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


Happy New Year! Or Happy School New Year, that is. Just like January 1st brings in new resolutions, people, and opportunities, this new school year is bringing in new faces, initiatives, and events to KU Libraries DEI committee. Sadly, we bring in the year saying farewell to the two powerhouse co-chairs of the committee Jeromy Horkman and Tami Albin, who have accomplished great things for the Libraries and campus, all while providing great leadership to the committee during their terms. We’re sad to see them go, but excited for the opportunity to continue their good work.

This 2018-2019 school year, we want to be the leaders of change in the libraries and across campus to promote critical thinking and advance the libraries’ mission to prioritize a diverse workforce across campus and encourage all ideas and perspectives. Our committee is passionate and eager to continue libraries-wide educational efforts and develop active social justice initiatives to reduce inequalities and inequities. We’ve done a lot of good things in the past to uphold our mission like the common book discussion for Citizen, and bringing in Adrianne Nuñez, Human Trafficking Program Coordinator at The Willow Domestic Violence Center, but we could do more, and we WANT to do more. This year we’re focusing on being more proactive than reactive in the current social climate. Something bad and discriminatory shouldn’t have to happen in order for us to raise awareness about it.  We want to address these issues head on, so that we can do our part in preventing these types of aggressions.

Some of the many things we have planned for this year include recognizing celebratory months that are commemorated by different cultures, bringing the libraries together for a potluck to celebrate our cultural differences, bringing the student voice into our discussions, and continuing to donate our time and resources to diversifying efforts around the Lawrence community. The fun part is that this is just the beginning! We are honored to be working with such a great group of individuals this year, and are excited to see what comes out of our efforts.

Although this blog has been updated somewhat regularly in the past, the newest roster of the DEI committee is interested in reviving the blog to serve as a platform for sharing our efforts toward making the libraries more equitable for employees and patrons, and to lift the voices of other groups on campus who are doing similar work. To see the great things we’re up to, and read reflections from our great community, look for updates to the blog each month. Blog posts will be written by KU Libraries DEI committee members with occasional guest posts by other folks on campus. Until next time, CHEERS and Happy New Year!

From your Co-Chairs Natalie Mahan and Tanay Adams