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.

John Y. Cole and the Library of Congress

In The Library of Congress and the Democratic Spirit, John Y. Cole – the current Library of Congress Historian – explores the history of the Library of Congress (LOC) and what he believes to be the democratic roots of America’s largest national library. Cole’s chapter was written on the coattails of the LOC’s bicentennial in 2000. His attitude toward the Library is considerably exalted, and as then-co-chair of the Bicentennial Steering Committee, it seems that Cole sought to extend the “romantic” narrative of the Library’s history, started by the historian James Truslow Adams.

While Cole puts emphasis on the expansion of the Library and its efforts to include more cultural artifacts (or Americana), he seems to implicitly believe that this expansion and inclusion is based on the Library’s historical principles laid down from the personal desires of Thomas Jefferson. This is a big declaration of faith in Jefferson’s intentions. Cole seems to believe that there were no prejudices in the founding father’s formation of the LOC. Perhaps it is because of Jefferson’s presumably “selfless” gesture of donating his entire library at Monticello after the fire in 1814. But Jefferson was going broke, and he sold his library to the LOC. This is an example of what can go wrong when we assume things about historical “great men.” Indeed, Jefferson may be one of those men who thought better than he actually lived, for he was not the man who turned the LOC into an institution of national significance.

It was Ainsworth Rand Spofford, the sixth Librarian of Congress, who emphasized the addition of non-legislative library materials, and in particular a growing collection of Americana. Cole writes that Spofford “had the vision, skill, and perseverance to capitalize on the libraries claim to a national role” (Cole, 172). Indeed, the most important provision that Spofford introduced to the LOC was the copyright law of 1870, which “ensured the continuing development of the Library’s Americana collections, for it stipulated that two copies of every book, pamphlet, map, print, photograph, and piece of music registered for copyright be deposited in the Library” (Cole, 173). We can understand how much of a game-changer this decision was, because it greatly added to the wealth and democratic inclusion of American cultural history. This, however, was not a decision having anything to do with Thomas Jefferson. So the democratic threads going back farther than Spofford are, I think, questionable.

The succeeding Librarian of Congress, John Russell Young, further integrated multiculturalism into the LOC during the melting pot years. Young reached out to U.S. diplomatic and consular representatives and had them send cultural works belonging to the populations that were immigrating to the United States (Cole, 175). This was another democratizing move, again having nothing to do with Thomas Jefferson…

Cole ends his article with a summary of the last Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, and his major achievements. Billington oversaw the Library between 1987 and 2015. During this time, the LOC established a presence on the World Wide Web and much of the Americana collections were made available online during his tenure. This greatly leveled the democratic privileges to accessing the national Library. Cole says that this ushered in a new era of service and accessibility (Cole, 179).

So while I feel that Cole aptly highlighted the truly democratic changes that occurred during the centennial of the LOC, it remains dubious as to how these events were rooted in the “cradle of Jeffersonian democracy.”

Civic Engagement in Public Libraries

rubin_fullsize_rgbIn Chapter 3 of Foundations of Library and Information Science, Richard Rubin hones in on a number of issues impacting public libraries. All of the issues discussed are current and important, and some are interrelated like Changing Fiscal Realities, Assessing Value, and The Political Climate. While I think these first three issues are the most important considerations for public libraries, Rubin’s discussion of civic engagement piqued my interest. Given that public libraries are affected by the fiscal policies of local governments, a civic society is crucial for the continued success of public libraries.

Civic Engagement:

Because public libraries are dependent on local government decisions, largely through amended tax plans and millage proposals, the lack of civic engagement in various communities has alarmed staunch library defenders. The fear is that if nobody fights for libraries through the traditional political channels – such as through signing petitions and voting – then that would signal the death knell for public libraries.

There was a paper I read in undergrad by Lance Bennett called Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age. The author, Bennett, convincingly showed that younger generations (read Millennials) are no longer interested in traditional forms of civic engagement such as voting or volunteering with their local community organizations. Bennett noted that this lack of interest in politics is due to poor civic education in public schools, as well as politicians’ lassitude when it comes to issues younger people care about. Because of their disenchantment with contemporary politics, young citizens have turned away from public life into social networks.

Bennett discovered that, contrary to widespread opinion, younger citizens actually do care about civic issues, but they are more involved in advocating for social movements than promoting traditional democracy. Incidentally, social networking lends itself well to the formation of social movements. The problem with online social movements, however, or aggregates of young citizens defending a social cause on the Internet, is that this particular channel of “civic” engagement lacks political leverage. In other words, debating social issues on Facebook is not going to change legislation.

Bennett’s call to action is for politicians, educators, and young people to learn how to use social media to build civic and political communities. I think the forum in which civic engagement takes place has moved into the digital realm. The Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) Initiative mentioned in Rubin’s text seems to be conducive to harnessing public communications online and turning them into something tangible at the civic level, instead of letting those communications disappear in a vacuum.

Also, piggybacking off the idea of encouraging civic engagement in the digital age is Rubin’s section on the purported “Digital Divide.” I was surprised by the statistics suggesting that one-third of the population is digitally illiterate (Rubin, 107). In order for citizens to be more engaged and productive members of today’s society, they need to be able to use computers and the Internet to access information. It seems like now, more than ever, public libraries should serve their communities by offering digital literacy or digital readiness workshops.


Bennett, W. Lance. “Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age.” Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth. Edited by W. Lance Bennett. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 1–24.

Rubin, R. E. (2016). Foundations of Library and Information Science (Fourth ed.). Chicago: Neal-Schuman.

Frank Webster, Information, and Meaning

In his densely critical piece, Information Society, the British sociologist Frank Webster raises objection after objection to the postulation that we are living in an information society or an Information Age. An “age” – or one might say an “epoch” – is a period in historical time that highlights the defining characteristics of a society. Society, in turn, is a social dynamic or an amalgam made up of the combined work efforts, as well as the cultural and artistic achievements of a given population, whether that population be global or domestic. For instance, we speak of the Industrial Age, when mechanization flourished, aided by technological innovations like the steam engine or the cotton gin. Another age that is often highly touted is the Space Age of the 50s, even though that Age arguably precipitated the Cold War. Indeed, ages are unarguably created by paradigm shifts that dramatically change the context and existential means of a society. So what about the Information Age? Has information changed our society? Without question it has. But I don’t think the explosion of information has necessarily changed our society for the better.

Webster writes that “when we delve a little, it becomes apparent that the concept is actually vague and imprecise, even of dubious value” (Webster 2605). A key criteria that Webster goes by is that an Age should be a period during which a society advances. Human history has, of course, had decidedly bad ages – the Dark Ages? – but in considering the question regarding information, Webster would have us keep societal advancement in mind. He goes on to suggest that those who say we are in an Information Age are subscribed to a forward-thinking, progress oriented viewpoint. Webster admits that this viewpoint seems intuitive and almost unmistakable when thinking about the advancements in Information Technology. But he cautions that information and computer technology may not be advancing society on a scale analogous to the Industrial Revolution. In fact, he argues that social commentators who champion the Information Age have made rather apocryphal statements and predictions about the future (past predictions concerning the present and our current future), claiming that we have reached a fever pitch in technological innovation and that we are also reaching a moment in time which other prognosticators refer to as Singularity.

But to call our age an Information Age is a bit of a misnomer, I think. In principle, I agree with Webster. New technologies are released almost every day, creating new abstractions and new ways of dividing our attention. Webster says, “…new technologies are announced and it is unproblematically presumed that this announcement in and of itself heralds the information society” (Webster, 2607). I also agree that technology is an asocial phenomenon; an outside influence (and a rather disruptive one at that). By definition, then, technology does not, ipso facto, define the social world. It is people that define our social world. My question is… could it be that a truly information-driven society is more dependent on its organic networks – its constituents of people – and less on the technology itself? I think so.

Although I am mainly responding to Webster’s technological argument, his other sections also informed my thoughts. I couldn’t decide whether to address Webster’s technology argument, or his cultural argument. In his cultural argument, Webster mentioned Jean Baudrillard and the “death of the sign.” I appreciate the discussion on signification and the collapse of meaning. I consider an information society to be a society that can distinguish between good (factual) and bad (falsified) information, using mature information literacy skills, critical thinking, and cognition. If these elements were at work presently in our society, I think we would be seeing far less fear, racism, and disrespect. What we have now, instead of an information-based or enlightened society, is more akin to collective hysteria… a highly reactive and accusatory society (or Age, but you can hardly say we’re advancing…), where everyone thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. I think the overabundance of information from media sources is a hindrance to deep information gathering and signification of meaning. Now, in the search for meaning, things become more meaning-less. That’s Baudrillard. That’s Derrida. And more familiarly to the library profession, that’s Information Overload. This is why I think Information Professionals are crucial to tempering the madness.

LIS service and social obligation

The values and ethics of Library and Information Science are enlightening because they show how contemporary libraries, even though they have needed to adapt to changing technologies, still mirror the principles laid down by their original founders, such as S. R. Ranganathan. Indeed, it is difficult to come up with another example of an institution that has not compromised its original values due to external pressures or agendas. One only needs to think of the federal government, or the health care industry and the debacle that is insurance companies, which limit what doctors you can see, or when and where you can be treated in hospital. What about public education and the adoption of the common core curriculum? Libraries, on the other hand, seem to hold their core values close to heart. There is an unwavering devotion to the core values in this profession, and while these values may tweak their definitions, they are relatively unchanged. This is why I think libraries will be the last vanguard of hope and reason if society devolves. They embody the ideals of libertarianism, utilitarianism, egalitarianism, altruism, and moral philosophy.

51pulhmlznl-_sx331_bo1204203200_All of the core values of Librarianship are interconnected, and each value seems to build on the principle that comes before it. This is why I think Service is listed first in Richard Rubin’s chapter on values and ethics in Foundations of Library and Information Science; a relatively new reinterpretation of the values outlined by the ALA and ACLR. I am therefore inclined to list service as the most important and enduring value. Of course, I think each core value is equally valid and meaningful. But all the other values seem to fall under this broader rubric of service to humanity. The political and philosophical ideals mentioned above imbue this service with a dedication to fight against corrupting influences, such as idealogical dogmatism, totalitarian attitudes, etc.

Perhaps two of the more important values right now are “respect for the individuality and diversity of all people” and “freedom for all people to form, to hold, and to express their own beliefs.” Taken in isolate, these are important ones, I think. Not to say there are any core values that are not important. But in order to be a successful and helpful LIS professional, those two tenets need to be fully understood. Diversity is important, because we live in a diverse society. While political figures may be attempting to build barriers to diversity, LIS professionals should be working to remove them. Suspending any cultural biases or ignorance is especially important, because LIS professionals need to be capable of serving multicultural needs. Especially today, when many minorities may be worried about their future, we need to be in a position to help them access information that will provide encouragement and empowerment. Of course, tied into this is the second value mentioned, which strongly echoes democratic values of free speech and freedom to assemble. Without knowledge or information, there can be no public voice or group unity. Indeed, the old adage “Knowledge is Power” is due for a conscious renewal.

Still, although the library’s aims are noble in promising privacy, inclusiveness, and unrestricted access to information, there are moments when corrupting influences are deemed to be cultivated in the library itself. These are usually the result of contextual misunderstandings. For instance, the library may circulate a section on Nazi propaganda, and someone may cry foul and come up against the library and say that a political faction in the community – let’s say a group aligned with the alt-right – has been circulating these materials and are becoming increasingly violent (although alt-right violence has thus far been rhetorical…). There is definitely the possibility of library materials being disseminated and resulting in public harm. And although these events do happen, the author Rubin seems to absolve LIS professionals of any guilt by simply stating that it is the library’s (and hence librarians’) duty to provide unrestricted access to any kind of information, regardless of its potential for harm. In fact, Rubin said that censoring library users “is its own harm.” While I agree with this statement in principle, I was hoping to see a discussion surrounding a case where public harm was directly tied to library activity, and how that situation was handled.

That discussion, however, is probably more fertile elsewhere. It seems like there is a current debate on this issue, with some LIS professionals considering closed-access systems or suggesting that potentially harmful knowledge should be granted only if there is a reasonable research request attached to the desired materials. It seems to be a balanced issue based on case-by-case specifics. In other words, where there is legitimate concern for public harm, there is the option to suspend professional ethics in favor of social obligation. But I believe this determination is still based in classical ideals, moral philosophy, and a service to humanity.