Contributing Editor

Listen in: Discussions from the field

In this Listen In post, Symphony shares the research of six LIS graduate students and faculty and their analysis of identity in the LIS literature.

The role of the “Listen in: Discussions from/in the field” column is to highlight interesting, exceptional, or provocative research published in LIS literature. This year we hope to emphasize a variety of research methods and the experiences of those often ignored in LIS literature.

Identities in the Literature

In their study “Visualizing Identities in LIS Literature,” authors S.E. Hackney, Dinah Handel, Bianca Hezekiah, Jessica Hochman, Amy Lau, and Chris Alen Sula provide a statistical and qualitative analysis of LIS literature to understand the identities shown in scholarship and the “ramifications of silence” (p. 10) when some identities are left out. In order to discover the identities most or least discussed in LIS literature, the authors conducted a content analysis of abstracts in the Library, Information Science and Technology Abstracts (LISTA) database by looking for terms which signified both a discussion of identity and the ability to deeply integrate those discussions into practice. After coding the abstracts and gathering results, the authors worked closely with those in information visualization (IV) to provide a visual map of the ways in which identity is discussed in the LIS literature.  


“When looking at a shorter window of publication years (2002-2013), the numbers do not change much. Out of the articles indexed during those years, 0.9% were related to identity, while topics like “management” was covered at a 24% rate.”

Through their analysis of LIS articles indexed in LISTA, the authors of this study found that just 0.95% of articles discussed identity between 1975 and 2013 (Hackney et al, 2018, p. 18). When looking at a shorter window of publication years (2002-2013), the numbers do not change much. Out of the articles indexed during those years, 0.9% were related to identity, while topics like “management” was covered at a 24% rate. The qualitative analysis of these articles alone, in the search for frequency in which an identity-like topic is discussed, shows a major hole within the LIS literature.

According to their article, this study was conducted in combination between two classes in an LIS program. Students from a gender and intersectionality course worked with students in an information visualization course to create datasets and generate visualizations for that data. The authors of this study include a mixture of LIS students and faculty, showing a great example of praxis with the LIS study of identity which mirrors the goal of this article.

Research Methods

This study employs a grounded theory approach, which you can read more about in this previous Listen-In post. The researchers both collected and analyzed data simultaneously while studying various critiques based upon gender, sexuality, race, and class.

The researchers began by developing a dataset by searching through abstracts in LISTA. Their goal was to identify keywords most often used to describe identity within the LIS literature so that they could combine those search terms and discover the most relevant articles. From this content analysis came eight LIS terms and 13 identity terms, listed below, which yielded just 1,262 unique articles:

  • LIS terms: librarian*, library labor, library, library education, library science, information science, archives, archivist (Hackney et all, 2018, p. 16).
  • Identity terms: gender, civil rights, identity, diversity in education, feminism, racism, minorit*, stereotypes, multiculturalism, diversity in the workplace, sex discrimination, LGBT people (Hackney et al, 2018, p. 16).

While the terms above provided the authors with the 1,262 articles to further examine, they noted that most articles discussing identity fell under more general terms like multiculturalism and diversity. With such general terms used to explore very complex topics, the authors decided they needed not just a quantitative dataset showing the frequency of articles which discuss identity, but a critical approach that would analyze the “patterns of connectivity among terms” (Hackney et al, 2018, p. 18). This approach would allow the authors to measure both relevance and “the approximate degree to which an article might shift discourse or practice in the field” (Hackney et al, 2018, p. 17). Relevance described the depth of intersectionality and shift described the potential for application to praxis.  

Relevance Shift
A = Intersectional

B= Binary/multiple groups

C = General

D= N/A

3 = praxis

2 = advocacy/ critical engagement

1 = awareness

0 = N/A

This coding allowed the researchers to identify 31,434 edges which were then used to create topic clusters or networks. These clusters or networks were used to show how often certain terms appeared together and how those terms were applied over time. Analysis of these edges and the eventual clusters was done by the IV researchers, who used open source software (Gephi) to provide visualizations of the use of these terms.


One of the goals of this project overall was to allow readers to visualize the data in a more digestible way. Through the collaboration with IV researchers, the authors were able to provide color-coded heat maps to represent not only the frequency of the terms but the degree of relevance and shift.  Below are examples of those heat maps, where darker shading indicates higher frequency or deeper praxis.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 8.41.31 PM

(Hackney et al, 2018, p. 20)

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 8.42.39 PM

(Hackney et al, 2018, p. 22)

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 8.43.24 PM

(Hackney et al, 2018, p. 23)

In order to be labeled as high relevancy and praxis, the articles drew “explicit connections between this work and identity categories, linking theory and practice in their approach” (Hackney et al, 2018, p. 23). Of the total unique articles located, about 30% discussed identity in a critically engaged manner, while just 6% were categorized as reaching praxis.

“When we discuss libraries in broad strokes, rather than the work of librarians as particular and contextual, we avoid politicizing the roles that librarians and information professionals play within society” (Hackney et al, 2018, p. 24).”

The authors believe that the lack of discussion around identity topics within the large scope of LIS literature and the minority of articles which critically engage with identity topics points to a bigger issue within the scholarship. They posit that interest in the identities of librarians overall has waned within the last thirty years (see line graphs within study) and shows a body literature that is more concerned with library as space or process than library as people (both library workers and patrons):

“When emphasis is placed on the library as space rather than librarians as subjects, explicit discussion of librarian identities in challenging. The dearth of specific discussions of identities within LIS literature denies these necessarily political and particular engagements. When we discuss libraries in broad strokes, rather than the work of librarians as particular and contextual, we avoid politicizing the roles that librarians and information professionals play within society” (Hackney et al, 2018, p. 24).

LIS literature, through its lack of identity discussion, is not forced to grapple with the social issues faced by librarians in their everyday work and further the misconception that libraries are neutral places.

My Takeaway

“One of my favorite parts about this study and article is that it itself is a clear example of intersectional praxis.”

One of my favorite parts about this study and article is that it itself is a clear example of intersectional praxis. This project as an undertaking for a course not only allowed students to be involved in important LIS research, but also helped them to see the lack of deep intersectionality and praxis within the scope of literature.

As the authors note, one of the critiques of their study is that conversations around identity and intersectionality happen in non-scholarly areas. Because LIS higher education, academia, and scholarship has been traditionally white for so long, there are fewer voices who have been allowed into the scholarship. A study of non-scholarly or nontraditional LIS discourse may prove to have a different relationship with identity. Likewise, a study of the literature that has been published since 2013 might also show a trajectory towards more intersectional practice.

Overall, the authors of this study provide for us an insightful review of the LIS literature in the way that it discusses identity. With broad terminology such as diversity and multiculturalism being most often used to discuss who we are as people (or who our patrons are), it is no wonder we as a profession are grappling to meet the needs of all library workers and users. No doubt, this invisibility, or silence, hinders our work.

Keep the Conversation Going

  • The authors of the article suggest that we discuss our identities in our scholarly work as one remedy to the homogenous LIS writing which currently exists. How else might we diversify the recorded identity of the LIS field?
  • Much of this article discusses the push towards praxis – or work which provides theory that impacts practice. In what ways are you establishing an intersectional praxis in your own work?

Featured Article

Hackney, S., Handel, D., Hezekiah, B., Hochman, J., Lau, A., & Sula, C. (2018). Visualizing identities in LIS literature. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 59 (1/2), 10–32. doi:10.3138/jelis.59.1-2.04

Additional Reading

Vinopal, J. (2016). The quest for diversity in library staffing: From awareness to action. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Received from

About the Author

Symphony Bruce is a Resident Librarian at American University in Washington, D.C. After six years as a high school English teacher, she switched to librarianship to be a champion for information literacy and access, with a specific interest in intersectionality and critical pedagogy. She enjoys cooking with vegetables, hanging out with her cats, and drinking her coffee black. Find her on twitter: @curlsinthelib

Featured image by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

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