Equity and the American Library Association


Prepared by

Nancy Kranich, ALA President 2000-2001

"Equality is about distribution; equity is about justice."
--Jorge Reina Schement

The concept of equity establishes a moral basis for librarianship and gives meaning to the role libraries play as the cornerstone of democracy. Equity of access underpins the work of libraries and librarians and has done so since the days of Melville Dewey. Yet, the term itself is still difficult for us to define. To some, equity means outreach and literacy services to underserved groups including ethnic and racial minorities and people with disabilities. Others view equity as an economic issue, comparable to public school finance; it highlights the gaps at the state level between well-financed and poorly-supported public institutions, and those individuals lacking library services all together; e.g. 1.1 million in New York State and another million in Illinois alone. Nationally, the discourse about equity policies focuses on affirmative action, social justice, and equal opportunity. Until recently, Washington policy makers concerned with information access have directed their attention toward the digital divide and related issues. No matter how broadly or narrowly stakeholders define equity, the American Library Association must be at the table. We have an ongoing stake in the equity discourse. It is fundamental to fulfilling our mission in the 21 st-Century information society.

Equity of access was named as one of ALA’s five key action areas in Goal 2000, the Association’s strategic plan adopted in 1995. Five years later, members endorsed ALAction 2005 which specified Equity of Access as a goal for the association’s activities for the 2000-2005 period. The planning document stated, "By 2005, ALA will be recognized as the leading voice for equitable access to knowledge and information resources in all formats for all people."

In order to frame the issues around equity, ALA members must ask:

  • What do we mean by equity in an information age?
  • How can we promote universal service and public participation?
  • What steps should we take to ensure equity?
  • What should ALA's equity agenda include?

ALA members and the ALA Executive Board began discussing the ALAction 2005 equity goal in 2000. During my ALA Presidency, I worked with several members of the Executive Board to draft a proposal to frame the issues around equity. ALA Associate Executive Director Mary Ghikas then drafted a background paper and chronology of ALA’s past actions related to equity. What became clear from that document was that we needed a more in-depth assessment of ALA’s past activities in this arena before determining an agenda for future action. Kathleen de la Peña McCook took on the arduous task of sorting through ALA’s archives to trace the initiatives previously undertaken to promote information equity over the last 100 years. What she found was a rich heritage of programs ranging from literacy, intellectual freedom, and diversity to information policy in a climate of ever-changing technology.

The challenge for ALA at the dawn of the 21 st century is to act--to harness the diversity and passion of our profession’s commitments to equity into a coherent and dynamic initiative so that this core value thrives in the fast-moving digital-age. Indeed, in McCook’s vivid metaphor, librarians are the rocks in the whirlpools where upstream and downstream torrents collide as tensions within the information society. ALA’s role is to stand as a bulwark against those currents in the whirlpool that erode equity. To do so, ALA must undertake more vigorous actions, but in a concerted manner that guarantees maximum impact. In order to stake our rightful claim in the nation’s digital future, ALA must act quickly and deliberately to lay out a framework for understanding equity in the information age and to develop an action plan for equity.

We must begin by defining equity and documenting its challenges in this age of abundance. We must continue to demonstrate that libraries close gaps in information access. We must ensure that no one is left behind in our information-age democracy.

Kathleen McCook has reclaimed our proud history as champions of equity of access and democratic participation. Her comprehensive assessment of that history provides a springboard for ALA to launch a concerted effort as the leading voice for equitable access to information resources for all. That said, it will take more than a scholar’s documentation of ALA’s accomplishments to date. To succeed, ALA must now pull together its disparate units and speak loudly and clearly, with a unified voice. We must make the case about the key role that libraries and librarians play to ensure a fair and equitable information society and a digital-age democracy for all Americans.

Rocks in the Whirlpool

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