Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Power to Name, by Jessica Schomberg


Note: This post is related by a conference proposal I submitted to ACRLNY’s 2016 Symposium Money & Power.

Catalogers establish and/or apply names to library materials as part of their work. After reading a lot of Hope Olson’s work, I realized that power to name has me questioning even more. Who actually does have the power and authority to name? Does literary warrant privilege the naming protocols of certain communities over others? Is a professional reliance on the Library of Congress, which relies on Congressional funding for its continued existence, the best idea if we really want to question the power to name in our application of theory?

Two things that I am mindful of when I think about this sort of thing are the role of Imposter Syndrome and Dunning-Kruger (thanks to Jessica Olin for prompting me on the latter).

Imposter syndrome describes the phenomenon in which high-achieving people can’t recognize their own achievements because, in their view, their flaws loom too large. Research points to some common characteristics in those who experience this. As children, they were often either told that their social skills compensate for their intellectual deficiencies, or told that they don’t have to work hard to learn new things, which is eventually contradicted by reality. As adults, there are lots of things they do that keep them feeling this way: diligence, hard work, and a tendency to over-prepare that often leads to burnout; a need to please their supervisors and avoid conflict, which enhances their self-perception as fake because their ideas aren’t tested and because of their dependence on others’ approval; and avoiding displays of confidence, fearing that they’ll be found out or receive societal disapproval. For people in historically oppressed populations, this is enhanced by a double-bind dilemma.

This leads to a fear of challenging the status quo, even when we are negatively affected by it. To make it more personal (and therefore a bit more real): when I interact with certain areas of the Library of Congress Subject Headings and Classification schedules - about sexuality and illness/disability - it sometimes feels like I’m on the receiving end of microaggressions both as a cataloger and a patron. I remember similar feelings when I was a high school student using the religion section of my public library to research Buddhism, which in Dewey Decimal Classification, was relegated to a tiny number with odd neighbors.

The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when people overestimate how much they know. (It may also lead people to overestimate how easy a particular task is for others.) This results in a pattern in which, because people can’t recognize their own lack of skill, they also can’t recognize when others are skilled in that area. With training, people can recognize their past ignorance, but the problem is most people won’t voluntarily undertake training in an area in which they think they’re already competent.

This can lead to well-intentioned people mistakenly making decisions about areas with which they’re not as familiar as they think they are. In a cataloging context, this means creating subject headings that maintain oppressive perspectives and creating classification hierarchies that place things in areas where they don’t belong. This may also mean not creating subject headings or classification numbers for things that are effectively invisible to the cataloger, or contrary to (Congressionally) established norms.

What now?
I don’t really know. How do we as a profession help each other overcome Imposter Syndrome, so we can feel confident – and safe – enough to challenge oppressive systems? How do we as a profession help each other to recognize Dunning-Kruger at play?

I’ve learned a lot by watching baby-brarians question things on twitter. (Seriously, follow a few MLIS students on social media if you’re not already. They question everything. It’s wonderful.) I’ve also learned a lot by deliberately following librarians who work in libraries that aren’t like mine, librarians who don’t work in libraries at all, library workers who aren’t “credentialed” librarians. Seeking out this kind of learning is one reason I follow many librarians of color, librarians with disabilities, and GLBTQIA+ identifying librarians who ask a lot of questions and point out a lot of problems that I didn’t notice before I engaged in social media. They are helping me question things I had become too accustomed to. And things I was too scared to question. This post = a knees-rattling attempt to overcome my own Imposter Syndrome and Dunning-Kruger tendencies.

How about you? How do you combat these tendencies?

Jessica Schomberg is currently serving as Library Services Department Chair at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where her other hats include Media Cataloger and Assessment Coordinator. This is her second post for LtaYL. The first was “My (Library) Life with Invisible Disabilities.” She tweets as @schomj.


  1. DO you have recommendations of anyone in particular to follow?

  2. I'm going to limit recommendations to 20 people whose accounts aren't locked -- which of course means I am going to overlook some awesome people with this list (apologies in advance!) and ...



    1. I'd add: