University of Rhode Island Launches MLS Track in Information Equity, Diverse Communities, and Critical Librarianship

In fall 2020, the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Rhode Island (URI) launched a master’s track in Information Equity, Diverse Communities, and Critical Librarianship. The 12-credit track, one of four that comprise the university’s LIS program, is fully online and will continue to be offered remotely as URI transitions to a fully online setting in the next year.

two Voices for Information Equity webinar flyersIn fall 2020, the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Rhode Island (URI) launched a master’s track in Information Equity, Diverse Communities, and Critical Librarianship. The 12-credit track, one of four that comprise the university’s LIS program, is fully online and will continue to be offered remotely as URI transitions to a fully online setting in the next year.

The Information Equity track offers students a foundational knowledge of equity and inclusion issues in librarianship, as well as insight into how they can better serve the communities they will—or do—work in. One course, Multiculturalism in Libraries, is required, and students can choose from a series of electives that include Critical Disability Approaches in Library and Information Studies, Immigrant and Migrant Information Contexts and Practices, Community Relations for Libraries, Social Justice in Children’s and Young Adult Literature, Information Ethics and Policy, and Information and Culture.

The concentration, said its creator Melissa Villa-Nicholas, assistant professor in URI’s graduate LIS program, is geared toward getting students “to lean into how you make structural change in the library.” Although skill-driven courses such as cataloging and reference will always have a firm hold on the core of LIS programs, she noted, “if we can learn critical theories as a foundation, we can shift libraries.” Her course assignments still depend on those core skills, but “what comes first and foremost is to change the way we think about race, gender, and sexuality through that critical theoretical framework.”

This year the courses were augmented by a free webinar series, Voices for Information Equity, which launched on January 28. The first, “All Power to the People: Centering Collections and Communities in the Archives,” was led by Tracy Drake, historian and archivist at Reed College, Portland, OR, followed in February by “Seeing Black Boys in 21st Century Young Adult Literature,” hosted by DeAnza Williams, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. In March, Jeanie Austin of the San Francisco Public Library discussed “Information Access, Systemic Oppression, and Incarceration,” and in April Sarah Lamden, professor of law at the City University of New York and a member of the Mijente Immigrant Defense Project, discussed the use of digital library tools by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to track immigrants. The series closed April 22 with Miriam Sweeney, associate professor in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama, who spoke about privacy issues associated with emerging library technologies. (Several are available on demand.) Villa-Nicholas hopes the webinar series will be an annual event.



Villa-Nicholas knew that she wanted to add these classes to the curriculum when she first started at URI five years ago. Instituting a new course track is a complex project, however, requiring approval from a series of committees, and she began developing the class content and filing the paperwork four years ago.

Her department colleagues were supportive of the project from the beginning, as was university administration. “I had been putting the paperwork through years before all of the racial justice movements came out in the past year,” Villa-Nicholas told LJ. “The timing just happened to coincide with that.”

Multiculturalism in Libraries, Information Ethics and Policy, and Information and Culture were already being taught by tenured and adjunct faculty as electives in the LIS program. Villa-Nicholas introduced the other three, which she teaches herself with the support of guest lecturers such as Maria Cotto, bilingual children’s librarian at the Pawtucket Public Library, RI, who was one of the pioneers of sensory storytime targeting children with autism; Kerri Hicks, manager of web services at Brown University Library, Providence, RI, whose website work centers accessibility, and Jack Martin, executive director of the Providence Public Library, RI, which recently completed a major renovation that enhanced accessibility. Both Hicks and Martin also serve on URI’s advisory board; as Villa-Nicholas noted, “I’m drawing from the strengths of our community of people who are already doing this work, and then embedding that into the course.”

Bringing in guest lecturers helps deepen the available knowledge, and addresses Villa-Nicholas’s caution against teaching subjects in which she doesn’t have expertise or lived experience. She is currently building out the Critical Disability Approaches course, but “I don't have a degree in accessibility and disability. I'm trying to only build it off of lectures and people who have done that work, especially in libraries.”



Because the information equity track debuted last fall, Villa-Nicholas does not have final enrollment numbers for the school year. But students have been very enthusiastic about the program, she said, and have been signing on steadily.

Villa-Nicholas has seen a lot of change in the five years that she has been teaching at URI. In the early days of teaching Multiculturalism in Libraries, she said, it was a challenge to get white students to abandon the idea that “being colorblind is equity, and start saying, yes, racial difference is a thing and racial stratification exists.” That changed during the Donald Trump presidency. Who is present in the conversation is also changing: Students in URI’s LIS program have historically been reflective of the field—overwhelmingly white, cisgender women—but in recent years Villa-Nicholas has seen an increase in Black, Latinx, Asian American, and nonbinary students, as well as cisgender men.

There are still growing pains, however. “It's still hard, I think, for students to have to own their privilege—race, gender, sexuality, class—and then know that every week and every day they need to do that over and over again, because it's really easy to not see our privilege when we live within it. I constantly tell them that's a process that we have to reidentify with daily.”

In addition to outlining practices and paths for change in libraries, Villa-Nichols added, the courses offer context. For example, the Immigrant and Migrant Information course includes the history and policies of immigration in the United States and reading immigrant stories to better help students think about working and partnering with immigrant communities. “I really want them to have an established understanding of how immigrant policy has been shaped over the years,” she said. “Eventually we talked about immigrant information services in the library. But they enjoyed getting that strong foundation.” And with a stronger sense of those their history, she added, students will realize that those communities “already have skills, already have knowledge—libraries aren't there to save them. If I can just teach [students] to hear immigrant voices, that's the most important skill they need.”

In the next few years, Villa-Nicholas hopes to hand the reins of some courses over to the librarians who have helped build them, so she can concentrate on putting together new offerings. One element she’d like to see as part of the track is a grant writing course, “Because a lot of times when we want to do programming in libraries, or a lot of the work we might want to do that's considered social justice work, you have to get a grant for it.” She also wants to include a “sort of People’s History of Libraries course,” a methods course for building programming or collections that builds off the quantitative and qualitative data collected during interviews with immigrant communities as part of Immigrant and Migrant Information, and where her own interest lies—Latinx histories of library technologies.

Jo Knapp, who entered the track halfway through their LIS program and is one of its first graduates, sees this as a critical area of focus for LIS students. “The areas that this trend covers are really important because librarianship sits at a unique intersection for creating interdisciplinary dialogues,” they told LJ. The courses “have been focused on building baseline methods of giving yourself cultural competency—a little bit less of ‘You need to do ABC to effectively engage with this community in the field,’ and more of, ‘If you can understand these contexts, you're better able to make decisions that allow you to have conversations with those communities.’

Knapp will be working at the Rhode Island State Library this summer to help digitize and create metadata for older records, and they see the courses’ content as necessary background for future work. “I feel like I know what kind of questions to ask to get started,” they said. “It's about building up that baseline ability [around] those competencies. And I do feel, coming out of the program, like I've got that sort of grounding to know, if this is if this is what we're approaching, these are the people that I should be looking for in the community to speak to their experiences.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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