LIS Professionals and Social Justice

As we have already seen, the raison d’etre of libraries is to serve the public by providing information resources that support the individual in their search for knowledge. Underlying this goal is the promise of patron privacy, inclusiveness, and the ability to gain unrestricted access to freely loaned materials. Seldom, however, do libraries actually understand their collections on an intellectual basis beyond pure subject analysis and derivation of access points. Indeed, the resources may be sitting there on the shelves, but their content and larger societal implications may elude the busy LIS professional. In this elusion, there may be consequences, as libraries and librarians have been targeted in the recent past for their purported role in providing information resources which have served a decidedly non-utilitarian purpose (i.e. channeling racism, religious intolerance, hatred, xenophobia, etc). Therefore it is important to think of a library collection from a social justice perspective.

This is exactly what John Buschman and Dorothy A. Warner do in On Community, Justice, and Libraries. They admit that sometimes the core values of the ALA produce unintended outcomes. But they invoke the philosophy of John Rawls to explain how libraries can act as arbiters of social justice rather than unwitting accomplices to moral turpitude.

RawlsWe live in a pluralist society where religious, philosophical, and moral ideas are not equal among all citizens. Indeed, this is an inevitable result of living in a homogeneous society. But Rawls reconciles the concept of democracy with incompatible members of society. According to Rawls, a just society is one that distributes primary social goods fairly. We can understand these goods to be, not commodities tied into market systems, but goods of an intrinsic moral worth, such as liberty and equal opportunity. Rawls brings an institutional focus to the concept of social justice. So what libraries do and how they do it in a given community is meaningful in a democracy.

So how should LIS professionals reorient their work, making it less of a rote process of bibliographic output and control to circumscribing information resources within a wider social justice framework?

The work of Karen Schmidt et al. in Approaches to Selection, Access, and Collection Development in the Web World: A Case Study with Fugitive Literature provides one example. This group of Librarians from regional Chicago libraries focused on collecting “fugitive literature” in the form of information resources published or disseminated by hate groups and political fringe groups. While this collection strategy was unsavory and perhaps daunting, it illustrates a group of LIS professionals willing to immerse themselves in literature that deals explicitly with social justice (in this case a body of divisive literature that injures the realization of social fairness). They worked to understand the origins and meanings of this primary source material, sadly current in our society, in order to describe it and make meaning out of it. Their collection emanated from groups as varied as the New Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, Jewish Defense League, Council of Conservative Citizens, American Renaissance, the National Socialist Movement, and various KKK affiliations.

Their web collection strategy relied on deep thinking. Indeed, when collecting resources that belong to other communities, it is necessary to wipe the slate clean. LIS professionals must become true ethnographers, as diving into a collection strategy with preconceived ideas will result in a biased interpretation of materials, which will muddle the social justice lens. Another hurdle for LIS professionals to be aware of in this regard is the existence of linguistic differences. As Schmidt et al. noted, different cultures will likely use unique vocabulary to describe their beliefs and valued resources, which in stringent membership communities such as hate groups are heavily codified. For instance, in the hate group literature, no one conducting the study knew what the number 88 stood for in the white supremacist groups. This is an example of the need to conduct deep research, not just on Web resources, but on all informational resources generally.

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