Thoughts on Making Sustainable Anti-Racism Last in the Classroom

Written by Shannon Simpson, Scholarly Instruction Librarian at Kenyon College


Around the socially distant fire pit a few weeks ago, a friend in aeronautics contemplated a hypothetical alternative career. Librarian was his conclusion. He had been thinking about all the ways libraries have come through for people in the pandemic, from wifi hotspots to streaming services, he rattled off ways libraries fill a plethora of individual needs in our communities. And, we all agreed, once again, that if libraries weren’t in existence today, the idea would be laughed out of any room. “Socialism. Communism! ANARCHY!”

He’s not the first person to share this with me. I’ve had everyone from tattoo artists to musicians (and even sometimes tattoo artist musicians) tell me that they too, have considered the field of library science. Much of their interest and appreciation comes from what they see public libraries doing. Having only interned or been a page in public libraries, I have deep admiration for their work with limited resources and time–all while dealing with endless printer and HVAC issues. 

Academic libraries have a few similarities. We too have endless HVAC and printer issues. I bet you didn’t know that the upcoming version of the 2022 OED defines “Library,” as “a building with information professionals and services in which there is inadequate printing, plumbing, or heating.” True story. We provide laptops and study rooms, and software and cameras, and databases and books, and, and, and… not unlike public libraries. But here’s the thing, most of these provisions (aside from books and journals) started with one librarian identifying a need in their community and putting a plan of action together to address that need. Then, other librarians heard about the thing and some of them did the same. (I found the rapping librarian phenomenon of the early 2000’s a particularly dark time in our field.) And what my friend doesn’t realize is that each of those cool provisions was often the sole idea of one inspired librarian. 

So what happens when the librarian with an ear to the ground and a problem solving skill-set leaves? When the librarians change so can the programs, services, types of material, etc. So. What lasts in our spaces? What is required to last? Especially when budgets are cut and the pipe that was once leaky, finally bursts all over the LJ145s and there goes wifi hotspots, new additions to the LGBTQ+ zine collection, Kanopy, the overnight gaming event, etc. etc.

Throughout much of my 12 year librarian career, (I had a few careers before this one. One in music. Another in tattooing. Okay, not tattooing. Yet.), I have been dedicated to integrating more and more DEI ideas and standards of practice, into any new programming, communication, and instructional endeavors that I touch. Using a Black feminist lens, and imbuing information literacy sessions with decolonized perspectives and sources by historically excluded voices, is now my norm. But, these are my individual choices. And, while most instructional librarians are given the same autonomy, what choices are they making? Much of my work life, as an academic teaching librarian, is based on individual choices that I make as an individual librarian in deciding what voices and perspectives to include or exclude in my practice. 

Most organizations, colleges, libraries, public and private, etc fell over themselves making statements of anti-racism, creating land acknowledgments, and publicly supporting Black Lives Matter. And, even though I have contributed to a few statements myself, now is the time to carefully examine ourselves and start making public changes to back up those statements. Who are we going to be accountable to? What will we be accountable for? What will actually last in our spaces? What do we want to last?

Here’s where I see the conversation around DEI finally shifting; rather than focus on an individual’s cultural competence, (very important but a different conversation), what if we start to examine the system itself. Where are we upholding white supremacy in the spaces and spheres in which we have control and influence? Where are we still upholding an inequitably designed system? Is it in the decision-making process? Budgeting? The way we conduct a reference interview? How we don’t acknowledge the silences in our collections? Where do we have enough power to change? And how can we turn those ideas into job and career expectations and responsibilities no matter who inhabits our spaces in the future. 

I posit all of this with my heart on my sleeve. I want a better system for all future librarians, I want a welcoming and engaging instruction experience for ALL students, and I’m not really sure that I have much faith in lasting and meaningful change. Let’s challenge each other to come up with some great ideas and prove me wrong.



Anti-Racism Organizational Development


Ohio 5 Codex Group (with Anti-Racism and Decolonizing classroom inspiration ideas)


Design Justice Network