Considering Whiteness in Libraries

At a recent conference on “The Past Present and Future of Libraries,” one of the speakers offered an interesting challenge about how we might think about our collections. He asked us to image that a space alien landed in the U.S. in 2050, a time by which the Census Bureau has said we will be a predominantly non-white society. Yet, even though our citizens will be predominantly of African-American and Hispanic descent when that visitor enters our libraries, the collections will represent a heavily white, Anglo-Saxon perspective, unreflective of the larger society the space traveler sees outside the library walls.

I thought about this challenge as I was reading Ian Beilin’s essay on “The Academic Research Library’s White Past and Present,” from Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science (edited by Gina Schlesselman-Tarango, Library Juice Press, 2017). Members of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion working group have been discussing this book. Beilin’s essay examines the multiplicity of ways in which libraries and librarianship are embedded in white society and in whiteness as a sociological concept, representing power, exclusion, and an assumption of normativity. Interestingly, Beilin focuses not only on the demographics of our profession and the focus in our collections on the European Enlightenment tradition, which necessarily carries with it “racist and colonialist legacies;” he also looks at the architecture and physical spaces of our library environments. Many of our library structures, he observes, are designed to intimidate and to evoke an idealized white historical tradition. Writ large, this is a problem that many colleges have been struggling with, related especially to building names and monuments on campus, but Beilin powerfully shows us that libraries are neither neutral nor immune from these issues.

The third reminder about these problems of whiteness, libraries, and exclusion that I experienced recently was a discussion about the vast collection of digital books that the HathiTrust holds and makes available to the public. At our last board of governors meeting, we were reminded that the HathiTrust collection was mostly built by large-scale, unselective scanning of books from our largest academic libraries, and so reflects the same myopia, prejudice, and exclusion – the same violence directed to those who do not conform to the expectations of whiteness – as do our libraries themselves. We were reminded of a reflection from the article on “Rescuing Lost History: Using Big Data to Recover Black Women’s Lived Experience,” by Ruby Mendenhall and a group of her colleagues from the University of Illinois (available here), that writing was and remains itself an act of privilege. So much of our basic practice in libraries, including not just our collection decisions but also the way we create metadata and think about the users who will discover our materials, are infested with assumptions rooted in whiteness. The board considered how we might be intentional about beginning the never-ending task of balancing the HathiTrust digital materials and making this online space a little more reflective of our communities. We agreed on several steps that the organization could take – forming intentional partnerships with institutions that hold distinctive collections that could diversify the HathiTrust corpus, directing funding for strategic priorities to support the digitization of such collections, and reviewing our metadata practices to discover and reduce implicit biases.

These are relatively small steps, but they offer us a start. Perhaps the most important place to begin is simply with the awareness that whiteness is real, it is constructed, and it is a problem. Beginning to have the conversation about what that means for our libraries is a prerequisite to any efforts toward being the kind of diverse and inclusive library that we aspire to be. Perhaps there’s still time to change the impression our libraries will make on that space visitor.

Kevin L. Smith
Dean of Libraries, University of Kansas