Module 16: (In)Equity in Libraries

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Module 15: (In)Equity in the Educational System
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Module 16: (In)Equity in Libraries
Module 17a: Building Relationships With Individuals


  • Describe ways in which libraries replicate some of the inequities faced by youth of color and Indigenous youth in other areas of life.
  • Investigate discipline and policy, resource, and service gaps in your own library or library system.


The library has often been discussed as a democratizing institution that provides free and equal information access for the public good. In this rosy view, libraries level the playing field between society’s haves and have-nots, providing all people with free access to resources and education that they could not otherwise afford. While the library has indeed served this purpose for many and continues to do so, it’s important that this inspirational vision of libraries not lead us to ignore or dismiss the ways that libraries replicate and perpetuate many of society’s racial inequities. For more on this topic, see the sidebar. In this module, we will explore disparities in library discipline and related policies, resources, and services as they relate to BIYOC.

You will notice here that unlike in the previous module, empirical data about racial disparities in library services and resources are scant or nonexistent. For that reason, much of the information we present below is based on our own work with BIYOC in school and public libraries. As part of this module, we will ask you to conduct some action research in your own library setting. You might consider publishing the results of that research online or in a professional journal to add to our understanding of these issues as a field. See the spotlight box in the second Explore section below for some recommendations of publications that might be interested in such a piece.

Vocational Awe and Libraries

In 2018, librarian Fobazi Ettarh published the influential article “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies we Tell Ourselves.” Vocational awe, as Ettarh defines it, is “the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” In her article and in several presentations on the same topic, Ettarh argues that vocational awe is connected to problems in librarianship including low pay and burnout, and that the democratic and educational freedoms that libraries supposedly espouse have never been equitably enacted across racial lines. To explore this idea in more depth, read Ettarh’s original article (linked above) and watch one or more of her recorded talks:

The tougaloo nine & The History of Segregation in libraries

The veneer of vocational awe and public good that surrounds libraries can often cloud our understanding of the profession’s complex history and the racism and classism that underlie its origins. It is imperative that we recognize this history in order to see the inequities built into our frameworks, so that we may work to reduce them. 

One of the most illuminating stories of this history in public libraries is the Tougaloo Nine. In 1961, nine students from Tougaloo College requested books for school assignments from the George Washington Carver Library, which was for Black residents of Jackson, Mississippi. Unsurprised that the resources they needed were unavailable, the students then went to the main Jackson Public Library, a whites-only branch, and proceeded to find the books they needed and sit down and read. The students staged an intentional sit-in protest, after training by Medgar Evers. 

While we often dwell on the imagery of segregation in public spaces, including restaurants, buses, and even schools, rarely does the segregation and history of inequity in libraries come up. Libraries were not only an incidental piece of civil rights protests, but a purposeful location for action, due to its connotations of access to public knowledge and its nature of being funded by all taxpayer dollars–Black and white. 

The Tougaloo Nine were arrested and jailed as a result of their read-in. Peaceful protests in support of their actions were met with tear gas and police dogs. Nonetheless, the demonstration had a fairly quick impact on the field: within two years, the libraries in Jackson were desegregated. 

Despite such a strong impact, the Tougaloo Nine are seldom taught about or represented in resources about the fight for civil rights. As a result, it is easy for us to fall into a fantasy where libraries have always been the bastion of equitable service and knowledge that they ideally aim to be. But without understanding this history, we are liable to be complicit in its assumptions and repeat its mistakes. 

This segregation isn’t limited to public libraries. In Silence or Indifference: Racism and Jim Crow Segregated Public School Libraries, a book by library historian Wayne A. Weigand, details the history of segregation and racism embedded in the school library space. Through this analysis of the American library community’s history as a silent, supposedly “neutral” giant that failed to uphold or support Brown v. Board of Education, Weigand aims to hold school libraries today accountable for the legacy that continues to shape them. 

An article also by Wiegand, Sanitizing American Library History: Reflections of a Library Historian examines the way in which the library profession has historically aimed to control the narrative around responses to different events in American history and our overall defense of intellectual freedom.

Discipline and Related Policies in the Library

Both school and public libraries typically have a written policy delimiting appropriate behaviors in the space. Often, these policies list examples of prohibited behaviors within the space. For example, consider this excerpt from the Durham County (NC) Public Library system’s Courteous Conduct policy, which lists the following behaviors that might result in exclusion from library grounds and loss of library privileges:

  1. Violations of state, local, and federal law, including, but not limited to, possession of weapons of any kind, possession of controlled substances, stealing, using false identification, vandalism, threats, harassment, disorderly conduct and loitering.
  2. Inappropriate noise level and tone of speech.
  3. Phone conversation use in undesignated areas.
  4. Sleeping.
  5. Inappropriate attire (shirts and shoes required).
  6. No animals in the building (with the exception of service animals).
  7. Having beverages in uncovered containers or eating food, except as part of a library-sponsored program or a pre-approved event in a meeting room.
  8. Possessing or consuming alcohol or smoking, including e-cigarettes, in the library or on the library grounds.
  9. Bringing more than 2 large bags of any type into the library. Bags are not to exceed the following dimensions: 22” x 14” x 9”. Bags may not be left unattended and should not block access to aisles, doorways, stairways, walkways, elevators or ramps.
  10. Soliciting funds or signatures etc., panhandling, gambling or selling of any kind unless approved by the Library Director.
  11. Moving furniture without staff permission; heads, feet and legs must be kept off tables and chairs.
  12. Any disruptive behavior as determined by library staff or security.

Having rules that govern acceptable behavior in the library is not in itself an equity issue. However, the manner in which such rules are interpreted and enforced often brings racial prejudice into play.

Think back to Module 4 (Implicit Bias and Microaggressions). Because people in the United States have been socialized to expect poor or even criminal behavior from BIPOC, people of color are often viewed with conscious or subconscious suspicion. Recall the study in which preschool teachers were asked to monitor ten minutes of recorded play and note any instances of misbehavior; eye-tracking software showed that those teachers spent the most time watching the Black boy in the video, even though no misbehavior was present in the film. Library workers are not immune to this type of implicit bias, and we may find ourselves watching youth of color for behavior violations more closely than white youth in our spaces.

Many individual conduct rules are subjective. For example, the second item on the Durham County list above – “inappropriate noise level and tone of speech” – may be interpreted quite differently from one librarian to another, or from librarians to children and teens. We also know from our exploration of culture that what is considered loud or quiet, rude or respectful, or disruptive or productive can vary widely. This can lead to misunderstandings between library workers and children and teens who use the library.

As a result of differences in interpretation of the rules and in which library users are most closely monitored for potential misbehavior, BIYOC can be subject to disproportionate disciplinary actions in libraries just as they are in schools. For example, a librarian may reprimand or kick out two Black teen girls who are talking at what she considers a loud volume but ignore screams and squeals from two younger white children. When the library hires security guards or off-duty police officers to help enforce their conduct policies, youth of color and Indigenous youth face even more severe consequences for perceived or actual misbehavior, up to and including possible arrests.

In part because of these discipline policy issues, youth of color report that they feel like outsiders in libraries (for more on this, see Kafi Kumasi’s article, linked below). Three young Black men we spoke with about their library experiences reinforced this idea:

  • “I wasn’t a bad student, but I would always get disciplined in the library.  The librarians…I guess they didn’t like me because I just talk too much.”
  • “I got disciplined, like he said, for talking.  Also, moving around a lot. I couldn’t sit still, always going somewhere and looking at something or touching something.”
  • If I could have my own library… I wouldn’t want it to be quiet.  I just find it difficult staying silent in the library.  I like to be able to talk…if I’m reading a book and I find something interesting, I want to be able to tell my friend about it and don’t want to be shushed the whole time and get in trouble and things like that.”

While serious offenses such as drug use, fighting, or bringing a weapon to the library should obviously be prohibited, library workers should also think about whether there are some behavior expectations that might prevent, rather than facilitate, effective use of the library by children, teens, and their families. For example, rules that prohibit talking in the library might prevent teens from meeting there to work on collaborative school assignments. Rules that require an adult guardian for all children prevent older teen siblings from taking their brothers and sisters to the library. Prohibiting children and teens from moving the library furniture denies them the opportunity to configure the space in a way that meets their work or leisure needs.

What is the worst thing that could happen if you relaxed your library’s rules about noise levels, food and drink, loitering, moving furniture, or other minor offenses? In some cases, the potential drawbacks of allowing these behaviors are outweighed by the potential benefits to children and teens.

While you evaluate your own library’s discipline policies and actions in the next activity, we encourage you to ask yourself: what behaviors might we be prohibiting in our libraries that are not actually harmful? If we changed our rules to allow this behavior, what negative and positive impacts might that have on children and teens, BIYOC, and their families?


Libraries, like many schools, often have police officers or security guards patrolling their physical spaces. Budgets for these services often make up a significant portion of library systems’ overall funding. For example, the 2020-2021 budget proposed by the Los Angeles Public Library system included $10.4 million – about 5% of the system’s total budget – for security services, much of which was managed by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Calls for libraries to divest from policing are widespread. For example, library workers, students, and community members across the U.S. have formed the Abolitionist Library Association, a collective that provides resources, support, and advocacy aimed at ending policing in libraries. These efforts have succeeded in some communities. For example, the Denver Public Library system has redirected much of its security funding to social work and “peer navigator” services specifically focused on users experiencing homelessness.

For more on this issue and various alternatives to policing in libraries, check out the following resources:

For an extended report on how one city – Long Beach, CA – is addressing issues of community policing, racial justice, and reconciliation, read the initial report of Long Beach’s Racial Equity and Reconciliation Initiative.


Read the following account of an encounter between a security guard and a Black teen girl in a public library, taken from “We Will Not Be Silent: Amplifying Marginalized Voices in LIS Education and Research” by Amelia Gibson and Sandra Hughes-Hassell.

I saw a girl get kicked out of the library last week.

She was maybe 16, with long braids and a shy but easy smile. She had come into the library with a small group of friends and did not look fully comfortable in the space. They sat at a table together, in the way that teenage girls often do—three or four at a time (safety in numbers) and with a touch of attitude. She was new to this library, just as I was, glancing up and around at the glass walls and open stacks, respectfully quiet, except for low whispers to her friends. I watched her from my study room. My research assistant walked around the library, talking to teen girls about our research study. She chatted with the girl and her friends and walked away. A few minutes later, the girl popped her head into the room where I sat and, shyly, asked a question. I smiled, answered, and watched as she went back to her friends. She stood. They sat. She whispered, they whispered, and they looked back in my direction. I smiled. Then the guards showed up. Two guards, from opposite ends of the library. One stepped uncomfortably close to the girl, in a way I have seen before. It is the way some adults stand when asserting dominance over black teens: with a banal disregard for vulnerability and no sense of impropriety at invading the personal physical space of a teenage girl. When the guard spoke, the girl flinched and backed up slightly, and her face flashed with anger and indignation. She said something back, and the second guard pointed to the exit. The girls left. The guards wandered back to their stations.

I was later assured that the girl must have been making noise or wandering (neither of which was allowed in the library). Teens who used the library space, I was told, had to be sitting and engaged in active study or they would be asked to leave. They were not permitted to wander, and they had to remain quiet.


Think about this encounter in light of the discussion above. In what ways does this interaction replicate and reinforce racial inequities that are evident outside the library walls? What needs to change in terms of library policies, procedures, professional development, etc. to prevent future incidents like this and make the library a welcoming place for BIYOC?


Conduct some action research at your library to explore how (and which) children and teens are disciplined in the space, and for what behaviors. Even if you think you already know the answers to these questions, this data collection and analysis process may uncover some surprising findings. We suggest:

  1. Print out your library’s code of conduct/rules document. Highlight or circle any words or phrases in that document that might be subject to different interpretations, for example, words like “inappropriate,” “loud,” or “disruptive.” For each word that you identified, write down your personal definition. Then, ask several other library stakeholders to share their definitions of each term. These stakeholders should include other library workers, children and/or teens, your library’s security guard, and anyone else who plays a role in enforcing library behavior rules. Where are there areas of agreement about the expectations? Where are there areas of conflict?
  2. Over a period of at least several days, collect data about disciplinary actions in the library. The format of your data might vary depending on your role, population, and space, but we suggest keeping this simple. For example, each time you have an interaction with a child or teen related to behavior, you might record the child’s basic demographics (approximate age, race, and gender), a description of the disciplinary action (for example, verbal redirection, removal from library, referral to office), and a description of the behavior that prompted the action. If you are able to observe other adults in your library who have disciplinary roles, such as coworkers or security guards, collect this data when you observe them enacting disciplinary measures as well. Once you feel you have a representative sample of data, look back over your list for themes and/or surprises. Ask yourself:
    • Who is being disciplined most frequently in the library?
    • What behaviors most commonly lead to disciplinary actions? Are these behaviors actually harmful to the effective operation of the library?
    • What disciplinary actions are most common in your space? Are there ways to practice more positive, restorative practices in response to frequent misbehavior (see below for more about this idea)?

If you’re willing to share what you found in your policy review and/or through your observations, post your results below (all posts will be anonymous).


Read Kafi Kumasi’s “Roses in the Concrete: A Critical Race Perspective on Urban Youth and School Libraries” [PDF]. In this article, Kumasi applies Critical Race Theory (CRT) to school library work; many of the conclusions are also applicable to public library work.

Punitive measures are not the only possible response to misbehavior in the library. Read the article “Undoing Harm: Applying Restorative Justice Approaches to Teen Behavior in the Library” by Linda Braun, and watch the YALSA Snack Break video below on this topic excerpted from a webinar by young adult librarian Shauna Anderson.

The transcript for this video can be located here.

Library Resources

When libraries are discussed as agents for democracy and equity, those conversations typically focus on the library’s provision of high-quality resources to people who may otherwise be unable to access them. One of the phrases sometimes used to describe libraries is “the people’s university,” and this phrase implies that all members of society can better themselves and their communities by taking advantage of their local library’s collections and services. In addition to physical and digital materials, we can also consider librarians themselves to be valuable resources for library users in search of information or education. But does everyone truly have equal access to library resources, services, and staff?

Consider the following statistics:

  • Since 2007, schools across all community locations except inner cities have reported slight increases in the percentage of K-12 public schools offering library services. In inner cities over the past decade, there has been a 5 percentage point loss in school libraries over the same time period (Tuck & Holmes, 2016).
  • Nationwide, nearly 9,000 public schools do not have a school library. Schools with high-poverty student populations and schools with the highest percentage of students of color are less likely to have a school library than low-poverty, mostly white schools.  The wealthiest schools in mostly-white districts have multiple times more librarians/media specialists per school than the poorest schools in districts with high percentages of BIPOC students (Tuck & Holmes, 2016).
  • The school districts that have kept all of their school librarian positions since 2005 serve 75% white students, while the 20 school districts that lost the greatest number of librarians over the same time period enroll 78% students of color (Rowe, 2018).
  • For Philadelphia’s 220 public schools serving 134,000 students, there are only eight certified school librarians (Graham, 2017).
  • African American, Hispanic, and Native youth are much more likely than white youth to use public libraries for Internet access, and are much more likely to rely exclusively on the library for such access (Institute for Museum and Library Services, 2010).
  • Overall, public library funding has kept pace with or slightly outpaced overall economic growth since 2012. In that same time period, however, program attendance has increased by seventeen percent, while the number of public library staff per capita has decreased by three percent (Reid, 2017).
  • Rural America has the lowest home broadband Internet adoption rates, the lowest employment and economic growth rates, the fewest physicians per capita, and the lowest educational attainment rates, making the need for public library services in these areas especially critical. However, rural libraries have the weakest broadband capacity of all library types at a median of just 10 Mbps (compared to a median of 40 Mbps in cities) and offer the fewest public access computers. Limited open hours, staff shortages, adequacy of facilities, and long travel times to these libraries compromise their ability to offer badly needed resources, programs, and services (Real & Rose, 2017).

In too many cases, the people who most need the library’s resources and services are the least likely to have ready access to them.


National statistics can give us one piece of the equity picture when it comes to library services for BIYOC. Often, however, the most compelling data is found at the local and personal level, as in the two examples below.

In Seattle, a group of school librarians came together to document the inequities across school libraries in their district. Read about their process and findings in the Seattle Times article, “Seattle’s school libraries: A stark example of rich and poor.”

In Philadelphia, two public libraries are separated by less than seven miles, but are worlds apart in terms of their resources and services. Read Susan Neuman and Donna Celano’s account [PDF] of how racial prejudice, growing class stratification, and changing educational opportunities have impacted these libraries and the people they serve.


What disparities in terms of resources, staffing, and services exist across library facilities in your area? To answer these questions, work with youth in your school or public library to gather local data. Remember that “data” doesn’t always mean numbers; consider taking pictures of different libraries in your area, speaking with individual users, browsing online library program calendars, and using other  creative strategies to get a holistic picture of variations in services and resources within your community.

This is a great opportunity for a Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) project. The YPAR model aims to train young people to conduct systematic research to improve their lives, communities, and institutions. If you find inequities across or within libraries as a result of your work, the resources at Berkeley’s YPAR Hub website can help you develop ways to facilitate youth activism at the local level to address those inequalities.

Share Your Work

Consider publishing the results of your action research and/or YPAR work. Professional journals in our field that might be interested in such articles include the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young AdultsSchool Library Research, Children and Libraries, Knowledge Quest, Young Adult Library Servicesand School Library Connection.

True book fairs

One tradition often looked back on with nostalgia, particularly for those who would describe themselves as childhood bookworms, is that of school book fairs. However, the experience of book fairs is often very different for BIYOC and economically disadvantaged students who frequently do not see their experiences reflected in the titles being offered at the fair or may be turned away at the register for having insufficient funds. Read Danika Ellis’s article Let Me Ruin Your Childhood: The Inequality of School Book Fairs to learn more about how unfair book fairs are.

To help combat this inequitable practice while still generating reading excitement, 2023 National School Librarian of the Year, Julia Stivers started hosting True Book FAIRS at her Mount Vernon library, describing them as “Self-selection + ownership + reflective, inclusive, diverse books = literacy magic. MONEY SHOULD HAVE NO PART IN THIS EQUATION FOR OUR STUDENTS.” Learn more about True Book FAIRS on Julia Stivers’ website.

But wait!

In this section, we address common questions and concerns related to the material presented in each module. You may have these questions yourself, or someone you’re sharing this information with might raise them. We recommend that for each question below, you spend a few minutes thinking about your own response before clicking the arrow to the left of the question to see our response.

Libraries do a lot of good in the world, and are already under constant threats of budget cuts. If we call attention to our equity problems, don't we risk losing more public support?

 Not calling attention to our equity problems doesn’t mean that others don’t see them, or that they don’t still exist. Ignoring our equity issues or attempting to sweep them under the rug may ultimately do much more harm to our public image as our communities conclude that we don’t care about marginalized members of our service population. And don’t forget, BIPOC are part of the public we serve! So when we say “public support,” which public are we really concerned with – the white and affluent, or ALL of our community members?

With that said, not all of your library’s equity work needs to be made public. If you collect data that shows disciplinary disparities in your library, for example, you can address that internally and immediately. Keep in mind, though, that there may be equity issues in your library that you can’t even identify without input from your community. Asking for such input and then following up by acting to create positive change will only improve the public perception of your library.


Additional Resources

Advancing Racial Equity in Your Library (ALA Webinar)

Advancing Racial Equity in Public Libraries: Case Studies from the Field [PDF] (report from The Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE)

Knott, Cheryl (2015). Not free, not for all: Public libraries in the age of Jim Crow. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.


Graham, K. A. (2017, January 9). Philadelphia school district librarians: A species nearly extinct? The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved from

Institute for Museum and Library Services (2018). Toward equality of access: The role of public libraries in addressing the digital divide. Retrieved from

Real, B., & Rose, R. N. (2017). Rural libraries in the United States: Recent strides, future possibilities, and meeting community needs. American Library Association. Retrieved from

Reid, I. (2017). The 2017 public library data service report: Characteristics and trends. Public Libraries Online. Retrieved from

Rowe, A. (2018). U.S. public schools have lost nearly 20% of their librarians since 2000. Forbes. Retrieved from

Tuck, K. D., & Holmes, D. R. (2016). Library/media centers in U.S. public schools: Growth, staffing, and resources. National Education Association. Retrieved from

von Essen, L.R. (2022). The neglected tale of the tougaloo nine and their 1961 read-in. Book Riot. Retrieved from


Go Back:
Module 15: (In)Equity in the Educational System
You Are Here:
Module 16: (In)Equity in Libraries
Module 17a: Building Relationships With Individuals