Book Review: The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.

“Information wants to be free” goes the slogan of the so-called “free culture movement,” encouraging file sharing, open source software, and a permissive legal environment for modifying and distributing the works of others.

A more complex and subtle axiom offered by the Association of College and Research Libraries is “information has value”: that, as a commodity subject to copyright laws, information can bring advantage to some while marginalizing others. Users must therefore make informed and ethical choices about complying with – or challenging – copyright laws.

For the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz, concentrated corporate control reinforced by outdated copyright laws incommensurate with current technologies left him with no choice but to challenge wherever possible this private stranglehold over what he felt should be public information. Arrested for a series of brilliant and daring digital “heists” at MIT in late 2010 and early 2011, in which he covertly downloaded millions of scholarly articles from the commercial JSTOR database with the intent of distributing them freely online, Swartz became the free culture movement’s folk hero before taking his own life on January 11th, 2013.

In the hands of journalist Justin Peters, the life and death of Aaron Swartz becomes the lens for reconsidering the entire history of copyright for the digital age. An accomplished journalist best known for his technology- and sports-related writings for, Peters is also a contributing editor for The Columbia Journalism Review and a founding editor of the archly humourous magazine Polite. Greatly expanded from its origins as an online article on Slate, The Idealist is Peters’ first book, grippingly told and with a clear-eyed view of its brilliant but flawed protagonist.

After introducing us briefly to Swartz’ legal predicament and untimely death, Peters actually leaves Swartz behind for more than 100 pages as he explains the history of American copyright legislation, the development of public libraries, the evolution of reproduction technologies and formats, notions of public domain and the quest for the “infinite library” of human knowledge instantly accessible anywhere.

Along the way, The Idealist introduces us to a number of other historical idealists, among them Noah Webster (of the eponymous Dictionary) who lobbied tirelessly (if self-interestedly) for the United States to pass a Copyright Act in 1790, and Herbert Putnam, America’s longest-serving librarian of Congress, who convened a series of copyright conferences leading up to the passage of the Copyright Act of 1909.

When Swartz re-emerges in the narrative in 2002 at age 15, he is a lauded computer programming prodigy (who didn’t actually care much for programming) who would go on to become a co-founder of news aggregator, a frequent conference speaker and a prolific blogger (Peters makes extensive use of Swartz’ online writing).

As well, Swartz shared in the appreciative company of such digital luminaries as World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, Bram Cohen of BitTorrent fame and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig. While Swartz would lend his support to a host of free culture and Internet activism projects, Peters finds he acquired a reputation for rarely finishing what he started.

Nor was the world quite ready for his ideas. His 2008 “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” which called for the free distribution of entire databases worth of content in flagrant violation of copyright laws, made even some open access supporters – and many librarians – uneasy. Carrying out the Manifesto with his raid on JSTOR would result in spending the last two years of his life in legal limbo, facing a host of federal charges and the possibility of 95 years in prison, before he hanged himself at aged 26.

For Peters, the tragedy of Aaron Swartz serves to illustrate the paradox of information wanting to be simultaneously both free and expensive, and the consequent mismatch between our laws and the way most of us live online. With copyright laws extending protection ever further into creators’ posthumous futures (will Mickey Mouse ever be in the public domain?) and university libraries sagging under the increasingly crippling financial burden of proprietary databases, The Idealist challenges the reader to recognize their own place as creator, user and curator of the “infinite library” – and how it is up to all of us to choose how to fulfill equitably and ethically its limitless potential.

The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.
By Justin Peters.
Scribner, $26.00 352 pp

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, July 9th, 2016.



Between Not Forgetting and a Breathtaking Future: Notes from The Pathways to Reconciliation Conference


This June I had the good fortune (and great privilege) of attending and participating in the Pathways to Reconciliation conference, an international gathering of more than 400 Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples at the University of Winnipeg, June 15-18 2016. A partnership between the University of Manitoba, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the U of W, Pathways was an opportunity to explore the contexts for, as well as the meanings, dimensions and implications of the idea of reconciliation. Speakers included Dr. Chief Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation in British Columbia, and Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada as well as being a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council; Manitoba MLA Wab Kinew; Justin Mohamed, the Chief Executive Officer of Reconciliation Australia; Cindy Blackstock of Gitksan First Nation in BC and Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada; and former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci who was instrumental in negotiating the Residential School Settlement Agreement in 2005.

My primary role was to present my paper A Library Matter of Genocide as part of a panel on “Institutional Approaches,” but I also chaired a session on “Museums, Memorials and Reconciliation.” As well — and for the first time — I “live-tweeted” my participation; far from being the distraction I’d assumed it to be, I found it to be an exceptionally useful and economical way to summarize, synthesize and communicate a speaker’s content, rather than just taking copious notes. What follows are some of my conference highlights adapted from my Twitter account.

In the first panel I attended, “Telling the Stories,” U of W professor of Modern Languages and Literatures Dr. Mary LeMaître spoke to the need for Dismantling Colonial Discourse,” and her research into online racist comments as a form of social discourse. As a librarian I was naturally interested in her observation that the origin of colonial discourse lies in 18th century scientific classifications and racial hierarchies. Colonial discourse, she observed, places all of us within subject-object relationships: subjects speak while objects are spoken about. Our colonial social discourse, she observed, helps make our colonial structure invisible to non-Indigenous Canadians, most of whom have never read the Indian Act. We all have role to play in shaping social discourse, she concluded, and in educating ourselves to challenge the colonial narrative.

I was also acutely aware during her talk of how my own profession of librarianship is implicated in these colonial narratives, in subject-object relationships and in the invisibility of the discursive functions of both to most non-Indigenous library users. Indeed these issues lie at the heart of my presentation 

TRC Researcher and Senior Advisor on Reconciliation at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Paulette Regan payed tribute to and honoured the residential school survivors who have gifted us with their stories, adding that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission only captured a moment in time; it is not the last word. All of us are charged with carrying its work forward. While reconciliation must also include support for cultural and linguistic revitalization, reconciliation will never occur unless we are also reconciled with the Earth – meaning Canada and Canadians must decolonize its resource extraction economy.

This I realized also resonates with the ideas around deconstructing the term “decolonizing” — that it isn’t a metaphor, that it actually requires Canada to return sovereignty over the land to Indigenous peoples.

In a sometimes emotional presentation, Aboriginal Program Coordinator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights Maeengan Linklater spoke on Residential Schools, Genocide, Recognition and the CMHR, as well as his lobbying efforts to institute a provincial “Indian Residential School Genocide Reconciliation Memorial Day.” He began by expressing his gratitude to the Pathfinders who told their stories of their experiences in the schools. Linklater spoke to the controversy over the Museum’s decision to avoid the word “genocide” when describing the residential school system, but argued that critics needed to direct their concerns at the government that funds and mandates the museum, not the museum itself. Linklater had submitted a bill for an IRS Reconciliation and Memorial Act to the Manitoba government in 2015; there has been no response as yet. However, MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette is apparently going to try to present a federal version of the Bill in the near future. Linklater closed by expressing his gratitude to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for starting this dialogue.

Instituting such a holiday would be a powerful statement, one on par with the move in some American cities of doing away with Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or Native American Day.

In their presentation “We were Brave Children,” Dr. Rosemary Nagy of Nipissing University and residential school survivor Fredda Paul explored “childhood agential narratives” seeing the survivors’ narratives as ones of agency and resistance, rather than just of victimization. Nagy worked with Paul on his narrative; however, rather than tell his story for him, she indicated that he will be telling his own story in a forthcoming book. (Because Paul had been dismayed to learn that his TRC testimony was archived online without his knowledge, when it came time for him to tell his story I put my pen down).

The Thursday Luncheon Keynote speaker was Dr. Chief Robert Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, with his incredibly stirring speech “My Vision for a Reconciled Canada.” He began with an acknowledgment of — and we gave a standing ovation for — a group of residential school Survivors seated near the front of the room. Dr. Joseph then set out his vision: one in which reconciliation was understood not as a project or a goal but a core value to be embraced by all Canadians, all our lives. All Canadians need to come to terms with our collective past. Reconciliation is an intergenerational commitment; we need each other, and we are part of something great. A reconciled Canada must create modern Treaties where none exist. All Aboriginal people ever wanted, he said, was to be allowed to raise their own children; in a reconciled Canada, they will be able to once again. A reconciled Canada will have the power to change the world in what he described as “a future that is breathtaking, a shift of national consciousness – filled with a desire to be the people we say we are.”

In the Q&A after his speech, a Cree mother in the audience powerfully “called out” Canada for its child welfare genocide and Millenium Scoop that had taken her son away from her.

(One of the drawbacks of attending a conference hosted by your own university is that it all too easy to get called back the office; I was in a meeting the rest of the afternoon so missed that afternoon’s concurrent sessions).

On Friday morning the keynote speaker was former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci addressing the way forward to a new nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples, which he says needs to be a joint federal and provincial project – not “either-or.” Recognition of this relationship must be on part of people and institutions, not just governments. The way forward must include change of attitudes involving education — but not just in schools – while children educated on history of IR Schools can help teach their parents. The way forward must also be principle-based, not merely transactional and include not forgetting the history of treatment of Indigenous peoples.

This essential task of “not forgetting” was the focus of the session I chaired on Museums, Memorials and Reconciliation. It featured four speakers either employed by or in partnership with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Julia Peristerakis, a Researcher-Curator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, began by critiquing the modern project of museology for its long history of theft from and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. From the beginning, the Canadian Museum of Human Right sought to correct this through a “critical decolonizing” approach that integrates Indigenous voices and worldviews. The CMHR’s Indian residential school exhibit connects the schools with the Sixties scoop and current child welfare practices, as well as with other mass atrocities and moves to recognize it as genocide. Currently the CMHR is featuring temporary exhibit, “The Witness Blanket” a cedar panel monument to reconciliation. Reconciliation she said, requires reshaping historical narratives and museums have crucial role in challenging myth of peaceful settlement in Canada within framework of reconciliation.

Next, Julio Solórzano Foppa, Chair of the Memorial Para la Concordia in Guatemala spoke of interpreting and confronting memory of that country’s 36-year civil war through memorials. Guatemala’s Concord Memorial is a partnership of 10 civil society organizations commemorates the country’s Internal Armed Conflict and massacres; its process is deliberately not one of “reconciliation,” as the term implies “re-conciling”, a return to a past in which people were at peace, which in Guatemala did not exist. Rather they seek to build a “concord” between peoples, to create a new society. In addition to the construction of the Memorial Para la Concordia, the initiative includes a Memory Mapping project which documents over 500 plaques or monuments throughout Guatemala to acknowledge the conflict’s 200,000 victims, and these sites are now the location of Intergenerational Memory Dialogues. In Guatemala, reconciliation is non-ideological, bringing together people from the Left and Right, focusing on what is agreed upon, rather than on disagreement. Foppa added however that concord processes in Guatemala still need to do more to bridge racial and cultural divisions. One positive step in this direction is the phenomenal popularity of Guatemala’s all-female Alaide Foppa Orchestra (named after the speaker’s famous poet mother) which highlights female victims and role of women in reconciliation.

Foppa’s presentation was quite revelatory: I’d never parsed the term “reconciliation,” and from this perspective it would seem that perhaps Canada should have given more thought to adopting this as official terminology. There may not be an ideal previous state to which we can return, but we can work together on a concord for a better society in the future.

Another way in which women are dealing with the aftermath of Guatemala’s civil war was the subject of CMHR curator Armando Perla’s talk. In the 1980’s, widows and orphaned girls formed weaving cooperatives which have been producing Indigenous textiles for stores across the country and which have garnered interaction attention. When the CMHR approached the cooperatives with the idea of creating a documentary and virtual gallery of their workshops, the women come up with a brilliant counter-proposal: that the CMHR Boutique carry their textiles. When the documentary is released visitors will be able to purchase the textiles in the Museum.

The final session I attended as an audience member was on the UNDRIP (UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) as a Framework for Reconciliation; and it was standing room only! It featured four speakers: Judge David Arnot, President of CASHRA; Isha Khan with Manitoba Human Rights Commission; Will David, a policy analyst for the Assembly of First Nations; and Amnesty International’s Craig Benjamin.

David got things off with a laugh and applause by stating that the Assembly of First Nations wants full adoption of UNDRIP. (Pause). “That’s it!” International and domestic laws he notes, have been illegitimately built on fiction of Colonial “Doctrine of Discovery“; correcting this legacy through Indigenous sovereignty will mean Nation(s) to Nation relationships – stressing the multiplicity of Indigenous cultures.

Arnot addressed the Intersections of Indigenous rights with Treaty and Human rights, which he introduced as a Venn Diagram. He began with the wry observation that a 99% rate of ignorance about Treaties on the part of non-Indigenous people doesn’t prevent 100% of them from having an opinion about them. The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child stipulates right to know about rights, and on this, he said, human rights commissions have failed particularly in terms of recognizing the interconnections between Indigenous, human and treaty rights. What is needed is need K-12 education on the foundation of knowledge and understanding, hence of empathy, respect, harmony and reconciliation, which he called a Pedagogy of Respect.

Isha Khan urged the audience to  reach out to Indigenous people but not to worry so much about doing or saying the wrong thing — invite an Elder to your organization and “ask really dumb questions!”

Amnesty International’s Craig Benjamin added that each principle of UNDRIP a matter of life and death for Indigenous peoples. It took 20 years to pass UNDRIP because of colonial nation state intransigence. We all need to transcend and transform the limitations of Canadian law: he finds troubling that Canada’s official wording of adoption of UNDRIP says it is contingent on “domestic law.”

In addition to my own presentation in the “Institutional Approaches” panel, Mary-Ann Clarke delivered an often devastating paper on her professional and personal experiences with Child and Family Services, arguing that CFS needs to withdraw from all Aboriginal family services within two generations, replacing its policing function with general services and supports, i.e., housing, counselling, health, mental health etc.

I was disappointed that my session coincided with that of my colleagues Monique Woroniak and Ashlyn Haglund, who reported on their experiences creating the amazing Groundwork for Change website, which offers non-Indigenous Canadians a primer on colonization, racism, white privilege and Indigenous sovereignty.

The conference as a whole was so rich and so necessary there seemed to be a general consensus among the participants I spoke with that it shouldn’t be a one-time occurrence, but rather a regular event. Joining with so many hundreds of other people – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, Canadians and people from around the world – was a truly transformative experience, and I’m grateful to the organizers and all the speakers for sharing so much with us. Gathered as we were for the purposes of “not forgetting” and working towards reconciliation (and a concord) — what Dr. Chief Robert Joseph described as a “brilliant future” that can “change the world” — one couldn’t help but feel a part of that future.

[Image credit: University of Winnipeg, Flickr]

“How I Became an Oxfordian”

For the past year, the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship has been running a very entertaining series, “How I became an Oxfordian,” in which their members tell their personal stories of how they came to doubt the traditional biography of Shakespeare. This week it’s my turn:

“Why would anybody believe it?” The teenaged girl’s eyes were wide, her head shaking. She’d come to the front of the school auditorium to speak to Charles Beauclerk, the Earl of Burford, whom I had brought to her Edmonton, Alberta high school as a part of his 1993 tour. Charles’ talk in support of Edward de Vere as the author of the plays and poems had totally destroyed the Stratford myth for this young woman, and her question has stayed with me ever since.

Subjugated Knowledge in Academic Libraries pt. 2

[This is the conclusion to a two part series begun with my post of January 14th 2016. Excerpted and adapted with the editor’s permission from my article “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries.” The Oxfordian XVII (2015). Available for purchase on Amazon.].

As the venerable “backbone” or “heart” of the academy, the university library holds the fundamentally important role of supporting teaching and research through the collection of books, journals and other scholarly outputs such as theses and dissertations, and in organizing them through classification and the assignment of subject headings to provide accurate, replicable and intuitive access to them. In addition to being guided by a professional Code of Ethics (ALA 1939/2008), and principles of Diversity in Collection Development (ALA 1982/2014), academic libraries are also ostensibly committed to the American Library Association’s “Intellectual Freedom Principles for Academic Libraries” (2000) which states that:

The development of library collections in support of an institution’s instruction and research programs should transcend the personal values of the selector. In the interests of research and learning, it is essential that collections contain materials representing a variety of perspectives on subjects that may be considered controversial (quoted in Jones 71).

As Barbara M. Jones points out, there is in the American context at least a little-appreciated difference between public and private universities, the latter of which may intentionally reject these principles and retain greater control over their libraries’ collections (69). Even so, library collection-building in general has been subject to some controversy and accusations of bias, omission, and neglect. There is a modest but vigorous and significant body of critical library literature that argues that, under the guise of neutrality and impartiality, (and owing in part to selectors’ own biases, and other psychological factors [Quinn]), libraries have in fact failed to collect whole genres or categories of materials, (Berman 2001), or, by purchasing primarily from major publishers representing mainstream perspectives, passively neglect or marginalize certain topics and constituencies (Warner). Even if they are collected, materials deemed controversial or outside of the mainstream may be classified and described according to prescriptive and normative systems, often using prejudicial and pejorative language that “both reflect and create opinion” (Guimarães and Martinez-Avila, 22). These are biases in collections and cataloging, and, as will be shown below, have surely contributed to marginalizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question.

Library collections represent the cumulative product of a wide range of processes reaching from the author, through the publishing industry’s agents, houses, and marketers to reviewing journals to vendors to the selecting librarian, all of which are subject to external market forces, political decision making, and the vagaries of socio-psychological factors. For this reason – and owing to the quite varied range of controversial topics investigated — it has proven difficult to establish one particular, dominant factor in the creation of biased library collections. To cite a few examples, the literature suggests that some form of inside censorship (Berman 2001) may be a factor in the failure to collect adequately in such diverse areas as African studies (Warner), graphic novels and comic books (Toren), LGBT materials (Sweetland and Christensen), evangelical Christianity (Ingolfsland), small publisher political journals (Dilevko and Grewal), multi-ethnic materials (Sykes) and pro-life titles (Harmeyer). As this brief list suggests, areas of potential bias can cross the political spectrum; as well there is a great deal of debate in the literature concerning the methods employed to reach such conclusions, and what criteria should be used to identify “unbalanced” collections (Veeh).

Market bias, for example, would occur in cases in which publishers are unwilling to take risks on new authors, or ideas; or, if such works are published, are not given wide distribution. As the past president of the American Library Association Nancy Kranich points out, in their quest for profitability in an increasingly challenging marketplace, major publishers tend to prefer to bank on authors and titles with proven audiences, while rejecting those with potentially critical cutting edge viewpoints on important issues, leaving authors little choice but to seek out small, independent alternative presses (Kranich). The difficulty for libraries is that such houses often fall outside the traditional distribution channels including major reviewing journals – the number of reviews and notices in trade journals being positively associated with library purchases (Sweetland and Christensen). Kranach argues that building truly balanced collections requires libraries to actively seek out these alternative publishers (Kranich 1999). Quinn (2012) however suggests that there may be significant psychological factors that lead to biases against unconventional publications. While acknowledging that “[t]he ideal of the value-neutral collection is a myth” (282) he notes that:

Individuals not only exhibit a bias toward positive information but are also biased toward normative information. This is information that conforms to rules, standards, customs, practices, and expectations of one’s social group. . . . That minority behavior, deviant behavior, social taboos, and esoteric practices and ideologies strike the selector as strange or inappropriate may serve as an indicator of bias on the selector’s part (287).

We should note that collection decisions are not entirely in the hands of selecting librarians, but may be driven by faculty members, or by students themselves through emerging patron-driven acquisitions (PDA), in which click-throughs in pre-packaged e-book collections trigger purchases. In the case of the former, Lee (1988) questions the extent to which the ideological biases of faculty members – who are subject to none of the ethical principles expected of librarians – will resist excluding books and journals contrary to their own disciplinary viewpoints. The PDA model, according to Sens and Fonseca (2013), is similarly subject to an inherent conflict of interest, and one not consistent with that of the librarian: that search results will be programmed to highlight backlist titles to boost commercial publishers’ profits, de-emphasizing scholarly publishers in the process (363).

A tendency towards normatively can also result from the economics of collection development, particularly the use of pre-packaged approval plans.  Libraries create these plans by establishing profiles of their universities’ collection and curricular needs with a corporate vendor, as well as their preferred publishers, formats and price ranges, and then automatically receive only those titles corresponding with that profile. The economies of scale and deep discounts facilitated by approval plans are popular with libraries on limited budgets but inevitably favor major, well-known publishers at the expense of smaller, alternative presses, with the result that libraries are increasingly coming under fire for having homogenized collections representing only “a safe middle range of opinion…represent[ing] a consensus status quo” (Dilevko 680). Critics argue this corporate-friendly homogenization contradicts the library’s core values: Jeff Lilburn (2003) asks how “can current library policies and practices be characterized as ‘neutral’ if our collections simply reproduce the privileges already enjoyed by established and powerful media conglomerates in every other area of our society?” (p. 30), while Sanford Berman states that libraries’ “failure to select whole categories or genres of material” means that “[they] become willing accomplices in the homogenization and commodification of culture and thought” (Berman 2001, 7).

As Warner (2005) notes, the issue of bias in libraries presents a “complex picture” (184), a full explication of which is beyond the scope of the present post. Suffice it to stress however that, whatever its causes, the overwhelming presence of the mainstream side of an academic debate — and the corresponding absence of marginalized dissent – represents a significant positioning on the part of the institution as to the nature of legitimate and non-legitimate bodies of knowledge As MIT librarian Marlene Manoff observes,

[W]e need to acknowledge the kind of delegitimizing functions libraries perform in their exclusion of certain kinds of materials. . . . Academic libraries, as institutions of intellectual authority, confer symbolic status on those artifacts they choose to acquire and, implicitly at least, deny it to those they do not. Moreover, libraries, like universities, help to define what constitutes knowledge, i.e., what gets into libraries, and what are legitimate areas of study i.e., those that research libraries provide the materials to investigate. Especially in disciplines in the humanities, library research collections often limit possible areas of investigation (1993 4, 6).  

Ironically (and perhaps understandably), this normative, delegitimizing function can also be bound up in a defensive liberal reaction against the spectre of America’s culture wars over the purpose and future of the academy, as exemplified in the so-called Academic Bill of Rights (or ABOR) written and promoted by the right-wing David Horowitz Freedom Center and its offshoot, Students for Academic Freedom. While ostensibly espousing and defending pluralism and diversity, the Bill is seen by its many critics as an assault against both critical pedagogy and modern reason itself, being a veiled means to promote “intelligent design” and other conservative priorities in the classroom (Giroux 2006; Beitko et al 2005). Among the many regrettable consequence of such a toxically volatile public sphere is that it encourages liberal institutions and observers to fallaciously conflate a number of unrelated but marginalized views and theories – some of which are, indeed, despicable. For example, David Prosser, director of Communications for the Stratford Festival in Ontario, has publicly compared the Shakespeare Authorship Question to Holocaust denial (McNeil). Even Barbara M. Jones, one of the American library professions’ most outspoken leaders on the issue of intellectual freedom, subtly conflated these controversies with the Shakespeare Authorship Question in her 2009 book Protecting Intellectual Freedom in Your Academic Library, remarking,

The ABOR…assumes that all knowledge is uncertain, when in fact some discoveries have been accepted by broad consensus in the scholarly community — for example, that certain scholarship about Shakespeare is better researched and more fundamental than other scholarship (22).

Libraries depend on such scholarly consensus to impose universalized certainty over what constitutes knowledge in the form of classification and cataloguing: the disciplinary assignment and placement of books in three-dimensional space within the library, as well as the controlled vocabulary (subject headings) used to describe it in the library catalogue. The institution dominating this enterprise in academic and public libraries is The Library of Congress, in the form of its Classification system (1897) and its Subject Headings (LCSH). The former is the Library of Congress’s attempt to structure all human knowledge according to disciplines, (regardless of what is published), while the latter is based on “literary warrant” (actual publishing) and which, while also dating to the late 1890s, has undergone periodic revisions since.

Widely adopted worldwide, these Library of Congress schemes have been utilized by scholars for nearly 120 years. However, beginning in the 1960s (and corresponding with the social and political upheavals of the era) they have been subject to considerable criticism for their overwhelmingly Euro- and Christian-centric nature, as well as for many examples of sexism, heterosexism, racism, and American exceptionalism, and for their use of pejorative language to describe, exclude or misrepresent marginalized knowledge domains (Berman 1971/1993, Olson 1998, 2002). As Hope Olson (1998) argues,

The result of these factors is classification, which might be seen as…concentric circles of degrees of representation quality…a few core concepts best represented, a middle ground adequately represented, and a large periphery of poorly represented marginal concepts with some concepts outside of the limits (236).

In accordance with libraries’ long-standing value of neutrality, their classification and cataloguing schemes are created with a view to objectivity and avoiding bias. Yet, as A.C. Foskett, one of the Library of Congress’ earliest critics pointed out, they instead “reflect both the prejudices of its time and those of its author” (117). Indeed, as the literature argues, it is this very pursuit of objectivity that results in systemic normative biases (Olson and Schlegl 2001). As Guimarães and Martinez-Avila observe, “the prescriptive intention of neutrality and universality in the pursuit of a ‘better’ retrieval process” is the problem, not bias per se, which will inevitably exist in any system (24). However, as Olson and Schlegl point out in their systematic analysis of the literature, marginalized topics will inevitably be treated within a universalizing system as either

  • an exception to the presumed norm,
  • physically ghettoized away from the materials with which they should be associated;
  • depicted with an inappropriate structure that misrepresents the field;
  • assigned biased terminology, often with pejorative overtones; or
  • omitted altogether (1999).

Given the potency of what Olson (2002) calles “the power to name” we should understand that library classification and subject headings have tremendous potential to contribute to marginalization in many fields of study. As Guimarães and Martinez-Avila note,

Library schemes both reflect and create opinion at the same time; they…shape reality. It is well known that a very effective way to eradicate a certain group or a people from History is by in no way naming it. An effective way to defame a thing and put an end to its aspirations is to change its meaning to the worst possible one or to place it in the wrong context. An effective way to ridicule and isolate someone is by pointing her/him out as abnormal (deviating from the norm) and to exile him/her away from the peaceful and anonymous norm (standard). And, most probably, all these biases were introduced with the unconscious or intentional purpose of reinforcing the power discourses and the status quo (22).

With the ability of online catalogues to discover keywords throughout a given record, there are arguments that perhaps formalized subject headings have outlived their usefulness, that they are no longer needed. On the contrary, critics contend that subject headings are more important than ever, because the alternative presumes users will always know or guess the necessary terms (and combinations) on their own (Mann 53). Berman (2013) concurs, noting that without an intuitive subject heading, unless the desired term actually appears in the title, it may not be discoverable at all.


Works Cited

Academic Bill of Rights. Students for Academic Freedom. n.d. Web.

American Library Association. Code of Ethics of the American Library Association. Chicago: The American Library Association. (1939/2008). Web.

American Library Association. Diversity in Collection Development: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. Chicago: The American Library Association. (1982/2014). Web.

Berman, Sanford. Prejudices and antipathies: A tract on the LC subject heads concerning people. McFarland & Company, 1971/1993.

Berman, Sanford. “Inside censorship.” Progressive Librarian 18 (2001): 48-63.

Berman, Sanford. “Controversial Cataloguing” in Not in My Library!: “Berman’s Bag” Columns from the Unabashed Librarian, 2000-2013., 2013. Jefferson, North Carolina ; London : McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013.

Dilevko, Juris, and Kalina Grewal. “A New Approach to Collection Bias in Academic Libraries: The Extent of Corporate Control in Journal Holdings.” Library & Information Science Research 19.4 (1997): 359-85.

Foskett, A.C. “Misogynists All; A Study in Critical Classification.” Library Resources and Technical Services 15.2 (1971): 117-121.

Giroux, Henry A. “Academic Freedom Under Fire: The Case for Critical Pedagogy.” College Literature 33.4 (2006): 1-42.

Guimarães, José Augusto Chaves, and Daniel Martinez-Avila. “Library Classifications Criticism: Universality, Poststructuralism and Ethics.” Scire (2013): 21-6.

Harmeyer, Dave, et al. “Potential Collection Development Bias: Some Evidence on a Controversial Topic in California. Commentaries on Collection Bias: Eternal Vigilance the Price of Liberty. What’s Right? Adequate Representation and Numeric Equivalency: How Much is enough?” College & Research Libraries 56.2 (1995): 101-18.

Ingolfsland, D. “Books on the Historical Jesus as a Test Case for Selection Bias in American Academic Libraries.” Journal of Religious and Theological Information 8.1-2 (2009): 1-12.

Jones, Barbara M. Protecting Intellectual Freedom in Your Academic Library: Scenarios from the Front Lines. Chicago: American Library Association, 2009.

Kranich, Nancy. “A Question of Balance: The Role of Libraries in Providing Alternatives to the Mainstream Media.” Collection Building 19.3 (2000): 85-91.

Lee, James A. “Ideology in the Library.” Academic Questions 1.2 (1988): 39-41.

Lilburn, Jeff. “Re-Examining the Concept of Neutrality for Academic Librarians.” Feliciter 1 (2003): 30–32.

McNeil, Alex. “’Authorship Appeal’ Held at Stratford, Ontario, in October. Presumption in Favor of Shakspere ‘Not Rebutted.’” Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter. 50 4 Fall 2014.

Mann, Thomas. “Why LC Subject Headings are More Important Than Ever.” American libraries (2003): 52-54.

Manoff, Marlene. “Academic Libraries and the Culture Wars: The Politics of Collection Development.” Collection Management 16.4 (1993): 1-17.

Olson, Hope A. “Mapping Beyond Dewey’s Boundaries: Constructing Classificatory Space for Marginalized Knowledge Domains.” Library trends 47.2 (1998): 233-54.

Olson, Hope A. The Power to Name: Locating the Limits of Subject Representation in Libraries. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002. Print.

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Toren, Beth Jane,. “Bam! Pow! Graphic Novels Fight Stereotypes in Academic Libraries: Supporting, Collecting, Promoting.” Technical Services Quarterly 28.1 (2010): 55-69.

Veeh, Elese M. Politics and Collection Diversity in California Public Libraries’ Nonfiction Holdings on Two Controversial Subjects: Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage. Unpublished Master’s Paper, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC (2007).

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A “Ribbon of Ignorance:” LCSH and the Language of Genocide

Following several days of often profound learning at the Ontario Library Association Superconference, my own presentation got off to a fairly light-hearted beginning as Feather Maracle Luke acting as convener introduced me with the answers I’d previously sent her by email to some “ice-breaking” questions, one of which was, “what is your favourite word?” I’d answered, juxtapose — because doing it usually leads to interesting ideas and insights. Having blogged for more than a decade on both urban planning and library-related issues I’d often found it fruitful to base my discussions on the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated events, news items or experiences.

Only now as I write this, however, does it occur to me that this verb lay at the heart of my project: this very act of juxtaposing the two worlds — the lived Indigenous history of genocide and the rationalized taxonomy about it — reveals the truth about both: that this world is not this world.

I’d read this phrase years ago in the work of psychologist Robert J. Lifton, who built his career exploring the darkest shared places of the human mind: the inner lives, motivations and traumatic memories of both the perpetrators and victims of major mass atrocities and genocides of the 20th Century. In Death in Life (1967) he interviewed survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima; in Home from the War (1973), he learned how American veterans of the war in Vietnam experienced what Lifton called an “atrocity-producing situation” – in his words “one so structured, psychologically and militarily, that ordinary people, men or women no better or worse than you or I, can regularly commit atrocities“; and in The Nazi Doctors (1986) he chronicled the progression of Germany`s doctors from ordinary medical professionals to willing participants in genocide.

The latter book begins with an interview Lifton had conducted with a Holocaust survivor who, pausing for a moment in his horrific recollections, looks out the window and sighs, “this world is not this world.” Lifton said he understood the comment to mean that “the ordinary rhythms and appearances of life, however innocuous or pleasant, were far from the truth of human existence” (p. 3).

Since becoming a librarian, however, I have also come to realize that this incommensurability can sometimes be deliberately structured: that the language used to frame our understandings of the world can also be “far from the truth of human existence.” Nowhere did this seem more apparent than the history of genocide in the Americas.

Having spent the previous two days taking in sessions from the Aboriginal stream, focusing in particular on worldviews and languages, I knew that language was where I needed to begin – in Ojibwe, and with a Territorial acknowledgement:

Mino gigizheb! Anamikaage!

Michael Dudley ndizhinikaaz, Winnipeg ndojeba.

Good morning, welcome, my name is Michael Dudley, and I am the Indigenous and Urban Services Librarian at the University of Winnipeg, in Treaty One Territory, in the heart of the Metis Nation. I Acknowledge our place here on the historical territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca and the of the New Credit First Nation of Mississauga Ojibwa land once governed by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe as well as allied nations. I’ve been impressed with the respect shown by so many speakers in making their own territorial acknowledgements, and in their use of Indigenous languages; but given that I am speaking this morning of the genocides and atrocities that were carried out within the colonial states in which I have lived all my life and from which I have benefitted – and further about the written histories about these events, which as we shall see have been rendered virtually invisible by the very structures and practices of my own profession from which I have gained further privileges – I felt it particularly incumbent on myself in that I honour these nations, these Treaties, these forms of governance, these languages – for example, anishinaabemowin — that were so purposefully assaulted in the name of “civilization.”      

Following an overview of Library of Congress standards for books on other genocides and atrocities, I then set out the ways in which research on the topic of Native American genocides is made so problematic by the biases and omissions in the treatment given it by the Library of Congress Subject Headings and Classifications: there is no subject heading that explicitly recognizes Native American genocide, and the basic headings which would apply (Genocide – Canada; Genocide – United States) are rarely used, and it is quite literally impossible to find books in WorldCat using these subject headings.



All that a subject search on “genocide united states” reveals is a single article, while “genocide canada” only results — mysteriously — in a thesis:



Instead, Library of Congress headings are for the most part euphemistic, including

Indians of North America

  • Treatment of
  • Violence against
  • Crimes against
  • Assimilation
  • Government relations
  • Relocation
  • Education
  • Wars

For the American context in particular, we see these headings:

  • United States – Ethnic Relations
  • United States – Race relations
  • Columbus, Christopher — Influence
  • Forced migration
  • Massacres – [Geography]
  • California — Gold Discoveries — social aspects
  • Meanwhile, the brutal onslaught, slavery and recreational massacres the Spanish wrought on the Aztecs is labelled “Mexico history conquest.”

The alternative, simply using keywords “genocide Canada” yields thousands of hits, many of them irrelevant to the topic of Native Americans, the term “Canada” simply showing up somewhere in the catalogue record, including place of publication. There’s also no way to browse the shelves, as LC Classification places books on this topic in a variety of locations:

  • E 59 – Pre-Columbian American, special topics.
  • E 76.6 – Indians of North America, study and teaching
  • E 77 – … comprehensive works
  • E 78 – …by state, province or region
  • E 91 – …Government relations
  • E 92 – …Government relations, Canada
  • E 93 – …Government relations, United States
  • E 96 – …Education, Canada, general works
  • E 96.5 – “Indian schools”
  • E 97 – …education, United States, general works
  • E 98 – “Other topics”
  • E112 – “Discovery of America” – Christopher Columbus
  • E 179.5 – United States History “General special”
  • F 868 – California history
  • HC 117 – Economic history, Canada
  • HD 1696 – Agricultural economics
  • KE 7709 – Native peoples, Treaties

In short, this history is treated quite differently from any other historical or contemporary genocide, making it extremely difficult to gather comprehensive results. To generate my sample of 50 titles it was necessary to do numerous advanced searches using combinations of subject headings and keywords, looking deliberately for books featuring variations of genocide, holocaust, extermination and ethnic cleansing in their titles. Even with such words in their titles, sometimes benign-sounding euphemisms are overwhelmingly applied to these books, with the effect, I argue, of denying authorial intent by imposing triumphal colonial narratives on histories of genocide; employing double standards such that even when the histories of the Americas are explicitly compared to other recognized genocides the author’s will is subverted; or erasing outright any genocide-related content from the description.

I recounted the efforts to address these structural deficiencies over the years: in 1998 Sanford Berman published an article entitled “Whose Holocaust Is It, Anyway? The “H” Word in Library Catalogs”  that included the 18 alternative headings he’d proposed for use at the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, including

  • Native American Holocaust (1492-1900)
  • American Indian Genocide (1492-1900)
  • American Indian Holocaust (1492-1900)
  • Amerindian Holocaust (1492-1900)
  • First Nations Holocaust (1492-1900)
  • Genocide, American Indian (1492-1900)
  • Genocide, Indian (1492-1900)

As well-intentioned as these are, however, one could certainly critique Berman’s decision to put an end date of 1900 on genocides in the Americas – especially as regards the existence of the Canadian residential school system into the 1990s!

Finally, I situated these biases, omissions, narratives and erasures in light of the imperatives of two mandates from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation and the United Nations’ Joinet-Orentlicher Principles. In Call to Action 69, the TRC calls on Libraries and Archives Canada to

  1. Fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations Joinet-Orentlicher Principles, as related to Aboriginal peoples’ inalienable right to know the truth about what happened and why, with regard to human rights violations committed against them in the residential schools [through history books].
  2. Ensure that its record holdings related to residential schools are accessible to the public.

The Joinet-Orentlicher Principles referred to by the TRC is a non-binding normative framework that any country having experienced crimes against humanity or genocide can use to move from conflict to reconciliation. In the upper left corner of this diagram we see the elements of “the right to Know” which includes access to history books.



The fact that there are 50 books available on library shelves and indexed in a global library catalogue was not the same thing as making them “accessible” as intended by these recommendations; as Sanford Berman would put it (in his 2001 article “Inside Censorship”), many of these titles are the victims of bibliocide, their contents “murdered” by biased cataloguing and classification. What is evident in the treatment of Native American genocide is deliberate and studied obfuscation that both reflects and reinforces the exclusion of this history from what Katherine Bischoping and Natalie Fingerhut called the “border lines” of genocide studies.

My presentation over, the discussion period saw what was for me one of the most emotionally powerful moments of the entire conference: A lawyer who had immigrated from Asia and become a Canadian citizen, and having never known anything about Canada’s genocidal treatment of Aboriginal people, described how, in the course of preparing a legal case, he had been going through records in a warehouse and had been horrified to discover files and photographs about the residential school system. The realization of the truth had brought him to tears, and ever since when he returns to his country of origin he tries to tell his friends and colleagues about Canada’s true history, to much disbelief. That people in other countries might know nothing about Canada’s genocidal history is hardly surprising, however, given what TRC Commissioner Dr. Marie Wilson called the “ribbon of ignorance” about residential schools among Canadians themselves.

I believe that what my research suggests is that this “ribbon of ignorance” about Native American genocides not only runs through our libraries, but has been perpetuated by libraries, and the language used to obfuscate authorial intent in the relevant literature.


Worldviews, Languages and Community Development: “Hospitality for the Gift” of Indigenous Worldviews at OLA 2016

In the last week of January 2016 I travelled to Toronto to attend the Ontario Library Association Superconference to present my paper A Little Matter of Genocide and attend as many of the sessions in the Aboriginal sector as I could. It promised to be an intense week, not only because the Aboriginal stream looked so rich, and that I was also attending the editorial team meeting for the journal Partnership,  (for which I edit the Viewpoints section) but because I actually hadn’t finished working on my talk yet.

(I was also really please to learn while I was in Toronto that The Decolonized Librarian is listed as a required resource for an online course through the University of Alberta School of Library and Information Studies – LIS 541 – Library and Information Services in a Culturally Diverse Society, taught by Moyra Lang, while that the students in LIS 592 – Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in Librarianship, taught by Toni Samek had been particularly introduced to my work on LCSH and genocide).

As it turns out, given all the pressures and commitments with which I was dealing, I was only able to take in five sessions from the Aboriginal stream – (not including, owing to my scheduled flight, Wab Kinew’s closing keynote. But check out this amazing graphic by Liisa Sorsa!) The impressive Aboriginal sessions were organized by Feather Maracle Luke of Timmins Public Library, and I will attempt here to respectfully share some of what I learned.

The first session I attended, on Indigenous Worldview Education was an engaging, sometimes humorous and always fascinating introduction to Indigenous understandings of the world and universe and our place within them, and how these are only now beginning to be adopted by Western sciences. The session’s leaders Maria Montejo and Jordan Teshakotennyon’s Miller offer youth programming through the R.E.A.L. School (Reality Education & Applied Lifeskills Leadership Development Program).  Maria (Deer Clan) described how she had come to Canada when her family escaped the horrific Guatemalan Genocide, in which 20,000 people (most of them Indigenous Mayans) lost their lives over a 36-year period. Her personal journey helped frame the session in a powerful way: in her search to understand peace and change she had learned the violent history of Guatemala and went to visit the ruins left by her people, but it made her angry; to which her father told her, “your mind is twisted; you’re trying to understand your people with the mind you have.” She ended up in university for two years studying racism which mostly involved working in a circle discussing the shared experience of racism with others.

She and Jordan compared three world views, the Newtonian (reductionistic), Quantum (holistic) and Indigenous (holographic) worldviews. The differences are profound: in the first only the evidence of the physical world as detected by our senses is considered real; in the second, everything both seen and unseen are connected; but in the third all material essences represent an invisible spiritual dimension. At the REAL school they teach that we need to decolonize to learn the things that we have forgotten. Our Western education is based on linear, Newtonian categorizing. Think of a box, said Maria: we know what is “normal” by what is inside the box. Our minds according to this worldview only know what is separate, and so our minds create strategies and structure and hierarchy to help us make sense of it. But in the Indigenous, holographic worldview, the inputs of the five senses support only very low-level thinking. Instead, she says, we are actually “heart people” and the heart only understands connection.

In the holographic view, we are projection systems, and what we see is what we project. Accordingly, change only comes when we are uncomfortable.

Maria asked, we’re all Indigenous to planet Earth – which Indigenous peoples refer to as “all my relations” — but why is it so many of us can’t remember Her teachings? Where are our original teachings? The Drum is the heart of the Earth, which has a magnetic field, just like each of us. Maria and Jordan demonstrated this through the use of a handheld device that lit up and glowed when they held both hands, closing a circuit with their mutual fields. Drumming, we were taught, connects to our magnetic fields through the heart.

Another major difference between the Newtonian and Holographic world: the first sees a world of scarcity over which conflicts must be waged; the Indigenous world is an abundant world. Why, then, would we fight over it? The Nation-to-Nation relationship we need to move to reconciliation was demonstrated by Jordan, who held up a Wampum belt showing two courses of water, one for a ship and one with a canoe. You can’t steer one from the other, he said.

After such a rich morning — with so much to absorb — I was eager to hear what our keynote speaker R. David Lankes had to say. I’ve been intrigued by his work – mostly in thumbing through his imposing The Atlas of New Librarianship. His topic was innovation (the conference theme) and in addressing the common myths around it. Innovations, he said, should be out of quest for social equality and highlighted the work of the Ferguson Missouri and Baltimore Public Libraries which had offered such services as free food and diapers for families dealing with militarized policing and racial conflict. This was a powerful message, but was undermined somewhat at the end by his unfortunate exhortation for us to think of ourselves as “missionaries”. I imagined there was a lot of cringing in the room around me.

The following day, my colleague Monique Woroniak from Winnipeg Public Library spoke on the theme of Choosing to Walk a Path: Library Services to Indigenous Peoples with a Purpose. She began her talk with a particularly sincere land acknowledgement to the Territory of the New Credit First Nation of Mississauga Ojibwa, stressing the importance of these – that acknowledgements are not to be uttered by rote as an obligation, but that they mean a great deal. She then set the stage for her work in Winnipeg by reviewing the contexts: the one year anniversary of “the article” in Maclean’s naming Winnipeg as the country’s most racist city, which started a still-ongoing conversation in our city. Current initiatives such as the Bear Clan Patrol, my own university’s mandatory Indigenous course requirement, and the recent launch of Red Rising Magazine all point to the vitality of Indigenizing efforts in Winnipeg.

This led Monique to next reflect provocatively on the key terms (which I’ve of course used heavily on this blog) of “decolonizing” and “indigenizing.” In the first place, she stressed, we need to understand colonialism as a structure, not an event, and referred us to Patrick Wolf’s 2006 article in the Journal of Genocide Research, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” (which I noted as a must-read for my own research).  She believes the term “decolonizing” needs to be used with a lot of caution, as nobody knows what a “decolonized” Canada would look like. (As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue, “decolonizing” isn’t just a metaphor, it actually requires the return of land). For her part, she prefers to frame her work in terms of Indigenizing — giving over significant control to Indigenous persons or bodies, to let them have the last word.

Other oft-used phrases in public libraries include “outreach” and “diversity”. She sees diversity as existing on the most basic end of a spectrum, with genuine anti-racism efforts the most complete realization. “Diversity” she argues celebrates differences but doesn’t challenge power or change the structure. Institutional (systemic) racism is structured racism, which requires something more focused. Anti-racism work acknowledges power differences, privilege and works to address injustices, she said. A library can only go so for with “diversity.” Outreach as well doesn’t involve divesting power, as collaboration is minimal. But in Community Development efforts the Library is a partner, an ally, and decision-making is shared. (For more of Monique’s thoughts on these ideas, check out her chapter in the book I edited for ALA Editions, Public Libraries and Resilient Cities).

Monique’s most important message: Indigenous people know what they need. It’s the job of institutions and professionals to listen, or get out of the way.

The metric here she says is on relationships: How many relationships did you build? (This also resonated with me in my own on-campus outreach work: on some days I might not actually get a lot of students wanting help with their papers, but just by being out of the library and in a student centre I am building relationships with students and staff),

Following these theoretical foundations, Monique highlighted some of the amazing Indigenous placemaking efforts at WPL, including the Aboriginal Reading in the Round which was renamed Ah kha koo gheesh or “Children emerge from learning.” The new Adult space renamed Wii ghoss or “birch bank place,” and now features installations of art loaned by community groups. With this sort of collaborative, thoughtful Indigenizing processes, she said, the Library doesn’t actually have to do so much outreach anymore, when you invite people in. A real achievement was the Library’s 2012 Last Word on First Words contest, in which at a featured poet’s suggestion the Library chartered a bus to Winnipeg’s North End for poetry reading, stopping at locations referred to in to poems, with bannock served on the bus.

There was a vigorous discussions following Monique’s talk, including Feather Maracle Luke urging us to check out the Ojibwe and Cree Cultural Centre Library in Timmins Ontario, which has developed its own classification numbers – an exciting development on which I determined to follow up for my own paper.

On Thursday afternoon I attended two back-to-back sessions on Revitalizing Indigenous Languages — the first hosted by Iehnhotonkwas Bonnie Jane Maracle, Alex McKay, and Tw^tahawiht Dawn Antone and the second by Maracle, Sara McDowell and Melanie Ribau. McKay offered extensive greetings in Anishnaabemowin – deliberate, he said, because he knew we would feel frustrated – as frustrated as he felt learning English when he was younger!

Language revitalization, we were told, is not only mandated by the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which recognizes the rights to languages, knowledge, place names, and education in own culture & language) but is a significant part of the Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s not just the responsibility of Indigenous Canadians to learn these languages but is an obligation of the rest of us to support (but not lead) these efforts.

We then learned of the Ciimaan/Kahuwe’yá/Qajaq Indigenous language initiative at the University of Toronto which offers space, programs and support (e.g., events, workshops, presentations) for Indigenous Language learners. It features a Language Cafe open to anyone wanting to come in and use their language.

In the second Language Revitalization session, Melanie Ribau from the Toronto Public Library introduced herself in Ojibwe adding every Indigenous word spoken is one more step towards revitalization. Toronto has Ontario’s highest population of Indigenous peoples, from a diverse range of cultures, and to support Indigenous readers the Spadina Road Branch has a dedicated Native Peoples collection, replaced English street signage for Spadina with its Ojibwe name and has initiated an Elder in Resident in the branch library. We were also urged to seek out The Green Book of Language Revitalization

The University of Toronto’s Sara McDowell then showed us how the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library created some outstanding language displays taking visitors through the seasons and has LibGuides features resources in multiple languages.  Her commitment to language revitalization is that she feels an obligation as one within a system that oppressed and sought to eradicate Indigenous languages to do what she can to revitalize it. Next steps to include permanent Indigenous language signage.

I was only able to take in less than half of what was offered in the Aboriginal sector, but was most impressed with what I learned of the profound worldviews of Indigenous peoples, and how these are being incorporated into brilliantly designed Indigenized spaces and collaborative community development efforts at the Winnipeg Public Library, as well as innovative and responsive language revitalization projects at Toronto Public Library and the University of Toronto. I believe we can see in these institutions’ acceptance and incorporation of Indigenous values the beginning of a realization of what Indigenous scholar Rauna Kuokkanen (Sami) refers to as “hospitality” to the “logic of the gift” of Indigenous epistemologies, a gift with the power to transform our institutions from their former hegemonic Eurocentrism to “tolerance to engagement and to active participation in the logic of the gift.” She writes (and I would suggest that we could easily swap out “the library” for “the academy” in the following):

[T]he future of the academy is dependent on the recognition of the gift of Indigenous epistemes—recognition as understood within the logic of the gift that foregrounds the responsibility in the name of the well-being of all. As in Indigenous epistemes, the future of the academy is dependent on its ability to create and sustain appropriate reciprocal relationships grounded on action and knowledge. In other words, recognizing the gift requires acquiring and adopting a new logic that is grounded on the responsibility toward the other that is defined as the ability and willingness to reciprocate at the epistemic level, not only at the level of human interaction. The call for the recognition of the gift of Indigenous epistemes is a call for an epistemic shift grounded on a specific philosophy and as such, a more profound transformation than efforts toward the inclusive university seeking to “democratize” the traditionally Eurocentric curriculum and the canon.

These sessions had certainly given me a great deal to think about in terms of my own work, and renewed my confidence in incorporating Indigenous languages into my presentation. The Friday morning keynote by writer and actor Darrell Dennis, “Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth About Lies About Indians” also gave me a perfect lead-in: In his entertaining and sobering speech he pointed out that he’s seeing more Native people going online to combat ignorance and racist comments by saying, “Read a book. Don’t google, don’t go back to school. Just read a book.”

As I would argue in my talk (and describe in my next post), this excellent advice does come with a caveat: You have to be able to discover the book exists first.

Book Review: The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship

The premiere issue of the Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship, the official journal of the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL) has just been released. It features my book review of Stephen Bales recent book The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship, in which I praise Bales for his insights into the commonly understood nature of academic libraries, as compared to the normative dialectical stance which he advocates:

For Bales, [I wrote] the academic library is not (and should not be seen as) a static, solely physical and independent repository of books and journals, but must instead be understood relationally, as a dynamic institution embedded within and functioning as a significant part of a neoliberal, late-capitalist society – what he calls the modern capitalist academic library (or MCAL).

I’ve found Bales’ work fairly indispensable in my own thinking — followers of this blog will recognize my reading of Bales strongly informed my most recent entry on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

The Dialectic of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

A Review of “Caring for Difficult Knowledge: Prospects for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” – a Special Issue of The Review of Education Pedagogy and Cultural Studies (Guest editors: Angela Failler, Peter Ives and Heather Milne).

[On November 4th, 2015 the University of Winnipeg’s Cultural Studies Research Group launched a special issue of the journal The Review of Education Pedagogy and Cultural Studies to which many of the group had contributed. One of the editors, and Lead Researcher of the Group, Dr. Angela Failler, invited me to “review” the issue and speak at the event. This is a more formal version of the speech I delivered].



When it opened in September, 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights had already long been the subject of considerable controversy, both across the country and in Winnipeg, Manitoba where it is located as the only national museum to be built outside of Canada’s capital, Ottawa. From the beginning, there were public debates played out in the media over not only the museum’s design and its cost, but that its genesis was associated with the conservative ideology of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government was widely criticized for its retrograde stance on human rights (Caplan). Then there was the matter of content: Indigenous Canadians as well as those from immigrant communities that had suffered atrocities in the past – notably in Ukraine – worried that their experiences were not going to be adequately represented in the Museum’s exhibit plans (Basen).

In this atmosphere of controversy and conflicting expectations, the University of Winnipeg’s Cultural Studies Research Group (CSRG) in September 2013 issued a call for papers about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) for the journal The Review of Education Pedagogy and Cultural Studies, with the goal of “thinking through” the museum constructively, asking, how do we publicly address difficult knowledge in a pedagogical fashion? The result was a special issue of the journal entitled, “Caring for Difficult Knowledge: Prospects for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” (Vol. 37, nos. 2-3).

At the request of one of the co-editors of the issue, Dr. Angela Failler of the University of Winnipeg, I was tasked with reviewing the special issue for its official launch event at the University on November 4th, 2015, by offering some potentially useful insights from the perspective of critical library studies – a discipline distinct from but similar in many respects to critical museum studies, in terms of its concerns regarding representation, colonialism and hegemony (e.g., Murawska-Muthesius and Piotrowski). For the purposes of this review I will offer a brief summary of the critiques of each of the authors and how they relate to the others, and then situate them in terms of some relevant theories from Library and Information Studies – in particular the writings of radical librarian Sanford Berman, historian Lora (Dee) Garrison and critical librarianship scholar Stephen Bales – with a view to identifying the broad theoretical perspective the contributors bring to our understanding of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Is the Topic of “Human Rights” Difficult or Lovely Knowledge?

In her Preface, Erica Lehrer of Concordia University sets out the issue’s task of identifying and locating the tensions between difficult knowledge and lovely knowledge: According to Pitt and Britzman, the difficult part of difficult knowledge concerning historical violence, injustices and atrocity lies not in the content of such knowledge itself, but the effects it has on us, and what we choose to do with it. It contrasts starkly with “lovely knowledge” which soothes and reassures us by reaffirming what we already know – or more accurately, believe – to be true (Pitt and Britzman, 2003).

These themes are picked up in the Introduction by editors Angela Failler, Peter Ives and Heather Milne (all from the University of Winnipeg), but carried further to frame the broader critiques to come: that interrogating the objectives, practices and physicality of the museum “offers a chance to explore a diverse set of issues that extend beyond the museum itself [including] how human rights discourses relate to genocide, colonialism, neoliberalism, issues of social justice, representations and public space” (102). Difficult knowledge, they write, “disrupts our fantasies of coherence and mastery, along with familiar ways of knowing the world, ourselves, and “others’ around us – including the commonly held…dominant cultural narrative that human rights injustices are being valiantly fought against (particularly by ‘us’ in the West)” (103).

What follows the introduction are seven peer-reviewed articles followed by four shorter reflective essays and an afterword which are all charged with this central question: to what extent does (or can) the CMHR – as a Crown Corporation (until very recently) under the authority of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal government – actually engage with difficult knowledge and encourage debate about it, or can it only impose comfortable, reassuring narratives about the “past-ness” of atrocities, ones that explicitly do not implicate the museum-going public?

In “Human Rights and/or Market Logic: Neoliberalism, Difficult Knowledge and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” Heather Milne reviews and analyzes online reader comments in response to a series of highly critical articles about the CMHR published in the right-leaning populist Winnipeg Sun, many of which angrily denounced the museum as a waste of taxpayers’ dollars, as well as the very premise of the museum. She argues that the Museum must share some responsibility for this reaction, having itself participated in the neoliberal branding and commodifying of human rights discourse while positioning itself and its narratives as a part of what its exhibit designer Ralph Applebaum calls the “reality-based entertainment industry complex.”

The Museum’s narratives are constructed not merely in the exhibits, as Nadine Blumer argues in her essay “Expanding Museum Spaces: Networks for Difficult Knowledge at and Beyond the Canadian Museum for Human Rights,” but in its use of technology as well as its online and social media presence. Blumer, a Fellow with the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., sees the CMHR existing as a node in a global network of other “idea” museums, yet questions the extent to which it is capable of creating a discursive space in which human rights controversies can actually be debated, as it has aggressively positioned itself as apolitical. This has not stopped civil society groups from using the Museum as a backdrop or rallying point for their own protests – in her words, “affixing meaning the CMHR, irrespective of the museum’s seemingly apolitical stance or activities (141).”

Such activism stood in particularly stark contrast to the Museum’s silence when the bodies of Tina Fontaine and Faron Hall were both discovered in the Red River on August 17th, 2014, not far from the Museum grounds. For McMaster University’s Amber Dean, in her piece “The CMHR and the Ongoing Crisis of Murdered or Missing Indigenous Women: Do Museums Have a responsibility to Care?” the Museum’s apolitical refusal to address this issue, compounded by its cheery social media posts while thousands marched past its grounds in a vigil for Fontaine and Hall, implicated the Museum in the mainstream society’s normalization of and indifference to violence against Indigenous peoples, especially women. If the CMHR is to be a Museum for human rights, not just of them, she writes, it does have a responsibility to care about this issue, which is an especially lethal and ongoing manifestation of colonial violence.

The Museum’s grandiose approach to another historical case of racialized sexual violence which it has addressed is critiqued by Hee-Jung Serenity Joo from the University of Manitoba, in “Comfort Women in Human Rights Discourse: Fetishized Testimonies, Small Museums and the Politics of Thin Description,” and contrasted to the humble but activist efforts of South Korea’s War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in Seoul which eschews both the monumentality and comforting narratives of the CMHR, as well as to the distant “thin description” of political cartoonist Park Gun-Oong’s spare, almost abstract – yet still devastating – black-and-white panels based on anonymous survivor testimony.

Karen Sharma – a graduate student with the U of W’s Cultural Studies Research Group – considers how the design and spatial order of the museum contributes to “Governing Difficult Knowledge” for the Museum and its publics, but concretizes some problematic positionings, such as placing Indigenous experiences in the building’s roots, and thus in the past. It also, she says, makes untenable assumptions about the typical imaginary visitor as being unimplicated in and existing outside of any of the stories it tells, as not Indigenous or settler or immigrant, an uninformed tabula rasa moving from ignorance to knowledge, but without agency.

Like Sharma, the CSRG’s Larissa Wodtke also reflects on the museum’s design and form of address in “A Lovely Building for Difficult Knowledge: The Architecture of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” For Wodtke, the monumentality and scale of the structure – and the fact that a number of visually similar buildings are part of a global movement towards “brandscaping” through iconic architecture – belies its contents, or at the very least renders them almost irrelevant to the experience. At the same time, however, the very ambiguity of its architecture, its failure to successfully contain narratives within sanctioned parameters, may indeed lead to productive critiques and hope.

It is to the museum’s aspiration to a universal and unqualified “hope” that Angela Failler critiques in her article, “Hope Without Consolation: Prospects for Critical Learning at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights,” preferring to see hope not as a shared dream for tomorrow but instead as an indication of the condition of our shared present. Failler starts by subjecting the museum’s central assumption to interrogation: what is the connection between hope and learning, and vice-versa, particularly if the narrative of hope is difficult or inappropriate to impose on a history of horror and atrocity? This quest for balance is rendered even more problematic when, as she point out (as does Sharma), that the museum’s leaders seem to assume an imaginary and homogenous public unimplicated in the events on display, particularly when these are safely sealed off in an “absolute past” beyond redress, against which viewers can only feel passive, distant regret, foreclosing a more difficult engagement with radical, unsettling realizations. Instead, she argues, the “difficult knowledge” of genocide and violent, traumatic histories needs to seen as what the late Canadian scholar of education and cultural memory Roger I. Simon called a “terrible gift:” to encourage visitors to feel themselves implicated, to feel depression and horror, and for hope to emerge from unsettling of our understandings, rather than soothing them. In this Failler echoes the work of environmental activist and scholar Joanna Macy, who argues that disseminating information about traumatic conditions is not sufficient to motivate change, and that by facing despair – in the case of her work, over the destruction of the natural world – we can experience an unblocking of our pain, a catharsis, which allows us to move beyond simple “hope” to be “empowered with” others to take action (Macy 1995).

Four short essays follow in the Discussion Section: “Insider/Outsider Ambiguities and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” by Julie Pelletier at the University of Winnipeg, in which she recounts both her work as a peer reviewer on the Museum’s exhibit design critiquing its use of a linear timeline, as well as her own experiences working alongside migrant workers whose tenuous legal status and lack of English language skills made them vulnerable to abuses, recognizing that our own power to tell our stories and experiences is the tool all of us can use as Museum stakeholders to encourage them to get the story of human rights right. In “Do the Rights Thing” by the U of W’s Kathryn Ready and Serena Keshavjee, the authors describe the Master’s program in Cultural Studies at the University of Winnipeg, and its practicum in Curatorial Studies’ focus on the Museum, the future prospects for placing students there, and how the presence of the Museum will continue to influence the program’s curriculum. Rita Kaur Dhamoon’s (University of Victoria) and Olena Hankivsky’s (Simon Fraser University) commentary, “Intersectionality and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” argues that a critical intersectionality approach – which sees State-based and imperial violence as gendered and often driven by capitalism – enables us to see the interconnection between historical and contemporary human rights atrocities as systems of domination, not discrete events or group experiences.

Finally, in “Closing and Openings: Afterword on “Prospects for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” the U of W’s Dean of Graduate Studies Mavis Reimer situates the contributions of the issue first of all by noting their composition in the year prior to the Museum’s opening, noting their dependence on official pronouncements, media accounts and other contemporary discourse; as well as the strategies used by the authors to critically analyze the Museum when its presence and controversies about it have loomed so large over our city for so long.


Many of the observations in the journal resonate closely with some of the critical literature in library science, much of which focuses on questioning the “civilizing” and assimilationist mission of the public library (Garrison) as well as the Eurocentric erasures built into the so-called “neutral” classification and subject description schemes of the Library of Congress. These tools not only similarly situate “Indians of North America” as existing solely in the past, but also assume the library’s “majority user” to be a white, male, Christian able-bodied heterosexual – as radical librarian Sanford Berman wrote in his 1971 classic Prejudices and Antipathies), one “imbued with the transcendent, incomparable glory of western civilization” (Berman, 15).

In particular, a recent book by Texas A & M University librarian Stephen Bales offers a very constructive lens for reading the journal, as it connects many of the major themes within a single powerful theoretical rubric.

The editors state in the introduction that the contributors to the special issue do not see the museum as a “fixed static site but as a site of dynamic and shifting encounters that will continue to evolve” (104), so we are to understand it as moving through time. We are further asked by Nadine Blumer to view the CMHR relationally, as a node within a network of institutions, as existing physically, digitally and rhetorically; by Larissa Wodtke in terms of the tensions between its materiality and its ideologies; by Heather Milne in terms of its situatedness as a neoliberal project, and by Hee-Jung Serenity Joo as providing ideological scaffolding for the state – what Louis Althusser called an ideological state apparatus – creating, as Karen Sharma points out, tensions between the forces of knowledge and resistance and interpretive agency. We learn from the contributors that an institution such as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is not just cultural, but political, aesthetic, psychological, social, economic and ideological – and therefore needs to be understood monistically, comprising a unified whole greater than the sum of its parts, rather than dualistically, reducible and as apart from ourselves. Most importantly, the contributors reveal the CMHR’s leaders to suffer from notions of objective idealism – the belief that a “Big-T Truth” such as “human rights” consists of an objective reality separate from ourselves, about which all can agree and all can recognize and discuss.

Stephen Bales utilizes a lens encompassing all these themes, one which, interestingly, is not actually referred to anywhere in the issue: dialectics. In his 2014 book The Dialectic of Academic Libraries Bales writes that academic libraries – and by extension and for our purposes, museums – are not (and should not be seen as) static, solely physical and independent repositories of books or artifacts, but must instead be understood relationally, as dynamic institutions embedded within and functioning as a significant part of a neoliberal, late-capitalist society.

As the study of continuously transforming interrelationships, dialectics emphasizes the transactions between material entities – including the physicalities of libraries and museums – over time, while recognizing that these entities and their inseparable ideological premises are bound by and within their contexts and historical circumstances. These transactional processes are, therefore, always incomplete, always in the process of becoming and, taken together, understood as constituting a unified monistic whole.

By contrast, the conventional view of academic libraries and museums is correspondingly non-dialectical, rational, bureaucratic, and viewed dualistically – that is, reducible and distinct from other institutions and forces. They are also, he argues, problematically devoted to the uncritical acceptance of a number of “Big-T Truth” ideals such as democracy, equity, diversity, intellectual freedom and human rights – abstractions with which the materiality of these institutions at present may not necessarily be either synonymous or sympathetic.

Absent a dialectical understanding, Bales argues, we are ill-equipped to contextualize our institutions, collections and services – and, indeed, our own ideological assumptions as librarians or curators. The political economy of information and knowledge organization, the intersectionalities of race, class and gender within an increasingly interdependent society, and how these forces play out in geographical space over time – all these factors and more are difficult to discern and act upon non-dialectically, rendering library and museum professionals less capable of recognizing their own consent for and participation in an unjust neoliberal status quo.

A dialectical view on “human rights” would also reveal it to be not so much a thing which we can simply grant to or take away from others, as it does a number of often competing discourses, all of which are historically situated and contextually dependent, and premised on a variety of ideological foundations, some of which can disguise or actually facilitate human rights abuses against those whom dominant power systems deem – as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman put it in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent – to be “unworthy victims.”

As presently conceived, therefore, the CMHR may be seen dialectically as an ideological state apparatus, one that seeks to foster acceptance of and consent for our society’s political and economic superstructure, reproducing dominant capitalist values as it reconciles visitors with their place in a neoliberal society. In its seemingly non-dialectical orientation, the museum prioritizes events rather than processes such as racialization, “othering” and fascisms; while forces and structural causes including inequality, capitalism, and neoliberalism are left unspoken. We learn of the human rights experiences of different groups – including women, gays and lesbians, and persons with disabilities – but not of the intersectionalities of gendered state violence and systems of power and domination.

This contrasts rather dramatically with the recently-opened National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, which quite explicitly implicates all Canadians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – in a lifelong effort to learn the truth about their country’s history and work towards reconciliation.

In this light, then, the contributors to this special issue of the Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies have produced a brilliantly dialectical analysis of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, one which will hopefully be read and re-read by the Museum’s curators and administrators – and publics – to inform the iterative evolution of the Museum, to better enable its visitors to engage with the “terrible gift” that is difficult knowledge, to recognize systems of domination, and to feel empowered with one another to act on that knowledge.


Additional Works Cited

Bales, Stephen. 2015. The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship: A Critical Approach. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.

Basen, I. (2011). “Memory Becomes a Minefield at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” Globe and Mail, August 20th 2011.

Berman, Sandford. 1971, 1993. Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Capland, G. (2014). “Human Rights Museum is Indifferent to Some Human Rights.” Globe and Mail, October 3rd 2014.

Garrison, Dee. 1979. Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920. New York: Free Press.

Herman, Edward S., and Chomsky, Noam. 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

Macy, J. (1995). “Working Through Environmental Despair.” Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, edited by R. Theodore, M. Gomes, and A. Kanner. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 240-259.

Murawska-Muthesius, Katarzyna, and Piotr Piotrowski, eds. From Museum Critique to the Critical Museum. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2015.

Pitt, A. and Britzman, D. (2003). “Speculations on Qualities of Difficult Knowledge in Teaching and Learning: An Experiment in Psychoanalytic Research.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 16 (6): 755-776. doi:10.1080/09518390310001632135

Subjugated Knowledge in Academic Libraries pt. 1

[Excerpted and adapted with the editor’s permission from my article “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries.” The Oxfordian XVII (2015). Available for purchase on Amazon. ].

French philosopher Michel Foucault, in a series of lectures and interviews gathered in the book Knowledge/Power, observed that certain bodies of knowledge can become subjugated by more powerful actors:

By ‘subjugated knowledges’ I mean two things. On the one hand, I am referring to historical contents that have been buried and disguised in a functional coherence or formal systemization.[…] By ‘subjugated knowledges’ one should understand something else…namely a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to the task or insufficiently elaborated;  naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity. I also believe that it is through the re-emergence of these low-ranking knowledges, these unqualified, even directly disqualified knowledges…a differential knowledge incapable of unanimity and which owes its force solely to the harshness with which it is opposed by everything surrounding it — that criticism performs its work (1980, 81-2).

In employing the terms naïve and below the required level of scientificity, Foucault was not himself being pejorative, only situating in general terms the ways in which certain discourses are routinely disqualified by dominant ones, his examples being the voices of front-line health care practitioners and those with the lived experience of being institutionalized. While Foucault did not develop or elaborate this theory further himself, the notion of subjugated knowledge has been applied to repressed knowledge domains in a number of diverse professional disciplines, including those of oppressed peoples in social work (Hartman); preventative, social and feminist approaches to health in nursing (Gilbert); experiential learning in adult education (Brookfield); and local, grassroots knowledge of practitioners from the global South in the use of sports in international development (Nicholls et al.).

Richard Jackson’s systematic analysis within his field of terrorism studies (2012) offers what is in my view perhaps a near-ideal model for situating subjugated knowledge. According to Jackson, the field of terrorism studies is dominated by an elite body of “experts”, many affiliated with think tanks situated within the political power structure, whose narrowly-defined conception of their field – that only non-state actors commit terrorism, thus ignoring the actions of states, while aggressively resisting the search for structural, root causes of radicalism in poverty and repression — accords conveniently with the interests of those in power. The dissenting views of those with alternative, lived experiences of terrorism – peacemakers, journalists, victims of conflict and former terrorists themselves – are actively shut out of mainstream discourse and are rarely called upon by the media “and thereby subjugated – for lacking in scholarly ‘objectivity’ or displaying the necessary standards of social science scholarship” (16). These alternative perspectives, while known to the experts, remain “unknowable” because of the exclusive manner in which discourse is constructed:

An important initial step towards understanding knowledge subjugation [he writes] is to consider how the field is constituted and functions as a discourse. That is, every discourse ‘allows certain things to be said and impedes or prevents other things from being said’ (Purvis and Hunt 1993, p. 485), in large part, because ‘discourses, by way of hegemonic closures, fix meanings in particular ways and, thus, exclude all other meaning potentials’ (Jorgensen and Phillips 2002, p. 186). From this perspective, the subjugated knowledge described above represents the unsayable within the dominant…discourse; these subjugated knowledges represent those alternative meaning potentials which have been closed off by the closures inherent to the discourse…In other words, it is an internal functional necessity that a discourse and its authorized ‘experts’ will suppress and exclude knowledge and meaning which would challenge the proper objects, boundaries and authorised speakers of the field (16).

Following the work of Reid (1993), Jackson describes this elite as an “invisible college” working within a “closed, circular and static system of information and investigation, which tends to accept dominant myths” as given, often without any empirical evidence (17). Particular energy is devoted to what he calls “taboo-enforcing practices” against certain research directions as a means of maintaining ontological enclosure (18-19), the ritual invocation of which becomes internalized, such that scholars practice not just self-governance, but self-subjugation.

What particularly concerns Jackson is that when a discipline is dominated in this way, and its admissible research domains so strictly prescribed, the field itself is destabilized as certain knowledges are simultaneously ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ leading inevitably to ontological contradictions” which are nonetheless tolerated, while “periodic eruptions of subjugated knowledge that destabilises the discourse” are not, requiring “meanings [to be] re-sutured and the discourse re-stabilised” (20):

I employ the term ‘unknown’ to mean that certain knowledge claims rooted in theoretical or empirical research remain unacknowledged in the scholarship or texts of the field. Such work is neither mentioned nor systematically engaged with, and if it is mentioned, it is dismissed as inappropriate, naïve, or irrelevant. By contrast, what is ‘known’ is acknowledged, engaged with and referenced, and therefore, legitimized (25).

Significantly, Jackson finds the major locus of this knowledge subjugation in the academy, in determining what is taught, in what contexts and with which texts, and in ensuring that only those within the approved epistemic community are invited to conferences and publish in the discipline’s key journals (17-18). As such, the production, availability, and pedagogical use of monographs and journal literature in a given field becomes essential in setting and enforcing these ontological enclosures, thereby ensuring their reproduction in the next generation of scholars.

Unstated but implied in Jackson’s analysis is the essential but underappreciated role of academic libraries in acquiring and organizing the literature required to support and facilitate sanctioned curricula and scholarship — and, in the process, institutionalizing this knowledge-subjugating function through biased collection development and cataloging, which, as will be shown in a subsequent post, have surely contributed to marginalizing certain voices, arguments and perspectives — and, indeed, entire paradigms.


Works Cited

Brookfield, Stephen. “Unmasking power: Foucault and adult learning.” Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education 15.1 (2001): 1-23.

Foucault, Michel, and Colin Gordon. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. Print.

Gilbert, Tony. “Nursing: Empowerment and the Problem of Power.” Journal of Advanced Nursing 21.5 (1995): 865-871.

Hartman, Ann. “In Search of Subjugated Knowledge.” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 11.4 (2000): 19-23.

Jackson, Richard. “Unknown Knowns: The Subjugated Knowledge of Terrorism Studies.” Critical Studies on Terrorism 5.1 (2012): 11-29.

Jorgensen, M. and Phillips, L., Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method. London: Sage, 2002.

Nicholls, Sara, Audrey R. Giles, and Christabelle Sethna. “Perpetuating the ‘Lack of Evidence’ Discourse in Sport for Development: Privileged Voices, Unheard Stories and Subjugated Knowledge.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport. 46.3 (2010): 249-264.

Purvis, T. and Hunt, A., 1993. “Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology . . . .”  The British Journal of Sociology, 44 (3), 473–499.

Reid, E., 1993. “Terrorism Research and the Diffusion of Ideas.” Knowledge and Policy, 6 (1), 17–37.



Indigenous Education “By Force?”

The University of Winnipeg (where I work) made headlines this past year with its unanimous Senate decision to mandate an Indigenous Course Requirement (ICR) for all undergraduate students starting in the fall of 2016. This was undertaken after a great deal of deliberation and consultation and is to be done in such a way that it doesn’t increase the number of credit hours that students would be required for graduation.

The move has not been without controversy, however, both within and without the University. I recall at one of the consultation sessions — co-chaired by Associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Dr. Angela Failler —  one faculty member objected to the idea that all students would be “forced” to “learn about one culture”, to which Failler replied that the ICR is not geared towards learning about so much as it is about learning from Indigenous cultures. She described how her own research into the public memory of the 1985 Air India Bombings had been informed by Indigenous world views, and considerations of Indigeneity in the Canadian context. This really resonated with me, as I had recently published an article applying postcolonial and Indigenous theories to the study of the authorship of Shakespeare.

Yet opposition remains, much of it grossly misinformed. Case in point: yesterday the Winnipeg Free Press ran an op-ed by a (white) medical student Brayden Whitlock with the inflammatory title, “Indigenous Education By Force,” in which he argues that the UW mandate is “purely anti-academic” and a “misstep”, as it promotes one culture as “more important than the rest.” He concludes,

A public university has no place in making decisions based on culture. We are here to investigate, explore and help people learn, not to decide what people learn or which cultures they should appreciate most.

Whitlock’s piece totally misses the point — and the irony, quite apart from conveniently ignoring that for generations Indigenous children and youth were violently and forcefully indoctrinated into Euro-Christian culture. Western education systems have always based their decisions according to primacy of Western values and culture, prioritizing Western thinkers, writers and leaders, and assuming that Western cultures, literature etc. should be appreciated most. American Indian historian Ward Churchill goes so far as to characterize Western education as “White Studies” by stealth:

As currently established [he writes], the university system in the United States offers little more than the presentation of “White Studies” to students, “general population,” and minority alike. The curriculum is virtually totalizing in its emphasis, not simply upon an imagined superiority of Western endeavors and accomplishments, but also upon the notion that the currents of European thinking comprise the only really “natural” — or at least truly useful — formation of knowledge/means of perceiving reality. In the vast bulk of curriculum content, Europe is not only the subject (in its conceptual mode, the very process of “learning to think”), but the object (subject matter) of investigation as well.

The Indigenous Course Requirement is but a step in correcting this totalizing imperialism of the mind, and — as Dr. Failler and I have both found — can only enrich our education and our scholarship.