Below the Radar Transcript
Episode 38: Connecting Communities and Libraries — with Ebony Magnus
Speakers: Rachel Wong, Am Johal, Ebony Magnus, Svitlana Matviyenko
Rachel Wong 0:06
Hello, listeners. I'm Rachel Wong with Below the Radar, a knowledge mobilization podcast. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode, our host Am Johal sits down with Ebony Magnus, the new head of the Samuel and Francis Belzberg Library at the SFU Vancouver campus. They discuss some core questions related to libraries, including equal access to technology, value distinctions between different types of archives, and continued community engagement.
Am Johal 0:50
Welcome to Below the Radar. We're delighted to have Ebony Magnus with us, the new head of the Belzberg Library at SFU Vancouver downtown. Welcome, Ebony.
Ebony Magnus 1:00
Am Johal 1:01
Ebony, you're walking into the shoes of Karen Marotz, who was head of the Belzberg Library from when it opened in 1989 until 2019, so a nice 30-year tenure. So based on averages and history that would mean you're going to be working here until 2049. But wondering if you can talk a little bit about what drove you to apply for this position and coming and working in Vancouver at SFU Downtown.
Ebony Magnus 1:28
Yeah, big shoes to fill, for sure. There were a lot of things that drove me towards this position. For one I'm from BC, and I left BC about six years ago with the intention of always coming back. SFU as an institution, I've always kind of known, I was just growing up in BC and respected and been interested in so it was on my radar the place I may want to work though, the Vancouver campus wasn't actually, possibly because it did have someone in the position for 30 years so it wasn't one of those ones you saw kind of on the market. But SFU as an institution, the whole engaged university thing, just kind of the institutional values appealed to me. The library itself came out last year with a really strong statement on equity, diversity, and inclusion that was super encouraging to me as an academic librarian in Canada, and that in large part drew me to wanting to work for the institution. The position itself at SFU Vancouver, I'm learning - well, I'm still pinching myself, I kind of think I've got the best gig being able to be down at SFU Vancouver - there's just such a life, like it's such a vitality to the community down here and I think it is really interesting to be coming in after someone has done so much great work for the past 30 years. And coming in on the 30th anniversary - anniversaries are great times to kind of look back at the successes, and also look forward toward what we want to do next, and so I think I'm in an interesting place where people are really appreciative of everything that's happened at SFU Vancouver, at Belzberg over the last three decades, but also excited to see what we're going to do.
Am Johal 3:00
Yeah, and when you think about libraries, there was sort of the division of them as public institutions. City libraries around different parts of rural BC - I grew up in Williams Lake, I remember going to the library, accessing newspapers and the books, particularly going home. But the nature of libraries in terms of how they can be public institution in the present. And the future is is changing over time. You see, in Vancouver Public Library now has some podcasting booths and media pieces, and also in the social inequalities we have out in the public as well being public institutions, there's really, you know, a desire for accessibility for these spaces as well. And so, there's been a kind of changing nature of what libraries are and what librarianship in a way can be, and what's being asked of it in a way, and I'm wondering how you think about some of these challenges and opportunities about your own approach to libraries.
Ebony Magnus 4:00
Yeah, so I also grew up in a small town in the interior, and actually my mom worked in libraries when I was younger. And so, and I just spent a lot of time in libraries, and I think in some ways, we are seeing this visibility of the change in libraries and how they are engaging with communities and what they're doing. But I think a lot of that has always been deeply rooted. I mean, my parents, at times, dropped me and my three brothers off at the library and then went grocery shopping because they didn't have the means to get a babysitter for that, right? And so that probably was not approved of, by the library staff. But I think libraries, especially in rural communities, or smaller communities, have always engaged with the community members in that way and tried to provide support. I think, increasingly, libraries are expanding their, their offerings and which is both really exciting, but also can be a little bit dangerous, I think--not dangerous, but just there are libraries in the state's public libraries that now have social workers, which is good and responsible to actually bring in those professionals as well. Those two librarians themselves trying to kind of enact that role in a community. So I think there is this balance between understanding your community and understanding their needs and understanding the limits of your capacity to meet those needs. And if the library itself can't do it, how do they partner with other community organizations? But yeah, libraries have always--I mean, well, not always, but are largely recognized as being rooted in accessibility and in equality, and leveling the playing field for access to information and, and resources and spaces. And I think we're still trying to do that. And as disparity grows in society and community, and as we see things like new technologies kind of coming into play, libraries are trying to move into those spaces to again, level the playing field when it comes to those as opposed to just kind of books on space.
Am Johal 5:49
Looking at different spaces, even just being here at 312 Main Street where we're sort of kitty corner from the Carnegie Centre Library. The Strathcona Library is close by, in the building itself here we have the archive of the United Church of Canada for BC that includes the Japanese United Church. So, a lot of archives relating to the internment of the Japanese community, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs has their archive here--they have a really interesting ethics policy; the use of the archive is tied to support of indigenous movements. And so you have also these types of archives that function outside of the library as well, and also the forms in which archives or things get given to the library come in different forms.
Ebony Magnus 6:30
Well, who gets to give those things and whose archives are considerable valuable, right? And who has access to them? To those archives?
Am Johal 6:38
Yeah. And then imagine, in terms of the changing nature of research, ask these types of questions. And so when you think about graduate students, or professors, or community members coming in to access the library, how has that changed in terms of people actually making use of the spaces in the archives and the materials that a library offers?
Ebony Magnus 6:59
On the topic of archives, there are people far better suited to discuss it than I am. But I will say I think we are in the midst of change? And I don't know that we've gotten there yet, and some of my questions--informed by very smart archivists that I know--around archives come from, yeah, that question of whose material are we recognizing as authoritative? And whose material are we archiving and recognizing as important? Because often anyone in a marginalized community, or from an underrepresented background, we don't have their stories in our archives. And even if we do, who's then processing those, and who's interpreting them and arranging them? And then there's the problem of Who are we providing the access to? Because in some cases, majority population shouldn't necessarily have access to that material that's documenting the lives of people who have historically been oppressed. So... I think I lost the thread, of the original question because that's a big tension right now in the field, about building archives for communities, being responsible to those communities, and this is where we get into conflict... or not conflict, but we see some tension in the values that we espouse in the profession, right? So there's the value of access to information, but then measuring that against the privilege to protect certain information of certain people.
Am Johal 8:21
Yeah, I guess the in the way, the fallback and the default ends up being fairly normative narrative. And even when you look at the City of Vancouver, the original archives were done by one person, Major Matthews, from his personal connection that essentially created the Vancouver Archives. And that's certainly done from a very particular point of view. I live around the corner from a park named after this guy, it's a bit bizarre. And also, I imagine libraries as well are going through changes in the types of technology that people are are utilizing inside of these spaces, in terms of access to the Internet, and this is one aspect of it in a library. It's probably a different type of form, but how do you see that changing the user experience in terms of the relationship to technology that libraries are now implementing and using and making available publicly to?
Ebony Magnus 9:10
There was this interesting article that just came out in the Atlantic a few days ago, and I think, get annoyed many librarians. The premise of the article was just that students, and this is about academic libraries, but that students just want study space and books. They don't want all this fancy, shiny, flashy technology that we've got in place, which I think was kind of a limited perspective that they're coming from on that. But, going back to what I was saying earlier, I do think technologies are coming out and they're obviously available to certain people before they're available to others. So that's part of the library's mission, making them available to everyone. But again, it's depending on who your community is, that may or may not actually meet their needs. So I think we up at the Bennett library at SFU in Burnaby. We are opening this Media and Maker Commons. So it's a makerspace, but, so, there's, I mean, there's tons of cool stuff in there. There's a letterpress. There's a sewing machine. There's the million 3d printers. But in designing, and kind of thinking about how that space will operate, there's recognition that makerspaces themselves have been a bit exclusionary to some groups, or have felt unwelcoming to certain people, which is in part, why we're... why it was named, I think Media and Maker Commons, and the person programming that and kind of behind it has reached out to a lot of groups on campus. I think there was possibly like a choir group that he reached out to, and just... so going beyond the kind of robotics groups and the STEM groups and stuff that would typically use a space like that. The idea of libraries providing access and getting getting that shiny technology and giving it to students is really cool and important, but I think it can't just be done without consideration of who your communities are and how they may or may not feel they have... they're welcome to access that even if it's in place.
Am Johal 10:57
Yeah, and I guess librarians, librarianship, there's been a long history of access to free information getting around paywalls. I know SFU have this Community Scholars Program that nonprofit organizations can access and get around paywalls to access research that they're doing. And wondering, you know, what are other ways in which you think about community engagement as it relates to the library? You mentioned a few things already. But what's your approach to community engagement in the library?
Ebony Magnus 11:26
That's a big question. I'm still figuring that out here at SFU Vancouver. I think for me, so prior to stepping into this role, I was working as an assessment and user experience librarian. So a lot of what I did was really just trying to understand the community and how they engage with the library, and then what kind of impact the library has on their success, or otherwise. Some of that used to kind of improve the experience within the library, and then other times kind of evidence used to prove things about the library. So, for me, I come to that community engagement question with my own question of who is the community? And what are their needs? And kind of how are those needs being met by other community partners? And in what ways can the library step in to support that? So, I mean, the library's already kind of embedded in a lot of the stuff going on at SFU Vancouver. You know, partnering with Public Square and partnering with the different departments down here, and supporting events that are going on, in a very minimal way, I think we can do that with resources, like you said, with information. But I think we can also look at the way that we can open our spaces to people, I guess, going back to the information thing, the way that we can also ensure that voices which wouldn't have come to the fore in the past are given prominence, kind of uplifting the voices of people who would have otherwise been marginalized. And sometimes that means going beyond the quote unquote, "traditional Western research products" like journal articles and books. So those are kind of the things on my mind for engaging with the communities down here.
Am Johal 12:56
And historically, libraries, particularly, let's say more so public libraries are also places where groups in the community book space and utilize them. And sometimes it can be like a source of tension. I can remember in the 90s when white supremacist organizations booked space, and the BC Civil Liberties Association, you know, supported their use of that space, but it can be very polarizing in communities without getting into sort of specifics. These are obviously evolving conversations and differences of opinion within the field of librarians as well and wondering if you can contextualize some of these conversations and approaches that people are taking to these types of questions on the one hand, openness and access but also these questions of, of human rights and marginalized communities also feeling attacked by these kinds of policies as well.
Ebony Magnus 13:44
Right. Yeah, so, librarianship is this profession kind of steeped in values, like freedom of information, and open access, and equity of access, but the conversations that come up, kind of around events or room bookings, et cetera, are the, I guess, around the tensions that exist between those values that we, you know, maybe two different values that we kind of cleave to as a profession. And yet there's tensions within them, and I think, because of libraries are viewed as this as a public good, right, and in some ways are considered neutral because they're open to all. And yet, those values, even though they're acknowledged as generally good, they are still values? They are value-laden statements that kind of give credence to one perspective over another. And so, I think libraries, we do come up against this tension of trying to be open to all, but recognizing that and opening our doors system, we may be closing them to others. And I think we have to get a lot more comfortable with that, in libraries, and stop trying to play this neutrality card. That, I think if anything, that's what makes it more difficult for us to engage in these conversations, that we try to maintain a neutral stance. And I'm saying like we, and generalizing a lot right now, this is just kind of broad strokes. But yeah, if we're trying to maintain this neutral stance, it's just impossible to do. So, I would rather see us as a profession. And it won't be the same across the profession and across individuals and across institutions, but I would rather see us weigh the tensions across the values that we do espouse in the profession. And take positions when it makes sense to do so. And I think being transparent about that as well, not trying to kind of cover it up or couch it in like, "Oh, we're gonna let this group and because intellectual freedom." versus "Well no, we're going to exclude this group because human rights." So, I think, we should just start making the decision one way or another and accepting it and kind of owning, owning the tensions that exist there.
Am Johal 15:55
Yeah, we've had situations where say anti-vaxxer organizations are booking space at the university as a commercial booking, but the university gets criticized internally allowing these because of the connection to the university. So it gets very complicated, really.
Ebony Magnus 16:10
Yeah. And I mean, we have academic freedom at this institution, and that is something that should be preserved. But when the arguments that are kind of being upheld by this academic freedom question the humanity of certain individuals, you have to then question how far academic freedom could or should go in my mind? That's a big mess of an issue.
Am Johal 16:36
So there's, you know, lots of trends and new ideas in what could be called progressive librarianship. I hear terms like trauma-informed librarianship, and wondering if you could characterize or contextualize some examples of things that people are doing elsewhere that you're really excited by in terms of experiments in libraries and how they're connecting with communities and bringing new people in addressing issues of accessibility.
Ebony Magnus 17:03
Yeah, there are so many different kind of veins of librarianship and study within librarianship that are looking in that direction. So there's literally a progressive librarian skill. And there's a whole movement called critical librarianship, where people are trying to take more critical discourse to kind of unpack what it is we do and, and who's privileged and who's not in the work that we do. In terms of specific work that's going on that's really exciting to me, anyone who's heard me talk before has heard me recommend this work, but I will do it again. So Montana State University, their user experience department in their library's doing some really great work around Indigenous participatory design. Scott Young is the user experience librarian there, and he worked with Native American students to develop this Indigenous participatory design toolkit that uses Indigenous ways of thinking and knowing to describe students' successes in academia, and then also the challenges they face. And then they've come up with all these activities that you can use to engage communities, to kind of get at these things, which then leads to kind of service development in libraries, right. But it's very much from a power sharing and participatory standpoint. I think a lot of people in libraries who are doing user experience work, pick up methods that look like participatory design, but don't always get at the true power sharing, which is really hard to do when you're working in a higher education institution. But I think Scott's project gets close to it. He does a lot of work also with Haley Fargo from Penn State who has done similar work with first-generation college students. There's also this Think Tank group, or I don't know how to characterize them. It's called Ithaka S+R, but they do a lot of research around the way that people engage with libraries in higher ed, and they just released this report. They've done this study with seven community colleges, where they were interviewing tons of students and asking them questions about the challenges they face and asking the students how they define success. So often in libraries when we're trying to kind of prove our worth, we're looking at institutional definitions of success. So, completion rates, or retention rates, or graduation rates, or grade point average for students. And I mean, I'm guilty of this too, just kind of accepting those measurements as the way we characterize, quote unquote, success. But the study that Ithaka's done, they're asking the students themselves and for some students, it's like... "Getting to class on time," or "Getting a D in this class," or "Connecting with other people on my campus who are interested in similar things," right? And so, it raises this question of accountability in the work that we're doing. Who are we accountable to? Are we accountable to our administrators or governments? Or are we accountable to the students who are kind of central to our mission? Can we be accountable to both? What does it look like if those accountabilities come into conflict with one another? That's where my mind is right now.
Am Johal 19:50
Those are big questions. And is there anything else you wanted to talk about? Future of libraries or ideas that you've--I know you've just started your job just a little while ago, but ideas that you'd like to see experimented with at SFU.
Ebony Magnus 20:05
I mean, yeah, I'm still kind of getting the lay of the land and figuring things out. Going back to some of my excitement around this position, just the idea that you walk out the doors of Harbour Centre, and you know, you go a few blocks east, and you're in the Downtown Eastside, and you got a few blocks west, and you're like, on Robson, right downtown, right? So, I love the idea of Belzberg library being at that junction. And I'm excited about the challenges that that presents. I think we have responsibility to a lot of different communities, with interests that are expressed in different ways. And so, I'm really excited about figuring out how to engage all of them, and to confront the tensions that are going to rise out of that naturally. I didn't know about the community engaged scholars program before starting here, and I'm learning a lot more about that program and about how the library is supporting that, and I'm so excited about the idea of bringing those voices who are doing really important work but have, because of the kind of infrastructure and bureaucracy of higher ed, have been excluded sometimes from the dialogue. So I'm really excited about bringing those voices into dialogue, whether it's inside the library or kind of adjacent to the library. Yeah.
Am Johal 21:20
Ebony, thank you so much for joining us on below the radar.
Ebony Magnus 21:23
Thanks for having me.
Rachel Wong 21:31
Thank you again to Ebony Magnus for joining us on this week's episode of Below the Radar. You can learn more about the Belzberg Library as well as the other SFU Library branches and the different events and programming that goes on by checking out their website. We'll leave a link to it in the episode description below. On our next episode, we talk to Svitlana Matviyenko, an assistant professor of Critical Media Analysis at SFU's School of Communication. She talks with Am about the concept of cyberwar and digital militarism, which she explores in her research and book, Cyberwar and Revolution: Digital Subterfuge in Global Capitalism, with Nick Dyer-Witheford.
Svitlana Matviyenko 22:10
Nick Dyer-Witheford and I were very interested and troubled by the events that are happening in Ukraine. That was the Maidan protest. So we were following what was happening there, this mobilization of people, which is again, a digital mobilization. And recently something like this was happening around the world. And Ukraine was a kind of the next country where people mobilized.
Rachel Wong 22:35
As always, thank you to the team who puts this podcast together, including myself, Rachel Wong, Paige Smith, Fiorella, Pinillos, and Kathy Fang. David Steele is the composer of our theme music, and of course, thank you for listening. Tune in next time for a brand new episode of below the radar.