Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter peaceful protest

We are going through epochal times, wherever you look. The death of George Floyd and the BLM movement are bringing awareness of many huge and deeply rooted issues of racism, inequality and colonialism. As engaged librarians we must not lose this momentum. What can the library community do, from a practical point of view, to address these issues and contribute to change? 

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Thoughts on “denaturalizing whiteness in the academic library”

In pursuit of antiracist social justice : denaturalizing whiteness in the academic library; by Freeda Brook (Luther College in Decorah, Iowa), Dave Ellenwood (University of Washington, Bothell, and Cascadia College) and Althea Eannace Lazzaro (Seattle Central College)

In amongst all the theory on decolonisation and anti-racism that has been shared around in recent months, I cannot deny I was desperate for something that focused a bit more on the practical side of things ; although I’m beginning to understand what decolonisation and anti-racism broadly mean, I have a harder time connecting these concepts to my day to day work. The article In Pursuit of Antiracist Social Justice: Denaturalizing Whiteness in the Academic Library, in spite of its ambitious title, helped me join the dots. Although the text’s starting point is theoretical – looking at various US professional librarianship documents through a critical race theory lens – it ends up giving a lot of interesting tools and advice to fight what Diane Lynn Gusa calls “White institutional presence” in libraries. Various aspects of academic librarianship are thus examined:

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Thoughts on “Ethnic and racial diversity in libraries”

Ethnic and racial diversity in libraries: how white allies can support arguments for decolonisation; by Michelle Gohr (Arizona State University, US) 

As a staff member of an elite institution with a very old and often controversial history, this article really posed some very good and timely questions. In a pledge not to adhere to the assumption that as librarians we are and must be neutral, the author reminds us how “white people are taught not to recognise their privileges”, such as that of access to education. In a society led by one single version of meritocracy, where social status is given by the level of education, we “fail to acknowledge greater intersecting structures of social inequality”. And what does that mean in library terms? How do we move away from the self-congratulatory diversity rhetoric? What are the structural changes that would go against replicating whiteness, in the sense of “whites as universal humans who can represent all of human experience” and “are insulated from race-based stresses”? Gohr argues that “librarianship assumes access to wealth or tolerance for debt to afford tuition, professional membership and service opportunities”. The idea of moving away from “measuring skill and ability only through the construct of merit”, to offer alternative paths to librarianship (other than master’s degrees and accreditation) and to change hiring practices so that they properly acknowledge different roads to competencies seems revolutionary but is actually very reasonable. 

Clara Panozzo Zénere – Latin American & Iberian Collections, Collections and Academic Liaison Department, Cambridge University Library.

Thoughts on “Classification along the color line”

Classification along the color line: excavating racism in the stacks ; by Melissa Adler (University of Kentucky) 

For those of us who work with the major English-language cataloguing and classification systems (such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings we use at Cambridge University), the problematic way in which they deal with race is often distressingly clear. This article clearly and comprehensively outlines the roots of these systems and how their effects continue into the present day. 

The basis of modern English-language library classification was formulated by powerful American white men in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as part of a broader socio-political strategy to create a modern industrial post-slavery society with a very clear racial hierarchy. These men were heavily influenced by new evolutionary theory and principles, which they interpreted and applied in such a way that “social engineering, white supremacy, and conquest were justified and propelled by beliefs in the evolutionary superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race”. Their classification systems were created by and for white people, presenting “an assumed, universalized whiteness” with black people as other in opposition to this and certainly not among the perceived “class of people who use the library”. As Melissa Adler writes, “library classifications provide narratives of how librarians imagined African Americans to be of interest to an American reading public, but not of a reading public”. 

Despite changes in offensive terminology over the years, these are still the foundations of modern cataloguing and classification and, like many aspects of structural/systemic racism, difficult to change “because of their hiddenness and their power with regard to access and ordering of knowledge”. Therefore, we must always think critically about this aspect of librarianship, which is often perceived as neutral, and seek to organise information “in ways that counter dominant narratives about race”. We must always question these “hidden” systems of knowledge, asking ourselves, “what if a classification assumed something other than an unnamed whiteness as a universalized norm for its essential framework?” 

Christopher Greenberg – Library Assistant (Spanish & Portuguese), Cambridge University Library.