Social Justice and Libraries: Creating Forums for Discussion

Allison Reibel /

The first annual Social Justice and Libraries Open Conference, on May 14, 2016, in Seattle, WA, is a free unconference-style event for library workers and students focused on dismantling structural oppression. Inspired by the CritLib movement, Allison Reibel and fellow MLIS students at the University of Washington are organizing this conference "to theorize, strategize and operationalize ways for libraries to empower people and ideas. We believe in critiquing power structures, working for justice and building community in our field." Here Reibel shares the background and values of this endeavor and what they hope to accomplish through the conference.


Social Justice is the right of all people to have dignity and sovereignty, to have equitable treatment, services and opportunities. It also refers to social organizations' responsibility to support these aims.

Libraries are no exception. In 2015, the American Library Association (ALA) listed "social responsibility and public good" as a core value[1]. But in a field where we are instructed to do our work without bias, many of us question the possibility of neutrality, especially while working within organizations that are often systemically racist and structurally oppressive. By promoting neutrality, we are often just blindly moving ahead with the normative structures that have already been established.

If we recognize that bias exists and neutrality is not possible, we must actively work to create an equitable system. I don't believe it is possible to see the importance of libraries while ignoring this fact. Just look at the recent battle over the Library of Congress' attempt to change the term "Illegal Alien."[2] These changes have been going on for a long time, of course. "Homosexuality" used to be found under the LC heading "Abnormal Sex Relations (including sexual crimes)."[3]

Decisions about what our collections include and about how they are arranged are important and deliberate. And, more often than not, these decisions are being made by a homogenous group; in their last diversity study, ALA listed their members as 87.1% white and 81% female[4]. So whose "neutrality" are we really supporting?

This manifests itself in our libraries in many ways. Outreach, for example, is a major component of public librarianship. But how many librarians are trained in ethical outreach and how to share power with community partners? How can we interact with communities we are not a part of and how can we listen to their needs, rather than deciding what is best for them? How can archivists support activists and protest movements? How can university libraries best serve students who are undocumented or insecurely housed?

These are topics that our institutions rarely train us for. Best practices are often borne out of experience. So the role I see for myself, as a librarian just entering the field, is to promote the sharing of this experience in any way I can.  

Luckily, there is no shortage of people to learn from. My classmates Reed Garber-Pearson and Marisa Petrich and I were inspired and encouraged by CritLib Seattle, a loose-knit group of local librarians who meet monthly to discuss readings and critical librarianship topics, to take action locally. Members of this group have published articles on topics such as denaturalizing whiteness in the academic library[5] and social responsibility in American librarianship[6].

Critlib Seattle is a part of Critlib, an informal, largely online gathering of like-minded library workers. Critlib has held unconferences at larger conferences such as ALA and ACRL, but the interactions largely take place on Twitter (#critlib) where people share readings, experiences and best practices.

We began talking with CritLib Seattle about organizing a larger event, where different kinds of librarians (Marisa, Reed and I—in addition to being MLIS students at University of Washington—work in university, community college and public libraries respectively) could talk about what problems they were facing, what projects they had in the works, and how all of us can collaborate and learn from one another.  

Because discussion is our main goal, we have organized the event as an open conference where attendees will suggest their own topics. We have already heard from registrants that they would like to discuss a wide range of important topics from homelessness to diversity, privacy, LGBTQ and environmental issues.

We are proud to have found a way to designate a physical space for these conversations, for librarians and library workers in our area to shake each other's hands, to remember that we exist outside of the virtual world and that we are not alone.       

Our aspirations were not grand; we are students and this is a learning experience for us. We decided to consider our project a success if 50 people signed up. As of today, about three weeks out, we have just over 130 people registered, from the Seattle area as well as Oregon, California and Canada. We have had people from outside of the United States ask about funding opportunities so they can travel to Seattle and join in our conversation.

And we are learning. We are learning the intended outcomes like project management and community outreach skills. But we are also learning that our community is hungry to take part in meaningful dialogues about social justice in libraries.

This article is part one. In part two I will report back to you after the event, having hopefully learned a lot about what makes an event like this successful and how we can better support these conversations in the years to come.

If you would like to attend the Social Justice and Libraries open conference, or to learn more, please visit