Public libraries claim to be built on the foundational value of equal access for all, but in fact, like many public institutions, many have a complicated history of racism and segregation. Even today, many policies in place at public libraries still contribute to systemic racism instead of working to heal it.
In 1961, nine Black Tougaloo College students participated in a “read-in” at Mississippi’s Jackson Municipal Public Library, which was open to whites only.1 These activists, who came to be known as the Tougaloo Nine, were arrested and fined for breach of peace. In response, the American Library Association issued a statement at their 1962 conference that membership in the association and its chapters had to be open to all regardless of race. As a result, four chapters withdrew from ALA: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.2
After learning about this, I was curious to see how the state of Connecticut’s chapter, of which I am a board member, responded. Turns out, they didn’t do anything at all. Librarians at the CT State Library searched through each meeting from April 1961 for me, just after the Tougaloo read-in happened, through 1962 when the ALA issued its statement. The Tougaloo Nine, the read-in, and their subsequent arrest and trial were not mentioned nor was there any discussion of civil rights or segregation at any of the CT Library Association meetings from that time.
Even now, public libraries have barriers in place that prevent the advance of racial equity. This should not come as a surprise given that the profession is a staggering 86% white.3 Library fines are a great example of one of these barriers. When staff members are empowered to waive or reduce fines for patrons, a practice that is considered good customer service, their own implicit biases come into play. When libraries rely on revenue from fines, they may end up blocking patrons’ accounts or worse, referring them to a collection agency. This is a perfect example of unequal access for all.
In a public library system with multiple branch locations, if the branches in lower income and more racially diverse areas have limited operating hours, this is another barrier. The same can be said for branches that are not convenient to public transportation.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has only fanned the flames of racial disparities in public libraries. As librarians work quickly to pivot to a hybrid model of virtual and socially distanced services, who is left out in the cold? Our users who are immunocompromised, lack access to reliable transportation, WiFi, or digital literacy skills.
And it’s not just library users—it’s workers as well. Just last week, Black library workers at the Free Library of Philadelphia penned an open letter to management because they are bearing the brunt of COVID-19 exposure while being paid less than their white counterparts.4
So when public libraries claim to be bastions of equal access for all, that’s not exactly true. We have a lot of work to do in our own profession to promote racial equity in our communities.
Libraries can start by looking internally at their mission, vision, and strategic initiatives to see how anti-racism work can be included. And although it may not be possible to eradicate fine structures overnight because of different funding structures, libraries can start by hosting a fine forgiveness week, removing fines on children’s materials first, or doing a system-wide, one-time fine amnesty. As John Lewis said, “Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society.” So why not start with libraries?
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