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A chapter of the Association of College and Research Libraries

2019 Scholarship Essays

Our applicants for the 2019 Conference Attendance scholarship were asked to respond to the following prompt:

Where do you see opportunities for academic libraries to dismantle structures of oppression? Please use examples of work that you have done or discuss work that you feel inspired to do.

The winning essay, written by Carol Mary Fisher, was selected by our Members-at-Large: Chelsea Nesvig and Jennifer Saulnier. The following scholarship applicants, in addition to our winner, agreed to have their essays published on our site. After the winning essay, the essays are listed in alphabetical order by the author's last name. We are grateful for the applicants' hard work and their insightful contributions. Thank you!

Carol Mary Fisher (Scholarship Winner)

Despite their reputation as institutions of equity and freedom, libraries, and specifically academic ones, still have a lot of work to do in terms of dismantling structures of oppression (1). The largest (white) elephant in the room of libraries, is simply that, white. ALA itself conducts “diversity counts”, and in 2012 reported that approximately 88% of credentialed librarians are white (2).  With numbers like that, it’s essential that all library staff members start to unpack and dismantle oppressive structures. There are numerous ways to approach this work, but I am largely inspired by three methods; agitation, open-access/open-educational resources, and trauma-informed librarianship. 

I consider agitation a very broad, and informal approach to dismantling oppression, but a vital one nonetheless. Agitation is an idea I largely credit to Rachel Cargle (3), a public scholar and activist focused on anti-racist work. Agitation can be accomplished in several formats, but predominantly focuses on the idea of “stirring the pot”in a productive and anti-racist way. Instead of being afraid of upsetting individuals, whom are usually white, a person could “agitate” the issue and start a discourse about racism and white supremacy. Agitation is also about asking yourself the questions of “who am I protecting?”, and “how can I protect them better?”. As a middle-class white woman in library school, I consider it my duty to try and unpack my own systemic racism and help agitate others so we can begin the process of unlearning and healing. Sometimes the work needs to begin within before we can start on the more institution-wide issues. 

Within the scope of academic libraries, I believe the issues of open-access, and open-educational resources (OER) are essential. I am inspired by the fight for increased access to research and resources through open-access initiatives. While not directly involved with any work, I was introduced to PressBooks (4) through my graduate assistantship at the University of Washington; seeing librarians and faculty alike collaborating on piloting this program was incredibly motivating. Institutional oppression also takes the form of poverty or lack of financial stability. Students across the country are in more debt than ever (around 44 million as of 2017 (5)) . Libraries are in a unique position to relieve some of the financial burden of education by advocating for open-access initiatives. 

Finally, I feel incredibly inspired to continue advocating for trauma-informed training/librarianship. ALA, among other professional organizations and institutions, have begun addressing the need for more trauma-informed care (6). I truly believe that trauma-informed libraries and librarianship play an imperative role in dismantling oppressive systems. By understanding people and ourselves better, we will be better educators, advocators and librarians. I cannot wait to dig and do this work. 








Christy McDaniel

“With liberty and justice for all”--as a teacher I recommitted daily to ensure every student had the opportunity to learn. However, I was stretched thin--sometimes falling short of meeting the needs of every learner. I was also myopically focused on the group of students in front of me  and never reflected on effecting systemic change. 

Now as a reference specialist, I meet individual learners where they are. I evaluate their need without judgement, help them define and work toward their objective, and remove barriers to success. Personally, I have worked to remove assumptions about a patron’s gender, race, ethnicity, and student status from my reference interviews. I have also worked on reducing my own biases against certain subject areas and methods of scholarly research. I am constantly considering the tension between maintaining a teaching role in reference interactions, while keeping the academic exploration entirely in the hands of the learner. Within this tension, the student and I become co-creators of new knowledge.

As a library employee I have time to find and remove systemic barriers to success. At the University of Washington Tacoma campus, 56% of students are first generation college students, and 50% are Pell grant recipients (a common indicator of financial need). In order to serve these students in their college journey, I collaborated with my colleague to weed the Test Preparation and Career Resources collections. We are providing up-to-date, circulating copies of test preparation materials and a refreshed collection of books on choosing a career, searching for jobs, writing resumes, and interviewing. We paid special attention to find works that address sexism, racism, homophobia/transphobia, and other injustices in the workforce. I conducted student interviews to determine what to name the collection so that it is easiest to understand at a glance. My next steps are to build a LibGuide, create refreshed signage, reach out to the Career Resources office to cross-promote our services, and create a display to highlight the improved collection. 

I have been exploring the ways in which the library can promote students’ views of themselves as scholars in the academic conversation. With a severe racial disproportionality in academia, I believe the library can play a role in righting this wrong through their promotion of open access publishing, digital scholarship, and elevating the work of minority voices. The UW Tacoma library hosts a student research symposium every year, and I would like to add to this effort by creating displays of student research projects to appear in the library. 

My work as a teacher was important, but now I have used the slower pace of the library to become more reflective and outward-looking. I have learned from personal reflection and  fellow librarians to increase my courage, sensitivity, and professional skills to promote liberty and justice for all, and I look forward to continuing this journey in academic libraries. 

Kate Miller

One of the main issues that faces academic libraries is that they are within an oppressive structure to begin with. Academia, with its high knowledge, elitism, and competition already creates an environment of oppression. Often academia talks of wanting to dismantle this system but doesn’t even know where to begin. I am starting my second year of my MLIS program and have been working within the archives at the University of Washington since April of this year. I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be an activist archivist verses a neutral one. Do I hold space for other people to make their own interpretations about the collections we have or do I actively try to change the way we describe our materials to make sure that we are culturally competent? 

Academic institutions in general are places where innovation is possible when you allow new voices a chance to implement change. Part of the point of my having a student position while studying is so that I learn how the library world works but also to share the new ideas that I come in contact with through my studies. The ivory towers of academia flow through the libraries too, we cannot pretend that we are outside scrutiny and I think the library, where ideas are sparked and fanned into flames is the perfect atmosphere to push the work of dismantling structures of oppression further than ever. 

Recently I worked on a collection called the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project oral histories which collects oral histories, photographs and other related ephemera from the older generations of queer folks. As a queer person, it was a delight to have the opportunity to take part, however I wondered whether the title of the collection was accurate. I think there was a divide between myself (a 27-year old non-binary, asexual person) and my supervisor (an older straight cis-gender woman) when it came to how we understood the collection. I wanted to push back on the terms and phrases that were used and she felt that because of the time period the people lived in that it was an accurate representation. The collection claims to have the voices of bisexual and trans persons within their collection but how would you know based on the title? This is the perfect example of how often libraries and academia can get stuck in tradition instead of listening to the new voices within their professional community. 

A lot of people seem to think that libraries at their best are neutral. However, even not picking a side is making a choice; it is actively choosing to not work to dismantle white supremacy and the hetero-patriarchy. Buzzwords aside, academic libraries have the opportunity to partner with people within their communities to bring this to light. We cannot continue to believe we are making a difference when we really aren't.  Academic libraries have the opportunity to make sure that the oppressed voices are amplified and given the space to be the main voice.  

Brooke Thomas

I’m in a unique position to observe the academic library I work in both as an insider and an outsider. I work in user experience so I have very little contact with librarians but, as a library student, I can see the places where the user experience team is influenced by or fighting against the guidance of librarians. User experience often tries to make the space more inclusive. The librarians, higher up on the management chain, often don’t allow these changes or don’t see the need for them because they don’t interact with patrons in the same capacity that we do. Despite the benefits of receiving an MLIS, it creates a gap between librarians and other workers in the library. People with a master’s degree are likely to be white and have access to money. We should be amplifying the voices of those who work in our libraries without the degree, especially when those folks are the first people to interact with patrons. At the same time, we must do more work in training front facing employees of the library in inclusive practices. This could bridge the gap between what the librarians intend for the library and what actually gets implemented. In my position I’ve seen patrons treated differently because the employee interacting with them didn’t think they were a student or didn’t feel that our library was for them. These employees had no training from the library in recognizing bias or how the exclusionary history of the academic library affects their work. They should have. 

I entered school as a low-income, first-generation college student on a full scholarship. I have insight into how libraries can begin to dismantle oppressive structures because I was disadvantaged by some of those structures during my time in school. The library at my undergraduate school was large and imposing in its Collegiate Gothic style. While I don’t expect them to replace this beautiful historic building for the sake of anxious first years, they could make sure the library is a familiar place by including it in orientation programming. Students could be separated into their perspective majors and have group meetings with their appropriate liaison librarian, so they became a familiar and friendly face right away. The building’s interior could be made less intimidating with less formal and less European art and decor. Though these changes might seem small, the small things perpetuate and normalize structural biases, and these small changes would have made a noticeable impact on me and my peers.

Large changes are also crucial but can be intimidating in their scope and complicated in their implementation. I think all too often we let oppressive structures overwhelm us and we take a passive stance, talking about them often but hardly taking concrete action. While the field takes the time required to make large changes, I want my career to focus on the practical issues in front of us every day.

Karen Wang

As a queer woman, first-generation American, and child of immigrants, I am personally invested in asking who produces “knowledge” and how information is systematized along entangling axes of difference. As an aspiring librarian, I believe that academic libraries play vital roles in posing these questions toward structures of oppression. While “diversity” and “social justice” are often fodder for trendy initiatives, academic libraries need to take concrete steps towards equity because our education system still underserves students that are poor, non-white, LBGTQIA+, disabled, single-parents, switching careers, etc. 

An introductory but necessary step to troubling problematic embedded systems is through training library staff on how internal biases and socially-constructed norms permeate academic libraries’ choices of what to acquire, how to teach, and whom to engage with or grant access to. This includes confronting the legacies of our libraries – many of which are situated on stolen land or built with slave labor. An act as simple as a land acknowledgment can be revelatory. Academic libraries can further ask how “colonized” their collections are – how many titles are written by white experts versus scholars of color? Why are the majority of the Indigenous-authored books in the religion and spirituality section? I know firsthand the difficulty of working in an environment that has a colonial history from volunteering with the University of Arizona Libraries’ archives. However, from that same experience, I gained an appreciation for reconciliatory practices when we made those histories transparent and invited members from impacted tribes to reclaim appropriated artifacts.

In order to challenge oppressive structures, academic libraries must listen to oppressed voices. Besides hiring diverse library professionals for purposes of “representation” and training them on cultural competency, libraries should conduct user-experience research. A tenured history professor selecting materials for his class and a first-generation college freshman using a school computer to search for part-time jobs have very different life experiences and needs, but should receive the same quality of assistance. Asking patrons for feedback efficiently reveals areas of improvement. For example, at my local public library, I saw changes such as the implementation of a gender-neutral restroom transform patrons’ comfort levels. As a sighted person, I was also surprised when we were asked by a blind patron to do a walk-through of our space, and learned greater sensitivity to accessibility issues. 

It is important to note that the labor of “dismantling oppressive systems” is never complete. There will always be microaggressions, or policies that are unintentionally marginalizing, or people whose voices go unheard. And yet I find solace in how library patrons and partners support our efforts, so that ultimately libraries and library-users reciprocally improve together. I am excited by the innumerate learning opportunities that I and other nascent librarians can find in our patrons, professors, colleagues, and lateral collaborators in other fields such as education, museology, and communication. There is plenty of work to be done, and many potentially uncomfortable discussions about difference to be had, but the dream of radically diverse, inclusive, and equitable libraries is worthy and energizing.

Marcus Watson-Clarke

I believe firmly that the antidote to structures of oppression is access to education. Academic libraries are essential for facilitating research into obscure fields, and providing relevant conversations regarding equality and other sociological topics as a result. These institutions spearhead a plethora of opportunities. This can range from creating an inclusive space for people from all backgrounds to work and share information, to making research more accessible for future endeavors.

Structures of oppression are notoriously hard to break, as they have been ingrained deeply within our culture and even among lessons we learned growing up. Academic libraries offer a breath of fresh air, exposure to concepts barred from the stereotypical Western sphere of philosophy. This could be improved further by the promotion of internationally themed events, such as books arranged on display promoting foreign philosophy each week having its own section. There could also be political displays made that are relevant to events occurring today, fact-checked and speaking to both sides of an argument to encourage more discourse between political affiliations, breaking down archaic concepts enshrined in misinformation. 

Academic libraries are also widely respected. This reputation could be used to create widely accessed fact-checking resources that break down complex concepts to their statistics, summarizing any valid arguments to grant its viewers a more rational perspective of the issues at hand. In this age of information, it is common to experience ‘Balkanization,’ - communities that can easily isolate themselves on the internet that fester within echo-chambers verifying their own viewpoints. Examples of this could be political subreddits, Facebook groups, and 4chan forums. These online gatherings need to be breached if structures of oppression are to be brought down, and this can only be done through exposure to correct information. This could be done via online advertising, or perhaps even academic online ambassadors that go to these communities and attempt to understand where the root of the hatred stems from, and how to tackle the ideas that brought along the complex development that resulted in their subsequent balkanization.

For my future research, I would like to prove this thesis by studying how cities that experience above-average immigration are more academic, and therefore support public policies that benefit more people rather than a select population. My theory is that more immigration leads to the establishment of more ideas that populations may bounce off one another over time. This leads to more open-minded and accepting communities that know how to defend worthy concepts, such as equality and improved healthcare access, and tackle toxic ones, such as enforced gender roles and racism. My evidence would be the U.S. itself, as I believe that in general the coastal regions have attracted more immigration, and as a result have become more academic and considerate of public needs, having examined more concepts and ideas. Middle U.S. seems to be more insulated, as society has looked inwards for its ideas rather than outwards, although there are of course exceptions to this rule.

This work would prove the value of accepting the ideas of others, and how being more open-minded can lead to a more rational and understanding mindset. Academic libraries enable works like this to happen, and their job in dismantling these insulated structures of oppression is instrumental in bringing about this change.

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