Librarians for Social Justice [Farewell]

Librarians for Social Justice started out as a group created by students at University of Iowa School of Library and Information Science, and quickly morphed into a community organization as local librarians and library-lovers have joined throughout the years. The organization is still very much run by students and, as stated on their website, “serves as a conversational and educational community surrounding issues of librarianship and social justice.” I decided to join Librarians for Social Justice because I thought that it would be a fun way to keep up with volunteering in the community. Through a recent moment of reflection, I realized that being a member of this group has become one of my favorite experiences in library school. In this post, which will be my last at Hack Library School, I will share a bit about working with Librarians for Social Justice, as perhaps you would like to start your own chapter in your town or library.

During my first year, Librarians for Social Justice (LSJ) put together a brunch that benefited The Lisa Libraries, an organization started by Ann M. Martin (of The Babysitter’s Club fame) in order to provide children’s books to underserved areas and populations. The food was generously donated to us by grocery stores. The brunch also had a silent auction component, and we auctioned off donations from small businesses as well as our own crafts. We held a similar benefit concert in the spring to raise money and awareness for the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa. We asked three bands to play, one of them being a band comprised of local librarians! This year, LSJ held a book drive for our local homeless shelter, hosted an LGBTQ+centered artist talk with Venezuelan “art-ivist” Daniel Arzola, and organized another silent auction/brunch that benefited Antelope Lending Library, a nonprofit bookmobile in town.

LSJ also does more long-term volunteer projects in the community, which has been the best part of this group for me. One of my favorite areas of service was volunteering at a residential treatment facility for people who were formerly incarcerated (in the interest of privacy, I am refraining from using any identifying characteristics surrounding our involvement at this facility as requested by the staff. All conversations have been changed or generalized to protect identities, and the details surrounding this facility should not be taken as pure fact).

Walking into the facility, we are typically greeted by the staff members at the desk. A few of the residents may walk by and wave at us too. A staff member gets on the loudspeaker: “Book club! Book club! Everybody get ready for book club!” We make our ways towards the cafeteria and find a seat. It’s not really a book club, per se, but we do go around the circle, introducing ourselves and talking about what we have been reading.

“I don’t really read,” says one of the residents.

“That’s ok!” my friend says, “Have you watched anything cool lately? Listened to any good music?”

That usually sparks something. After a few visits, we began to know their interests: one person likes horror fiction, another likes dystopian YA, another doesn’t read but he writes his own music. And then, as quickly as we become friends, we part ways.

“Where is [resident’s name] today?” we ask. The other residents tell us that he’s completed the program, gotten a job, and was free to leave. It’s bittersweet.

Because the residents are required to participate in mandatory therapy, as some have co-existing mental health and substance addiction issues, we decided to make our “book club” time free of anything too introspective. Our activities include designing our own superheroes, playing board games, making collages, and doing redacted poetry. The supervising staff is also invited to participate in these activities. Because we are coming into their space, we never want it to seem like “school” or “work.” Though we lead the workshops, it is more like a discussion. To the best of our ability, we equalize ourselves and the staff within the conversation of the residents, listening and asking questions and helping where we can. However, we also must keep in mind the inherent power dynamics, in order to better understand our mistakes (of which, I am embarrassed to say, there have been a few). It’s a tricky balancing act. We are not teachers; we are facilitators. We guide, we help, but we also learn and acknowledge where we fail so that we may do better next time. I see all librarians in this role as well.

Volunteering at this treatment facility has taught me how our prison system can be incredibly harmful in so many ways, a hardship that I’ve been privileged enough not to think about everyday. I have also learned that the residents who use the library really love it there. LSJ does not volunteer at the facility to pressure the residents to use the library, and the residents are under no obligation to teach us about what it’s like to be incarcerated or have co-existing disorders. It all just happens naturally, like in most relationships grow through personal connection, conversation, and friendship. This is my final post here at Hack Library School and as I move on in my career, I hope to retain the humility and sense of wonder that I’ve gained for library science through this volunteer work at LSJ and through my master’s program.

HLS writers have written about advocacy and activism a lot, but here are a few highlights:

From information access and banned books, to centering underrepresented populations, Librarians for Social Justice tackles it all. By offering accessible and action-focused service, we strive to uphold the values of librarianship and social justice. If you would like more information about social justice in the library field or if you’re interested in starting your own chapter of LSJ, please visit our Facebook page.

Cover photo: “Women’s March” by Erik Drost, depicting giant orange signs of people hugging at the 2018 protest in Ohio. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Chloe Waryan is an MLIS graduate of the University of Iowa. She entered into the library field by way of urban public libraries, as a patron, a volunteer, and eventually an employee. This summer, Chloe will be interning at the University of Iowa Special Collections. Connect with her on social media or her website.

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