Call to Action

Envisioning a future that centers BIPOC voices

January 4, 2021

Academic Insights, by Twanna Hodge and Jamia Williams

Librarianship is an overwhelmingly white profession, with most of its racial and ethnic diversity existing in paraprofessional, precarious, and part-time positions. As two early-career Black women with experience in multiple academic and health sciences libraries, we have experienced many barriers to existing and thriving in librarianship: tokenism, racial battle fatigue, cultural taxation, and emotional labor. We regularly navigate the manifestations and effects of vocational awe as well as structural and institutional racism in academic libraries, all of which COVID-19 has highlighted and severely worsened.

Libraries have been described as beacons of democracy, inclusion, and equity. As a direct result of the pandemic, we have seen that in striving to fulfill our values and serve our patrons, the very people who make up libraries—library workers—are being neglected. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people are experiencing higher death rates in this pandemic. Black library workers are dealing with stress, lack of access to health care, and similar challenges while trying to do their jobs in academic libraries that already have to contend with issues such as insufficient funding, toxic or abusive work environments, and a pervasively homogeneous workforce.

Several professional associations have identified equity, diversity, and inclusion as part of their core values—including the American Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Association of Research Libraries, and the Medical Library Association. ACRL’s core commitments include acknowledging and addressing historical racial inequities, challenging oppressive systems within academic libraries, and identifying and working to eliminate barriers to equitable services, spaces, resources, and scholarship. Though academic libraries designate committees or other assigned groups to do the work of “solving” EDI issues, change has been incremental and inconsistent.

The combined effects of COVID-19 and anti-Black racism have been devastating.

We can no longer avoid naming, critically examining, and dismantling structural inequities, such as how white supremacy, anti-Blackness, classism, sexism, ableism, and Eurocentrism directly impact the lives and abilities of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) library workers to not only do their work but also to exist within these spaces safely.

The combined effects of COVID-19 and anti-Black racism have been devastating—financially, physically, and mentally. Despite this uncertainty, academic library workers must take intentional actions genuinely demonstrating that All Black Lives Matter, and that BIPOC library workers’ lives matter.

Academic libraries must start centering BIPOC voices. How do you realistically and sustainably address vocational awe, the white-savior complex, and anti-Black racism within yourself and your department, your library, and your organizational culture? Since libraries are products of society, they must recognize that whiteness is the default culture that BIPOC library workers have to navigate every day. Navigating whiteness can lead to deauthentication, low morale, and potential departure from the profession.

We call for interrupters, abolitionists, revolutionaries, social justice warriors, activists, and organizers to do this lifelong work, which requires vulnerability and courage to be called out and called in. It requires interrogating why only one or a few BIPOC library workers are in the room. It requires understanding structural issues and working to correct them. It is not the role of BIPOC employees to be spokespersons or walking encyclopedias for underrepresented groups at their job.

Centering BIPOC voices must be incorporated into every aspect of librarianship. This is our call to action for envisioning a future and creating inclusive, accessible, equitable, and antiracist systems, structures, and environments.

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