Why Social Justice in the Library? | Outreach + Inreach

Libraries of all types are reevaluating the role they play in their community, questioning whether it is still good enough to provide equal access, or if it is time to pursue an active equitable access that focuses on empowering the less powerful and amplifying the voices of the unheard.

The case for shifting library policy, practice, and culture toward radical inclusivity

While the American Library Association (ALA) Code of Ethics positions libraries to elevate purposefully the voices and aspirations of all people in their service area, whatever the individual’s social, economic, legal, or citizenship status, many libraries have found that work to be impractical. Historically, libraries have shown a low tolerance for risk and a strong tendency to allocate limited resources of time, money, and energy in areas that yield the greatest results (or, at least, the highest numbers in areas that are easy to measure) and perhaps the least potential for problems.

Some libraries of all types, however, are reevaluating the role they play in their community, questioning whether it is still good enough to provide equal access, or if it is time to pursue an active equitable access that focuses on empowering the less powerful and amplifying the voices of the unheard.

ORGANIC GROWTH Chili Public Library’s teen Gay Straight Alliance developed
out of a process of learning patron needs

Bridging the gap

In November 2015, a group of Simmons College, Boston, undergraduates released “Ten Demands” of the administration for equitable treatment of students of color. The students expressed frustration with treatment that was at face value equal but did not seek to understand and support populations that have faced historic systemic bias.

We demand that Simmons College live up to its core values by: putting students first, preparing students for life’s work, creating opportunities, and investing in community.

These values cannot be met unless Simmons financially commits to meeting the needs of students of color.

When the Ten Demands were released, Simmons librarian Dawn Stahura immediately felt that the library should play a role in the response: “I personally felt that the library needed to provide information on protests, demonstrations, knowing their rights as citizens, etc. I didn’t ask permission, I literally just did it.”

Stahura started curating a zine collection that focuses on racial and social justice issues and includes practical advice for things such as staying safe at protests. She followed it up by working with several faculty members to add the creation and publication of zines into the curriculum. The results are creative, passionate, and handmade expressions on subjects particular to the student. In amplifying the voices of a nondominant minority group in her community and bringing greater awareness of social issues, Stahura is helping the college meet the demands for equitable treatment and bridge the gap between principle and practice.

Beyond inclusion

A strong focus on community is part of a movement toward what has been called radical inclusivity. The concept of radical inclusivity starts with the idea that in any given community there exists more privileged and less privileged populations, keeping in mind that privilege comes in many forms. An individual’s privilege or lack thereof can directly impact their ability to access the services a library provides if the library doesn’t take purposeful action to design services (facilities, technology, programming, and policies) that overcome those barriers.

The theory of radical inclusivity is not new, although it may be new to libraries, according to Tim Huzar, author of the paper “Neoliberalism, Democracy and the Library as a Radically Inclusive Space.” Faith-based organizations interested in making the greatest social impact have begun using radical inclusivity as a road map for service. The Fellowship for Affirming Ministries in San Leandro, CA, has developed a 12-step program realigning services and policies to return dignity and agency to less dominant communities.

In Huzar’s estimation, the library has inherent value in the movement toward radical inclusivity by providing a judgment-free space and resisting the counting and categorizing of each person within that space. In a radically inclusive library, not only are all welcome, but all are welcome to use the library without criticism or expectation of conformance to rules of productivity, implicit or explicit.

Extensions into library service are clear. A radically inclusive library goes beyond inclusion. It seeks out and works to diminish and, ultimately, eradicate systemic barriers. It asks difficult questions, amplifies voices, and magnifies talents.

A radically inclusive library facilitates community conversations and development of community-based solutions. The library does not bring the solutions but rather its leadership listens to ideas, finds commonality in aspirations, and brings the community to a table where every member has voice and influence. It follows that a radically inclusive library will be in a position to fight oppression, not necessarily through pickets and petitions but through the tools and resources of the library and by the coordination of community resources.

Taking a stand

The Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) is using art installations to highlight human rights issues. Last year, FLP installed an exhibit called “Juveniles in Justice: End Solitary.” It re-created a solitary confinement cell commonly used in the juvenile justice system so visitors could experience it firsthand. The library raised a question and forced visitors to contemplate the answer.

FLP used the exhibit to shine a light into a dark corner and was not afraid to offer an explicit perspective: that every­one in a democracy is afforded basic human rights and there may be a violation of those rights that we are dis­regarding through willful ignorance.

Adam Feldman, an FLP library coordinator who organized this and other exhibits on social justice topics (and is also a 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker [M&S]), says that having clear guidance from a Board of Ethics has made it easy to engage in political discourse. “It was a powerful and upsetting work, and it sparked a lot of conversation,” he says. “I think the majority of what I do is social justice oriented. It’s almost hard for me to imagine seeing our work outside that scope.”

For many librarians, however, venturing more deeply into social justice work can feel tricky, despite what our professional ethics might recommend.

JUMPING RIGHT IN Simmons College librarians’ responses to the need for equitable
access include collecting zines and creating an anti-oppression guide

Start with community

At the Chili Public Library (CPL), near Rochester, NY, a Gay Straight Alliance is now a regular part of teen programming. Head of youth services Cathy Kyle says, “We felt that since we are a public place, we need a safe space for our teens where they won’t be judged, a place [to which], should something ever happen to them, they know that they can come.”

Located in a conservative area, the library does not have a long history of social justice programming. When approached with the idea, the director was a little nervous that the board would not support it and that there might be backlash from community members who thought the library was stepping out of bounds.

Yet, ultimately, the director decided to go ahead because the idea had not developed in a vacuum; it came out of a process that did have board support. The board had specifically instructed the staff to reach out to local teens and find out how the library could better serve them. CPL director Jeff Baker says, “The library board had been involved in creating the focus groups and so the idea of having a teen support group was not new to them.”

In the course of those conversations, the teens noted a need for a Gay Straight Alliance. The library identified a group who might have unique needs, talked to its members about their needs, listened to their solutions, and aligned resources of the library to make the solutions real. CPL’s process for acting on community aspirations allowed for a growing culture of social justice and inclusivity.

Changing the math

Libraries that have calculated their value on the strength of circulation and program attendance may see the math changing. If libraries continue to see significant results from community engagement activities, a traditional reliance on enumerating outputs could give way to social equity as a primary value.

Erica Freudenberger (a 2016 LJ M&S) questions whether the choice between good statistics and social justice work is a false one. She presided over a period of steep circulation growth as the director of the Red Hook Public Library, NY, but she is adamant that the improved statistics were not her focus.

Freudenberger says, “No one cares about how many items we share except other librarians. It’s a horrible way to tell our story and communicate what we do. I never focused on circulation because I was looking at the big picture—on helping our community become what it dreamt about. It just so happens that along the way we began doing things that spoke to more people, and more people got involved with the library. And guess what happens when you do that? Circulation goes up.”

The authors of this article present workshops on areas of librarianship such as privacy, intellectual freedom, and social justice, for which the professional ethic is strong but in practice can be difficult to maintain. We ask participants to examine the gray areas and ways we can turn them into black- and-white through policy, practice, and culture-building. What we have found is that large and small, urban and rural libraries face similar challenges in including all community voices in decision-making and service development. Many libraries find that even taking the first steps toward social justice work feels difficult owing to a low organizational tolerance for risk and chronic underfunding.

The key to increasing that comfort level rests in developing a strong culture of the library as a democratic institution and then making social justice a part of the community engagement process. Having an established process in place for addressing social issues can ensure that the community’s needs are addressed while empowering staff at all levels.

TAKING A STAND The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Juveniles in Justice:
End Solitary exhibit re-creates a cell to elicit visceral reactions

Back to basics

Stacy Collins, a colleague of Stahura’s at Simmons, curates an Anti-Oppression Guide. It questions the systems that allow “certain groups of people or certain identities to assume a dominant (privileged) position over other groups and identities and this dominance is maintained and continued at institutional and cultural levels.”

The Anti-Oppression Guide is a great source of information, but it is also a gateway to activism and “allyship” (supporting the work of others in less dominant communities when one is not a member of that community). It takes the position that diversity and inclusion cannot exist without anti-oppression. Celebrations of diversity are good for culture-building but don’t necessarily imply action or empowerment. Similarly, inclusion promotes a sense of belonging and a right to take part but doesn’t necessarily confront historic oppression or identify current effects of bias and privilege.

When seeking to understand marginalization, it is perhaps inevitable that systemic oppression will be found in historical biases and bureaucracies. It follows that a radically inclusive library will inevitably be in a position to fight oppression. Collins is clear, however, that while a good step in the right direction, the Anti-Oppression Guide itself does not bridge the gap between professional ethics and practice.

“I am proud of the Anti-Oppression guide as an action in support of diversity, but if I or my library stopped there, it wouldn’t be a bridge, it would be a trick to convince our users and ourselves that we are already on the other side,” she says.

Collins points out that since supporting equitability is listed first in the ALA Code of Ethics, we perhaps should not even be discussing it as if it’s question up for debate.

We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

—ALA Code of Ethics

“A better question,” Collins asks, “might be since our profession has deemed equity important enough to be first in our list of ethics, why have we allowed LIS to spend so many decades doing less?”

Social Justice in LIS

Libraries embracing their role in strengthening the social fabric through sustainability initiatives, community engagement, or radical inclusivity are thinking long-term and acting as responsible stewards of public funds. They do so, however, in a political atmosphere in which climate change is openly questioned by the executive branch and restrictions on civil liberties are part of a major party’s platform.

Librarians acting in defense of their professional ethics can easily find themselves on one side of a partisan debate. It may be worthwhile, given the quickly changing political tides, not to worry about what might be perceived as partisan but instead to anchor our ethics in basic human rights and democratic principles that do not require policy changes every time there is a new administration.

ALA has embraced community engagement through Libraries Transform, a big step toward the convergence of practice and principle. What remains to be seen is whether our profession as a whole, from library science programs to conference proceedings and collegial expectations, will itself transform, informed by the anti-oppression and social justice actions of our peers. In actively including communities previously barred from the conversation, libraries may finally make good on the promise of equitable access.

Margo Gustina is the Deputy Director, Southern Tier Library System, Painted Post, NY. She is a cocreator of the New York Library Association (NYLA) Sustainability Initiative, coleads the “Hooray for ____!” workshop series, and developed the hooray4.org website. Eli Guinnee is Executive Director, Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System, NY. He is a cocreator of the NYLA Sustainability Initiative, coleads the “Hooray for ____!”workshop series, and developed the hooray4.org website

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Solomon Blaylock

I find it strange that this idea of libraries being places of utter political neutrality is so persistent, particularly given the ALA's Code of Ethics (http://www.ala.org/tools/ethics). Every point in it is political (excepting the 8th, concerning professional development), the first in particular: "We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests." The use of the word "equitable" is particularly telling and important. Ensuring equitable access and service policies means that we do NOT treat everyone exactly the same, because we acknowledge and address (or, we're supposed to anyway) the lack of equity that marks the communities we serve and represent. We're committed as a profession to work to CHANGE those circumstances. That's political - it's a stance taken FOR equity and AGAINST an inequitable status quo.

Posted : Feb 01, 2018 08:28

Janna Levings

Ok, here is another thought: If by denying the existence of oppression of a sect of the community because you have not detected it yourself, is that not perhaps perpetuating a conservative political agenda? Not detecting oppression does not mean it hasn't happened. It could simply mean that one's personal lense, occluded with bias, is not attuned to detect it. How does one know if not by asking the sect that is not reflected in the circulation demographics? In my opinion, it is the duty of a public library to bridge gaps in service. If members of a community do not feel safe or comfortable in their local library because their voices have not been heard, or they have not been asked, but the library did not know because those community members have never been asked for input, the fault lies with the library. Ignorance does not imply immunity from culpability. The underserved and oppressed remain underserved and oppressed. Our public libraries have an opportunity, through outreach, to help those in our community tap into a new potential. Maintaining the status quo reeks of elitism and segregation. Radical inclusion feels radical because it requires those with privilege to share access with those who haven't been afforded the chance before, but in reality, it is simply inclusion of all, not just those who always have.

Posted : Dec 31, 2017 05:09


I see this as a way to bring the community together and into the library. It in no way should be about special treatment and that's the point. I see special treatment programs all of the time in libraries- specific craft programs, crocheting/knitting, genealogy, etc. These can be considered special treatment if you consider that they may only appeal to a small portion of the community base. If you aren't considering programs that appeal to all, then considering programs that cover interests all over the community is a good idea. Not to mention, whether you have an independent library or a system with multiple libraries makes a difference. Are programs being unintentionally scheduled more often (or only) at 'better' locations where those with transportation issues could not attend when the program could be scheduled at any library in the system? These are things that happen. Being inclusive is about giving everyone opportunities to utilize these services fairly, not only providing for the higher socioeconomic levels (or other important groups) simply because they are the loudest. Having an understanding that everyone is different regardless of the type of different may require sensitivity or empathy when trying to make them feel safe. The term 'safe' can mean more than one thing. To someone in a lower socioeconomic level who does not currently come to the library (because the goal is to make them library users; it's not just about those who already come to the library and how they feel), you have to think about why they may not feel safe. Are they afraid to come into the library because they will feel stupid for asking questions in front of those more educated? Do they not see any programs that are useful or interesting to them based on their situation and culture? These concerns can make people feel unsafe (i.e. intimidated, fearful, stressful). Libraries need to consider all types of groups and what concerns/reasons would make them refrain from going to the library.

Posted : Sep 22, 2017 12:16

Gregory E. W.

If every single group deserves justice (or equal/equitable access to justice, whatever flavor of Justice) as we all seem to agree here, then why deprive any group a protection? Should there be no laws promising retirement and other emolument of our elders? How are elders different than other identitarian group? Surely you must see there is yet a place for community standards & other social compacts. Let's unite, really come together and protect everyone. That means selectively beefing some things up rather than selectively dropping some. You get me? It's like this: of course the fire dept. serves everyone, AND when a house is on fire, we don't expect the trick to spray every single house on the way, we expect them to respond to the fire. You get me now? Respectfully, G.E.

Posted : Sep 09, 2017 11:11

Thomas Lawrence

Public libraries, as well as any publicly-funded library, should stay out of politics. Period. We are here to provide information on an equal footing to anyone who comes through the door. That is "social justice" enough. And in my many years of library work, I've never actually seen a patron "oppressed" by library staff.

Posted : Jun 10, 2017 02:29


I agree with your comment wholeheartedly. I had a very good conversation at a state university Library where I was director a few years ago. One of my staff wanted me to put up a decal logo identifying our library as a "safe LBGT space" following her attendance a workshop on the topic. I spoke to the heart of the matter by asking exactly who is "unsafe" in our library and exactly what that logo would indicate we do differently? She was a very fair-minded and thoughtful staff worker who happened to be lesbian. I explained that as director I did not want to see our library balkanized and that we wanted everyone to feel welcome in our library. After some reflection she agreed and we worked together toward that goal. Personally, I balk at any reference to qualified justice (racial, economic, social, gender, etc.). It smacks of political agendas. I seeks to do justice everyday in all that I do (Micha 6:8). The idea of unqualified justice has served the human race well for millennia. I think we would be a more unified, kinder, and gentler nation if we returned to it.

Posted : Jun 10, 2017 02:29

anonymous coward

but if you couch your political agenda into a phrase like "social justice" how can you be against fully supporting that? Are you against society? Are you against justice?

Posted : Jun 10, 2017 02:29

Eli Guinnee

I personally don't consider basic human rights a political agenda, although I understand that there is a political shift that has brought into question whether basic rights still exist. First and foremost libraries provide for the basic needs of a democracy, and as such it would seem to follow that we should be strong and active advocates for both equity and human rights. Libraries that focus not on the playing field inside their walls but rather seek to understand and address the complex intersectionality of bias and privilege outside of it, are in a much better position to make that community stronger, more resilient, and a better place to live. A logo or poster indicating the library as safe is a great way to build a culture of inclusivity or signal to a marginalized community that the library, although it may seem intimidating from their perspective, is ready to help. But we can't stop there-- bridging the gap between professional ethics and actual action means actually leaving the library, amplifying voices, and shining light in dark corners.

Posted : Jun 10, 2017 02:29

Margo Gustina

The work of radical inclusivity and social justice that we speak to in our research for the article (and that we implement in our professional spheres) is not the poster or the decal, but rather what the poster or decal is intended to signal. In each of the examples the libraries who have dedicated themselves to making social justice a part of their organizational culture, they have adjusted their service delivery to better meet the needs of non-dominant populations. In 2015 Pew did a study on public libraries and non-US born Hispanic populations (http://www.pewhispanic.org/2015/03/17/public-libraries-and-hispanics/). The study found that many public libraries had a hurdle in creating trust equity with this segment of their service area. Libraries that have been successful in engaging and serving foreign born Hispanic people have been so not because they only changed their collection development practices, or only put up posters, or only had a clerk who was proficient in speaking Spanish, but because they did all of these things. The White Plains Public Library Community Engagement librarian in 2000 not only did they do all of the things, but they started by going to the nearby cultural center, finding out what would be helpful to them, and then consistently delivering on that. When we discuss the issue of social justice in the library, it is a recognition that no, it isn't inherently safe or complete, if it reflects our larger national social constructs. The basis of our engagement with this topic is the recognition that if systems of domination exist in the larger US culture, unless the library takes purposeful action to mitigate those systems, they also exist inside the library (ie. if one accepts that racism is a reality in the US and doesn't take intentional steps to deconstruct racism and its impacts inside the library, then no, the library is not a safe space and is a part of the larger system of racism that exists outside the library).

Posted : Jun 10, 2017 02:29

anonymous coward

"I personally don’t consider basic human rights a political agenda" - it is statements like this that show some inability to understand an opposing viewpoint. Of course basic human rights are a great thing (although, they are also, of course, a political agenda. Just ask the Cuban libertarians who were recently arrested and beaten). However, no one here is arguing basic human rights are bad- they are, however, potentially arguing that social justice is not synonymous with basic human rights. They are arguing that treating people equally, without bias due to race, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc., is the appropriate and dignified way for a library to operate. What Margo describes in the 2015 pew study isn't social justice- it's simply a library serving a community. Changing what the library offers based on community feedback is a regular library practice and should be cheered. However, with statements like this "Some libraries of all types, however, are reevaluating the role they play in their community, questioning whether it is still good enough to provide equal access, or if it is time to pursue an active equitable access that focuses on empowering the less powerful and amplifying the voices of the unheard." it is obvious that this is not simply a library serving it's community members. It's a library or librarian choosing a specific segment of that community that they feel needs extra special treatment. The inherent fault here, of course, is that the bias of the library or librarians are one full display here. This is the problem with all such programs to try to right a perceived wrong. Instead of treating members of the chosen population segment with the radical dignity of equality, these libraries have chosen instead to highlight this population group as an outside and different group that is, through the lens of bias, in need of special assistance and lifting up. Not only is such a program (or agenda) political in its very nature, it is also exclusive, unequal, and unnecessarily infantilizes said groups, imo.

Posted : Jun 10, 2017 02:29


I agree with you, Mr. Lawrence. My job as a librarian is to connect people with information, not to bring my personal politics into the mix. It seems to me that some librarians like to talk a big game about inclusivity - as long as it falls in line with their beliefs and perspectives.

Posted : Jun 10, 2017 02:29



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