08 March 2021

Non-use of preferred names - addressing a diversity, equity & inclusion issue in library systems

In this post I share some recent experiences at my place of work, where we've been addressing both technical and procedural issues relating to the use of preferred names, particularly in the context of trans and gender diverse library users. 

I was prompted to share this after responding to a tweet from a library sector colleague on Twitter.

I hope this post will encourage other library professionals to evaluate whether our systems are addressing our diverse communities appropriately. I would also encourage you to collaborate and step up to escalate any issues as a broader IT concern within your parent organisation. 

What prompted this? 

Late in 2020 members of our university's Ally Network were informed some students had experienced deadnaming (being called by their name prior to their gender affirmation/transition) in their interactions with the university. 

Why is this important?

According to Queensland Human Rights Commission guidance for schools and universities:

While accidental slip ups may happen when the change is new, continually and deliberately referring to a student by the wrong pronoun or a former name is discriminatory

 and 

Hearing others use the correct name and pronouns is strongly associated with positive wellbeing and can reduce mental health risks for students who are trans and gender diverse.

Most libraries in Australia will have responsibilities under discrimination legislation, but this should not just be seen as a compliance issue. Failing to provide safe and inclusive experiences both on-campus and online for staff and students is a failure to live up to the core values of our profession. 

What did we do? 

My team conducted an audit of 20+ library and corporate systems that make use of personal names. 

We identified that several important systems and services were not making use of preferred names. This included reading lists, interlibrary loans, and our primary webform for seeking help from the library. 

We then either made changes ourselves or requested the assistance of our identity and access management team in the IT area to enable use of preferred names. 

This then raised some broader issues. While the identity team could make changes in the systems that the Library owned, they couldn't make hanges in other systems without the approval of the owners of those systems. This meant, for example, that our library help form was not something we could immediately get fixed, as this had been built using the enterprise content management system owned by our marking and communications division.

At this point, we shifted the conversation beyond the Library to trusted colleagues in our HR and Information Management areas to work out next best steps. We all agreed that the university needed to address this issue in a consistent and comprehensive way. As this is a requirement under human rights legislation, we did not think changes should be subject to the conscious or unconscious bias of the owners of individual systems. 

After this discusison, we helped our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion leads in our HR area to escalate this to our Chief Digital Officer (CDO) as something requiring an all-of-university approach. It was helpful for them to have someone from the Library in the conversation who could "translate" the diversity, equity and inclusion issue involved in deadnaming into a set of requirements that IT providers could understand and take action on. 

Our CDO responded immediately and very positively to this initial request and within a few weeks a comprehensive systems audit was underway. Action is already being taken across the board to ensure the use of preferred names.  

What can you do in your library? 

  1. Reach out to the HR diversity, equity and inclusion specialists, Pride committees, and/or ally networks in your organisation to ensure you understand any legal, regulatory, or policy requirements. This will help you make the case for change with other staff who may not have a detailed understanding of how serious these shortcomings are in terms of the wellbeing of trans and gender diverse staff and students. In my case, this was the Queensland Human Rights legislation and guidance mentioned above. 
  2. Find out if your organisation has any internal diversity strategies or best practice guidelines for supporting gender diverse staff and students. Again, this will help if you need to request action beyond your own sphere of influence. At my organisation guidelines were already available covering support for trans and gender diverse students, and an associated guide to inclusive language and presentation for both staff and students. A further guide to gender affirmation/transition for employees was released around the same time that discussions about preferred names were taking place. 
  3. Conduct an audit of library systems to find out what names are being used and how (e.g. displayed online, within system notifications, email or SMS notices). This can be quite tricky depending on how names are stored and what other systems your library systems are integrated with. It will be much easier if you can find an existing library staff member or user with a preferred name (usually stored in the HR system) to help you out with this. At my place of work we were fortunate to have a staff member in our digital library team with a preferred name, who was happy to undertake this testing. If I had needed to ask a trans or gender diverse user for assistance, I would definitely have discussed with them the possibility that they could be deadnamed during this process and confirmed that this would not cause them undue harm. Alternatively I may have sought to establish a dummy test user instead, although this can be very difficult depending on your IT set-up.
  4. For systems owned by the Library, work as quickly as you can with vendors and your local identity and access management team to ensure use of preferred names. You may need to be patient in explaining the context for your query, as policies, practices and general awareness in some parts of your organisation and in other organisations could be lagging behind where you are at. Pointing your vendors and colleagues to some of the resources that you have gathered earlier in this process might be useful; don't assume that everyone even in your own organisation will be across the latest changes in policy or have a detailed understanding of the guidelines and how these should be interpreted in their own work area. 
  5. For systems not owned by the Library, work with HR diversity, equity and inclusion specialists, Pride committees, and/or ally networks to escalate a call for action. This could be via an appropriate committee or to the leadership level within your central IT division. Ask your colleagues how best they can take advantage of your networks and your expertise (e.g. in being a bridge-builder between technical and non-technical colleagues).

21 September 2020

Notes from a CAUDIT webinar: Career Design in Uncertain Times


woman in a field looking at two different paths
Photo by Burst on Unsplash

Last week I attended a Council of Australasian University Directors of IT (CAUDIT) Leadership Series webinar focused on career planning. 

This topic would normally be covered in depth as part of the annual CAUDIT Leadership Institute. The CLI is on hold for 2020 and has been replaced with a series of free bite-size sessions like this one. This particular session had also changed in focus due to COVID-19 impacts on universities that mean that many university library and IT workers are now faced with unexpected career decision making.

The session was led by Jill Benn, the University Librarian, University of Western Australia and current Chair of the Council of Australian University Librarians, and Michael Cato, the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Bowdoin College in the US.

Jill and Michael introduced us to the work of the Stanford Life Design Lab, which “applies design thinking to tackling the wicked problems of life and vocational wayfinding”. Through various Designing Your Life courses and books (available via many public libraries), co-founders Bill Burnett and Dave Evans argue that we can all apply the processes and principles of design thinking to career planning in the same way we might apply them to the development of products and services.

The first step of this process is acceptance of the current state; you can only start from where you are! The CAUDIT session started with a reflective exercise in which we were asked to think about three things that have drained us in the past six months and three things that have energised us.

Some of the things that attendees had found difficult included missing social contact with workmates, lack of meaningful holiday time, unhelpful blurring between work/life with WFH, online meeting fatigue, worries about interstate and overseas family (especially elderly parents), and the personal emotional strain involved in supporting their teams during such difficult times.

But people also noted finding better work/life balance, including having more time for exercise, family, pets, home and garden, and fulfilling interests outside of work. Some had forged more meaningful connections with workmates and enjoyed having more insights into others’ personal lives. Jill and Michael spoke about some of the silver linings that have emerged for them in their leadership roles; Jill spoke about how gratifying it was to be able to act more quickly and decisively than usual, and Michael talked about the way his team became “almost addicted” to rolling out quick fixes and having very grateful staff and students as a result.

One of the tools from Designing Your Life is the Odyssey Plan. This is a reframe of the usual five-year-plan that focuses on brainstorming three different options and seeing your career more as a journey or adventure than a single pathway. In the CAUDIT workshop this timeline was reduced; we were asked to spend some time reflecting on our current idea of what the next 6-12 months may hold (baseline), what we might do if our Plan A fell through (backup), and what we would do if money was not a concern (dreaming).

This last part of the session was quite a confronting exercise, particularly as many participants were facing upcoming job losses at their organisations. However, some people commented that being asked to visualise what their Plan B might look like had reduced their fear. Michael had earlier noted the positive power of negative thinking, including an exercise from the Stoic school of philosophy that encourages people to deliberately consider the worst case scenario; by facing our worries head-on we might be more able to brainstorm other alternatives. Another interesting thing that emerged from this exercise was that people’s dreams often have very little to do with work!

Overall this was a really useful and thought-provoking session. I have always struggled with the idea of a five-year-plan and this approach seemed a lot more intuitive to me. Especially at the moment with so much personal and sector-wide change on the horizon, it seems logical to continue to have some broad ideas and plans, but also to recognise that there will be bumps and swerves and new signposts always appearing along the way. I am planning to follow up with reading the Designing Your Life book and completing some of the other exercises in it.

25 July 2020

Notes from AI4LAM webinar: ethics, data, and artificial intelligence in libraries, archives and museums

Recently I was one of 100+ people who registered for the webinar “In Conversation with Thomas Padilla”. A video from the webinar is now available from University of Adelaide Library YouTube channel. 




Thomas Padilla is the Interim Head, Knowledge Production at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He is the author of the OCLC Research report Responsible Operations: Data Science, Machine Learning, and AI in Libraries and the lead for significant Mellon Foundation supported work in the US on “collections as data”.

Joining Thomas as organisers and facilitators of the session were:
  • Ingrid Mason, independent consultant on research infrastructure and heritage data collections
  • Alexis Tindall, Manager Digital Innovation, University of Adelaide Library, and
  • Adam Moriarty, Head of Collection Information and Access, Auckland War Memorial Museum
  • Gene Melzack, Data Curator, Student and Scholarly Services, University of Melbourne.
Some recent projects mentioned during the webinar included:
The webinar was full of interesting ideas and it’s very hard to summarise it down to a few key takeaways! But overall the two themes that emerged for me were the need to push for library values and ethics in AI initiatives, and the challenges associated with building the multidisciplinary teams needed for successful AI projects.

Theme 1: Library values and ethics

We need to be aware that data is not just data; data is about lives and can reflect histories of oppression. Increasingly there are concerns about responsible use, particularly of indigenous collections, and these issues are amplified when machine learning is applied. Common frameworks such as FAIR and organisations such as the Research Data Alliance are not adequately addressing these concerns. 
According to the Global Indigenous Data Alliance: 
The current movement toward open data and open science does not fully engage with Indigenous Peoples rights and interests. Existing principles within the open data movement (e.g. FAIR: findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable) primarily focus on characteristics of data that will facilitate increased data sharing among entities while ignoring power differentials and historical contexts. The emphasis on greater data sharing alone creates a tension for Indigenous Peoples who are also asserting greater control over the application and use of Indigenous data and Indigenous Knowledge for collective benefit.
Commercial AI tools also need to be approached with caution, and Thomas warned against being “lured by scale” in ways that compromise our values. An example of this could be re-purposing a tool for cultural heritage use that was originally developed by governments for facial recognition of protestors. Adam also highlighted issues around the hidden labour involved in services like Amazon's Mechanical Turk and noted that just because something seems a cheap and easy option does not meant that it is something that cultural heritage organisations should jump on board with.

Further reading:

Theme 2: Building multidisciplinary teams

Thomas referred to the work being done by Nancy McGovern on radical collaboration in research libraries. According to McGovern:
The concept of radical collaboration means coming together across disparate, but engaged, domains in ways that are often unfamiliar or possibly uncomfortable to member organizations and individuals in order to identify and solve problems together, to achieve more together than we could separately.
Thomas suggested that projects need to be intentional about providing opportunities to draw on the expertise of everyone on a project team. He observed that tech folk often "consult" non-tech contributors at the start of a project but then go off and do their own thing. Participants instead need to design the project to deliberately bring conversations between people to the fore, and to build trust and mutual respect.

Thomas also talked about being "separated by a common language". This occurs when different professional groups use the same words to mean different things (e.g. a humanist will have a different idea of scale from a machine learning specialist). How do we bridge those gaps in language and culture between different professional groups? We need to be explicit about assumptions and agree on terminology as part of setting projects up.

In terms of roles and competencies, Thomas noted that organisations need someone who can be a translator between different groups. But it can't just be that translational person's responsibility, as this is not sustainable. Organisations need to shift more broadly, and this requires leadership and managerial efforts to build a culture of collaboration and innovation. There are also questions around how to retain people who are confident and competent in this emerging area; what can we do to ensure people want to come and work with GLAM institutions rather than applying these skills elsewhere?

There was some discussion about building career paths and skills within institutions, and the pros/cons of outsourcing vs building internal capabilities vs a combination of these. In terms of building internal capabilities, Thomas mentioned at least three strategies:
  • The Carpentries. There is now a strong body of evidence that those pedagogies work and they are also reasonably affordable.
  • Collections as Data: 50 Things You Can Do. A list compiled by the Always Already Computational project, of 50 things staff in cultural organisations can do to “open eyes, stimulate conversation, encourage stepping back, generate ideas, and surface new possibilities” in relation to collections as data.
  • Workplace learning. Thomas gave the example of a staff professional development approach at Michigan State University Library. In consultation with supervisors, any staff member could devote 25% of their time could to shadowing or cross-team projects. This was re-evaluated as part of the annual performance review process but could be ongoing. This led to cross-fertilisation, up-skilling, and was a great way for people new to the profession to try different things.

Further reading:

Radical Collaboration and Research Data Management [special issue]. Research Library Issues, no. 296 (2018).

About AI4LAM

The webinar was the first public event held to gauge the level of interest in establishing an ANZ chapter of AI for Libraries, Archives, and Museums (AI4LAM), “an international, participatory community focused on advancing the use of artificial intelligence in, for and by libraries, archives and museums.” Further information about AI4LAM is available via their website.

The organisers of the local webinar are a small group of professionals interested in the role of computational and curatorial techniques that advance artificial intelligence in cultural heritage practice and allied areas in research (e.g. digital humanities). 

You can register interest in participating in future events and efforts to establish the local chapter via an online form.