What’s Critical About Critical Librarianship?

Many thanks to librarians of the Hawaii Library Association and Kapiʻolani Community College for inviting me to talk about critical librarianship last week in Honolulu. The talk came at the end of a week of getting my National Parks Passport stamped, something I really enjoy doing and, if I’m honest, was part of the warrant for my trip out west, as far away from home as I had ever been. My first stop was the Valor in the Pacific site in Honolulu, mostly because that was the park where I could get a passport stamp in Honolulu. My partner, kid, and I happened to be visiting on the anniversary of the FDR order establishing Japanese internment camps in the United States. A national horror and shame, this seemed like an event that ought to be recognized, memorialized, at the site of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Nope. Nothing about it. And nothing about anything else related to the American war machine, not U.S. colonial efforts in the Philippines, not the dropping of the atomic bombs, not the camps. Nothing. At the Valor in the Pacific historic site, history is only and simply about the event: the Japanese dropped bombs. A giant ship sank. Nearly 1200 people drowned on the U.S.S. Arizona. All of that is true, surely, but what about the rest of the story? Like so many of the stories this country tells about itself, the site is about exception: the exceptional violence of the Japanese, the exceptionally peaceable evening in Honolulu that night.

I am skeptical about those exceptions, the claims that “now more than ever” we must do this or do that. After all, isn’t state violence under the Trump administration simply an intensification of the violence that sits at the foundation of this country? Can we really make a claim to something exceptional about this moment in an American history that includes the man-made mass death of indigenous people caused by settler colonialism? Mass enslavement? Constant war? Is any of this new?

My impulse is certainly to say that “now more than ever” critical librarianship is the only kind of librarian-ing any of us ought to be doing. I don’t know if that’s true, but it feels true to me today. (But maybe it won’t feel true tomorrow, we’ll see. Ask me later.) What does that mean? I’m still figuring it out. It’s more than critical pedagogy, that’s for sure, but what’s the shape of it? What will it look like to be a profession that resists? I’m groping towards some answers to those questions, like many of us I’m sure. Here’s the beginning of the answer I gave in Hawaii.

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