Dr. Rachel Harris

Fifty years back and forward: ARLIS/NA 2022 Chicago Conference

A photo of Chicago taken from an airplane window.
Chicago from the air in April. Photo: Rachel Harris

The Michelle Gauthier Travel Award enabled me to attend and present at the ARLIS/NA 50th Annual Conference in Chicago this spring. The award is named after the late Michelle Gauthier (d. 2008). She is remembered for her contagious passion for the arts, her participation in our chapter, and her long career as Head of the Médiathèque of the Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal up until the beginnings of her doctorate in her later years.1 2 Award in hand, thanks to Gauthier’s legacy and our professional development awards committee, I was able to begin my conferencing journey. Preparing for international travel meant heading from Montreal to Chicago for my first in-person conference since the beginning of COVID-19. 

The plane journey offered much-needed time for reflection on the virtual meetings which begin before the in-person conference, including our ARLIS Canada chapter meet-up. These meetings describe a year in the life of our society at both the chapter and parent levels. As a committee member, I attended the Advocacy and Public Policy Committee (APPC) meeting. Relevant to the livelihood of our profession, highlights from the year included our monthly news alerts (i.e. July 2021), special news alerts, and statements.3 Whether on the APPC or other ARLIS/NA committees, these team environments are a great way to get involved, make a difference, and meet colleagues across chapters (see list of committees). The flight also allowed time to settle on which activities to attend. For those who have yet to attend an in-person ARLIS/NA conference, the flurry of activities includes poster sessions, lightning talks, panels and round tables, contemporary art, as well as a convocation ceremony, keynote, upscale reception, and exhibit hall. Together the activities highlight our professional relationship to the arts.

Landing in Chicago for the central part of the conference as a settler of colour, I entered the traditional unceded homelands and waterways of the Council of the Three Fires (Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi) Nations. I saw myself as a humble guest in a city that is home to one of the largest urban populations of urban Indigenous Americans and the Black communities who, since the 1780s, have made Chicago the city it is. Land Acknowledgements at the beginning of panels and conference activities varied greatly in personalization and practised pronunciation. These recent efforts within an ARLIS conference are a step toward recognizing that galleries, libraries, archives, museums (GLAMs) and educational institutions have long maintained racialized privilege. As part of these self-reflections on colonialism and white supremacy, we might also work on asking ourselves how we stand in reckoning with the legacies of slavery and segregation.

Photograph of Chicago building reflections and parking
Building reflections and parking. Photo: Rachel Harris
Chicago Riverwalk
Chicago Riverwalk. Photo: Rachel Harris

Bursts of fresh air offered respite throughout the conference in anticipation of my panel. Although the architectural tour that I booked got cancelled, the time walking around between sessions was worth every minute. I explored the Chicago Riverwalk. Conference keynote and famed architect Carol Barney designed the riverwalk as an environmental project that helped clean the river. The riverwalk is an elaborate walkable path that makes the downtown more enjoyable to experience outside one’s car, taxi, or Uber. When I raised my hand in the keynote audience of a hundred or so to ask Barney how she saw the deep connection between equity, environmental sustainability, and the absence of cycling infrastructure in Chicago, she suggested looking to European cities like Paris for inspiration. 

Fox walks across eight lanes of highway
Fox walks across eight lanes of highway. Photo: Rachel Harris.
A photo taken underneath Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate in Chicago
Under Cloud Gate. Photo: Rachel Harris.

If North Americans share Barney’s vision that equitability can be achieved through our environments, then much more must be done. I look at Chicago as someone who can choose not to own a car: I am a year-round cyclist from the heat of summers to the dead of winter in Montreal. I have also travelled or lived in European cycling-friendly cities like Paris and Berlin. Through the lens of a traveller, I felt struck by Chicago’s vast eight-lane highways that pump through the city, creating ongoing car emissions in an infrastructure that forces car travel and extensive hours in public transit, including to and from Chicago South (Black neighbourhoods) and downtown. Most cannot simply bike or walk to work.

Near the downtown conference hotel in the high life of the New East Side, Millennium Park hosts Cloud Gate, also lovingly nicknamed the giant “bean.” A must-see in Chicago, Cloud Gate is a larger-than-life (33 ft × 42 ft × 66 ft) stainless steel amoeba-like form by world-renowned British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor. The metallic surface reflects its surroundings from the sky above to the cement tiled flooring below and Michigan avenue on the periphery. The reach of skyscrapers of all epochs in gothic charm and modern glass reappear distorted in the giant bean. Consumed by the city’s reflection, the sculpture’s smooth curves also engulf nearby tourists (myself included) into the present. The now becomes here.

A photo of Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate sculpture and its surroundings in Chicago
Cloud Gate and its surroundings. Photo: Rachel Harris.

Moving back into the conference hotel, it is worth noting the panels offered by MOQ members. Adèle Flannery presented techniques for building appealing workshops, David Greene spoke on non-fungible tokens as not art, Viveca Pattison Robichaud and Gwen Mayhew teamed up to talk about African architecture, and I talked about image retrieval systems.

Panels featuring BIPOC presenters and diversity topics co-occurred. Co-hosting a roundtable with Dr. Joan Beaudoin titled “Information Systems that Help and Hinder,” I led several of our discussion topics. I talked about problems and potential workarounds for finding, accessing, and using visual materials located in information systems which can help build a diverse research corpus. Our panel, with its researchers’ perspectives, coincided with two other panels on diversity, inclusion and racial bias in collections.

If it were possible to be in two places at once, I would have attended metadata librarian Kim Ross’ talk on her contributions to the Indigenous Peoples Subject Headings project. In her role as Native American Fellow at Peabody Essex Museum, she describes the project as developing controlled vocabulary and crosswalks that revise “problematic Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).”4 Meanwhile, privileging “Indigenous Knowledges and community preferred-terms”5 is an essential part of the project, which I learnt about through serendipitous hallway conversations with Ross.

Amongst the sessions I attended, the Diversity Forum Black Lunch Table (BLT) Talk organized by the Diversity and Inclusion committee stood out for its radicalism in the space of whiteness. The BLT’s name comes from informal discursive gatherings of Black artists and community members. Community archivist Kevin Whitener described how these events go back to community roots. Meanwhile, the recordings from these tables generate oral histories, which generate topic networks. Co-presenter Wikipedia Director and artist Eliza Myrie talked about BLT edit-a-thons in the United States and globally (see map) that give visibility to the living history of Black artists. Addressing systemic bias, Myrie highlighted that over 84% of Wikipedia editors are male, and 77% are white. BLT welcomes new editors and offers guidelines, resources, and tasks to update, improve, or create new articles.6 After the noontime forum, I continued the conversation with Myrie and Whitener until they left to find something to eat.

The Awards Ceremony and Convocation Reception signaled that the conference had begun to wind down. Amongst the long list of awards, one, in particular, celebrated Black excellence in art librarianship. Natisha Harper won the Applauds Award for her DEI initiatives, including organizing the POC Connections and Solutions sessions and co-developing the Diversity Toolkit Project.7 Natisha’s leadership inspired me to share in her work of making space for people of colour in our profession: I participated in their POC Connections & Solutions Series for BIPOC in art librarianship in 2022, including the leading the April workshop.8 Unfortunately, she could not travel to receive the award in person.

Following the Award Ceremony, C-ARLIS (Canadian) members ventured to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) for the Convocation Reception, where we found a lavish and beautifully-lit venue with much-needed snacks.

A photo of Chicago's Millennium Park
Walking in good company through Millennium Park. Photo: Rachel Harris.
A photo of edra Soto's installation Open 24 Hours at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art
Lanterns from Edra Soto’s Open 24 Hours in the Commons at the Museum of Contemporary’s Art. Photo: Rachel Harris.
An animated photo of a woman standing inside Bani Abidi's exhibition The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared at MOCA Chicago
In Bani Abidi's exhibition The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared at MOCA Chicago. Photo: Rachel Harris.

I soon tucked away from the hallway’s glamour with its canapes and open bar into the exhibition halls. Exploring, I was not expecting to be caught off guard by the art I found; art historians rarely do. Pakistani artist Bani Abidi’s exhibition, titled The Man Who Talked until He Disappeared, offered an immersive space of video and sound which spoke to little-known South Asian histories and stories on the world stage.9 To the sound of haunting music, her Memorial to Lost Words sheds light on multi-lingual love letters by WWI Indian soldiers who suffered greatly under the Crown, only to later be neglected by historians of the great wars. To the gentle trickle of a tear or two, the installation spoke to a part of my family story in a way I had never before seen in history books or artworks. I would go home knowing that art, people, and histories hold the future to art librarianship.

Three photos of a woman's feet and legs, from above, walking on a sidewalk.
Walking as a guest, one step, two steps, and three through Chicago. Photos: Rachel Harris.

When I look back at the full range of conference activities, I casually asked a single question. I asked prospective and longstanding ARLIS members what they would like to see over the next fifty years. Whatever the difficulty in entering and remaining in art librarianship, especially for BIPOC, hope for the future and concerns about funding resonated as themes. The solutions have been more or less present the whole time. Societal passion for the arts, career-long dedications to librarianship, the vital contributions from Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) to arts and knowledge fields, and continued funding for the arts will allow the society to see another fifty years.


Dr. Rachel Harris
Scholarly Publishing Librarian, Concordia University

Cinema Librarian, Concordia University (at the time of the ARLIS 2022 conference)


All photos by Dr. Rachel Harris.


[1]  ARLIS/MOQ, “ARLIS/MOQ Annual Report 2008,” 2008, https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/33231479/arlis-moq-annual-report-2008-arlis-na-moq/3.

[2]  Bujold, Ginette. “Hommage à Michelle Gauthier Femme de Réalisations, de Passions et d’amitiés.” MOQDOC, 2008.

[3]  Examples of statements include ARLIS/NA’s statement on illegal aliens used in subject headings and our statement on American legislative efforts to restrict education on racism to help).

[4] Kim Ross, “Ongoing Effort Seeks to Identify and Correct Harmful Terms in PEM’s…,” Peabody Essex Museum, PEM Blog (blog), July 13, 2022, https://www.pem.org/blog/ongoing-effort-seeks-to-identify-and-correct-harmful-terms-in-pems-library-catalog.

[5] Ross.

[6] “Wikipedia:Meetup/Black Lunch Table/July1 BLT Bingo,” in Wikipedia, August 27, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Meetup/Black_Lunch_Table/

[7] Team, “Introducing the ARLIS/NA Diversity Toolkit,” The Art of Diversity (blog), April 8, 2021, https://arlisdivcom.wordpress.com/2021/04/08/

[8] ARLIS/NA, “2021 ARLIS/NA Applauds Award Recipient – Art Libraries Society of North America,” ARLIS/NA, April 14, 2022, https://www.arlisna.org/news/2021-arlisna-applauds-award-recipient.

[9] “Bani Abidi: The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared,” MCA, accessed September 18, 2022, https://mcachicago.org/exhibitions/2021/bani-abidi-the-man-who-talked-until-he-disappeared.