Guest Post: GET LOUD: No more shushing and “being nice” from white library workers

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I’ve been struggling with how to write about this. Unsure of how to best get across the anger I feel towards the library profession’s general response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The embarrassment I feel about our legacy of silence that continues in the face of a movement birthed from centuries of systemic racist oppression and white supremacy. I was (and still am) unsure of the best way that I, as a queer white person with cis-passing privilege, can best support the Black community personally and as a library worker. But something needs to be said and even more needs to be done.

We’re a profession composed predominantly of white women (85.5% of librarians are white according to the 2018 US Bureau of Labor Statistics) and this is mainly a plea to you. A plea to use your privilege and information expertise to take immediate, direct action to support Black people in this crucial moment and beyond.

Now is a time to leverage our professional skills, our institutional knowledge, and our vast access to resources to progress the BLM movement and advance racial equity in our society. Here’s a few ideas on how we can do that. 

 

BE THE BRIDGE FOR PEOPLE WANTING TO LEARN MORE 

 

Look at this tweet! The librarian-bat-signal is shining, and we are being called to work!

We are information professionals. This is literally what we do. We make LibGuides, we answer all sorts of questions, and we know how to find relevant, accessible materials tailored to the patrons’ questions. So now, we can use our skills and leverage our white privilege to take some of the educational and emotional labor of teaching off the shoulders of our Black friends and colleagues.

Please do not put this on your one Black colleague! Black people are tired and overburdened, now more than ever. Do not turn to the small group of under-represented library workers to ask for advice, labor, or an allyship cookie. They’ve already had to do this work for themselves. Now is our time to step up to educate ourselves and our curious peers who are finally coming to the social justice party.

KNOW YOU WILL MESS UP, AND TRY ANYWAY

There was a point in time when I was fighting against my own internalized misogynistic beliefs—beliefs that were directly detrimental to me as a femme person—and I was processing it with my therapist. He responded by saying, “You can’t be a fish in the water and not get wet.”

What he meant was this: We are immersed in systems of oppression from birth, in such a way that we cannot separate ourselves from it. We internalize racist and oppressive messaging. It is a natural consequence of living in a society built on the oppression of “others.” And as white folks, not only do we not realize we’re wet (i.e. white privilege, passive racism), we don’t even realize we’re in water (i.e. pretention of neutrality , denying the experiences of Black people, denying systemic racism)! Our privilege creates a blindness to the roles of racism and white supremacy in our society that take continual, ongoing, lifelong learning to combat.

This isn’t to say that there is no way to combat systemic racism. This is to say that we need to fight systemic racism with the knowledge that “being in the water” guarantees we will make mistakes. And we need to do it anyway. 

It’s a vulnerable position to be in, knowing you are guaranteed to trip up. And trust me, as a lover of to-do lists, I wish that there were a series of “Ally Action” checkboxes I could mark off to absolve myself of my own internalized racism and white privilege. But racial equity and healing is not that simple. The system is vast and will require learning, and messing up, and relearning from all of us to combat it. Taking these steps—accepting failure as part of the process and trying again anyway—is what can help us become anti-racist rather than simply “not racist.”

So try something knowing that this is an iterative process! Start from where you’re standing now and make a move. Know that you will (probably) fail at it. Actively listen to feedback from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). Take the feedback as an opportunity to learn, evolve, correct past behaviors, and improve your allyship going forward. And then get back out and try again. 

 

RADICALLY OPEN/EXPAND OUR LIBRARIES’ RESOURCES TO THE COMMUNITY

We just did this! In the wake of COVID-19, there was a flood of community resource sharing, meeting opportunities, and digital spaces leveraged to ensure that our patrons and colleagues were being supported as best as possible during widespread library closures. HathiTrust offered Emergency Temporary Access Services; due dates were extended and late fees waived; and Interlibrary Loan departments shifted their approach to copyright issues to fulfill as many requests as possible (fair use is our friend). We were flooded with emails from our peers, supervisors, professional organizations, you name it. All hands were on deck to handle COVID-19!

Because of this, it was disheartening to go into my work email and realize there were no responses to the death of George Floyd and the protests in Minneapolis. Where was the professional organizing? Where was the support? Where was the outrage?

And when announcements finally came, it came in the form of too-late, vague, and milquetoast statements that were trying not to offend anyone.

We already know that Black people and other racial/ethnic minorities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. And we should be acknowledging that simply existing as a Black person in the US and facing constant systemic racism has detrimental physical and psychological impacts. It’s like a pandemic within a pandemic that many white folks are finally waking up to. So let’s respond to it as such!

via GIPHY

Push your administration to open resource sharing to ALL people in your community (especially in academic libraries, we need to reach beyond students and faculty). Advertise the availability of community borrower library cards. Regard community borrower requests with the same level of importance that you give faculty research requests. Tear down the ivory tower barriers that keep community members out of our stacks and share our resource wealth. 

 

DON’T WAIT FOR ADMIN ACTION – DO THE WORK AT ALL LEVELS

Unfortunately—because of the strict hierarchies that often exist in libraries, our reliance on government funding, and the general bureaucracy of libraries as they exist—true action and change from the top takes way too long. But this is no excuse why we can’t be doing crucial anti-racist work from our own positions.

To solve a system of racism, you need a system of response. We need change and action at the institutional level as much as we do on an individual level.

Think about subversive or “stealth” ways that you can leverage your position at work to combat racism in our profession and more broadly. 

  • Uplift and promote the existing work that BIPOC are doing in the LIS field when people ask for models or references in library work. 

  • If you hire people (staff and/or student workers), offer opportunities to BIPOC and other underrepresented groups in LIS and act as a mentor. 

  • Bake “diversity stuff” into your teaching materials and presentation topics. They think they’re here to develop skills to make impactful conference posters? PSYCHE! We’re going to talk about inclusive visual representation and accessibility as a core part of poster making. 

 

 

CREATE RELATIONSHIPS WITH LOCAL ORGANIZERS AND OFFER DIRECT SUPPORT

The same way we make connections with local community organizations, we need to be contacting our local BLM organizers. We should reach out to these organizers and ask about their immediate needs. Money? Reading lists? Legal advice? Printing resources? Food? Protestor safety tips? Privacy help? Research materials?

Once your relationship with the organizers is established and their needs are noted, ask yourself how you can help them meet those needs. Can you: 

  • Waive printing costs (altogether or up to a dollar amount)? 

  • Create a LibGuide and/or make it highly visible on your website and social media? 

  • Sponsor a virtual event with experts/professionals available to answer questions? 

  • Create a local guide to organizations that offer food, housing, financial assistance, mental health support, and legal help for free or at low-cost?

We have a host of resources, connections, and expertise that we need to leverage in the fight for equity and Black lives. And if we don’t have the answers or resources in our own collections or staff, we sure know how to find out. 

 

KNOW YOUR NICHE – WORK FOR NOW AND THE LONG-TERM

Each library has its own unique quirks and specialties. If you know those areas of specialization, you can capitalize on the resources allocated to that area to offer help to current BLM organizing and (possibly) improve your collections and community relationships for the long haul.

For example, the University of Iowa has a zine collection that “is making a concerted effort to collect zines in all formats in order to preserve these materials and make them accessible to wider popular and research audiences. Zines are windows that provide glimpses into fascinating and often-under documented social worlds, worlds that we believe deserve to have their voices rescued from obscurity.” With this in mind, our library should be asking how we can leverage this collection and the resources behind it to benefit BLM organizers and simultaneously improving our collections. Are BLM protestors making zines physically or digitally? If so, can we offer to print copies of zines by Black creators about safe protesting practices for distribution at rallies? Can we offer to digitize and preserve the zines as part of our collection?

Using some of our financial (for printing) and digital resources (for secure preservation practices) benefits the community members protesting today and is a step towards decolonizing/diversifying our collections for future patrons.

Determine what your specialty is (collection-wise and skill-wise) and see if you can make it work for the BLM movement. If you have a data privacy professional on staff, call them forward to provide information specific to protesting with proper context around the history of law enforcement surveillance of BLM organizers. Ask departmental librarians to talk with faculty about relevant presentation topics (i.e. health science librarians – doctors on protesting safely during COVID-19; law librarians – lawyers on protesters’ rights). 

We need to know ourselves (warts, white privilege, and all) if we’re going to do this crucial work and become true accomplices in the struggle for racial equity and healing. But the good news is, we already have many of the professional skills and practices in place to work with BLM organizers in progressing the cause. We have been silent and “neutral” for way too long. Take a stance. Use your resources and abilities for good. Black lives matter. Happy Juneteenth. 

 

About the author:

Madde Hoberg (she/they) is the Library Annex Assistant at the University of Iowa and is currently seeking their MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison iSchool. They are a part of the Staff Development and Diversity Team at UI and a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at the UW-Madison iSchool. Besides cramming their brain with materials on diversity, equity, and inclusion, they enjoy baking, playing video games, and smothering their pets with affection.

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