Racial and social justice: A blueprint for constructive conversations

Issues of racial and social justice impact all facets of our communities, and therefore, all our libraries. As we continue to look for ways to increase racial and cultural equity, we are buoyed by our activist efforts to support privacy, equitable access, and intellectual freedom, and sobered by the realization that our histories and the ground upon which they have been built have not always demonstrated support of equity, diversity, and inclusion. It is critical that global libraries engage in ongoing discussions to surface concerns, share insights, and help lead our community efforts.

During a recent OCLC Global Council roundtable, we used a structured discussion format to share perspectives and gather insights around current environments, library reactions, and what our responsibilities as libraries should be going forward. We didn’t come up with all the answers, but the discussion was rich and informative.

The importance of a structured conversation

If a conversation isn’t useful and doesn’t help us make progress, then what’s the point? In that spirit, I’d like to share a discussion guide much like what the Global Council found helpful. Please use it as a way to provide a structured, formal discussion at your library.

  1. On a scale of 1–5, how well do you feel our institution is doing in our ongoing response to the racial and social justice movements?
  2. What is the state of racial, social, civil, and/or economic justice in our region right now?
  3. What is our institution/library doing to address the issues of racial and cultural equity?
    • Have there been any formal responses?
    • Are we looking at employment issues (hiring, retention, promotion, etc.) regarding staff and diversity?
    • What measures or concerns does our institution have regarding “cultural appropriation” and “decolonizing collections”?
  4. What responsibilities do libraries have to lead in this area?
    • Has our institution partnered with other resources in the community to lead change?
    • What opportunities remain untapped that we would like to explore?
  5. What (if any) areas of this discussion would you like to explore more deeply?
  6. What is my (personal) biggest take-away from today’s conversation?
  7. Are there actions we (and I) can take now from today’s discussion?

Below, you can read an overview of our Global Council discussion based on similar guidelines.

The current environment

We took a quick poll at the beginning of our conversation, and the consensus was that while our libraries are currently engaged in discussions around racial and social justice, there is still much to do.

Global Council delegates (elected librarians from OCLC member libraries) from the United States offered context and insights about the “Black Lives Matter” movement, historical racism, and the impacts they were seeing in their communities. Delegates from outside the US shared the far-reaching global impact of the movement and how the issues in the US are also reflected in other parts of the world as Aboriginal, Indigenous, and First Nations’ rights. We gained consensus in an outpouring of sorrow over the recent events and the death of George Floyd, as everyone agreed that the topic of systemic racism is a difficult one for both individuals and communities to address, and that libraries are uniquely positioned to be community leaders.

What are libraries doing today?

Many libraries are re-examining their staffing and hiring practices to create more opportunities to diversify librarianship. They are also examining the language and content used by evaluating their collections and legacy policies for historical bias. One of many sentiments that bubbled up through the discussion was a desire to tackle more of these issues together as global libraries. But within the same breath we also recognized that responses and corrective solutions may need to differ based on geographic region, library type, and the needs of the communities served.

Academic institutions note that many of their campuses were often involved in protests and other activist activities. The library’s role in supporting these activities often centered on education, raising awareness, facilitating discussions, and advocating for greater institutional response. Staff at one institution shared that they experienced some surprising pushback from alumni donors and legacy benefactors. Throughout the discussion, it was noted that the notion of library neutrality versus community advocacy were large issues over which libraries and library staff sometimes disagreed.

A structured discussion model for libraries’ role in racial and social equity in this issue of #OCLCnext Click To Tweet

What is (yours, mine and) our library’s responsibility?

As per our discussion model, our conversation ended with solution seeking. This was summarized by this powerful question from one of our delegates: “If we’re not neutral, what are we?”

Everyone agreed that this question, as well as the other topics we explored, deserved a lot more attention.

So, what should we do? We can start by …

  • Continuing to promote, educate, question, and inform. This is how we move these discussions forward. There is no conversation about racial and social justice that isn’t helped by better information, education, and literacy.
  • Lean into providing platforms and resources for marginalized groups who don’t have their own spaces, either physically or virtually. This provides better visibility and access and a “seat at the table” among other community, business, civic, and institutional partners.
  • Model the world we want to see in our collections, our communications, our services, our marketing, and our hiring practices.

These discussions are always difficult, but they’re vital. I’d like to thank all the members of the Global Council for their willingness to come together with openness and honesty. I hope it inspires further conversations within your network of library professionals and partners in your community.


OCLC Global Council’s 2021 area of focus are five of the United Nations 17 Strategic Development Goals (SDGs). Two of those five goals (SDG 10, “Reduced inequalities,” and SDG 16, “Peace, justice and strong institutions”) directly impact our work on racial and social justice in libraries and motivated this roundtable discussion. You can read more about this year’s research and program work in this introductory post from Lorely Ambriz.