Ask A Librarian: Working Towards Racial Justice in Libraries

contradictions for white people in racial justice work diagram
[diagram from hannah baer @malefragility]

Question from a soon-to-be library school student: as a white person, how can I go about this in a way that promotes inclusivity and justice for all people? I really want to help people with this profession by helping create and facilitate a space of accessible education but I also want to make sure I’m doing it in the right way. 

I think it’s tricky, I sometimes refer to this diagram about white people in social justice work generally (above). That is, there are a lot of contradictions to the work of being a good ally and otherwise trying to support justice for everyone. I see it as having two main directions

1. Tearing down white privilege and the patriarchy and other things that really inhibit us from a more equitable society
2. Building up new and alternative forms of interaction which are more inclusive of everyone

And all of this happens within a structure of white supremacy and all the other justice-inhibiting structures which are just baked into society and which are the water we swim through. And depending where along this spectrum your organization is (i.e. are they cognizant of these power dynamics and actively committed to working on them, or are they more like “We have diverse books, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”?) your role may be different.

The things that have been the most helpful for me, in this work, are finding a combination of tasks that are in category one and category two (tearing down and building up) and trying to work on these things not just only in my job but in the rest of my life as I can. This means a few concrete things and a few more ephemeral things. Some of these may seem basic but I don’t know your background so I’m just laying it all out there.


  • Listen more and talk less with BIPOC colleagues and in BIPOC spaces, be aware of any personal discomfort you have listening to and interacting with challenging ideas (an example could be “All white people are inherently racist”) and sit with that discomfort and explore it, don’t center your whiteness/feelings in a space that is not for you
  • Speak up for BIPOC ideas, colleagues, topics in white spaces. Actively challenge discussions that feel like lazy white supremacy (an example could be on a hiring committee if someone in a white workplace is talking about a BIPOC applicant as “not a good culture fit” ask specifically what that means and whether that’s because they come from a different background or the hiring committee isn’t comfortable with people who may not look/sound like them) and remind people of the racist history of many of the historical “leaders” of librarianship
  • ELEVATE BIPOC ideas, colleagues and topics and actively work against people trying to not do this. If you are asked to give a talk, especially on social justice issues, consider if a BIPOC person could do a better job and suggest them. Refuse to be on all white panels for ANY reason.
  • Actively seek out BIPOC voices in professional associations. Follow the Black Caucus of the ALA, the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association, REFORMA, American Indian Library Association and others. Get to know what conversations they are having and what issues are priorities for them.
  • Look at the main work of librarianship–programming, outreach, materials, space–with an eye to how the library can use their resources to serve ALL the members of the community, not just the regular people who walk in the door. Especially get to know outreach that breaks down barriers or goes to places that interact with people who may not be coming in to the library.


  • When asked for your opinions, ask yourself if you’re actively supporting social justice work with your feedback.
  • Be mindful of the language you use when talking about social justice work (again keeping an eye out for lazy white supremacy) and stay current with news and terminology so that you can be conversant in a non-ignorant way.
  • Be actively skeptical of: police, neutrality, men, bosses, all-white spaces, your own ideas, especially if you are feeling defensive

I think that’s a start, feel free to stay in touch. I think sometimes people with real activism in their heart either wind up working outside of established institutions or wind up with compromise positions so that they can still do their work (and pay bills, stay alive, etc). Librarianship is a lot more just than many institutions under capitalism, but there’s still a long way to go. Thanks for writing.