say, but I couldn’t quite find the words. Maybe you can help.

I was going to talk about why ongoing tech training is hard, the nuts and bolts of pedagogy, and what you can do to help. Maybe I still will in Q&A. But right now, 40 miles north of us, Baltimore is burning. Or it isn’t: it is ten thousand people protesting peacefully against many years of secret violence, violence kept secret by habitual gag orders, with national media drawn like moths to the mere handful of flames. The stories I hear on Twitter are not the same as the stories on CNN. And we, as cultural heritage institutions, are about our communities and their stories, and about which stories are told, which are made canon, and how and why.

So I want to talk about how technology training and digital platforms can either support, or threaten, our communities and their ability to tell their stories, and to have their stories reflected in the canonical story that we build when we build a national platform. I want to make it explicit what we are doing in this room, today, is about deciding whose stories get told, by whom, and how. Whose are widely recognized as valid, and whose are samizdat, whose get to reach our corridors of power only through protest and fire.

I was reminded this morning of an article co-authored by Myrna Morales, who was researching the Young Lords Party, which is a political organization in her native Puerto Rico, and she couldn’t find any literature about it, and she had a sinking feeling, she thought maybe she should check the header for gangs, and that was where she found information on this.

And I was reminded of a thing I did at a Harvard LibraryCloud
hackathon earlier, intersectional librarycloud, where I looked at the most popular elements circulated at Harvard, using the StackScore and their API, and I looked at whether they also had subject headers that reflected women’s studies or LGBT studies or African American studies, using code and meta data as a way to surface what people learn matters when they’re doing scholarship and learning at one of the most famous institutions on earth. TL;DR, it didn’t really turn out to matter. They’re not reading about stuff like that when they’re reading the things that they mostly read at Harvard.

So, the way that we structure our meta data, the content we seek, the tools we give people for interrogating the platform, whom we empower to use these tools and add this content and teach about these tools and construct them, how many they are, how diverse they are have these profound effects on which stories that we advance and we say matter as cultural heritage institutions, which in turn, shapes the present and the future.

I’ve said before that libraries are about transforming people through access to information and each other, and that’s true, but today I’m thinking more about what we can do to let more people transform libraries, and how libraries and our content and APIs and platforms can be tools for more people to transform each other. How the metadata that courses through digital platforms is the frame we have to tell, and interpret, stories, and how therefore as metadata creators we must be consciously inclusive. And how, when we train librarians to use and create national digital platforms, we can train them to use those skills in a contextually aware way, to not just understand technology but to interrogate it from a critical perspective. To see how technology interacts with our communities and their stories and where those gaps are, and how they can be part of bridging them. Because here we are, comfortable and safe and supplied with coffee, mostly white, talking about how millions of dollars should be spent, and Baltimore is convulsed by its history, and by the blind eyes so many of us have turned to it.

about that poster: what I think

What’s happening

So the design for this year’s Banned Books Week poster has come out, and a number of people on the interwebs have found it … “problematic” if we’re being delicate, “gross and Islamophobic” if we’re not. There are lots of conversations going on, including among ALA Council and within the Office of Intellectual Freedom (which runs Banned Books Week), as well as a petition for the poster to be removed.

I’ve read the Council discussion and communicated directly with OIF (in my opinion, these conversations are generally moving in the right direction) and had lots of conversations around the internet with lots of people who have lots of different opinions. Here are mine. (Totally as bullet points because my brain hasn’t had time to paragraph yet.)

What should happen next

  • I do not support calls for the poster to be removed from the ALA Store. Banning materials for Banned Books Week is just a bridge too far for me. I’d rather let people buy it or not, as they prefer; stop promoting it; and don’t reorder when the stock runs out.
  • I do want to see the association choose something else to represent my profession to the world. Pick a new design and promote that.
  • Going forward, I want to see the association increase its commitment to involving a diverse array of stakeholders in public communications and major decisions — and take specific, concrete, public steps in this direction. This should have been caught before it was released. Future things should be, too.

As a divisional Board member, although LITA is not involved with Banned Books Week, I still bear some responsibility for enacting this commitment: consulting diverse stakeholders and noticing when decisions might need additional perspectives. I will be working harder to remember this. In fact, I’ve just set a recurring task in my todo system to remind myself. You should tell me if I’m doing a bad job of it.

Why I think this (diversity arguments)

It is extremely important to point out that:

  • veiling practices vary significantly throughout the Muslim world (and there are also non-Muslim cultures with veiling or head-covering practices);
  • women’s decisions about whether, and how, to veil exist at every point along the spectrum from coercion to choice — in particular, lots of women who wouldn’t face blowback for uncovering their heads or faces prefer to cover them;
  • there are all sorts of lively arguments among Muslim women, including Muslim feminist women, about veiling;
  • the West has a habit of assuming that any woman in a veil is ipso facto oppressed and that unveiling her is an important step in her liberation, and this assumption is totally patronizing, threatening, and incorrect.

I knew this before seeing the poster, so it’s been really important to me to seek out perspectives from people who are Muslim, brown, and/or from the Middle East; I don’t want to assume they find it offensive, because that would just be projecting my own (white, western, non-religious) experience. And what I’ve found is that nearly all of the people I’ve talked to who do, in some way, see themselves in this poster have found it deeply troubling. (The notable exception to this is the designer herself; I haven’t spoken with her, but I am reliably informed that she is a Muslim woman who did not interpret the poster negatively.)

In light of all this, my feelings are:

  • Many (not all!) Muslim and/or brown women are very unhappy with this poster.
  • I’ve heard several librarians who serve Muslim populations say that they cannot use this poster in their libraries.
  • My impression of the poster is that it tends to reinforce the destructive trope that veiled women are oppressed; the visual equation of “re(ad)striction” with a key elements of a niqab reads to me like these are both forms of oppression. I think a lot of likely viewers of the poster will bring to it the assumption that Muslim women are oppressed, and they will have that assumption reinforced by the poster.
  • The people I’ve talked with who don’t approach it with that assumption have varying impressions, but mostly (not all!) they’re reading it as an equation of Islam with oppression, too.
  • Plus which it reads to me as brown bodies being used as a site of white gaze to serve the viewer’s – not the woman’s – values in a way I’m having trouble articulating but that totally squicks me out.
  • So do I think that the woman in the poster must be oppressed by her implied religion? Nope, definitely not! (As opposed to the limitation on her reading choices, which is clearly repressive.) But I think the poster spreads and reinforces the message that Islam is repressive and that Muslim women in particular are oppressed, particularly if they cover their heads in some way, and I think that’s a gross message and I don’t want my professional association spreading or reinforcing it.

Why I think this (free speech arguments)

  • I totally, 100% endorse the right of private parties to make whatever sort of art they want, including posters like this, and sell them. I similarly 100% endorse everyone’s right to buy or not buy them, and to support or condemn them. (Insofar as people are condemning this poster, that’s not an attack on free speech: it is, in fact, an exercise of it.)
  • This is not a poster created by a private party. This is created by an association that represents me, as a dues-paying member. It represents people whom I also represent: LITA members. And it de facto represents the profession at large — including nonmembers, whether they like it or not — in the public eye. The association has a responsibility to consider its actions in light of its representational role. (Again, I’m pleased to see Council and OIF having these discussions.)
  • People have drawn analogies between challenging the poster and challenging books. I think these analogies don’t hold:
    • Challenged books are parts of collections. Librarians can quite reasonably say “if this book is not to your liking, check out another”; they can (and generally should) put together collections which encompass a wide range of viewpoints, some of which may offend some patrons. There is not a collection of motifs for Banned Books Week 2015 swag; there’s one motif. You can buy it or not buy it, but you can’t buy something else.
    • Challenged books can be discussed in light of collection development policies, and their inclusion in the collection defended (or not) on those grounds; there is, to my knowledge, no similar policy here.
    • The Banned Books Week swag is much more analogous to a One City/One Book selection. People might, quite defensibly, select a controversial book for that sort of event — but they ought to do so on purpose, having talked with people who have stakes in that controversy, fully prepared to have and to contextualize the ensuing conversation.
  • Some people have said that we’re having all these conversations about the meaty issues of intellectual freedom, so the poster has done its job and we should support it. Which is great, aside from the uncomfortable ends-justify-the-means-iness, and the fact that OIF did not actually intend for this poster to be controversial. Its job wasn’t to get us talking by sparking controversy. They got blindsided by this. If ALA wants to deliberately stir up controversy — and I’m not saying that’d be bad, necessarily — they should know they’re doing it. They should have enough diversity baked into the process to be purposeful about it.