August 15th marked the inaugural meeting of Goldsmiths Library’s Critical Librarianship (#CritLib) Reading Group. We kicked things off with a discussion of Melissa Adler’s ‘Classification Along the Color Line: Excavating Racism in the Stacks’
Libraries tend to think of themselves as neutral and their classification systems as ahistorical but Adler contextualises the creation of the most common classification systems within America during Postbellum (Post Civil War for the non-history graduates) historical period when they were written.
In the 1860s Americans fought a Civil War over slavery, in the 1870s librarians in the same country began to create what they saw as rational and objective classifications. However, Adler points out that any classification schemes reflects its creator’s subjective point of view. These classification systems supported the establishment of the cis, straight white man as the default subject and ‘othered’ those outside the dominant group.
Adler draws clear parallels between the creation of racist classificatory systems in libraries and the systemic racism woven into the fabric of American society. In the UK, most librarians are familiar with American systems like Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classifications, but not their British contemporaries. It would be interesting to know more about them and how the reflected the Victorian, colonial mind-set.
However, the article isn’t just a damning document, it is a call to arms, appealing to librarians as a profession to provide what Adler calls ‘local reparative taxonomies’ rather than accepting the status quo.
At Goldsmith’s we took up that call, discussing ways we could call out problem areas in our own library, boost Library Search to give prominence to non-Western publications and work with our students to raise awareness and transform the library.
Technology exists which allows us to make our collections usable without a rigid structure. At Sitterwerk Art Library, the collection is organised using a dynamic order structure allowing items to be reshelved anywhere. RFID tags are used to regularly update the library catalogue with the most recent location for all of the books. It’s a small collection, and the system might not yet be practical at a larger university library. That said, it is an excellent example of how technology allows us to disrupt traditional power structures.
Part of the reason American classification systems have become an international standard is the ease with which other libraries were able to adopt them. Technology can give libraries and our users the tools we need to dismantle yet another system which privileges the ‘universal’ white, cis, middle class man.
Libraries often claim we are neutral spaces, but if racism and inequality are an inherent part of our underlying structure, aren’t we exclusionary by default? Instead of claiming a default, passive neutrality, our library is determined to become an actively inclusive service working to promote self-improvement across our profession.