Broadly speaking, social justice issues reflect movements that push for greater voice and more representation for underrepresented or underpowered communities. Because libraries and librarians are tasked to serve all communities, we are inherently involved with and must be aware of issues of social justice. Ideals near to the heart of social justice advocates are egalitarianism, balance of power, social advocacy, public service, and diversity awareness. All of these issues are reflected in the work that librarians do to serve our communities. Specific social justice issues encompass many areas, and I list a few here just to help guide our thinking: racism, poverty, ageism, immigration policy, sexism, civil rights, mental health activism, homelessness, labor law, environmentalism and environmental justice, and so on. There are many ways in which librarians can address social justice needs with community, and I present some of them below.
Promoting awareness of social justice issues is one way to “improve society” because awareness of an issue is the first step to education and change. However, discussions around social justice can be fraught with controversy. Clearly, not everyone agrees with the basic assumption of creating a more egalitarian society, and even if they do, the methods to achieve change are controversial. You can start by discussing Spanish-language services and services to undocumented immigrants to see the sparks fly. However, the existence of controversy does not release us of responsibility to address issues of social injustice, provide services to ALL of the community, and maintain awareness of the impacts of our work.
One of the traditional ways to support social justice in a library is collecting and providing access to materials that specifically address social justice issues. People often look to the libraries when researching topics such as immigration policy. To effectively support a debate or conversation about a social justice topic, librarians can provide access to conversations, thoughts, and materials with multiple viewpoints. Libraries and librarians have a responsibility to be knowledgeable about the current social issues such that they can provide access to materials that represent the debate. This is more or less the traditional role of the librarian, to provide access to all viewpoints without inserting oneself in the debate. We have to keep reminding ourselves that only with access to ALL material can we truly understand the issue. Yes, both the Rush Limbaugh book, The Way Things Ought to Be, and Al Franken’s, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, should be in the library—despite with whom you agree. Librarians engaged in social justice issues, such as Kathryn de la Peña McCook, advocate developing information resources around legislation and political action as another method of furthering social justice. To engage in conversation around social justice issues, the conversants should have access to upto- date information on the current political situation.
School library media centers have gained a lot of attention lately as vehicles to address social justice issues. Bush (2009) gathers a number of writings together from American Association of School Library’s journal, Knowledge Quest. These articles address issues of civic responsibility in school libraries. Moffat (2005) also addresses integrating social justice programs and resources into a school media center.
Another method to support social justice is through reference work and research. Topics around social justice are rife with inaccuracies, hearsay, rumor, and propaganda—just like many other topics. Providing authoritative and reliable materials to dispel inaccurate information is essential to supporting social justice. The conversation on a particular topic should be based as much as possible on fact rather than propaganda. Inaccurate and unsubstantiated resources do not necessarily have a place in the discussion, and it is up to librarians to decide which resources will be made most accessible and to encourage our members to choose resources appropriate to the discussion.
One of the more active ways that librarians can engage in social justice activities is by designing outreach services that meet the needs of underrepresented communities. In-home delivery service to seniors, non-English-language services, even Internet access services can all be argued to be services for communities with unique needs. Stoffle (2007) addresses the use of new digital technologies to address the needs of underserved populations.
To take this a step further, by abandoning the role of unbiased mediator and taking positions on issues of social justice, we can use our roles to work for change. Several professional organizations support librarians who choose to combine their professional and personal political beliefs. I’ve listed at least some below, including the Progressive Librarians Guild and Radical Reference.
Last, I’d like to call attention to one individual who led the way in activist librarianship: Sanford Berman. I’ve listed only one of his many writings in the Resources section (Berman, 1993), but there is a Web site, http://www.sanfordberman.org/, which has an interesting biography and collection of works. Sanford Berman is an activist librarian/cataloguer who worked on revising the Library of Congress Subject Headings to remove bias. McCook and Phenix (2007) prepared a list of other activist librarians and their contributions to human rights through their professional actions.
1. How do librarians promote issues of social justice while also promoting a balanced perspective?
2. Can and should you keep your own moral/ethical/religious values from influencing the goal of knowledge creation?
3. What is the difference between taking a position advocated by a profession versus a personal position? How do librarians determine whether to represent their own moral position or that required by the responsibility of the position/profession? Are guerrilla librarianship tactics ethical?
4. Does taking a position on social issues help or hinder the ultimate goal of knowledge facilitation in the community? How does the perception of a librarian as activist change how a community might view his or her work?
5. Is it our job to see both sides of a debate and represent each equally? What does it mean to represent a fair and balanced perspective on an issue?
Abilock, D. (2006). So close and so small: Six promising approaches to civic education, equity, and social justice. Knowledge Quest, 34(5), 9–16.
Berman, Sanford. (1993). Prejudices and antipathies: A tract on the LC subject heads concerning people. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Co.
Annotation: Discussion of the life-long efforts of Sanford Berman to rid the Library of Congress subject headings of those with historical or social bias. There are many of Sanford Berman’s writings available in other forms and places.
Bush, G. (2009). School library media programs in action: Civic engagement, social justice, and equity. Chicago, IL: American Association of School Librarians.
Canadian Association for School Libraries. (2004). Intellectual freedom and social responsibility. School Libraries in Canada Journal, 24(4). Retrieved from http://www. clatoolbox.ca/casl/slic/SLICVol24issue4.pdf
Canadian Association for School Libraries. (2007). Intellectual freedom and social responsibility: Building understanding. School libraries in Canada Journal, 26(2). Retrieved from http://www.clatoolbox.ca/casl/slic/vol26issue2.html
McCook, K. (2009). Selected publications. Retrieved from http://shell.cas.usf. edu/~mccook/selectedpublications.htm
McCook, K., & Phenix, K. J. (2007). A commitment to human rights: Let’s honor the qualities required of a librarian dedicated to human rights. Information for Social Change, 25. Retrieved from http://libr.org/isc/issues/ISC25/articles/ A%20COMMITMENT%20TO%20HUMAN%20RIGHTS.pdf
Annotation: A collection of mini-biographies of various librarians involved in working for human rights and social justice.
Mehra, B., & Braquet, D. (2007). Library and information science professionals as community action researchers in an academic setting: Top ten directions to further institutional change for people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Library Trends, 56(2), 542–565.
Annotation: A study of the academic experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) individuals and an examination of the role that LIS professionals can play in forwarding institutional change using the following LIS roles and services: (1) collection and resource development, (2) social and community information sharing, (3) social justice representation and advocacy, (4) outreach and community building, and (5) information dissemination.
Moffatt, L. (2005). Working for social justice in the school library: Exploring diversity, culture and social issues through children’s literature. In R. Doiron & M. Asselin (Eds.), Literacy, libraries & learning: Using books and online resources to promote reading, writing and research. Markham, Ontario, Canada: Pembroke.
Annotation: This chapter provides some specific ideas about methods of bringing social justice issues into a school library. She also provides lists of resources on particular topics.
Morrone, M., & Friedman, L. (2009). Radical reference: Socially responsible librarianship collaborating with community. Reference Librarian, 50(4), 371–396.
Roberto, K. R. (2008). Radical cataloging: Essays at the front. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
Stoffle, C. (2007). Social equity and empowerment in the digital age: A place for activist librarians. In R. Feinberg (Ed.), The changing culture of libraries: How we know ourselves through our libraries. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
Peace Project list of DVDs. http://peaceproject.com/books/av.htm
Social Justice Journal. http://www.socialjusticejournal.org/
Social Justice Lecture Series/District of Columbia Public Library
Teaching Tolerance Magazine. http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/archives
Banned Librarian. http://bannedlibrarian.wordpress.com/
Librarian at the Kitchen Table: http://librarianoutreach.blogspot.com/
List of Social Justice Blogs. http://socialjusticemedia.ning.com/profiles/blogs/
Social Justice Librarian blog. http://sjlibrarian.wordpress.com/
Union Librarian: http://unionlibrarian.blogspot.com/
Library Activist Groups
Information for Social Change http://libr.org/isc/
Annotation: From website: “Information for Social Change is an activist organization that examines issues of censorship, freedom, and ethics among library and information workers. It is committed to promoting alternatives to the dominant paradigms of library and information work and publishes its own journal, Information for Social Change.”
This group is in liaison with the UK library organization: Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).
Librarians for Peace. http://libr.org/peace/
Annotation: From website: “Librarians for Peace is an ad hoc group of librarians and library workers, mainly Americans but also people of other nations, using the internet to organize and lobby against armed conflict where we consider it unnecessary, with a focus on our own country and its allies.”
Library Underground—a guide to alternative library culture. http://www.libraryunderground.org/
Progressive rians Guild. http://libr.org/plg/index.php
Annotation: The development of public libraries was initially spurred by popular sentiment, which for one reason or another held that real democracy requires an enlightened citizenry and that society should provide all people with the means for free intellectual development. Members of PLG do not accept the sterile notion of the neutrality of librarianship, and we strongly oppose the commodification of information that turns the “information commons” into privatized, commercialized zones. We will help to dissect the implications of these powerful trends and fight their anti-democratic tendencies.
Radical Reference. http://www.radicalreference.info/
Annotation: Mission statement from website: “Radical Reference is a collective of volunteer library workers who believe in social justice and equality. We support activist communities, progressive organizations, and independent journalists by providing professional research support, education and access to information. We work in a collaborative virtual setting and are dedicated to information activism to foster a more egalitarian society.”
Social Responsibilities Round Table of the ALA. http://libr.org/srrt/
Annotation: “SRRT is a unit within the American Library Association. It works to make ALA more democratic and to establish progressive priorities not only for the Association, but also for the entire profession. Concern for human and economic rights was an important element in the founding of SRRT and remains an urgent concern today. SRRT believes that libraries and librarians must recognize and help solve social problems and inequities in order to carry out their mandate to work for the common good and bolster democracy.”
The Network: Tackling social exclusion in libraries museums, archives and galleries http://www.seapn.org.uk/
Annotation: Mission from website: “To assist the cultural sector, including libraries, museums, archives and galleries, heritage, and other organizations, to work towards social justice.”