Privilege and Libraries

2nd July 2020

I’ve been thinking about privilege a lot lately.

I’m from Minnesota, where a month ago George Floyd was murdered by the police, launching a long-overdue conversation about race and racism and privilege. I’ve been reading, thinking, advocating, and talking with friends and family about privilege. I’m trying to come to terms with my privilege and to figure out how I can do more to adjust the imbalance; one way of doing that is through my profession.

I’m well aware of the privilege I’ve experienced in my career as a librarian. I’ve worked exclusively in private international schools attended by students whose financially-stable parents value education. I’ve enjoyed comfortable library budgets that have allowed me to purchase what I think is necessary for my students. I’ve worked in libraries that were well-established before I got there, and for administrators who have trusted my judgment and allowed me to make changes that I believe will improve our services. 

TCLP librarians have been asking me for advice as they do the hard work of preparing the South Extension collection for circulation. I feel underqualified, because I’ve never had the challenge/opportunity of starting a library from scratch. And I feel a little bit guilty, because when they ask me their very detailed and thoughtful questions about where books should go in their new library, my answer is usually “it depends.” What I do know is that the most important goal of developing and organizing a collection is to help patrons find what they are looking for. There are no hard and fast rules. The only thing you "should" do is what you think will help your patrons discover things they want to read. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

Challenging Privilege in Cataloging

The Dewey Decimal System (DDS) is a common organizational tool for many school libraries, and the one used in all of the libraries I’ve worked in.  When I started my library career, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the call numbers that came preprinted on the books that I ordered from my supplier. I was learning so many things about my new profession that I didn’t notice how sexist and Euro-centric DDS is, and how dependent on the whims of the cataloger. At the innocuous but unhelpful end of the spectrum, a book called Art in India  might be shelved in the 700s (Arts and Recreation), but a book called India: Art and Culture  might be shelved in the 900s (History and Geography). On the other, more insidious, end of the spectrum, topics that are not relevant to white Christian men are diminished by adding more and more numbers and moving the books further along the shelves. 

Once I came to the realization that DDS is an often-arbitrary, definitely-biased system, I felt free to ignore the “rules” and move books into collections that make sense for my patrons. If I can’t put a label on a shelf that identifies its contents for my patrons, then books need to be moved. If a student comes to me looking for a specific kind of book and I can’t say, “I’ve got a section for that,” I need to reconsider my organization. I’m not above making up numbers so that books are in an order that best suits my patrons. The catalog should reflect our patrons and our collections, and not be defined by rules.

That thinking informed the advice I offered to TCLP.  For cataloging to be effective, we must understand our patrons and what they are looking for. We owe it to our patrons to create an organization system that allows them to find what they are looking for and to make the collection accessible to and respectful of all. We can no longer blindly accept the DDS or other privilege-based organization systems.

If our patrons are mad about superhero books and want them all together, then we create a superhero section. If our patrons are learning to read and want to borrow early readers based on the number on the cover, then that’s how we organize them. If our readers want to read everything there is about sharks, and don’t care whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, then we create a section of everything sharks. And if we create a collection or group and find that it doesn’t work the way we’d like, we change it.

Challenging Privilege in Collection Development

Studies show that children who live in poverty, who don’t have books at home or parents who read to them, tend to achieve less in school than those with socioeconomic privilege. Krashen, Lee, and McQuillen, in their 2012 research involving students from 40 different countries, suggest that access to a good library can make up for the negative effects of poverty on reading achievement. 

I used to believe that any book was a good book. I believed if I donated my discarded books to communities in need, that the books would somehow become a library, and that the children would automatically become readers. It was a naive and privileged perspective to think that the books that were no longer useful in my library were good enough and appropriate in less-privileged communities. And without knowledgeable librarians curating the collection and supporting a community of readers, even high-quality donated books won’t have much of an impact. Libraries do not need to accept every book donated to us. Librarians know what our libraries and patrons need, and should only add books that will forward our mission. 

The staff at TCLP understand that the children in their communities - that all people - deserve access to free libraries. They understand that library access is a right, not a privilege. They understand that those libraries should hold a deliberate, thoughtful collection of books that their patrons want to read on topics that are important to them and in formats that appeal to them. The staff and their collection and programming all support their motto: Reading is Thinking

Readers and thinkers are the people we need to break down the barriers of privilege. Access to a great library is a universal right, not a privilege. 

*Krashen, S., Lee, S.Y. and McQuillan, J. 2012. “Is the library important? Multivariate studies at the national and international level.” Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 8(1): 26-36.

In the series of conversations with Linda Hoiseth:

विशेषाधिकार और लाइब्रेरी
Q& A with Linda Hoiseth (Part 1)
Q & A with Linda Hoiseth (Part 2)
लिंडा होइसेट के साथ सवाल-जवाब (भाग १)
लिंडा होइसेट के साथ सवाल जवाब (भाग २)

Linda Hoiseth is an International educator for over 25 years and has had stints in Japan, Poland, Peru, Kuwait, Malaysia and Qatar. She got her Master’s degree, Curriculum and Instruction from St. Cloud State University where she also received Certification as School Library Media Specialist. She currently works as teacher librarian at The American Embassy School, New Delhi.
The Community Library Project
Dharam Bhavan, C-13 Housing Society
South Extension Part -1
New Delhi - 110049
Illustrations provided by Priya Kurien.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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