Monday, 10 March 2014

Gender as a variable in resource evaluation

In my recent OLA Super Conference presentation (that I didn't actually present due to illness, but my colleague did), I worked on describing a theory of "Constructivist" evaluation of electronic resources, or really any resources in a library collection.  My colleague's counterpoint position was one of Deconstruction and although we had a bit of a disconnect in terms of actual counterpoints, I tried to talk about the construction of "value" not only in and of itself but in contrast and partnership with deconstruction of sorts.  Part of my colleagues position was that Deconstruction of the typical evaluation motivations, goals, and assumptions allowed for the potential awareness of hidden biases and faults, not the least of which was gender bias.

As a father of a teenage girl, amateur philosopher, and Tumblr user, I'm both aware of ethical issues such as gender bias (among other biases) and motivated to do something about it.  Although it's a little down the rabbit hole from an overall framework for normalizing and systematizing evaluation of library acquisitions, the idea of gender ethics consideration in resource evaluation struck me as interesting.

There can be no doubt that information resources -- monographs, journals, indexes, multimedia collections, newspapers, etc. -- are not only filled with gender bias in the content (since they are records society is making and we are far from being free from sexism), but the production system creating them and packaging them for consumption is gender biased as well.  As a librarian, it is my job to ensure that what's going in the collection is valuable and gender balance is certainly a valuable if rare commodity.

But how do you measure it?  Just in terms of authorship?  Is there an appropriate mix of male and female authors?  What about content?  Can you even check for gender bias on a large scale in scholarly works?  How is that even possible?  What about gender bias in the creation of the particular tool or collection being evaluated?  What would that look like?  What about LGBTQ issues?  And how much value can these considerations have if the society in which these resources are created still has problems so you're going to have to let some imbalanced information through otherwise the library would be empty.  How do you label this stuff properly?  Even our labelling systems are corrupt, with horrifying holdovers like the MeSH term "Monsters" that are slowly being replaced.

Perhaps baby steps is the best way to start:  gathering information on resources in the collection such as male-female ration of authorship, details about indexing practices and maybe even hiring practices of the companies building these tools.  I'm certainly no expert in the field of gender studies or feminism but there have got to be some basic concepts that can be molded into evaluation criteria even if it's just to help identify key problem areas in the industry and resources as they are now.

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