Presentation at ALIA NLSX (30 July 2023)
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I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land I’m speaking from today, the Jagera, Yuggera, and Ugarapul peoples, and pay respect to elders past and present.
I’m going to be discussing resilience in libraries, both for library professionals and the communities we partner with, though I’m looking at this from a diversity and inclusion perspective.
Today I’m speaking in a personal capacity and from my own reflection. I’m also not speaking on behalf of any specific communities, though much of this has come from reflecting on research and literature across library, LGBTQIA+, and disability spaces, among others. It’s also informed by my lived experience in these spaces.
There’s really two concepts that I’m speaking about: difference and resilience. Both are connected, and both are relational. How we understand and experience being different or resilient is going to depend on the environment that we’re in and how we understand and relate to other people in it.
Resilience can be quite a loaded word. It’s difficult to unpack, but it’s also everywhere – including in libraries.
We have a lot of research in libraries, across a variety of different sectors, that explores how we build community resilience, information resilience, and cultural resilience in the communities that we partner with.
It’s very far from being a new concept for us. But we have an opportunity to critically reflect on – and potentially change – how we engage with this concept and the people and communities we engage with.
Often we fixate on building resilience – in ourselves, our colleagues, or our communities – without recognising the resilience already being brought. Or whether resilience already exists because of social inequality, ableism, bigotry, racism, or a lack of inclusive practices. There’s a cause for it.
We have a lot of research that is focused on the idea of building or enhancing resilience. This, however, means that we may be quick to celebrate how inspirational and resilient a community or individual is without having the courage to advocate for change and to put that community first.
How can library expectations of resilience be more inclusive & socially conscious?
I wanted to know if our expectations of resilience in libraries – whether for the communities we partner with or for our colleagues – can be more inclusive and socially conscious.
This is a question that I’ll return to. First though, because resilience is used widely across a range of professions and disciplines, it’s flexible enough that different communities can adapt its definition and use to fit their own needs. The flexibility and movement of resilience as a concept across many different social contexts means that its boundaries are blurred, and it easily loses its meaning or can be co-opted.
Yet, despite different understandings, often resilience is thought of as a universal solution – the only option.
So, regardless of whether we’re emerging professionals, students, or already established in our careers, resilience is considered an ideal and an expectation. And certainly, it is often a necessary response to the challenges and adversity that we experience.
But this also doesn’t mean resilience is always inherently good. If we don’t recognise how resilience is relational then we miss the chance to be doing things differently and striving for inclusive and equitable change in libraries.
Resilience as relational
Most of us have preconceived ideas of what resilience means and we’ve formed an understanding based on our own experiences and ideas around how useful we find the concept.
So, resilience is relational in the sense that we typically navigate it in social contexts and through connections with others.
Resilience is often – perhaps mistakenly – thought to be about having the ability to bounce back. That is, recovering or making a comeback to where we once were. But what are we bouncing back into? Are the circumstances we’re bouncing back into actually desirable? (Stone et al., 2022).
Looking at resilience around climate change, Baker (2019, p. 2) reflects that rather than seeing resilience as an inherent good, something that we always ought to do, maybe we need to “remedy the underlying inequities first”.
For people who experience any kind of marginalisation in society or the environment that they’re in, asking for equitable change is difficult.
In part, because the response that people are met with is often a request for them to be more resilient – without recognising the resilience that they’re already bringing.
Resilience as a response
Individual resilience is important, but it can’t be a replacement for shared resources, support, and advocacy in the environments we exist in.
Often the focus on resilience and understanding of it, including in the library profession, emphasises the individual. The onus for change is placed upon an individual without consideration of systemic barriers or a shared responsibility in driving change that is transformative and genuinely inclusive. And that includes in our library services, spaces, and practices.
Resilience isn’t meant to be something passive – it’s a response. It’s an opportunity to recognize the conditions for social change. Environments and systems that aren’t accessible or accepting require resilience to navigate. Resilience is a response to these environments and highlights the need for change.
“Centering the voices of queer youth in defining resilience” (Stone et al., 2022)
But in the research literature that we might turn to, often definitions of resilience don’t centre the voices of the communities it’s being studied in – and so the understandings of resilience that we’re personally bringing to communities and our profession might not actually be culturally sensitive.
In libraries, where we expect resilience of staff, ourselves, communities, and organisations, we need to consider what resilience means for those it’s expected of.
A lot of research and writing on resilience in libraries describes the need to build resilient organisations, a resilient workforce, and resilient communities.
It’s something we aspire to. But expectations of resilience also aren’t usually equally felt and so how we understand it can have personal, professional, and institutional impact.
Resilience can become at odds with the diversity we aspire to in libraries if we don’t include a range of voices, values, and perspectives in how we define it. We need to look beyond our own experiences when discussing resilience and consider what it means for the people and communities that we expect it of.
And these all impact the communities that libraries partner and work with.
Failing to understand how resilience relates to structural barriers can undermine how library professionals connect with the communities they partner with.
Those from underrepresented groups in libraries may define resilience in different ways and have different experiences of it. Understandings of resilience in research with queer youth illustrate how “members of marginalized communities tailor their perception of resilience based on their lived experiences” (Stone et al., 2022, p. 9). In this study, for queer youth resilience is a collective experience, but it’s also about surviving and rebelling against the norm.
This research doesn’t shy away from the need for resilience – it recognises that resilience is often critical for survival. But it also acknowledges that being resilient requires that basic needs of survival are met. This is even more so when it comes to using personal resilience to positively impact and advocate in a wider community.
Stone et al., (2020) find that resilience in LGBTQ+ youth is focused on community, survival, and rebellion. It’s often pragmatic and an act of surviving, being authentic, and rebelling against the norm. This research recognises that, for this community, a traditional focus on individual resilience and success is, again, not culturally sensitive.
We need to recognise different understandings of resilience that sit outside of our own experiences and the norm. And these are often relational.
“Relational resilience and the making of diverse worlds” (Hale & Carolan, 2020)
Relational resilience can be defined as how we build enduring connections and networks. Like so much of the work we do in libraries, it’s centred on community. But Hale and Carolan (2020) add to this definition.
For resilience to lead to transformative change – and doing things differently – the networks or connections we have need to not only endure but also be diverse and equitable.
So not only is resilience a relational process but, as Hale and Carolan describe, it’s focused on creating “fairer and more just outcomes and conditions” (2020, p. 5).
Often, we might think of resilience as adapting to change, but here resilience can be driving transformative change. Rather than being able to keep doing what we always have, we have the potential for positive change that leads to fairer and more just outcomes, driven by diversity and equity in our networks.
But to maintain the diversity and equity needed for both resilience and transformative change, we need to lead in ways that relate to many different identities. And we need to recognise that this is emotional work.
Leadership, values, identity, and emotions all play a part in developing diverse and equitable communities, and approaches to leadership can either encourage or limit the relationships and resilience that we build across differences.
Building diverse and equitable connections – whether it’s in the workplace or our local communities – needs leadership that can build connections across differences and recognise the potential for change.
Hale and Carolan use the example of climate change – where traditional ideas of resilience rest on maintaining the status quo with “more of the same” rather than the potential for transformative change that relational resilience can bring.
Understanding what the status quo is, how it’s reinforced, who benefits or is harmed, and then redesigning or addressing systems to be better is one way to see care in action and can have a positive impact in leadership (Moore, 2022). We see overlapping conversations happening around open access and ethical forms of publishing where an ethics of care is proposed to make publishing more diverse and equitable and help to realise that it’s a relational process. So it’s then through an ethics of care and network of care that resilience is leveraged collectively (Bradley, 2021, p. 9).
In research on relational resilience in the Australian higher education context findings also show relational resilience as being about how we build relationships and interact with others. While the concept of resilience is seen as being about withstanding difficulty, relational resilience is considered to be the capacity to develop empathy with others.
In research by Gilmore et al. (2018), we see themes of capability for connection, building mutual empathy and trust, and embracing difference. The evidence suggests that individual measures of resilience end up being of limited use if they haven’t considered the broader social and institutional contexts.
What we don’t see
In libraries, we might be able to see this in a professional survivorship bias. Survivorship bias is when we focus only on the traits of people (or organisations) who have managed to survive or succeed and then we determine that one characteristic they have – which has been singled out – is the answer.
But in the process, we don’t consider or evaluate that there are people and organisations who used the same strategies or had similar characteristics who didn’t “make it” or succeed. We end up with a distorted understanding of circumstances. Building on what Yablonski (n.d.) describes in “consider what you don’t see,” if we’re only focusing on the successes and positive feedback in the design, then our solutions aren’t actually going to be resilient enough, and we won’t realise the barriers that we didn’t face ourselves.
In these instances, resilience becomes about people with a perceived deficit needing to conform or apply themselves to a dominant culture (Tewell, 2020, p. 139).
To what extent might the concept of resilience obscure that a system wasn’t designed for someone? Resilience might be seen as admirable for an individual, but what of any injustice or structural failures that surround it? Are we celebrating someone’s determination rather than striving for meaningful or equitable change?
My colleague, Adrian Stagg (2022), reflected on these questions in the context of education, asking whether students are succeeding in a system that wasn’t designed for them and if we’re relying on concepts like resilience instead of making changes.
When resilience is individualised, with responsibility placed entirely on the individual, we risk obscuring what the cause or need for resilience is, and with that obscuring the need for change and the solutions that might make a difference.
In the context of our library profession as well, we can aim to recognise those wider professional and systemic barriers – whether that’s for students, new graduates or established professionals. Particularly for those from marginalised backgrounds, expectations around resilience can present unique challenges, frustrations, and hopes, and they’re more likely to find themselves with greater expectations for resilience being placed on them (Burns & Fargo, 2019).
We saw this during the pandemic. A 2020 survey from the ALIA New Generation Advisory Committee indicated that many new-generation professionals felt heightened levels of anxiety around career prospects. But many of those conversations are longstanding, and the pandemic amplified existing social inequalities for the communities we work with and also for library professionals.
Different perspectives; same cause
So that means we need to be building systems and communities where people can focus on growing and developing professionally, rather than resilience being a baseline where the focus is on coping or surviving.
When we are looking at resilience in these ways, it’s an opportunity to counter other narratives that focus on deficits.
Dr. Karen Schneider was a keynote speaker at a CILIP seminar in 2021 called ‘pride in the profession’. She described a very activist approach to resilience that had come out of her research with LGBTQIA+ communities that recognised “resilience is not the same as accepting the status quo” (CILIP, 2021).
In a slight contrast, Diprose (2014) looks at resilience around climate change and remarks that “resilience is futile”. Diprose sees resilience as a way to justify maintaining the status quo and considers that it’s taking a ‘business as usual’ approach that’s reactive to climate change rather than encouraging people to ask difficult questions and motivating people to change more than their attitude.
However, in both cases, we see resilience as being a response to social inequality and uncertainty.
We need to critically consider where the responsibility lies for change (Diprose, 2014, p. 49) and also that prolonged resilience beyond a crisis period often obscures or hides the cost of an ongoing struggle.
In libraries we’re quick to talk about the digital and information divide as being between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and we want to find solutions to rectify inequalities around access to information. But perhaps we’re also equally quick to insist on just needing more resilience and patience (Diprose, 2014) when an individual or a community does have the courage to state their needs or concerns.
If we can’t look beyond our own experiences to understand differences in how resilience might be understood or interpreted, then we’re going to struggle to recognise its impact on our local communities and be able to respond to their needs appropriately.
Building community on lived expertise & care (currie & Hubrig, 2022)
That burden of resilience often falls on the most marginalised communities we work with in libraries. Those who we want to build resilience in are often the ones who are already compromising and have been more resilient than most (currie & Hubrig, 2022).
For example, in higher education, currie & Hubrig – write about how the labour and impact of resilience falls disproportionally on disabled, queer, Black, Indigenous, and other marginalised students. In their focus on disability, currie & Hubrig describe how we have an opportunity to build community that centres the lived expertise and needs of marginalised students – and prioritises the resourcefulness and collective care that they already bring instead of demanding greater resilience.
We can do the same in libraries – whether our communities are made up of students, families, the wider public, academics, or professionals.
That means recognising resilience as a system, and that … “A resilient system can cope with change. It can hear challenge without defensiveness. It can adapt & flex in response to difference” (Fisher, 2022).
Just as resilience is relational, so is difference.
Difference doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s apparent only in relation to others.
How we call attention to, hide, or respond to difference will shift. It’s entirely contextual.
It’s always changing and takes on different meanings as we learn more about someone or reveal more of ourselves.
Kerschbaum (2012) writes about ‘difference’ from the perspective of teaching and disability. She explores how it’s through the interactions that highlight difference that teachers can better understand students. It becomes a negotiation of what is revealed in our interactions and how we understand others and our differences.
In libraries, we’re quite aware of conversations around diversity because we often bring an ethics of care to our work. We try to be attentive to matters of social justice and seek to build relationships with communities and be responsive to their needs.
But that doesn’t mean we’re always perceptive to what Kerschbaum describes as ‘markers of difference’ and how disability, for example, is constantly being negotiated and disclosed in different contexts. And because disability has often been seen as a deficit – or something to be solved we often address inequality by ‘retrofitting’ or modifying our existing environments to be compliant and solve the problem rather than designing for inclusivity (Moeller, 2019). “We react to diversity instead of planning for it” (Domage, 2017, p. 79).
That ends up requiring resilience. If we’re not designing for inclusion and diversity then our understanding of resilience will very easily position difference and disability as difficulties to push out of sight. This risks leaving resilience as being at odds with inclusion and accessibility (Moeller, 2019) and the diversity we claim to aspire to.
Doing things differently
A relational understanding of resilience means we have an opportunity to recognise where we can do things differently as a profession. And that means change. It means that we need to have different conversations and ask different questions. Even if they’re difficult ones. Communities survive and flourish when we build connection and have mutual empathy and a culture of trust that allows us to have difficult conversations.
If we want both community and professional resilience, then we need structures that not only invite diversity but go on to present opportunities for communities to flourish.
This means we need to understand resilience in meaningful and inclusive ways that look beyond our own experience and address the wider context, shared responsibility, barriers, and change.
Can library expectations of resilience be more inclusive and socially conscious?
So, returning to that first question – can library expectations of resilience be more inclusive and socially conscious?
I say yes, but we need to start by asking what resilience actually means for those we expect it of – whether that’s our local communities, colleagues, students, or new professionals.
Many communities and individuals are already showing incredible resilience that isn’t seen. We need to look beyond our own experiences, beyond success stories and survivorship, and not only consider but acknowledge the barriers that we might not have had to face. This means challenging our own expectations and realising the barriers that resilience might obscure or hide from view.
And then move beyond just acknowledgement but ask what needs to change, listening to lived experience and then, where possible, co-designing that change in partnership.
We need to recognise that resilience, and doing things differently, takes courage. Committing to a community-centred approach in libraries means we also need to consider where the burden of resilience is being placed.
If we see building resilience in other people or communities as being how well they can accept a new reality or change, then we should also be prepared to accept the discomfort and disruption of change in our own library services, systems, and perspectives.
Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP – the UK’s library and information association says that “if the byword of the last decade was ‘resilience’, I hope for the next it will be ‘courage’. It takes courage to claim power, to do things differently, to go where there aren’t precedents” (Poole, 2020).
That’s the courage to start difficult conversations and to strive for meaningful and equitable change.
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