Emily Drabinski on Leading the Library During a Pandemic and on Social Justice

June 17, 2020

Emily Drabinski, interim chief librarian, speaks about the resources available to researchers, the library's commitment to social justice, and how much she's looking forward to leaving her home office and returning to the Mina Rees Library.

Emily Drabrinski (Credit: Alex Irklievski/The Graduate Center)
Emily Drabrinski (Credit: Alex Irklievski/The Graduate Center)


Polly Thistlethwaite, announcing her successor last month, said it first and best: “Emily Drabinski Becomes Interim Chief Librarian Under Worst Possible Conditions.” Drabinski started her new role in mid-March, as coronavirus cases were soaring in the city, and in her first week had to lead her staff in closing The Graduate Center’s library and making as much as possible of its vast resources available online.

Drabinski was previously The Graduate Center’s first critical pedagogy librarian, a role she started just over a year ago. She recently spoke to The Graduate Center about the resources available to researchers, the library’s commitment to social justice, and how much she’s looking forward to leaving her home office and returning to the Mina Rees Library:

The Graduate Center: How has the library responded to the limitations of the shutdown?

Drabinski: We’ve always had a lot of material online, an electronic book collection, a significant database of digital archives of collections that we have on offer. Our work has mostly been managing new digital options as they come online. A lot of publishers, in response to COVID, extended free access to their electronic book collections for a certain amount of time. And the management of those resources is incredibly complex — getting those into our collections for a little while, and then getting them out again when they’re not free anymore, has been a significant part of our work. 

Like everyone, we’ve pivoted to having all of our services offered online. We run regular workshops on Zoom and Webex on how to use Zotero, different kinds of databases, and collections and articles search. Donna Davey, one of our librarians, taught a workshop on how to do archival research online, using collections across the world, for anthropology students, who are facing a crushing blow to their research efforts. They can’t go into the field. We’re doing what we can to maximize access and knowledge around those digital collections while also recognizing the irreplaceability of print. We are excited to get back into the building and start working again when it’s safe.

GC: What other new tools have you developed to help researchers?

Drabinski: Our resource-sharing shop has been open and we’ve processed more than 6,000 requests since the COVID closures. We have five people working on reference and outreach services. 

We’ve also launched what we call an E-book Detective Agency: We have a team of people getting up to speed on all the places you can look for electronic books. You can submit your request and we’ll see if we can find it. We have a pretty good solve rate at this point. We’ve gotten several hundred requests through that service. 

Roxanne Shirazi, the dissertation research librarian, processed online every single one of the doctoral dissertations that was submitted at the end of this spring. Normally she would meet with students one-on-one and in small groups to get their dissertations ready for deposit. But she’s done all of that online. 

GC: With the library functioning so well online, do you think there will be lasting changes to how it functions?

Drabinski: I think the changes will be about getting ourselves ready for the next emergency. We’ve always been a hybrid digital/print operation. But people aren’t asking when can we get more e-books; they’re asking when can we come back to the library.

That’s what people want. They want to spend time in our space. We have a really special space at The Graduate Center, in midtown, in the CUNY system, that’s pin-drop quiet. Some people will want to stay working remotely, but that’s not true for me. I’m getting ready to start being a bike commuter so I can get to the building as soon as possible. The fact that the library has been able to pull off what it has, with the trauma that everyone’s experiencing — we’re all touched by loss and illness, and the eruption of police violence in the last week or so, as New Yorkers. I’m lucky that we’ve worked through that, by a lot of diligent labor. 

GC: The library put out a statement on Black Lives Matter and soon after, in response to a community member request, an extensive resource list of items from its collection that focus on anti-racism. How has the library played a role in promoting social justice and equality?

Drabinski: I think that’s layered at every level of library work. A patron might come in, get their book, and leave, and not think about it very much. But all we think about all day is how information is produced and who gets to produce it. On a very basic level: What do we collect for our collections? Who is enabled in their publication efforts, what kinds of research have value?

There’s the justice issue of who gets to walk through our doors. One of the things that attracted me about working at CUNY is the richly diverse student population, in terms of lands of origin, students of color, working class students. CUNY is a place where these students can come in and make knowledge that the library can then collect. We want our community to feel like everybody has a place. We want books that reflect the lives and experiences of everyone, from all walks of life.

GC: Your own scholarship has focused on questions of classification as it relates to LGBTQ issues.

Drabinski: That’s part of my analysis of how knowledge is organized around queer lives. Classification requires words for a stable set of ideas — that’s what makes it difficult to change. It’s like a sedimentation of ideology. It tells the dominant story of sort of a white, Christian, capitalist, masculine set of stories. If you’re queer, there’s no language for you in that. Or if there is, it’s not representative. 

My argument is that it can’t be correct because queer identity terms change so quickly. This is a problem endemic to classification work: It requires this fixed language, keeping things in place. We want standard vocabularies, because they facilitate research. There’s no way to change it quickly. There’s no way to be fully responsive. 

When we introduce patrons to our system, we want to talk about it in ways so that everyone understands the systems of power and how they reflect an ideology. The solution is to be mindful of it.