RALEIGH — “Woke” activism has found its way into colleges, K-12 schools, churches, as well as companies both private and public through “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” (DEI) policies. One only has to Google to find that libraries around the country have also been embedding DEI statements and policies into their organizations.
Similarly, some librarians seem to be engaging in racial justice activism, such as Reanna Esmail, an outreach and engagement librarian at Cornell University, who posited that the Dewey Decimal System, the system used world-wide for cataloging and organizing books, is ‘racist’, according to a report by the Cornell Daily Sun.
“Libraries are predominantly white fields, and Cornell is no exception in this regard. Libraries themselves also have a fraught history of being complicit in racism, and in some cases, upholding and disseminating racist ideas,” Esmail said during a virtual “Teach-in” on “Confronting Anti-Asian Racism” held in May 2021.
Included in her “Teach-in” comments claiming librarians are “predominantly” white, Esmail also referenced the American Library Association, the “oldest and largest library association in the world.” The organization, which is supposed to provide leadership, promotion and development of libraries, was founded Oct. 6, 1876, during the Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia.
The American Library Association itself has even published a DEI-style position statement, titled “Equity, Diversity, Inclusion: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” that uses “equity” to mute the nonpartisan mission and neutrality policies of libraries contained in the Library Bill of Rights.
The State Library of North Carolina (SLNC) has joined the DEI trend, announcing the launch of its “Racial Equity in Libraries Toolkit” on Mar. 31, 2022.
“The State Library of North Carolina recognizes that deeper learning about bias, structural racism, and racism in libraries is essential for moving the profession forward to create truly diverse and inclusive institutions,” the State Library’s press statement reads. “Available for all statewide library staff through the SLNC Niche Academy, the Racial Equity in Libraries Toolkit has been created to increase awareness and knowledge around structural racism in the United States, North Carolina, and within the library profession.”
The SLNC statement says that the “interactive nature” of the toolkit makes it “one of a kind within the public library world.”
“We are delighted that the Racial Equity Toolkit has come to fruition,” Cotina Jones, director of Library Development said in the release. “The Toolkit will be helpful to all North Carolina libraries as they address diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility within their organizations.”
When asked about the scope of the Racial Equity Toolkit, SLNC Public Information Officer Michelle Walker said the “goal of this grant is to increase accessibility to early literacy resources for young patrons of all abilities (and their caregivers) at the Liberty Public Library, a municipal library within the Randolph County Public Library System.”
“The library will create child accessible books and materials, creating a comfortable environment for caretakers and families to engage with one another and spend time in the library, and providing manipulatives and interactives for different age ranges as well as sensory needs,” Walker said in an email to North State Journal.
The SLNC’s Toolkit says it should be used for discussions among staff but also serve as a “framework for evaluating library’s current services and procedures.”
“In the wake of social and political division, it is critical to develop and encourage use of a Racial Equity and Social Justice toolkit to increase library staff’s awareness and knowledge around structural racism in the United States, North Carolina, and within the library profession,” the SLNC Niche Academy module for the Toolkit reads.
The module’s description goes on to say that, “Libraries have a history of segregation, particularly in the south, and despite the end of segregation, certain policies have perpetuated inequities in libraries.”
According to the learning module, the “inequities are evident” in the make-up of collections and materials which predominately reflect white history and culture; use policies that create barriers to access; behavior policies that target specific populations; and staffing that does not reflect the community served.
Throughout the toolkit, various “equity” buzzwords and “key terms” related to equity are used and a link to a glossary provided redirects the user to the website called “Racial Equity Tools.”
Suggested vocabulary words to explore before continuing on with the “learning modules” include Ally, Cultural Competence, Implicit Bias, Intersectionality, Inclusion, Microaggression, Racial Equity, Racial and Ethnic Identity, Structural Racism, and White Privilege.
The learning modules within the Toolkit appear to mimic aspects of Critical Race Theorist Glenn Singleton’s “Courageous Conversations” series such as “Understanding and Recognizing Implicit Bias,” “Structural Racism,” and “Racism in the Library” where one will “Explore the evolution of library services and the impact of structural racism and implicit bias.”
Additional tool suggestions include a Staffing Diversity Audit, the University of Maine’s 5 day Racial Justice Challenge and the USC Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power and Privilege.
Federal Dollars for DEI in libraries
The Racial Equity Toolkit was created using funding from the “federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA),” according to the SLNC’s press release.
The grant referred to in the press release was made to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Services in 2020 by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The total amount of the grant is $4,788,098.
The grant was first announced by the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources (NCDCR) on June 12, 2020, right around the time riots were spreading across North Carolina as well as across the country following the death of George Floyd.
According to the grant documentation, SLNC will used the funds to “support the goals of their Five-Year Plan for FY 2018-2022.” Specific goals mentioned include strengthening capacity, expanding access, and community engagement.
SLNC’s “Five Year Plan” has a number of mini-grants with unknown dollar amounts that will be made from the $4.7 million main grant. The link to the grant breakdown contained in NCDCR’s June press release is broken, however, the Internet Wayback Machine has a copy that includes the mini-grants to be made for specific local DEI projects.
The projects include Elon University – Reparative Archives: Acquisition, Advocacy, Utilization, Transformation; Johnston Community College Library – Creating Adaptive Space to Support All Patrons; Orange County Public Library – The Orange County Oral History Project; and Randolph County Public Library – Liberty Public Library Early Literacy Accessibility
In the same DEI vein, included on the State Library’s website is a Statement on Racial Equity and Social Justice, which says in part that the State Library “advocates for freedom of inquiry and expression, racial equity, and social justice. We support communities of color and we reject racism and discrimination in all forms.”
Additionally, the statement says the State Library is committed to “removing barriers created by systemic racism and implicit bias and fostering equitable access to trustworthy information, relevant library services and educational opportunities.