Ask A Librarian

Black Lives Matter in Libraries

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
June 15th, 2020

By Karen Diaz, Dean of WVU Libraries

The outrage, anger, and sadness of George Floyd’s murder is palpable in our community, nation and world.  I share those sentiments and like many think “these killings have got to stop”.  We know systemic racism and violence against Black people are not new problems, but we have reached a new crescendo.

I have struggled personally with how to respond from the WVU Libraries. I have been leery of creating yet one more statement in a sea of statements.  It’s too easy to say something – but so hard to create meaningful change. At the same time, I recognize that there is a need to verbalize intention if we want to move our organization in a new direction. I was pleased that our university president has led with such a statement and has challenged me, as a part of the WVU community to act.

When I think about how libraries need to change to become truly anti-racist institutions, I see two sides to this. First is that it matters how we think of our role as a cultural institution.  How do we create spaces, collections, instruction and programming that represents all voices, and that fosters a sense of belonging for all users?  Next, it matters how we think of our role as an employer. How do we create accountability and structure our culture internally to ensure employees from diverse races and ethnicities are hired and feel a sense of belonging?

In thinking through these two big challenges, I recognize that they are inextricably intertwined with each other.  I have been reading the works of and listening to colleagues in my own field these last several days.  I have particularly been paying attention to Black leaders and I’d like to highlight some of their thoughts that inform my thinking.

This conversation between Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress and Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution was informative in helping me think about our role as cultural institution.  Each share how important representation in books and cultural artifacts prompted their interest in entering their respective fields.  This representation then serves to inform the role cultural institutions have in helping to shape and change society.

This line of thinking has resulted in the fact that librarians see themselves as saviors or guardians of knowledge.  Two years ago, our colleague pointed out a flaw in this thinking. Just because our mission is noble, it does not mean that we are above reproach and criticism in how we do our work and how organizations treat their workers. Fobazi Ettarh articulated our challenge as vocational awe, and how that awe stands in the way of making progress as an employer as well as cultural institution. Now is not the time for articulating how important we are to the cultural record.  Now is when we must ask WHAT and WHOSE cultural record we are creating, amplifying and preserving. If our organizational culture is oppressive because it defaults to our racist and patriarchal origins, does that not become reflected in the cultural heritage we are preserving and protecting?

Finally, I’ll share statements and thoughts from two leaders of research libraries:

First fromVice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian at UNC Chapel Hill, Elaine L. Westbrooks who states that becoming organizations fully dedicated to equality requires reckoning with our past.  She promises to begin that reckoning at her institution and I look forward to learning what that will look like and what it might teach us at WVU.

Second from Vice Provost for Libraries and Museums and May Morris University Librarian at the University of Delaware, Trevor Dawes who acknowledges the value of statements, but recognizes that statements are simply not enough and that we must act.

I am meeting with my leadership team individually in the coming weeks to begin conversations about race and racism at WVU Libraries. I hope to pave the way for normalizing these conversations in a group setting so that we might begin to create meaningful change. I know it won’t be quick and I know it is complex.  But I also know it is necessary.

Resources

I would also like to share resources compiled by a previous resident librarian and updated by our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Committee:

https://libguides.wvu.edu/diversity

Additional Statements

Here are statements from some of our professional organizations:

American Library Association (ALA)

Society of American Archivists (SAA)

Medical Library Association (MLA)

Association of Research Libraries (ARL)

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)

International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA)

North American Serials Interest Group (NASIG)

Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP)

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