Supporting Social Justice in the Community

2017 Mover & Shaker honoree Kelly McElroy of Oregon State University Libraries discusses how librarians can support social justice in their communities with SAGE Publishing’s SVP of Global Learning Resources.

Karen PhillipsBy, Karen Phillips SVP Global Learning Resources SAGE Publishing Part of a series that celebrates innovators in libraries across the U.S., I have the privilege of diving deeper into the work of a segment of the 2017 Movers & Shakers announced by Library Journal in the spring. This week I had the pleasure of chatting with Kelly McElroy, Student Engagement and Community Outreach Librarian at Oregon State University Libraries & Press, who supports students from marginalized communities. Read about her impactful work below.  

Tell us a little about how you support students with diverse backgrounds or special needs.

SageI partner closely with other university staff who work with specific communities of students. For example, I work with the TRiO/Student Support Services staff to organize library tours and orientation for their bridge program at the beginning of the year, as well as scheduling library instruction sessions for the transition courses that their students take. I can send them information to share with their students, and they keep me in the loop about their activities and issues students have raised. These staff already have strong relationships with students in their programs, so it makes it easier for me to then connect with those students. I also learn so much from the folks who run these programs—the expertise that they have includes deep understanding of student experiences but also sophisticated approaches to issues like equity and student development.

How do you garner support from other faculty and administration at your institution?

To be clear, I am most often in a role of bringing the library as support to other units, but these partnerships often present opportunities for stronger advocacy. Authentic relationships and trust really have to come first. I sometimes kid about my standing lunch and coffee dates, but it is so important to stay in touch with people on a regular basis. One project that came out of a regular lunch date was a textbook lending program at the Human Services Resource Center (HSRC) on our campus. The HSRC serves students experiencing homelessness and poverty, and I meet up with the center’s coordinator every few months. When she told me about a textbook lending project they were starting and the issues they were facing around buying, storing, and checking out books, it was an easy connection to make to things the library is very, very equipped to do. Together, we could advocate to our administrators with the result of stronger support for these students.

You are known as one of the founding creators of the critical librarianship movement. Can you tell us a little bit about what critical librarianship is and how it became a movement?

This is a great opportunity for clarification. When Nicole Pagowsky started the #critlib chats on Twitter, I was one of the original group of moderators. However, critical librarianship has been around for a long time before those chats started. Just because we started using a hashtag doesn’t mean that we just started this work—it has been going on as long as librarians have been working for social justice in their communities. Emily Drabinski has said that #critlib is a meeting place, which resonates for me. People may share information or make connections on Twitter, but the real work happens out and about in real life. Kenny Garcia gives a great introduction in his Keeping Up With...Critical Librarianship, which also includes a helpful reading list. Organizationally, groups like Radical Reference, the Progressive Librarians Guild, Reforma, AILA, APALA, and within ALA, SRRT, BCALA, the GLBTRT and others have been supporting different kinds of critical librarianship—and many individuals have quietly been doing this work in their communities, whether or not they had a name for it.

How do you balance these types of responsibilities with your normal, day-to-day responsibilities?

To be honest, they are largely intertwined with my work. Although my position description explicitly calls out support for specific communities of students, all library workers have opportunities to bring critical librarianship into their work. Where is there injustice in your community? How can you support and stand in solidarity? Social responsibility is one of the core values of librarianship as recognized by ALA. So, although critical librarianship may seem extracurricular, in many ways it is at the core. The work of catalogers to update offensive and archaic subject headings is one example of this work, which is ultimately about improving access to materials. In addition, as a tenure-track faculty member, I have a great deal of freedom and support to choose my research agenda, and have been supported in the writing and editing projects I have chosen so far.

How can other librarians become involved in the movement?

Meeting people is a great way to connect to existing projects or to find potential partners. Virtual spaces like Twitter can be one way to do that, but there have been some lovely in-person meetings, including several #critlib unconferences in addition to all the groups I mentioned above, plus others like We Here, Storytime Underground, and We Need Diverse Books. Library workers can also build relationships outside the library: whether you are in a public, academic, school, or special library, there are folks in your broader community doing great work who could use your help. There are also so many wonderful things to read. This Zotero group is a start, but hardly comprehensive.


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