An Apology* For Avoiding Accompanying Material in the Promotion of Library Collections

By Samuel T. Barber
California State University, Fullerton

*”Mid 16th century (denoting a formal defense against an accusation): from French
apologie, or via late Latin from Greek apologia ‘a speech in one’s own defense'” – Oxford English Dictionary

Introduction – the task

This article describes an ongoing project designed to present archival library collections at Cal State Fullerton. These collections include contemporary 1970’s video recordings of speeches, addresses, marches, events, etc. made by visiting public figures to the university campus. Though eclectic, the collection is dominated by radical and activist voices emerging from underrepresented groups which reflect the politics and struggles of contemporary Orange County, Southern California, and – indeed – the wider United States. Notable speakers include Angela Davis, César Chávez, Sal Castro, Dennis Banks, Humberto Noé “Bert” Corona and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. The original video recordings were digitized some years ago. However, their subsequent presentation was limited to streaming via an institutional page on the Internet Archive which few students, faculty, or even staff were actually aware of. Furthermore, no metadata records existed to support discovery from the library catalog. As a result, despite their importance, there was extremely limited institutional and student knowledge of either the existence of the recordings or of the original events themselves. A clear and fundamental task was therefore presented to us as it would to any library professional: to expose these hidden collections, representing as they do an important element of our institutional history and the history of the communities in which we work and reside.

The collection

The first four collection items chosen for renewed presentation were, in order:

  • Angela Davis speaking on oppression and repression in the University gymnasium, 1972, just after that years’ Presidential Election (CSUF 2019).
  • Cesar Chavez speaking against California Proposition 22 and for farm worker’s rights, earlier in 1972. Señor Chavez addressed a crowd gathered outside the South entrance to the University Library (CSUF 2019b).
  • Dennis Banks, Lee Brightman and Pamela Holland promoting the struggle for American Indian rights and the fight for justice in North and South Dakota. These speeches were delivered in 1976, also outside the South entrance to the University Library (CSUF 2019c).
  • Sal Castro advocating for the value of bi-lingual education in the development of the Mexican-American child. This talk was delivered in a Cal State Fullerton classroom in 1973 (CSUF 2019d).

The selection rationale was two-fold. First, to encourage our students to understand that, although their University might be young (founded in 1957), it possesses rich, vibrant and important history. Accordingly, the Library might play an important role in cultivating institutional pride (Titan Pride, as it is referred to locally). Second, by selecting and promoting radical voices emerging from underrepresented groups, we are simply and justly representing the diversity of our student population. To do anything less should be anathema to any library professional, of course.

The traditional method

It is probably safe to say that historically, and typically, a de facto standard has been developed and perpetuated whereby the presentation of library resources is simultaneously paired with an assortment of accompanying material. This might include an entry on the library homepage news carousel linking out to an an announcement article, in addition to library blog posts, social media updates, promotional emails, etc. In addition, formal exhibited displays will naturally be annotated with textual placards. Each accompanying element will typically be designed to promote the project and attract attention. Furthermore, the material has a natural tendency to summarize. As a result, concise overviews of the collection items, biographical information, etc. are presented to users with the intention to contextualize and aid understanding and learning.

In many cases, of course, none of these curatorial elements represent anything even approaching a “bad” thing. Library blog posts have become practically ubiquitous over the past two decades due to their initial popularity, beguiling informality and the relatively low level of labor required for their creation and maintenance. The most recent useful literature on the topic includes a thematic analysis and attempt to establish best practices (Adams, 2013), a case study (Vaaler, 2016) and wider analyses of Web 2.0 initiatives in academic libraries (Harinarayana, 2010; Boateng, 2014).

Similarly, marketing and promotion of Library events and projects proliferate, and recent years have thankfully witnessed increasing attempts by libraries to speak to their users in ways (and via means) they understand and naturally relate to. Accordingly, academic libraries have established a growing social media presence to communicate directly with users. Again, library and information science literature features several articles on the subject, including specific studies on social media use for library marketing (Lili, 2013; Joo, 2018).

We wish, therefore, to make it clear that in most cases this traditional approach is logical, wise and helpful for library users. On the occasion of this particular Cal State Fullerton project, however, a different approach was chosen. Hereby follows an attempt to explain why.

The project

Naturally, from the outset there existed several options to promote and contextualize these new presentations with accompanying material and all these were considered. Ultimately, none were implemented. Even the provision of a simple concise biography of each speaker was rejected. Instead, the project team (Barbara Miller – Chicana and Chicano Resource Center Librarian; Marco Moreno – Graduate Library Assistant; and the present author) unanimously and firmly believed that placing faith in the ability of interested students to further research the subjects by their own free will after seeing the films – even via a simple search of Google or Wikipedia – would bring rewards.

A “pop-up” approach with zero promotion for the presentations was therefore adopted. The speeches were transcribed in general accordance with best practices advised by partners in the University’s oral history unit, The Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History (CSUF, 2019e). To aid potential future classroom teaching, additional transcription copies were also enriched with URLs linking to online reference sources pertaining to named persons, places, events, etc. Adobe Premiere was utilized for digital video editing and closed captions were embedded for the dual purpose of meeting accessibility standards and enabling silent presentation. Following an unsuccessful attempt to obtain basic physical signage in a timely and trouble-free fashion, a constant running title was instead superimposed at the head of the video to give a clear indication of exactly what was present on the screen, for example: “Angela Davis speaking at CSU Fullerton, 1972”. Each film in the series was then presented for a period of several weeks, on a loop, with no sound, in a social seating area of the Library opposite the circulation desk. The running title mentioned above was the only “accompanying material” utilized throughout the project.

The rationale

The reason for our approach was ultimately quite simple: no matter how well-intentioned, or even how useful the kind of guiding librarian narratives described above typically are, in this particular case we felt that to do the same could be at best patronizing, and at worse offensive to our students. The explanation for this way of thinking is best delineated by the project team’s unanimous response to viewing the Angela Davis speech, as evidence by the following examples:

When Angela Davis spoke in November 1972 about the menace of a growing fascism in the USA, as evidenced by elements of Nixon’s rhetoric during the recent Presidential election campaign, she may as well have been speaking of Charlottesville, 2018, the recent reported rise of hate crimes in the United States (United States Department of Justice, 2019), and, indeed, the 2016 Presidential election campaign.

When speaking in 1972 of the struggles inherent in the African-American experience due to the enduring prevalence of racism in the United States, she may as well have been speaking about current issues and campaigns such as Black Lives Matter.

When she spoke in 1972 of the growing Chicano Movement and the struggle of the Mexican American experience, she may as well have been speaking in the present day about DACA, ICE and border walls.

As they clearly were to us, such connections between past and present will likely seem clear to other (perhaps all?) librarians. One might consider they may likely seem clear to our students, too. In this case, therefore, we believed the last thing our students might need is a librarian – no matter how well-meaning and well-intentioned — pointing out to them via accompanying material what is already obvious and evident. Again, placing faith in our students to observe, contextualize, consider and – if the notion took them – research further was thought to likely bring forth positive results.

Furthermore, the purity of this form of presentation – unadulterated, unedited – communicated by the speaker as directly to present audiences as the same words were communicated some four decades ago to our mind maximizes their power to provoke thought and inspire. The librarian in this case is therefore absolutely an essential messenger, but not one who should necessarily add to or subtract from the message.

The theory

Although the stark nature of the above rationale may seem sufficient to serve as an explanation for our choices, we believe our approach was further founded upon an interesting theoretical basis.

Explaining the experience of human interaction, R.D. Laing states:

“The task of social phenomenology is to relate my experience of the other’s behavior to the other’s experience of my behavior. Its study is the relation between experience and experience: its true field is inter-experience. I see you, and you see me. I experience you, and you experience me. I see your behavior. You see my behavior. But I do not and never have and never will see your experience of me. Just as you cannot ‘see’ my experience of you. My experience of you is not ‘inside’ me. It is simply you, as I experience you.” (Laing, 1967, p.17-18)

Accordingly, therefore, there is also a clear emphasis on the direct phenomenological nature of inter-experiential communication: author to reader; presenter to audience; speaker to listener, etc. In this sense, there need not necessarily be a role for third parties who would typically contextualize, summarize and mediate.

This idea may be seen to be comparable with, for example, ensuring one avoids viewing movie trailers before the movie itself. Here, potentially, the purity of communication created by the work and intention of the director may be corrupted by a third-party editor whose aim, by contrast, is simply to make the film appear as marketable as possible. One’s deliberate avoidance of book reviews, and especially spoilers (interestingly, the search terms “Star Wars spoiler” retrieved 173 million results via Google in December, 2019) pertaining to newly published works is another clear variation on this theme.

However, when we present library resources to our users in the form of exhibitions, both physical and online, isn’t this kind of third-party mediation or “interpretation” exactly what we typically do, however inadvertent or benign? The library user’s experience of engaging with a resource is of course theirs, not ours. Why, then – whether intentionally or not – would we risk shaping this experience? Why would we, in this context, risk corrupting the “purity” of this experience?

Of course, we do not necessarily suggest any particularly negative impact brought by traditional approaches to library collections promotion beyond the natural, and perhaps inevitable, effect of unintended curatorship bias (see for example, Association of Art Museum Curators, 2016). Such bias will inevitably apply to our own collection selections, too. Our argument and apology for avoiding accompanying material is merely a considered response to our collections and our library users pertaining to this particular project. Nevertheless, the theoretical grounding of our approach is perhaps the clearest area where other librarians may wish to consider their own collection promotion strategies.

Project results

The project is currently ongoing, so clearly an attempt to write about any long-term legacy is premature. One initial and most obvious point to note is that a lack of promotion will tend to have a negative impact on audience size for any such initiative. That said, the impact generated by the renewed presentation of these library resources has not been inconsiderable.

Firstly, an integral part of the “pop-up” strategy was that typical parallel initiatives would naturally and organically follow, rather than accompany, the project. To this end, the inclusion of at least one of the archival films in a modern American history class is now planned, and a project intern has recently designed an impressive online learning object utilizing edited extracts from several of the videos. Further, the spirit of “do with this what you will” has led to the unsolicited creation by students of two additional exhibits in the Library. The first, made by an archival intern and inspired directly by the presentation of the Angela Davis film, was a more traditional exhibit of archival materials pertaining to Davis’ life and work. This was subsequently extended to include coverage of other African American activists with a particularly powerful juxtaposition of the deaths of Malcolm X and Treyvon Martin forming its centerpiece. The second film in the series prompted Library Student Employees to create and prominently display a poster celebrating the life of Cesar Chavez. It is anticipated that further initiatives may follow, but in keeping with the spirit of the project these similarly will not be prompted by librarians.

Due to the location of the film presentation screen, the majority of inquiries from Library users were directed toward staff at the Circulation Desk. With one single exception, these interactions took the form of general inquisitiveness, positivity and curiosity owing to a lack of knowledge that the original events had taken place on our campus. One student reacted to the project by pronouncing how amazing this all was. When asked why, she replied, “because what the Library is doing is amplifying radical voices from underrepresented groups, and practically no-one ever does this.” The sole voice of dissent came from a community member who objected to the Library presenting such radical views and who denounced the entire Library staff as “a bunch of communists”.

In June 2019, several months after the project launch, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal (D’Hippolito, 2019) criticizing the Library for disseminating “conflicting messages,” citing the presentations featuring Angela Davis and a second, unrelated, exhibition on East Germany that communicated an anti-communist theme. One might perhaps conclude “any news is good news” but the pronounced lack of balance in the article, ignoring the multiple appeals for social justice and equality present in the Angela Davis exhibits in favor of a one-dimensional view of the lady as simply a communist – nothing more, nothing less – was perhaps telling. Further, it might also be considered that, if the library was indeed guilty of communicating “conflicting messages,” then this may be a natural by-product of both democratic principles and freedom of expression. Not then, perhaps, a most heinous act after all?

Brief conclusions

The vast majority of Library and faculty colleagues at Cal State Fullerton would agree that the negative impact on audience size prompted by a lack of promotion was a price worth paying based on the retention of communicative purity brought by choosing not to simultaneously parallel the project with accompanying material. It is important to make clear that this article has no intention to denounce the value of the kind of contextualizing summaries libraries almost always provide via accompanying material when promoting and presenting collection resources. Typically, these efforts admirably succeed in aiding learning and understanding. It might also of course be convincingly argued that the provision of a guiding hand (for example, to help evaluate the reliability and objectivity of source material) is required of librarianship more than ever in the information age (see, for example, Blakeslee, 2004). This project, however, simply sought for once to attempt to do something different and – we contend – justifiably so.

So far, we believe the faith we placed in our students to engage, research, think, discuss and critique for themselves if they wish, or not if they do not, has already been repaid with interest and our commitment to continue doing what we are doing has not diminished. Perhaps our experience might encourage others to at least stop for a moment and think about whether the accompanying material planned to parallel their forthcoming projects might absolutely be necessary. Or whether, instead, it may do more harm than good.

References

Adams, R. (2013). Blogging in context: Reviewing the academic library blogosphere. The Electronic Library, 31(5), 664-677.

Association of Art Museum Curators (2016). In-Conversation: Addressing Implicit Bias in Museums. Retrieved December 30, 2019 from https://www.artcurators.org/events/EventDetails.aspx?id=874943

Blakeslee, Sarah (2004). The CRAAP Test. LOEX Quarterly, 31(3), 6-7.

Boateng, F., Liu, Y.Q. (2014). Web 2.0 applications’ usage and trends in top US academic libraries. Library Hi Tech, 32(1), 120-138.

CSUF (2019). Angela Davis speaks on the topic of oppression and repression in the U.S. at California State University Fullerton. Retrieved December 30, 2019 from https://archive.org/details/cfls_000014

CSUF (2019b). Cesar Chavez speaking at California State University Fullerton on No To Proposition 22. Retrieved December 30, 2019 from https://archive.org/details/cfls_00004

CSUF (2019c). Dennis Banks and Lee Brightman at California State University Fullerton. Retrieved December 30, 2019 from https://archive.org/details/cfls_00007

CSUF (2019d). Sal Castro speaking on the early education of the Mexican child. Retrieved December 30, 2019 from https://archive.org/details/cfls_00005

CSUF (2019e). The Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History. Retrieved December 30, 2019 from http://coph.fullerton.edu/

D’Hippolito, J. (2019). Angela Davis, East Germany and Fullerton. Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2019. Retrieved December 30, 2019 from https://www.wsj.com/articles/angela-davis-east-germany-and-fullerton-11561676857

Harinarayana, N.S., Raju, N.V. (2010). Web 2.0 features in university library web sites. The Electronic Library, 28(1), 69-88.

Joo, S., Choi, N., Baek, T.H. (2018). Library marketing via social media: the relationships between Facebook content and user engagement in public libraries. Online Information Review, 42(6), 940-955.

Laing, R.D. (1967). The politics of experience. New York, N.Y.: Pantheon.

Lili, L., Yuan, W., Lifeng, H. (2013). Marketing via social media: a case study. Library Hi Tech, 31(3), 455-466.

United States. Department of Justice (2019). 2017 Hate crime statistics. Retrieved December 30, 2019 from https://www.justice.gov/hatecrimes/hate-crime-statistics

Vaaler, A. and Brantley, S. (2016). Using a blog and social media promotion as a collaborative community building marketing tool for library resources. Library Hi Tech News, 33(5), 13-15.

 

 

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