Posted by: Emily | March 31, 2010

Home from Amsterdam

I’m just about a week into my return home from an all-around pleasure of a trip to Amsterdam for the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis’ Articulation(s) Workshop. Alana and I presented a paper we co-wrote entitled “Locating Wojnarowicz: Moving Through Library Systems, Structures, and Technologies.” We talked about research as a kind of translation work wherein researchers work with, against, across, etc. the classificatory systems librarians develop and deploy. We had some interesting engagement from the other folks on our panel, even earning a gasp from one person at a point in our paper where we state directly something those of us who do it know all too well: librarians control things. (I’m not sure who she thought put things on shelves in order.)

We were, aside from one performance artist,  very much the only practitioners in our group. Very different from a library conference, where the conversation is pretty much exclusively about ‘best’ and ‘most innovative’ practices. Our paper had its theoretical argument, for sure, but we were also deeply concerned with the ways actual researchers do actual work in actual libraries. We were grounded in behaviors, perhaps more than any other paper I heard at the conference. And yet, our paper is way way too theoretical for me to imagine a home for it at any of the big library conferences.

We talk about this theory/practice split a bit in the introduction to Critical Library Instruction, and I think it’s worth thinking and talking about as a field of professionals. We don’t do that very often. Me, I think ideas matter. I think our ideas guide our behavior in ways that aren’t always transparent to us, so we need to be sure we have a clear sense of what we think so we have a better idea of why we do what we do.

My portion of our paper built on a lot of the thinking and reading and writing I’ve done about the ways library space is classified, how our classification systems materialize in the organization of shelves, generating odd separations and interesting conjunctions that make some kinds of intellectual work literally harder than others (you have to go around the corner, upstairs, sometimes even across campus to research queer histories, whereas particle physics is not only easier to collate, but better funded and more respected in most universities). That thinking has changed my practice in concrete ways. I make sure I talk about the limits of collation when I teach students about LC, and I have a greater respect for the sometimes physical difficulty of conducting interdisciplinary research. I’m less nervous than I once was about the fact of works out-of-place, and I try to teach more about disjunctures than conjunctures. I talk less about what’s ‘right’ and more about what kinds of work are required.

Not to be too terribly librarianly about all of it, but I’d be interested in talking through other examples of the ways thinking has influenced practice, as well as the other way around.

Your thoughts?



  1. Emily,

    I like your shift in focus — to the work required. That’s a good way to describe what I’ve been trying to do today, as I prepare for an instruction session for a class on American health care history in gender, race, and class perspectives. I’m not organizing it around a discussion of the merits of particular sources or tools (there’s a research guide to help with that part), but thinking about other ways of framing the discussion. Right now my big questions are: How is the research for this class different than research you’ve had to do before? Who’s having conversations about your topic [as a way to get at disciplines, discourse communities, sources — who has a stake knowing things about this topic]? Do you want to join in and/or intervene in those conversations [as a way to get into attending to citation practices, methods, evidence, and also to where there are absences]? Have other outsiders or non-experts already done so [alternative, counter discourses]? What does working in interdisciplinary in-between spaces involve [another way to talk about having to think differently in different contexts — and here, it’s as practical as why look at how different sources define your object, which databases to search, how to adapt search language, or how notions of authority change, or how a website that’s off-limits in one class becomes primary-source fodder for this one]?

    So that’s what’s happening today.

    I’ve been thinking about this question of the physical challenges involved in conducting interdisciplinary research, too. Mostly as something to take into account when doing theory and practice around access (part of my interest in bringing disability studies into conversation with library practice). But I also think we could pose the question in relation to affect, too (how does it feel to be in parts of the library where you feel you ‘belong,’ or don’t?), and how access + affect might inform the scope of someone’s research project. What questions a person’s willing to ask, for example.

    It’s something I’ve started inserting into my instruction sessions with students doing interdisciplinary projects — a mention of the fact that this project might require them to move between libraries, in/out of comfort zones — as another way to recognize that research is embodied & emotional work as well as intellectual stuff. I don’t dwell on this, but our work on the paper reminded me that this is yet another part of interdisciplinary research practices that we can make explicit.

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