When examining the role of social justice in library science, a librarian must understand the social responsibility that is bestowed upon his or her role. Often, librarians and library workers with social privilege mistakenly act as though social justice only applies to community patrons. Unfortunately, social justice issues are not exclusively limited to the society that library science aims to educate. Librarians are often considered advocates for less privileged individuals, yet librarians forget to remain vigilant for one other cause closer to home: the obstacles endured by librarians of color within the field. These obstacles can come in the form of microaggressions from coworkers and/or patrons, added difficulty in achieving tenure, or simply a sense of loneliness resulting in lack of mentorship. As the new generation of library professionals enters into the field, it is our responsibility to recognize the signs of social injustice towards our peers and patrons, and to act against those injustices. Only with the support of all librarians can we move to secure a progressive path forward.
The first step in fighting for social injustice is for a librarian to first acknowledge their own privilege. The majority of the library science field are white women, and the abundance of privilege (unrealized or unsympathetic) can cause a general discomfort and awkwardness around the social justice topic. As Collins and Jun (2017) address in White out: Understanding white privilege and dominance in the modern age, white privilege is equal to a virus. “Whitefluenza” is as dangerous as explicit acts of racism in that the carrier is often unaware of the virus they are spread. Collins notes the “weaker strands of the virus are a key defender in maintaining White dominance. Inability to see the virus supports its survival and prevents inoculation in the form of recognition and consciousness” (p. 34).
Failure to recognize one’s privilege (whether accidental or deliberate) not only aids “explicit racism,” but also help to keep institutional racism in the library science field. Damasco and Hodges noted in “Tenure and promotion experiences of academic librarians of color,” a 2012 survey study, that 66.7% of minority academic librarians did not feel fairly evaluated by superiors and less than half indicated their opinions were openly valued in regards to decisions about their libraries (p. 296). Other minority librarians in this survey expressed discouragement from colleagues when presenting research projects focusing on social justice, leading Damasco and Hodges to conclude that librarians of color “might not have safe venues to share their opinions” (p. 300). The reluctance from other librarians to address racial issue may be found in the notion of “colorblindness” or “neutrality.” Cooke and Minarik’s “Linking LIS graduate study and social identity as a social justice issue: Preparing students for critically conscious practice” (2016) notes that some may choose to completely ignore race, or be colorblind, with the hope that racism will disappear if race is ignored (p. 185). Jensen’s “The Myth of the Neutral Professional” (2008) echoes the words of Horton and Tutu in stating the neutrality does not relieve one’s accountability for the hateful actions of others (p. 91). Regrettably, invoking claims to colorblindness or neutrality in situations when assistance is needed simply piles on the number of microaggressions against a person of color rather than providing relief to the racial issue.
A separate survey conducted in “Racial microaggressions in academic libraries: Results of a survey of minority and non-minority librarians,” Alabi (2015) surveyed 185 librarians, both minority and non-minority, about microaggressions and racism in the libraries. The survey not only recorded the number of racial grievances librarians of color experience, but also the response and observations of their non-minority counterparts. In addition to confirming that non-minority employees hold a larger amount of leadership positions, Alabi found that non-minority librarians observed or reported a significantly lower amount of microaggressions towards minority colleagues (p. 50). Additionally, Alabi observed:
Minority academic librarians are also more likely to perceived racial microaggressions directed toward colleagues. However, non-minority librarians are unlikely to report observing racial microaggressions. This suggests that the disconnect between perceptions of minority and non-minority librarians . . . persists. (p. 52)
An important question raised by Damasco, Hodges, and Alabi’s findings is whether a field that is predominately white and unsympathetic towards workers in the field can cater service to the diverse needs of a community?
As Morales, Knowles, and Bourg (2014) indicate in “Diversity, social justice, and the future of libraries,” librarians will refer back to the ALA Core Values for guidance. As librarians, our social responsibility is to uphold diversity, therefore “[s]ocial responsibility is likewise one of the core values of librarianship” (Morales et al., p. 439). Though the ALA is clear on their stance on diversity and a librarian’s position of social responsibility can be assumed from the ALA core values, a disconnect remains between a non-minority librarian’s support for the rights of minority patrons, but not for fellow librarians. According to Gustina and Guinnee’s “Why social justice in the library?” (2017), librarians around the country are becoming more vocal about social justice issues and the “radical inclusivity movement” noting, “privilege or lack thereof can directly impact [an individual’s] ability to access the services a library provides if the library doesn’t take purposeful action to design services” (pp. 52-53). Yet as Morales stresses, inclusivity in libraries must first begin with the employees:
“[L]ibrary leaders must also acknowledge the ways in which library practices frequently contribute to inequity, marginalization, and injustices; and commit to transforming our practices and standards in ways that leverage the power, expertise, and responsibility of academic librarians and libraries as forces for social justice” (Morales et al., 2014, p. 448).
Our task as the new generation of library professionals is to consider the topics that can often seem uncomfortable and act as a champion for social justice. In doing so, librarians of color and privileged librarians must work together to raise awareness and conversation about current our racial issues.
Alabi, J. (2015). Racial microaggressions in academic libraries: Results of a survey of minority and non-minority librarians. The Journal of academic librarianship, 41(1), 47-53. doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2014.10.008
Collins, C. S., & Jun, A. (2017). White out: Understanding white privilege and dominance in the modern age. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing Inc. New York.
Cooke, N. A., & Minarik, J. D. (2016). Linking LIS graduate study and social identity as a social justice issue: Preparing students for critically conscious practice. In B. Mehra & K. Rioux (Eds.), Progressive community action: critical theory and social justice in library and information science (pp. 181-214). Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.
Damasco, I. T., & Hodges, D. (2012). Tenure and promotion experiences of academic librarians of color. College & research libraries, 73(3), 279-301. doi:10.5860/crl-244
Gustina, M., & Guinnee, E. (2017). Why social justice in the library? Library Journal, 142(10), 52-55. Retrieved September 29, 2017.
Jensen, R. (2008). The Myth of the neutral professional. In A. Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality (pp. 89-96). Duluth, MN: Library juice press.
Morales, M., Knowles, E. C., & Bourg, C. (2014). Diversity, social justice, and the future of libraries. Libraries and the academy, 14(3), 439-451. Retrieved September 29, 2017.