Social Justice and Critical Librarianship

Every two years, the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Research Planning and Review Committee publishes an article on the top trends and issues affecting academic libraries in higher education. We will be highlighting some of these trends through a number of blog posts over the next few weeks.


Introduction

When the June issue of College & Research Libraries News was going to press, the ACRL Research Planning and Review Committee could not have known just how relevant social justice—one of nine top trends they identified—would become as the year wore on. Indeed, they admit: “This article was written well before the world was fully aware of the novel coronavirus that has since spread around the globe.”

Nighttime photograph of police in riot gear standing in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. on May 31, 2020.
George Floyd Protest by Ken Fager. May 31, 2020. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

As it happened, though, the article on the 2020 top trends in academic libraries appeared not only months into the pandemic (which continues to rage around the world) but, more significantly, just days after George Floyd was murdered on Memorial Day by a police officer. Since March, the pandemic had been bringing increased attention to the digital divide and systemic racism (especially as evidenced by the plight of low-wage workers, who are disproportionately people of color), but Floyd’s murder in May triggered international outcry for an honest-to-God reckoning. The DC Public Library responded very quickly to the “sickening killing,” recognizing the fact that “Libraries have always served a critical role during times of upheaval and disruption.” Meanwhile, Catholic University President John Garvey did not mince words about the “sin of racism.”

Although public libraries have traditionally been on the front lines when it comes to social justice, academic libraries certainly have a role to play, too. As part of a Catholic institution, the library community at CatholicU arguably has an even higher calling to social justice. In the remainder of this post, I will introduce the concept of critical librarianship and point to some recent examples of how the University’s library community is embracing social justice.

Critical Librarianship

In a nutshell, critical librarianship “acknowledges and then interrogates the structures that produce us” (Drabinski, 2019, p. 49). In other words, critical librarianship (#critlib) wrestles with the social inequities that make it imperative for others of us along the way to level the playing field. The clichéd first step is admitting there’s a problem: “libraries and others in the classification business” partake in the necessary evil of perpetuating ideological structures (Drabinski, 2019, p. 50). For example, academic libraries customarily arrange their materials in accordance with the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) system. Developed in the United States, the LCC is a prime example of a power structure with a built-in Western bias that, as a result, “[facilitates] some ways of knowing and not others, [and represents] certain ideological ways of seeing the world, and, crucially, not others” (Drabinski, 2019, p. 50). Now, no one is suggesting that we throw the LCC out the window. A library without a classification system would be chaos. At the same time, however, as stewards of information we must be cognizant of the ways in which the library winds up reinforcing the “ghettoization and marginalization” that minorities of all sorts—racial, sexual, religious—experience every day in the wider world (Drabinski, 2019, p. 51).

On the one hand, the classification conundrum resonates with me as an English major whose favorite class was a required one in which we read Stephen Greenblatt, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Seamus Deane, Louis Althusser, and others whose ideas have shaped critical theory and literary study. On the other hand, geeking out over the perniciousness of ideology seems painfully academic when the field of library and information science (LIS) is still so blindingly white. This is especially true of academic libraries, which tend to be “homogeneously staffed” by not just white people, but narrowly middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, English-speaking white people (Drabinski, 2019, p. 55). For the record, that’s me on every count.

As I researched critical librarianship for this blogpost, I found myself less persuaded by collection development strategies like “spiral collecting” (Berthoud & Finn, 2019) and more convinced that the root of the problem in LIS stems from Dr. Nicole A. Cooke’s observation that it “is a predominantly white profession serving communities that are anything but” (Cooke, 2020, p. 90). In the courageous 2019 series “Getting it on the Record: Faculty of Color in Library and Information Science,” Dr. Cooke along with Joe O. Sánchez assembled “ethnographic counter-stories” in order to identify patterns of experience among LIS faculty of color. (CatholicU’s own Dr. Renate L. Chancellor was among the contributing authors.) Aside from tokenism in the form of “diversity hires,” the overwhelmingly white LIS profession is also guilty of paternalism; libraries have “a long history of perceiving and treating ethnic minorities and differently abled patrons as in need of extra help, special instruction, and charitable tolerance” (Cooke & Sánchez, 2019, p. 172). The authors argue emphatically that social diversity is about more than “avoiding legal liability and fulfilling bureaucratic quotas”; it promotes an all-around “healthier and better intellectual environment for an academic setting than social homogeneity” (Cooke & Sánchez, 2019, p. 177).

#CritLib at CatholicU

From my standpoint—as a full-time employee of the archives and a part-time graduate LIS student—the library community at CatholicU has two things going for it.

Collage of three images of Pope Leo XIII from the University's museum collection
Less historically, reminders of Pope Leo XIII’s importance to the University are hard to miss as you make your way around campus today. Clockwise from right: a massive marble statue of Pope Leo XIII dominates one end of the foyer in McMahon Hall; an enormous portrait of him hangs on the wall of the Provost’s office a few doors down; and, importantly for us, a bust of Pope Leo XIII stands on the first floor of Mullen Library.

First of all, the University has a strong historic connection to social justice, perhaps best embodied by Pope Leo XIII—whose “landmark 1891 document Rerum novarum has often been called the Magna Charta of modern Catholic social teaching” (Holland, 2003, p. 2). A few years before he issued his revolutionary encyclical, Pope Leo XIII helped usher the University into being. (To this day, CatholicU celebrates Founders Day on April 10—the day in 1887 when Pope Leo XIII wrote to Cardinal Gibbons approving the plans for the University.)

Secondly, the University is home to the only graduate LIS program in the District (which is in turn one of only two programs in the wider region, the other of course being the University of Maryland’s iSchool). As such, CatholicU is not only a center of intellectual discourse on LIS but also an ambassador of sorts. To that end, it is notable that the LIS Department does not merely preach the #critlib values of diversity and inclusion; all of the full-time faculty are not only women, but women of color.

Drawing on its dual role as a regional ambassador for librarianship and an heir of Pope Leo’s legacy, the library community at CatholicU has actively risen to the occasion in recent months.

Summary

Although the impetus for this blogpost was the 2020 top trends article, I would like to leave off by paraphrasing a point that Dr. Cooke made in her recent lecture: Social justice is not a trend. It is a continuous imperative. Critical librarianship calls us to be vigilant and conscientious in our work by constantly re-examining our practices with an eye towards social justice.

References and Further Reading

Berthoud, Heidy and Rachel Finn. (January 2019). “Bringing Social Justice behind the Scenes: Transforming the Work of Technical Services,” Serials Librarian, 76(1–4), 162–69. https://doi.org/10.1080/0361526X.2019.1583526.

Brown, Nicholas A. (October 2020). Maryland Libraries’ Antiracism Programming Goes Global | Programs that Pop. Library Journal. https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=maryland-libraries-antiracism-programming-goes-global-programs-that-pop

Cooke, Nicole A. (2020). Critical Library Instruction as a Pedagogical Tool. Communications in Information Literacy, 14(1), 86–96. https://doi.org/10.15760/comminfolit.2020.14.1.7.

Cooke, Nicole A. (2017). Librarians as active bystanders: centering social justice in LIS practice. In K. Haycock & M.-J. Romaniuk (Eds.), The portable MLIS: Insights from the experts (2nd ed., pp. 39–47). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited.

Cooke, Nicole A. and Joe O. Sánchez. (2019). Getting it on the Record: Faculty of Color in Library and Information Science. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 60(3), 169–181. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3138/jelis.60.3.01.

Chancellor, Renate L. (2019). Racial battle fatigue: The unspoken burden of black women faculty in LIS. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 60(3), 182–189. DOI: http://dx.doi.org.proxycu.wrlc.org/10.3138/jelis.2019-0007.

Drabinski, Emily. (April 2019). What Is Critical about Critical Librarianship? Art Libraries Journal, 44(2), 49–57. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/alj.2019.3.

Holland, Joe. (2003). Modern Catholic Social Teaching: The Popes Confront the Industrial Age 1740-1958. Paulist Press.

Share this:
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

Leave a Reply