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

Inside the Library: Invisible, Silent, Fixated, By Fatemeh Khavaninzadeh (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.”

Rows and rows full of books. Table after table full of people. A place stretched against time, spanning from the most fathomable past to the most unfathomable futures. A place where the loudest revolutions are brewing in silence, just one right book away. A place where no one person can lay claim to actual ownership, yet there are those of us who seem to own it more than the rest of us: The Library. 

This paper is about that last sentence. Libraries today aim to keep their doors open to everyone, as knowledge is a tool that people were often deprived of to maintain the status quo of power. Yet, like many other institutions, libraries are built on a long history of diversity-related problems. Hence, a lot of diversity work is directed towards creating a space that is welcoming “to everyone regardless of race, ethnic group, nationality, socioeconomic status, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, ability, language, religious affiliation, or age” (University of Toronto Libraries 2019). 

In this paper, I discuss how diversity efforts work in University of Toronto Libraries and how the complex nature of libraries combines with complexities involved in diversity work to create imperformativity. I will rely on the notion of the “invisible wall” put forward by Sara Ahmed and discussions related to performativity as a framework to analyze how diversity efforts take place in UTL. Before discussing imperformativity, I will discuss three characteristics that define the diversity efforts at UTL that, when combined, create a contradictory situation where the library is doing diversity, yet it is failing to do diversity. Data used in this paper are gathered during three months of ethnography on UTL, with field observations at Robarts library and semi-structured interviews conducted with UTL librarians. 


In her book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Sara Ahmed uses the metaphor of a wall to discuss diversity-related problems. She adopts this term as she notices that it is one that diversity practitioners often use to describe their experience of “something that does not move, something solid and tangible” (Ahmed 2012, 26). Yet, to her, it seems that the metaphor of wall alone ignores an intrinsic part of diversity problems: Walls are invisible to those who do not come against them. This is often attested to when faced with complaints of minorities about facing hurdles to progress in their career; the more privileged people dismiss their claims. Instead, they find fault with the complainer’s shortcomings, that perhaps they are just not smart enough or not fit for promotions. Sara Ahmed uses this notion to describe why and how diversity work is a challenging experience. How can you convince someone that there is a wall when the wall is invisible? 

In the context of UTL, there is already a shared agreement that institutional walls exist that act as barriers for some patrons. I’m instead employing this notion to conceptualize one of the characteristics of diversity efforts in UTL: Invisibility. Whether it is on the UTL website or social media, one rarely sees any trace of the massive amount of diversity work that the library is doing. Diversity-related posts on UTL social media are often of the nature that a librarian in user services labeled as “monthly flavors” as they only commemorate months associated with particular ethnicities (Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month, etc.). This is a common practice amongst many institutions and retail stores, so it doesn’t really give anyone an insight into what UTL is doing in particular, that is, by nature, something that only makes sense in the context of the library. 

There are two posts on the UTL website that, to some degree, provide such insight. One is the “Anti-Racism Statement,” and the other one is titled “Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Statement”. However, they only give very general and broad examples of commitments and efforts of UTL, such as “removing barriers to support our community members” (Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Statement) or “building a workplace culture of inclusivity” (Anti-Racism Statement). There are no names listed in the post, either the authors or people one can reach out to about diversity issues. Besides, you need to read the statement very carefully to be able to realize that the library has an Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism Committee (IDEAR) that is specific to UTL and separate from the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office that oversees diversity issues in the University of Toronto as a whole. 

However, in my interactions with librarians, I realized that these posts really don’t do all the library’s work on this front justice. There is a total of ten examples discussed in both of these posts, some of which are too broad to be even slightly helpful, but behind the scenes there are over fifty actions undertaken by UTL as a broad entity. These actions, which each have their own group of responsible librarians, are separate from all actions undertaken by librarians in different departments of UTL (user services, metadata services, collection, etc.) who do their own share of diversity work. 

As a whole, it seems that the invisibility of our “invisible wall” has rubbed off even on diversity practitioners at the library who are working hard to dismantle the wall. One part of the diversity workers’ role is to dismantle the wall, which the librarians are doing perfectly well. But I believe another part is to bring attention to the wall by their existence. The wall is already invisible and hard to prove, but if even the workers are invisible, we are still stuck at square one: is there even a wall? 


As much as I believe that the invisible nature of the wall is rubbing off on the librarians who work on diversity, I think the silent characteristic of diversity work in UTL originates from the nature of the library, which is supposed to be quiet and silent. In my interviews, I realized that there is a fear of silence being broken on several fronts. One of the places that this fear manifests is in the IDEAR committee. During our chat, I asked whether any of their initiatives or documents related to their committee were publicly published and accessible. The librarian explained to me that this had been a topic of debate in the committee, and the conclusion, for now, was to not be public about their work because “that would be too many eyes and unconscious bias and opinions on our workflow”. He particularly emphasized that it is not an “intentional act of hiding it” but a way to ensure that they would make progress without having to deal with diversity un-enthusiasts. By keeping things “invisible,” they wanted to maintain the silence because they were worried that if the silence were to be broken, they would be the ones to be overpowered. 

A similar concern was discussed regarding the diversity training that the library was offering its librarians. To my surprise, the training discussed in the Anti-Racism Statement as a focal point was not mandatory for all staff. One of the user services staff who felt puzzled by this paradox made an observant remark: “The people who need it aren’t going, and the people who are going don’t want to be there”. His point was that in the current situation, the people who were biased and needed to be trained about diversity would not attend the session, and the people who were already aware of diversity issues, perhaps because of personal experience, would attend the sessions despite wishing that there was never a need for such training in the first place. 

The same fear of broken silence was again playing a role in why the library preferred to keep the sessions not obligatory. A librarian shared with me that the argument behind this decision is that forcing someone to attend such sessions gives them an opportunity to be vocal about their discontent, which can disrupt the sessions and make other librarians uncomfortable. By not making it mandatory, the idea was to “get the right people to the table,” the people who want to actually be mindful of diversity in their work, instead of people who will be arguing against it. 

Of course, I should mention that diversity un-enthusiasts were not the only voices that concerned the librarians. Receiving criticism from diversity enthusiasts was also a worry. A librarian from the central libraries told me that one of the struggles of doing diversity in the library, besides time strain, was “the idea of not getting it right”. The worry about potentially getting it wrong presented her with two choices, either to give up trying or to keep at it despite receiving criticism about it not being right and since she didn’t want things to remain the same, she kept at trying despite all the pressures. 

Overall, in all these scenarios, whether the criticism was voiced by diversity enthusiasts or un-enthusiasts, the concern was that breaking silence would not be productive, which is a fair concern coming from librarians as productive moments in the library are often the most silent ones. Keeping silent, however, has its downsides. The first one is that silence fuelled the invisibility feature of diversity work at the library, which I have already shown can be damaging. The second downside is that diversity work is by nature disruptive; one can only do so much work dismantling the wall in silence. This second downside is closely tied with the third characteristic and perhaps better understood in that light. 


Amongst over fifty actions that the library is taking to address diversity issues some are focused on here and now, and others have their eyes on the future of libraries in a couple of decades. For instance, to address the issue of the low number of BIPOC librarians, the library has a short-time action to review hiring practices and ensure that barriers that stop BIPOC librarians from being hired are removed. At the same time, there are actions in place in collaboration with Toronto Public Library and TDSB to do outreach in underserved neighborhoods to promote librarianship as a profession amongst BIPOC youth. 

However, most, if not all, of these action plans are fixated on “fixing” the library as it is. What I mean by fixing is that these approaches are apolitical: they do not aim to question how the library as an institution was built and how the principles of librarianships came to be and how these principles still affect our world to this day. The library’s actions are meant to simply be a remedy for diversity issues instead of addressing the roots. 

In many of the planned actions, Indigenous communities are forefront and center. These action plans revolve around improving the library’s relationship with Indigenous communities and increasing the size and appropriateness of the library’s collection on Indigenous people. However, the practice of making collections itself can be questioned, especially regarding Indigenous communities. In the past, anthropologists have made recordings of Indigenous people and have kept them in the name of developing a collection that we have come to acknowledge today as problematic behavior. Developing a collection is a remedial action but thinking about the principle of developing collections, which seems to be the essence of the libraries, is a political approach that can help address problems created through a long history of racism. 

Another principle that appears to have only recently garnered some attention and is proving to be highly controversial is one of the laws of Ranganathan: “Every person their book” (Strategic Plan 2020). Upon reading this law, I initially thought it meant to address the different journeys we each take. Depending on our life experiences, we, as humans, would need a particular book to improve our understanding of the world and see it from a different perspective. Books are, after all, a door to experience things we have not experienced before: Poverty, when we are rich, fatherhood when we are women, and more often, what it means to be from a race or ethnic group that we are not. 

As I was discussing the 2020-2025 Strategic Plan of UTL with a librarian from central libraries, I realized that this law was not a call to diversity education, but a call to provide the book the patrons need. This idea was also clearly spelled out in the Strategic Plan: “In cases where a user comes to us knowing exactly what they need, we make the process of providing it as painless as possible.” I was perhaps optimistically misguided because a big focus of the strategic plan is on “the right information”. If the “right” in “the right information” is as much about information that is factually “right” as the book that fits “right” with the patrons’ needs, then to me, it seemed like the law of Ranganathan can only have one possible meaning: Every person should receive a book that they desire and fits their need that is also factually right. 

This interpretation of Ranganathan law and “right information” means that librarians would need to step in to educate and guide researchers if they are working on a research question that is racist in essence or they require a book that contains inappropriate materials diversity-wise. This means that the process of providing a book that the patron requires would no longer be “painless,” as the strategic plan has indicated since they would come to experience the discomfort of reflecting on their internal biases and diversity matters. Librarians seemed to contend with the best approach to this situation. Neutrality in providing services is a crucial pillar of librarianship, but at the same time, several voiced concerns, and a librarian from the office of the chief librarian told me that “We have gotten to the point where neutral is not benign anymore. It is doing harm”. 

As I mentioned, this is a controversial topic because what is to stop librarians from influencing researchers with other forms of biases if librarians put away their robe of neutrality? This is a double-edged sword; by being neutral, they are remaining silent in the face of racism, but by not being neutral, they can also open the way for other forms of biases to surface. This situation calls for a substantial political reconsideration of what librarianship means and what principles are fit to replace the principle of neutrality appropriately. 

Whether it is the principle of neutrality or collection making, addressing either would be very disruptive to the current library institution, and it would inherently change it. The change is by no means remedial, a way to just fix stuff here and there, but it is huge and political. Earlier I discussed how the library is inclined to go about diversity in a silent and invisible manner, and these two desires could also be why the library is fixated on fixing the current institution instead of questioning it, as there is no way to use the second approach in the same discreet manner as the first approach. Perhaps now it is clearer why invisibility and silence are both problematic when addressing diversity issues; however, in the next section, I will discuss how these claims fit with the existing diversity literature. 


Performativity is a concept that Sara Ahmed borrows from the field of linguistics to use as a framework regarding documents in institutions. The idea originates from John Austin as he tries to categorize a type of sentences that are not statements and thus cannot be true or false, a category he comes to call “performatives”. He argues that performative utterances are inherently different from descriptive utterances, as they do not describe anything. Instead, by simply uttering a performative utterance, some sort of action is being performed. Marriage vow exchange, for example, is of performative nature, as by uttering it, the couple becomes married. 

Performative utterances can’t be true or false. Instead, they can be happy if the right circumstances are met or unhappy if the circumstances do not allow them actually to fulfill their performativity. Again, in a marriage vow, the vow fails if, for example, one of the parties is already engaged to someone else as the vows take place. The utterance would be unhappy because the circumstances hold it back from performing: no matter how many times these vows are exchanged, they are considered invalid under the described circumstances. 

Ahmed extends the framework of performativity by introducing a different type of performative utterances, which she calls “non-performatives” (Ahmed 2012, 116). She defines these utterances as something that “does not produce the effect that it names,” all the while remaining happy. In the example of marriage, we saw that if the named effect (marriage) was not produced, the utterance was unhappy, so how can a performative utterance be happy despite non-performance? The reason, Ahmed argues, is that the sentence was meant to perform another action: A lip service to ideals of diversity, an image of being institutionally diverse. Since the utterance does what was intended, it is happy without necessarily having a circumstance that makes the effect it names come true. 

If UTL’s Anti-Racism and Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Statement were only for show or for “checking the box”, then non-performatives would have been the best way to describe diversity efforts in the library. However, in my fieldwork, I found that the librarians are all eager to do more work on the diversity front, learn more, and hold discussions about it, from the very top of the administrative hierarchy to the new librarians on the floor. Each librarian worked hard in their respective department to create a better environment: from advocating for Family Study Space at Robarts to exposing students to the history of racism in Canada by using residential schools as an example in research workshops that the library holds. 

In sum, serious work is undertaken regarding diversity in the library, but no one from outside can become aware of it unless they start an inquiry into the matter and hold interviews with librarians. What appears on the outside is vastly different from what is actually going on inside. This is the point where I would like to extend on Ahmed’s work by theorizing a different type of performative utterances: the imperformatives. 

The imperformatives are, in a way, the exact opposite of non-performatives. In non-performatives, an utterance is made, but the action does not take place. In imperformatives, I argue, the action does take place, but an utterance is not made, which keeps it from becoming a full-fledged performative utterance. We can use marriage again as our example: A couple might move in and live together for many years, even bear children, without ever exchanging vows of marriage. They perform all the actions that a married couple would, but they remain a common-law couple until they exchange the performative utterance of marriage. Such is the power of performative utterances; unless they are uttered, their named effect does not occur even if all the right circumstances are present and all other actions are ongoing. 

I believe that it is in this manner of imperformativity that UTL is currently working on diversity. Action lists are made and carried out, but since the library acts in a silent and invisible manner, no performative utterance is made about their ongoing work. To me, it seems like imperformativity holds back the library from performing diversity in a full-fledged manner. Not only the desire for silence and invisibility is holding the library back from venturing into more political and institutional level changes, but they are also holding the library back from completely committing to performing diversity and becoming the true diversity force on campus, a force that is to be reckoned with. 


In my three-month research in the library, there were many instances that I was repeatedly humbled by all the innovative approaches the librarians have come up with to address diversity in their respective departments. I was amazed by their attentiveness to all the details and things that could be a barrier to the students. I was moved by how much they were committed to their efforts and the down-to-earth manner that they asked for my ideas and opinions, even though they could completely dismiss me by virtue of being the professional ones with years of experience. This welcoming and caring environment was a sharp contrast to the experience of my other classmates who were also working on diversity at the University of Toronto. They faced rejections, lack of commitment, and lack of response when they reached out about anything diversity-related. 

The imperformativity of the library, the invisible, silent, fixated way they go about things, is not only keeping the library back from its full potential, but I believe it is a loss for the university as a whole. The library has a lot of resources and can teach the university much about practicing diversity, whether it’s on an institutional level or to faculty members and students. The library describes itself as the “heart of the university” (Strategic Plan 2020), and I believe they can truly become the beating heart of the university that guides us all to be better practitioners of diversity, if only they were willing to put behind the invisibility, the silence and the fixation and to fully commit themselves to true performativity. 


Ahmed, Sara. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press. 

University of Toronto Libraries. “Anti-Racism Statement.”, 2021. 

University of Toronto Libraries. “Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Statement.”, 2019. 

University of Toronto Libraries. “Strategic Plan 2020 – 2025.” December 10, 2021. 

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