In June 2020, in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black people and people of color, the University Libraries, like many others, felt the strong need to take action. A group of librarians came together to create an anti-racism resources guide.
On this episode of CU at the Libraries, Linds, Arthur and Debbie reflect on creating the guide, along with the concept of neutrality in academic libraries through the lens of the American Library Association's statement, “while libraries are non-partisan, they are not indifferent.”
Check out Arthur Aguilera's top 5 anti-racism resources from July 2020 and Dean of Libraries and Sr. Vice Provost for Online Education Robert H. McDonald's recent statement on diversity and inclusion.
Linds Roberts: "So I kind of want to pose this question of where did the idea for this guide come from and then punt to you, Arthur, if that sounds good."
Arthur Aguilera: "Yeah, so the idea for the anti-racism resources guide really came out as a reaction to just everything that was happening, seemingly like all at once. We were facing constant coverage of the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and other deaths that keep occurring over and over again. Finally, with the pandemic, everyone being isolated and tensions that have erupted in our country, I think everybody in the libraries was feeling compelled to react. The guide really was that reaction to wanting to be there for our community, wanting to express that we were here, we were listening, and just allowing ourselves to be human in this moment in the country and in our profession. We wanted to provide support for the people who needed it."
LR: "I totally agree. This is kind of what we do as library and information science folks. When there's a crisis, when there's something going on, we want to provide resources and information, and the fact that we didn't already have something like this."
Deborah Hollis: "I will always remember this summer as the twenty-first-century realization of the impact of Emmett Till's horrific killing. This is what George Floyd's assassination in effect was for the country. It was a reckoning. It was videotaped. It was raw. It made it very apparent that at a predominantly white institution, having a resource guide of this kind, it stood out even more. Internally and across campus, I would say we needed some points to jump off of and shared reading was one way of beginning awkward conversations."
"I have been on this campus for quite a while and I don't see the demographic shifts occurring with the kind of pace that I would have liked to have seen.
AA: "At the peak, we had about 14 people working on the guide at the same time. And I think not only were we reexperiencing raw emotions and reactions to what was happening nationally and locally, but we were recognizing that we ourselves failed in a way. Even though the guide came together really quickly, it definitely was a testament to how quickly we had to acknowledge our shortcomings, acknowledge what we had left to learn, and acknowledge that we weren't going to be experts overnight and that this was always going to be an ongoing, fluid, guide that shifted with the conversations happening on campus and the conversations happening within the libraries."
LR: "This was also I think a project that's signaling a shift, at least in the time I've worked at the University Libraries. Different departments have done one-off projects in the past. I've worked with a couple of different people on African-American or Black History Month displays and I know many other people have done these one-off things. But I don't know that we've had a culture, in the libraries, of having this kind of cross-collaboration in quite this way, especially in such a short time frame. So I think we were also trying to build that capacity to react together."
DH: "I would add to that the culture of higher education is a passive culture. Because these recorded incidents were shared instantaneously, we needed an outlet to process the reaction, the grief, the horror. And we needed to have some kind of group coming together to process what we, as a community, were watching unfold. This past summer, no one could look away from what happened, as no one should look away. But the guide also points out that there's a history of this, that this cannot keep going on. That there are many amazing resources past and present, and we subscribe to a lot of these resources."
AA: "We were thinking along the lines of how we can create a resource that is timely, but also a springboard for future discussions and conversations. And so one of the ways that we try to address that is reaching out to our community, asking what should be on this guide? We built that into the guide itself. People can go into the guide and submit a recommendation, and those recommendations are available for other people to review. So more of a resource for the community, by the community.
“As collaborators from the guide, what challenges came up for you?"
DH: "So for me, I wanted to provide resources to students and the community at large for, if you see something on campus, how would you hold the CU police accountable? That turned out to be a challenge for me because I have to admit, I made the assumption that 'Sure, other people would sign on and think that was a perfectly acceptable resource to include in the guide.' And frankly, it surprised me that there was pushback on that. And I can see it now in hindsight how other colleagues took issue with providing resources that if someone was guilty of bad or unprofessional behavior, how could a community trust going to the community that is participating in bad behavior and report something that someone should be held accountable for."
LR: "It makes that point that we have shared values oftentimes. We want this police brutality to stop. We want our organizations to engage much more actively in anti-racism resource work, and we may have different ideas of how to get there. I think there's a tension between, how do we make sure we have a variety of perspectives represented on a project like this, I think that's really important. And also, in order to move forward and be responsive, sometimes a few people need to come together and make decisions or do the bulk of the work together. And that's always tricky to navigate."
AA: "It takes a lot of bravery on behalf of individuals to put yourself out there and to advocate for something that you feel very strongly about, especially during a time when emotions were already high. In the profession, a lot of those voices have always been highlighting inequities in our systems and our structure, and they've often been ignored, and I think this is the time to acknowledge that."
DH: "So how do you feel the resource guide was received?"
AA: "So we got a lot of great feedback. But we also, you know, got some not-so-great feedback. The challenges that we got back were related to, what is the role of the libraries? Are the libraries pushing a narrative that we normally haven't publicly and aggressively walked through before? We moved away from traditional resource guides related to specific academic disciplines or courses into how do we talk to each other. I don't believe that we were coming from a very political stance at all. We're coming from a humane stance, a stance of empathy and a stance of creating an environment where people are welcome."
LR: "I think this would be a good transition to thinking about what the role of libraries is at this time and the idea of libraries and neutrality, that complicated question. I'll start by just saying the quote we shared in the intro, 'While libraries are nonpartisan, they are not indifferent,' really irritates me. I think that we've used that as a cop-out for decades in this country in librarianship. And only more recently are we realizing the harm of that silence or that illusion of neutrality. That really, we're not neutral. We all have our lenses, we all have our backgrounds and so much of that profession, those lenses are from a white dominant paradigm."
DH: "When you take the language that's being used at any point in the twentieth or twenty-first century, and then you overlay it with the demographics of the profession, people can say one thing. But the fact is that the demographics have been slow to change within academic libraries and archives. Is it changing? Yes, it is. But throughout the course of library history, it started with ALA recognizing that once you let communities of color come into the library because that's in our history as well, then people who look like the community should staff those branch libraries, and that was in the public library sphere."
AA: "I think for a lot of younger librarians, we're taught that social justice is important and that libraries are not neutral, and so it's interesting to get into the profession and then see such a disconnect between our education and the practical experiences that we have. In order for that to change, it really does require each institution to reflect on their core values. In many ways, this guide was the starting point for our institution to realize that we can't wait for other groups. We have to do this work ourselves."
DH: "In all my years, we've tiptoed around these kinds of discussion topics. I am very grateful that we're coming together and we're open to having the awkward conversation and recognizing that so much work still has to be done."
LR: "This is a process of capacity building. We have to start from where we are. We had to have some of these initial awkward conversations within our small group. And now we're seeing it grow into the larger group that is the libraries. I also think it's really valuable when our leaders are on board with this work and when they're helping contribute to these conversations happening in our organization. And there's a huge role for more of a grassroots movement of our staff and faculty within the library saying, 'This is important to us. We want to be doing this work. We want to be having these conversations.' And ideally, the leadership and the grassroots meet in the middle."
DH: "I think through this whole process also, as a library community, people are recognizing what systemic racism looks like. So we have these amazing collections and resources, again, from a very passive point of view. But when we look at our faculty, the library personnel, it still reflects the dominant culture. Now, I have always argued that we have other communities buried within archival collections and they just haven't been recognized or noticed. So, we don't need to do the mad scramble that archives across the country are doing. We need to go about that thoughtfully, working with members of those communities, convincing them that this is a good place to deposit organizational papers or personal papers."
LR: "Let me ask you both this: Do anti-racism resource guides disrupt the idea that libraries are non-partisan?"
DH: "We always say, well, we're an R1 institution. And our collections support the centers of excellence on our campus. So libraries have always been nimble enough to deflect and be able to dodge the question, 'Are we partisan? No, we're actually just supporting what's being taught on campus.' And actually, that's nonsense. But the interesting thing about libraries is when you ask across communities, across racial and ethnic groups, people have fond memories of libraries as, for the most part, safe spaces in their childhood. I have many fond memories of going to the library as a child with my mother, who was a naturalized citizen. And we all went and we checked out books to learn English together and whatnot."
LR: "I appreciate so much of what you shared. It's the idea that these decisions are made by people who work in libraries and we are predominantly white on a predominantly white campus. I think it's also important to name that, while libraries have these wonderful qualities promoting democracy and welcoming all, there have been many documented instances of black students and other students of color having security called on them when they are legitimately in the library studying. Or having their identities and their purpose questioned. Being shushed by library staff. And from my perspective, having an anti-racist resource guide, part of what makes it valuable is the conversations we need to have inside the libraries. We need to talk about this history and talk about how we're going to intentionally shift it."
AA: "I think there is no such thing as being non-partisan. If you're a person of color, if you are part of the LGBTQ community. Essentially, if you are one of those categories, I think that politics do run your lives. The idea of libraries being non-partisan has always struck me as odd because libraries are the place to leave all of the constrictions that have been placed upon you by society really at the door. I think about the inscription over the front doors of Norlin Library, “He who only knows his own generation remains always a child.” This has inspired me since the day I set foot on this campus. I can't think of a more non-political message than that. Whether libraries are partisan or not, libraries always make a choice. So maybe partisan or nonpartisan isn’t the right terminology to describe what libraries actually do."
DH: "I have one foot in the twentieth century and one in the twenty-first century, and I am slightly jaded, but I'm always hopeful. I hope that once things settle down and we go back to meeting in person again, we don’t slide back into old behaviors and old ways of doing things. I feel like this whole experience has given us a very good means of really contemplating how what we do impacts our students. Because for me, it's always about the students. It's always about how do we support them with the kinds of collections that they have at their disposal."
AA: "When I reflect on where academic libraries go from here, what I'm hoping is that individual libraries will start doing more work internally and start focusing on what works for them and their community members. I see that happening in our libraries, especially in our mission of creating an information empowered world, thinking about how that is such an individualistic question that can really be processed, from person to person."
DH: "From your point of view, Linds, what do you think about the question of where do academic libraries go from here?"
LR: "Three things come to mind for me. One is absolutely the hiring, the retention and the climate issues inside academic libraries, so we can start to really shift the needle on who is working in libraries and who is making these decisions. I also think transparency is going to continue to be really important. I like that we made recommendations publicly available, but I think that idea of transparency needs to be throughout the work that we do in our organization. And the third thing I think is really an emphasis on relationships, that how we do the work is often more important than the outcomes. And having the work be not transactional but relational, building relationships over time, building trust over time slowly."
AA: "Well, Linds and Deb, this has been incredible, and I just wanted to say thank you so much for really having this conversation."
LR: "Thank you all. This is great. This is a very cool experience."
DH: "I thank you both as well."