Racial Equity in the Library, Part One: Where to Start?

Erin M. Schadt /

For this two-part series, WebJunction takes a look at a complex and broad issue: racial equity in the library. As we participate in conversations about the future of the library and its critical place within community, equity issues continue to surface. We acknowledge that this subject could span a book series, so these articles are not meant to be all-inclusive looks at racial equity in the library, but rather a place for libraries to start or to continue the process of understanding, listening and conversing.

Read the series (Part Two here) and let us know what you are doing in your library related to increasing inclusion and advancing racial equity. At WebJunction our emphasis is learning, and we want to learn from you what is working and share it with libraries across the United States.

What is equity? Are equity and equality the same thing? Are equity and diversity the same thing?

The American Library Association has a good reference for explaining the difference between equity, equality and access for libraries. Ultimately, equality is the idea that everyone is at the same level of opportunity, access, and justice, whereas equity adds the idea of fairness to level the playing field. Diversity, in this context, is simply a range of people with different ethnicities and heritages. (For more on the important concept of biological race vs socially defined race, read the article Race ≠ DNA.)

In order to achieve racial equity, there are a plethora of policies, practices and cultural messages that need to be changed or eliminated in order to equalize differential outcomes by race (these outcomes include life expectancies, income inequality, access to health care).

Libraries themselves are equally open to all people, no matter ability, ethnicity or any other factor. However, if the library is located in a place in town that is difficult to access for people who rely on mass transit or if the library's collection contains very few books on diverse experiences, then we have a case of inequity. Taking intentional steps to make sure more people have physical access to the library, that they know that the library is free and open to them, and that they feel comfortable using the library, is introducing equity.

These are some very basics; to learn more about core concepts around racial equity, see the Racial Equity Tools website.

Why is this important now?

Despite decades of civil rights movements, barriers broken by individuals almost daily, and the election of a black president, there is still a serious problem of inequity and racial injustice in the United States. People of color are disproportionately low-income1, arrested and incarcerated2, disciplined in school3, homeless4, have limited literacy5 and much more.

Ignoring the institutional factors that put non-white citizens at a disadvantage is no longer an option. And protests across the country are getting the attention of people who were unaware of these complex issues.

"We are in an extraordinary moment. Black Lives Matter is reshaping the conversation, policies and cultural understanding of racial justice and injustice in the United States, as are protests for immigrant and refugee rights and against Islamophobia," says Amy Sonnie, Librarian at Oakland Public Library (CA).

Why is this important to libraries? We are already open to everyone, won't focusing on racial equity make some people feel left out?

Libraries are indeed open to everyone, which can be taken for granted by people who rarely feel unwelcome. Making sure that your entire community knows that the library is open to them, no matter their ethnicity, heritage, economic status, or any other factor, is a key and continual first step.

Being a cornerstone of your community also presents opportunities. The library can help bridge the digital divide, provide a forum for under-represented voices in your community, and put issues into context.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Baltimore (MD). Photo by Dorret, CC by 2.0For example, Ramsey County Library (MN) this month is featuring a series of lectures "Black Lives Matter: A Movement in Context" presented by Duchess Harris, Professor of American Studies at Macalaster College (MN), about the historical roots of the Black Lives Matter movement. (More on this in Part Two of this article.)

Oakland Public Library featured the "Listen, Learn, Participate: A #BlackLivesMatter Resource Series," by Sonnie on their website, which is extremely rich with information and resources to prompt discussion and action.

One pitfall faced by libraries is the idea that white residents might feel left out if communities of color are supported more. "We all have a role to play," says Sonnie. "At times that role is to take the lead, at times it is to support others as they lead their own effort to find solutions, and at times it is to work in deep collaboration. True equity calls on all of us to play a role. We simply need to learn that our role or issue might not always need to be in the center of the room for progress to occur. Often, those whose issues have been on the margins need to take center for the steps of true inclusion to begin."

Alright, I think this is important for my library to focus on, where do I even start?

"Oakland Library titled its resource series 'Listen, Learn and Participate' to name starting points for personal and community action," says Sonnie. "We must begin with a commitment to listen, educate ourselves and take positive action against racism. Addressing racism likely means having difficult conversations, making mistakes and feeling discomfort—whether you are a seasoned advocate or raising these issues for the first time. Do it anyway and keep learning."

"Learn about your community—both the data and individual patrons," says Sandra Hughes-Hassell, Ph.D., a professor and coordinator of the School Library Media Program in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Listen to your patrons—especially those that are from a different racial or ethnic group than yourself. Seek out their input. All advisory boards, leadership teams, etc. should fully represent your community."

Hughes-Hassell and Julie Stivers, the school librarian at Mt. Vernon Middle School in Wake County, NC, built the resource-rich website Equity in Libraries, which is a good place to explore.

Having this dialogue is important with your library colleagues as well as with the community. Thrive Washington is an organization committed to closing the opportunity gap for kids in Washington State. They have excellent resources aimed at holding conversations about racial equity. To put this work into practice they suggest to:

  • Be curious about your community and work to understand your role in it
  • Slow down to create space for conversation
  • Ask powerful questions that generate curiosity and invite creativity
  • Think about who is not at the table and how to get them there … or how to be invited to their table
  • Consider different partners for your work
  • Reflect back what you’ve heard and communicate how you will respond

Read more on their website about putting your work into practice where there are tools and resources for understanding concepts, conversation starters and presentations on racial equity.

Read Racial Equity in the Library Part Two: Diverse Collections, Programming, Resources here.

Photo: Black Lives Matter demonstrators gather in Baltimore (MD). Photo by Dorret, CC by 2.0


1. United States Census Bureau (page 13)

2. NCAAP and U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics

3. U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights

4. Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness

5. Statistic Brain Research Institute via U.S. Department of Education, National Institute of Literacy

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