Liberating Information, Disciplining Knowledge, and the Social Life of Libraries

Emily Drabinski will start her new job this month as The Graduate Center’s first critical pedagogy librarian, a role in which she’ll complement a growing staff of leaders in advocacy for open publishing, scholarly communications, and advancing the common good.  
“Emily is known as a critical pedagogy leader in library instruction,” says Polly Thistlethwaite, The Graduate Center’s chief librarian. “She will be giving students tools to understand how the system works, and to approach that system with a critical, outsider view. That matches the whole enterprise of what The Graduate Center is about — the critical approach.”
Drabinski spent the last 11 years at Long Island University Brooklyn, where she served as the coordinator of library instruction. She recently spoke to The Graduate Center about her new role:
Graduate Center: What is a critical pedagogy librarian? That’s a title many people, even at universities, haven’t come across before.
Drabinski: I teach people how to work with information. There’s a movement in academic libraries to integrate the principles of critical pedagogy into how we teach people to use, produce, disseminate, and preserve information.
It’s an exciting time for libraries, as we engage in open-access movements — movements for open educational resources, and for liberating information to be moved more freely. I’m excited to work with people at The Graduate Center who are and will become teachers, and thinking about the ways that we teach students at all levels about how information production works, and figuring out ways to make content open and sharable and transformable.
I'll be working with the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. The students in that program are equipping themselves to be political actors in the world, and I’d like to integrate a critical perspective on information use.
GC: On your site, you say your research interests include: gender and sexuality in librarianship, and the intersections of power and library systems and structures. Can you explain how these interests relate to each other, and to the work of librarians?
Drabinski: I think that librarians do a lot of hidden work that you don’t necessarily see. You come into a library, you put search terms into a database or a catalog or Google, and you retrieve the information and you search and use it. I’m interested in the politics of how that information is organized. I’ve written about the intersections of queer theory and classification structures: the ways that we have to discipline new knowledge, and knowledge about identities, into categories in our classification schemes.
For example, in the Library of Congress classification system, if you’re in an academic library looking for information about queer bodies, there’s a set of categories that fixes that knowledge in time and space, even if we see gender and sexuality as fluid and contingent. How do we open up those structures, to make room for new ways of knowing and being, while at the same time making space for what can’t be disciplined?
GC: What is meant by “disciplining information”?
Drabinski: Knowledge has to be disciplined into the categories that exist already in a library. A book can only live in one place on the shelf. But knowledge is quite fluid, and I’m interested in how we decide where it fits and what it fits next to.
GC: You have upwards of 11,000 Twitter followers, where librarians are an active part of the political and cultural conversations. Do you think librarians have become more political since the 2016 election?
Drabinski: I’m on Twitter all the time. I’m talking to you right now, so I can’t stare at my Twitter, which is challenging! But it’s a space where a lot of librarians make connections and share experiences and share knowledge.
I edited a book called Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods about 10 years ago, and there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation at that time about the critical work that libraries could do. There have always been politicized librarians. But I do feel like since then — and I don’t know if this has to do with our standing as a public good; libraries are one of the last public goods that are funded — but I feel like there’s a politicized moment about libraries right now. I’m not sure what it is. 
When I was in library school, I worked at the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library. I was there when Sept. 11 happened. And we all had to go to work on Sept. 12, because libraries were a critical public service. I remember thinking, Can this be real? Who needs a book today?
But we were packed. I worked at the Muhlenberg branch that day, because Jefferson Market was in the frozen zone. People came in and they argued about their fines.
GC: They argued about their fines? Not about the attacks?
Drabinski: I was struck by the importance of normal social life in the library. It was a place to come to see that the world was continuing, even in the face of a moment that seemed apocalyptic to some people. They still wanted to read books. And to have conversations with each other. And to make connections with one another. Those are things that can happen in the library, and you don’t have to pay for it. You don’t have to take any money out of your pocket to use the bathroom or get warm or stay cool. It’s one of the last spaces like that. I have a friend at The Graduate Center who calls the library her silent space: It’s one of the only spaces where you can find silence in Midtown.

Submitted on: MAR 12, 2019

Category: General GC News