Public Librarians Launch Libraries4BlackLives

On July 21, the Movement for Black Lives’ National Day of Action, a team of four public librarians with backgrounds in social justice launched a new initiative, Libraries4BlackLives (L4BL). Jessica Anne Bratt, branch manager at Grand Rapids Public Library, MI; Sarah Lawton, neighborhood library supervisor for Madison Public Library, WI; Amita Lonial, learning experiences manager at Skokie Public Library (SPL), IL; and Amy Sonnie, adult literacy and lifelong learning librarian at Oakland Public Library, CA, joined forces earlier in the summer to create a website that would bring together library-based advocates who want to support the ideals and activism behind the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Clockwise from upper left: Amita Lonial, Jessica Anne Bratt, Sarah Lawton, and Amy Sonnie

On July 21, the Movement for Black Lives’ National Day of Action, a team of four public librarians with backgrounds in social justice launched a new initiative, Libraries4BlackLives (L4BL). Jessica Anne Bratt, branch manager at Grand Rapids Public Library, MI; Sarah Lawton, neighborhood library supervisor for Madison Public Library, WI; Amita Lonial, learning experiences manager at Skokie Public Library (SPL), IL; and Amy Sonnie, adult literacy and lifelong learning librarian at Oakland Public Library, CA, joined forces earlier in the summer to create a website that would bring together library-based advocates who want to support the ideals and activism behind the #BlackLivesMatter movement. (Bratt and Lonial are 2016 Library Journal Movers & Shakers; Lawton and Sonnie are self-professed “Shovers & Makers.”) “This ‘call to action’ unifies library efforts and demonstrates our unequivocal professional commitment to social justice and equity,” the site states. “We publicly affirm our support for the Movement for Black Lives and we commit to deepening racial equity work in our institutions and communities. Join the call for #FreedomNow. Help define the role libraries can play.” Librarians, library workers, students, volunteers, administrators, and board members are invited to sign L4BL’s pledge to support the Movement for Black Lives. A Resource Guide contains a Suggested Actions list; a collection of links to reading lists, curricula, articles, and other references for advocates; and a space for users to post their own links and ideas. The #libraries4blacklives hashtag has become an active space on Twitter for librarians to trade thoughts. In addition, the site’s Call to Action asks a few important, actionable questions:
  • What role can libraries play to address systemic racial injustice and implicit personal bias?
  • What needs to change within our libraries, campuses and associations?
  • How can the library serve as a platform for communities seeking to pull back the veil so that we may all engage in social transformation?


L4BL’s founders all have strong roots in the intersection of social justice and public libraries. Lawton first became involved with community engagement through her participation in the American Library Association’s (ALA) Center for Civic Life and Libraries Transforming Communities. After working with underserved youth in rural communities, she arrived in Madison as city government was beginning to respond to its own long-term racial disparities. Lawton became active with a number of community organizations, including the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, which was working to create a Racial Equity Toolkit to reduce institutionalized racism through local governmental decision-making processes. “I was very drawn to an approach that recognizes that there's a lot of individual bias and explicit and implicit racism that we're all mired in, but that we might be able to find some strategies [to disrupt] the machine,” Lawton told LJ. “Most of my work, and what I bring to this group, is looking at tools that are analogous to an environmental impact assessment...within libraries, but also within other government structures." Sonnie came to librarianship after a long career working with social justice movements and causes, including cofounding and serving on the board of the Oakland-based Center for Media Justice, toward the goal of expanding racial, economic, and gender parity for marginalized communities. As a librarian she has put together well-used resource lists and ongoing programming to help the Oakland community engage with similar concerns. “I believe deeply in learning from history, the civil rights movement and even further back,” Sonnie noted, “engaging new ideas, lifting up hidden and marginalized voices, and amplifying calls for a more free, democratic, and participatory future.... That is why I became a librarian. That is what I think this movement is calling on us to do now, to encourage people to explore these ideas and our interconnections, to provide information and provide space for people who are most impacted by racial injustice…. There's nowhere better to do this work than in the public library." Bratt, an African American who was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, always recognized libraries as community lifelines for children and adults alike. Early in her career, she told LJ, "I took a youth services position in an urban library setting and the first thing I noticed is that my teens of color didn't have a good relationship with staff. So I made that my personal goal, to develop a relationship with kids.” That goal morphed into DigiBridge, a partnership between the Grand Rapids Public Library and public schools to put technology in the hands of middle and high school students. “I got that support to make racial equity happen in an organic way,” said Bratt, and now encourages local organizations to use the library “while helping guide them to learning more about social issues, whether they want to talk about that to the kids or whether they want to come in from the community and have a safe space to voice their thoughts.” Like Sonnie, Lonial started out in the nonprofit sector doing direct action organizing. “My first few years as a librarian it felt very theoretical,” she told LJ. “I was [thinking] OK, I know most librarians are down with social justice...but what does that praxis look like? How are we translating that theory into action?” Lonial went on to lead Skokie’s cultural outreach educational program, Coming Together, to provide a wide range of diverse reading lists and programming for all ages. Her colleague Mikael Jacobsen, a 2013 LJ Mover & Shaker, calls her “a social and racial justice warrior with integrity.”


Given their dedication to social justice issues, it was no surprise that the four found themselves in long-distance collaborations with one another. Sonnie and Lonial had gotten to know each other through a national network of community organizers and LGBTQ advocates. Lonial met Bratt at an Urban Library Council meeting at the 2016 Public Library Association (PLA) conference, and met Lawton at that conference as well. After Lonial, Lawton, and Sonnie collaborated on a recent PLA on-demand webinar titled “Engaged and Inclusive: Libraries Embracing Racial Equity and Social Justice,” the three brought Bratt on board to plan some similar material and a possible event at the ALA annual meeting in 2017 in Chicago. Planning phone calls turned into brainstorming sessions where they shared ideas about the racial equity work each was doing in her institution. Taking inspiration from the Incluseum, an online space devoted to inclusion in museums, Lonial proposed that the four make a public statement as library professionals, ask the community how libraries and library workers were activating nationwide, and create a space where people could begin to have a conversation about it. “I saw this opportunity to more collectively harness our power,” Lonial told LJ. “I thought it was great that libraries were responding at that local community level—that should obviously be a first priority—but it felt like there was this need…that could go beyond just providing access to that information but really leveraging our ability to create change on a bigger scale." Bratt created a simple Squarespace website, and with the addition of the call to action and hashtag, a movement was born. Their goals are twofold, explained Lonial: to capitalize on and leverage the enthusiasm evident in L4BL’s library allies and to support individuals doing the work at the community level. The response has been strong. At press time L4BL had 107 members, many of them adding comments about the work they are already doing in their libraries and communities. “[People] are so happy that they have ways to start facilitating these conversations, whether it's frontline staff or middle managers, to show that racial equity is important and much needed in their communities,” said Bratt, “or reaching out to say, 'Hey, I didn't have an idea how to get involved or how to help and I really want to, so thank you for providing the opportunity.'" A number of ALA and PLA committees and task forces have reached out to L4BL in appreciation, and the Black Caucus of ALA (BCALA) has been spreading the word in support of the initiative. The team is preparing to send out a survey to gather input from L4BL’s allies to help define priorities, with the ultimate goal of forming a digital learning space to support participants. “There are dozens of things we could work on,” Lonial told LJ. “We imagine that we'll be engaging in a discussion about the questions in our call to action, and trying to evolve the list of suggested actions that we put on our resources page, and to compile more resources that are specific to the needs of the folks we're in contact with. Is it stuff that will make the case to your administration? Is it programming resources? Is it deep training about how to form community partnerships? Is it a space for brainstorming?”


While the team members work on L4BL independently of their day jobs, all report that it aligns with their libraries’ greater missions, and their leadership has been highly supportive. In talking to colleagues both within and outside her library, noted Lawton, "I've heard from a number of people that the radio silence on these issues is deafening. Not hearing strong support and not seeing our cultural institutions, our civic institutions, those with this reach and power, stand up and stand with people who are being marginalized—for library workers and for communities it feels like a disconnect and a disservice. I think the enthusiastic response we've been seeing has been the flip side." “The role of an ally, in some ways, can be drawn into part of the role of a librarian,” she added. “The definition of a strong librarian is probably very similar to the definition of a true ally." “It's personal for all of us. Our country is in pain right now,” said Sonnie. “At any given historical moment libraries are a part of civil society, in many ways facilitators of and/or gatekeepers…. I personally believe that our role is to use the spaces that we have, the resources that we have, the skills that we have, to facilitate and enable the kinds of changes we want to see.” As a person and librarian of color, Bratt said, “it can be daunting and you sometimes feel, ‘if I take a stand, who will defend me?’ It can be a lonely place to be. So it's been awesome to connect with other librarians have those conversations. To see that has been just revolutionary for me."
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I'm sorry but as a librarian i don't think it's right to support BLM. They are a violent racist group. I only see them protest when it's police shooting black people yet in Chicago there is tons of black on black shootings every day. I dont know but this just seems wrong to me. Maybe support black people but keep yourself separate from that group.

Posted : Jan 12, 2017 08:54

C. Moreno

I'm curious where some of the information about the movement is coming from by those who have commented. I have been on the official website of this group several times and have seen nothing referencing the socialist agenda someone mentioned above nor anything about exclusion of people. The group was actually created by Queer black women, they are not interested in keeping anyone out. As they mention on their website, lots of people like using their organization's name or claiming to be a part of the movement when they are in fact not. Just because a group of black people claim they are down does not mean they are. Someone mentioned a group that was using a library space and refused to let white allies in. Do you really think that represents the movement? When every march they have held has had people of all ethnic groups? That means that particular one has decided to pervert the message and run their group the way they want. That doesn't take away from the BLM's overall purpose.Everyone has their own agenda, and there are those who use the well meaning ethos this group has developed and corrupt it. I am not going to be side tracked by the ignorant folks who have ill intent and want to use BLM as a scapegoat for their awful behavior and you all shouldn't either. Good on these librarians for standing up for what they believe.

Posted : Aug 30, 2016 01:27

anonymous coward

I agree with the big and original driving factors of the BLM movement. There is more than enough evidence and testimony to show that African Americans are treated as second class citizens by figures of authority all over the country. There has never been a time when this was not true. This must be stopped- but did these librarian not do any research beyond this? The BLM platform includes a constitutional amendment to a guaranteed fully funded education- including free daycare, "high quality food", etc. They call for an end to free trade agreements, literally use the phrase "redistribution of wealth" as a goal for a tax code restructuring, reparations- including a guaranteed minimum income- etc. This platform is economically unfeasible and so far removed from the real and present issues regarding police (and authority figure) mistreatment of people of color as to undermine the chances of any meaningful change. These are not issues of equality- but a radical political agenda that has little to do with justice- which is unfortunate since the BLM movement could have done great things, and the L4BL too, maybe. Instead it's just an opportunity to try to push a ridiculous social agenda on the back of very real tragedy. If you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow.

Posted : Aug 16, 2016 07:03

Debra Collins-Thomas

I have concerns about this also. Libraries by their very nature represent equality; doors are open to all in the community. We are about providing educational and recreational resources to all citizens. We are about providing a diverse collection within that framework and promoting a diverse workforce within our organizations. Given the invective and occasional violence in many of these protests, as well as exclusion tactics on the part of protest organizers at various events, I question the wisdom in aligning with the Black Lives Matter movement. Individual librarians can choose to do so in their private lives, but I am surprised and disappointed in 'ALA and PLA committees and task forces' and in LJ for endorsing and promoting an official affiliation.

Posted : Aug 16, 2016 07:03


I, too, am deeply concerned that ALA would associate themselves with a group promoting socialist views. As the granddaughter of a Soviet refugee, I know it's no way to build a society, much less a society that values free speech and the free exchange of information. Until this is clarified, count me out of ALA.

Posted : Aug 16, 2016 07:03

Dan Kleinman of Sexual Harassment of Librarians

This is from Reddit Libraries by "HeartlessWeeder": HeartlessWeeder 13 points 1 day ago I have to admit as a public librarian, this gives me pause and I won't be participating. I am all for equality, education on issues, and advocating for fair treatment for all. But the Black Lives Matter group specifically is extremely politically charged and controversial and so I hesitate, as a public employee and with the library being a public building, to support such a controversial private group. There was even a case a few months ago where a public library had to kick out a Black Lives Matter group who was meeting there because they wouldn't let white people (who came to support them) into their meeting. Library policies say gatherings at the library must be open to all, yet the group still accused the library of racism and discrimination after being told they couldn't meet there unless they allowed everyone to attend their meetings. So I'll continue to make book displays of books highlighting the issues facing minority groups and books that promote a diverse and inclusive world view. I'll provide resources for people to read up on current events and educate themselves about what's going on and how they can help. I'll make the library a safe space for everyone of all races, religions, genders, etc and a place where everyone who enters receives equal access to information, materials, and support. But I won't pledge allegiance to a private political group.

Posted : Aug 13, 2016 01:31

David Genesis

Why use the words of someone else when you've personally called Black Lives Matter a hate group?

Posted : Aug 13, 2016 01:31

Dan Kleinman of Sexual Harassment of Librarians

@David Genesis, I don't know enough about it to call it anything, but I do see enough media reports of others calling it what it is. It is what it is. And "HeartlessWeeder" hit the nail on the head. Here's just the latest evidence of hate: "Video: 'Black Lives Matter' Rioters Target Whites for Beat Downs; 'They Beating Up All the White People'"

Posted : Aug 13, 2016 01:31

Way Barra

"I don’t know enough about it to call it anything..." Excerpts from Reddit Libraries by "SafeLibraries" "That BLM is a hate group is evident from its repeated calls to kill police officers, along with the murders of multiple police officers. That's my opinion." "Any organization that does and says what Black Lives Matter does and says is a hate group." "The reality is [BLM] is a hate group. That's my opinion but it appears to be the opinion of most others." Unless there's someone on Reddit impersonating you, Kleinman, you're a liar.

Posted : Aug 13, 2016 01:31

L Namov

Whoops. Did I just see a librarian citing Infowars?

Posted : Aug 13, 2016 01:31

David Genesis

It's ok, he's not actually a librarian.

Posted : Aug 13, 2016 01:31


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