Embracing Social Justice as a Library Leader | Leading From the Library

Library core values can align with contemporary social justice issues. Library leaders who find it difficult to grasp the social justice movement need to think about how they should use their leadership to understand, if not embrace, social justice issues and the staff who support them.

Library core values can align with contemporary social justice issues. Library leaders who find it difficult to grasp the social justice movement need to think about how they should use their leadership to understand, if not embrace, social justice issues and the staff who support them. 

On June 22, 2018, the owner of the Red Hen restaurant, Stephanie Wilkinson, asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave the premises. Wilkinson made this decision after consulting with her staff. Together they agreed that serving Sanders would violate their core values as a farm-to-table establishment. Wilkinson ignited a national debate about how to respond to serving or simply interacting with those we believe support unjust policies. Whatever Wilkinson’s decision and actions say about civility and grassroots political action, library leaders should reflect on lessons they can take from Wilkinson on leadership and how it should have them thinking about their own understanding of, or support for, social justice issues. This is a particularly worthy consideration for library leaders who, owing to their generational connection or cultural background, have thus far ignored this critical area of leadership.


Has a staff member approached with a suggestion to organize a diversity and inclusion committee? Did a debate break out on how to respond to a request to support a controversial speaker? Have staff advanced the idea that the library and its collection is an instrument of oppression? Among its many white, male, and Baby Boomer leaders, such suggestions may be difficult to understand and challenging to address. While it may seem that library workers’ interest in and support for these issues is diverting the library away from its primary missions of information acquisition, learning, and community building, leaders must commit to better understand what’s motivating this change. To establish the conditions that contribute to a meaningful work experience, leaders need to know what factors make a difference. Fostering interaction with social justice issues meets workers where they seek meaningful engagement. Library workers across the age spectrum seek meaningful work, and leaders need to smartly distinguish how generational differences call for a nuanced response.


From her interviews with members of each generation, shared in the article “Every Generation Wants Meaningful Work—But Thinks Other Age Groups Are In It for The Money,” Kelly Pledger Weeks discovered some of these intergenerational differences. While Boomers found meaning in accomplishing specific goals and helping coworkers to do the same, Generation X was more focused on achieving work-life balance and not being overly consumed with goal attainment. Among their millennial colleagues however, there was a noticeable difference. Those under 35 were more focused on finding meaning in engaging with pleasant coworkers and providing service to the community. That may explain why newer-to-the-profession librarians find greater intrinsic motivation in social justice issues that provide the opportunity to serve the community in nontraditional ways. In a left-leaning profession, it should come as no surprise that the 2016 election energized an emerging activism agenda among librarians that fuels their heightened desire for political and civic resistance to the status quo. This manifests itself in debates about librarian neutrality and highly charged reactions to and protests against American Library Association policies. As LIS programs offer courses related to social justice, graduates will increasingly come to the workplace with a new perspective on what constitutes the work of librarians. When I attended Library Journal’s 2017 Library Director’s Summit, I was impressed by the focus on civic engagement and the programs created to connect the library to community homelessness, to childhood education, to food insecurity, and even community health and nutrition. Leaders need to create opportunities for staff to engage in these new interest areas while maintaining a balance with traditional library services.


There are library leaders who will readily engage with social justice issues. Such leaders may seize the moment to call attention to the issue and then initiate the action to rally staff to respond, perhaps with programming and service activities. If that runs counter to your leadership style, in what ways can you support or encourage staff who want to engage with the issues? You may need to be alert to the possibility that your staff members who are social justice activists are being attacked on social media or receiving threats, and will need to your support or assistance as they work through a difficult time. When in doubt about how to react to social injustice, take a cue from Wilkinson and listen to your employees as they share their feelings and express their interest in a particular response. Though possibly unheard of in libraries just yet, some companies are offering employees a variety of support, from time off to wellness care, for political action and social justice activism. The only way to fail here is to do nothing, simply ignoring that change is happening. Leaders need to take action. Let me amplify on that by suggesting that to simply give lip service to staff seeking support while maintaining the status quo is quite possibly worse than failure.


If you’re a library leader puzzled about what to make of staff’s growing interest in social justice issues, that’s what constant leadership learning is all about. It may seem foreign to the work of libraries as you learned and understand it, but simply ignoring it and what it means to others in the library is a questionable stance. It’s critical for leaders to know their staff and what work is meaningful for them. Then, as much as is possible, leaders should empower staff to perform that work so they are able to obtain meaning in the workplace. That makes the difference between staff who want to come to work every day and those who have little interest in what they do. Take the time to learn more about the issues by tuning in to webinars, attending conference sessions, or reading up on the intersection between libraries and social justice. The leadership literature is lacking in this area but there may be some reading of value. Be sure to give staff opportunities to do the same by supporting professional development programming geared to social justice issues. Making the commitment to understand, empathize with, and support colleagues who are passionate about social justice issues will make you a better library leader capable of embracing a just cause.

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Steven Bell

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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