Making a New Table: Intersectional Librarianship

In Brief: When librarians discuss the lack of underrepresented populations in librarianship, the solutions suggested most often are recruitment and awareness. But these discussions focus on one matrix of identity, like race or class, and ignore the fact that people embody multiple, layered identities. By treating these matrices of identity and marginalization as separate entities, librarians fail to fully understand how oppressions work in varying contexts. We need to go beyond the traditional diversity rhetoric and speak instead of intersectional librarianship. This article defines intersectionality, how it differs from the current discourse, and how it can be used to help librarians understand and serve diverse populations better.


“Diversity” is a hot button term in librarianship. Every few months, there is a new editorial about diversifying the profession. As the field remains mostly white and middle class, each author reflects on the disparity and presents their ideas on how to increase and improve diversity recruiting of both students and faculty. Within the past year, articles such as “The MLS and the Race Line” and “Diversifying the LIS Faculty” have continued the conversation about recruitment of people of color (POC) into the field. However, there is not nearly enough discussion on how to remove barriers for librarians and library students within the field. How do we make sure that both existing and aspiring librarians interact with patrons and other librarians in a manner that is respectful? The answer to that question is intersectional librarianship.

What is Intersectionality?

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor at UCLA who specializes in race and gender issues first developed the theory in 1989 (“Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw,” 2014). Patricia Hill Collins, a sociologist who focuses on the intersections within the Black female experience, expanded upon the theory in the 1990s in conjunction with popular black feminist theories of the time. The theory states that various categories of marginalization and identity interact on multiple (and often simultaneous) levels. Too often people look at diversity as different and separate spheres: race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc. This view is reflected in the types of workshops and sessions seen at ALA and other conferences. Out of the few “diversity” sessions, there will be separate ones on race, on LGBTQ issues, and so on. However, these spheres of identity intersect in a variety of different ways. The experiences of a white queer patron (or librarian) will be very different from those of a black queer one. By treating these issues as separate entities, we as librarians fail to fully understands how oppressions work in various contexts. Intersectionality is a tool for studying, understanding, and responding to the ways in which axes of identities intersect and how these intersections contribute to unique experiences of oppression and privilege.

Why Does it Matter?

In the past several months librarians have been having interesting conversations regarding gender, sexuality, and librarianship. Julie Jurgens’s Tumblr post “ego, thy name is librarianship” discussed the disproportionate number of men acclaimed in the library community for such a female dominated field. Kate Tkacik, a 2013 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, encouraged female librarians to “Lean In to Librarianship” and speak up for and promote themselves in the work environment. Sarah Alexander spoke about the challenges of being an openly LGBTQ librarian in a guest post on Hack Library School. All three articles end by stating that ultimately being vocal and expressing your whole self in the profession is paramount. This advice is well intentioned, but may not work for everyone. These conversations are instigated by people from white, middle-class backgrounds and are grounded in their experiences of privilege. This is unsurprising: most of the field falls within this demographic. It can be more dangerous for POC to speak up or “lean in” at the workplace. Compounded with other identities such as disability or gender, to visibly be their whole selves can seem impossible. Fear of job loss or not hiring; fear of not being allowed to use appropriate restrooms; or even fear of physical violence are just a few of the very real issues that are swept under the rug when loud and explicit advocacy are offered as blanket advice. The “Lean In” advice is, in fact, about how to have it all, while offering precisely zero guidance on how to dismantle the structural barriers to gender equity that still impede most women. Not only does the “Lean In” and “Speak Out” advice ignore structural barriers such as racial discrimination and poverty, it ignores the different cultural views of women. When a white woman negotiates and advocates for herself she is seen as “greedy, demanding or just not very nice” and “people report that they would be less inclined to work with them, be it as coworkers, subordinates, or bosses.” However, when a woman of color, and especially a black woman, advocates for herself, not only does she have to contend with all of the negative associations the white woman faces, additionally, it is seen as anger or being “uppity,” also known as the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype. So when POC, especially women of color, express similar ideas it’s not seen as an expression of confidence and leadership, but rather insolence and insubordination, and part of the “Angry Black Woman” or “Spicy Latina” stereotypes.

In the workplace and beyond, people perpetuate these stereotypes through microaggressions, or brief, everyday behaviors that communicate hostile or derogatory slights and insults directed towards a marginalized group. The important word to take away from the definition is “everyday.” A microaggression is subtle, underhanded, and often intended to be humorous, like a joke using stereotypes. A classic microaggression is the expression of surprise at a POC’s “eloquence” and “reasonable” tone. The underlying message behind this surprise is the belief that all minorities have a stereotypical “loud” and “aggressive” demeanor. Microaggressions are not limited to race or culture, they also occur along class lines and the gender/sexuality spectrum, e.g. jokes about being too “pretty/feminine” to be gay. Since it’s not usually said with malice, coworkers are more likely to share. And because they don’t see the jocular form of throwaway line as inherently racist, protestations are seen as being “overly sensitive.” Projects such as “I, Too, am Harvard” and “Oberlin Microaggressions” document some of the common microaggressions that people in marginalized communities endure on a daily basis.

When librarianship is viewed through a single-axis that is reflective of the dominant culture, certain values, such as individualism and assertiveness color the advice and practices deemed acceptable. These values and practices eventually become the norm. This, in turn, becomes the lens through which those within the profession discuss problems and subsequent change. For example, a common issue within the field is the lack of women in technology and digital librarianship. An example of single-axis thinking is saying that sexism causes the lack of women without considering that women of colour, queer women, and trans women might have a different experience. Any work done that seeks to solve the issue along only one axis leaves behind these women. No one lives a single-axis life. We all embody multiple axes of identity and oppression throughout our lives that often affect us simultaneously. As Flavia Dzodan said, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” To treat librarianship and its communities as a single-axis phenomenon renders those who occupy the intersections invisible and therefore ignored.

Neutral Repositories?

A common value taught in library school is the importance of the librarian as an objective and neutral professional. As public servants, librarians must serve all communities equally regardless of moral values and political views. The librarian’s primary role is that of a facilitator in the public’s access to information and knowledge. However, librarianship is inherently political. Even activities in which librarians are specifically trained to maintain “neutrality,” such as collection development, are intrinsically political. What is seen as normal or neutral is indicative of the status quo or the hegemony. In a society that favors “assertiveness, competitiveness, sportsmanship, linear thinking, individualism, and the sublimation of emotion,” women and minority viewpoints are often counter to the dominant ideology (Stoffle & Tarin, 1994). In addition, choices represented by programming and library materials tend to support the white heterosexual middle class power structures. For example, the relegation of Black history displays and programming to February or LGBTQ materials to April or June sends a message that these topics, these populations, are only valued seasonally and aren’t an integral aspect of the dominant culture. And in fact, the definition of neutral or neutrality according to Merriam-Webster is a “person, country, etc., not aligned with or supporting any side or position.” In other words, to be neutral is to be detached. If, however, neutrality is centered around factors such as assertiveness and sublimation of emotion reflective of the dominant white, heterosexual male society, then neutrality is not actually neutral. Therefore, it requires a level of privilege to be seen as detached and neutral. Those within the profession who do not fall under that paradigm must assimilate and conform to this notion of “neutrality” or risk not being taken seriously by the community, losing institutional support, or worse, jeopardizing job security. A librarian who only obtains materials focused on underrepresented communities may be seen as biased, but collection development that focuses on mainstream culture is not. Despite the claim of neutrality, most libraries and archives support the dominant culture and marginalize those who fall outside it through invisibility. Not only that, but they actively cause harm in the name of neutrality by giving voice to hate speech when neutrality is interpreted as giving equal voice to “both sides.”

Whose table?

Todd Homma led a panel called “In Visibility: Race and Libraries” at last year’s ALA Annual conference. During the discussion, he noted that the phrase “making room at the table” is often heard in conversations about diversity, but further complicated the notion by asking, “Whose table? And do we really want an invitation?” For me, the answer is no. Librarians commonly use the term diversity as a catch all phrase. In conversations about societal oppressions that occur among librarians on Tumblr and other social media venues intersectionality is rarely addressed unless it is by someone who identifies as a member of multiple communities. Often these conversations don’t occur at all. The lack of an intersectional perspective has greater repercussions. Recently, in conversations surrounding the Black Caucus of the ALA (BCALA) feelings about ALA Annual 2016 being held in Orlando, too many couldn’t see the difference between feeling unsafe due to race and the Stand Your Ground Law and a more general feeling of discomfort in states that don’t allow gay marriage. Not only does this ignore the existence of queer people of color, but it demonstrates how abstract the discourse of diversity and intersectionality is to many librarians. These discussions cannot be seen as abstract and academic. Treating these topics abstractly suggest that there are no real-world effects and they can therefore be glossed over or not discussed. Because of this environment, instigating the discussions is commonly seen as a radical or political act. But this is a false dichotomy; upholding dominant values is in no way less political. The privilege of taking no action is also a politically charged move (Jensen, 2005). How can librarians make their respective libraries safe for these populations, if people in the field don’t feel safe?

What now?

So how does one develop an intersectional perspective? We can start by learning how to become allies. Being a good ally is not just about learning about the issues that affect the underrepresented, but also learning how our own biases and privileges make it difficult for us to build alliances across and between communities. Mainstream movements focus on the white and middle class. It’s not enough to be an ally to one group in a silo. We need to educate ourselves on how these intersecting oppressions affect our community. LIS theory is based on a foundation of understanding and interpreting the information seeking practices, behaviors, and needs of patrons. Many MLIS programs have syllabi with pertinent materials and I have referenced a few below. Converse with those who identify themselves as members of those groups. While it is not their job to educate you, engaging in a dialogue with people from underrepresented communities and listening to how their oppressions intersect can go a long way. Incorporate programming and library materials for diverse audiences into all library programs, presentations, and displays throughout the entire year and for multiple topics. For example, for a Valentine’s Day/Romance display, incorporate materials with LGBTQ protagonists, queer people of color (QPOC) protagonists, and protagonists with disabilities. Challenge all of the assumptions about your patrons, your collections, and your attitudes toward your employees and coworkers. Libraries and archives need to publicly declare that these “isms” will not be condoned. This can be done in the following ways:

  • Provide staff with diversity training
  • Address signs of microaggressions and injustice in the workplace
  • Investigate complaints quickly, thoroughly, and sensitively
  • Take disciplinary action against those who break the policy

As librarians, we can no longer hide behind “neutrality” and “objectivity.” Engaging in conversations and then turning those conversations into action is paramount. If librarianship at its core is a service profession, then we must do everything to ensure that the culture in the libraries and archives and in the field serves all populations.

Thanks and Acknowledgments

I’m very much indebted to the knowledgeable editors at In the Library with the Lead Pipe, and in particular to Ellie Collier and Cecily Walker for diligently removing all traces of passive voice and rogue commas as well as helping me create the best possible version of this article. And Ryan Randall, a fellow Tumblarian for telling me about this wonderful website and acting as a catalyst to submit a proposal. Finally, I would like to thank my sister for forcing me to stop slacking and actually finish it.


Cooke, N. (2013, September 25). Diversifying the LIS Faculty. Library Journal. Retrieved 00:13, June 17, 2014, from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/09/opinion/backtalk/diversifying-the-lis-faculty-backtalk/

Dasgupta, N. (2013). Implicit attitudes and beliefs adapt to situations: A decade of research on the malleability of implicit prejudice, stereotypes, and the self-concept. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 233-279.

Hall, T. D. (2007). Race and place: A personal account of unequal access. American Libraries, 38(2), 30-33.

Honma, Todd. (2005). Trippin’ Over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 1(2).

Jensen, R. (2005). The myth of the neutral professional. Progressive Librarian, 24, 28-34.

Jaeger,P.T. (2012). Disability and the Internet: Confronting a Digital Divide. Lynne Riener: Boulder, CO.

Jaeger, P. T., Subramaniam, M., Jones, C. B., & Bertot, J. C. (2011). Diversity and LIS education: Inclusion and the age of information. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 52, 166-183.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. (2014, April 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:13, June 17, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Kimberl%C3%A9_Williams_Crenshaw&oldid=605399556

Overall, P. M. (2009). Cultural competence: A conceptual framework for library and information science professionals. Library Quarterly, 79, 175-204.

Stoffle, C.J., and Tarin, P.A. (1994). No Case for Neutrality: The Case for Multiculturalism. Library Journal, 119(12), 46-49.

Sue, D. W., & Constantine, M. G. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life; implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4),  271-286

Wilson, T. D. (2000). Human information behavior. Informing Science, 3(2).

18 Responses

  1. In addition to the suggestions you provide to help us avoid “isms” in our profession I’d like to suggest starting with bringing critical theory into the LIS education as well. I just attended a great session on this at ALA and I am sold! Look for more great things from Nicole Cooke, Safiya Noble, and Robin Fogle Kurz (http://ala14.ala.org/m/node/15626)

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  3. This has been sitting in my “to read” folder a week or two and finally got to it. What an important conversation to have both for the library profession but also for the broader society. I frequently reflect on how we can do things differently and am not always certain of the path. I do wish there were more conversation here bit I’ll share on my networks.

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