Multilingualism, Neoliberalism, and Language Ideologies in Libraries

In Brief
This article calls for a more holistic and inclusive approach to the under-examined issue of language in libraries. It begins by foregrounding language as a category of difference and arguing for its consideration in discussions of access, equity, diversity, and inclusion. By drawing on literature from applied linguistics and library and information studies, it then explores the effects of neoliberalism and language ideologies as two factors that affect the treatment of language in libraries. Neoliberalism extends market logic to non-economic realms of life, ignores or commodifies cultural and affective aspects of language use, places languages in competition with each other, and promotes utilitarian and managerial responses to language issues. Meanwhile, language ideologies promote adherence to standard language forms, bolster the idea that one language can be better than another, and make certain languages a requirement for fully accessing the library. Both ideologies foster reductive views of language, cover for other forms of oppression, and limit diversity and representation. Finally, the article offers solutions to counter these approaches, such as increasing staff and collection capacity, creating policies, programming, and training that address language issues, and promoting the treatment of language in libraries as a site of analysis and discussion. Read the article

Este ensayo tiene como propósito promover una mentalidad más inclusiva y holística en cuanto a temas relacionados al uso de la lengua, como el multilingüismo, en las bibliotecas – asuntos que han sido poco examinados en la literatura. Empieza por describir el lenguaje como categoría de diferencia y abogar por su consideración en las discusiones sobre la accesibilidad, la equidad, la diversidad, y la inclusión. A través de un análisis basado en la lingüística aplicada y los estudios de bibliotecas e información, este ensayo explora los efectos del neoliberalismo y las ideologías lingüísticas como dos factores que afectan las maneras en que se considera la lengua en las bibliotecas. El neoliberalismo, al extender la lógica de la economía a realidades no-económicas de la vida diaria, ignora o mercantiliza aspectos culturales y afectivos del uso del lenguaje, situando las lenguas en competición entre ellas, y promoviendo respuestas utilitarias y gerenciales a los asuntos del lenguaje. A la misma vez, ciertas ideologías lingüísticas fomentan adherencia a variedades estándares de las lenguas, apoyando la idea que una lengua puede ser mejor que otra, y convirtiendo ciertas lenguas en requisito para acceder a las bibliotecas. Ambas ideologías fomentan perspectivas reduccionistas del lenguaje, cubren otras formas de opresión, y limitan la diversidad y la representación. Al final, el presente ensayo ofrece algunas ideas para retar estas ideologías, tal como aumentar la capacidad de los empleados y las colecciones, crear políticas, eventos, y programación informadas por el multilingüismo, además de fomentar una capacitación profesional que incluya asuntos de lengua y promoción del uso de la lengua en las bibliotecas como locus de análisis y discusión. Lee el artículo

By Ean Henninger


In libraries, as elsewhere in life, language is both a means of oppression and a force for positive change. People use it to exclude and marginalize, and they use it to uplift and give a voice to others. Following a social constructivist approach, it is also a key means by which people build and engage with infrastructures and ideologies.

Language is important to consider in public and academic libraries across the world because they are highly linguistic spaces: they contain people, texts, information, instruction, and more, all of which rely on language to relate to each other. As well, past and ongoing colonial and capitalist projects have used both language (Heller & McElhinny, 2017) and libraries (Popowich, 2019) to further their goals, making the interplay between the two a potential site of analysis, understanding, and positive social change.

Authors in the library field have critically explored language in many different ways, most often through examining specific aspects of it such as microaggressions (e.g. Sweeney & Cooke, 2018) and classification (e.g. Drabinski, 2013). While such articles connect those aspects to broader issues of marginalization and power, there is less connecting them to or grounding them in a systemic analysis of language itself. Collins (2018), in her exploration of language, power, and oppression via a critique of diversity discourse, suggests that language practices remain underexamined in the library field. One reason is likely that, as she points out, when “language is a tool for considering every other possible barrier, interrogating language itself is an easy omission to make” (p. 40). Another possible reason is language’s role, also described by Collins, in establishing, locating, and consolidating power. When examining the workings of language could create space for interrogation and possible change, those in power may, whether consciously or not, have a vested interest in avoiding or co-opting that investigation.

I agree that language remains underexamined, and to build on this work, I am interested in exploring the role of specific languages in relation to each other, or to put it another way, discussing multilingualism in libraries. Looking at language in general is important, but discussing the treatment of specific languages is also worthwhile, both for practical reasons and because it offers concrete examples of broader ideologies that influence library services. In particular, multilingualism foregrounds the ways that language operates as a category of difference and intersects with other differences to produce structures of privilege and oppression.

Just as language in general has power, specific languages have more power than others in many contexts, a situation which is sometimes referred to as linguistic dominance (Accurso, 2015). In supporting specific languages and giving them power, libraries set conditions for who can engage with the library: who can access resources, who feels included, and who sees themselves in collections and services. Not only do languages have power, they are complex, and decisions about a given language must be made with an understanding of that language’s full context. If a library treats a given language only as an object of study, something that resides in individual books, or something that must be supplied to meet demand, not as something that is intertwined with culture, race, gender, and access to power, then the picture is incomplete. Such an incomplete view will result in services that fail to adequately support library users.

In this light, actions such as having an official language of instruction, collecting language-learning materials, and building infrastructure such as signage and websites in certain languages are not neutral actions. Professed neutrality with regards to language would perhaps make sense if all languages existed in a vacuum and were on equal footing, but instead, they belong to people, and people are anything but neutral. As Park and Wee (2012, pp. 143-149) describe, constructing a given language as neutral obscures the power relations that give rise to that assumption of neutrality. Present and historical power imbalances, geographic contexts, staff capacity, and more all mean that the treatment of languages in libraries indicates values and ideologies with implications for equity, diversity, inclusion, and access.

Multilingualism and Social Justice

Piller (2016) discusses multilingualism and social justice at length, problematizing common notions of linguistic diversity and offering numerous examples of linguistic barriers and exclusion in work, education, politics, and society more broadly. She resists conceptions of languages as discrete and standardized objects, pointing out how even variations within languages can be grounds for marginalization. In this view, multilingualism also encompasses these variations, such as dialects, accents, and registers, and blends of different languages, such as codeswitching. Piller also makes a case for language as a means of establishing a difference that intersects with gender, race, class, and more, producing inequality in complex ways.

Inequality and discrimination based on language is also known as linguicism (Vásquez, 2013), and it takes many forms. In some cases, language results in inequality by itself when people who are less familiar with a given language are less able to access resources mediated through that language. In such cases, making specific languages a condition for access to services can be a significant barrier. In other cases, languages, dialects, and accents, from their associations with markers such as race and nationality, serve as proxies for other forms of discrimination. This discrimination is often implicit, but it can also be extremely explicit, such as with the prohibition of Indigenous languages in residential schools, prejudice against African-American Vernacular English, and the many documented cases of white people in the US and Canada telling people using languages such as Spanish and Chinese to “speak English.”

As these examples suggest, incidents that invoke language are rarely just about language: they call to mind racism, nationalism, and the erasure of Indigenous and other languages through colonization, assimilation, and dispossession. Heller and McElhinny (2017) explore these historical roots and their current manifestations in-depth, noting languages’ roles in difference and inequality as they trace how missionaries, educators, anthropologists, and others have produced and legitimized boundaries between languages and the people who use them, privileging certain languages over others in the service of colonialism and capitalism.

Given the past and present realities of colonialism and capitalism, and given that libraries are complicit in the broader structures that have brought them about, libraries cannot possibly be free from their effects. Alternatives to the linguistic marginalization and inequality created by these and other forces require responses that recognize the value and dignity of all languages and the people who speak them. Part of this response involves understanding and identifying the ideologies that drive these processes, as describing their operations can open them up to analysis and change. Two examples of ideology that shape responses to multilingualism in libraries and have been underexamined in this regard are neoliberalism and language ideologies. Neoliberalism excludes various aspects of languages by focusing solely on their market value as commodities, while language ideologies result in the privileging of certain languages or language variations over others.


Neoliberalism as a concept has been explored with some frequency in the literature on both language and libraries. A precise definition is difficult given the variety of contexts in which it manifests, but Holborow (2012) identifies four main ways to approach it, all centered on notions of individual freedom within a market-centric economy: as an economic theory, a mode of capitalist production, a form of discourse, and an ideology. Whatever the approach, neoliberalism seeks to extend capitalist market logic to all aspects of life, not just economic or political ones, and specific features of this logic affecting languages in libraries include commodification, decontextualization, demand, and economic utility.

Authors in the library field have demonstrated the prevalence of neoliberalism in a variety of settings: in public libraries through policy documents (Greene & McMenemy, 2012), a “customer-driven” service approach that avoids social responsibility (Hudson, 2017), in academic libraries through rhetoric in strategic plans (Waugh, 2015), discourses on information literacy (Seale, 2013), reference services (Sharpe, 2019), and more broadly through theorizing neoliberalism’s effects on language and library service (Buschman, 2017). In particular, authors have highlighted the commodification of library users and their data (Mathios, 2019) as well as information services generally (Trosow, 2014). 

Given that neoliberalism has already been observed in these other aspects of library work, it stands to reason that it would manifest itself in the area of multilingualism as well. However, when the literature on neoliberalism in libraries looks at language, it does so at a general or discursive level, not with a focus on multilingualism. By contrast, the library literature on multilingualism does not explicitly address neoliberalism, though its strong emphasis on collections and digital libraries is implicitly neoliberal. A previous article (Henninger, 2018) reviewed this literature and asserted that most of it lacks a holistic or coherent approach to multilingualism. Instead, it is largely reactive and indicative of neoliberal discourses that do not make space for critical activity and are not socially engaged. Two positive exceptions since this review come from McElroy and Bridges (2018), who situate access and discoverability for scholarly communications in broader contexts of multilingualism and English-language hegemony, and from Espinoza and Solis (in press), who interrogate linguistic diversity in libraries with reference to linguistic imperialism and the historical factors that have led to English’s dominance. 

However, the bulk of the literature on multilingualism in libraries still views language barriers as individual problems to be solved rather than considering the systemic and contextual changes necessary to reduce those barriers and improve access. It is perhaps easier to talk about library holdings and digital architecture in discrete and reductive terms in line with commodity logic, but such a purely mechanistic or solution-oriented view cannot fully comprehend the messiness and complexity of languages. Neoliberalism is implicated here, and inasmuch as the library literature reflects the library field, its predominant focus stands to inform library services and shape the field’s views on language.

In contrast to the library field, the literature on applied linguistics addresses neoliberal features of commodification, decontextualization, demand, and economic utility with regards to both language in general and specific languages, suggesting by extension how they may operate in libraries. Holborow (2015) describes how neoliberalism treats all skills, including language, as commodities that can be used by employers or workers to their advantage and to gain access to capital. Flores (2017) further argues that turning languages into commodities is a means of dispossessing them from the communities to whom they belong and that in a society with racial hierarchies, views of language as a commodity are more likely to benefit dominant linguistic communities who have the power required to access such commodities.

Holborow (2015) relates this commodification to decontextualization, suggesting that treating languages as commodities on a market strips them of social meanings and relations external to that market, divorcing them from their broader contexts. Flores (2017) agrees, saying that languages have become removed from their contexts and institutionalized in ways that fail to challenge existing hierarchies or broader racial inequalities.

Both Holborow and Flores resist the idea that languages can be fully reduced to commodities by affirming that they belong to and come from human beings, who are deeply embedded in social relationships with each other and with language. As a result, neoliberal logic offers an incomplete picture of languages in part because it does not take these social relations into account. Holborow explores these relations in the context of labor, and Flores in the context of race, but of course language has many more connections to gender, class, ability, and more. When these connections are ignored or made invisible, they risk maintaining the status quo and foregrounding languages’ economic value only. Such a mentality also contributes to a mechanistic and utilitarian view of languages as discrete and interchangeable components.

As one example of how these processes of commodification and decontextualization play out in practice, Cameron (2005) describes ‘bilingual’ call centers in Quebec that require employees to use English and French independently without mixing the two languages. As she points out, this approach ignores the cultural and linguistic knowledge involved in code-switching and bilingualism, which are instead devalued and prohibited because they do not support the profit-seeking ends of the employer. What the employer instead seeks is a specific form of a language that can be incorporated into call center infrastructure as a commodity independent of context. An equivalent to this decontextualization in public libraries might be collection development in, for example, French or Arabic that does not consider the different dialects or variations used by local communities. Another example is language skills in library job postings, which are often framed in the context of completing specific tasks such as cataloging or programming and not as a skill with the potential to inform every aspect of a position’s duties.

Neoliberalism also affects language in libraries by framing library services based on demand and economic utility. Under neoliberalism, user demand becomes the guiding principle for whether to provide a commodity. This logic does not allow for proactive provision of goods or services based on prior ethics or values, but is only ever a reactive response to ineffable market forces. In libraries as well, there is a danger of relying too heavily on reacting to stated needs, or demands. What such an approach ignores, however, is that people may not be comfortable or capable of stating those needs for many reasons, including language barriers.

When it comes to the neoliberal focus on economic utility, libraries have parallels with the English language learning industry: while libraries often have to justify themselves in terms of the economic support they provide (Seale, 2013; Hudson, 2017), teaching and learning English is justified and encouraged in many countries as providing people with access to capital and mobility (Shin & Park, 2016). One example where the two intersect are language-learning collections and programs in public libraries, which are often provided with the goal of helping people learn English so that they can integrate into society, often presupposing a monolingual society, and contribute to the economy.

Ultimately, the neoliberal emphasis on commodification, demand, and utility misrepresents and omits aspects of how languages exist in context. It flattens different languages into technical skills independent of context, and it collapses varieties of the same language into a standard form, ignoring what they index about class, gender, and other differences. Just as viewing people only in terms of their economic value ignores key aspects of the human experience, viewing languages in the same way reduces the complexity and multiple dimensions of what languages are. However, even when neoliberal treatments of language meet with resistance, other ideologies may be ready to justify and perpetuate the status quo.

Language Ideologies

In different times and places, certain languages have held more power than others as the main languages of commerce, science, politics, mobility, and more. In the past, these have been languages such as Latin and French, and in many places, one such language is currently English. Such situations are not accidental but have instead relied on various processes to encourage the spread of these languages. These processes may occur more explicitly, such as through overt colonization, missionary activity, and nationalist consolidation, or more subtly, such as through cultural products and knowledge dissemination (Heller & McElhinny, 2017). 

Neoliberalism as an ideology has undoubtedly helped these processes in recent times by discouraging close attention to power structures in favor of using ‘market forces’ as a reason for the spread of languages such as English, but as Del Percio and Flubacher (2017) point out, neoliberalism is closely related to “assumptions of nativeness and purity that continue to produce and legitimize hierarchies and forms of difference” (p. 8). It is important for those with power to have ways of naturalizing and justifying power imbalances among languages when they do come up, and one main way of doing so is through language ideologies. 

Language ideologies are a concept which Kroskrity (2010) defines as “beliefs, feelings, and conceptions about language structure and use which often index the political-economic interests of individual speakers, ethnic and other interest groups, and nation-states” (p. 192). People express various forms of exclusionary language ideologies more or less explicitly in different contexts. Few people today would come out and say that their language is better than others, though some still might in service of nationalist ideology or to justify excluding those who do not speak it, but softer versions of language ideologies still give that impression, intentionally or not. Lippi-Green (2012) describes an ideology of standardization that produces a bias towards an idealized language form, while Piller (2016) notes how the association of language with territory often leads to an ideological connection between languages and nation-states. This connection does not only come from individuals: it can be formalized from the top down through laws or policies on official languages, as in Canada, and it also operates outside of formal channels. English is not the official language of the United States as a whole, but it often seems that way due to English occupying a hegemonic position in other parts of society (Schmidt, 2008).

As these examples suggest, language ideologies are different from neoliberalism in that, instead of stripping away social relations, they actively highlight the benefits of a shared language, dialect, or accent to selected social relationships, such as nationality, racial identity, and class. They are similar in that they can suggest, sometimes even more strongly, that certain languages are better than others, and they likewise produce hierarchies. Adding to the market-based framework offered by neoliberalism, language ideologies may justify one language form over others for reasons such as divine right, national allegiance, and pure utility, and they may promote the marginalization and exclusion of those who do not adhere to that form.

One reason for the promotion of certain language ideologies over others is what Piller (2015) terms the “monolingual mindset” that arises from people inhabiting relatively monolingual environments. Monolingualism produces a particular perspective the world over, in that some people will simply lack the lived experience of multiple languages that more multilingual individuals have. As such, people who are more monolingual will always be at more of a distance from the fact of multilingualism than those who negotiate multiple languages on a regular basis. In this way, monolingual environments see the rise of ideologies that justify, encourage, and naturalize monolingualism. Being monolingual is not on its own a bad thing, except that certain languages are inherently more tied to power than others, and so people who speak those languages will hold more power as a result. 

For many who read this article, that language will likely be English. Just as the library field is centered on white, cisgender, and middle-class conceptions of the world (Hathcock, 2015), it is also centered on English. This fact goes unanalyzed partly because the field is immersed in the language, with work, conferences, articles, and more all done in English. Another reason, which Collins (2018) points toward, is that “because white people hold hegemonic power within libraries, the language they use […] reaffirms the dominance of their racial privilege” (p. 43). Use of English likewise stands to affirm and consolidate that power, denying any power or privilege that may come from using other languages. Just as whiteness is an invisible default and norm for comparisons (Hathcock, 2015; Brown, Ferretti, Leung, & Méndez-Brady, 2018), English holds a similar position among languages and forms part of whiteness in US and Canadian contexts. Although library literature mentioning language ideologies is scarce, the examples that do exist show English’s dominance affecting library services too. Reznowski (2009) traces English-only ideologies in US education and public libraries, providing examples of how libraries have alternately stifled or encouraged multilingual services. Espinoza and Solis (in press) similarly review the history of the English-only movement in US history and libraries and report on a survey providing further evidence that languages besides English are not equally visible or recognized in libraries. Finally, McElroy and Bridges (2018) suggest hegemony and privilege as reasons for English’s prevalence in academic publishing. 

As these and other examples show, language ideologies inform judgments about the roles and uses of languages, and those judgments in turn inform everything from collection policies to storytimes. Ideologies that favor monolingualism, whether explicit or not, result in assumptions that make the dominant language a requirement for accessing and engaging in community within the library. They put the burden on others to learn that language, not on speakers of that language to spend time and effort on other languages that have little or no apparent value to them. They also lead to library collections and services in other languages being marked as nonessential or apart from ‘core’ dominant-language offerings. If library workers do not critically consider how assumptions about language inform their actions, they risk disenfranchising those who may speak differently.


Though neoliberalism and dominant-language ideologies have differing foci and means of operation, they have several effects in common. They both inhibit equity, diversity, access, and inclusion by implicitly assigning moral value to languages relative to each other: neoliberalism by naming the ‘best’ languages as the ones that compete most successfully on the ‘linguistic market,’ and language ideologies through prescriptive notions of a right way to speak a language, or a right language to speak. Both also distort or omit aspects of how language exists in context, such as its connections to race, ethnicity, culture, and more, and the validity of variation within and among languages. In these ways, they enable the centering and prioritization of some languages over others, leading to a risk of languages not being treated in an equitable manner. 

One could argue that truly equitable treatment may be impossible for reasons of practicality: how can a library expect to provide the same level of service for, say, English and Spanish when Spanish speakers are only a small percentage of the local population and many of them speak English anyway? However, one could also ask: who does using practicality as a reason not to do something benefit? Is the issue just a lack of capacity, or is it also that there aren’t enough Spanish speakers among library staff due to homogeneity in the field? While it is true that adequately serving every single language in a library system is usually not possible, it rests with libraries to determine the limits of that possibility. Even if support for a specific language is not feasible, staff can still provide broad support aimed at removing or communicating across language barriers.

A case might also be made for utility: a lingua franca would certainly enable and simplify communication and ease of access in some ways, but again, the question is: utility for whom? Does it come at the cost of other languages and the people who use them? Fluent speakers of such a language are more likely to benefit from that fluency, creating or perpetuating inequities in access. An economy may benefit from everyone who contributes to it speaking the same language, but the economy is not the point of life.

While some languages will absolutely be more useful than others in given contexts, the problem comes when this fact is extended uncritically and universally to become a utilitarian mindset and when a focus on ‘useful’ languages comes at the expense of others. Languages and the people who know them deserve more than a utilitarian approach: languages’ value comes not only from their usefulness for communication, but from the cultures, histories, and perspectives that they represent.

In libraries, staff need to make sure that decisions about languages do not come from a view of a particular language as a demand-driven commodity or a prerequisite for using library services. Instead, resisting the neoliberal commodification of languages and the privileging of some languages over others means showing a holistic understanding of multilingual experiences: what it means to be a language learner, what it is like to be in an unfamiliar linguistic environment, what barriers to communication are, and how language use intersects with nationality, race, class, and so on. It is always worth asking which languages are even deemed worthy of representation in the first place, and questioning and resisting these ideologies’ assumptions about the relative value of languages is one path to a more just and inclusive approach to language in libraries.

Towards Action

As Bacevic (2019) states, it is not enough to simply know how neoliberalism works, or to presume that knowledge alone is enough to counter its operations: any criticism has to translate into action informed by that knowledge. The same could be said of language ideologies, and not only should critics transform knowledge into action, this action needs to take place collectively. Individuals have limited capacity for change on their own, and systemic problems require collective solutions. As well, this work should not rest solely with people who know multiple languages. Similarly to how white people need to step up in terms of antiracist work, more monolingual people should step up and support more multilingual people. 

As Heller and McElhinny (2017, pp. 243-244) suggest, neither abstract understandings of language nor purely practice-focused descriptions can provide a full picture of language’s workings on their own. Examining the interplay between the two by connecting theory to practice and vice versa appears to be productive grounds for discussion and action. While by no means exhaustive, the following actions suggest broad ideas and specific examples of ways to counter neoliberalism and exclusionary language ideologies and work towards better linguistic access, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Their goal is not to pretend that language problems can be solved through technical or managerial solutions, but instead to propose sites for looking both theoretically and practically at language practices.

  • Create space for staff to recognize, reduce, and eliminate linguistic barriers.

Such space could take the form of training, workshops, and discussions, or perhaps individual projects to describe and change the language practices of a given library. As one example, some colleagues and I led a conference workshop that took attendees through a number of activities aimed at fostering thoughts on service design for multilingual users. One such activity involved asking pairs to communicate first without words, then without using a language they knew well. Another one asked people to first name something they could do to make their library as inaccessible and unwelcoming to multilingual users as possible, then to think about whether there was anything in their libraries that remotely resembled that idea. In many cases, there was. While such exercises may not be helpful for everyone, many attendees appreciated them, and they offer one way to shift thoughts and perspectives away from the comfortable default of everyday work

  • Hire and support linguistically diverse staff.

Staff are a key means of shaping how libraries facilitate access to information, and the languages they know will inform that work as well. Support could look like extra pay for language use on the job and equity-informed retention efforts. At the same time, it is important to remember that simply having linguistically diverse staff is not enough: library staff should avoid tokenism and ensure that asking people who know a language to use it in the course of their work does not become a burden for them. It is also worth remembering that language proficiency does not always come with cultural competency or the lived experiences shared by members of other communities who speak that language.

  • Offer collections, outreach, and language-based programming with language in mind.

These services remain key means of access to information in libraries, so it is always worthwhile to incorporate language-related research, principles, and perspectives into their development. As one example, although English remains the language of instruction at my current institution, it also offers tutoring where students can discuss their assignments in other languages with a peer tutor who also speaks that language, recognizing that language’s value both on its own and for supporting increased understanding. Also, language-based programming does not always require organizers to be multilingual: for example, language exchanges started at the University of British Columbia (UBC tandem, n.d.) rely on participants to teach languages to each other through immersion. As well, they have reciprocity and respect for all languages as founding principles, showing how specific programs can be informed by broader values. Finally, better inclusion can even occur within a single language: Smith (2018) offers positive examples of academic library outreach practices that highlight the role of language variation in promoting representation and racial literacy.

  • Create space for other languages in policies, procedures, and infrastructure.

Documents such as collections policies and instructional plans inform action and promote accountability, and if language about languages is not in them, then there is less cause to be active and accountable. What would it look like for a collections policy to say it will represent the languages spoken by those the library serves, for a website to have a space for Indigenous language resources, or for a strategic plan to list language as one of the forms of diversity that it claims to value? It is also worthwhile to make library infrastructure such as websites and signage available in other languages. However, technical fixes on their own are insufficient, and policy on its own is not enough, as Espinoza and Solis (in press) make clear in questioning the extent to which the American Library Association’s Guidelines for the Development and Promotion of Multilingual Collections and Services have actually been implemented.

  • Engage in action-oriented research on language in libraries.

As the literature shows, there is ample room for research not just about the logistics of accommodating other languages in libraries, but also about the attitudes, experiences, and perceptions of both staff and library users when it comes to language. One study (Henninger, 2018) incidentally hinted at some of these attitudes as it sought to determine whether staff language skills represented the languages present in three libraries’ service areas. Another study (Espinoza & Solis, in press) showed gaps between staff language use and formal recognition of those skills, whether in job descriptions or through compensation, that deserve further attention.

  • Learn from fields such as applied linguistics, linguistic anthropology, and education, and from people who are already doing this work.

Using ideas and theoretical frameworks from other fields can strengthen the work done in libraries and increase understanding of the issues discussed in this article. Analyzing and explaining language practices is one step towards changing them where necessary, and theories and models from applied linguistics, such as Darvin and Norton’s (2015) model of investment and the Douglas Fir Group’s (2016) framework for second language acquisition offer ways to do so. They explicitly foreground the various factors contributing to language use, critically engage with the roles of surrounding social forces, and challenge neoliberal views of individuals as rational actors who are solely responsible for their motivations and behavior.

As well, people in other communities may confront the fact of linguistic difference much more often than people in libraries. Mandatory student attendance at public schools means that teachers and other staff must confront multilingualism much more often than workers in libraries, where there is no such mandatory attendance. As a result, there is a sizable body of literature in the education field on supporting and teaching multilingual learners. If they are not already doing so, library workers can also learn from organizations aimed at assisting recent immigrants, assisted living facilities, people revitalizing Indigenous languages, and other groups who may encounter and think about multilingualism more than library staff in many cases. One current example of this work comes from the Indigenous Languages Resource Centre at Calgary Public Library (Rieger, 2019), which has been created and run in partnership with Indigenous elders and authors. Unfortunately, some such partnerships are still framed in the language of adjustment, assimilation, and English-centrism, which can be quite explicit (e.g. McCrary, 2017). For example, Queens Public Library (n.d.) organizes its own-language partnerships under the heading “New Americans” and refers to them as being offered in English and “immigrant languages,” positioning English as the national language and discursively excluding people who have been Americans for years and still speak languages besides English.

  • Take a holistic and proactive approach to language and multilingualism.

This entire article argues for this approach, but it bears repeating. A change of perspective at the individual, organizational, societal levels is necessary to produce broader change at all of those levels, and library workers must consider how their attitudes towards languages are influenced by norms, assumptions, and biases and relate to race, gender, ability, and more. When it comes to multilingualism, it is possible to ask versions of the same questions from Stewart (2017) that Collins (2018, pp. 49-50) suggests can be asked of language practices in general:

  • “Who’s in the room?” [Whose languages are represented in the room?] 
  • “Has everyone’s ideas been heard?” [Whose language skills permit them to hear those voices?] 
  • “Who is trying to get in the room but can’t?” [What languages are needed to get in the room?]
  • “Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?” [Whose languages are devalued or threatened?] 
  • “Whose ideas won’t be taken as seriously because they aren’t in the [linguistic] majority?”

As both authors emphasize, it is not enough to focus just on questions of diversity and inclusion: equity and justice are also important considerations. It is also possible to imagine paradigm shifts in the metaphors used for language: for example, Flores (2017) advocates for moving from viewing language as a resource, which results in commodifying both languages themselves and linguistic diversity, to viewing it as a site of struggle, which would highlight racial and other inequities.


Language in general has power, and specific languages have more power than others, which is maintained through material infrastructures informed by ideology. Languages also have social, affective, and intangible dimensions that are ignored or commodified under a neoliberal mindset and discounted in favor of other considerations under dominant language ideologies. Language is complex, containing as it does aspects of power, oppression, difference, and more, and it deserves a similarly complex response. 

We cannot ignore the existence of language in libraries when libraries serve linguistically diverse populations, when language shapes access to library services, and when certain languages receive more equitable treatment than others. People should be free to use the languages that they want, and libraries should support them in that choice via services and infrastructure. Those who want to learn another language should be able to do so, and libraries certainly have a role to play in that. However, those who want to use their own languages should also be welcomed, whether through specific support for that language or through general strategies to support multilingual users. No one should be coerced into learning another language or excluded from services for not learning it, and the idea that one language can be inherently better than another must be challenged where it exists.

Readers who have traveled abroad or even within their own countries may have a sense of how nice and comfortable it is to find a language they know in a place where people mainly use another one. Why, then, should we not extend the same comfort to others? By being proactive, by critically considering language practices, and by imagining new modes of library service, we can make libraries into places where all people feel comfortable with their languages, not just dominant languages. To support all library users, recognizing the validity of all languages and the complexity of language, in general, is a good place to start.


I would like to thank publishing editor Denisse Solis, internal reviewer Kellee Warren, and external reviewer Michael Mohkamkar for their time and effort supporting the publication of this article, as well as my colleague Holly Hendrigan for her thoughts. This article is stronger because of them, and any remaining shortcomings are of course my own.


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7 Responses

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  2. Bob Schroeder

    Thanks for this article! It’s a good one to help us start thinking about who’s not in our libraries, linguistically as well as culturally.

    I wanted to recommend a book chapter that also speaks to many of the issues you raise here. It’s an autoethnography by Michele R. Santamaria entitled ” You, She, I: An autoethnographic exploration through noise”. It’s from a book, “The Self as Subject: Autoethnographic Research into Identity, Culture, ad Academic Librarianship.” Even though it starts from the point of view of a librarian, rather that the library users, it arrives at many of the same places as your article.

    (And full disclosure, I was one of he editors of the book ;)

  3. Halka

    What a fantastic article! I have been doing very similar research and writing a paper with similar themes for an MLIS class and I really enjoyed reading your research. Let me know if you’d ever like to discuss your work–I find it fascinating.

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