I Want To Believe: ‘Illegal Alien’ as Dropped Subject Heading?

When the word “alien” is used to classify an individual, it is inaccurate, silly, and downright disrespectful. On one hand, it brings to mind science fiction fodder from the 1950—bulbous heads with tubular arms bearing “We come in peace” banners. It’s disrespectful, obviously, because it reduces a human being, no better than you or I, to this cheap, cartoon visual.

The history of the term begins unexpectedly. This now-offensive term was once used to supplant a much more offensive one.

In the 70s, “a group of Chicano UCLA students […] suggest[ed] the [LA Times] use the term illegal alien. They were responding to an editorial in the publication whose title referred to people who’d crossed illegally from Mexico as wetbacks.” So for a period, the term was a politically correct answer to what now seems like an archaic and particularly nasty slur (that reputable newspapers would publish without a thought)

So in the 80’s, when politicians like Ronald Reagan were using the term, it didn’t strike people as offensive as it does now. According to NPR, it wasn’t until the 90’s that the phrase started becoming associated with bigotry. Despite this current understanding that the term is outdated, it is prominently linked to political, right-wing rhetoric.

Politicians like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump coupling the words “illegal alien” with the word “criminal,” (NPR) as an antecedent or vice-versa. They are essentially labeling a voiceless people in a way that the people themselves don’t determine.

The current political climate in which the term “illegal alien” has an insidious relevancy is interesting when compared to the Peet article. It describes the avenues and roadblocks a Dartmouth student navigated in her quest to remove “illegal alien” as a subject heading with the Library of Congress. While researching, the student noticed that many inflammatory readings about non-citizens were found under the heading “illegal alien.”

The student took her concerns with the heading to a rights group for the undocumented students at Dartmouth. From there, the bipartisan group took the student’s concerns to librarians at Dartmouth. The librarians advised that the group would have to take it up with the Library of Congress directly. What follows was a description that, frankly, painted the Library of Congress as an impenetrable and hierarchical force at best. On the more extreme side, an absolute, perhaps harsher interpretation might cast LC as sometimes-protector of the hegemony.

After six grueling months of waiting, the Library of Congress finally got back to Dartmouth students, denying the change. The LC memo stated that the terms “illegal alien” and “undocumented immigrant” were not interchangeable. In their eyes, the connotation for each phrase was different.

Then, after what seems like relatively small pressure from ALA and civil rights groups, the Library of Congress relented. They changed the heading to “non-citizen”…for three months, at least. After that short span, Republicans (specifically) tried to stop this.

One Republican senator from Tennessee (neighbor to my own home state, Alabama) even went so far as to say the name-change would cost taxpayers frivolously, and therefore would not have been worth pursuing. As if using more thoughtful words wouldn’t lead to a more uniform, thoughtful community benefiting everyone…

The bill was ultimately passed, then denied, and is now currently up in limbo. The end of the Library Journal article is optimistic. It highlights the enterprising Dartmouth student, a former undocumented individual who is now a modern incarnation of civil rights hero. The article champions individuals like her, and as readers we are implicitly encouraged to follow suit.

Despite the bill not passing by the time of the article’s publication, the work done by the students was still necessary. The publicity generated by their efforts makes “illegal alien” seem even more antediluvian and backwards, further discourages thoughtful people (most of us, in my opinion) from using it. Any publicity, if it encourages less usage of this word, will paint researchers who use this tag as insensitive, pressuring everyone to use it less in every capacity, unless trying to incite (like insensitive, topical politicians of the day). In short, I don’t think anyone who matters is going to be using this term.

Both words in the label “illegal alien” are propaganda. “Illegal” implies criminal activity even when none occured. “Alien” is a particularly cartoonish way of saying an object doesn’t belong. It is not just propaganda, but it is immoral propaganda.

This reminded me of the struggles for more apt representation (or representation at all) in the Library of Congress subject headings outlined in the Drabinski readings. “Lesbian” finally got validation from LC as a subject heading in 1976. The dynamics of power, of literally waiting for the hegemony to realize that a disrespect is taking place, and then waiting on them to care enough to change it, is relevant in the Dartmouth case as well. When a dominant class is put in charge of defining a less-influential other, they are only going to approach this task with the limited understanding they bring to the table.

The Drabinski article was about how people are limited by their biases, whether they realize it or not. Even when the defenders of these inaccurate subject headings are in the wrong, they often don’t seem to realize or spend too much time defending instead of just realizing the new for something new and more respectful. If harmful language can exist in libraries, those hallowed places idealized by Madison and Jefferson, then what hope is there for the drastically more-chaotic spaces outside of it?

Above all else, we just have to ask people and understand what they feel comfortable being called. Why is that so hard?

Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from https://lms.pratt.edu/

Greene, D. (2015, August 19). The Evolution Of The Immigration Term: Alien. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/

Peet, L. (2016). LC Drops “Illegal Alien” Subject Heading. Library Journal, 141(11), 12-13.

“Archives, Advocacy, and Change” at the New York Academy of Medicine

“The archival profession is inherently an activist profession.” -Rich Wandel

Last night, the New York Academy of Medicine hosted a panel called “Archives, Advocacy, and Change” as part of their Changemakers series. The panelists were Jenna Freedman, founder of the Barnard Zine Library; Steven Fullwood, founder of In the Life Archive; Timothy Johnson, director of NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives and co-director of Tamiment’s Cold War Center; and Rich Wandel (quoted above), founder of  The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive.  Continue reading

Trickle-down Information: The Enlightenment Model and Information Dissemination in the Modern Library

Note: I believe this subject has the potential for expansion and further investigation. Any feedback, criticism, and questioning would be greatly appreciated as I am considering expanding this essay into a full research topic.

The Library is an establishment intended for the dissemination of information, the modern foundation of which is historically rooted in the age of Enlightenment. As literacy and readership increased, foundations of knowledge and governing bodies began to invest in the construction and design of libraries. [1] The intellectual and wealthy elite of the enlightenment age spurred these modes of knowledge delivery, placing themselves as creators and controllers of information. The library and university were established as a means to circulate created information based on a top-down structure. At one point, this was highly restricted in terms of access, often denying women, people of color, and those in poverty. [2] Today, these are not strictly enforced laws of conduct but the established system continues to place the same types of people at a disadvantage.

Many critics note the power dynamics established in the creation and distribution of knowledge based on the Enlightenment model. The distribution of information from the creator to the consumer continues to enforce this model of dissemination and the related top-down power structure. [3] The researcher, the student, and the public library patron are only able to access the resources their institution can afford or will allow. Libraries emphasize obtaining and providing collections that will meet the needs and expectations of their community. However, the community, as consumers, is not in a position to greatly influence the collection and distribution of information.

The Digital Age is believed to provide greater opportunity for the process of disseminating information; however, most scholarly articles are only available through glass walls. The practice of open access is not a solution to inaccessibility since publishers and institutions often hold most republication rights to any scholarly production. “Library access to electronic resources is another widely acknowledged economic barrier.” [4] Classification and distribution reinforces information as a commodity available for commercialization. [5] Copyright holders limit distribution to specific journals, repositories, and databases. The biggest databases, often with the most diverse amount of publications, are only accessible through educational institutions, including libraries. The consumer is dependent on what institutions they may access and what that institution chooses to make available.

Furthermore, laws such as the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), Protect IP Act (PIPA), and the Research Works Act have often run the risk of further hindering an open access system of information. [6] Opponents to open access often view information as a risk in the wrong hands. Peter Schmidt of The Chronicle of Higher Education criticizes the potential for “the publication of inferior and unreliable journals” and “the risk that research in fields such as medicine will fall into the hands of people who might misuse it.” [7]  Although these bills have not reached the point of becoming law, their proponents echo the power structures and control of information exemplified by the Enlightenment Age.

The Library places great emphasis on obtaining and distributing materials of authority. We continue to see institutions of knowledge, universities and bodies of government, as the authority on particular forms of information. Information produced and distributed through these institutions is considered the voice of scholarly authority. Minority groups are often underrepresented in academic institutions, and sometimes banned from shelves and curriculum. [8]  The continued movements toward open access creates new opportunities for equitable information distribution. In a consumer-based society, it’s not surprising that information is treated as a commodity for trade. Publishers and institutions manage how users access information by selecting exclusive databases to allow distribution. The duty of the modern library is to move away from a neutral stance and defend accessibility, free speech, and the freedom of information. The Library as a disseminator is the door between the creator and consumer. The ethical librarian should provide open access that will benefit and improve the lives of library patrons. The Library, as an institution of authority, should be the voice of dissent toward political campaigns aimed to restrict information access. [9] The dissemination of information via a top-down power structure places those at the bottom under a significant disadvantage. The purchase and exchange of information is designed to benefit the publisher and the distributor, enforcing their authority as the all-knowing-elite. The modern Library holds an institutional responsibility to involve the consumer in the process of information dissemination, providing greater opportunity for information creation and understanding.



  1. Dahlkild, N. (2011). The Emergence and Challenge of the Modern Library Building: Ideal Types, Model Libraries, and Guidelines, from the Enlightenment to the Experience Economy. Library Trends, 60(1), 11-42.
  2. Pawley, C. (2003, October). Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling. The Library Quarterly, 73(4), 422-452.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Pribesh, S., Gavigan, K., & Dickinson, G. (2011). The Access Gap: Poverty and Characteristics of School Library Media Centers. The Library Quarterly, 81(2), 143-160.
  5. Pawley, C. (2003, October). Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling. The Library Quarterly, 73(4), 422-452.
  6. Chadwick, R. (2012, December). Protecting Open Access to Taxpayer-Funded Research: The Rise and Defeat of the Research Works Act. The Serials Librarian, 63(3-4), 296-304.
  7. Schmidt, P. (2010, February 14). New Journals, Free Online, Let Scholars Speak Out. from http://www.chronicle.com/article/open-access-journals-break/64143
  8. Reichman, H. (2012, March). Opposition grows to Tucson book removals and ethnic studies ban. Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, 61, 1-84.
  9. Rosenzweig, R. (1991). Politics and anti-politics in librarianship. Progressive Librarian, 5–8. http://www.progressivelibrariansguild.org/PL_Jnl/pdf/PL3_summer1991.pdf

Librarianship for Social Justice

Personal note: in this blog post, I am trying to think my way through an issue on which I know I need to educate myself more. I am white, with a legacy that includes Southern slaveholders on my father’s side and German Nazis on my mother’s. It is my intention not to center Black Lives Matter around white people or the predominantly white professional fields discussed here, nor to suggest that White Saviors can step in to fix things, nor to pass the buck of responsibility to black activists, but instead to develop some kind of context for using this library degree in a transformative way. I don’t know if I’ve done this well, but I hope it’s better than not addressing the question at all. Continue reading

Inescapable Biases and the Construction of Catalog Realities

Emily Drabinski’s article, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” discusses an important issue library professionals must face.   All attempts to create some type of globally relevant system of classification and organization have problems embedded within them. How can a library catalog ever be expected to be finite and representative all the various mindsets and ways of knowing that exist in the world or even in one cosmopolitan city? Language constantly develops, new ideas emerge, societies change, borders are redefined, concepts evolve, and policies are renegotiated.  Humans create categories in order to impose some kind of structure on the world so as not to feel lost in complete chaos.  Such structures may be imperfect illusions, but it does not seem that we humans have yet fathomed a better solution to finding our way through the labyrinthian archive known as existence.  Until we do, library and information professionals must deal with an ever-growing mass of information.  They must also endeavor to ensure that ways of finding and sorting through it are relevant to as many different people as possible.

Drabinski references the history of radical librarianship and notes that the biased nature of cataloging has been a debated issue in LIS professions since the late 1960s.  While radical catalogers have made progress in making changes to biased subject headings and class marks, Drabinski thinks that making these changes is basically like treating a symptom of an illness without addressing its cause.  She feels that critical catalogers miss an important point in their work when making corrections to the Library of Congress’ classification system: the problematic nature of cataloging itself.  She writes, “such corrections are always contingent and never final, shifting in response to discursive and political and social change…[they] reiterate an approach to classification and cataloging that elides contingency as a factor in determining what classification and cataloging decisions are imagined to be correct in any given context.”

Drabinski’s call for LIS professionals to “theorize the trouble with classification and cataloging in library knowledge systems [as] the root” of the problem is similar to demands critical theory scholars have made on academics to acknowledge the impact that socio-historical constructions, power structures, economics and politics have on supposedly objective research.  In their article, “Rethinking Critical Theory and Qualitative Research,” Kincheloe and McLaren discuss how practices in critical theory aim to make implicit inescapable biases more explicit in academic research.  By openly acknowledging and grappling with these biases as part of the research process, critical theorists aim to move towards a more balanced or democratic way of both conducting and representing research.  Both Drabinski’s and Kincheloe and McLaren’s articles draw attention to a tendency in society and in academia to cling to notions of objectivity or the so-called myth of neutrality even though one’s understanding and experience of the world is in constant flux and dependent on numerous changing factors.

So what can LIS professionals do to achieve their goal of making information accessible whilst understanding that the cataloging systems they must work with are irreparably flawed by their very nature?  Drabinski advocates what she considers to be a Queer intervention to this problem: leave contested headings or class marks in place to allow for critical public discussion and deconstruction of their meanings.   She believes that a rupture occurs when someone encounters an “obviously biased classification decision or subject heading” making it easy for library users to see the “constructed quality of library classification.”

While I can appreciate Drabinski’s desire to use biased cataloging practices as an impetus to spark discussions between library staff and critical patrons, I’m not convinced it will have the outcome she desires.  The rupture she speaks of is dependent upon a user already being of like mind about the “incorrectness” of the subject heading or class mark in question.  What may be an obvious bias to one user may be nothing remarkable to another.  Furthermore, it does not make sense to knowingly allow a biased structure to remain in place just to serve as a potential discussion point. People who are likely to experience such a rupture going through a library catalog already experience them everywhere in everyday life just trying to do ordinary things like finding a public restroom, buying “nude tone” bandages or make-up, finding a job, hailing a taxi, voting, getting married…and the list goes on.  They need not go to the library just to find one other reminder of how “the system” is up against them.  It seems to me that aiming to adopt progressive cataloging methods would have more of the desired impact. For example, radical cataloging practices could cause a rupture for those who would use subject headings like “sexual deviance” to organize books about homosexuality.  In my opinion, this is where the rupture Drabinski seeks ought to be taking place.

Towards the end of their article Kincheloe and McLaren introduce an ethnographic research method called “deconstructive ethnography.” Over the past few decades anthropologists have strived for reflexivity in their work, and deconstructive ethnography takes reflexivity even further. Kincheloe and McLaren write, “Whereas reflexive ethnography questions its own authority, deconstructive ethnography forfeits its authority.”  This approach is interesting to consider since many think the goal of research is to produce some kind of authoritative knowledge.

The concept of deconstructive ethnography is very interesting in the library context.  As Drabinski points out, library catalogs do provide an amazing potential to draw attention to the ways socio-political constructions create ideas of reality.  People seek things based off of what they think makes sense, using their own authoritative understanding of the world.  Librarians assign categories based on “authority records” and use “authority fields” to make catalog records.  Do these authorities recognize one another?  As libraries aim to provide equal access for all, it seems that they ought to adopt catalog and classifying practices that incorporate ways of describing and identifying that are in alignment with how those being classified define themselves. With new technology, there is no reason that catalogs could not be designed to provide a wide variety of access points in order to make items findable based on multiple perspectives of library users.  Would this be a sort of deconstructive cataloging?  Does there need to be an authoritative catalog?  While a permanent and universal system is an impossibility, a system that acknowledges its biases and accounts for the diversity of ways of knowing and accessing the world is not.


  • Drabinksi, E. (2013), “Queering the catalog: queer theory and the politics of correction” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83(2): 94–111.
  • Kincheloe, J. and McLaren, P. (2002), “Rethinking Critical Theory and Qualitative Research” in Ethnography and Schools Qualitative Approaches to the Study of Education (Immigration and the Transnational Experience Series) Eds. Zou, Y and Truebe, E.  pp. 87-130

The Great and Powerful…

Do you remember the Wizard of Oz? I hope so, or else this will not make sense to the ones who do not. Dorothy and her friends went on a journey to see the great and powerful Oz to ask a certain request. This process can be translatable to those who go to the archives for answers. The archives, in a way, can be seen as the great and powerful Oz. The people of the town go to Oz for answers; he is all knowing. However, Oz magnificence was an illusion, he was merely a man.


Oz, and the archive have very similar purpose and position in society. The archive is a place and idea that holds power in the ways we preserve and shape knowledge and memory. But with this power comes great responsibility (thank you spider-man), in other words, where there is power of selection there is the power to exclude and silence.


The archive is a truly powerful and political domain. The archive has the ability to not only persevere, and organize information; this domain essentially shapes our knowledge and memory of the past. Yet, the power of selection can also be countered with omission. “Archives are ‘how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies,’” (Carter, 2006) it helps shape one’s identity. However, amongst all the resources that is collected, how does the archivist determine what shall be preserved or forgotten? This question is closely knitted into the issue of archival alienation and silence. Archivist Rodney G.S. Carter notes, “the power to exclude is a fundamental aspect of the archive. Inevitable, there are distortions, omissions, erasures, and silence in the archive,” (2006) not everyone’s voices are heard, especially the marginalized. If the records of these groups are manipulated and destroyed, or excluded, [their narratives] cannot be transmitted across time, the records about this group may ultimately disappear from history (2006).


There are three types of powers that are possessed by the archive: control over collective memory, control of preservation, and specifically to the archivist, the interpretation and meditation between records and users. This amount of power is astounding, and scary. These powers shape what and how we learn. It was interesting that archivist Randall Jimerson, suggested archivist to embrace this power. However, there was a catch. We should embrace the powers, in order to use them for greatness. I believe this can be applied to reference librarians as well. Librarians hold somewhat power in the community, because we provide access to service and information that our residents interests or needs. By embracing this power, we can keep ourselves in check in terms of what to record and materials to exclude, how to intercept and provide access to the user.


However, the power to exclude materials can, and often leads to archival silence. Archival silence is gaps of information that are not present in a collection. These gaps are often records that connect or represent marginalized groups. Archival silence are gaps in preserved texts such as written, visual, audio-visual, and electronic which are “currency of archives” (2006) These text are often not representable of society. Oftentimes, the history accounted for are from the viewpoint of those in power or privileged, this act can leave a void in the collective memory because it excludes the viewpoints of the minorities or underprivileged. This silence can lead to a lack of identity. Most importantly, these gaps can lead to a history being forgotten or distorted.


The duty to be mindful of the gaps within the archive should be accepted by librarians and archivists. There are several tactics that were suggested by numerous archivists that will be helpful in the profession. The first is using a feminist critique to listen to the silences. This is done by listening to the omissions and interrogating the powerful (Carter, 2006). Secondly, archivist Randall Jimerson suggests embracing the power of the archive. By doing so, we can use the power for good, to use our power of knowledge preservations and memory formation to protect the public interest (2005). In addition, it is best, I believe, for anyone in the research profession, to eliminate as much bias in our process mainly neutrality. The act to not take a stance is a loose form of indifference. In addition, by acknowledging bias we avoid using power indiscriminately, or accidentally (Carter, 2006). Lastly, acquiring a social responsibility will help foster awareness and activism to address this type of archival discourse. These tactics will not solve this issue but will hinder the possibility of future gaps.


For those who wish to pursue the life of an archivist, or a librarian for the matter, be aware of this issue. Be conscious of your selection of material and look for ways in which you can be inclusive. It is a part of our social responsibility in a democratic society to notice alienation in our collection whether it is the library or archives. This awareness can enable information professionals to vocalize those who are misrepresented; this inclusion can lead to proper representation, positive formation of memory and identity.




Carter, R. (2006). Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in       Silence. Archivaria, 61(61). Retrieved October 22, 2014,             fromhttp://journals.sfu.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12541/13687


Jimerson R. C. (2005). Embracing the Power of Archives. Society of American        Archivist. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from             http://www.archivists.org/governance/presidential/jimerson.asp


Jimerson, R. C. (2009). Archive Power: Memory, accountability, and social justice.            Chicago: The Society of American Archivist.

Class, Access and Activism in Chicago Public School Libraries

Protest against Chicago school closings, via In These Times
Protest against Chicago school closings, via In These Times


In spring 2013, the Chicago Public School system attracted national attention for the unprecedented closing of 54 schools and layoffs of more than 2,100 employees. The closings confirmed the fears that motivated the Chicago Teachers Union’s historic fall 2012 strike, in which tens of thousands of teachers walked out of the job for nearly two weeks. Over a year later, Chicago’s public school students are facing another challenge: the continuing decline of library resources and professional library staff in the schools. While the dismantling of professionally staffed school libraries pose serious labor concerns for Chicago’s certified teacher-librarians, it also exacerbates information inequality in a school district that primarily serves minority and low-income students.

Over the past two school years, the number of librarians in Chicago’s public schools has been cut nearly in half, from 454 in the 2012-13 school year budget to just 254 this year. Only 38 percent of the schools welcoming students from the recently-closed schools have a professional librarian, compared with only 55 percent of schools in the district overall. The decrease is not a result of a diminished hiring pool, and it is only an indirect result of the mass layoffs of 2013. Rather, “student-based” rebudgeting has forced principals to make difficult decisions either to dismiss librarians or reassign them to fill vacant classroom teaching positions. Of the schools that have standalone libraries, many are now staffed either by part-time clerks or parent volunteers.

This reorganization of library labor within the schools points to the pernicious effects of austerity management and neoliberal policy on public education. As Nauratil writes in The Alienated Librarian, “The bottom-line measure of success in the private sector is profit. When this model is superimposed on a traditionally nonprofit organization, that organization’s own goals, structure, and character are jeopardized,” (Nauratil 75). How can school librarians fulfill their professional commitment to information democracy and equal access when their jobs are jeopardized by a city administration more committed to the interests of private corporations than the human rights of its most underserved (student) populations?[1]

Statistics published by Chicago Teachers’ Union on librarian employment in public vs. private schools demonstrate the ways in which access to library education is undeniably a class issue. CPS schools, which serve 87% low-income students, lack librarians in nearly 50 percent of schools. 100% of Chicago’s elite private schools have professional librarians. As CTU’s report states:

A school library is integral to every child’s education and shouldn’t be available only to students in wealthy schools… school librarians support information needs and integrate literacy development across the curriculum and across grade development.

Beyond reading skills, librarians promote digital information literacy and facilitate more self-directed learning experiences. Without instructing students in how to evaluate, retrieve, and manipulate information sources, we risk reproducing class inequalities by leaving low-income students under-equipped to navigate and empower themselves within a digital information economy.

In response to criticisms about decreases in school librarians and library access CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett attributed hiring decisions to individual principals, who must decide how to allocate funds for their schools. In addition, Byrd-Bennett promised digitally enhanced libraries in every welcoming school and iPads for all students in grades 3-8. While incorporating new technologies into the classroom seems positive, their value is diminished without specialized library and media instruction. Boasting of new technologies without tackling the fraught pedagogical situation in the schools belies a situation in which school boards award expensive contracts to high-tech corporations rather than hire skilled laborers to address students’ media education needs. Following Peter McDonald’s thesis in “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship,” we must question whether technological advancement masks the intrusion of the “paradigm of corporate hegemony” into the library (McDonald 9). I doubt that iPads for every student substantially address the educational needs of inner city students facing issues such as racial inequality, economic disparity, high crime rates, and police brutality.

Advocacy and Resistance: Learning from La Casita

Community members fight to save La Casita, 2011 (photo by Brett Jelinek, via saveourcenter.com)
Community members fight to save La Casita, 2011 (photo by Brett Jelinek, via saveourcenter.com)

Chicago Teachers’ Union, library advocacy groups, parents, and community members continue to fight to provide students with the library resources that they deserve. Beyond the labor issues in school libraries, these groups have pointed out how the dismantling of the public school system perpetuates structures of class and racial oppression. While the battle may be an uphill one, it is crucial to continue to challenge CPS budget-centered, neoliberal approach to education.

Perhaps the most inspiring challenge to the lack of school libraries came from the parents of Whittier Elementary School in Chicago’s mostly Latino Pilsen neighborhood. As the school had no dedicated library, parents turned a field house on the premises, affectionately termed “La Casita,” into a library and community center. When police threatened to demolish La Casita in September 2011, dozens of Whittier parents – mostly mothers – staged a sit-in for forty-three days and nights, demanding that the building be renovated into a library. The district had other plans: they wanted to remove the school’s special education classroom to make room for a library inside the building. During the sit-in, La Casita continued to serve as a community center, offering a collection of 2,500 books, ESL classes, sewing classes and other resources. When the occupation ended, school officials agreed to re-allocate the demolition funds to renovate the building according to the community members’ plans. However, work was not begun, and on a Friday night in summer 2013, the city sent in a demolition crew to bulldoze the field house. Of the more than 200 protesters (including myself) who gathered that evening, 10 were arrested. CPS has converted the former library into an astro-turf field and basketball courts.

Though community members no longer exchange skills and knowledge at La Casita, the center provides a key alternative model for how libraries can empower underserved communities. Forged out of direct action rather than state standards, La Casita provided materials and participatory experiences that addressed a minority student community whose educational needs were being denied by the state. Moreover, the parents and students who gathered there learned to articulate their needs and desires and forge political identities in a process of class struggle. The movement echoes the radical pedagogy outlined in Paolo Friere’s seminal “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Learning from La Casita, I would encourage teacher-librarians to partner with parents and activist groups, offering their skills as informational specialists to help communities challenge educational inequalities in their own voices, in their own terms. While school and public libraries are critical for empowering people with information, we can’t reach this ideal through one institution. Along with open access media, self-directed community centers can allow people to activate knowledge to transform their everyday lives.

[1] At the time of the budget cuts, mayor Rahm Emanuel also approved the expenditure of $195 million of public money on a new stadium for DePaul University, attracting wide criticism. The incident builds on a track record of supporting private-sector growth, particularly in the areas of tourism and entertainment.

Additional References:

McDonald, Peter. “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship: The Fight for the Soul of the Profession in the New Millennium.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian. Ed. Alison M. Lewis. Duluth, MN: Library Juice, 2008. 9-24. Print.

Nauratil, Marcia J. The Alienated Librarian. New York: Greenwood, 1989.