A letter to Patrick Deane, President, McMaster University

Mar 09 2011 Published by under academia, education, librarianship

This is about the symposium upcoming at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, The Future of the Academic Library. The symposium is co-presented by Library Journal and McMaster.

It was announced on Twitter this past Sunday and there was a bit of a Twitter-storm about the conference as quite a few people (myself included) thought the program participants a bit problematic, to say the least.

But I'll let my University of Windsor colleague Mita Willliams take it from here. With her permission, I'm reposting the letter she wrote yesterday to President Deane.

I am writing this letter to you today on International Women's Day. Or, to be more accurate I'm writing you this letter *because* it's International Women's Day.

I am writing to ask you if you think that it's acceptable for a symposium that you will be a speaking at - The Future of Academic Libraries - to have what appears to be only 3 women presenting out of a possible 21 speakers.

The percentage of women in Canadian academic librarianship is 73% [CAUT Almanac, pdf].

Last night I got a call from a student from McMaster as part of the University's current Alumni fund-raising drive. She was kind, clear, engaging and polite. When I told her that I was able to apply my geography and environmental science degree from McMaster in my work as a science librarian, she told me that she really appreciated librarians and just recently a McMaster librarian helped her find the data she needed for her GIS class.

But as able as she was, she was not ultimately effective in getting closer to her fund-raising goal for reasons that were not her fault. So after I told the student my reasons why I would not donate to McMaster University, I told her that I would write you personally and tell you those reasons myself because... well because it only seemed fair.

I support McMaster librarians and the excellent work that they do. I'm looking forward to working with them at Code4Lib North (that McMaster University is kindly sponsoring) and I hope to run into them again at The Humanities and Technology Camp being held two weeks later at UWO. (As an aside, did you notice that there are no McMaster Librarians speaking at The Future of Academic libraries at the symposium? Others have.)

I will not be attending The Future of Academic Libraries Symposium because 15% doesn't sound fair to me. I want a future that's more fair than the present, for myself and for the student I spoke to last night.

Mita has it exactly right.

Consider me an additional signatory to Mita's letter.

Another thing that I find problematic is that most of the presenters from the library world are senior administrators -- university librarians and others at that level. While I have nothing against senior administrators per se, it seems to me that a symposium on the future of something could certainly benefit from some younger blood. See Peter Brantley's excellent call to arms, Get in the goddamn wagon, for some further thoughts in that direction.

A panel discussion featuring some of McMaster's front-line librarians would seem to be a natural for dealing with at least some of the aforementioned issues -- lack of women, lack of Mac librarians and lack of early-career and front-line librarians.

I realize that it's probably too late to change the program significantly, in particular since the schedule of events seems inordinately packed. However, I feel the three prominent omissions seriously damage the credibility of what should have been a significant event in the spring calendar for academic librarians in southern Ontario.

8 responses so far

  • Dale A says:

    I disagree with the positions stated here. Regarding the presence of women on the agenda, it's worth remembering that who gets invited to speak and who makes themselves available are often two different things. This is not a weeklong conference where there is a large pool of talks where one would rightfully expect a more demographically accurate roster. It's a one-day symposium, with a handful of slots dedicated to one speaker. Those objecting to the lack of women also fail to note that the opening session that frames the entire day will be presented by two women and one man. But quibbling over the gender mix is pointless. As a feminist, I am acutely aware of the need to address gender inequities, but choosing battles wisely is important. In a profession with an overwhelming female majority, with leadership positions reflecting that mix, rattling the cage over a one-day symposium seems disingenuous. Were the agenda reversed in terms of gender distribution—something that occurs, incidentally, at other library conferences—no one would care. As a male librarian who has worked in five academic libraries with a sum total of four male senior administrators between them (of a total pool of perhaps 20), I know whereof I speak. Were one to turn Mita's arguments on their head and complain about a preponderance of women at an event, one would be pilloried.

    Also, stating that “I have nothing against senior administrators per se” means that one does, in fact, object to senior administrators, else there would be no point to raise. Reading the agenda, the event focuses clearly on a high level view of the future of academic libraries. Is this one-sided? Yes, but I don’t see the problem there. There are myriad events in the library world, and I see no reason why all must present a broad perspective. This one happens to aim high on org charts, another might present the early career perspective. So be it. One can choose to attend or not. From my point of view, listening to people such as Jim Neal, Michael Stephens, and David Lewis—whether they are men, women, or unsure about their gender—is an opportunity to tap into their way of thinking. For better or worse, such leaders drive and shape opinions. I may disagree with them, but I need to know their thinking, and how better to learn it than to attend and engage via questions and discussion? If one rejects the perspective of senior administrators, as the disclaimer “I have nothing against” suggests, then where better to challenge them than on neutral and public ground?

    Disclaimer: although now an AUL at McMaster, these comments are personal, not institutional.

  • BeeGrrl says:

    "But quibbling over the gender mix is pointless. As a feminist, I am acutely aware of the need to address gender inequities, but choosing battles wisely is important. In a profession with an overwhelming female majority, with leadership positions reflecting that mix, rattling the cage over a one-day symposium seems disingenuous. Were the agenda reversed in terms of gender distribution—something that occurs, incidentally, at other library conferences—no one would care."

    Yeah, you're basically creating a picture of libraries as a "female-dominated" workplace where "reverse sexism" is the more pressing problem and women still seeing inequality should just shut up. I'm paraphrasing, obviously, but this is the "gist" of your post as I read it.

    And that is B.S.

    According to 08-09 DOL Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers (the most recent that I could quickly find), while men accounted for only 16.5% of librarians in 2008, they accounted for 47% of library directors in academic settings and 35% in public libraries in 2006. In fact, pretty much across the board, as we move "up" the library ladder (from technicians to librarians to directors, or from public to private to research), the percentage of men's representation increases.

    Nor is this merely a case of women "self-selecting" lower pay/prestige jobs- according to the Association of Research Libraries' Annual Salary Survey (2008–09), even when years of experience in a particular job category were equal, men still outpaced women in salary by nearly 4%: $69,610 for women and $72,344 for men. On average, women have more years of experience than men, but still men’s salaries are higher in all ten experience cohorts.

    In fact, several studies have verified the "glass escalator" effect for men in library workplaces.

    As a librarian, you do not live in a world where gender equity has been achieved (or reversed).

    While your comments about whether a one-day conference is a legitimate analysis point and whether this is a generally anti-administrative issue may well be valid, your tone that suggests that this is "hoopla" is BS.

  • John Dupuis says:

    Dale, thanks for your comment. And thanks for being upfront about your affiliation.

    This is one of those cases where I fear my low level of eloquence will hinder the message I want to convey so I’ll first of all refer you to some resources suggested by some colleagues on Twitter:Gendered Conference Campaign
    smart men on the lack of women at conferences: a retrospective
    Silencing tactics

    That being said, it’s really all about choices for me. When you plan an event, you make choices about what it’s going to be about, what the focus is, who’s going to be given pride of place in the program, what direction the conversation is going to be. When you do that, you own what you create. And others may disagree. The organizers of the symposium made choices; I, and others, disagree. Sure, when you organize an event, things don’t always fall out exactly the way you hope. Some things end up sub-optimal. I understand that.

    But when three very important aspects end up being sub-optimal – lack of women, lack of Mac librarians, lack of early-career and front-line librarians – well, then I think it’s back to choices.

    Sure there’s an infinite possible number of events that could exist, some of which have women, some of which have Mac librarians and some of which have early-career and front-line librarians. However, I haven’t seen too many events where the speakers are invitation-only about the future of academic libraries that are that far-reaching. I’d like to be wrong, I’d like you to be able to show me the long list of such invitation-only events but I haven’t really seen them. I’d like to direct you to the Peter Brantley post I refer to above, Get in the goddamn wagon for more of an exploration of that.

    As for participation of Mac librarians, I think the idea that the conversation should be one-way – from the outsiders to the Mac people – is rather unfortunate. Knowing the caliber of Mac’s librarians, I believe there’s a lot to be learned in both directions. And to say that that’s going to happen with one side being the event’s “experts” and the other side being the “audience” seems unlikely, especially given how crowded the conference schedule is.

    And, “If one rejects the perspective of senior administrators, as the disclaimer “I have nothing against” suggests, then where better to challenge them than on neutral and public ground?” Neutral and public ground, seems to me, to be best established by being equals, not one side set up as the experts and the other as the audience.
    Anyways, I’ve gone on long enough. “Sage on the stage” events like this one are indicative of a mindset that’s hard to change. Come to Science Online one of these days to see a different way of envisaging such an event

  • Elizabeth Brown says:

    The gender balance is perplexing, as I'm hosting a program next month and the speaker breakdown is about 50/50. I did find in planning an earlier meeting it was difficult to find female faculty members to participate in panel discussions about scholarship issues - they were almost exclusively male. I'm not sure why but partly this was because the sciences were more heavily represented and fewer female faculty were active as editors or had web-based publishing projects, which was the focus of discussion. I agree with the post - something just seems off about the whole program. The perspective, schedule, speakers, lack of time for discussion - I don't think the planners were aware of the overall impression and concept.

  • Mita says:

    Dale, I find your comment somewhat difficult to respond to. I think this might be because you’ve ratcheted up the emotional language of the discussion (“rattling the cage”, “pointless”, “quibbling”, “choosing battles”, “disingenuous”, “being pilloried”) far above my simple post with one simple question, (“Do think this is acceptable?”) You make it sound like I’m some angry feminist mob. [1]

    Your argument - that concerns over the gross gender imbalance for the symposium should be discounted because the conference is just for one day and that somehow the imbalance would right itself if the conference lasted for a week – is unsound. Maybe this would be the case if speakers were selected at random, but that’s not the case here.

    Yes, it is only a one-day conference. But it is a one-day conference designed to be a prestigious event, bringing together “the leading thinkers in our profession” to “generate solutions to the key challenges we face” and promoted by the flagship publication of librarianship. The Future of Academic Librarianship is at stake.

    “At McMaster University, an inclusive community is one in which there is real, visible and meaningful representation of the diversity evident in the wider community at all levels and in all constituencies on campus (faculty, staff, students, administration).”

    That’s the first line of the McMaster University Statement on Building an Inclusive Community with a Shared Purpose [2]. As an AUL at McMaster, you have a responsibility is uphold this commitment.

    [1] http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Angry_feminist_mob
    [2] http://www.mcmaster.ca/hres/Inclusive%20Community%20with%20a%20Shared%20Purpose%20Statement.pdf

  • ML says:

    It's been interesting to see the gradual noise about this symposium and I hope it continues to be discussed, but I wish there was more attention placed on McMaster's Jeff Trzeciak, the organizer of this conference, who has engaged in a protracted war of attrition against his own librarian staff to the degree that they had to break from their faculty association and form a union. I think he didn't include them, despite including stakeholders from nearly every other level at McMaster, because his vision of the future of academic libraries does not include librarians.

  • jb says:

    Mita, I just read your response to Dale's comments. Thanks for saying exactly what I wanted to, only so much more pointedly. It seems to me that it has been clearly established by you and others that this event will not take place on "neutral ground" and there will be little opportunity during the day to "engage via questions and discussion". That's why I won't be attending.

  • dc says:

    One of the first things one learns in discussions concerning interacting with members of minority groups is that it is a grave mistake to assume that the person you are talking to speaks for the entire group.

    In that light I am absolutely flabbergasted to hear multiple people in this discussion complaining about a gender-hegemonic message being promulgated at this conference.

    But that's just my opinion. I speak for myself as a person, not as a member of the Male persuasion.

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