Disrupting Racial Inequity Among Public Librarians


By: Yesenia Villar, Bilingual Outreach Librarian, Los Angeles Public Library

“Racism is not just what is said or what is done, but also what is not said, what is disregarded, what is ignored, and what is willfully neglected.”

Beyhan Farhadi, PhD

Recently, I overheard a public library associate director in my organization state that recruitment [of non-white librarians] was a library school issue. This was in response to my colleague, a woman of color (WOC) trying to discuss efforts to recruit librarians who identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color (BIPOC) into our organization. When I was in library school a decade ago, I brought up the lack of diversity in the student and faculty population to my advisor and professor, and he simply replied there was no budget for recruitment.

The lack of resources and initiative lead to diminished opportunities for BIPOC to enter the profession. As a student, I was unaware of the impact a homogenized profession would have on myself as a Latina, my fellow BIPOC librarians, and the repercussions to our BIPOC service communities. In private and safe spaces, BIPOC librarians lament over experiences with policies, behaviors, attitudes, and abuses of power that perpetuate racial [and racialized ethnic] inequity among BIPOC librarians and service communities.

Unless you have been on the receiving end of the abuse, discrimination, and oppression of systemic racism, the statements made by these library leaders, both of whom happen to be white males, may seem innocuous. You may even agree that the lack of equitable representation of BIPOC librarians is part of a larger systemic problem outside of the responsibility of the field of library and information science (LIS).

I argue that these statements are a direct manifestation of racism due to the dominant group’s power and control to choose when to discuss, and to what extent racism will be addressed or challenged. This power and control are supported by the socio-political structure of systemic racism which is designed to benefit people experiencing white privilege and uphold white dominance. This system is referred to as white supremacy and it inculcates every facet of our society. The term ‘white supremacy’ is often associated with radical racist or self-defined groups who openly express a belief in white racial superiority. However, white supremacy is far more nuanced and pervasive than society is led to believe.

Racism is highly flexible, adaptive, and able to persist invisibly. It becomes embedded in the fabric of our policies, and procedures. They are so deeply ingrained that we are often unconsciously complicit with white supremacy. Recruitment and, equally as important retention, of BIPOC librarians has mystified LIS because it fails to address the underlying issue: a culture of racism, discrimination, oppression, and the unwillingness to discuss, evaluate, reflect, and take action on the role race and racism plays in maintaining white dominance in LIS.

There is an absence of leadership that is willing to listen to BIPOC and recognize the value of their diversity. BIPOC have unique lived experiences that build unparalleled culturally competent, intuitive, and linguistic skills, that extend beyond language alone, to enable deep cultural connections with BIPOC communities. These experiences build qualifications and knowledge that foster more diverse, equitable, and inclusive library collections, services, and programming. The unwillingness to have critical race discourse demonstrates a lack of cultural humility. When the epistemology is as homogenized as it is in LIS, it creates blind spots and enables structural inequalities and domination.

LIS needs leaders at all levels and from all backgrounds to ask:

  • What are the experiences of BIPOC entering white-dominant spaces?
  • How can I prepare myself to create more inclusive environments?
  • How do we consider BIPOC experiences in the constant development of LIS and how do we implement them to make sure they have “a seat at the table” and their voices are valued?
  • What privileges do I have to forgo to create more equitable opportunities?
  • How can I actively listen to and act upon the experiences of BIPOC with empathy, fairness, and compassion?

We cannot begin to disrupt racism in LIS until we are willing to name and acknowledge our complicity with white supremacy.