Last week, there was a lot of chatter about slow librarianship on social media. People were looking for writing on the subject and I realized that my work is scattered all around in such a disembodied way across presentations, slides, and blog posts. With this post, I hope to make a bit clearer my own vision of slow librarianship, with gratitude to those who started the conversation before I took it up, especially Julia Glassman with her 2017 article “The innovation fetish and slow librarianship: What librarians can learn from the Juicero.” And I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on social media!
Here is my (evolving) definition: Slow librarianship is an antiracist, responsive, and values-driven practice that stands in opposition to neoliberal values. Workers in slow libraries are focused on relationship-building, deeply understanding and meeting patron needs, and providing equitable services to their communities. Internally, slow library culture is focused on learning and reflection, collaboration and solidarity, valuing all kinds of contributions, and supporting staff as whole people. Slow librarianship is a process, not a destination; it is an orientation towards our work, ourselves, and others that creates positive change. It is an organizational philosophy that supports workers and builds stronger relationships with our communities.
My slow librarianship takes inspiration from the slow food movement, which was a response to the impact of globalization on food. While it started as a protest against building a McDonalds at the Spanish Steps in Rome, it became a global movement focused on local food culture, sustainability, the ethical-sourcing of food, social justice and pleasure. My slow librarianship also takes inspiration from a variety of additional sources including the Great Lakes Feminist Geography Collective and their brilliant article “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University;” adrienne maree brown’s visions of Emergent Strategy and Pleasure Activism; Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s models for collective care and others described in her book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice; Tara Brach’s RAIN model for mindful healing and self-compassion; Michael Sandel’s indictment of our society’s phony meritocracy and abandonment of the common good and dignity of work in The Tyranny of Merit; Richard Wolff’s vision of worker-directed workplaces in Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism; David Graeber’s and Dean Spade’s inspiring work in support of mutual aid; Prentis Hemphill’s work on embodiment and healing justice; Jenny Odell’s vision for taking control of our attention in How to do Nothing; as well as thinkers in our own profession like Fobazi Ettarh, Julia Glassman, Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, Karen Nicholson, Jane Schmidt, Maura Seale, Amanda Leftwich, and others.
The Slow Food movement’s manifesto broke their philosophy down into three areas: Good, Clean, and Fair. I similarly tried to break my vision of the characteristics of slow librarianship down into three areas: Good, Human(e), and Thoughtful.
Good – Being good begins by recognizing that libraries have not always been good for everyone. This requires bringing in critical practice, where we identify, question, and ultimately dismantle structures, practices, policies, and assumptions that oppress, exploit, exclude, or otherwise cause harm to our patrons or library workers. To become an antiracist library, library workers must look within the organizational structures of the library to see how white supremacy culture operates and then find new ways of communicating, organizing ourselves, and practicing librarianship that center BIPOC. Slow libraries are driven by their values over a desire to innovate or produce visible wins, and priorities will be determined based upon a deep understanding of the needs of patrons and how in-line they are with library values. They also center the needs of those with the greatest need in their communities and judge themselves by how they serve those most marginalized.
Human(e) – In humane organizations, library workers are supported as whole people with bodies and responsibilities and limitations beyond the workplace. Managers recognize the humanity of their employees and workers are viewed as more than just what they produce in a given week. Humane managers care about the well-being of their employees and foster environments where all staff feel a sense of psychological safety and feel supported in setting boundaries that nurture their well-being. Workers feel like they can be their real, human selves at work and can take time when they are struggling with their physical or mental health or are caring for someone else. A slow library rejects productivity culture and recognizes that creativity and valuable gains often come from fallow time and time spent building relationships within the workplace and in the community. Building relationships in the community that help us better understand and support our patrons is particularly valued, and managers recognize that relationship and partnership-building takes time. Slow workplaces also encourage collaboration and collective care through its structures and reward systems.
Thoughtful – A slow organization is a contemplative organization that encourages employees to slow down. In the absence of a sense of urgency, workers are less afraid of failure and are able to value process over product, especially the collaborative learning that comes from projects when people slow down. The organization is a learning culture where workers want to know more about their patrons’ needs and how they use the library, are given time and funding to learn and grow, and come together as an organization to reflect and learn. A thoughtful organization embraces a culture of appreciation and gratitude where the focus is on finding and highlighting the good things workers do.
Slow librarianship clearly requires a lot of personal work to help us develop a mindset that can both critically evaluate current structures in libraries and envision radical new futures. I’ll be addressing that further below.
In my talks and on social media, I’ve encountered a few misunderstandings of slow librarianship that I’d like to address below. I may add to these as conversations around this topic continue.
Slow librarianship means doing less, not caring, and/or embracing mediocrity.
Slow librarianship is against neoliberalism, achievement culture, and the cult of productivity, but I see its opposite as being driven by our own values and authentic desires, not necessarily being mediocre. We are so programmed in western societies to see being busy as being important, to chase external validation, and to try to make our lives look like external norms of success. Last year, I was listening to the wonderful podcast Everything Happens (and I wish I could remember the specific episode, but I know it was an early one in Season 1) when the host, Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School living with stage 4 cancer asked “am I built from the outside in or am I built from the inside out?” How much is your vision of what success looks like based on external norms or a desire for external validation? How often do you compare yourself to others? Do you ever feel like you’ve done or achieved enough? Until a few years ago, I never considered what it would mean if I was enough right now. Right in this moment. And asking that question changed me. What if you are good enough just as you are today? What if you didn’t need to keep proving yourself? How might that sense of enoughness change your own priorities? Seven years after leaving a particularly traumatic tenure-track job, I’m still untangling which are my authentic desires, which are focused on pleasing the people who hold power over my future, and which have been programmed into me as someone who never felt they were enough.
For some people, slow librarianship may indeed look like doing less, especially if they have, in the past, prioritized work over their own well-being. For others, it might mean doing more that is deeply tied to our values. But I think for most people, it might mean producing less, but actually doing more meaningful work. In my own world, meaningful relationship-building with faculty in my subject liaison areas takes time. It often means going to meetings and joining committees that don’t look directly related to some library goal. But I’ve found that such activity often leads to the most meaningful instructional collaborations with faculty. If we are laser-focused on creating short-term wins to look productive to our manager or to get a good annual review, we will never feel like we can take that time, and thus, we will miss out on meaningful collaborations that will be better for students in the long-run.
Slow librarianship requires changes in how we operate within our cultures, but in order to do that, we have to be able to see the structures and assumptions that determine the choices we have/make and how we see ourselves and our work. That requires a level of mindfulness and reflective practice that so many of us don’t cultivate in our busy lives. In her book How to do Nothing, Jenny Odell talks about her dissatisfaction “with untrained attention, which flickers from one new thing to the next, not only because it is a shallow experience, or because it is an expression of habit rather than will, but because it gives me less access to my own human experience” (119). It truly had not occurred to me until I read that just how much I was letting my own anxiety and the attention economy drive what I paid attention to. We live so much of our lives on autopilot, not noticing so much of what is around us. Mindfulness allows us to take control of our attention and to use it to find our own authentic desires as well as develop a better vision for the future of our library and our work.
We’re also not going to be able to build antiracist libraries if we don’t deeply interrogate how we uphold white supremacy. It took time for me to recognize that a lot of the aspects of achievement culture and work addiction I used to embody were absolutely characteristics of white supremacy culture. It takes deep attention to really interrogate the assumptions and structures in our workplaces and to able to engage in this work. It also takes time to engage our BIPOC colleagues in envisioning a future that centers them and their concerns. That may also be time that doesn’t look productive to our managers, but it is CRITICAL.
But also, in thinking about productivity, people need fallow time to reflect, to learn, and to be creative. When I think about times in my career when I was most overloaded with work, I could tell that I was not capable of the deep-thinking I can do when I don’t feel like an overloaded, constantly buffering computer. Being overloaded makes it hard to prioritize and to see the big picture. How can I become a better teacher if I don’t even have time after a class to reflect on what went well and what didn’t? If we want to do really meaningful work, we have to recognize the time it takes. And I think we also need to value collaboration (which takes more time), because our best work comes from collaboration. I spent a lot of time in my career doing projects on my own, and when I compare those to the work I’ve done with others, the latter were not only better products, but far more personally-satisfying processes.
So maybe to some, slow librarianship will look like doing less, but I see it as slowing down in order to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing so that we can do our best and most meaningful work.
Slow librarianship is for the privileged. You can’t adopt slow practices if you’re working in precarity.
This is a very real concern as with anything that involves some amount of self-work, but I address this in my presentations on slow by putting the focus on relationship-building, collective care, and solidarity. Our ability to slow down, to resist, or to take control of our attention is very much determined by the conditions under which we live and work. Anthony Giddens (as quoted in Craig and Parkins) writes about how “access to means of self-actualization becomes itself one of the dominant focuses of class division and the distribution of inequalities more generally” (13). In her book How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell talks about how the ability to refuse and to take time for contemplation is not accessible to everyone and brings up “the frightening potential of something like gated communities of attention: privileged spaces where some (but not others) can enjoy the fruits of contemplation and the diversification of attention” (199) If slow is only seen in terms of liberating the self, there is certainly a huge risk that it could become just another tool that is only accessible to those with the most privilege. That can be seen in the slow food movement where some people with means embrace slow food only in terms of buying and enjoying local food. However, I think one of the most important pieces of the slow movement is the focus on solidarity and collective care and a move away from the individualism that so defines the American character. If you’re only focused on your own liberation and your own well-being, you’re doing it wrong. In Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown writes about how for her–
It has meant learning to work collaboratively, which goes against my inner “specialness.” I am socialized to seek achievement alone, to try to have the best idea and forward it through the masses. But that leads to loneliness and, I suspect, extinction. If we are all trying to win, no one really ever wins. (42)
That takes a lot of unlearning for those of us who grew up in highly individualistic cultures, especially in America where the myth of the meritocracy has taken on an almost religiosity. And our places of work as well as our professional recognition and reward systems encourage us so see ourselves as individuals in competition with our colleagues. When there are limited raises, limited promotions, limited accolades, caste systems, precarity, or even just a general sense of scarcity in the workplace, people will see themselves as being in competition with their colleagues and their focus will be on finding ways to make themselves shine. I wrote about this in my previous blog post:
I’ve been thinking a lot about how individualism is at the root of so many of our problems and how things like solidarity, mutual aid, and collective action are the answer. Capitalism does everything it can to keep us anxious and in competition with each other. It gave us the myth of meritocracy – the idea that we can achieve anything if we work hard enough, that our achievements are fully our own (and not also a product of the privileges we were born to and the people who have taught us, nurtured us, and helped us along the way), and that we deserve what we have (and conversely that others who have less deserve their lot in life). It gave us petty hierarchies in the workplace – professional vs. paraprofessional, faculty vs. staff, full-time vs. part-time, white-collar vs. blue-collar – that make us jealously guard the minuscule privilege our role gives us instead of seeing ourselves in solidarity with all labor. It’s created countless individual awards and recognitions that incentivize us not to collaborate and to find ways to make ourselves shine. It’s created conditions of scarcity in the workplace where people view their colleagues as threats or competitors instead of rightly turning their attention toward the people in power who are responsible for the culture. This is how the system was made to work; to keep us isolated and anxious, grinding away as hard as we can so we don’t have time or space to view ourselves as exploited workers. It is only through relationships and collaboration, through caring about our fellow workers, through coming together to fight for change, that things will improve. But that requires us to focus less on ourselves and our desire to shine, rise, or receive external recognition, and to focus more on community care and efforts to see everyone in our community rise. It goes against everything capitalism has taught us, but we’ll never create meaningful change unless we replace individualism with solidarity and care more about the well-being of the whole than the petty advantages we can win alone.
In her article “Why Office Workers Didn’t Unionize,” Anne Helen Petersen wrote about how white-collar workers largely did not unionize because they 1) wanted to see themselves as having a status above blue-collar workers and 2) were socialized by their places of work to jealously guard the minimal privileges they had over their colleagues (think Dwight Schrute in The Office being Assistant to the Regional Manager, a functionally meaningless title given to him to keep him loyal to his boss).
Over time, even Dwight, the ambitious careerist solely focused on getting ahead and being better than everyone, began to see the value of relationships with his colleagues and began to realize that getting ahead in his work perhaps wasn’t the be-all-end-all. He stopped seeing relationship-building as a waste of time. The show ended with him as the regional manager, but he also had a full life with friends, family, love, and the respect of his colleagues. While his character was certainly a caricature, imagine a world in which everyone took a few steps away from seeing themselves as individuals who had to jealously guard their advantages and towards seeing themselves as being in solidarity with their fellow workers. Petersen writes:
How would your office culture shift if you actually thought of yourself in solidarity with your coworkers — and together, advocating for greater resources — instead of competition with them for the few resources allocated to you? How would your conception of yourself shift if you felt empowered not by your hopes for eventual advancement, but by identification with others?
Slow librarianship requires us to look beyond ourselves to try to help create the conditions that allow everyone to slow down. That means that those of us with more job security and autonomy need to fight structures that create precarity, scarcity, and competition. I never felt like I could slow down when I was on the tenure track in my previous job. I felt like I had to be laser focused on achieving in all the ways that were externally valued so my tenure file would be bullet-proof. And even years after I left that job, I was still running on autopilot, doing things that were more motivated by a need for gold stars than by my most strongly-held values. People have to feel a sense of safety in the workplace to be able to do the work of slow librarianship rather than focusing on achievement culture. They also need some measure of autonomy. If those of us who have privilege are not focused on supporting our colleagues who don’t, we are not practicing slow librarianship — we are only practicing self-liberation.
While community care is at the heart of slow librarianship as I see it, that cannot happen when people are not taking care of themselves. Self-care doesn’t have to be reduced to bubble baths, spa days, and buying things for ourselves. Self-care is about setting boundaries that maximize our well-being and provide us with capacity to focus on community care. It can be about resting when we need it rather than continuing to grind when we’re far from being at 100%. It can feel selfish, but when people feel stressed and depleted, they tend to get a tunnel vision that makes taking care of others much more difficult. We can’t be truly compassionate towards others if we don’t show compassion toward ourselves. As adrienne maree brown says “the work of cultivating personal resilience, healing from trauma, self-development and transformation is actually a crucial way to expand what any collective body can be. We heal ourselves, and we heal in relationship, and from that place, simultaneously, we create more space for healed communities, healed movements, healed worlds” (Emergent Strategy 144).
Of course all of this is just one person’s vision of slow librarianship based on my own experiences and readings. I’ve very much appreciated the conversations and critiques (even the mean ones) I’ve heard from others as they have helped me to develop this vision. Since collaboration serves to improve ideas, I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, critiques, and more! Thank you for reading all this!
Brach, Tara. Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN. Viking, 2019.
Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens Podcast. katebowler.com/podcasts/
brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, 2017.
brown, adrienne maree. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. AK Press, 2019.
Craig, Geoffrey, and Wendy Parkins. Slow Living. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006.
Glassman, Julia. 18 Oct. 2017. “The innovation fetish and slow librarianship: What librarians can learn from the Juicero.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe, 18 Oct. 2017, www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2017/the-innovation-fetish-and-slow-librarianship-what-librarians-can-learn-from-the-juicero/
Graeber, David & Andrej Grubacic. “Introduction to Mutual Aid: An Illuminated Factor of Evolution.” Retrieved from The Anarchist Library (though it was written as an introduction to the new edition of Peter Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid: An Illuminated Factor of Evolution). theanarchistlibrary.org/library/andrej-grubacic-david-graeber-introduction-to-mutual-aid
Hemphill, Prentis. “Prentis Hemphill on Choosing Belonging.” In Young, Ayana. For the Wild podcast, 28 July 2021, https://forthewild.world/listen/prentis-hemphill-on-choosing-belonging-244 (this is just one of many places where you can learn about Prentis’ work. They also have their own fantastic podcast)
Mountz, Alison, et al. “For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 14.4 (2015): 1235-1259. www.acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/1058
Odell, Jenny. How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy. Melville House Publishing, 2020.
Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work : Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.
Petersen, Anne Helen. “Why Office Workers Didn’t Unionize.” Culture Study, 18 Oct. 2020, annehelen.substack.com/p/why-office-workers-didnt-unionize.
Sandel, Michael J. The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Penguin Books, 2021.
Spade, Dean. Mutual aid: Building solidarity during this crisis (and the next). Verso Books, 2020.
Wolff, Richard D. Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism. Haymarket Books, 2012.
I appreciate this so much and that you’ve factored in anti-racism, equity, and collective action. I had a role (which I stepped away from) where I was working to convince librarians to look at their work in new ways–to see who it benefited and find ways for it to shift to those who’ve been marginalized. I heard the episode of On The Media that interviewed Jenny Odell (summer 2019) and it gave me a new way to think and talk about this: attention. After, in a meeting with a stressed-out career YS librarian who felt that slowing down meant being lazy, I talked about how slowing down (maybe NOT doing a bajillion summer programs), and shifting attention to those who have historically not gotten our time & attention was not lazy–it was the time consuming and important work of building relationships and getting to know communities and contexts that would inform and make space for new and impactful work. I was a manager and was telling her that it was ok to stop doing some things, but it made no impact. The culture and pressure are so ingrained. The system is built to make status quo the path of least resistance, and it consumes us in the process. This is where community and collective action are so critical. We need to work together, as you said, to create “a sense of safety in the workplace to be able to do the work of slow librarianship rather than focusing on achievement culture.”
Thanks Erin! Yes, I truly agree that attention and solidarity are the the keys here — it all flows from that. I often wonder if the things I’ve read over the past 3 years would have had the same impact on me earlier in my career when I was so committed to grinding and so desperate for external validation. I think you can model slow librarianship and you can be a support to direct reports or peers, but it’s a huge shift in thinking for many and people have to be at a place where they are open to that. And I think you framed it well — doing less in order to really center the needs of the people who need us most. I saw a meeting two weeks ago at my job spawn like 5 different projects and working groups and while each of the things they want to do is a worthwhile project, there was no focus on prioritization, how this fits in with our values or existing strategies, or how realistic it is to do that many things (on top of everything we already do) when we’re a small group. And while I try to encourage us to slow down, all I can control is whether I get swept up in it. I didn’t volunteer for any of those workgroups because when I look at everything I do holistically, I know they are not the best use of my limited time.
[…] (NPM) in universities and academic libraries. I subscribe to the idea that we should be doing Slow Librarianship, and that this would be the best way to serve our patrons and ourselves in the long run. I think of […]