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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 11. On Combating Racism In Academic Librarianship

by Sterling Coleman


This article address the problem of racism as it exists in academic librarianship and proposes solutions towards combating its negative effects upon the lives and careers of those librarians who are People of Color.


I wish to thank my fellow members of the BLWA (Black Librarians With Attitude) for their support and inspiration on this project.

The Problem That Is Racism

Racism is the single greatest threat to the advancement of People of Color (POC) within the field of academic librarianship. It exists everywhere and comes in many forms - some subtle, racial misconceptions or ethnic comments taken out of context - and some not so subtle, racial slurs or physical attacks. Racism can also negatively affect an individual's opportunities to gain tenure and promotion, obtain staff development, and receive positive performance appraisals to name a few. The purpose of my article is not to lament the plight of POC within racist academic environments, but to provide them with possible solutions to challenging racism in their work environments. My solutions for dealing with racism in academic librarianship are four fold: (1) Form a support group; (2) Push for a dialogue on the issue of race in the workplace; (3) Join library and university committees that are involved with diversity, recruitment, and selection of library personnel; and (4) Be true to yourself. These solutions will be further explored and examined in the rest of this work.

(1) Form a support group

I am currently one of five African-American library residents at Auburn University in the United States of America. Our residency program allows us to learn about the overall operations of an academic library on a department-by-department basis while we serve as non-tenure track faculty for a two-year period of time. In lieu of our new positions, we have formed an informal support group called the BLWA - Black Librarians With Attitude. We meet on a regular basis - once a month at a restaurant during lunchtime - and we talk about our experiences on the job, issues that are important to us, and our concerns, plans, and hopes for the future. Because our university has an efficient office e-mail system, we often keep each other abreast of job opportunities, call to papers, research proposals and grants, staff development training sessions, upcoming conferences and meetings - anything that we feel may be of interest to each other. In spite of our differences, we respect each other, look out for one another, and support each other when needed. For want of a better way of putting it, we are our brother and sister's keeper.

Whether you are a library page or a library director, as a Person of Color you owe it to yourself and to any fellow POC on the staff to communicate with them and help them when needed. A support group will allow you to more effectively achieve that end. It doesn't have to be formal or meet on a regular basis; but it does have to have an open line of communication which will allow all parties concerned to reach out and share their experiences with the group as a whole. By sharing one's experiences with not only members of one's own racial or ethnic group but also with other POC who may be on the staff; an individual may be able to identify with the needs of others, and understand their fears and concerns as it relates to their careers. A support group can provide a positive venue for the venting of frustrations; create a networking system for academic, personal and job related opportunities; and allow a Person of Color to approach their daily experiences on the job with the comfort of knowing that they are not alone. Regardless of who you are or what you do, you are your brother and sister's keeper!

(2) Push for a dialogue on the issue of race in the workplace

Without an honest and meaningful dialogue on the issue of race in the workplace, nothing will change - and I would venture to say that the racial climate of the work environment could get worse. Racism - like sexism and homophobism - grows out of a seed of mistrust and misunderstanding between two or more groups of people who are different from each other, do not regularly interact, and fails to understand the other's needs.

Evan St. Lifer and Corinne Nelson explored this issue in their article "Unequal Opportunities: Race Does Matter" in Library Journal as they asked the question: "Are whites and minorities looking at the same picture? Librarians of color see a major problem; whites do not. ëWhites are going to say [racism] is not a problem, that's understandable,' said [Teresa] Neely, an African-American librarian from the University of Pittsburgh. ëIt's more institutionalized so people don't realize they're perpetuating racist characterizations. When it gets to be about the fact that something has always been done a certain way, or when someone comes up to you and says, ëThis is the first time I've ever worked with a black librarian' and they have misconceptions ¼ I think it's really interesting.'

What is missing from this situation, however, is dialogue - a meaningful conversation between two or more people on the issue of racism in the work environment.

As a member of my library's Diversity Committee, I presented to the Dean of our library a proposal for a day of racial dialogue that could be openly attended by all members of the university faculty, students, and staff. While my proposal was rejected as being too ambitious for the interests of the library alone, it was turned over to the campus Office of Multicultural Affairs where a decision to have this event is still pending.

While a dialogue session can be formal, it can also be an informal affair as well -a small group of co-workers/friends from different racial groups meeting after hours and talking to each other about race relations at the job site. The greatest problem that one will confront in these dialogue sessions will not be in finding participants for the dialogue, but in finding an impartial individual to serve as a moderator for these sessions. The position of moderator is not one to be taken lightly. A great deal depends upon finding a good moderator who can set the ground rules for a discussion and keep them; temper a dialogue so all parties can be heard; and concerns can be addressed, and help the group arrive at practical solutions that can be applied in the workplace.

There are numerous examples of successful dialogue sessions and strategies for conducting these sessions that exists today. Khafre Abif and Teresa Neely's book, In Our Own Voices: The Changing Face of Librarianship and the White House's website on race relations in America entitled Building One America For The 21 st Century at . are two examples of resources, which provide information about private, public, and academic efforts to address racism in a wide variety of forums ranging from town meetings to a small group of friends.

As a Person of Color one may be criticized or ostracized by one's manager or fellow co-workers for even suggesting that such a dialogue take place - let alone, for submitting a formal proposal for such an event. When faced with this opposition one should ask this question: What good is it for me to have a job, if I do not feel comfortable enough in my work environment to enjoy it?

(3) Join committees that are involved with diversity, recruitment, and selection of library personnel

Among the many duties and obligations that librarians have in a university environment, they are required to serve on library and university committees. As a Person of Color one should endeavor to serve on a committee that directly or indirectly affects the diversity, selection, or recruitment of faculty and staff to not only the library but also to the university as well. It must be noted though that one should be wary of falling into this scenario: "Talk to African American or Hispanic librarians in academe about how many committees they're on,' said Kathleen de la Pena McCook, a Latina librarian from the University of South Florida "Being weighed down by the committee stuff precludes them from working: on career enhancing things, like conducting research or publishing -crucial aspects of the tenure process. Thus for many minorities, there is no happy medium: they either feel excluded or included to such excess that it comes at the expense of their career growth."

As a member of my library's Diversity Committee and Selection Committee, I have found myself advocating for lecture programs and speaking engagements on the issue of race relations in librarianship; and exploring other media -listservs, journals, and mailing lists geared towards racial and ethnic groups - to advertise job openings in our library system. Whether or not my actions will lead to a greater awareness and presence of more People of Color at my university's library, remains to be seen. However, it is a start towards creating an environment that more closely reflects the changing face of librarianship today.

By serving on these committees, one has the opportunity to not only create meaningful and positive change within their own working environment (Selection/Recruitment Committee), but also offer to others an opportunity to examine and interact with members of a race or culture with which they are not familiar (Diversity Committee). If a Diversity Committee does not exist in your library system, lobby to create one and lead that committee. Only through awareness and understanding can real progress be made in combating racism in academic librarianship.

(4) Be true to yourself

Always remember that only you can make you happy! In William Shakespeare's Hamlet Act One, Scene Three, Polonius offers to his son, Laertes, a good piece of advice on how he should conduct himself in Paris: "This above all: to thine own self be true." As a Person of Color one represents not only himself or herself but also - in the eyes of the majority - the rest of their racial and ethnic group as well. How you conduct yourself in your day-to-day transactions has a direct bearing upon your character. Be a person of character as opposed to being a character.

Always carry yourself with dignity, pride, and professionalism. One should always take pride in their work regardless of what task is being performed. Fight for what you believe in and never be afraid to let others know where you stand on a given issue - whether its in a committee meeting or the staff lounge. If it is true that character is forged through adversity, then we as People of Color should possess it in ample quantities. One's career and life are synonymous in that it is what you make of it! But always remember that combating racism is a struggle that can only really be decided in people's hearts and minds.


The African-American educator and philosopher, Booker T. Washington in his autobiography Up From Slavery once wrote, "The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his own way regardless of race." In an ever-changing world, librarianship and good librarians are truly needed.

As People of Color who are academic librarians, we serve as witnesses to technological changes and clientele changes in our field. The technological changes we have seen are the automation of library services and increases in the speed, availability, and need of our patrons for information. The clientele changes we have seen are our increasing encounter with patrons who are beginning to reflect our own race and ethnicity. We must be prepared to make our way in the world, satisfy the information needs of our patrons, and rise to the challenge of combating an evil that, if left unchecked, could disenfranchise us all.


Neely, Teresa Y. and Abif, Khafre , In Our Own Voices: The Changing Face of Librarianship Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1996.

St. Lifer, Evan and Nelson, Corinne . "Unequal Opportunities: Race Does Matter " Library Journal (November 1, 1997): 42.

Washington, Booker T . Up From Slavery New York: Dover Publications, 1995.

White House Office on the President's Initiative for One America. Building One America For The 21 st Century at


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