Uncomfortable GLAM

Authors note: I write this blog post from a very privileged position. Being a white male in my thirties, I acknowledge that my 'safe' is not the same as others. I can afford to take risks that might get someone else fired, ostracised, attacked, and silenced. As I wrote in my last GLAM blog club post, I feel privileged people should take risks and stand up for those who can't, but never at the expense of those we hope to help.

Safe means many things to many different people and has even more connotations when viewed from a GLAM perspective. For this post I will look at 'safe' being 'comfortable'.

In the GLAM world being comfortable could mean that our organisation is well funded for another year. We could finally have a full set of staff on board, settled down after a large organisational change, or even just entered that change plateau of a new building.

Being safe allows us to do many things. We can reinforce our services by doubling up story times, having extra staff help out during busy times, or get time to weed and clean out that stationery cupboard. Not having to worry about funding could allow us to remain open, or to work from a place of strength.

However, being safe can also stop us from doing things. When you're comfortable as a professional, an organisation, or even a profession we tend to stand still, growth comes from change. This lack of growth can sometimes stem from how we achieved our current level of comfort. Trade offs from funding bodies, political alliances, and other departments can all stop us from 'rocking the boat', lest we lose our comfortable status. More often than not, this perception is entirely self generated, self censorship to keep us safe. We start avoiding risks, and failure stops being an option or is used as a warning to others not to try.

In my own experience, taking risks often leads to some level of failure, but from failure we learn, and from learning we grow. Without stepping out of my comfort zone I can't help my profession, and organisation evolve beyond the status quo. Being risk adverse keeps you safe, this is true, but it also keeps you stagnant and in the world of GLAM that can spell your doom. Soon the risk takers in your organisation/profession either become disheartened and conform, or leave. I want to highlight a recent example of this principle in practice.

Lets look to the recent case of the peak professional body ALIA and their (IMHO) terrible handling of the marriage equality issue. I warn you reader that I may still be too angry to fully render my ideas here so apologies to any errors and please know that there are amazing people in our professional groups who do wonderful work. To them I say keep doing what you're doing and you have my full support.

Here we have an organisation that has enjoyed relative safety and comfort for a long time (80 years if you haven't seen the constant reminders!). Through marriage equality we can see a group struggle to stay in their comfort zone. Distancing themselves from the issue by using FAIR to promote anything resembling a position, allowing ALIA to stay safe and sound. Even when their seperate advisory group (ALIA NGAC) formed for this exact thing, advises that this is an issue that ALIA needs to take a firm YES stance on, they ignore them.

Ironically, by taking a 'safe' stance of 'neutrality' caused the change that they feared. Starting with the resignation of the amazing Kate, and ending with several open letters, we ended up with a fundamental change that I hope will continue.

In their own response ALIA show how safe they are trying to be. Stating that 20% of their membership comes from institutions it shows why they would begin to pander to them. As Deep Throat said 'follow the money'. Institutional memberships start a good $200 more than a personal membership and can bring in a few grand a year. As mentioned earlier, funding can be a good motivator for staying safe.

Kathryn Greenhill posted a good thread arguing that we shouldn't leave an organisation we disagree with, but instead stay and fight. While I agree that change from within would be ideal in this scenario, people get tired. I've worked for places who were so risk adverse that I was constantly feeling drained just fighting for small changes, so much so that I quit. Basic self care allows us to step away when we become too tired, and too angry. This can allow others to step up, take notice, and continue the fight. We've seen it particularly in the US where nine months of constant battle have worn people out. Stepping back and saying 'I can't do this any more' is a valid choice.

The greater problem is that ALIA is too safe. Too comfortable. We still don't have an open access professional journal, despite many people calling for one. The marriage equality issue just continues to highlight how safe they feel. If change is what we want, then maybe we need to make them feel less comfortable. I remind all ALIA members that the Board elections for 2018 open nominations in November 2017. Maybe ask some difficult questions of new nominees, support those who seek to make changes, and question current members over their positions and more importantly, actions.

If we want change we need to make people feel uncomfortable. We see this in the US in many forms, and I was very happy to see it at the recent ASA conference with Jarrett Drake delivering his keynote on one knee. If you need to know how to make people uncomfortable, and find out what it can achieve then listen to this amazing keynote by Kelly Sue DeConnick. We as GLAMers need to understand that safe, doesn't necessarily mean good.

I as a GLAM professional don't want to be comfortable. I'm privileged enough however to feel safe taking risks. The risks I take will always be for those who can't, because one day I won't be safe and someone will hopefully take a risk for me.

This post grew much larger than I had originally intended. I apologise, it has been a hard month, and one that has been much harder for many others. Let me leave you with a quote from DeConnick's keynote as I feel it sums up a lot of peoples feelings, and my own.

"Doing the right thing is not a passive act. You do not get to be a good guy just because you figure you're not a bad guy. You follow?"

- Kelly Sue DeConnick