Research Spotlight: Mapping Race and Racism in the U.S. Library History Literature

Diversity Research Spotlight

By Twanna K. Hodge, Academic/Research Librarian, SUNY Upstate Health Sciences Library

As part of the Diversity Research Grants Program sponsored by ODLOS, we've started a monthly spotlight on research advancing issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion in libraries.  We welcome your submission of research for inclusion in future spotlights, email us at This month's Spotlight features an interview with Dr. LaTesha Velez and Dr. Melissa Villa-Nicholas around their work “Mapping Race and Racism in the U.S. Library History Literature, 1997-2015”.

Dr. LaTesha Velez is a lecturer in the School of Education in the Library and Information Studies department at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. She teaches information services and resources and information literacy courses as well as being the course coordinator and teacher for undergraduate classes on personal information management. She’s a member of the Faculty Access and Equity committee, working with others to diversify the curricula along with looking at the student evaluation to see if the classes and spaces are open and welcoming.

Dr. Melissa Villa-Nicholas is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Rhode Island. She teaches an introduction to reference course alongside embedding courses with social justice and intersectional approaches to LIS as well as developing a social justice, critical librarianship track for students to spend more time to think about these things. In all her classes, she tries to emphasize a critical approach to power in libraries, studying race, gender, sexuality, as well as how they apply to the librarianship.

Why did you choose to research race and racism in U.S. libraries?

Some of it started when I was on the diversity committee at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where there were many discussions about the curriculum. So part of it was a desire to start a resource for both students and instructors to look through and say, okay, I want to talk about the history and include articles that deal with race and racism; here’s something that I can use and this is what they are about. Another part was the fact that there are a lot of critical bibliographies but not enough that are focused specifically on race and racism. We thought that was a gap that we could fill and keep updated as our research grew.

Using the Wayne Wiegand article as a platform was really good. We decided to take up what Wayne Wiegand did after his article was published. The problem that we see in LIS is they will talk about diversity or multiculturalism intentionally, but not talk about race and racism. What if we just focused on race and racism to see what we have, and I think that's how we ended up getting here. It was helpful for us just to see if a specific problem came up over and over and it was LIS avoiding talking about race and racism. In Todd Honma’s article, he specifically took LIS to task for using the terms “diversity” and “multiculturalism” and talked about how those terms are used to sidestep actually saying race, racism, Black, and White. We quoted that and whittled until it was a manageable size. Honma said that none of us are talking about race. So we thought, why don't we purposely talk about race? It is part of making those things invisible, visible. It’s by having people with the courage to stand up and say, no, we're going to talk about Black people, White people, Asian people, and Hispanic people.

What surprised you most as you were doing this research?

One thing that we have talked about is that in library school education where we had taken a history of libraries course, professors said there isn't enough out there. So the history of libraries classes are a lot of times Anglo, Western-focused or European focused. We did this big survey and found out that there was stuff written from non-Western perspectives, so it doesn't just have to be White or Western history. There needs to be a lot more legwork. I've heard from other students, especially students of color, who took a history of libraries classes or other courses where race and racism weren’t discussed. Since we know that libraries were segregated and that some state library associations promoted segregation there had to be friction to desegregate libraries just like any other American institution. If students who are getting through the history of libraries courses or through their LIS education without knowing major historical figures such as E. J. Josey, it’s a problem.

We can now look at the literature from a bigger perspective and state that there’s literature, there’s a history written and hopefully, it will not be left out of a lot of LIS education.

What’s next?

We hope to continue talking about race and racism in LIS. Also, include intersectionality in our work of writing a book, but still keep those conversations in the forefront. We are happy and proud that we are able to be in positions where we feel comfortable enough to do that and will most likely be supported by our departments especially when we will most likely say that LIS is racist, but it's going to be all good. We are hoping to shift students’ perspective and encourage them to take on a critical approach to librarianship. We want something that's practical and hopefully, help with color blindness. We are always thinking about the whiteness of LIS like how do we write a book that is also engaging and important for the students of color now and for librarians of color that's not just aimed at shaking up whiteness or color blindness or that doesn't just center whiteness? How do we make critical library pedagogy that’s more centered on us?

To learn more about “Mapping Race and Racism in the U.S. Library History Literature, 1997-2015”, visit the University of Rhode Island, Graduate School of Library and Information Studies Faculty Publications Digital Commons pre-print