whiteness, social justice and the future of libraries

The wonderful Mark Puente of ARL invited me to join Miguel Figueroa of the ALA Center for the Future of Libraries, and Elliott Shore, executive director of ARL on a panel about the future of libraries at the ARL Leadership Symposium (#ARLDivLead16). We were each asked to talk for just a few minutes about important trends, and/or our vision for the future of libraries.

Essentially, I said that I hope we will create the future we want for libraries, and that the future I want is one where we confront our whiteness problem and where libraries fulfill their promise of being forces for social justice and equity in their communities.

I also tried to be clear that while programs like the ARL diversity recruitment and retention programs are SUPER important, it is not up to librarians of color to solve the whiteness problem in librarianship – that’s on us white folk.

Below are my notes, but I didn’t really use them. Note also that there are precious few specifics in these notes, because 5-7 minutes doesn’t leave room for too many definitions and examples.

My notes:

My take on the future of libraries and archives boils down to two things that I think are imperative and intertwined:

  1. We need to actively create the future we want, rather than passively respond to trends, expectations, and neoliberal pressures to act more like a business
  2. We need to be forces for social justice and equity in local, national, and global context

And then there is a 3rd thing — which is really the 1st thing and the fundamental thing. And that is that if libraries have any hope of remaining relevant and of fulfilling our original radical mission of providing unfettered access to knowledge for everyone, then I think we need to deal with our whiteness problem.

So, in term of actively creating our future –

I am less interested in how libraries can respond to changes in higher education and much more interested in how libraries and those of us who work in them can create the change we believe in.  I think it is a mistake for libraries and librarians and archivists to continually look externally for trends and signals and signposts. I want libraries to be trend-setters, not followers.

We have a particular expertise, a perspective, and a set of values that goes well beyond merely supporting and advising faculty and students – we need to lean in and claim our seat at the table when the future of higher education is debated and decided.

I think open access advocacy is an area where libraries have led and can continue to lead. I think we have the opportunity to lead in terms of not just data management planning, but in developing best practices around open data and data privacy.

I think that in any local context there will be opportunities for the libraries to lead on issues of particular importance to their communities.

In terms of being forces for social justice and equity, I think librarians’ single most important contribution to the future will be to equip our communities with the history, the context, and the data to understand and solve the big problems of our times – which include persistent racial and ethnic injustice, climate change, global poverty, refugee crises, and a rise in religious and ethnic intolerance nationally and globally.

I also think librarians and archivists are uniquely equipped to help students and our communities understand that the issues we are grappling with as a society have histories.

A big part of my vision for the future of libraries is of libraries as inclusive spaces  — physical, virtual, and metaphorical spaces — where our communities and our students are equipped, inspired, and supported in having difficult dialogues about hard social issues.

I very much believe that libraries ought to be the places on campus where community members, students especially, feel the most free to talk about difficult topics, to express and explore the full range of opinions and ideas on the highly charged topics that are part of their social world. For many students, college is a time when they are forming and reforming their identities, and they need spaces where it is safe to try on opinions and ideas and feelings about the world and their place in it.

We can and should provide access to the information and the tools to understand current events and to help students critically evaluate the many increasingly polarized views on issues like climate change, immigration, race relations, police brutality, terrorism, etc. etc. ….

One advantage many of us have as librarians on a college campus is that we are adults with lots of information and expertise and knowledge to share with students, but we are usually not in a position of authority or evaluation over them. That produces a kind of setting, and the possibility of a kind of relationship where students can be intellectually and emotionally vulnerable in front of us and with us.

And that brings us to librarianship’s whiteness problem —which is a demographic and a cultural problem.

Demographically, y’all probably know the statistics:

Librarianship is 88% white, the US population (2013 figures) is 62% white, with a projection for 2060 that white people will make up only 40% of the population.

The college student population likewise far more diverse than librarianship – National Center for Education Statistics says college student population will be 58% white in 5 years time. And even though programs like the various ARL diversity programs represented here are making a difference – only 71% of 2012 MLS students are white compared to 88% of current credentialed librarians – we still have a whiteness problem. What kind of message does it send to our patrons (or potential patrons), to current and future librarians, and to society at large when we claim to value diversity; but we remain so painfully white?

And librarianship and its practices are likewise steeped in and centered on whiteness  – from the persistence of racist and dehumanizing LC subject headings, to the way we let popularity and/or various societal gatekeepers influence our collection development decisions. The NY Times summer reading list for 2015 was all white authors. None of the last 15 pulitzer prize awards for fiction has gone to a book by a woman about women. And the top hit on OCLC WorldCat for the subject of African American Women Fiction is The Help.

So, the future I want for libraries is for us to deal with our whiteness problem. And to end on a slightly upbeat note – I think we tackle that problem on at least two fronts. One is to continue to support and expand on the awesome and beautiful work of programs like these to support people of color and other marginalized and underrepresented people in careers in libraries; and the other is to educate and motivate those us in leadership positions to start to work on the structural and systemic issues. And here I am optimistic about the efforts of the ARL Diversity & Inclusion Committee to keep these issues on the agenda at every ARL directors meeting and to push for increased awareness and sharing of best practices around promoting diversity & inclusion in and through our libraries.

For further reading:
Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship by Angela Galvan
White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS  by April Hathcock
Diversity, Social Justice, and the Future of Libraries by Myrna Morales, Em Claire Knowles and Chris Bourg

Related blog posts of mine:
The Unbearable Whiteness of Librarianship

feminism and the collective collection

Librarianing to Transgress

6 Responses to “whiteness, social justice and the future of libraries”


  1. 1 Rachel Shaw October 25, 2016 at 8:04 pm

    I deeply appreciate your vision of the future of libraries, Chris. Thank you for sharing this!

    Like

  2. 2 Shawn P. Calhoun January 11, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    “It is not up to librarians of color to solve the whiteness problem in librarianship” The burden is real. Thank you for taking responsibility and recognizing what so many of us know.

    Like

  3. 3 Karen Schmidt January 9, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    Right on with this, and thank you for this reminder of who we are and what we can do.

    Like


  1. 1 Whiteness, Librarianship, and Me – Checking out Whiteness Trackback on October 20, 2016 at 9:04 am
  2. 2 LIS Programs & the Need for Dialogue | hls Trackback on July 6, 2016 at 8:01 am
  3. 3 “Five Generations of Asian Americans” by Molly Higgins | APALA Trackback on February 1, 2016 at 2:10 pm

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