Social Justice and Library History

For our inaugural column Ana Ramirez Luhrs talks to librarian and film director Jill Baron.  Jill is the librarian for romance languages and Latin American, Latinx & Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College.  She is also the co-director of the documentary film Change the Subject, a film about a group of Dartmouth students who challenged the Library of Congress’ anti-immigrant subject headings.

Interview with librarian and director Jill Baron  January 2021

ARL: Tell me a little bit about the history of the “illegal alien” subject heading and a little bit about your own history with this subject heading.

JB: I don’t know the full history of the SH, but “Aliens” as a subject heading was established in the early 20th century. There is a moment in the Change the Subject where we do a little bit of a “gotcha”; we show Representative Diane Black (R-TN) on a news program claiming how “illegal aliens” has been in the lexicon of the LoC for a hundred years. She was wrong. “illegal aliens” was added later, I want to say in 1985.  If we talked with a scholar of migration, such as Óscar Rubén Cornejo Cásares or Lourdes Gutiérrez Nájera, or a scholar of communication, such as Claudia Anguiano Evans-Zepeda, they could tie that very closely to the ways in which the language about immigrants and immigration has changed over time, reflecting migration patterns, policy changes, and depictions in the media. As to my experience with the “illegal alien” subject heading, it was not a subject heading I was even aware of before I met with Melissa that day. She came to me for a research consultation and that’s where she and I encountered it for the first time. Before becoming a librarian I had worked with organizations in Spain that advocated on behalf of immigrants and asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa. I was exposed to the immigrant rights movement in Europe, and sayings such as “no human being is illegal”; “nadie es ilegal.”  But in spite of that being part of my background, as a librarian conducting a transaction with a student, I just thought, “okay, that’s the language that they’ve [LoC] used.”  It didn’t really hit me, how problematic it was, until Melissa pointed it out.  I think that gets at the ways that it’s very easy to overlook instances of racism and bias if they don’t affect you personally. 

ARL: So in terms of other subject headings that you’ve encountered, are there others that have been contested or any that you have questioned as racist or problematic?

JB: Oh, definitely.  In library school I learned about the fraught nature of the Library of Congress subject headings, given that language is constantly evolving and the mechanism for changing the subject headings is bureaucratic and slow.  But even with that knowledge, it never occurred to me that I personally had a role or a responsibility to try and change them.  Of course this experience with Melissa and the other students changed the way I interact with the vocabulary. One heading I came across recently has to do with slavery– the subject heading “slaves.”  It’s outdated and pejorative – people were enslaved, and so the heading should be “enslaved people.” And then there is “sexual minorities.”

ARL: I’ve not heard that one before.

JB: Yeah, it’s just so antiquated, you know, to refer to LGBTQIA people as sexual minorities. We just don’t think that way about sexuality and gender anymore! Since this experience, I’ve also learned of subject headings that have been challenged in more public/activist forums. One was brought to my attention by a SALALM member. There’s a heading called “Brazilian Revolution, 1964.” But it was not a revolution – it was a coup d’etat. The framing around the event is critical to understanding it. Another one that I recently became aware of, a heading that was successfully changed, was led by a professor at the University of Miami whose work is on Haitian Vodou.  When she was publishing her first book, she realized that the LoC subject heading “Voodooism” had been applied to her book. This is now a pejorative term, and she was distressed by this label, so she rallied scholars in her network to petition the Library of Congress to change the term to “Vodou.”  

ARL: Was that before or after your experience with the “illegal alien” subject heading?

JB: I think it was before, I want to say it was about ten years ago.  

ARL: I’d like to talk about neutrality in library spaces and practices. We both know that this is a common perception– that the library is a place for everybody and there’s no imposition of ideals or white normativity. How did the experience of challenging the “illegal alien” subject heading change or challenge this idea of neutrality in libraries for you?

JB: I had always thought that the notion of neutrality in libraries was highly suspect, but I didn’t realize, until that encounter with Melissa, how much I had internalized it. Up to that point, I just saw the catalog as this generic tool that we use to find sources. And with that assumption is the implicit expectation that we just “get past” or ignore any offensive language to be found there in order to proceed through the research process. That attitude also suggests that researchers have to disengage from the process – that we cannot bring our full selves, experiences, perceptions, even emotions to research. We know that the people who designed, and now maintain library systems, are majority white. So any notion of “neutrality” is conditioned by that perspective; if the words in the subject heading are not offensive to us, then our users need to just deal. Working with Melissa forced me to confront the ways in which I was perpetuating and embodying white privilege. When the students continued to challenge the subject heading in a more public way, I couldn’t in good conscience ignore it or say “well this is just how it is”. If I actually cared about the people calling this out, and if I cared about their grievance, I had to do something about it. I couldn’t wait for someone else to fix it. At the end of the day, systems are made by people and changed by people, and reflect their values.

ARL: I think this is really wonderful. I know this was a reflective moment for you. I really get that from the film; that this is a very deep and reflective process for you, which is why I was so interested to talk to you about it. 

JB: Another piece of this I haven’t touched on yet is that I think there is an identity that we take on when we enter the library profession and progress through it.  I think in a lot of subtle and not so subtle ways we are taught not to cause trouble.  That might be changing? But as I came up in the profession there was this expectation that there are standards that one learns and becomes proficient, even expert in. And that we maintain the status quo in order to stave off chaos. But I think this is a false binary. So much of the way that libraries are structured and maintained can be quite distant from actual user behavior and the way users think about or need to access information. We can do better and we have to start with asking hard questions about whether our systems foster the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion that we say we strive for. 

ARL: What skill sets or tools do librarians have or are what skill sets or tools are embedded in librarianship that allow us to do social justice work at any level?

JB: This is interesting because I just had a conversation the other day about how librarianship is not social justice. Hopefully librarians and library workers approach their work with a social justice mindset, but inherently the work in and of itself, especially in an academic setting, is not itself [social justice] work. But the skills that we need to develop, that allow us to support social justice work, are listening and empathy. Nothing related to “Change the Subject” would have happened if I hadn’t listened, reflected on, and taken very seriously the criticism that Melissa and other students lodged.  It’s very hard to hear things you don’t want to hear.  It feels good to hear people say “I love the library” or “ I love my librarian” but it doesn’t feel good when someone says “this is wrong”, “why are you using those words?” We don’t like hearing critique because it means we’ve failed. But if we receive that critique with a little bit less ego, and move past the initial defensiveness and discomfort into a place of learning and growth, we may actually respond in a meaningful way – and evolve! When people – students, faculty researchers – seek you out for help, they are basically taking a risk to trust you. Trusting that you’re not going to hurt or offend them. I’ve heard about people taking a trauma-informed approach to public service librarianship.  I think it’s a useful framing; we’re not social workers, but we are working with the public in a time of enormous difficulty and multiple crises. To not take any of that into account is really problematic. 

ARL: and irresponsible.

JB: Yeah, absolutely.  Let’s not cause more harm than good.  I definitely did in that moment with Melissa. I caused more harm than good because I was not thinking about the impact of those words, in that codified way on her, as a person who had been formerly undocumented.  

ARL: I just love the idea of empathy as a skill set of librarians.

JB: Yes, it’s really so central. And so is the ability to challenge authority or to question authority. A social justice mindset integrates empathy and a willingness to ask questions and agitate.

ARL: What advice would you give to librarians and library workers who want to get involved with social justice issues?

JB: I’m very uncomfortable giving advice, because I resist the idea that I know more about something than someone else… except when we’re talking about my kid. But I guess what I can offer is that we need to be reading – a lot – and staying open-minded, not getting too attached or too comfortable with any one line of thinking. A few years back I read White Fragility and found it enormously useful. And I was that person that wanted everyone to read it. But as I continue with my education, and encounter the growing backlash against it and the author, I take that in as well. The critiques are equally instructive and informing. And the more we know, the more we might take issue with things happening locally. In your library, for instance, or in your town. You get involved. You ask questions. You learn about the issues, as best you can. You zoom out, drawing from the education you’ve received from books, documentaries, podcasts, whatever feeds your mind, and you employ those ideas in the struggle. There needs to be a constant interplay between wisdom and action.  

ARL: I also think that many people find getting involved overwhelming, as if they have to go save the world somehow, on their own.  One of the students in the film, Estefani, said at one point that you realize one person can’t do all the work. You have to find your groove.  Not everyone is going to be out there with a protest sign. I think everyone can find their niche; the thing that they’re good at, and apply it to the idea that each one of us is a little piece of the larger puzzle that is humanity.

JB: Totally, it’s so true.  It’s the education and the action at whatever level or way that is authentic to you and makes sense to you.  And you’re right, not everyone is going to be out there marching.  If what makes sense to you is sending organizations your money, do that.  There are all kinds of ways to put effort and energy into the right causes.

ARL: Thank you so much.  What a great conversation to have not just for News and Notes but between two librarians.  I feel so strongly about doing this kind of work in the profession and I’m just so happy that you’re doing it, and that other people are also becoming vocal about how important it is to center the work we do as librarians around social justice.