Question the Bureaucracy

How corporate influence on higher education negatively affects BIPOC library workers

September 1, 2023

During the pandemic, like many, I watched a lot of television. One of the gems I discovered was What We Do in the Shadows, an irreverent mockumentary about four vampire roommates and a human familiar, all living in modern-day New York City. While three of the vampires are run-of-the-mill bloodsuckers, one is a day-walking energy vampire who gains his power by boring those around him, especially colleagues at his office job. As I watched, I started drawing connections between the vampires’ foolish antics—a result of strongly held antiquated beliefs and traditions—and the convoluted bureaucratic practices that constrain those of us working in academic libraries.

As of late, bureaucratic practices in higher education have been steeped in a neoliberal ideology that manifests as managerialism, or applying a corporate model to run a nonprofit or academic institution. Neoliberalism emphasizes capitalist free-market values, including a focus on efficiency, maximizing productivity, and individualism over collectivism. With managerialism, academic libraries are asked to adopt a more business-like approach when it comes to assessment and justifying the value of our work within the larger institutional system.

For example, library staffers are often asked to participate in meetings and structured group work, where we must visibly showcase our compliance with administrative policies. One could argue that meetings address equity because they ensure everyone has a say, whether through openly voicing opinions or submitting anonymous feedback. But in reality, many meetings are used to mollify workers by giving the appearance of democratic decision making when outcomes have already been determined.

For library workers who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), these confusing exercises can damage our well-being and ability to properly serve the students with whom we work. Many of us spend inordinate amounts of emotional energy trying to parse management’s intentions, especially when these hidden agendas are in place or there’s a lack of transparency. Cultures of secrecy flourish in bureaucratic systems. Withholding information is a gatekeeping measure often used to inhibit inclusivity or, worse, dominate marginalized groups. What’s more, BIPOC individuals are pressured into fitting a professional standard that is really code for assimilating into whiteness.

Cultures of secrecy flourish in bureaucratic systems.

As a teaching librarian who primarily serves underrepresented, marginalized students, I see our work complicated by an inability to thoughtfully collaborate with professors (who are intensely focused on meeting their own performance targets) on library instruction. When we’re asked to demonstrate our value through quantitative metrics (such as the number of one-shot instruction sessions) instead of qualitative ones (such as the relationships built in the classroom), it’s difficult to integrate culturally validating pedagogies that uplift our students.

Instead, a more reflective, inclusive approach to information literacy instruction is vital now more than ever—one unfettered by impersonal bureaucratic policies. To achieve this, we must reimagine our work to be “authentic, liberatory, and imaginative,” as librarians Sofia Y. Leung and Jorge R. López-McKnight write in their 2020 paper “Dreaming Revolutionary Futures.”

This means disavowing empty commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and shifting LIS values to make space for different ways of thinking and behaving in libraries. For example, in recent years, my colleagues and I have developed an information literacy curriculum that decenters whiteness in scholarly conversation. I use my limited time in the classroom to focus on topics like equitable citational practices and epistemic injustice—such as exclusion and silencing—rather than cursory database demonstrations.

To challenge foundational, deeply ingrained bureaucratic practices, we must focus on collectivism. This means increasing the number of BIPOC library workers and providing them concrete support and consistent validation in ways that visibly subvert existing norms to create more inclusivity and true participation.


Alejandro Marquez

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