Dismantling White Supremacy in Public Libraries

Like nice white librarians, the title probably made you bristle. Knowing the swift and harsh criticism leveraged from nice white librarians when urged to read more inclusively in order to better serve the communities, it’s probably even more painful to wakeup to the reality public libraries in America are steeped in white supremacist ideas. There’ve been pushes for more diversity in the field—an admirable step for a better, more representative workforce—but until the structures that allow white supremacy are dismantled, the public libraries of America will continue to be institutions privileging whiteness.

“But that’s how it’s always been done” is the common refrain and the common meme about why things don’t change in libraries. The reality is, the way things have always been done is privileged, elitist, and racist. It shouldn’t take mass protests and continued murder of Black people at the hands of the police to cause change. But now more than ever, amid the uprising for racial justice and the changing workplace norms in light of a global pandemic, is an opportunity to change. Public libraries not changing right now should feel shame and embarrassment for not doing better.

It’s simple: not doing better doesn’t serve your community. And no, your community, no matter where you are, isn’t all nice white people who vote a certain way, speak a certain language, and follow a simple set of “norms.” That’s what you’re choosing to see and privilege. Your community, even in one comprised 100% of those who identify as white, is diverse in capacities you cannot comprehend if you don’t take the time to do just that.

More: if you community is 100% white, you have a lot of work to do to open their eyes to the rest of the world, which is the furthest thing from that bubble.

Challenging White Supremacy in Libraries

The above graphic, posted on Instagram by Kristen Wood at DiverseGraphicNovels, has unknown sourcing but gets to so many of the exact issues, so let’s take a deep dive into what these things mean and how they should be changed.

As always when it comes to anti-racist work, if your first thought is “but why” or any variation therein, your work is to pause and ask yourself why you’re even asking the question. That right there tells you where your biases lie.

Requiring an ID for Service and Cards

What purpose does having an ID have in your library? Where do you require it? Do computer users need to prove that they are registered in order to access services their tax dollars pay for? Are folks who aren’t from your community not entitled to the core tenant of public libraries: access to information?

While this certainly impacts adult library users, the burden is even greater on young library users. Many cannot get a library card without a parent to prove their identity, and that demand requires a parent to have time to show up at the library, with their child, as well as appropriate proof of residency, in order for their child to use library resources.

A big reason libraries have elected to eliminate fines is because they’re a barrier to access. So are cards.

Where are you insisting on ID in your library? Where can you elect to remove that barrier? In what new, creative ways can you keep tabs on your material that doesn’t put the onus on your community? Chances are, you have multiple options.

Of course, privacy matters in libraries. We can thank the Patriot Act for a lot of the measures in libraries to protect privacy. But perhaps that’s simply a crutch for ignoring the deeper, harder work of innovation.

Do you fight for voting rights? For ending voter suppression? Then you should be putting that same energy and fight into ID requirements in public libraries.

assorted books
Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

Requiring Advanced Degrees and ALA Accreditation

Public librarians do not need a master’s degree to help people. Period, end of statement. The master’s degree is but a coupon proving you’ve had access to capital in the form of time, money, and education. It doesn’t mean you know how to help people any better than someone who has worked in any other job. Sure, you learned some resources and tools to find information, but chances are someone who has a high school degree can easily figure out those same resources and tools.

Chances are, too, many of those who did not attend an advanced program are well read and assets to their communities in ways no degree could offer.

ALA Accreditation is another tool of supremacy, in that some schools are seen as better than others and privileged as such through the ideas of a professional organization—one that, as has been shown again and again, has its own roots in white supremacy and racism.

It also costs a boatload of money to be an active member of ALA. So on top of the tens of thousands of dollars to attend a master’s program in library studies, there’s an annual cost in membership.

The insistence that the education matters is supremacy in action. It doesn’t. The skills can be taught on the job or through trade classes and programs at low or no cost to the student. Instead, the need for a masters degree privileges the few who can afford the hoop jumping to land in the field.

Unfortunately, where library schools can do work teaching how to navigate databases, they don’t offer the hands-on skills needed to work with a diverse public comprised of humans. I’ve been of the belief that those who’ve worked in what now are considered “essential” jobs—retail and food service specifically—are among the best librarians. They know how to listen to, talk to, and help people face-to-face. They don’t need a fancy degree to separate themselves as humans from other humans.

Fine Structures

Revisit the above topic. Click those links.

You don’t need fines.

Presence of Uniformed Officers

You already know what bodies police unjustly target.

“But we need security.”

Do you? Or do you simply believe you need the facade of security?

Your Black and Brown patrons and staff aren’t going to feel safe in the same space as a uniformed officer the way that white patrons and staff do. Period.

English-Only Materials and Signs

It’s likely your community doesn’t only speak English. They speak a wide range of languages, from Spanish to Korean to Tagalog. When you better understand your community and learn their demographics, you can accommodate the entire community by making materials and signage available in other languages.

If you don’t have a staff member who can translate for you, that as an excuse is inexcusable. Reach out to your community members and ask them to pitch in. Many would gladly volunteer their skills to give back to their libraries. Or, even better, pay someone to do that work for you. Maybe by eliminating unnecessary expenses in the library, that extra bit of change could go toward paying someone to translate all your print and online material.

The bread and butter of libraries are books. You can offer the world, but it’s books, reading, and information your patrons know you for. This means you need to curate a collection reflective of your community. Your shelves should have books in Spanish, in Korean, in Tagalog or any other language the people you serve speak. It takes work to find them, but that work is necessary to do.

Even if your budget is tiny, make it clear how patrons can request these books and don’t make interlibrary loan services a challenge. Be willing and eager to get those books for your readers. That’s your job.

Dress Codes and Behavior Expectations That Enforce White Norms

What’s your staff and/or patron dress code look like? Many have talked about the classism in appearance expectations—they often target those experiencing homelessness who do not have access to facilities for hygienic needs—but the discussion often doesn’t go deep into how these dress and behavioral expectations are white.

Do you expect anyone with a head covering to remove it? What about hats? How do you define looking “professional” for your staff? In what ways are you upholding a specific idea and in what ways is that specific idea white?

Libraries in the last few decades have prided themselves on no longer being quiet places. And yet, they still enforce certain behavioral expectations of quiet that fall under white supremacist ideals. Whose voices and experiences are impinged upon and which ones are given a pass?

It requires really looking hard and understanding trends. Because chances are the trends in your write-ups are not about rules being broken. Instead, they’re about who those rules are applied to and who gets a pass.

Racist Cataloging Systems

Dewey’s system is racist. By now, libraries that don’t acknowledge this do so willfully.

Look at your cataloging schemas. What can you change? Chances are you have entire categories in your system called “African-American.” This term is limiting to the Black experience, and in many applications, is entirely incorrect. There’s no reason that can’t be changed in a digital era. It will take time and work to do so, but the work of anti-racism and dismantling white supremacy is just that: time and work.

Maybe it’s time to develop a cataloging system that speaks specifically to your community. Stop worrying about other libraries in your system. Focus on how you best serve your community.

Xwi7xwa Library could be a template to get you thinking about the colonizing and racist systems of cataloging materials and how to break free from those.

woman in white tank top holding book
Photo by Sansern Prakonsin on Unsplash

High Expenses for Professional Development

The same issues present in the challenges of acquiring an advanced degree are those which pervade professional development. You’ll need to pay for a professional membership to get a discounted cost of attendance. Add to that any necessary travel, lodging, and meals—not to mention expenses like child care that happen outside the professional development itself—and even a “local” event adds up to a lot of money.

Not all libraries offer expense reimbursement. Given how many have eliminated that budget line, it’s likely more rare libraries reimburse than not.

Organizations like the ALA and its divisions keep their development available only for the privileged. Imagine a world where committee work did not need to be in person. Perhaps you don’t even need to imagine—with the global pandemic, we’ve all managed to make Zoom meetings a norm. In what ways can we demand this continue to be a norm and open up opportunities to those who don’t have the means to leave where they are located? Imagine how different the top book prizes would look if committee members did not need to commit to attending one or two events out of town to participate.

Professional development texts in librarianship are outrageously priced, too. Most of the writers are themselves librarians, and chances are, they don’t get paid much, if anything, for their work. Their books are then packaged and sold for upwards of $50 and more for a paperback. (Disclosure: my first book was a book for YA librarians about YA realistic fiction, and I earned not a penny in advance for it—but the publisher sold it for over $50 a pop in flimsy paperback form. It was in no way a valuable tool for those who needed it most, as the cost prohibited the very audience for it to gain access to it).

While more and more librarians offer their free knowledge and labor via online content such as blogs and social media, that’s free labor on their part and requires time for those using it to seek it out and digest it. This is often time on the employee’s own schedule and not their work schedule, privileging those who have more free time to spend developing outside of their workplace.

Reimagine how professional development could look. Why can’t everyone on staff have an hour of paid work time per week dedicated to whatever professional development they choose? Perhaps that development is a lunch date with a colleague at another library. Perhaps that development is reading professional literature without any expectation of regurgitation or production. That professional development could also be getting out of the building and putting in an hour of working in the dirt at a local community garden. Planting and weeding alongside the people served likely offers far more in terms of development and knowledge than pricier, more distant options.

Imagine giving staff an hour of professional development time a week that could lead them to participating in a Black Lives Matter event, asking questions about how the library can better serve Black people in their community, and then bringing that information back and making changes immediately.

An hour a week is 52 hours a year.

Yeah, but…

“But” is an excuse. “But” is how you’ve always done it.

If you’re actually going to do better, rather than virtue signal about doing better, you need to sit with each and every “but” that comes up and question what’s really at the heart of that interjection.

Chances are it’s white supremacy and racism in action.

Do better by your community. Do better by your profession. Do better by the world and be the shining example of an institution that really and truly operates for the benefit of everyone.

Make your book lists and highlight your anti-racist books. Read them and discuss them.

To make real change, though, requires more than that. It requires time, work, and effort.

This is the chance to put your thoughts and feelings into actions and change.