Quick overview

All posts still in progress. If you have additions you want to suggest, please let me know in the comments or on twitter @schomj.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018


2nd grade: Our teacher wouldn’t let my classmate go out to recess because he wouldn’t eat the ham she’d brought to share. He was Jewish. She didn’t care. I was enraged that she was being so horrible to him, but didn’t know how to respond other than with tears.
7th grade: My social studies teacher made fun of the girls in the class because they complained about getting groped. The boys doing it were on the tennis team he coached, so he didn’t care. I was the best student in the class and not a boy, so he didn’t like me anyway. I never complained, but I did miss a lot of school that year.

College: I joined the Minnesota PIRG and Amnesty International and Equality (a local LGB group) and was very White Liberal in my activism and outlook. I also got cancer and my sister almost died and I learned that most of my female friends had been raped.

My 20s: Recovery. I dropped out of everything but grad school and work.

My 30s: I started easing back into political awareness and activism. I specifically and somewhat accidentally learned about anti-racism and the social model of disabilities. I also started going to K-12 classrooms to talk about how to be respectful of differences – a very White Liberal model at base, but it also was good practice for listening and speaking about difficult topics on an accessible level.

My 40s: Going deeper, going further. I can sometimes speak up in meetings without crying when people are being appropriative or racist or whatever. No one cares about White Tears when you’re in a room of white people and upset at discrimination, not when you’re calling someone out.

2014: I fight with a coworker about the impact of the Supreme Court overturning the Voting Rights Act. He was “factual,” I was right.

2015: I enter my 40s. Trump campaigns on a platform of deporting Muslims and Mexicans. My mother likes him because “he tells it like it is, tee hee.” I point out that he’s an abusive bully. She gets quiet. (She’s married to an abusive bully, it’s not so funny when you live it.)

2016: Trump’s running mate is Mike “let’s kill all the gays” Pence. They get elected. RIP VRA, we miss you. Also, the NoDAPL protests capture attention and outrage, except on the part of the Democratic party, which mostly tries to pretend it's not happening.

2017: White liberals (especially, but not exclusively) completely ignore all of US history and are appalled that a misogynist, racist, ableist asshole is elected president. I am appalled too, partly because all the political gaslighting is bringing back memories. All the talk of PTSD on the twittersphere does help me discover that that’s (probably) the basis of my anxiety/depression, so I start a helpful therapy course to deal with that. Still, that kind of therapy is hard and spring is awful. Is it because of Trump? Because of the “let’s kill sick Americans” monsters running Congress? Both? Then, Weinstein and Franken and etc. Sometimes cleaning house causes adverse reactions before you’re done.

2017 in libraries
Librarians on social media start fighting about whether literal Nazis should be allowed to use library spaces to meet. I am glad that people are speaking out against helping groups that want people like me dead. I am annoyed that people act like this is a new thing. Where have you been? Why are you just speaking up now?

Librarians on social media continue to fight about what the ideas “neutrality” and “intellectual freedom” mean. These fights have been ongoing since I was in library school (late 1990s), but apparently they’re new to some people? Are these fights just new to new professionals or have people spent their entire careers unaware and uncaring?

Librarians on social media fight about representation in books and in LIS curricula. Outside of #critlib twitter, the curriculum arguments seem new. I’m glad to see more people advocating for inclusive curricula. I’m annoyed but not surprised to see people continue to advocate against it. I’m disappointed to see people advocate for “both sides.” Also a little confused, to be honest. Like with the Nazis in libraries thing: both sides means white people get to exist and non-white people get to fight for the right to exist so long as they’re nice about it? Huh?

The look-backs on 2017 as if it's a year that exists separate from time annoy me. None of this is new, it's just a continuation. But I don't want to disregard or disrespect the paths others are on. Maybe your upbringing completely protected you from the need to be politically aware and active. I don't know your life. But you're here now. You've become aware that neutrality is as much a myth as meritocracy. What are you going to do?

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Cassirer: The End of the Problem

Fourth post in this series, in which I try to make sense of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, volume 1: Language, by Ernst Cassirer. Feel free to play along in the comments section!

The focus here is on the ideation of signs. There's also a lot of metaphysical stuff that I skipped over because... I don't really understand what it's doing here, to be honest. It may be a legacy of philosophical thinking in the early 20th century? No idea.

How does a "sensuous particular" like spoken sound carry "purely intellectual" meaning? (p106) The basic function of signification must be present before the utterance is produced. The utterance stabilizes the meaning, and situates it in a particular context. Cassirer then talks about how every linguistic sign has a spiritual content that puts it beyond the sensory sphere... and I zone out at the metaphysics. I also have skepticism about the possibility of anything being "purely intellectual" and not having an embodied component. *glares at Plato*

Going back to the idea of context, which Cassirer describes as a complex web of relationships. Signs serve as an intermediary between consciousness and "spiritual" form. (I wish someone could translate Cassirer's use of "spirit" to a concept that makes sense to my brain.) Signs may stabilize meaning, but they don't just fix that meaning in place; they propel that meaning in a certain direction. "Similarly, the spoken word, considered from the standpoint of  physical substance, is a mere breath of wind; but in this breath there lies an extraordinary force for the dynamic of ideas and thoughts." (p109) Rephrasing this idea yet again, signs don't just represent meaning, they open up new roads of discovery.

So, that's it for the first part! Next up will be discussion of the phenomenology of language, which I suspect (hope) contains the content that got this book on my reading list.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Cassirer: The Problem of 'Representation'

Part 3. I'm making progress!

This section starts with Cassirer posing the question "how can sensory content turn into meaning?" Answer: it requires time, space, and causality.

Lots of talk of metaphysics follows, which I mostly skim.

Argument: We don't copy a ready-made material model of the world in our minds, but we use our senses as a way of building a representative mental model. Language allows us to build a bridge between this mental model (cognition) and the sensory world.


Moving forward to psychological theories: "the whole constitutes its parts and gives them meaning." (p103) This section seems like it could describe intersectionality.

Describing Descartes's dualistic approach to meaning making: "Objective unity is a purely formal unity, which can neither be heard not seen as such, but can be apprehended only in the logical process of pure thought." (p104) I think Cassirer shares my skepticism about this approach.

Kant also addressed this problem, and identified a process that could be described mathematically.... but to do so would require us to go beyond the realm of mathematics, into other realms which follow their own rules. As we learned in the previous section, that's not a winning argument.

Result: foiled again? I guess we're just working through theories that Cassirer is rejecting, but in a really nice way so they don't get offended?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cassirer: The Problem of Meaning

In which I continue to try to make sense of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, volume 1: Language, by Ernst Cassirer. This series begins by talking about concepts and systems. Feel free to play along in the comments section!

Cassirer Post 2: The Problem of Meaning (pp. 85-93)

Symbols are abstract connections based on cognitive processes rather than sensory impressions. (It is so interesting to compare this discussion with how these ideas are expressed in Buddhist teachings.) These symbols -- or abstract connections -- are part of self-contained conceptual worlds, in which each concept is a complete thing in itself. Example: a word in a language.

Cassirer references Leibnitz, stating that the logic of things cannot be separated from the logic of signs. There is a mutual relationship between signifier and signified. The example he presents is: without universal signs (symbols) of mathematics, no law of nature would be expressible. This mutual relationship is also true in other conceptual worlds including religion and art.

This is where we start talking about linguistics a little more directly. (Yay!)

"the chaos of immediate impressions takes on order and clarity for us only when we 'name' it." (p87) This logical unity also leads us to categorize, analyze, and synthesize ideas.

The 'unreality' of myth allows spontaneity, but still follows the laws of myth. (This reminds me of the portal worlds in McGuire's Wayward Children series.) Each disciplinary world has its own rules. Therefore, claims of universal validity are particular cultural forms themselves, in which the content of a thing and the content of the sign are fused. This creates a "magical force" in a way. I think what Cassirer is saying here, is that our cognition of things is based on illusions given force by our cultures?

(Another side note: I knew Cassirer wrote philosophy in German during the Nazi period, so I looked him up. Turns out he was a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis during the writing of this series, and eventually ended up teaching at Yale by way of Oxford.)

Fixing content in a linguistic sign or artistic image "seems to do no more than hold it fast in the memory" as a reproduction. However! A reproduction presupposes an act of consciousness; more than mere repetition, this is a new level of reflection. (p. 89) I am not going to superimpose the WEMI model on this, but all y'all catalogers might have fun with that.

Cassirer brings the conversation back to the conclusion of the section discussed in part 1. "The way in which we apply the conceptual opposition of 'subjective' and 'objective' in giving form to the world of experience appears to be not so much the solution to the problem of cognition, as its perfect expression." (p.91) He attempts to mediate this conflict by presenting science, language, myth, art, religion as the building blocks of reality, not simply structures but functions. They give form reality. Phonetic signs provide a way of bridging subjective and objective. Phonetic signs allow us to both produce and hear discrete sounds. Spoken language in general synthesizes "I" and "world", subjective and objective.

I'm not sure I totally buy this argument, because of the idea that cognition is a non-sensory process. But I'm willing to continue slogging in the hope of making eventual sense of all of this!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Cassirer: Concept and System of Symbolic Forms

First in a series of posts in which I try to make sense of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, volume 1: Language, by Ernst Cassirer. Feel free to play along in the comments section!

Ontologies, pp. 73-78

Cassirer discusses two views of 'reality': the unity of being versus a multiplicity of existing things.

Way back in the day, Plato moved from investigating the order, condition, and structure of being to investigating the concept of being, and what that means. Among other things, that meant that meaning became more important than factiness. But Plato's fundamental problem was being: he came to the conclusion that thoughts about being determined the (inner form of) being. Put another way, the (ideas of) structure determined the structure; the idea became the thing.

In discussing how philosophers and scientists came to discover causality, Cassirer states that "Mathematicians and physicists were first to gain a clear awareness of [the] symbolic character of their basic implements." The discoveries of science are symbols created by the intellect rather than passive perceptions of objects, and the intellect can thus forecast what comes next.This all made me laugh. These ideas have been major discussion points in the Eastern hemisphere since before Gautama Buddha walked the earth, bud. They're not new.

An early 1st Century Tibetan wall painting depicting the Buddha pointing at the moon. In the Chan/Zen tradition, this is expressed as: the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.
Following this, Cassirer observes that in this ontological way of viewing the world, "the object cannot be regarded as a naked thing in itself" as it must always fit into categories. If it doesn't fit into categories, it's unknowable. This whole section had a lot of statements that conflict with my (Buddhist) belief system, so I took them all with a grain of salt. However, that said, this ontological way of viewing the world has a lot of influence in my work -- cataloging, for example, is dependent on this way of thinking.

At the end of this section, Cassrer notes that the intellectual symbols of specialized disciplines may either exist separately in parallel systems or are manifestations of the same basic concepts. My past self would absolutely have believed the latter viewpoint (and I think it's a very Liberal view of the world; I say this with no pejorative intent). However, my current self thinks worldviews aren't that simplistic, and working under the assumption that different terms are just glosses on the same fundamental ideas is focusing on the finger instead of the moon.

Spirit, pp. 78-85.

Cassirer seems dissatisfied with solely addressing cognitive approaches to the idea of being, and moves on to what he calls spirit. (Reminder: this is an English translation. He wrote in German.)

In this section, spirit includes linguistic thinking in relation to mythical, religious, and artistic thinking. One statement that I really loved was "the critique of reason becomes the critique of culture." (p80) He takes that point to go off in a direction I didn't find very compelling, personally, but I want to note that statement in here so I can revisit it sometime.

He continues to investigate what it is that we call 'reality' while reviewing some major philosophical ideas (Descartes, Hegel). The ideal of a unified center can never lie in a given essence but in a common project. A unified center requires multiple efforts toward the goal of turning passive impressions into active expressions. He points out that striving toward the absolute leads people to develop a multiplicity of ideas which inevitably come into conflict. With that knowledge, modern philosophy expresses the goal of finding a philosophical standpoint above and beyond the forms it describes and map each one of these forms to a specific relational place. (This was written from 1928-1945, by the way.)

Renouncing that goal would mean that a strict, systematic understanding of these forms is unattainable. There would be no self-contained cosmos, and humanity is back to the multiplicity of existing things that Plato rejected.  He ends this section with a question: Is it possible to find and intermediary between these positions?

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

CFP: Library Trends : Disabled Adults in Libraries

Library Trends : Disabled Adults in Libraries : Call for Proposals

We are preparing to edit a special issue of Library Trends on the topic of Disabled adults in libraries, which is scheduled to be published May 2019.

The nature and scope of this issue:

Though scholarship about disabilities has been robust in various social science and humanities disciplines for decades, libraries have been slow to theorize or systematically examine the experiences of dis/ability in libraries. This special issue will be geared toward the experience of being a Disabled adult in libraries, as user or worker. Through a mixture of empirical research, case studies, interviews, and theoretical papers, this issue will capture perspectives of Disabled members of our broad library community.

There are many possible approaches one can take to examine disabilities and disability theory. The approach guiding this issue is taken from an in-press work by one of the editors.
There is no universally accepted definition of disabilities or single approach to disability theory. Legalistic definitions, including those presented in the Americans with Disabilities Act and the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities tend to be exclusionary and restrictive in their ideations about humanity. By this, I mean that in their construction of disability and disabled people, they work from a deficit model in which disabled humans are treated as corporeal abnormalities. However, if one out of every seven human beings could be considered disabled, as research demonstrates, disability is a common part of human existence. For many of us, when we talk about in/accessibility in libraries, we’re not just talking about things that others experience; we’re talking about ourselves.
Critical disability studies (CDS) is one approach that offers a way of including disabled people in academic discourse. In this approach, disabled people are participants and researchers who can engage in self-reflexive critiques, not just objects of study. While some theoretical models focus on binary categories that are presented in contrast to each other, such as contrasting social and medical models or disability and impairment, CDS scholars focus on the entire lived experiences of disabled people. This allows for more complicated modes of analysis, such as acknowledging that disabilities may include both social and medical aspects.

We are intentionally seeking out reviewers and authors who have diverse experiences and backgrounds, including library workers of color, library workers who have LGBTQIA+ identities, and those who have Disabled identities. Because we anticipate that several authors will have experience both as Disabled library workers and as Disabled library users, we want to allow either or both perspectives to be incorporated into their research. However, to provide some limits on the scope of this issue, we are focusing on the library experiences of Disabled adults.

January 1, 2018 - article proposals are due
February 1, 2018 - editors will notify people if proposals are accepted
June 1, 2018 - article drafts are due
August 1, 2018 - reviewer feedback will be sent
September/October, 2018 - final edits
November 1, 2018 - final manuscripts are due to the publisher

The writing style follows Chicago rules. Complete articles are expected to be in the 4,000-10,000 word range. More information about the style rules can be found here: (PDF)   https://www.press.jhu.edu/sites/default/files/Author%20Instructions%20for%20Library%20Trends%202017.pdf

Proposal requirements
A complete proposal will include the following:
  • article title
  • abstract of proposed article (200-300 words is preferred)
  • a short author biography -- it doesn't have to be formal at this point; we welcome casual explanations of how your background and experience influences your desire to write in this area

If you need help with your abstract or framing your article (I always want to include too much! - Jessica), the Article Framework Questions used by In the Library with the Lead Pipe are very helpful:

If you plan to include statistical analysis, please let us know how you will ensure that your methodology and analysis are solid.

Please contact us if you have any questions!

Jessica Schomberg, co-editor
Shanna Hollich - co-editor

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Acknowledging Whiteness, part 8: Silence is Complicity

This series has been an interesting reflective process for me. It's also been an interesting observational experience. The posts in this series have generally received a good number of hits, at least compared to the normal things I post. But compared to the normal things I post, I have received far fewer comments. The silence has been interesting.

Some of those few comments have been in praise of a given post (thanks Max!) but some of the comments have been expressions of white discomfort. Discomfort at the expectation that as white people they have a right or responsibility to call out racism. Let's pause a moment, and dwell on that; let's take a moment to experience discomfort right now.


I saw an article a few days about how sometimes when we talk about being lazy, what we're actually describing is fear, overwhelmedness, procrastination and avoidance driven by perfectionism.

Are we silent because we feel like we're not ready yet to speak out? Because we need to prepare more so when we do speak out, we don't mess up? Let me take this opportunity to remind you of April Hathcock's wonderful blog post called You're Gonna Screw Up.

You're never going to be ready. You're never going to be perfect. If you're lucky, you'll be good enough. Good enough is a reasonable goal.


I learn most effectively by trial and error. By screwing up, noticing where and how that screw-up happened, and watching to see what improvements are made the next time. This is how I learn/ed how to manage my diabetes, how I learn/ed how to write, how I learn/ed how to catalog. This is how I am learning to unravel the racism that was threaded into my being before I learned to talk. I fully expect -- no, I hope! -- that in 10 years I'll revisit this blog series and feel amused fondness for my past self and how much I still had to learn.

Because I know I'm not perfect. I know I make mistakes and missteps and that I stumble and fall both up and down the stairs. But at least I'm trying. And I'm not letting my fear of imperfection lure me into silence. Because for the people I care about, my silence in the face of systemic racism is more damaging than my stumbling attempts at building a more just society.


This is the end of this series, at least for the summer. Thanks to everyone who came along on this ride with me. If this has prompted you to write your own blog posts or engage in antiracism work in new or different ways, please drop me a line either in the comments or on twitter. Peace, love, and justice to you all.