Towards a critical (art) librarianship: theories and practices.
Introducing the section on UAL Library Services practices. Jess Crilly, Associate Director,
Content & Discovery, Library Services.
Thanks to Simon, and to Pat, for their introduction and to all our speakers for joining us
I’m going to start the day off by saying something about “Why this event, framed in this
way, why here, and why now?”
As you can tell from the title of the event and use of Towards…today’s event is somewhat
exploratory, and here at UAL we are at the stage of framing questions rather than claiming
expertise in this area.
We arrived at the idea of this event for many reasons, at least partly as a result of some
research that I carried out here in 2016/17 through participation in a UAL wide research
programme Retain-Achieve Succeed. RAS was one of the many responses of the university
to addressing attainment gaps, in particular between white students and students of colour,
but also between other groups of students. That research was framed by the question
Library collections and diversity: part of the problem or part of the solution?
I sought to understand the views and experiences of our library and archive staff, of trying
to move beyond rhetorical aspiration, to discuss how they were approaching diversity in our
collections on a day to day basis. I also wanted to explore the perceptions of students about
the diversity of our collections, and how we could have this conversation with them.
I would also say in response to “Why now?” that we are living in worrying times politically,
where the concept of neutrality, or sitting on the fence just isn’t a viable position.
The RAS research was set against a background of student questioning and criticism, of
decolonisation movements in universities, and a call for more inclusive reading lists, not
only here at UAL, but also across the sector. All of this begged the question for me - What is
the position of the library in all this? And where is the voice of the Library?
Especially as so many of these discussion were actually centred on the production and
consumption of knowledge.
I looked at the literature on inclusivity in arts education, both research here at UAL into our
students different experiences and also sector wide research into inclusivity. This including
the report by Mountford-Zimdars and others into Causes of differences in student
outcomes, which came out in 2015. I was heartened to see the need for a whole institution
approach to change advocated (SLIDE)
I also started to explore the literature on the politics of knowledge, from Sanford Berman’s
interventions with Library of Congress subject headings onwards SLIDE to the more recent
writing in this area, by Emily Drabinski and many others….And we are so pleased that Emily
has come from New York to join us today.
And so from this initial investigation into the impact of collections, the whole territory of
critical librarianship came into focus (SLIDE.) That research opened up fascinating
theoretical discoveries and perspectives for me. To be honest it was not always a
comfortable journey, as it involved much reflection on my own position of privilege
within the university, and the under-representation of staff of colour across UAL,
including in our libraries. Since that research was disseminated we have had numerous
discussions in the libraries and archives about what we might do in response to this
learning. Some initiatives have emerged, which will be shared today. Some of these are
new and some are building on well-established practices and approaches that go back
Increasingly we are aiming to work collaboratively at UAL to make positive change, to be
good allies – and thankyou to some of our collaborators who are here today with us,
presenting and in the audience.
And though our specific context today is a university dedicated to the arts, this
discussion is broader than that, and broader than the context of higher education.
So turning to “….Theories and practices” in the title. Its theoretical perspectives that
allow us to see more clearly what we are doing, and what we might do differently. Our
practices need to be theoretically informed; theory and practice are both integrated and
differentiated in many ways, as I’m sure we will discuss today.
When I reflect now on that earlier research what I see is the library enmeshed in several
networks, frameworks and systems of knowledge production and consumption, and
meaning making. Enmeshed in language, in academic processes, and in publishing
practices for example. So the question I am asking now is: If we question our position
within these networks, frameworks and systems- how are we, how can we and how
should we make change?
I’m sure that other libraries are thinking about the same issues so today is about sharing
those ideas and practices – so there is plenty of time during the day for discussion and
questions. I’m not going to try to define critical librarianship, or explore ideas of the
radical, which I will leave to our speakers, but end this introduction with a short quote,
by one of our students, about the impact of the library SLIDE
I’m going to stop there and I’m going to hand over to some of our library staff here at
UAL, who will make a series of lightning presentations on recent practices and
theoretical perspectives that might be framed within a context of critical librarianship –
some work in progress.