Library faculty and staff members add their individual voices to national issues of race and racism
This is an Open Letter to the Future from individual faculty and staff members in the University Libraries at Virginia Tech about the protests and our commitment to antiracism. This open letter was initially drafted on June 8, 2020, and then faculty and staff added suggestions and commentary over the following five days.
It’s been a hard 2 weeks. George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered in Minneapolis by a white police officer. While not the first, nor even the latest act of violence, it is this act on top of so many others that catalyzed people to act. Their actions arise from underlying generational trauma, which found its form in widespread protests across the globe calling for police accountability and the recognition that Black lives matter.
It’s a stark and harsh way to open a letter, but if this is to be an accurate letter to account for what is happening now, we must speak clearly and plainly. The “we” in this case are faculty and staff working in the libraries. The majority of the people in the libraries are white, indeed we are proportionately whiter than the five counties surrounding Blacksburg, Virginia. And as this letter is also to be an exploration of our own accountability, we may not look away from what has come from this latest violence upon another Black person. We are not neutral. We stand in solidarity with “victims of murder, marginalization, and repression because of their skin color, and with those who seek justice through protests across our country.” This letter serves as a testament to our commitment to supporting the changes needed to develop a truly equitable and honest information environment.
As individuals who work in libraries, we are curators and handlers of information and we have a duty to document and preserve what is happening. To help other people find information, we must first know something about the systems that hold the information.
The current protests are a result of the systems that hold people. These systems hold some people up and hold some people down. Information professionals create some of the structures that hold information. Similarly, we as community members create the systems that orient our lives. We call those systems government, culture, tradition, society, and sometimes we call them nothing at all because we swim in them. “White supremacy is not a shark; it is the water” as Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre said. As library professionals, we must examine the language we use to catalog information, we may not ignore the water in which we swim.
The current culture of white supremacy is a racist and prejudiced system that has treated bodies of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color as expendable resources, existing outside of the protection and the prosperity of modern Western civilization, dating back as far as that term may be applied. Building on that framework, the land grab that created the land grant institutions is another action that benefited white people and stole resources and sovereignty from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Virginia Tech is one of those institutions, (Virginia State University is in counterpoint as a historically black public land-grant university). With the systemic, normalized attitudes of privileging one group of people over another, other types of inequalities compound. We have tried to balance the scales, affirming sentiments like those in the Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Statement: “Virginia Tech does not discriminate against employees, students, or applicants on the basis of age, color, disability, sex (including pregnancy), gender, gender identity, gender expression, genetic information, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, or veteran status, or otherwise discriminate against employees or applicants who inquire about, discuss, or disclose their compensation or the compensation of other employees or applicants, or on any other basis protected by law.” These policies have often fallen short because they are seen as mostly aspirational and goals related to them are routinely not met.
The final phrase of the equal opportunity statement is “protected by law.” When law enforcement is the perpetrator, we must dig deeper to change the very underpinnings of the systems that have created the opportunity for such heinous actions in the first place.
We are a public library, and we support the communities to which we are connected. But we are part of a system that was created through systemic inequality and there are aspects of library work that perpetuate inequality--from taxonomies, to contracts, to materials selection. The University Libraries at Virginia Tech stand upon an incalculable number of choices made by more than 300 employees every day. Each of these choices is a stone paving a potentially new way forward. All together, it comes to an overwhelming number. But, taken one day at a time, one choice at a time, one stone at a time, we can help build the road to a more just future. There are two general ways we consider this work: inward facing and outward facing. We work to better ourselves, so that we may better serve our communities.
Below, you will find a list of initiatives we are working on to dismantle systemic inequality. These lists are not exhaustive. They are only meant to show some specific examples of how we are addressing the systems that were created over the 148 years of library operations.
Each of those years passed by one month, one week, one day, one breath at a time. But George Floyd wasn’t allowed to breathe. Eric Garner wasn’t allowed to breathe. There is more going on than the first spontaneous demonstrations after Mr. Floyd’s death. We have now moved into the time where we can and should write long letters to our communities and talk about our plans. The intersectionality of time, place, and circumstances to create the reality we are living in may not be ignored. The social and economic injustices caused by these systems affect Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in more ways than “just” racism. In a myriad of ways, our current situation magnifies the inequities experienced by these communities. At the time of writing, it is Pride month; many important community celebrations have been cancelled because of COVID-19. LGBTQ+ Pride parades and activities recognize the Stonewall riots which were themselves started by Trans* and gender non-conforming Black people. Pride events draw much needed attention to a shared history of intersectional inequity, and shine a light on efforts specifically dedicated to increasing the equity of society’s most marginalized groups. Of course, this global pandemic is also a historical moment that has drawn attention to the health-based consequences of social injustice and inequity. We recognize that as keepers of the historical record, the choices we make are visible long past our last breath. But as much as it is important to get it right for history, we are living in the now. We owe it to the people we are and the people we serve, to do the work to address the systemic racism inherent in our society NOW.
We invite you to reach out to us, to work with us, to make sure we can serve you. We invite and encourage you to hold us accountable. And if you're reading this in the future, we hope this is just one artifact of many that illustrate the work we are and will continue to do to create a more just world.
In Hope and Solidarity,
The University Libraries Diversity Council
Inga Haugen, Chair of the University Libraries Diversity Council; Agriculture, Life Sciences, and Scholarly Communication Librarian
Craig Arthur, Incoming Chair of the University Libraries Diversity Council; Head, Foundational Instruction & Community Engagement
Ana Corral, Resident Librarian
LM Rozema, Processing and Special Projects Archivist
Lisa Smith, Library Dean's Office Admin Assistant and HR Support
Sara Sweeney Bear, Fusion Studio Manager & Space Assessment Coordinator
The University Libraries Inclusion and Diversity Leadership Group
Tyler Walters, Dean of University Libraries
Julie Griffin, Senior Associate Dean, Research and Informatics
Zhiwu Xie, Chief Strategy Officer
Anthony Wright de Hernandez, Inclusion & Diversity Coordinator; Community Collections Archivist
Brittany Dodson, InclusiveVT Representative
Jennifer Nardine, InclusiveVT Representative
Jessica Ofsa, InclusiveVT Representative
Samantha Winn, InclusiveVT Representative
Inga Haugen, Chair of the University Libraries Diversity Council
Craig Arthur, Vice Chair of the University Libraries Diversity Council
Individual signatories in their own right below
Craig Arthur, Head, Foundational Instruction & Community Engagement; Incoming Chair, University Libraries Diversity Council
Lisa Becksford, Online and Graduate Engagement Librarian
Jonathan Bradley, Head of Studios and Innovative Technologies
Jonathan Briganti, DataBridge Manager
Anne Brown, Science Informatics Consultant
C. Cozette Comer, Evidence Synthesis Librarian
Ana Corral, Resident Librarian
Brittany Dodson, InclusiveVT Rep & Diversity Council Member
Nitra Eastby, Collections Strategist
Julia Feerrar, Head of Digital Literacy Initiatives
Trevor Finney, Creative Services Coordinator
Jordan Kuneyl, Instructional Support Assistant
Kayla B. McNabb, Head of Instructional Content & Design
Stefanie Metko, Director of Teaching & Learning Engagement
Rachel Miles, Research Impact Librarian
Jennifer T. Nardine, Member of the Library Inclusion & Diversity Leadership Council
Jennifer Nehrt, Public Service Specialist, Art & Architecture Library
Jessica Ofsa, Manager of Circulation Services
Andi Ogier, white woman learning about and trying to work towards anti-racism
Luisa Ogier, ILL Lending Supervisor
Jonathan Petters, Data Management Consultant and Curation Services Coordinator
Cathy Pillow, Administrative Director and HR Manager
Robert Pillow, Assistant Director for User Services
Alice Rogers, Manager, Media Design Studios
Michael J. Stamper, Data Visualization Designer and Digital Consultant for the Arts
K Todd Stevens
Anthony Wright de Hernandez, Community Collections Archivist, Inclusion & Diversity Coordinator
- Done: Strategic Planning Subgroup for Inclusion and Diversity Report
- To do: Cleaning up the report to remove internal shorthand to then publish it, adding a review of the plan to further address anti-racism over the next 6 months.
- Done: Strategic Planning Subgroup for Community Outreach and Engagement
- Ongoing :Showcasing Diversity and Inclusion examples monthly at the library wide meeting
- Ongoing: Munch & Mull Antiracist Reading & Discussion Group
- Planning stage: Strategically incentivizing our faculty and staff to participate in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion education efforts on campus
- Ongoing: VTDITC: Hip Hop Studies at Virginia Tech - a collaborative, community-wide initiative
- Ongoing exhibits program that educates the Virginia Tech community through cultural and community exhibits and displays of student and faculty research.
- Recent exhibits include: Inclusion and Identity in Ag, African American women and the fight for the vote, and The fight for women’s suffrage: 1848 - 1920
- University Libraries’ Community Engagement Working Group
- Actively developing our collections to be more representative of marginalized communities
- Designated librarians for Cultural and Community Centers
- Intersections: Conversations on Social Justice and the Built Environment series at the Art & Architecture Library
- Exhibits from diverse artists in the Art & Architecture Library Gallery
- Ongoing: Liaison librarians conducting research in their areas on how to better serve underrepresented communities
- The University Libraries at Virginia Tech is a founding member of the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Diversity Alliance for Academic Librarianship residency program