Social Justice in Library School Education

Social Justice, Privilege, Equity, Inclusion. These terms are all terms that each of us as MLIS students have heard with some level of frequency. Libraries are commonly thought to be champions for each of these causes, as we aim to provide services to all in our communities. For me, social justice is an extremely personal cause.

I am a first generation college graduate, daughter of an immigrant, and a woman of color. Topics regarding immigration, racial injustice, and diversity have always taken a major part in my life both at home and throughout my education. My reason for needing to elaborate on my background is 1) to give an indication as to why social justice is such an important topic to me as an individual, and 2) to provide you with a brief understanding of how my experience has shaped my view on social justice topics. This is not be the last post I write concerning social justice, but it is my introduction to the topic.

For this first post, I’ve decided on focusing on the inclusion of social justice classes in MLIS programs. In my program at the University of Denver, I had the chance to be one of around ten students to take a new special topics course in the Fall 2017 quarter called Privilege and Equity. As a brand new first year in the course, this class was my first introduction into social justice within the professional LIS world and it helped to solidify my path towards my MLIS. The small class size and intimate conference room setting encouraged important and productive discussions about social justice topics in the world and how as librarians we can make a change in the lives of our patrons. I left the course with a refreshed sense of advocacy and strong respect for my peers in the LIS program and field.

Despite all the positive energy and ideas that stemmed from this course, I was still made aware of all the ways the LIS field still fails social justice efforts, and the most relevant example for this blog post is the overall lack of social justice courses within MLIS programs around the country. Although my program will once again offer this course during the upcoming fall quarter, the course is considered an elective course and not part of the core curriculum. Through our class conversations with our instructor, I discovered that if other MLIS programs offered any type of social justice course, the course would most likely be offered only as an elective. I conducted light research into other MLIS programs and confirmed the lack of social justice in required courses. Even at Simmons College, whose library curates the well-crafted and detailed “Anti-Oppression LibGuide,” the MLIS program does not require students to take a social justice course. But why is this a problem?

I argue that issues of social justice, privilege, equity, diversity, and/or inclusion are prominent in any field of LIS that one may enter into. Though the purpose of social justice awareness may be more obvious in concentrations like reference/public services in libraries, social justice is still applied as a lens in archives, technical services, and electronic resources. In January 2018, Safiya Umoja Noble published a book titled Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, which provides an overlook into biases in classification systems, Google search, and library databases. Noble’s argument centers on the racial implications that these non-public facing services have on society and how librarians and software engineers can begin to make changes for the future. We, as the future of libraries, must heed that call and work to create positive changes in the LIS field. But how can MLIS students educate other students on social justice when the topic isn’t required to complete the degree?

There are multiple approaches that we can taken to account for lack of social justice training in programs. Chloe’s farewell post from last month provides a great example of how students, librarians, and community members can create a meaningful and positive impact for all individuals involved. I have been working with several of my former Privilege and Equity classmates to form a similar social justice group for the community at and around the University of Denver. Moreover, through course evaluations and town hall interest at DU, the Privilege and Equity class will be offered for at least another quarter in the fall. Additionally, there are other resources students can seek if they feel a lack of support from their MLIS program. Students can become more well acquainted with the Advocacy initiatives conducted by the American Library Association or with similar groups, or they can seek to receive safe/brave space trainings from outside support groups such as the Safe Zone Project. Ultimately, when more librarians and future librarians have better understanding of the importance of social justice, then requiring social justice classes in MLIS programs is more likely to become the norm.

Featured Image is “World Day for Social Justice” by Rikki’s Refuge. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Janette Ruiz is a current student at the University of Denver.

 

5 replies

  1. Lovely and important post. I’m well aware of the importance for advocating social justice issues through libraries, but I wasn’t aware how elective the social justice side of LIS academics was. It’ll be good to keep in mind as I start my degree. Thank you!

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  2. I have two concerns. First, if we make social justice required in MLIS programs, then unless that is displacing other library skills from the curriculum, it is expanding the credit requirements of the degree. Ironically, the very populations this would mean to serve will, on average, be the most burdened by such an increase in costs, posing an additional barrier to the entry of already underrepresented populations into the profession.

    Second, whose social justice are we going to require? It’s pride month, which means my social media feeds are endless torrents of recrimination from members of communities that frequently regard each other’s social justice activism as simply a new, more veiled, form of oppression against themselves, and Forward magazine is now running editorials on how intersectionality is constitutionally incapable of combating anti-Semitism (https://forward.com/opinion/401007/intersectionality-has-abandoned-jews-should-we-abandon-intersectionality/). Thus, while I sympathise with the desire to raise awareness of the ways in which our profession interacts with various kinds of privilege and oppression, I worry that the imposition of required social justice coursework could readily devolve into a kind of political litmus test for entry into librarianship–a field that is, already, arguably even less diverse ideokogically than it is racially.

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  3. It’s this kind of thoughtful writing that could be starting discussions in Privilege and Equity or similar social justice related classes in MLIS programs were it a standardized part of the curriculum.

    I know that we’ve had good conversations in our program’s core classes about bias and privilege, but it’s always felt like we haven’t had enough time to truly delve into how deeply this field is impacted by these issues, and more importantly, to consider whose voices we’re listening to and learning from on these topics.

    Your point that social justice is a relevant lens for all of us, both public facing and not, is one that I think sometimes gets missed. (Also, bias in subject headings could be its own elective judging from the interest classmates had in researching its history and designing potential solutions; the idea that no one in MLIS programs is interested in bringing social justice into the curriculum fascinates me.)

    Thank you for ending your post on a hopeful note. It’s good to read about potential solutions and see work that people are already doing.

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