Tolerance Is Not Good Enough | BackTalk

In early 2017, a call for chapter proposals began circulating on library Listservs for a forthcoming book titled Tolerance: Social Justice and Activism in Libraries, Moving Beyond Diversity to Action. The aim of the book is to discuss how librarians can take diversity, social justice, and social change to the next level and promote tolerance in libraries. As a librarian, scholar, and educator who specializes in issues of diversity and social justice, and how to integrate them into LIS pedagogy and education, I was instantly taken aback by the use of the word tolerance. Tolerance and diversity are not words I regularly put together; in fact, I view them in opposition to each other.

In early 2017, a call for chapter proposals began circulating on library Listservs for a forthcoming book titled Tolerance: Social Justice and Activism in Libraries, Moving Beyond Diversity to Action. The aim of the book is to discuss how librarians can take diversity, social justice, and social change to the next level and promote tolerance in libraries. As a librarian, scholar, and educator who specializes in issues of diversity and social justice, and how to integrate them into LIS pedagogy and education, I was instantly taken aback by the use of the word tolerance. Tolerance and diversity are not words I regularly put together; in fact, I view them in opposition to each other.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines tolerance as:

  1. capacity to endure pain or hardship;
  2. sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own;
  3. the allowable deviation from a standard;
    1. the capacity of the body to endure or become less responsive to a substance (such as a drug) or a physiological insult especially with repeated use or exposure;
    2. relative capacity of an organism to grow or thrive when subjected to an unfavorable environmental factor.

How can the concepts of diversity and social justice be equated with the above definitions? These definitions consider diversity to be a hardship; something unpalatable that should be indulged; something that deviates from the norm; something foreign that becomes easier to take after multiple exposures; or something that thrives in hostile environments. This is the exact opposite of how we should be thinking and talking about diversity in LIS. As a popular adage advises us and our patrons, “Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated.”

Cultural awareness

Perhaps the call for chapters was instead using the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Declaration of Principles on Tolerance’s definition: “Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.” I appreciate this definition and am actually a fan of the Teaching Tolerance organization, but I still maintain that tolerance is not the baseline by which we should be expecting the profession to interact with diverse communities. This interpretation of the word tolerance is, in effect, cultural awareness. Better but still not good enough. Why not use the concept of cultural competence instead?


At the 2017 Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference, I delivered a talk entitled, “How Would You Like To Be Remembered? Expanding Your Pedagogy and Professional Practice,” in which I discussed cultural competence and how I use it to prepare aspiring library professionals to enter the workforce. Cultural competence is about knowing your communities in a personal and comprehensive way. Cultural competence brings us to action. It means that we have gone beyond awareness and are at the point at which we can actively work to improve our environment based on new knowledge and relationships with those who are different from us. Cultural competence is an ongoing and dynamic process that asks us not only to acknowledge the cultures of those different from us but to celebrate them. As author, activist, and librarian Audre Lorde said in her book Sister Outsider, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

Inclusion matters

Library professionals work with all kinds of diverse communities, and they need to reflect and consider critically what their service looks like. Are they prepared and able to work with people who don’t look like them, or who come from different backgrounds? Librarianship may be notoriously white and female, but our communities are not. The profession should be willing and able to celebrate diverse communities; its members should not be reluctant, resentful, or unprepared because they are being forced to “tolerate” those coming through the doors.

The aforementioned call for chapters was mentioned frequently at the recent ACRL conference, and it was emphasized that this misguided call for tolerance impacts the library workforce as much as the diverse communities being served. Librarians from underrepresented or otherwise marginalized groups often find themselves being tolerated at their libraries and in the field as a whole. This should not be, and is among the reasons the profession has significant retention issues in spite of successful diversity recruitment programs. An environment that is not welcoming and/or inclusive of diverse librarians may unsurprisingly have difficulty working with and celebrating diverse populations. The profession needs to do better, and we can start by rejecting the low bar of tolerance. We’re better than that, and our communities deserve better, too.

Nicole A. Cooke is an Assistant Professor, School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research and teaching interests include human information behavior, critical cultural information studies, and diversity and social justice in librarianship. She is a 2007 LJ Mover & Shaker, the 2016 recipient of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Equality Award, and the 2017 recipient of the Achievement in Library Diversity Research Award, presented by ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy & Outreach. Her latest work is Information Services to Diverse Populations (Libraries Unlimited, 2016)

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Anthony Constantinou

I agree "An environment which is not good for diverse librarians may unsurprisingly have complex working with and celebrating diverse populations. The profession have do better, and we can begin by rejecting the low level of tolerance. "

Posted : Jun 26, 2020 11:29

Stephen Karetzky

Nicole Cooke and her followers want librarians to become "social justice warriors"? As a student, I always preferred using libraries to going to my k-12 and undergraduate college classes because I could educate myself instead of being preached to by some pompous jerk. Fortunately, thinking for one's self was encouraged at Columbia University's former School of Library Service where I received my doctorate. Unfortunately, I soon found that most of my colleagues in schools of LIS were less accepting of ideas they did not consider politically "progressive" enough. When I taught classes in LIS, my lists of suggested readings usually paired material with opposing opinions to encourage students to think and decide for themselves. This approach was not popular among either students or faculty so I became the director of a university library and insured that opinions of all sorts were represented. It is unfortunate that American schooling in general has degenerated over the decades, and that schools of LIS are now speeding their rate of decline. One see this in the readily apparent dismissal of intellectual freedom and " balanced collections" in most libraries one visits. Right now (Sept. 2017), American librarians who want to be "activists" should be fighting Google's politically tendentious policies.

Posted : Sep 05, 2017 02:13

Stephen Karetzky

I should have added to my statement above that if intellectual freedom truly existed in librarianship today, half of those engaged in this discussion would not feel that they had to use pseudonyms instead of their real names.

Posted : Sep 05, 2017 02:13

The Other Side Of the Aisle

I have to wonder: where are all of these intolerant libraries and librarians? Libraries are the keepers/collectors of diverse viewpoints of all kinds and we work with patrons from all walks of life. Just as expected from all citizens of this great experiment called the United States of America, librarians are expected to uphold freedom of speech for viewpoints that we may not personally agree with and which may not be popular. It is not our job to decide which viewpoints are "... so corrosively – even criminally – hostile that even just tolerating them … let alone embracing them … betrays libraries’ very values and is highly self-destructive – indeed, suicidal." Was a children's book about George Washington's chef, who was a slave due to the unfortunate laws of history, so "suicidal" to the mission of public libraries that librarians themselves demanded it be pulled from the printing presses? Which is more "self-destructive" to libraries: the current argument that if you are not xyz then you cannot possibly write in the voice of a character who is xyz or the liberal demands for destroying things you may not agree with in the name of tolerance? They are equally bizarre and we are doing to ourselves.

Posted : Aug 25, 2017 06:07

R Cruz

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines competent as: 1 : proper or rightly pertinent 2 : having requisite or adequate ability or qualities : fit 3 : legally qualified or adequate 4 : having the capacity to function or develop in a particular way; specifically : having the capacity to respond (as by producing an antibody) to an antigenic determinant immunologically competent cells So are you saying that competence is better than tolerance? In what way? By these definitions, merely "adequate" or "legally qualified" (so the library is covered against lawsuits)? Particularly the fourth definition, which would liken other cultures to hostile antigens that librarians need to develop defenses to. How is "culturally competent" a good way AT ALL to describe embracing other cultures? That seems to be the meat of this article, and I truly don't understand it.

Posted : May 22, 2017 09:37


R Cruz, you're just doing the same thing the author of this piece did, setting up one source's definition(s) of a word as a straw man and then knocking the straw man to the ground. Was that your intention? Some of more nuanced ways I've heard both tolerance and competence used aren't described by this excerpt by Merriam-Webster's, which is a source that is quickly becoming irrelevant aside from checking it for authoritative spelling. It doesn't really matter, I would suggest, how Merriam-Webster's defines these words. How do the author(s) or editors(s) of the forthcoming book that is the basis of this article by Nicole Cooke use it in their book? And how do people really use the word? Is this article critiquing a word or a book?

Posted : May 22, 2017 09:37

Lou Coatney, UIUC GSLIS 1973

Diversity and tolerance in general yes, but there are some cultures, ideologies, value systems ... which are so corrosively - even criminally - hostile that even just tolerating them ... let alone embracing them ... betrays libraries' very values and is highly self-destructive - indeed, suicidal. Book-burning Nazism was one example and we see others in places like Malmo, Sweden. Judgments must be made, usually at the community level, hoping it itself has not succumbed to evil.

Posted : May 09, 2017 06:10

One Vote For

... a library that doesn't care who I am, doesn't see me as a target for meddling, activism, good intentions; for librarians that don't go about with an idea of yourselves bringing your enlightenment and modest education to bear on either my "difference" or my lamentable "default state," whichever the case may be, but rather view us both as equals in a simple transaction, my taxes for your service of making media available. I would prefer for you not to care: where I'm from, unless in the service of making small talk; how dumb or smart I am; who I vote for or, crucially, *whether I even do*; how proficient I am with what you provide; or what use I make of it. I would wear a paper bag over my head if that would help you grasp this. I would prefer to be seen as a free agent, not a representative of any social unit larger than myself - no matter how much you would like to patronize or manipulate that larger unit in some way. Let me be clear: No. Matter. How. Convinced you are of the rightness of your agenda, your approach, your authority, your politics, and most importantly, your "competence" in diagnosing social ills. That is a lot of things for public servants to be "right" about - but I would feel this way even if you are utterly infallible. Your "celebrations" are a matter of total indifference to me, and you may carry on with them if they're not too damned lavish. And if it will boost your self-importance, you can pretend I'm a "community" if you want, all by myself. I contain multitudes, as we all do. The service I seek is appropriately-limited, realistic to provide, and closely connected with what 95% of the population would think of if asked what a library is - no matter how benighted the library profession may find that definition. Anything else is at worst a fraud perpetrated on the taxpayer, at best something positive that is yet taking advantage of the tendency of bureaucratic entities to persist, and hiding under the cover of the average Joe's "ignorant" and oft-bemoaned notion of a library. It should transparently recast itself as an advocacy group and/or social service outlet, drop the word "library" that seems to lead to so much "confusion" and hand-wringing on both sides, and then request its share of the public $ openly and accordingly on that new basis. Private, limited, indifferent, honest: these are the words that please me.

Posted : May 07, 2017 08:32



Posted : May 07, 2017 08:32


"And if it will boost your self-importance, you can pretend I’m a “community” if you want, all by myself." Referring to someone else's self-importance in that diatribe is quite rich.

Posted : May 07, 2017 08:32


A lot of "I's" in that sanctimonious, insufferable drivel being passed off as a post. The arrogance acting as if you represent everyone when you represent only yourself. Unless you've talked to every single patron who walks through the door then you speak for only yourself, m'kay. You go on being you and let the librarians run their libraries the way they want, not what one tone-deaf individual wants. Why are you so angry and upset for libraries wanting to expand their audience?

Posted : May 07, 2017 08:32

anonymous coward

Anon, Way to dismiss someone's viewpoint out of hand. Kudos.

Posted : May 07, 2017 08:32

Betty J. Turock

Thank you, Nicole, for this definition of tolerance. Yes, the word has a long and historic meaning, but this is 2017 and old definitions, however exalted, are no longer good enough. They fail to speak to the society in which live. And Nicole has done the update for us. We cannot tolerated diversity we must embrace it, promote it, defend it, and make the new understanding part of out current vocabulary, demonstrating how far we have come and how far we have yet to go in our profession and in the world of the twenty-first century.

Posted : May 06, 2017 08:20

anonymous coward

Interestingly, it seems as if the definition for people to be free from bigotry has existed for 250 years. (according to Can we not simply ask that people be free from bigotry and treat each individual as an individual on their own merit- without any prejudice? Is that not enough? "tolerance (n.) early 15c., "endurance, fortitude" (in the face of pain, hardship, etc.), from Old French tolerance (14c.), from Latin tolerantia "a bearing, supporting, endurance," from tolerans, present participle of tolerare "to bear, endure, tolerate" (see toleration). Of individuals, with the sense "tendency to be free from bigotry or severity in judging other," from 1765. Meaning "allowable amount of variation" dates from 1868; and physiological sense of "ability to take large doses" first recorded 1875."

Posted : May 04, 2017 06:49

Amelia Gibson

I would say no. That is not enough. Librarians are in the business of creating environments, and designing systems (including human/individual/social, computer, and materials) that serve individuals and communities. So being a good individual, and good intentions are not enough to ensure that those systems serve their communities well. "Tolerance," in this case, is below the minimum.

Posted : May 04, 2017 06:49

banonym nerfherder

Also because prejudice and bias are sometimes unconscious. Few disagree with the sentiment of treating people on their own merit, but pretty sure people underestimate how difficult it actually is.

Posted : May 04, 2017 06:49



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing