Newsletter of the Medical Library Group of Southern California and Arizona

Report from our 2019 Professional Development Award Winner

Posted on July 8, 2019 by David Bickford | No Comments

NCNMLG & MLGSCA Joint Meeting 2019

Critical health sciences librarianship: examining our role in social justice

Report from Jackie Davis, MLIS, AHIP

#critlib: “According to Elaine Harger, librarians that practice critical librarianship strive to communicate the ways in which libraries and librarians consciously and unconsciously support systems of oppression. Critical Librarianship seeks to be transformative, empowering and a direct challenge to power and privilege.” Kenny Garcia,

In 2014 I gave a presentation at the MLGSCA Meeting on consumer health and social justice. Everything I have published has highlighted social justice as either the main thrust or an important thread. It was important to me at this Joint Meeting to see what others are now saying on this subject to move the theme forward. I was excited (and very grateful) to attend, and due to receiving the Professional Development Award from the Awards Committee, I was allowed to hear the really extraordinary speakers and see where we can grow, become more inclusive and sensitive, from here. There is so much more to learn!

The first awareness that attendees were going to be stretched forward at our Meeting was when we went to the registration desk and were asked if we wanted a sticker for our chosen pronouns. This action was to acknowledge our trans and non-binary members, as well as sensitize us to our varied-gendered customers. There was also a Special Content Session, “Transgender Allyship in Library Instruction,” where pronouns and issues of gender diversity were discussed. About half of the attending librarians took the stickers for their badge and the folks at the registration desk were pleased that there was interest in this practice.

The next awareness-raising action was the welcome to the Meeting. We were reminded that we were on the land of the Muwekma Ohlone, This was our introduction to embracing the truth of where we were gathered and that the human story is wider, deeper and older than we often think on as we move about in our cities and countryside.



Dr. Odette Harris was the first Plenary Speaker,

Among the many roles she occupies including being the first full African-American woman tenured professors at Stanford, Dr. Harris is the Site Director and principle investigator at the Defense Veterans and Brain Injury Center (DVBIC). After the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, researchers began to look differently at blast traumas. While people survived their different wounds, there was a new signature of modern war – traumatic brain injury. Just like the first Framington Heart Study looked at commonalities of cardiac disease and the researchers focused on male, white, middle-class Euro-Americans (they are updating the study now), the research into brain trauma had not focused on the impact to African-Americans, other minorities or women. Dr. Harris pointed out that the earlier research does not become obsolete when the study becomes more inclusive, just more applicable to a wider population. Her work asked “how valid are treatment recommendations regarding traumatic brain injury/polytrauma to women?” She found that women veterans suffer more from psychiatric issues and substance abuse with TBI. There is more homelessness among the women, but interestingly, higher education status. Additionally, there are a variety of reasons for TBI such as falls, blasts; and domestic violence assaults. The comprehensive, interdisciplinary services that can be offered to brain injury patients can provide outstanding outcomes and sustained recovery. However, the various sub-populations require different approaches in order to obtain these outcomes.

Dr. Harris also addressed the issue of women in medicine, saying that though the numbers of women in medical school are higher (48-52%), only 35% are employed.  She shared her own story of who inspired her and how she is working to support other young women along the pipeline into medicine and neurosurgery. Her parting wisdom referenced the article by Roxanne Gay in the NY Times, “A Case Against Hope” where the writer offered an alternative vision to hope – one that focuses on possibility. Dr. Harris wants younger people to see her life as one of possibility for themselves as well.

Dr. Nicole Cooke was our second plenary speaker. Dr. Cooke is an associate professor and Director of the MLIS program at the University of Wisconsin at Urbana-Champagne. She authored, “Information Services to Diverse Populations: Developing Culturally Competent Library Professionals.” Dr. Cooke has had a focus in both her research and teaching in social justice and librarianship. Now a diversity and social justice course are permanent in the LIS curriculum at her university. She used the 1989 article, “Towards a Culturally Competent System of Care” to pull out elements that can lead us to cultural sensitivity, competence and humility.

She stressed that competence is a cycle of ever-increasing awareness of each other rather than a set goal and encouraged us to take risks, not be satisfied in “happy talk,” and stretch our profession towards a social justice mind-set and actions. Dr. Cooke recommended that we read the book, “White Fragility” and article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh in order to aid in our understanding of that which we take for granted. She quoted Audre Lorde: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

(I ran into Dr. Cooke at the airport. During her talk she spoke of her privilege on campus as a professor, but off campus she was seen, and not seen, as any other African-American with all the racial assumptions that we make about black people. Her examples of this, as we chatted, were heartbreaking and really illustrated the basic lack of respect we show people who do not look like us, as white people.)

The breakout sessions ( offered opportunities to unpack critical librarianship in how we teach students about cultural humility and cultural safety, the social determinants of health as it impacts our community programs, how we teach researchers to use appropriate language using micro-resistance, and even how we name the roles of staff within library departments. Apropos this discussion, MLGSCA voted to change the word “para-professional” to simply and inclusively, “library staff.” There was a “un-conference” for the purpose of discussing the variety of ways that we will take critlib awareness to our workplace and the communities we serve.

Recommended Reading:

1.    Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis, Editors: Shana Higgins and Lua Gregory

2.    Critical Library Pedagogy Handbook, Volume Two: Lesson Plans Paperback– by Nicole Pagowsky (Author, Editor), Kelly McElroy (Author, Editor)

 3.    Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, by Maria Accardi (Editor), Emily Drabinski (Editor)

4.    Critical Information Literacy: Foundations, Inspiration, and Ideas, by Annie Downey, Shana Higgins (Editor), Lua Gregory (Editor)



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