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Social Justice and the Public Library

by on December 11, 2012

As librarians, we know that intellectual freedom, education, and democracy are among the most important of our profession’s ethics, values, and foundational principles. These values and principles are codified in the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association and the Library Bill of Rights. A related but perhaps less talked about value is that of social justice. Public libraries can—and, in many ways, already do—play a vital role in advancing the cause of social justice.

What is social justice? John Vincent cites a definition of social justice as “every one of us having the chances and opportunities to make the most of our lives and use our talents to the full.” This fits right in with the mission of the public library, which, since at least the nineteenth century, has included the mission of serving the common person. Most of us are already committed to providing equitable access and opportunities to all members of our communities. However, in our diverse society, which encompasses people from a broad spectrum of social, cultural, and economic backgrounds, providing equitable service to all is difficult. Through self-examination and reflection, we can do an even better job of promoting and advancing social justice in our communities. Here are some suggestions for ways in which we as public librarians can advance this important cause.

Learn about social justice issues. R. David Lankes, in his Atlas of New Librarianship, asserts that “Libraries and librarians have a responsibility to be knowledgeable about the current social issues such that they can provide access to materials that represent the debate.”  Furthermore, developing knowledge of social justice issues allows us to perform our work with a greater sense of purpose. Check out the Social Justice Librarian blog for more on the role of social justice in our profession.

Develop digital collections with awareness of who wins and who loses. Does the shift from ownership to access, from print to digital, put certain segments of the population at a disadvantage? Anthony Molaro argues that “the eBook issue [is] an issue of human rights and social justice.”

Recruit and develop a staff that reflects the diversity of the community. John Pateman advocates the implementation of “staffing policies and practices which address exclusion, discrimination and prejudice.”

Examine our policies. Do our ID and residency requirements exclude certain segments of our communities from using the library? Do our loan policies favor certain types of users over others? If our libraries’ policies represent barriers to certain segments of our communities, how can we revise them to support equitable service to all?

Listen to our users and develop responsive services. What better way to find out how we can better serve all segments of our community than to ask them? By finding out what our communities truly want and need from the library, we can help to create a more just society.

Now it’s your turn: in what other ways do you promote social justice in your own work?