The Myth of the Neutral Library: Why Social Activism is Integral to Librarianship

In 2014, following widely reported incidences of police brutality leading to the deaths of two African Americans, the Black Lives Matter movement dominated headlines as the grassroots initiative grew to a national network of activists. In response, a group of librarians created the #Libraries4BlackLives initiative, meant to provide libraries resources to foster dialogue on racial equity in their communities.

I had the chance to interview Jessica Bratt, one of the founders of #Libraries4BlackLives initiative. Bratt was named a 2016 Library Journal Mover & Shaker and is currently a branch manager with the Grand Rapids Public Library. She shared information on the initiative, as well as advice about what library students should be doing to ensure that they are ready for their roles as gatekeepers of information dissemination in their communities.

Sheila Garcia: Tell me more about Libraries4BlackLives. How did this initiative begin?


Jessica Bratt: The summer of 2016, in a single twenty-four hour period, we watched the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile unfold [link these stories]. The three of us individually, Amy Sonnie, Sarah Lawton and myself, were reminded of the countless acts of brutality against Black people, seen and unseen, recent and past. Amita Lonial emailed us — three library colleagues working to put racial equity into practice — suggesting a library statement supporting the Movement for Black Lives.

Over the next few days, we grieved with loved ones, took action in our communities, and showed up at our respective libraries (in California, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan) asking once again: What does our community need from us in this moment? All four of us felt the answer went beyond book lists and displays on institutional racism and policing reforms (though we’ve created those too). Our communities were crying out for more and we’d been inspired by Black Lives Matter solidarity statements from medical students and museum workers.

Over the next four days #Libraries4BlackLives was born: a website, a hashtag, a call to conscience and action. We aimed to create a dynamic forum for resource sharing that could deepen racial equity work in our libraries and communities. We reached 4,000 people in one week. Thousands more since. The main feedback so far: resounding agreement that Black Lives Matter and vocal thanks for the tools and invitation to engage in responsive librarianship. This is an amazing time for libraries to not be on the tail end of history. We can actually be at the forefront encouraging and shaping in advocating for all manner of issues.

SG: Why is it important for LIS professionals to be activists? After all, aren’t libraries touted as “neutral?”

JB: I will quote from our L4BL website statement concerning how we speak against neutrality, “#L4BL is a call to conscience, to action and to responsibility for racial equity and social justice.” To some this will seem too controversial. To others, it will reinforce the pride we feel in a profession with strong ethical standards and a long history of progressive stands. We must acknowledge that this tension exists both in librarianship and in academia.

So, what do we do when our community is not ready or willing to embrace social change? As one recent article pointed out, the civil rights movement was considered too confrontational in its day too. After the March on Washington and Mississippi Freedom Summer, the American National Election Studies found that “57 percent of Americans in 1964 said most of black people’s actions during the civil rights movement in the most recent year were violent…. And a majority … believed that black people’s actions for the movement hurt their own cause.”

Librarians during this era had a choice to make: act as gatekeepers for prevailing (white) community standards and power, or break ranks and use both influence and resources to be part of a movement for civil rights and social change. Today, we name awards after librarians who did the latter (like E.J. Josey, Margaret Edwards and Ruth Brown). Yet, we talk less about the way we were complicit in contemporary segregation and institutional racism.

We need to talk about this history now. We need to ask how and where we have opportunities now to uphold the principles of our profession while more boldly embracing our role as change agents and partners in dismantling institutional racism and other forms of oppression.

We have struggled to define ourselves as a profession in relationship/response to all historical social change movements. We have to face that struggle now. And L4BL is a clear clarion call that we should not sit this one out under the cover of neutrality and community comfort.

SG: What do you believe has been your biggest challenge in promoting racial and social equity in libraries?

JB: This is a loaded question. We can go many different routes. I will just list two of the biggest challenges I find. The first being open and willing to have that conversation in learning other truths. When someone speaks outside of your experience, it revolutionizes the conversation if that other person doesn’t have to “prove” somehow that they speak truth and there is this honest belief. Then going from that place of truth and leaning into that discomfort of addressing that truth. Letting that person or institution be honest or receive honest feedback about whatever racial/social work they still need to do. Having someone admit that there is a problem I find is the hardest. The second is addressing tangible change in racial & social equity. People do not feel that they have power in their positions to achieve tangible change to institutionalized inequities.* It is the people with “BIG power—like wealth, etc.” that is suppose to make a difference. That is not how this works. Everyone—every single person has a responsibility and has the power to create change. No matter how small—no matter if you are a front line staff person dealing with your personal biases when providing great customer service or if you are a library director tackling a change in policies. The third is creating an environment where we can be uncomfortable and productive. Some conversations are really going to punch you in the gut or stir feelings due to however personal the issue is to you on either side of the table. Taking that discomfort and leaning into it in order to figure out how to productively address it is BIG.

SG: This isn’t your first time launching a major initiative in order to combat inequity. Can you tell us about DigiBridge and the impact it has had on your local community?

JB: DigiBridge was started to help provide additional support and extension of library services to the public school system. Grand Rapids Public Schools serves nearly 17,000 students with over 2,000 employees (half are teachers). One of the first outcomes of DigiBridge was making sure we removed barriers to access. We introduced a digital library card, which doubled as their student/employee ID that could be used to access our database and online resources. From there we were able to connect with students, teachers, and administrators doing research database trainings, which further opened doors (in school-library partnerships) that had previously (for years) been shut to us.

One of the most meaningful outcomes (out of our seven initiatives) during my involvement was with our middle schoolers in the Teen [Tech]Knowledgey Camp we established.  The camp was started to help teens avoid summer learning loss and gain technology skills through Teen [Tech]Knowledgey Camp. This two-week program incorporates all the elements of DigiBridge. Students receive e-readers to use for the summer, get a library card, and learn how to use the library’s online resources and technology in an engaging and fun environment. Held at the library, students build skills in robotics, researching, and interactive discussions. Check out this playlist, which allows you to see what teens were up to at the Teen [Tech] Knowledgey Camp!

In the summer of 2013, I started out with 17 kids, black and white nooks, and battery-powered robots. We had a few iPads for book trailers, and the schools sent a college film group to help the kids make book trailers. I started with a small budget of $400.

In the summer of 2014, the camp kept growing and had over 50 attendees still with the same technology: black and white nooks, iPads, and the same cheap robots.

In the summer of 2015, we landed a $20,000 grant from our Library Foundation. We were able to upgrade to Lego Mindstorm ev3 robots and Kindle Fire 6’s. Our camp kept the same attendees and has retained them until they go to high school.

Our demographics are very diverse with kids from many socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities. In our first year of camp, our attendees were 39% Hispanic and 28% African-Americans; 50% Male and Female. We continue to have an equal amount of males and females and have seen an increase in other ethnicities.

SG: I literally live in your shadow, haha. You’re a huge and impressive presence in libraries, and you’ve had a strong impact on the next generation of librarians within the ranks of the Grand Rapids Public Library. Can you offer some career advice to Hack Library School readers?

JB: Persistence. Patience. Pick up every opportunity. This might sound like sappy alliteration, yet I found that if you are passionate about addressing a problem, even though every roadblock seems to be directly in your path—keep moving them, chipping away at them—you’ll find an in. I am not a patient person, and yet I have learned that not everything can or will be changed overnight. If you keep working and striving towards doing the right thing, that patience will pay off. Then if you are willing take opportunities no matter how big or small, how together or messy they seem—it can work out!

SG: What do you think LIS student can do now, to ensure that they’re ready to speak on behalf of their communities as professionals?

JB: Read, Listen, Get Involved, Debate. I think back to when I was a grad student and that was an amazing time because I was able to read so much. I read everything. Books pushed me outside my comfort zone and helped shaped the world around me. I have a diverse group of friends both from my time as an undergraduate in music school and from living on campus at graduate school. Volunteering, interning, learning from other communities, and just listening to their struggles, their issues, or their concerns was revolutionary! I had great talks that have helped shaped my views in taking a career later in life. Facebook arguments were not my thing—I did not want to engage for the world to see—I like engaging personally (which can be good or bad). Anyway, I personally love to have an open forum like Socrates/Aristotle of old to hash out my perspectives and beliefs with someone that would love to do the same. Whether they are challenging me or just asking me question—talking in-person with people outside my bubble has helped me to sit and work on defining my beliefs so I can articulate them as best I can. My director calls it your “elevator speech”. Sometimes you will have 60 minutes to sit and educate people about why an issue is important; other times you will have 30 seconds. Hone it to where you can package a lot in a little, and the world is yours. I know, I know—easier said than done!

Also, whether students are currently in the area (geographically) they want to work or are interested in a certain area—learning the history of that area’s issues locally and nationally goes a long way. Looking at trends within libraries and being a part of the conversations in #critlib on Twitter are great ways to get a head start on learning how to advocate or address issues on behalf of their communities.

SG: Where can we hope to see you next?

JB: C2E2 in Chicago! Seriously, I will be there and will be briefly on a panel at the Digital Public Library [It seem information about all panels is not available on the website yet, sorry!]. I will also be at Annual in Chicago this year, too. Come say hi or follow me on Twitter (@whimsylibrarian)  & L4BL!

A huge thank you to Jessica Bratt for being willing to answer my list of questions despite her busy schedule! Twitter is a great resource for all library professionals, and I highly encourage you to take Jessica’s advice to heart to engage with the professional community, ask questions, and think critically about the ways in which you can best serve your local community.


Sheila Garcia is a library assistant with the Grand Rapids Public Library, where she builds on her experience working with immigrant communities to improve the services and resources the library offers. You can read more about her work on the ProQuest blog. She is currently a second-year MLIS student at Wayne State University and was named a 2016-2017 ProQuest Spectrum Scholar by the American Library Association.

*This article was amended on March 15, 2017 to in order to change the language used in the following sentence: A lot of people feel that equity and social justice work is too big to solve or they, as in the individual, do not have a responsibility to do anything because they are “too low” on the society totem pole to make a difference.


11 replies

  1. I think the point of library neutrality has always been that we are the providers of information, and not here to tell people how they should think or what they should think. It’s real easy to look back at the civil rights movement and say, “That was a great movement. Glad to hear that libraries were on the right side!” But you can certainly find other movements that libraries were behind that we don’t really want to claim. One that comes to mind is librarians, in 1933, being involved in making lists of books that good Nazis shouldn’t read.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not comparing the Civil Rights Movement to Nazi Germany. One is obviously good and the other obviously a great evil. But I think it is an error to put ourselves as librarians on a pedestal and say, “I know the correct way you should be thinking.” Let’s provide good materials so people can make their own decisions, not make political announcement ourselves.

    I think it’s great that librarians are social activists–just not in the library. One of the biggest library movements of the moment is that of all being welcome. Is choosing one side of a political or social issue welcoming? Imagine you approached a library building that had one of these signs up:
    Black Lives Matter
    Blue Lives Matter
    Libraries = Pro-Choice
    Libraries = Pro-Life
    All guns welcome here
    Guns are evil

    I imagine most people would be uncomfortable if not downright offended by at least one of those signs up at their library. There’s a reason that a cause is a cause. If there was no dissension, there would be no reason to promote it. Right now so much of our country is split on ideological lines. Let the library be a place of solace from this, not yet another place of contention. Let’s be a source for non-partisan information, not a platform for social activism. (And again, I’m all for social activism—just not at the library.)


  2. The idea that “Black Lives Matter” is in any way “one side of a political issue” seems so misguided (in my humble opinion). All it’s saying is that black people are humans too. How is that in any way controversial? If librarians are able to support this statement within the library in a way that shows the very straightforwardness and simplicity of it (and shows how non-political the idea really is), they may be effective at changing the perceptions of some of those who think this is indeed a “political issue.”
    Obviously if we, as librarians, approach social challenges as “political activists” within the library, we not only cause problems within our “neutral” institutions, but also potentially alienate patrons. I think it’s not always so much about WHAT social issues you address, but HOW you approach them.

    Just my two cents…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for your reply.

    I tried in my response to address the idea that libraries should not be neutral, instead the specific point of Black Lives Matter.

    I totally agree with you: At its simplest, the BLM movement is merely reinforcing that black people are human and important and worthy of respect. However, the movement is fraught with political undertones. Whether intended by the founders of this movement or not, there are definitely many people who feel that this movement demeans police lives, among other things.

    To many people, “Black Lives Matter” is very political. I am all in favor of a library fostering and building respect for our black community members in a way that avoids the political conflicts and undertones.

    Overall, I wholeheartedly agree with you.


  4. The place for non-neutral libraries is in private institutions, like private colleges and universities, private schools, mosques, churches, and synagogues. Otherwise, librarians are public servants, just like public school teachers and administrators of the Department of Building Permits. You are not being paid with tax dollars to do anything but be neutral. Of course BLM is political, just like NARAL is political and the March for Life movement.. Look at the movement’s platform! The Black Lives Matter movement makes many people feel unsafe, especially with its platform endorsement that calls the the only democracy in the Middle East an apartheid state and ignores the way that many neighbors of that state treat women and gays.

    If you are ready to be non-neutral in your library, be ready for libraries in other locations to put up displays in favor of introducing children to guns at an early age, or warning people that abortion is morally wrong.

    Rebecca is completely right. If a librarian wants to be non-neutral, go work at a private library, or run for office. Be something other than a civil servant. Otherwise, understand that civil servants need to serve everyone, of all political persuasions, of all immigration statuses, of all sexualities and ideologies, and that none should be favored over others either by the librarian or the library.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s