Critical librarianship beyond borders

Critical librarianship is concerned with strLogo of the Philippine Librarians Association, Inc., or PLAIuctures and remnants: how do the systems we build and meticulously maintain produce and reproduce inequities, and how do librarians navigate what gets left behind? I have written about what some of us call “critlib” in relation to the cataloging and classification of queer materials. My colleague Silvia Cho has studied this in relation to subject language around immigration. Alycia Sellie, our collections librarian, is committed to a DRM-free ebooks collection. Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz and Elvis Bakaitis have organized our use of OER grant funds from the state to explicitly address broader structural issues of access in higher education beyond textbook costs. And there are plenty more examples. As a library, many of us work hard to change systems that reflect embedded inequities and modes of oppression.

This November, I shared my thoughts about critical librarianship at the Philippine Librarians Association, Incorporated (PLAI) Congress in Tagaytay City, Cavite, Philippines. Shifting my analysis beyond the boundaries of the United States made the stakes of leaving oppressive library structures unchallenged even more clear. As I sat in the Tagaytay International Convention Center listening to a representative from Ex Libris sell Alma, a library services platform currently being installed at CUNY, to 700 librarians from around the Philippine archipelago, I was struck by the ways that neo-imperial practices persist, often under the guise of U.S. “outreach” to libraries across the world. ExLibris got its start in Israel but has since been purchased by ProQuest, an Ann Arbor-based company that, along with Ebsco and a handful of others, are consolidating the systems we all use to acquire, describe, circulate, preserve, and make accessible the knowledge that we collect for our publics. These are American companies charging American prices in parts of the world that have been systematically impoverished by the U.S itself. It’s a problem.

American aggression around the world is often proxy wars and military coups, locking children in cages at borders and murder by drone, but it also looks like the extension of our library cataloging and classification structures, the search and retrieval systems that organize materials so that they can be found in only certain ways. The University of the Philippines uses Library of Congress Subject Headings even as those subject headings offer no controlled term for U.S. imperialism, choosing instead to use United States—Foreign relations. And it isn’t just Metro Manila. The extraordinary architecture of Mexico City’s Biblioteca Vasconcelos uses the Dewey Decimal System, a structure that renders the spiritual beliefs of indigenous people in the region—who are currently alive!—as folklore.

Knowledge organization structures are a primary U.S. export, one that facilitates domination of the ways knowledge is ordered, described, and retrieved. Critical librarianship of the kind we practice here at the Graduate Center attempts to reckon with this.

The PLAI Congress was held in Tagaytay, a city a couple hours drive into the mountains from the traffic—“One of our biggest tourist attractions!”–of metro Manila. The air is cooler, the streets less choked by the vast and varied forms of transportation that run through Manila streets: cabs, UV vans, jeepneys, trikes, buses, bicycles, motorcycles, private cars, Grab cars, the occasional surprising pedestrian. I rented an apartment on the 17th floor of the SM Development Corporation Wind Residences overlooking Taal volcano. “This all used to be a forest,” but now it’s five soaring condominium towers, with a Pizza Hut and a 7-11. My apartment had a full view of a volcanic lake with a volcano in the middle, and then that volcano had another lake in it. Worlds embedded in worlds, much to tease apart.

About the Author

Emily Drabinski is an Associate Professor and Critical Pedagogy Librarian at the Graduate Center library.