Contributing Editor Interview

Featured Researcher Spotlight On: Baharak Yousefi

Baharak Yousefi illuminates her path as a librarian and researcher through feminist praxis.

yousefiBaharak Yousefi is Head of Library Communications at Simon Fraser University and a Director on the Board of the BC Libraries Cooperative. She received a Master of Arts in Women’s Studies in 2003 and a Master of Library and Information Studies in 2007. She lives on the unceded traditional lands of the Musqueam, Skwxwu7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh people in Vancouver, BC.

This month’s featured researcher is Baharak Yousefi, co-editor of the book Feminists Among Us: Resistance and Advocacy in Library Leadership (2017) from Library Juice Press. Feminists Among Us makes explicit the ways in which a grounding in feminist theory and practice impacts the work of library administrators who identify as feminists. The book focuses on a subset of feminist LIS professionals and researchers in leadership roles who engage critically with both management work and librarianship. By collecting these often implicit professional acts, interactions, and dynamics and naming them as explicitly feminist, these accounts both document aspects of an existing community of practice as well as invite fellow feminists, advocates, and resisters to consider library leadership as a career path.

You recently co-edited the book Feminists Among Us with Shirley Lew – what was this process like for you and did you have a holistic way to put the content together? We can never get every single perspective in the field, but what guided you in editing a book that spoke to the feminist library leadership experience as a whole?

I think it would be accurate to say that the project came out of friendship and conversation. I met Shirley Lew when I was in library school and over the years, we have had many conversations about our experiences working in libraries. The themes that have been consistent for us have been our desire for our work to be grounded in principles of care, cooperation, social justice, and anti-oppression. In other words, we’ve talked a lot about how to be feminists at work.

My background is in gender studies and the scholarship in the field has definitely influenced my research and work. And so, as we talked about bringing together accounts of feminist leadership in Feminists Among Us, we hoped that this would be more of a process of building community and solidarity than a comprehensive account of feminist work in libraries which, as you say, would not be possible to do. I also think it is important to acknowledge the privilege and platform we were given to write and frame the call for proposals and of course, the power we had to curate and edit the volume.

I really enjoyed the interview you did on the podcast Secret Feminist Agenda, particularly the notion of bringing your whole self to work. Sometimes as librarians we work in environments where who we inherently are (e.g. women of color, immigrants, refugees) is in conflict with the systems in which we work. I know that as a young brown woman I’m often wondering which part of my outward-facing identity in my library is causing someone to distrust my authority. How do you see the role of female-identifying librarians living with marginalized identities having the power to navigate their jobs while “being their whole self” at work? Can we really be our true selves and still work within the system to be leaders in the field?

Thank you! I love Secret Feminist Agenda and the work Hannah McGregor is doing with podcasts as public pedagogy. I was really excited to be on her podcast!

Your question is one that I’ve grappled with for a long time, and I don’t have a satisfactory or even consistent answer. I do think it is important that those of us who are involved in diversity work in North American libraries take opportunities to be our whole selves and to be vulnerable with each other when we can. And here I am using Sara Ahmed’s definition of diversity work from Living a Feminist Life: “first, diversity work is the work we do when we are attempting to transform an institution; and second, diversity work is the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution” (2017, 91). Of course, there are many factors such as job security, exhaustion, etc., which we all have to navigate, but I think there is value in seeing each other and sitting with each other in solidarity.

You’re absolutely right; we are in conflict and our authority is questioned in both big and small ways. As racialized women in a profession where approximately nine out of ten library directors are white, this isn’t surprising to any of us. A few years ago, a senior colleague described me as “feisty” in an official introduction at a board meeting for an organization I had just joined. So, on the one hand, there is simply too much BS to navigate all the time and the temptation is definitely there to leave our whole selves at the door, but on the other hand, I really don’t want to show up to a place with less humanity, less vulnerability, and less emotion every day. I think we deserve better and so do our library users.

Similar to this notion of navigating different parts of ourselves in the workplace, in your article On the Disparity Between What We Say and What We Do in Libraries that appears in your book, you write about the act of doubling or taking on another performatively white identity to work within structured environments of whiteness in LIS. I’m interested in the way this act of resistance plays out differently in research & scholarly communications vs. public-facing services in libraries. The first is a less visible identity within one’s writing; the second is one’s outward identity. Do you have experience with either facet and were you successfully able to create change from within for librarians on the margins?

“Libraries can absolutely do better, but libraries are also amazing. This is why I do the scholarly work I do because I think we need to grapple with the parts we don’t do so well so we can show up and be better for our communities. For me, resistance, research, and practice are all interconnected and all political.”

My research questions come out of what I see in my practice as a librarian and so they are very much connected in my mind. I think that as library workers, we are able to recognize that our profession has a lot of work to do, but to many of our students and library users, libraries are places of hope. This idea of hope and possibility is the thing that keeps so many of us going—and with good reason! Libraries can absolutely do better, but libraries are also amazing. This is why I do the scholarly work I do because I think we need to grapple with the parts we don’t do so well so we can show up and be better for our communities. For me, resistance, research, and practice are all interconnected and all political.

Do you have any particular advice for librarians who hope to lead through a feminist praxis one day?

I think it would serve us well to resist the depoliticization of the political. We should challenge the ideas that have become “common sense” in our profession. We should question notions of “this is how we do things” both in our own thinking and imaginations, and in our organizations because the current structures of power are not inevitable. I think understanding that for ourselves and developing an adversarial relationship to power is necessary, but it is also only the beginning. Current structures may not be inevitable, but power won’t just shift because it is questioned. I think learning about how to build power through organizing and other means needs to be a part of every feminist praxis.

Featured image [CC0], via Pexels

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Nimisha is a subject librarian at University of Cincinnati, where she supports all research, reference, collection development, and digital scholarship for history, gender studies, and anthropology. In her spare time you can find her riding her bike, knitting, or reading. @mishiebhat on Twitter.

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