The Capabilities Approach & Social Justice in LAIS: Part 2 by Mckinley Churchwell

Welcome to the sequel. Last time I gave a brief overview of Martha Nussbaum’s take on the Capabilities Approach. The understanding of such a theory can help with informed social justice decision making and the critical evaluation of actions in the LAIS field. Today, I’ll be giving some examples that make the Central Capabilities tangible.

Central Capabilities 1-3: Life, bodily health, and bodily integrity

Libraries can assist with the capabilities of life, bodily health, and bodily integrity with community health initiatives; community health initiatives can include raising awareness about mental health, providing patrons with fitness trackers, or having librarians trained as “community health specialists” as was done in some Philadelphia libraries (Cabello & Butler, 2017). Libraries need to address literacy, this includes health literacy.

Some people complain about those experiencing homelessness “taking over” public libraries. Many libraries already realize that they are essential to the homeless population. For example, San Francisco was the first public library system in North America to hire a full-time social worker who could directly refer patrons of all kinds to proper help and who could address the needs of patrons struggling with homelessness and housing insecurity (Zettervall, 2015). Many libraries have followed suit. There is much talk in the field of public librarianship about the need for further collaboration between librarians and social workers. There is even discussion about the mixing of roles to create a librarian social worker hybrid. The social worker librarian idea is demonstrated by Zettervall’s idea of the “whole person librarian” which I mentioned in part one (2015, p.13); I highly recommend reading Zettervall’s article  “Whole Person Librarianship.” Despite all the progress that has been made in serving homeless or housing insecure populations, there is still so much more we need to do in order to support our communities’ life, bodily health, and bodily integrity capabilities.

Libraries participation in ensuring the capabilities of life, bodily health, and bodily integrity is especially important in rural communities where such resources might be scarce. It is essential to be aware of the needs of your community when planning your programming and displays. You should definitely take advantage of months and weeks like Dyslexia Awareness Month, Cervical Health Awareness Month, Mental Health Awareness Week, Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and the plethora of other awareness months. Displays and programs are great, but providing a permanent fixture of current resources through the library website or easily grabbable printables is also a wonderful thing to do.

Central Capabilitie 4-6: Senses, imagination, thought, emotions, and practical reason

Libraries are already pretty great at ensuring these capabilities and at innovating on new ways to ensure these capabilities better. Librarians generally value intellectual freedom, literacy, empathy, critical thinking, autonomy, and the magical realm of the imagination. Libraries care a lot about providing people with opportunities to better themselves. Many libraries mission and vision statements are some variation of: to create “a city where imagination and opportunity thrive“ and to provide a library that “brings people, information and ideas together to enrich lives and build community” (Seattle Public Library, 2017). According to Jaeger, Shilton, & Koepfler (2016), libraries, particularly public libraries, have expanded social roles and responsibilities (with great power comes great responsibility) and they are going to keep expanding. Mission and vision statements keep it vague because there’s a lot more we are going to end up doing. With the capabilities of emotion and practical reason, librarians often act as facilitators by providing materials and the reference services like reader’s advisory (which, particularly in regards to emotions, can sometimes cross the line into the controversial subject of librarians conducting bibliotherapy).

Now, here is how we can improve on these capabilities. The number one way to improve on these capabilities is by making sure that we are providing the public with diverse collections and programming. This means making sure that all book displays are diverse displays. The library needs to be welcoming to all and therefore needs to represent all.

If you don’t already know about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, then I highly recommend poking around their website:

Central Capability 7-10: Affiliation, other species, play, and control over one’s environment

There are two direct ways to ensure the affiliation capability in libraries:

  1. Community building AKA socializing your patrons.
  2. No discrimination whatsoever.

Sounds easy right? Now do that radically; be radically inclusive in your library.

Moving on. We can also help to ensure the control over one’s environment capability through the provision of ample volunteer positions, teen advisory boards, and patron feedback and suggestion forms. Another way to provide control over one’s environment in libraries is through the use of townhall style meetings. Libraries should also provide outlets for children to develop a sense of autonomy.

Despite many libraries lack of animals, many are doing pretty good at ensuring the other species capability. Libraries are ensuring this capability by creating community gardens, providing free National Parks passes, running programs that have children reading to or making blankets for dogs, and teaming up with parks, zoos, or the like to do educational programs on animals and the environment.

Lastly, libraries have become more and more about play. Libraries frequently encourage recreational activities with their wide range of programming and regular group meetings (i.e. quilting club, writers club, book club, anime club, Dungeons & Dragons club, and so on so on). Libraries have become louder, especially children’s and teen’s sections which often boast imagination stations or gaming computers. Learning and play often go hand in hand in public libraries.

In Conclusion

This topic could go on forever and you don’t have to stop here, you have access to google and your library’s databases. So, go, learn, and have a good time exploring how you can get your library rolling on ensuring that patrons’ capabilities!

Always remember: you are super capable of provoking change!

Works Cited

Cabello, M., & Butler, S. M. (2017). How public libraries help build healthy communities. Retrieved October 15, 2017, from

Jaeger, P. T., Shilton, K., & Koepfler, J. (2016). The Rise of Social Justice as a Guiding Principle in Library and Information Science Research. The Library Quarterly, 86(1), 1-9.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating Capabilities (Kindle Locations 219-395). Kindle Edition.

Seattle Public Library. (2017). The Seattle Public Library. Retrieved October 15, 2017, from

Zettervall, S. S. (2015). Whole Person Librarianship. Public Libraries, 54(2), 12-13.

One thought on “The Capabilities Approach & Social Justice in LAIS: Part 2 by Mckinley Churchwell

  1. Mckinley, I really enjoyed reading this article. I like the way you’ve taken larger accomplishments and put them into smaller, more doable activities. More than just doable, they seem exciting, fun, and rewarding for the librarian and patron. At times when we talk about social justice, it all seems theoretical and beyond our ability to change the minds of others. Your encouraging words make it seem possible and within our grasp. I so appreciate this article.


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