LACUNY Institute 2016: Race Matters: Libraries, Racism, and Antiracism

The 2016 one-day conference of the Library Association of the City University of New York (LACUNY), “Race Matters: Libraries, Racism, and Antiracism,” held May 20 at Brooklyn College, was ambitious in scope and informative in practice. Speakers, panel discussions, facilitated dialogs, and round tables took a broad look at academic librarianship through a lens of critical race theory, examining issues of race as they exist in the larger system of social and economic control, and—with the enthusiastic participation of attendees from across the United States and Canada—investigating ways to effect change in ways both large and small.

Photo credit: @LibraryNicole

The 2016 one-day conference of the Library Association of the City University of New York (LACUNY), “Race Matters: Libraries, Racism, and Antiracism,” held May 20 at Brooklyn College, was ambitious in scope and informative in practice. Speakers, panel discussions, facilitated dialogs, and round tables took a broad look at academic librarianship through a lens of critical race theory, examining issues of race as they exist in the larger system of social and economic control, and—with the enthusiastic participation of attendees from across the United States and Canada—investigating ways to effect change in ways both large and small.


April Hathcock’s strong opening talk on how “Race Matters in Our Profession” set the tone for the day. Hathcock, scholarly communications librarian at New York University, researches and writes on ownership, rights, and diversity in scholarship and libraries, and is the author of the recently published essay White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS. Thinking about race and racism, she noted, is “not something that I ‘discovered’ in the academic space. It’s been my life.” When it comes to examining and combating racism, Hathcock said, it is important to take theory and put it into practice—or, in her great-grandmother’s words, “bought sense is better than told.” Hathcock proposed that the discussion of racism in libraries begin with whiteness—not, she stressed, white people, but the pervasive ideology. In a profession where some 87 percent of credentialed librarians are white, libraries have historically served as sites for white racial socialization, including a high incidence of microaggressions and a general denial of the cultural experiences of people of color. Neutrality is no longer an option, Hathcock stated; the profession is in need of change. Hathcock noted the distinction between two words often used interchangeably: diversity and inclusion. Diversity, she explained, is about libraries reaching out to people of color; inclusivity involves preparing to receive them: “Diversity will get folks in the door, inclusivity will keep them there.” Some suggestions for lowering barriers to bringing in librarians of color (not, she noted, lowering standards) included broadening the definition of professional references to include community members, not insisting on on-the-job experience as a requirement, offering alternatives to the day-long interview process, and professionalizing the work and salaries of longtime non-MLS staff—tellingly, the prefix para in paraprofessional means “out to the side.” This kind of organizational shift is not something that will happen overnight, Hathcock concluded. “Anti-racist work is work,” she said. “It requires making mistakes, apologizing, relearning, redoing. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s incredibly vital to the work we do as librarians.” (Hathcock and LJ’s own Stephanie Sendaula have a chapter in Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science, forthcoming in 2017 from Library Juice Press.)


Author Mitchell S. Jackson (The Residue Years, Bloomsbury; winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence) delivered the inspiring keynote, focusing on how he was able to move beyond his roots in urban Portland, OR—and on those who didn’t. Using photos, local headlines, and his own short film, Jackson told the stories of his childhood friends Anthony, Stevie, and Kevin, killed as a result of gang and drug-related violence or sent to prison, as well as his own 16 months in jail on drug and gun charges (at Portland State University at the time, Jackson told the administration that he needed to miss a school year because of a “family emergency”). When he came home, Jackson set about revising his life, returning to Portland State and continuing on to an MFA in creative writing at New York University, making sure to note the differences between revising and editing—both on the page and off. “Revision to me is not editing,” Jackson explained. “Editing is applying the rules of convention, following the rules of power. Editing at its heart is a skill, but revision is seeing the work in context, seeing the work in progress, seeing the parts…as a whole. Revision is seeing what should and should not be there, and working to make it so.” Revision is not just about writing, he said, or for those who aspire to be artists, and posed a question to the room, “What are you going to give? How are those of us in this room going to help the next Anthony, Stevie, Kevin?... How do we help them revise?”


Breakout panel sessions covered such subjects as Black Feminist Librarianship, inequalities in the world of scholarly publishing, and the relationship between public libraries and #BlackLivesMatter. In “The Case for Reparative Taxonomies: Undoing Master Narratives in the Stacks,” University of Kentucky School of Information Science assistant professor Melissa Adler looked at the ways knowledge organization reflects deep-seated constructs of race and racism. “What we see in the stacks,” said Adler, “is similar to redlining”—the practice of discrimination by selectively raising prices in areas with particular demographic or racial makeups. Library taxonomies—such as the Dewey Decimal System or Charles Cutter’s system, which is no longer used but was influential on current classifications—were designed after Reconstruction and at the same time that Jim Crow laws were being written. Library classifications corresponded to the evolutionary principles of the time, in which nonwhite racial groups were listed either as social classes or zoological branches. “Our classifications were never really meant to call out to people who were not white,” explained Adler, and called for a conscious reorganization of knowledge on the library shelves—the reparative taxonomies of her session’s title.


Raquel Gabriel, law library professor and assistant director for reference and research services at CUNY School of Law, took a critical look at the law school curriculum in “Defining a Diversity Pedagogy for First Year Courses: A Legal Research Example.” The traditional curriculum of lecture courses culminating in a final exam, she noted, can throw up barriers to students of color or from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, as the legal education boom of end of the 20th century continues to fall off, some schools are developing new methods designed to incorporate skills and doctrinal learning for students starting out with varying levels of information literacy and from a variety of cultural experiences. Practices Gabriel recommended include encouraging instructors to consciously acknowledge their own cultural biases, checking assignments and classroom examples for biases that could create conflicts for students—and letting students know that there will still be material that will probably make them uncomfortable, and that their experience of it matters both in the classroom and to their identities as future attorneys.


In the presentation of their paper “On Structures and Self-Work: Locating Anti-Racist Politics in LIS,” David James Hudson, learning and curriculum support librarian at the University of Guelph, Ontario, and Gina Schlesselman-Tarango, instructional services and initiatives librarian at California State University, San Bernardino, examined the differences in the ways race, racism, and anti-racism are framed in Library and Information Science (LIS) studies—particularly the distinctions between structural and individual racism, and how they can be addressed. The popular discourse, they noted, focuses on individual intent or impact, with a tendency to frame anti-racism as self-work: the need to promote cultural intelligence and sensitivities in LIS students and correct individual attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors. “The story goes that if you and your library are culturally competent, recognize your privilege… racism is on its way to being conquered,” said Schlesselman-Tarango, noting the dangers of thinking that “if we educate ourselves about other cultures, what language to avoid, etc., the work is done. Here injustice is conceived as something that can be corrected through individual types of education.” But, as Hudson pointed out, “The system isn’t broken—it was built that way,” and widespread anti-racism work in LIS education will take more than well-meaning individual efforts.


At the day’s end, an informative “Roundtable on Diversifying the Library Profession” featured commentary by Amy Beth, chief librarian, Guttman Community College; Colleen Cool, director and chair, Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies; Wilma Jones, chief librarian, College of Staten Island; Julie Lim, professor and library director, CUNY School of Law; and Kenneth Schlesinger, chief librarian, Lehman College (all CUNY institutions). Panelists spoke about the opportunities and challenges involved in putting inclusion into action: on-the-ground advice for attracting a diverse academic workforce, conducting a fair and legally compliant search process, assembling a representative search committee and structuring interviews, welcoming potential job candidates to campus, helping integrate new hires into the academic community, mentoring—and, noted Beth, following the careers of former colleagues who have moved on. “The intent to be diverse is on every mission statement but it remains an uphill battle,” stated Jones. It is critical to constantly ask, “Who are we? What do we look like? Are faculty and staff representative of the student body demographic? How diverse are each of our institutions?” And while this is a job for both administration and faculty, all speakers and attendees agreed: the discussion around race and racism in academic libraries is crucial. As Hathcock put it, “How can you be a librarian and not reflect the times? That to me is the definition of a librarian.” An extensive and useful listing of the speakers’ resources can be found here.
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Henry Quon

First of all, this is a great website. I only wish that some of the pointed discussions concerning Whiteness, Anti-Racism and the need to be inclusive had been as well developed back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was in the library profession. At that time, such discussions took place more often than not in academic circles and were in their infancy compared to the more robust discourse of today. I came across your website today after visiting and I just wanted to add my 5 cent’s worth to the discussion on racial diversity in the north american library profession for whatever good it might do. As a Canadian of Chinese ancestry, I entered the librarian profession in 1988 after graduating with an MLS degree from the University of B.C. and I pursued this career path for the next four years before finally deciding to give it up in 1992 to pursue a career change. My reasons for doing so were two fold: the institutional discrimination back then made it difficult for librarians who did not come from the dominant anglo-canadian culture to pursue this career path and the second was a lack of mentoring support structure to encourage non-anglo librarians to stay on. When I left this field in 1992, I wrote letters to both the head of the library school that I had attended and also to one of the professors who I had treated as a confidant. Both men seemed genuinely surprised that I had encountered headwinds in my pursuit of this field and their reactions are understandable from the point of view of mainstream anglo-canadian males who themselves had never experienced how entrenched institutional racism can be as a career barrier in this profession as it has been for myself as someone who does not fit the "traditional" mold of what a librarian should resemble. Looking back now, I am still glad that I did choose librarianship as my initial career path after leaving university but I had never realized that I would have to pay such a high price for doing so. After reading articles on racial diversity in the library profession online, I have come to the sad realization that not much has apparently changed in the almost quarter century since I have left the library field- it is still overwhelmingly dominated by white middle class people who do not accurately reflect the changing demographics on both sides of the Canada/USA border. Sadly, some of the comments I have read on seem to reflect a bias among some white librarians that non-white librarians are really not welcomed in this field. Thankfully, there are those who have spoken out and denounced the not so hidden "white privilege" implied by some of these comments. Sincerely, Henry Quon Vancouver, British Columbia

Posted : Jul 09, 2016 06:27

Gina Schlesselman-Tarango

Thank you for the excellent summary! However, I believe David James Hudson and I were misquoted in the "Beyond the Personal" section. The thinking is that injustice can be corrected, not achieved, through education. You can check out a video of the talk (with subtitles) here:

Posted : May 28, 2016 01:03

Lisa Peet

Thank you, Gina, and for the correction as well—it's been fixed. We regret the error.

Posted : May 28, 2016 01:03



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