Bluestockings: Organizing information to facilitate empowerment and challenge oppression


What is the main mission of a “traditional” retail bookstore? Simple – to sell books. And how does a bookstore meet that mission? Display configurations and shelving tactics are used to get people to buy books, or any product for that matter. But what about a bookstore that’s mission isn’t just to sell books? What about a store that wants to offer more – to offer resources both to empower and create a safer space for its patrons?
How does an independent and radical bookstore like Bluestockings, present and organize its resources in order to meet their mission of inclusivity and challenge oppression?


Bluestockings is a volunteer-powered and cooperative radical bookstore, cafe, and activist center in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, NY. Their mission is three-pointed :
1) distribute literature and resources about oppression, intersectionality, community organizing, and activism;
2) maintain a space for dialogue, education and reflection where all people are respected; and
3) build community connections, knowledge, and skills.

With this mission, Bluestockings strives to empower people to challenge oppression by embodying, “the principles of intersectional, trans-affirming, gender nonconforming, and sex-worker affirming feminisms and support liberatory social movements.” In this effort to create an , “equitable, cooperative, and free” society, Bluestockings offers over 6,000 books and zines on a wide range of topics.

Note: I will be mostly referring to Bluestockings  as a “center”, as I think it is an encompassing term that best reflects their mission.


Bluestockings was founded in 1999 by Kathryn Welsh as a bookstore and community space for women. It was named after The Blue Stockings Society, a women’s educational movement and literary discussion group from the 18th century in England. Like today, the bookstore was collectively operated and volunteer-run. However, due to financial distress, the collective disbanded in 2002. In 2003, Brooke Lehman purchased Bluestockings, the collective was reestablished, and the store reopened with an expanded focus on radical politics and activism.

The Plan

I planned a visit to Bluestockings to learn more about the way the center organizes information to facilitate empowerment and challenge oppression. For my structured observation I intended to review the following:

  • The resources available
    • This includes an exploration of titles and common topics
  • The setup, layout, and distribution of resources
    • This includes a survey of the headings used for describing/dividing sections and organizing the information available in the center
  • How patrons used and interacted with the space and its resources


In relation to the three main components of my observation, I expected to see the following:

  • A variety of resources available covering a wide range of topics
  • Use of alternative headings and categories related to minority or marginalized groups and feminisms
    • moving beyond the expected Fiction, Mystery, Romance, etc.
  • Patrons using the space as a center for community and engagement
    • to meet, discuss, and plan ideas

What I Observed and Learned

I went to Bluestockings on April 6, 2019. Upon entering, I was welcomed by a warm greeting and noticed people working, reading, and collaborating in the sitting area. Immediately to the left was a selection of zines, journals, and coloring books.  To the right, the checkout counter and cafe. A majority of the space was occupied by books on bookshelves and tables. The back wall displayed Bluestockings totes and t-shirts, alternative menstrual products, and “other oddly hard-to-find good things.”

Two tables of books stood near the middle of the store. The tables were stacked with a mix of books on a range of topics – feminism, incarceration, the environment, queer and gender studies, racial studies, radical education – with no heading to label them. In this way, these tables seemed to offer a non-hierarchical, uncategorized approach to organizing resources. This setup would seem to facilitate serendipitous discovery.

The rest of the titles offered were arranged by category with headings for different sections. 54 categories were surveyed:

Feminisms       Sexuality & Relationships           Radical History
Science & Technology Sex Work Radical Education
Violence & Trauma       Intersex           Hex the Patriarchy
Police & Prisons       Transgender            Activist Strategies
Race & Racism       Gender Studies           Feminist Fiction
  #Blacklivesmatter       Feminist Masculinity           Music
Black Studies       Queer           Art & Media
Indigenous Peoples Studies Queer Fiction           DIY Cookbooks
Libros para Niños       Asexuality             Spirituality
Latin American Studies       Critical Theory            Health Healing & Accessibility
(Im)migration & Diaspora      Digital Communications   Parenting & Pregnancy
Global Justice       Environment & Food Systems   Animal Rights
Post Colonial Fiction     Asia                 Comics & Graphic Novels
Class & Labor      Africa           Sci-Fi
Anarchism                       Middle East           General Fiction
Marxism & Autonomism        New York City         Featured Fiction
Political Theory       Urban Studies & Geography    Poetry
  Economics       Literary Nonfiction           Young Adult

A table labeled “Events” displayed 8 books with date tags on them. I talked with someone who worked at the center to learn more about the programs and events they offered. As it turns out, the center hosts an event nearly every day, if not multiple in one day. The date tags on the books signify the date of an upcoming event centered around that book. Some of these events highlight an author, editor, or contributor of the book. Other events aim to offer a safe space to discuss ideas, foster community, or simply read. In fact, on the day I visited there was a silent book club taking place. A calendar on the Bluestockings website shares all of the upcoming events.


In order to meet their mission, I expected that Bluestockings would organize their resources in a way that would facilitate inclusivity and challenge oppression. One way I imagined they could achieve this would be to employ a varied array of headings to organize their resources. With 54 different headings, Bluestockings did just that.

As mentioned earlier, the two ‘No Category’ tables appear to facilitate serendipitous discovery. With no categories to influence you, they also provide a relatively unbiased opportunity to discover titles. Of course in a store dedicated to selling radical content, you can expect to find books that fit that description, but the fact that there is a label-less table is worth noting.

Hosting events is a non-organizational method the center employs to reach their mission. Events like the silent book club create a welcoming environment to read at one’s one pace and be inspired by what others are reading. It rids the pressure associated with the commitment involved in a traditional book club, but still provides the sense of community. The dozens of posters, fliers, and notices for events taking place outside the center further exemplify Bluestockings’ effort to build a supportive environment and sense of community.

Representation matters. Words matter. The granularity in the more than 50 sections used to organize Bluestockings’ collection challenges the idea of neutrality in classification by recognizing the importance and power of language. In Emily Drabinski’s, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” she talks about this power. She says, “in terms of organization and access, libraries are sites constructed by the disciplinary power of language.” Drabinski talks about libraries, but this would seem to hold true for bookstores, as they also use headings to organize information. Drabinski asserts, “subject headings, often cast by catalogers as a kind of pure, objective language, are not; where and when and by whom subject headings are used makes all the difference in terms of meaning.” While working to expand subject headings and more accurately organize material about social groups and identities is productive, Drabinski makes clear that emphasis on “correctness” is not. For, “even when subject headings are updated to reflect current usage…they do not account for all the other words users might use to describe themselves.”

With design layout being a major component to organization, I am reminded of Costanza-Chock’s recent work, “Design Justice: towards an intersectional feminist framework for design theory and practice.Costanza-Chock discusses the history and principles of design justice. According to Costanza-Chock, “design justice rethinks design processes, centers people who are normally marginalized by design, and uses collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face.” She may have been talking about larger scale and more deeply rooted design decisions, but I would argue design justice would apply on a smaller scale. In this way, the layout and organization of books and information could be designed with the principles of design justice in mind.

Design and organization are evidently powerful tools and should be treated as such. From my observation, it seems Bluestockings has employed design justice principles to meet their mission. They have created a space and organized it in an effort to, “sustain, heel and empower,” to provide “liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems,” and to work towards, “sustainable, community-led” outcomes. Bluestockings is evidently a notable community institution that fosters community and provides a space for learning and empowerment.

They also just have a lot of good books. I bought two.

By Tina Chesterman
Info 601, Professor Chris Sula

Costanza-Chock, S. (2018). Design Justice: towards an intersectional feminist framework for design theory and practice. Design Research Society 2018.

Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Vol. 83, No. 2

I spent an hour observing the Glossier flagship store as an information space.

I’ll be honest, for a long time I thought the millennial-favorite cosmetic brand Glossier’s flagship in NYC was invite-only. I’d seen the NYC showroom’s pale pink, the enticingly instagramable interior on the feeds of Instagram influencers. It was so lavish in comparison to a Sephora or Ulta; I didn’t think they’d let the public pour in. This changed once I saw the now ubiquitous plastic pink bag and bubble-wrapped pouches in the hands of the masses on the 4 train. My manufactured mystique around the showroom’s accessibility made Glossier a perfect information environment subject to observe.

Putting an ecommerce gloss on retail

Glossier’s part of a new class of neoliberal disruptors in the retail space for women. They use a social-conscious capitalist model: A body-positive, female empowerment brand that turns buying cosmetics into an act of resisting the patriarchy. Glossier’s picture-perfect showroom is an information environment similar to other retail brands that started as direct-to-consumer companies with NYC flagships, like Casper or Away. Their idea is to bring their recreate their beloved e-commerce experience in person.

An empty flagship via

Once the doorman swings open the door on Lafayette street, you’re confronted with a pink-velvet cavernous staircase (I had to inquire about wheelchair accessibility, as an alternative to the stairs was not easily discoverable) that leads to a large, open-concept space with mirror-lined walls and more shades of pink decor. The crowd was large and surprisingly young. Mobs of girls no older than 14 painting their faces in such a plush setting; like a child trying on lipstick in mom’s bathroom.

Mascara as information

At Glossier, the information, or products, are extremely inviting. Unlike Sephora where the products are in high display cases at an angle, Glossier’s information lays flat on low-lying tables. The many tables have ridges that signify they can be picked up, and where to place them after. Also on the table are testing materials that make the products try-able for the masses. Cups filled with bite-size mascara wands, eyeshadow brushes, and eyeliner sticks are key signifiers that green-light trying the information. The products on the tables themselves are missing their application tools so the users must use a sample-size wand or brush to access the product. In other makeup stores like Sephora, or even the counter at Saks, I’ve never seen a testing product manipulated it such a way. Wouldn’t the users want to see the product in its entirety before using? Isn’t setting out the disposable application tools clear enough? Apparently, it’s not clear and can be a real hygienic concern. Glossier’s limited product testing design method is more user-centric than I thought.

Get in the groove: Try the products at Glossier

In the “wet room”, users can test the products with one of the many sinks that line the walls. When I took a peek, no one was full-on washing their face. A couple of giggling girls were taking a picture of the moisturizer. I asked an employee, Glossier’s information intermediaries, and she said people are a little tentative to lather up in-store. However, once someone takes the plunge, others follow. I’m familiar with this herding mentality from the behavioral economics book Nudge. This was a clear indication that within information environments, social norms can often serve as a barrier to access.

Cosmetic tech

Glossier information intermediary with iPad

Once you find a product you like, purchasing requires face-to-face contact with one of the intermediaries. Glossier is set-up like Apple’s genius bar, except the geniuses holding iPads specialize in makeup and skincare and adorn baby pink jumpsuits. The pink intermediaries are extremely friendly, but don’t overstep; I observed most of them smiling along the outer rim of the floor. Users went to them only when needed, dissimilar to the constant “can I help you find anything” at other retail spaces.

Glossier’s checkout system reminds me of a gas station in New Jersey; You can really do it yourself, but they won’t let you. A Glossier employee will scan your products with the iPad and then have you enter in all your information. On the interface, it has a place to enter a promo code, but I heard an employee tell the users they had to purchase the items online if they wanted to use the promo code. They could still pick up their products today, but downstairs where the other online pick-up orders are sent. I’m sure there’s a technological back-end reason for this promo process, but why include the promo line in the in-person checkout, to begin with?

Conveyor belt via Yelp

An info show

Once you’ve purchased your products with Apple technology in the hands of an intermediary, the pick-up process becomes kind of clunky. You’re told to wait in the waiting room, where there are more jumpsuit-fitted employees behind a counter with a vertical conveyor belt on the wall. A horde of people is anxiously awaiting one of the pink jumpsuits to grab their pink bag from the conveyor belt and call out their name. After witnessing the iPad and conveyor belt, it seemed so odd their process of delivery was to scream a name out, instead of implementing an arrival screen, like at an Airport. The employee had to continual repeat names, and to be completely honest, did not seem thrilled about it. The conveyor belt was a slow process and visually interesting. However, I wasn’t able to capture my own video as one of the intermediaries shouted “no photos.” I had to wonder if employee agency conflicts with the designed space; I just don’t see another reason for the expensive conveyor belt display but for social media fodder.

While there are some design hiccups, I think Glossier did a fair job of turning their seamless ecommence interface into a IRL retail space. I didn’t originally view the information environment as accessible, so upon entry, I was pleasantly surprised by the user-centric design.


Buckland, M. (1991). Information as Thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. Jun1991, Vol. 42 Issue 5, p351-360. 10p.

Norman, D. A. (1990). The design of everyday things. New York: Doubleday. 

Thaler, Richard H.,Sunstein, Cass R. (2008) Nudge :improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness New Haven : Yale University Press,

Observation: The Fairway on E 86th


The first item on my list was lemons and I found them easily; then I turned up another aisle, and there were more lemons—ostensibly the same kind, but a different price. And although it was easy to realize that I had simply been moving too quickly and had initially grabbed organic lemons by mistake, it did make me start thinking about signage (and consumer traps!) and how the shoppers in a grocery store interpret that signage, and so the setting felt appropriate for this blog post about the observation of an information environment. I returned to the store a couple weeks later to view it as both a shopper trying to make the most efficient use of their time and an observer taking notes on how well I was able to accomplish that task.

Physical Layout

Constraints on the environment are perhaps owed to the fact that this is a two-story store with the check-outs and the exit existing only on one floor—the same as the entrance. And while this is an unchangeable feature of the space, it is absolutely necessary point out how well the internal staircase is camouflaged. (Three elevators line the back wall, but who has the time?) There is one sign and it is easy to miss, especially as it is positioned well above most people’s line of sight and is only marked on one visible side. It also only makes note of the meat and fish departments being downstairs, ignoring two larger details: (a) that it is pointing to/at stairs and not just informing people that somehow they need to get downstairs, and (b) that all departments save those for produce and cheese were located downstairs.

Consumer Navigation

I couldn’t find the peanut butter. I’d waited too long to ask for help and I wasn’t going to fold now—for whatever reason, I needed to prove that I could do this in spite of my resistance to ask for or seek out help at the beginning of my search. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process, although primarily applied to students in a paper-writing capacity, felt like an apt lens through which to view my, and really anyone’s, travels and travails through a grocery store:

At initiation, I recognized the need for new information so that I could complete my shopping: I had to know where things were in this particular store. At selection, I picked items on my list to begin searching for as a way to become familiar with general navigation. Exploration and formulation were the biggest obstacle for me, as well as for Kuhlthau’s original study subjects, and I could only reach stage five’s collection after asking an intermediary or finally locating signage directly relevant for my search. I achieve search closure at both the location of each object on my list, and in the check-out line.

Although upon looking back it maybe shouldn’t have surprised me so much, but I did find it surprising how little interaction there was between user and digital technology, unless it’s through an intermediary—cashiers, or employees weighing meat or fish behind counters. Intermediaries were available during the shopping experience and it was at the discretion of the shopper-user to seek them out. And although there were more employees (and all willing to help) visible than at other grocery stores, none were there just to help direct users.

But with the sheer amount of signage, despite whether or not each sign actually imparted information, it felt like the store was saying to its shoppers: Why would you need us to help you? Can’t you figure it out yourself? Look at all the signs we made to make it easy for you!


My general difficulty with navigating this information environment came from the overwhelming proliferation of signage. Without sacrificing the necessity of grocery stores to send their users on a bit of a wild goose chase in order for them to stock up on items they may not have on their original shopping lists, I would suggest a focus on these three action items to start:

  • A better typographical system: while real estate on an individual sign is limited, it is even more difficult to decipher when categories are formatted as run-in lists, separated only by commas, rather than by columns which are easily deciphered visually.  The size of the font is also difficult to read, and it felt that the aisle number was given superficial importance over this.
  • Often supermarkets will have a general index attached to the end of each (or every other) aisle, which serve as a quick guide for both employees and users. An info guide such as this, or a blueprint map by department (similar to the ones they have in IKEA stores), would be a helpful addition to a user’s experience.
  • A clearer labeling of store staples with a typography setting it apart from the other signage would help call out the stairs, elevators, checkout lines with restrictions (e.g. “15 items or less”), and even the entrance and exit.


This observation setting could explore Buckland’s information-as-process (reading and interpreting signs to varying degrees of success) definition, but it is also an interesting look at how an information environment assumes certain inherent knowledge or ability to navigate its internal system from its users. While I’m not sure I can quite claim “hard-to-reach users” as a factor here, there are some barriers to entry (or at least to efficient use of the space), with increasing specificity: (a) knowledge of how grocery stores are generally laid out (i.e. produce near the entrance); (b) knowledge of how Fairway (or other chain brand) stores are generally laid out; and (c) knowledge of this specific [Fairway] location. This relates back to the first two stages of ISP, and can further be applied to suggestions for improvement. Through this observation, I gained a greater appreciation for the balance retail businesses must maintain between helping and leading astray their users; and I am convinced that there is a way to stabilize that balance without sacrificing one or the other.


Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as Thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5).

Kuhlthau, Carol (2004). Seeking Meaning: a process approach to library and information services. London: Libraries Unlimited.

For further reading on grocery stores as information environments:

Ocepek, M. G. (2017). Passive information behaviors while grocery shopping. Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 54(1), 507-510. doi:10.1002/pra2.2017.14505401058

“Advancing Racial Equity in Your Library” Event Response

For the Event attendance, I am reviewing the webinar entitled, “Advancing Racial Equity in Your Library: Case Studies from the Field,” presented by the Race Forward Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) on October 10, 2018.

The two speakers were Gordon Goodwin from the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, and Andrew Harbison from the Seattle Public Library. To help capture the intention of this talk, the goal of GARE was provided as, “to develop the capacity of libraries to make racial equity a priority within our libraries, cities, communities, and national associations.”

The topic of racial equity is a hot one being discussed in the information world, yet it is also a problem that has not been properly addressed still. With libraries being the sole free and accessible information and cultural center for most communities, racial equity needs to be made a priority. Children from poor and under-privileged areas are relying on technology and aid from public libraries more than ever to receive the same quality of education and opportunities as the more privileged communities.

If racial equity does not exist in libraries, it just adds to the problems the socially excluded face in society. Public libraries need to understand the magnitude of what social exclusion can do to a community. John Gehner points out that there are severe consequences to the, “negative perceptions affecting the way that professional librarians approach those who face social exclusion for many different reasons,” explaining what happens when libraries and their staff do not support equality.[1]

Realizing the importance of racial equity, specifically in public libraries, Goodwin and Harbison get right into it. Goodwin begins by laying out the goals they wanted this webinar to help achieve, which was first and foremost: to inform and to motivate the audience into action. I believe this is the purpose behind most, if not all, seminars and webinars dealing with social issues, specifically those about the information world. They are tools to educate and spread awareness for certain topics that are typically ignored, and motivation is the key to enacting change. Goodwin states right away that he wanted to, “Motivate listeners to take action, and how exactly to do that.”

The rest of the objectives for the talk were to understand the critical need for libraries to focus on race and improving equality for all communities, to learn about the ideas and tools that support racial equity, and how libraries are applying all of this to increase access and improve life for the patrons and staff of color.

Next the definition of racial equity is given as, “Closing the gaps so that race does not predict one’s success, while improving outcomes for all.” It is pointed out that race plays an important factor in determining how well someone does in life. Race helps to determine the barriers or blocks that people of color face in their life. Goodwin states that with improved racial equity, libraries can become places that help eliminate those barriers, and help to reduce race as decider for the success of an individual.

Putting race in front of equity targets the strategies for improving the quality of life and reduction of barriers that people of color face. Goodwin wants people to have an understanding that race does not separate humans beyond the superficial level of appearance, and that the practices and enforcement of laws within American society are still discriminatory, despite having removed the legality of segregation and racist discrimination. The cultural institutions we have still contribute to outcomes that disadvantage people of color, and that an awareness of this is an important first step in the right direction.

Briefly, Goodwin acknowledges the equal importance addressing the inequities faced based on gender, class, and disabilities. The intersectionality of these issues is key, as race plays a role even within the context of gender, class, and disabilities. He then continues onto the topic of how to begin achieving racial equity.

Thinking about issues of race and racism, Goodwin states a common tendency to focus on individuals, to immediately think about who is racist and how. It is better to focus on the institutional basis of racism, that changes within the structures of society are more important than individual cases or people. We need to be asking what roots of racism and prejudice exist within the foundations of our government and institutions, our groups of systems that determine how society functions. This will provide more equitable outcomes. Goodwin claims that, “achieving racial equity requires us to target strategies to focus improvements for those worse off,” and that there’s a need to, “Move beyond service provision to focus on changing policies, institutions and structures.”

Going into the history of libraries, and how during the creation of these institutions, people of color were not allowed any access. The roots of many laws and policies made at this time are still prevalent. Thinking about what laws and policies may still be negatively affecting certain communities inadvertently today can begin to address what changes need to be made. This means that there are rules that can unintentionally hurt certain people, such as the targeting of low-income groups that prevents people from participating fully.

Along this vein of thinking, there are also invisible or unknown prejudices ingrained into people by the institutionalized racism of our society that can be very harmful, as this prejudice leads to racist actions that can negatively impact people of color and the opportunities they receive. The example provided for this was a white librarian being more helpful to white patrons, waving their fees more often, and providing them with more renewals or leeway then they do for patrons of color. Collecting the data on the impact of practices and procedures on people of color is important in finding out what changes need to be made the most.

Implementing a racial equity initiative is the proposed solution for effectively changing things at the root of the problem, not just address individual blame or racism. Harbison begins polling the online audience on how many of them represent libraries that already have such an initiative. Case studies are gone through, providing evidence on what these initiatives have been able to successfully achieve and what impact on racial equity they have had. This wrapped up the webinar in an ideal way, as the first objective was to motivate action. Examples of how institutions executed that call for action and created a better society with better opportunities and a more equal treatment of people of color in places so relevant to the social exclusion and information access gap provide the best motivation for the audience, as they are able to see that this action works.

[1] John Gehner. Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion, p. 39.


-Brianna Martin, Sula Info 601

Webinar can be accessed here:

Slides provided to accompany presentation found here:


John Gehner (2010): Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion, Public Library Quarterly, 29:1, 39-47.