Libraries and Social Justice

Recently I was asked to speak to a group of library science students about the connections between libraries and social justice. I hadn’t previously thought about those connections, but I did some thinking and some reading….Here are the highlights of the ensuing talk. (It was a bit long, even for a “Sunday Sermon” so I’ve edited it pretty heavily….)


There are some obvious ways in which libraries can serve the goals of social justice—ensuring that collections include sufficient information about the history of social justice struggles, the principles and philosophy, contemporary resources and the like.

Librarians can also advance social justice is by designing outreach services that meet the needs of underrepresented communities.

As important as these very practical activities are, I want to make a more theoretical argument for the role of libraries and librarians in promoting social justice.

The term social justice is inevitably defined in the context of a particular society, a particular form of governance. Take, for example, one of the many definitions of the term:

“… promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity.” It exists when “all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources.” In conditions of social justice, people are “not be discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristic of background or group membership.”

Challenging injustice. Equitable treatment. Human rights. Discrimination. Each of those terms is subject to wide variations in meaning—all are “constructed,” which is to say understood differently by different societies in different times.

We are concerned, obviously, with social justice in the American framework. And American libraries—like American conceptions of social justice– are creatures of a particular approach to the age-old question: how shall people live together?

I would argue that libraries as we know them are important protectors of what I call “the American Idea.” Some years ago, I wrote an essay about the importance of libraries to democratic citizenship:

I spent six years as Executive Director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, and of all the lessons I learned during that time, the most profound was this: the future of western liberal democracy rests on the preservation of intellectual freedom. That preservation, of course, is the library’s mission.

If that statement seems extravagant, consider both the ideological basis of liberal democracy and the nature of contemporary threats to that tradition.

Our national history would have been impossible without the Enlightenment concept of the individual as a rights-bearing, autonomous being. That concept is integral to our legal system; it is the foundation upon which our forbears erected the Bill of Rights. The Founders envisioned the good society as one composed of morally independent citizens whose rights in certain important circumstances “trumped” both the dictates of the state and the desires of the majority.….The First Amendment is really an integrated whole, protecting our individual rights to receive and disseminate information and ideas, to consider arguments and theories, to form our own beliefs and craft our own consciences.  It answers the fundamental social question– who shall decide? — by vesting that authority in each individual, subject to and consistent with the equal rights of others.

Our whole experiment with democratic governance rests on that foundation.  Implicit in the First Amendment is the legal system’s concept of personal responsibility, the University’s commitment to academic freedom, the moral authority of the clergy, the independence of the media, and the legitimacy of the political process.

Those who oppose free expression rarely, if ever, see themselves in opposition to the western liberal democratic tradition.  Most of the people who want to ban the book or painting are simply acting on their belief in the nature of the public good. Censors see unrestrained freedom as a threat to the social fabric, while civil libertarians believe the greater danger consists in empowering the state to suppress “dangerous” or “offensive” ideas. Censors see no reason to protect expression of low value—no point in protecting the marketplace for the exchange of shoddy goods. They have enormous difficulty understanding the difference between protection of the principle of free speech and an implicit endorsement of the offensive material at hand. And they have little or no appreciation for the argument that once one hands over to the state the authority to decide which ideas have value, no ideas are safe.

I spent my years at the ACLU battling attempts to control what others might read, hear or download.  I attended a public meeting in Valparaiso, Indiana, where an angry proponent of an ordinance to “clean up” local video stores called me “a whore.” I was accused of abetting racism for upholding the right of the KKK to demonstrate at the Statehouse. I was criticized for failure to care about children when I objected to a proposal restricting minors’ access to library materials.  In each of these cases, and dozens of others, the people who wanted to suppress materials generally had the best of motives: they wanted to protect others from ideas they believed to be dangerous. To them, I appeared oblivious to the potential for evil. At best, they considered me a naïve First Amendment “purist;” at worst, a moral degenerate.……..People try to remove materials from library shelves or the corner video store because they find the materials offensive. They try to prevent Klan marches because they disagree strongly with the hateful message of the Klan. Their arguments are against these particular ideasThey are not generally trying to strengthen the power of the state, nor intending to circumscribe the exercise of personal moral autonomy. Civil libertarians see those outcomes as inevitable consequences of censorship, however, and so those are the issues we address. In a very real sense, it is a case of culture warriors talking past each other.

Here’s my basic proposition: civil liberties of every kind depend upon  and require intellectual freedom. Social justice, as conceived in our particular system, rests on fidelity to those other constitutional rights—especially the 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection of the laws. Social justice and civil liberties are inextricably connected, and both require intellectual freedom.

For evidence, let’s revisit—and consider the elements of– the definition of social justice I shared earlier:

“… promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity.” Libraries safeguard the history of battles against injustice, the works of philosophers who offered contending perspectives on what is just and unjust. By their nature, by housing any and all ideas, libraries celebrate intellectual diversity.

 Social justice exists when “all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment” Libraries treat all patrons as self-directed persons with inalienable rights to access materials of their own choosing. Librarians thus model the attitude that all people share a common humanity, and they provide role models for the provision of equitable treatment.

 Social justice includes “support for human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources.” There are numerous ways in which libraries support human rights, beginning with the human right to access information. Libraries are also a community resource, an intellectual infrastructure that is made available to all members of the community.

 In conditions of social justice, people are “not be discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristic of background or group membership.” I’m not going to belabor this definition further, but I’ve never encountered a situation in which a librarian refused to help a patron based upon such criteria.

 I’ll just conclude by quoting an article by a librarian on the issue of libraries and social justice:

 Broadly speaking, social justice issues reflect movements that push for greater voice and more representation for underrepresented or underpowered communities. Because libraries and librarians are tasked to serve all communities, we are inherently involved with and must be aware of issues of social justice. Ideals near to the heart of social justice advocates are egalitarianism, balance of power, social advocacy, public service, and diversity awareness. All of these issues are reflected in the work that librarians do to serve our communities.





  1. This article made me wonder about librarians around the world who function in societies that routinely suppress human rights and ideas. In our own country, what did librarians do in places that discriminated against people of color, native-Americans, Jews or those who deviated in some way from the accepted norms of their community?
    I clearly remember a librarian refusing to let me check out a book from the adult section of a small town library in Ohio when I was 11 years old. It did nothing to deter me, just made me more determined to find a way to get the book. (My mom checked it out for me. Maybe that was the librarian’s goal, parental guidance?)
    I hope that most librarians are committed to open access rather than control of material. Financial resources will always play a roll in de facto censorship. Again, I wonder what librarians in positions that manage acquisitions are required to do in regard to these issues. Social justice may be trumped by politics unless there is a strong commitment by the boards of directors and the communities to guarantee open access and the preservation of intellectual freedom. That task must rest with all of us as good citizens.

  2. Decades ago I found a business card size which had the following saying as I remember it: “Have you considered the responsibility of Knowledge, The Crime of unrevealed Facts.” I kept the card for years in my wallet until it was no longer readable.

    Censors have for centuries tried to act as the final barrier to the availability of ideas or information. This was much easier when the vast majority could not read or the mass production of books had not been invented. It was not enough to try to refute ideas or art. It must be suppressed, many times violently, by the State sometimes at the instigation of the Religious Establishment.

    Libraries are repository of ideas. We do have the issue IMHO of Mass Media “History.” Mass Media History determines not only what we will be told but also the slant. Then we have School Boards scattered about the country deciding to put a good spin on American History.

    We know almost nothing from the Mass Media about the Labor Struggle here in the USA and it’s violent suppression. With Cable TV and the numerous channels you would think the Unions, ACLU, NAACP and other Progressive Organizations would have a channel or two to teach the “historical struggle.” Are the Progressive Organizations so disorganized they cannot get it together?? Libraries are an important part of Knowledge, but having it disseminated is equally important.

  3. I’m afraid libraries will become museums as in: Here is what books look like before the internet and free speech enforcement. Row upon row of dusty pages already entered into the internet for everyone’s access.

  4. In practice we are in the process of relocating the libraries from the stately old building downtown to the Internet. So, the internet must serve the same community, the whole community, and provide access to the same thoughts and images as all of the books of the world and keep up as our body of knowledge expands at unprecedented rate.

    So everything that Sheila’s written applies to the virtual world exactly the same as the brick, morter and paper world. The practice of open exchange of all ideas from all sources to all learners all of the time. Libraries on steroids.

    All schools, I imagine, teach library science. Hopefully that will include more and more Internet science as well and the skills of critical thinking and effective researching as well. Absolutely critical for all occupants of the future, even if it has to displace some rote exposure to facts.

    I believe that humanity is the ultimate expression of life, and knowledge the ultimate expression of humanity. We and our body of knowledge are the only force known that exists to understand everything. Our DNA is inextricably tied to our knowledge and both are evolving and exploring and testing all bounds and borders.

    What a profound effect. Everything in life enveloped by reality and reality understood in our thoughtware. The universe containing and yet contained in billions of brains each contributing a piece of life’s ultimate puzzle.

    Why do people still ask what is the purpose of life?

  5. Pete, the critical thinking and effective research may be even more important in the future as we are bombarded with “facts” that, in many cases, are made up or skewed to a particular view. If we forget to question and probe for more evidence, we risk everything. Of course, there is always the argument that the facts are not true because some of us “don’t believe” them.

  6. I can’t help but wonder what a tour of southern libraries would find – and what it would not find. We are given the right to our beliefs and to voice our beliefs; also to have information effecting our lives to be printed due to freedom of the press, all provided by the 1st Amendment. We do not have to like or agree with the beliefs and comments of others but we do have to allow them that freedom, this is all part of social justice. It is usually very interesting to know where their views came from, who influenced them and why. I lived in Florida for 7 years and used my library card frequently; less than 1/2 of one shelf contained Civil War history; it was the same in the fiction section regarding southern novels. Information denied means intelligence denied because we must have information to develop and expand our intellect; sources of information should also be available for comparison. There is no social justice if we cannot learn all sides to any issue past or present and these issues need to be cross referenced; libraries and librarians used to be the primary source for information. Today they seem impersonal and mechanized, maybe that is why so many of us (myself included) use the Internet. But; books wil never be replaced. We book lovers will always prefer holding a book in our hands to typing on a keyboard, hunched in front of our computer. How can one find social justice in a library lacking more information than it provides? The lack of information is a lack of social justice for we are being denied our right to learn, we need sources to learn from – or disagree with. Our libraries must be preserved and updated without removing historical truths which support or deny social justice for all…facts are facts, even those we abhor and find we were mistaken about in our past beliefs. And, there is always the chance we will find information proving we are right:)

  7. I remember riding the 34 bus to work and reading the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on my Palm T3 and suddenly realizing that I was reading the Guide on the Guide. We also have a responsibility to support things like the Gutenberg project to assure continued availability to all of all those precious books.

  8. I hope future generations never lose the joy of walking into stores and libraries to be surrounded by books. I LOVE that feeling of the world at my fingertips between hundreds (thousands) of book covers. It makes me smile just thinking of it.

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