By: Denice Adkins, Associate Professor, School of Information Science & Learning Technologies, University of Missouri
As part of the Diversity Research Grants Program sponsored by ODLOS, we've started a monthly spotlight on research advancing issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion in libraries. We welcome your submission of research for inclusion in future spotlights, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This month we highlight Dr. Julie Marie Frye and Dr. Maria Hasler-Barker project entitled “Silence or Share: How Bilingual Librarians Use Language to Support or Resist Hegemony.” We sat down with Drs. Frye and Barker to talk more about that research.
Dr. Maria Hasler-Barker is an assistant professor of Spanish at Sam Houston State University. She earned my Ph.D. from Indiana University, and she studies linguistics, specifically second language acquisition and verbal aspects of politeness and appropriateness.
Dr. Julie Marie Frye’s position is the Head of the Education Library at Indiana University. She met Maria t at Sam Houston State, at a meeting for new faculty. Julie heard her talking about Indiana University, where Julie had also earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with a minor in Library and Information Science. They both attended Indiana University at the same time and never knew one another until they met at Sam Houston State!
Tell us about your research project.
Our initial focus was on how librarians use language either to welcome people at the gates of information or withhold that information. This happens even in nuanced ways like interrupting community members or putting policies over people. How we communicate is just as important as what we communicate and can make a great difference in the willingness of a community member to continue to engage with libraries. The linguistic structure of the interaction either furthers the conversation or breaks it down.
We’re pulling together LIS research and linguistics research in a cross-disciplinary way, and this can get pretty theoretical. People wonder why you would even study that. But on the linguistics side, scholars were very interested in the project because our research presents a real application of what people do in a conversation. Real conversations like these require a lot of work and permissions to access, so linguists often have to rely on invented examples or publicly available recordings. This project is bringing insight into what’s really happening in this important public institution. From this, we’ve developed some interesting understandings of how the conversation unfolds.
Our study has given us a front-row seat to observe librarians who work along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as other locations in the South. Most of the librarians we observe have taken a course on Reference in their LIS program. One aspect of this study has been for us to analyze how librarians improvise when a community member engages them outside of a traditional greeting sequence. It’s been exciting to see how librarians improvise to provide exceptional service. Although there are some qualitative aspects of the study, it’s ultimately mixed methods and we spend a great deal of time counting things like similar greeting sequences, interruptions, informalizers, and other aspects of a typical reference interaction.
What did you learn from this research?
When we first started counting interruptions in the transcriptions, I was alarmed at how frequently bilingual librarians were interrupting community members. But then we went back and listened again, and some of the interruptions our transcriber coded were overlap, encouragement, some were back-channeling, some signified engagement. The Hispanic culture is generally collectivist, and we learned that some of the things that in an Anglo culture would constitute an interruption, in these scenarios, were the librarian showing excitement and enthusiasm about the other person's contribution, and not using language to maintain or exert power.
Although we’ve observed some librarian magic at the reference desk, we’ve also observed a few librarians who are linguistically showing discomfort with difference and who lack reflection. We suspect this is happening on a level that the librarians aren’t even aware of, but the linguistic structure communicates their unwillingness to share linguistic power.
We want all people, no matter what language they speak, to feel like they belong in the library, to be represented in collections and community resources, and know they have an ally in their librarian... someone who will go “all-out” for every single information need. On the U.S. - Mexico border, where our first observation site took place, we observed community members requesting help with: Kafka books, GED tests, what’s really going on in Syria, all the way to how to die with integrity. How librarians respond to these information needs, in both content and approach, is vital to democratic life and social justice.
Where can we find more information?
For the practitioner, if you’re interested in how language creates community, look at Meggan Press’s article on Words Matter.
If you’re interested in theory, we’ve been inspired by Gramsci’s belief that every speech act is a political act.
Nemeth, T. (1980). Gramsci's philosophy : a critical study. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press.
Carlucci, A. (2013). Gramsci and languages : unification, diversity, hegemony. Leiden: Brill.
Santucci, A. A, Di Mauro, G., & Engel-Di Mauro, S. (2010). Antonio Gramsci. New York Monthly Review Press.
And our thinking about libraries as a space for radical democracy has been transformed by chapter 11 in this book: Leckie, G. J, Given, L. M, & Buschman, J. (2010). Critical theory for library and information science: exploring the social from across the disciplines. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Libraries Unlimited.
As we explore reference services for diverse populations, we have been inspired by our LIS colleagues who have already engaged thoughtfully on this topic.
Brothen, E. & Bennett, E. (2012). The culturally relevant reference interview. In C. Smallwood & K. Becnel (Eds.), Library services for multicultural patrons: Strategies to encourage library use (pp. 297-302). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press.
Chu, C. (1999). Transformative information services: Uprooting race politics. Proceedings of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Conference, 19th-22nd July 1999 Las Vegas, 1-8.
Cooke, N. A. (2016). Reference services for diverse populations. In L. C. Smith, & M. A. Wong (Eds.), Reference and information services: An introduction (pp. 338-364). Santa Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited.
"Guidelines for Library Services to Spanish-Speaking Library Users," American Library Association, September 29, 2008. http://www.ala.org/rusa/resources/guidelines/guidespanish (Accessed October 22, 2019)