On JMLA, Conflict, and Failed Diversity Efforts in LIS

What Happened?

On December 11th, 2020 Christian I.J. Minter published “A Case Study on Anti-Black Publishing.” In her post, Minter details how, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the May of 2020, the Journal of the Medical Library Association (JMLA) announced a call for submissions and commitment to equity after publicly stating their support of Black lives and diversity, equity, and inclusion. In response, she, along with four other Black librarians, co-authored an editorial on anti-Blackness in librarianship that was accepted for publication in January 2021. She goes on to explain how, during the editorial process, major changes were made without track changes or previous mention of required revisions. These included changes in the capitalization of words like “Black” and “white supremacy,”(1) as well as changes in pronouns used (see Minter’s piece for more detail). These changes were contested and the editor-in-chief was cc’ed when the authors felt their concerns were being ignored. Neither the editor-in-chief, nor a different associate editor, chose to intervene. The authors made the decision to pull the editorial.

Five days after Minter’s post was published, the JMLA published “An Apology from JMLA,” written by the editor-in-chief, Katherine Akers. I will comment further on this response later in this piece, but for now, there is one portion of the apology that I would like to draw particular attention to:

“I was copied on the emails between the managing editor and the authors. I recognized that there was disagreement between the two parties, and I debated whether to step in, as the copyediting process usually proceeds without my close attention. I chose not to intervene, assuming that the two parties would come to resolution on their own or that I would be directly contacted by one of the parties if my intervention was needed or desired.”

The moment I saw this, I immediately recognized the mechanism by which anti-Blackness had been enacted and enforced. Yes, this situation was a failure in cultural competency and a result of structural racism (prioritizing Medical Library Association’s standards over Black standards for Black writing), but the means by which that structural racism was enforced is the dialog to which I’d like to contribute. This was a failure in appropriate conflict mediation, grounded in the way conflict is commonly framed in library and information science (LIS). What do I mean by this? In order to explain, I have to overview issues of organizational justice, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA), and cultural competence.

Organizational Justice

Organizational justice is an area of study in organizational psychology that refers to employee perceptions of fairness in the workplace, also called justice perception. It can be divided into four categories: interactional justice, procedural justice, distributive justice, and informational justice. This is to say that, more than simply liking or disliking the people they work with, employees value fairness in the ways they interact with colleagues (interactional justice), the ways policies are written and enforced (procedural justice), the ways consequences and outcomes of decisions impact them (distributive justice), and the ways decisions and other information are/are not shared (informational justice). Justice perception correlates to, and is predictive of, employee performance. Employees are more likely to develop a sense of loyalty and goodwill towards their employer, which enhances performance, when they feel they are treated fairly. For an introduction to literature on this subject, I recommend this Oxford Bibliography on Organizational Justice.

This concept of organizational justice becomes particularly relevant to this JMLA discussion, and to DEIA dialogue more broadly, when you consider that the four levels of justice I previously listed are all areas where discrimination occur. “Fairness” as a concept is built on relativity. It’s not about whether or not we like the way we are treated, but if we feel that we are treated better or worse than someone else. Discrimination is simply when a person is treated less fairly than others due to their ethnicity, culture, heritage, sexual orientation, or other identifier. Here is where the concept of intersectionality becomes particularly important.

I often say that white, cis-hetero LIS workers, who make up the majority of the field(2), already recognize LIS workplaces to be toxic, but often want to hire people from marginalized groups in the hopes that those new employees will be able to address problems that have a disproportionate impact on marginalized people. As often as I point out the ludicrousness of that expectation, I’d like to elaborate here. A major cause of trauma for those with marginalized identities is the constant ignorance, disbelief, and belittling of the discriminatory problems they attempt to have addressed. More accurately, those who have never dealt with systemic discrimination have a tendency to equate serious cultural trauma with the less complex traumas they are familiar with.

This can be seen in the way that white people often boil racism down to “drama,” or “differences in opinion” to be avoided in polite conversation. It can be seen in the way a white missionary is equating American political differences to his own perception of the Rwandan genocide, marketing the trauma of a nation as a tool by which those of us completely removed from that tragedy can center our own need for comfort by saying, “at least my differences aren’t as bad as theirs.” This flattening of trauma, where the results of colonialism and white supremacy are belittled by equating them to the colonizer/white supremacist’s actions that caused them, is how white supremacy continues oppressing those it seeks to control. Flattening the trauma of marginalized peoples is meant to gaslight them into silence by making them believe that they are not experiencing injustice and discrimination, but instead the same discomfort as everyone else is.

Screenshot of event page. Full image description below.

Image description: Screenshot of the event information for a webinar hosted by the Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness entitled “Resolving Liberal vs. Conservative Conflict in the Workplace: Lessons from the Rwandan Genocide,” taught by “Special Guest Carl Wilkens.” First bullet under issues covered: “Do some of your staff struggle to work together because of the political divides of 2020? If Rwanda can find ways to heal division after genocide, we can learn from them!”

This disproportionate fatigue that LIS workers with marginalized identities experience as a result of flattened trauma results in them leaving the field and LIS failing to de-homogenize itself. However, in theory, the introduction of workers from diverse backgrounds, despite some bumps in the road, should open up doors for learning…right?

Conflict Aversion and LIS Denial of Harm

Before I go any further, let me preface this point by addressing that common issues cited as contributors to toxic LIS work environments include things like verbal/procedural abuse and managerial neglect. Kaetrena Kendrick Davis has written on this subject extensively and I highly recommend you read her work on Low Morale. The areas she discusses in her work closely overlap with the four categories of organizational justice I previously discussed, providing real examples of what happens when organizational justice is thrown out the window.

Additionally, the continued defunding of LIS organizations, as well as the resulting organizational instability can’t be overlooked when it comes to dysfunctional management and hiring decisions. Librarians are expected to take on more work as positions are cut and consolidated. This often results in the promotion of staff with no previous managerial experience into leadership positions. Alternatively, leadership positions can be cut with no replacement at all, leaving orphaned, neglected units. This dialog around conflict is not a panacea for LIS toxicity. However, healthy conflict is necessary to empower struggling staff and a required step in developing a culturally competent organization.

With that being said, I want to contextualize LIS conflict within the organizational justice framework by defining it as the result of staff voicing grievances regarding failures in any of the four organizational justice categories (interactional, procedural, informational, and distributive justice). Additionally, I want to clarify that I define DEIA as a reparative process that centers marginalized groups. Many definitions I encounter overly emphasize the diversity or inclusion aspects. Eugenia Zuroski’s discussion of the problems with the “value added’’ approach to diversity in “Holding Patterns: On Academic Knowledge and Labor” is a good example of what this looks like. Definitions of DEIA that emphasize cultural capital over ethics (“look at how these diverse people benefit the organization” vs. “we should stop discriminatory, unethical practices”) lead to definitions that include people who face no historic, structural discrimination. This results in debates about including the “diverse” voices of Nazis. DEIA is not about bringing people to the table. It is about ending harmful practices, redistributing power, and repairing harm. Bringing traditionally suppressed voices to the table is one approach to doing this (sometimes a better approach is just throwing out the whole table, but that’s for a different blog post). With those definitions in mind, the nature of conflict in LIS takes shape.

What strikes me about serious conflict in LIS spaces is how utterly shocked white librarians always seem to be when it occurs. The assumption seems to be that because they are good people, doing good work, serious conflict is unreasonable or simply not included in their job description. The presumption of goodness is better described by Fobazi Ettarh in “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves,” but the lack of responsibility for managing conflict is something I saw when I tweeted a thread containing a very abbreviated version of the thoughts expressed here. I saw multiple responses and quote Tweets by white, female librarians expressing that they had never been made to feel that overseeing conflict management was part of their role. Then, in the case of those who were in supervisory roles, whose job is it?

Conflict in LIS is this nebulous topic I mostly hear brought up when organizations talk about change and management. It is often framed as people being somewhat disgruntled or stressed, something that can be addressed with webinars on mindfulness and work-life balance. The potential emotional, physical, and financial harm associated with failed conflict management are, similarly to the way the Rwandan genocide is treated in the previously referenced program, flattened or overlooked. An executive director at a library may say “there will be growing pains,” but I have never heard leadership acknowledge that if conflict is not managed properly, staff trust in the organization could be permanently damaged. This is all meant to pass off accountability for harm as someone else’s responsibility by framing conflict as a set of interpersonal problems somehow totally disconnected from organizational culture and responsibility. This is where DEIA efforts collapse.

The interpersonal is indicative of the structural. People do what they can get away with and conflict is often a window into power dynamics and imbalances. By framing it as a purely personal problem, organizations ignore the various ways dysfunction and abuse are enabled. This is often done via a lack of discipline or space for pushback against discriminatory norms, a monopolization of power by certain individuals or departments, a refusal to view traditional approaches from the perspective of those they may have harmed, and a refusal to see best practices as subjective and ever-changing. In this environment, toxic individuals find support from their peers, policies, and via disproportionate authority. Without addressing these dysfunctional dynamics, organizations then initiate DEIA initiatives that, naturally, bring about conflict. In a functional environment, that conflict would result in learning and de-homogenization, but because these dysfunctions are often treated as normal, unavoidable realities (“every workplace has its dysfunction”), any information derived from conflict amounts to nothing, simply frustrating the parties involved while also burning out marginalized people.

This common failure is only preventable if an organization explicitly recognizes when a change agent is being introduced and chooses not to downplay potential harm in advance. I really want to emphasize the word “harm.” This goes back to what I previously said about white supremacy flattening trauma. To a white residency coordinator, the rude staff member in the cataloging department may be a bit of a nuisance, but to a disabled, Black resident fresh out of their MLIS, that staff member could be a real source of trauma.

They could prevent that resident from effectively completing work, hindering future career opportunities. They could be inconsiderate or outright dismissive of the accommodations that resident needs, risking their health and generally creating a discriminatory environment. If management doesn’t acknowledge that there is real potential for harm at the outset, conflict has already been belittled and dismissed as not being its responsibility. It becomes something to be ignored or passed off as someone else’s responsibility and, by that point, an apology is usually too late.

Why the JMLA Apology Rings Hollow

In the case of the JMLA, Akers’ view of the disagreement as something trivial enough to be worked out without her intervention resulted in a delayed publication for, what I’m sure is, a very valuable editorial. Once the JMLA decided to emphasize Black voices, before calling for proposals, the editorial team should have avoided assuming that their usual approach would automatically be effective in this instance. As a bare minimum, they should have been prepared to accept more feedback than usual and assumed that differences could arise. Ideally they would have brought in more specialized editors or put existing editors through training. This would have implicitly communicated that conflict was possible, as well as an integral part of the editorial process for an endeavor that was valuable enough to warrant such thorough preparation.

However, beyond that, when I read Akers’ apology, I felt that it tried to cover too much ground at once. She was apologizing for her lack of action, the other editor’s behavior, while also attempting to speak more broadly to the JMLA’s readiness for this type of effort. There is a time and place in which a person should address themselves in an apology, in my opinion, this was not it. I didn’t want an account or explanation of Akers’ behavior; I wanted an explanation of what exact failures exist within the JMLA’s publishing process.

This early on, so soon after things have occurred, it’s not realistic for the journal to have any meaningful corrective actions in place yet. It’s also way too early for her to have had real time to process what’s happened and grow in any meaningful way from it. The only thing that apology should have done is verify the account of the Black authors, confirm the points of failure without personalizing them (example, “we adhere to MLA standards and this situation has made it clear we need to reconsider that in some cases”), and say that they will be examining those points of failure with all due transparency going forward.

In general, the aim of apologies that are being made before corrective action has been taken should be transparency in what has happened, along with promises for transparency as corrective actions are taken going forward. She touches upon the things I listed at the beginning of this section as things she could have done, but doesn’t speak to what the failure to have done them says about how the JMLA handles sensitive issues on a more structural level. There was too much Katherine Akers in that apology, but since she’s there, let’s talk about the exact ways she flattened trauma in this situation, and how LIS regularly does so as well.

Cultural Competence, Power Imbalances, and Escalation

Let’s return to Akers’ (lack of) response to being cc’ed. She says in her apology:

“I chose not to intervene, assuming that the two parties would come to resolution on their own or that I would be directly contacted by one of the parties if my intervention was needed or desired.”

First of all, being cc’ed IS being directly contacted. The authors were letting Akers know that they needed her input. Her inaction is representative of three recurring areas of failure I see in LIS: 1. an overall lack of cultural competence, 2. the inability/refusal to recognize and address power imbalances, and 3. the inability/refusal to recognize signs of escalation. In my opinion, aside from vocational knowledge, these three skills are at the very core of equitable leadership. Without them, it is impossible to develop a strong sense of organizational justice.

Beginning with cultural competence, I often pull information and resources from the medical field. The CDC uses Cross et al’s, 1989 definition(3):

“Cultural and linguistic competence is a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals that enables effective work in cross-cultural situations. ‘Culture’ refers to integrated patterns of human behavior that include the language, thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions of racial, ethnic, religious, or social groups. ‘Competence’ implies having the capacity to function effectively as an individual and an organization within the context of the cultural beliefs, behaviors, and needs presented by consumers and their communities. (Adapted from Cross, 1989).

Cultural competence requires that organizations:

  • Have a defined set of values and principles, and demonstrate behaviors, attitudes, policies, and structures that enable them to work effectively cross-culturally.
  • Have the capacity to (1) value diversity, (2) conduct self-assessment, (3) manage the dynamics of difference, (4) acquire and institutionalize cultural knowledge and (5) adapt to diversity and the cultural contexts of the communities they serve.
  • Incorporate the above in all aspects of policy making, administration, practice, service delivery, and involve systematically consumers, key stakeholders, and communities.

Cultural competence is a developmental process that evolves over an extended period. Both individuals and organizations are at various levels of awareness, knowledge, and skills along the cultural competence continuum.”

Cultural competence is more about what an organization or person has the capacity to do than what it currently does. This point circles back to the question of why simply bringing diverse people to the table isn’t enough. LIS has had diversity residencies since the 1980’s(4), the American Library Association has been attempting to support programs that address African American needs since the 1920’s, and there has been a proliferation in webinars and trainings on diversity for staff.

So why is the field still dominated by white women? Please see the third item of the second bullet point: managing the dynamics of difference. Conflict management is at the center of managing the dynamics of difference, but LIS tends to engage in the behaviors I’ve outlined thus far, opting for passive aggression and conflict avoidance. The socially awkward, conflict-averse librarian is a trope all its own.

This is where the cultural competence continuum (CCC) becomes valuable by offering a framework for assessing the level of development of DEIA efforts. The CCC consists of six areas of cross-cultural competence: destructiveness, where other cultures face overt hostility and are purposefully eradicated; cultural incapacity, where other cultures face de facto hostility and are eliminated unintentionally; cultural blindness (what I will call cultural denial)(5), where there is a belief of neutrality and emphasis on diversity quotas; pre-competence, where there’s an acknowledgement of weaknesses and attempts to begin addressing them; competence, where cultures are accepted and respected; and finally proficiency, where cultures are truly valued with ongoing development of inclusive approaches.

The stage of cultural competence in LIS varies depending on the type of institution (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums are all under the LIS umbrella and have subsets within each), but generally, in terms of awareness, LIS seems to be somewhere between pre-competence and competence, while in terms of implementation, seems to often be stuck between cultural incapacity and cultural denial. For example, while the increase in DEIA training is indicative of pre-competence, biased systems that cause harm and are downplayed, what I earlier referred to as LIS’ denial of harm, are indicative of cultural incapacity. The belief in neutrality, extremely prevalent in the archival field, is indicative of cultural denial. The denial of harm, along with the flattening of trauma defined at the beginning of this post, culminate in the inability to manage the dynamics of difference, in particular, conflict.

So how do we fix this problem?

Constructive conflict, when appropriately mediated with healthy compromises or outright changes, moves organizations away from destruction, and towards proficiency on the cultural competence continuum. The problem is that, despite understanding that it has weaknesses in the area of diversity, LIS fails to be proactive in addressing the power imbalances present when introducing new cultures or addressing inequity. This results in the excision, or assimilation via forceful conformation, of marginalized voices, rather than mediation and the evolution of organizations.

The lack of mediation on the JMLA’s part resulted in the excision of the Black authors’ work. Immediately, in Akers’ case, there needed to be some recognition of the fact that the editor and authors did not have the same power within the publishing process. Beyond that, there were power disparities at play due to the differences in race/culture. The editor had the upper hand culturally because she was already affiliated with the journal, and of similar demographics to its founders, readers, current publishing team(6), and those responsible for the creation of the MLA standards she used as a justification. Had Akers recognized these power differentials and their significance, she would have been more alarmed and prepared to step in and equalize the situation.

In addition, Akers also needed to recognize that her being cc’ed was an indicator of confusion or frustration, both of which are signs of escalation. While many models of escalation focus on conflicts that build-up to violence, they can also be applied to situations where violence is not imminent, but a different, less than desirable outcome is possible (having a manuscript pulled from your journal). In general, escalation models list behaviors to flag and provide ideas for response.

I bring this up because it is extremely common in LIS to ignore signs of escalation in the hopes that they will resolve on their own. This inaction often results in passive aggression that incrementally builds and eventually results in employees leaving, or going to human resources. Akers’ lack of response to early indicators of escalation is fairly representative of the experiences of myself, as well as other librarians from marginalized cultural backgrounds. The justification for ignoring the problem is a not-so subtle version of “we’re all adults here.” However, that attitude that I’ve encountered and witnessed throughout my LIS career, is inherently contradictory. That attitude says “I trust you’re competent enough to not need mediation, but not competent enough to know when you do.” In short, it says “the only one qualified enough to know when your conflicts are in need of mediation is me.” Akers could have responded to the messages she was cc’ed on to ask what the parties involved would like her to do. Instead, a lack of awareness of the power imbalances at play, along with ignored signs of escalation, resulted in the authors withdrawing their editorial.

How to Move Forward

The best way to sum up what I’ve written here is that LIS is passive aggressive and conflict averse because conflict mediation runs counter to its white supremacist roots.

I did not intend to dissect white supremacy in this post, so much as address the particular way it contributes to a particular type of dysfunction in LIS. For more information on white supremacy in organizations, “White Supremacy Culture in Organizations” is a good starting point. As to addressing the root causes of LIS conflict failure I’ve written about here, a blend of ongoing DEIA education, organizational/personal assessment, and practiced social skills are required. DEIA programming is common, but the latter items are less universally emphasized. Concepts like organizational justice and assessment of power structures are typically taught in courses on organizational and knowledge management, and are seen as topics that should only be learned by those looking to enter leadership positions. I contend that’s untrue.

I would like to see more widely available continuing education opportunities on how organizations work. One topic that’s on my webinar wish list is measuring and assessing power dynamics. I would love to see more of this mixed in with DEIA programming. Social skills should also be included in more continuing education opportunities. Social skills, like conflict, are seen as purely interpersonal, with little recognition of the way they are inseparable from structural outcomes. Resources like these Conflict Mediation Guidelines provided by Stanford, or this Active Bystander Orientation from DLF that I helped organize (link to webinar in write-up), are good starting points, but there is a need for so much more. There is more of an emphasis to develop social skills for public service staff, who are often encouraged to attend various trainings on dealing with diverse patrons. It would be great to see this attention applied to interacting with colleagues and peers.

Efforts on all of these fronts are the only way that LIS will resolve the issues I’ve listed here so that it can end its torrid love affair with passive aggression, avoid outcomes like the JMLA’s, and actually begin to benefit from conflict.

  1. The choice of whether to capitalize these terms is very purposeful in Black writing. The power of language, grammar, and editorial choices, are core components in Black thought.
  2. Library worker demographics hover in the range of 80% — 87% white and 80% — 83% female according to the American Library Association and data gathered by the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO.
  3. Cross, T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., & Isaacs, M. (1989). Towards a culturally competent system of care (Vol. 1). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Child Development Center, CASSP Technical Assistance Center.
  4. Julie Brewer, “Early Career Development and Post-Master’s Residency Programs,” in The New Graduate Experience: Post-MLS Residency Programs and Early Career Librarianship (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Libraries Unlimited, 2011), 3.
  5. While the CCC makes use of the term “cultural blindness,” I would like to point out the way ableism is being used to further the avoidance of accountability. For example, it is not the case that a white person is “unable to see race,” they are choosing to deny its existence, which is a form of white privilege afforded under white supremacy. Whiteness in the United States is labeled “American.” Because of this, it is able to appropriate, erase, and profit from the various non-white, marginalized cultures that it profits from. Jazz becomes American, not African-American. The use of blindness in this case, to imply the inability to do the right thing, also implies that disability equates to a free pass from responsibility. This is a key recurrence in the intersection of disability and race. White terrorists are “mentally ill,” enslaved people who wished for freedom were “drapetomaniacs.” This furthers the perception of disabled people as monsters and/or further justifies their infantilization, which is a common rhetorical tool used to justify the oppression of disabled people. To learn more about ableism and the advocacy disabled people are engaged in, I recommend checking out the Disability Visibility Project. They have a great reading list with diverse voices represented. Special thanks to Dr. Kate Deibel for reminding me to address this.
  6. Akers specified that she, as well as the other editor, are both white women. For relevance, please see the 2nd footnote.

*I referred to the Modern Language Association style manual, instead of the Medical Library Association style manual, in an earlier version of this piece. I have since made edits to reflect this correction.

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I’m the Digital Scholarship Librarian @ Temple U. My primary areas of research are DEIA & metadata in emerging technologies/organizations.

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Jasmine L. Clark

Jasmine L. Clark

I’m the Digital Scholarship Librarian @ Temple U. My primary areas of research are DEIA & metadata in emerging technologies/organizations.

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