Story at a glance

  • During a teach-in at Cornell University on anti-Asian racism, a university librarian spoke about the role of libraries in upholding white supremacy.
  • ”Libraries are predominantly white fields,” said the outreach and engagement librarian at Olin Library.
  • In recent years, librarians have confronted the racism and other discrimination perpetuated by the creator of the Dewey Decimal system, among other things.

Many American students learned about the Dewey Decimal system in grade school, but not all of them were taught about the man who created it: Melvil Dewey.

More than a century after Dewey first published the proprietary library classification system in 1876, the librarian and educator’s influence has been overshadowed by his racism, antisemitism and sexual harassment. But the Dewey Decimal system isn’t the only example of white supremacy in libraries, according to a Cornell University librarian who spoke during a virtual teach-in on anti-Asian racism. 


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“As a librarian, I see the ways in which my profession has the capacity to confront bias and misinformation in ways we approach and teach information and digital literacy,” said Reanna Esmail, outreach and engagement librarian at Olin Library, according to the Cornell Daily Sun

Esmail went on to say that, “Libraries are predominantly white fields, and Cornell is no exception in this regard. Libraries themselves also have a fraught history of being complicit in racism, and in some cases, upholding and disseminating racist ideas."


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In 2019, the American Library Association acknowledged Dewey's history of racism, antisemitism and sexual harassment and removed his name from their top professional honor, the Melvil Dewey Medal. But his personal bigotry had already leaked into the system used in libraries across the world, sorting Indigenous, Black, immigrant and women’s rights history into social sciences rather than history, which centers white voices. LGBTQ+ content, meanwhile, was categorized under "abnormal psychology" and "social problems," until more recently, when it was sorted into "sexual orientation, transgenderism, intersexuality" — a section that falls "between prostitution and child trafficking on one side and fetishes and BDSM on the other.”

More than 80 percent of librarians in the ALA were white women as of 2017, according to the organization, giving them disproportionate influence over the content and dissemination of information through libraries, both public and private. Policies in libraries, which were largely segregated until less than 50 years ago, have long discriminated against Black patrons, as well, and some continue to this day. A study in 2018 found that "black-sounding" names are less likely to get a polite response — or even any response at all — when they contact public librarians. 

“I cannot prove it, but I would find it extremely strange if a librarian will only be discriminatory in email and not in person," Mirco Tonin, a co-author of the report and professor at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy, told Bloomberg City Lab


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Published on May 12, 2021