Librarianship for Social Justice

By Carissa

Personal note: in this blog post, I am trying to think my way through an issue on which I know I need to educate myself more. I am white, with a legacy that includes Southern slaveholders on my father’s side and German Nazis on my mother’s. It is my intention not to center Black Lives Matter around white people or the predominantly white professional fields discussed here, nor to suggest that White Saviors can step in to fix things, nor to pass the buck of responsibility to black activists, but instead to develop some kind of context for using this library degree in a transformative way. I don’t know if I’ve done this well, but I hope it’s better than not addressing the question at all.

In “The Myth of the Neutral Professional,” Robert Jensen sets up the following premise for his argument:

Those who rule have come to realize that one advantage of a relatively open society is that it fosters a dynamic, creative intellectual climate that fosters innovation. To elites, that innovation is desirable in certain realms (especially the sciences, both pure and applied) but potentially dangerous in other realms (especially the humanities and social sciences). The question remains: how to encourage innovation in one arena but discourage it in the other? This requires the state, and the elites it represents, to maximize social control through a more complex management of ideology and of the institutions that reproduce and transmit that ideology. (2)

Jensen rightly goes on to note that the myth of neutrality in academic discourse arose from this need to maintain hegemony. For my purposes this semester and professionally thereafter, I take the neutral professional class to mean primarily librarians, academics, and researchers within the information professions. To be taken seriously in these roles, one must claim not to take an explicit position on policies at odds within the current system, and must certainly not take action to derail the “moving train” of society (4).

In practice, the idea that professionals can objectively mediate between warring interests by remaining disinterested themselves not only serves as a check on their own ideas, but allows for this class to serve as gatekeepers to ideas from outside, too. Thus viewpoints or inquiry that do not represent much of a threat to the status quo are safely channelled and legitimized, while ideas “on the fringe” remain there to rot.

As Jensen notes, there are certainly individuals in libraries, academia, journalism, and like institutions who resist total conformity to this system, but it “works well enough to keep things running relatively smoothly these days” (7).

Consider current methods of addressing the Black Lives Matters movement in our cultural institutions: so far, progressive libraries on the leading edge of this issue have distinguished themselves through reading lists, displays, forums, and discussions (*links below). Individuals from communities that continue to be brutalized after a long history of violent oppression and powerlessness are now being assured that at least their voices are being heard. That the slow march of progress has reached the major step of acknowledging the Black community’s right to speak. That now they get to be a part of the systems that uphold our society’s basic power relations and mainstream institutions, through basic representation in writing and publishing, political dialogue, the historical narrative.

Now, inclusion is good. Representation is good. Interpersonal reconciliation is good. Providing spaces and books and talks that help the pain of individuals and communities begin to heal is good. There is power in these actions.

But inclusion is not quite the same as societal transformation at underlying levels. At best, the strategies above resolve some obvious concerns (like representation) but fall short of dismantling our economic and political system’s reliance on inequality.

What we’re up against is a system that gives us as professionals a certain amount of freedom and power to shape society, in exchange for exercising this role only in predetermined ways that enable the system also to perpetuate its basic structure and to keep its basic power relations intact. We are walled in by funding concerns (6) and the desire for employment in officially recognized institutions (2).

Furthermore, rejecting the myth of the neutral professional that Jensen identified means that we must revisit the idea of the librarian/academic as authority, with all the gatekeeping this role involves, and accept what may feel like a loss of power. In the context of Black Lives Matter and the relative racial homogeneity of librarianship, this is especially important. How can we reshape this role to effect real change rather than to perpetuate the system?

We can start by attempting to identify the ways in which white supremacy and other basic foundations of the status quo are stratified in our institutions. Armed with this recognition, we should seek to engage these sites to become areas of resistance rather than control. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the answers to how–perhaps it begins simply by revealing to users the problems and biases historically built into library access and organization structures, as Drabinski argues in “Queering the Catalog.” We should also seek ways to ensure that newly emerging forms of cultural production (on the Internet, for instance) do not become new ways to reinforce power dynamics as they are.

Finally, we can engage in actual, active social resistance. For this step, we’ll have to listen to discover what the communities we are supposed to serve actually need. Listening for the sake of diversity and inclusion is not enough; we need not only to hear previously silenced voices, but to act on what those voices are saying and to demonstrate that we will not be complicit in the continuation of their degradation. Again, I can’t claim to know specifics here–maybe these needs at this point are primarily legal resources, a space to organize, or for the “neutral professions” to show up expressing solidarity and support.

Neutrality is a dangerous myth that serves the status quo and enables those with power in society to stand aside feeling unjustified to take action while war is waged in the streets. But dissent is justified. We need to join in resistance against a culture that has turned us into unwitting participants in unequal structures.

Why Public Libraries Should Support Black Lives Matter

Libraries Across the Country Look to Hennepin County Library for Response to Black Lives Matter

3 Ways to Address the Black Lives Matter Movement in Your School Library

Post script: The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Black Lives Matter resource page is pretty magnificent.

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