The Reach of a Long-Arm Stapler: An interview with Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez
The Summer 2018 issue of the journal Library Trends includes The Reach of a Long-Arm Stapler: Calling in Microaggressions in the LIS Field through Zine Work. The paper, by Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez, Rose L. Chou, Jenna Freedman, Simone Fujita, and Cynthia Mari Orozco, is an examination of a unique participatory project that was started in 2014 by colleagues in the library and information sciences (LIS) community. The LIS Microaggressions project began as a crowd-sourced community website, and grew into several issues of a printed zine. The site and subsequent zine were created as a space for library workers, particularly women and people of color, to speak to their experiences of microaggressions in the workplace, and to bring those voices together in a shared, collective space. We are grateful to Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez for taking time to discuss the project and paper in more detail with JHU Press.
How did your academic journey bring you to Library Information Sciences? What drew you to library science?
As an undergraduate at UCLA, I had a work-study student position in the Performing Arts Special Collections (now Library Special Collections). I was a third-year, and I did not know what special collections or archives were. I was drawn to the position because of the word “arts.” I was studying art history and I naturally thought there was a connection there. I entered my undergraduate career wanting to pursue a PhD in art history and become a scholar. Though by the time I started working at this special collections, I was slowly moving away from pursuing a PhD in that field. In that position I worked in the reading room, made photocopies, got my hands in boxes, and learned about how scholars do research. It is sad to think that I was nearly at the end of my undergraduate career and had dreams of becoming a scholar, yet the curriculum I studied under somehow failed to teach me about primary sources and archival research. I see this much improved in undergraduate core curriculum now, but I always think about how much more enriched my undergraduate education would have been had I known about archives early on. This work-study position opened up a door I didn’t even know existed, where I can continue to be curious about scholarship and be helpful to students who are searching for themselves.
Did you grow up reading or producing Zines? What is your personal history with the DIY medium?
No, I did not know what zines were until pretty recently, circa 2014. Though looking back now, I did do a lot of writing or cut and pasting as a self-expression activity when I was younger. I liked to write letters to friends and cousins when I was in the 5th grade. I still write and receive postcards from friends, and I have amassed a large collection over the years. I have been a terrible personal archivist and not organized them at all! I also had notebooks that I shared with close friends in high school in which we would cut out text and images from magazines and write how we were feeling.
It wasn’t until the LIS Microaggressions project began that I learned more about the medium and really connected with its ethos of self-expression and empowerment.
Your paper notes, "The Microaggressions in LIS project began with candid, private conversations between early career women of color LIS workers looking for advice and support from their peers on how to deal with microaggressions in their workplaces." How important is it for people of color early in their career - in any field - to have a place where they can feel safe to voice their marginalizing experiences?
It is absolutely critical for early career people of color to seek, build, or be included in an existing space where others like them feel safe to talk about their experiences. Because more often than not, people of color will be the minority in any given professional field, it is a matter of survival to have a space to voice out not just experiences with being marginalized, but also successes, joy, and peer mentorship. To feel kinship with folks who are on a similar path makes for a less lonely, less psychologically taxing path. The connection to zine cultures and zinemaking was pretty clear to the LIS collective since zines are DIY modes of expression. Zinemaking offers a creative outlet for those who typically do not see themselves represented in mass media or culture. For this reason many people of color are drawn to zinemaking to create platforms for themselves and those who are of similar backgrounds.
Can you explain to our readers what you mean by "calling in" an experience, versus "calling out" someone for their behavior?
I learned the difference between calling someone in versus calling someone out while I was active in Critical Resistance, a national organization striving for prison abolition. During political education meetings someone would lead us in discourse about a historical political event and before we started, we would set ground rules. One of the rules was to call someone in rather than call them out. Calling someone in means to call them into discussion, into a dialogue, rather than immediately ousting them for their behavior, or for sharing their point of view or opinion. This was an attempt to consciously shift tension away from rush judgement and center the need for dialogue with folks who are willing to learn and have a discussion. In the article we briefly discuss the pervasiveness of “call out” culture. In more recent years, “call out” culture has transformed to “cancel” culture.
I should say though that the caveat to this exercise is that it only works when folks are willing to have an open dialogue with empathy and be potentially prepared to admit fault. When folks are uncompromising in their opinions or feel automatically attacked and victimized, it is difficult to stay focused on wanting dialogue.
The Microaggressions in LIS project began as a Tumblr page that grew into a physical Zine. How was the paper Zine distributed? Are there copies of each of them archived?
The LIS Microaggressions zine was distributed at local, statewide, and national library and archives conferences. Some copies made it into zine libraries like the Barnard Zine Library, UCLA’s zine collection, and my very own future place of employment, UC Irvine’s zine collection. In total there were six issues, and all were archived and can be found at various archival repositories with the exception of the last issue.
Your paper notes that using professional conferences as a vehicle to both call for submissions and present the collective work of the Microaggressions in LIS "disrupts the usual conference-going experience with potentially uncomfortable experiences." Were you met with criticism or negative feedback about the project at the conferences where you presented?
I personally did not receive much push back about this work at conferences, but I know some of my other colleagues who were involved with the project did. I was, however, profiled as a “social justice warrior” by a now defunct center-right conservative online news outlet who had a pattern of targeting women of color who spoke up about “politically correct” issues while working in academia. The writer of this article tried to do a smear piece on my character and even went as far as calling my employer in a sorry effort to get me fired. I wrote about this doxxing experience here.
Do you feel your project and others like it can help open the eyes of non-people of color, and bring actionable change to their behaviors?
What was most important for me about this project is that it gave visibility to these issues that, because microaggressions are mostly individualized experiences, are difficult to surface and call attention to as a systemic issue. It is hard to believe something if you have not experienced or witnessed or been attuned to it. So offering a space for folks to contribute their experiences with microaggressions and witnessing how these are particularly racialized experiences helped others who have experienced something similar to feel not alone, and also helped others become aware of the issue.
Do you feel that the events of the last several months have given a sense of agency and empowerment to individuals to speak about their personal experiences - whether directly in the workplace or via social media?
Folks have been talking about race and racism in the LIS field and academia for a long time. This current moment for me feels more about answering a call to action to be in service of the public. Representation matters. The way we historicize matters. The ways in which certain legacies are sustained or become invisible matters. Who we (librarians and archivists) proactively reach out to matters. We’ve reached a boiling point in society and citizens of color are frustrated and tired of feeling like their experiences do not matter. Citizens are marching on the streets and chanting “Black Lives Matter.” How are librarians and archivists answering this call? Librarians and archivists have so much agency in helping shape how the current events of today will be remembered. How are archivists preserving this current moment? Whose perspectives are they seeking to document in their archival holdings? When we return to the library post-pandemic, how will librarians change their instruction to center Black or other marginalized perspectives? For library administrators, how will they answer this call? Circling back to the question -- the next time a person of color voices their experiences with feeling microaggressed, who will believe them? Who will go out of their way to ensure that that person not only feels seen but that the issue is addressed as part of a systemic issue that needs to be dismantled? What can change to better protect the diversity of our workforce? Now is the time to consciously and proactively look inward and outward to do our individual and collective efforts to dismantle racist and oppressive structures. We all have work to do. We all have a lot of unlearning to do. If it is not uncomfortable, you are not doing enough.
Does the Microaggressions in LIS website still take submissions?
I believe so, but we are no longer actively promoting the work at conferences. Nor do we produce any new zines.
What sparked the decision to document the project in an academic paper? How did you choose to submit to Library Trends?
Rose Chou, Jenna Freeman, and I had participated in a LIS Microaggressions workshop at the Library Association of the City University of New York (LACUNY) conference and Dr. Nicole Cooke was in the audience. Afterwards she invited Rose, Jenna, myself, and the rest of the LIS Microaggressions collective to submit an article for a special issue she was editing for Library Trends, Race and Ethnicity in Library and Information Science: An Update. This article was my first peer-reviewed published article and I learned a lot about the publishing process.
What advice do you have for early career LIS professionals who are people of color?
1). Find your people. Your people might not be your current co-workers or your graduate school cohort; and that can be a potentially alienating and painful experience to have as an early career professional. For me, I found and continue to find my people in all of these groups of folks but I do not, and cannot, take them at wholesale simply because they are card carrying members of these professional groups. Find the people that speak to your intersections or the ones you are curious about. Find the people that you admire and have respect for and see if you connect with them personally.
2). For early career archivists - neutrality is a myth and feigning neutrality does not do anyone any favors. You are made up of many different life experiences that inform how you move in this world. Use your positionality to interrogate why certain histories are remembered or commemorated. How can your positionality help inform expanding that sliver of what gets historicized? How can your positionality help others who are constantly in conflict with systemic barriers?
Do you publish or read any other zines?
I have not published any new zines since LIS Microaggressions but I’ve begun to do some library instruction and exhibit work using zines. Last year, my colleague and I curated an exhibit on the history of witches and witchcraft starting in the 16th century all the way to contemporary practice. We found an organic connection to zinemaking and the marginalization and female empowerment of the archetype of the witch. As I mentioned earlier, zinemaking provides an empowering platform for those who feel marginalized and lack representation in mass culture and media. In the earliest documented mentions of witches or those who were perceived to be a witch, we see that these individuals (typically women) were persecuted because they were seen as outliers or outcasts of society. It is not surprising that there are zinemakers now who self-identify as witches or practice witchcraft. We featured contemporary zines who connected this ethos of centering marginalized experiences to the archetype of the witch, and the practice of magic and witchcraft. My favorite zine that made it into the exhibit was a zine made by Nik Moreno titled, Why disabled people are magic because it tied issues of ableism, disability, and resilience to witchcraft and magic.
What's next for you? Do you have other publications in the works?
I am a co-editor of, and contributor to, an upcoming special issue for the Journal of Critical Library and Information Science (JCLIS), an open access journal. The special issue will focus on perspectives of archival workers and how they’ve centered radical empathy and a feminist ethics of care into their practice. The co-editors (Jasmine Jones, Holly Smith, and Shannon O’Neill) and I have been working on this issue for the last two years, and given the current national movement for Black lives and its distinct feminist ethos around care work and activism, this special issue feels really timely. The issue is slated to be published late summer or early fall this year.
Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez is Assistant University Archivist for the Libraries at the University of California Irvine.