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


Inclusive Teaching in the Library

By Pamela Espinosa de los Monteros, the Latin American Studies librarian and assistant professor at The Ohio State University

In 2019, Ohio State welcomed its most demographically diverse class to-date. Each student will arrive in our classroom with uniquely formative experiences that are a product of their past education, professional and personal experiences, access or lack of access to educational resources, as well as the domestic or global communities that have shaped them.

Designing for a diverse classroom can present itself as an intimidating task. As librarians and instructors, we are responsible for developing curriculum that will be inclusive and effective for each student. The demographic shifts in higher education and the universal use of the library well position librarians to experiment and model inclusive teaching practices. But how does one go about customizing curriculum to meet the needs of diverse students? Below is a short list of suggestions to consider when designing library instructional sessions.

1.) Schedule a planning session with the faculty or instructor to find out more information about the students. In addition to discussing instructional learning objectives or the specifics of a course assignment, use this time to gather information about the students. Inquire about any special populations that may be in the course (e.g. non-traditional students, first-generation, international students, etc.). Has a student disclosed a learning disability that you should be aware of? Are the students highly engaged or relatively quiet? How are students used to receiving instruction and information? Having a better idea about your target audience will help you to select the appropriate instructional style and tools to use.

2.) Design for different styles of participation. Have you designed different ways for students to contribute, digest and share what they are learning? Consider cultural and physical factors that may contribute or hinder a student’s willingness to respond to a standard open-ended question. Are there other ways to engage students (with or without technology) such as through small group discussion or individual reflections that will maximize student participation? Make sure your communication and directions also speak to different learning styles.

3.) Review the visuals, examples, and language that you are using in your instructional session. Does your selection of visual materials assist or potentially impair your examples? Are your visuals or examples clear to a global audience and will they be appealing to your target student demographic? Are you including metaphors, references to U.S. pop-culture, or using regional slang that can be understood by a global audience? Do your slides need captions, definitions, translations, or decoding to help contextualize or fill in information that some students may not have. Test your slides with different audiences to make sure they are achieving their intended purpose.

Examples are the perfect opportunity to expand students’ global knowledge and awareness. I encourage librarians everywhere to be creative with their visuals–in other words refrain from using cat images as your main visuals except when providing instruction to library audiences.

4.) Consider including global information sources in your information literacy workshops. A fundamental pillar of the library is to provide access to a wide range of information resources. It is important for librarians to teach students how to access global information sources in different languages and from different countries. Including open access databases from respected global institutions and acknowledging the contribution of global scholars (at our institutions and beyond) helps support student’s engagement in global conversations. Often it takes extra effort or perhaps a slightly different search strategy to access international sources. Make the effort to do so. In addition to teaching critical information literacy skills required to access this information, it may help students to reflect on the uneven geographies of information online and in our library collections. Omitting global information from our instruction, limits students to echo chambers of information leading to a limited world view. Because our academic campuses seldom reflect the diversity of our world, we must compensate by making our information resources reflect the populations and perspectives that are missing in our academic communities.

5.) Create materials that speak to the different learning styles of your students including presentation slides, a handout, a libguide, and follow-up email. By providing multiple communication tools and methods, different students are able to gravitate toward the learning tools that are most useful to them.

Librarians are well positioned to experiment with inclusive design that helps to engage all students in the classroom. These suggestions are not meant to be an exhaustive list, but perhaps a starting point.

Consider contributing your own examples in the comments below.


Acknowledgements: The content and ideas of this blog post were created in collaboration with Meris Longmeier, Associate Professor and Head of Research Services. The author would like to thank Stephanie Porrata and Zachary Walton for editing and posting this entry.