Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Do You See Yourself? Librarians as Research Guides, By Fatemeh Khavaninzadeh (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “Doing Diversity Work.”

We are often very conscious of how others see us. To some degree, we can be conscious of how we see others. But compared to those two, we rarely turn our gaze inward to take a look at ourselves. We rarely see how we are ourselves because well, it’s not like we have a magical mirror that can simply show what is going on in our thoughts and whether there is something wrong with that. If we already know that thought can be problematic, and if we know there is probably a color lens impacting how negatively we see others, we would likely change it unless being wrong was a conscious choice. 

As researchers in an academic setting, however, it is most important that we reflect on our ideas with diversity in mind. This is where a controversial topic in librarianship comes into play. Librarians have the chance to become that magical mirror, to kindly point out to us that perhaps our research question or Boolean keywords are being influenced by our biases on diversity issues. But several librarians reminded me that it is not as straightforward as that. 

One of the core principles of the library is based on being neutral and providing each person with their own “right” book. Librarians are there to help us find the materials we need in their huge collections and if they were to step outside the boundaries of this role and start influencing the way the researchers think, other problems could arise. What is there to guarantee that researchers wouldn’t then be under the influence of a new set of biases, this time from the librarian’s subconscious? Yet, many librarians told me that staying neutral was not unproblematic either since “silence is complicity”. Others complained that it can be hard to not stay silent in face of biased ideas because researchers, particularly of higher academic standing, are experts in their own field and it can be hard to advise them about what sorts of material they should or should not consult.

This observation highlights the role the library can potentially play to nourish the critical diversity skills of library patrons. While in research settings we are often taught about misinformation and methods to recognize credible sources, issues of diversity and how they can influence the information that we seek are rarely discussed by students. I believe that becoming more aware of diversity issues at the beginning of our academic life can help to resolve this controversy. Such training would mean that the new generation of researchers are more mindful and they will be more welcoming to diversity-related advice from librarians. In this manner, librarians wouldn’t have to forgo their neutral position which is what makes them a reliable pillar of help in research endeavors but can still ensure diversity principles are observed when they provide consultation for researchers.

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