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Librarians’ focus on the individual leads to ‘white savior narratives,’ scholars argue

Critic warns of socialist ideas being pushed on libraries, alienating patrons

Social justice advocacy in library education programs focus too much on the individual and not enough on group activism, leading to “white savior narratives,” three university librarians wrote in a new paper published by Western University.

In “Acting ‘As If’: Critical Pedagogy, Empowerment, and Labor,” librarians Rafia Mirza, Karen Nicholson and Maura Seale found fault with the way students studying to be librarians are taught to promote social justice.

While librarians should engage in political activism, the current emphasis on individual action is oppressive, they wrote in the analysis published by the Ontario, Canada-based university.

The “overemphasis on the agency and ability of an abstract charismatic teacher works instead to reinscribe neoliberal logics and white savior narratives in libraries, working against solidarity and collaboration,” they continued.

The College Fix reached out twice via email to Mirza at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, Nicholson at Western University, and Seale at the University of Michigan.

None responded to the requests for comment over the last month to speak on how they have implemented their ideas and what they believe is the biggest obstacle to achieving their goal.

The authors focused on the education method “critical library pedagogy,” which the American Library Association describes as “inclusive and reflective teaching” centered around “social justice.” It asks librarians to “evaluate their social, political and economic standing” and question how “societal norms” perpetuate “injustices,” according to the association.

The problem with critical library pedagogy is that it “emphasizes individual agency” and “enhances, rather than diminishes, the role of the instructor,” the authors wrote.

This emphasis on the individual leads to library instructors acting “outside of social groups, thereby sidestepping engagement with systemic oppressive structures such as racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia,” they continued.

Emphasizing the individual also results in librarians “doing more with less, understaffing, competition, and burnout” – problems that work “against collective action, solidarity and equity,” according to the article.

The authors said library education programs should emphasize group “labor” instead to achieve social justice and equity.

They also urged librarian instructors to acknowledge “teaching as caring work, as immaterial affective labor, and to critically examine discourses of critical pedagogy and critical library pedagogy, particularly their understandings of agency and empowerment.”

Asked to weigh in on the trio’s argument, another librarian, Jodi Shaw, said the authors’ socialist ideas could hurt libraries and the people who use them.

Shaw, a former faculty member at Smith College in Massachusetts, resigned in 2021 after exposing its divisive racial ideology.

“As I see it, one of the biggest obstacles these authors face is they risk alienating their patrons,” Shaw told The College Fix via email. “And once the patrons leave, the field of librarianship leaves with them.”

Even though the authors find fault with the current social justice teachings, Shaw said they agree with the goal of dismantling “white supremacy” and bringing libraries and their patrons “in line with socialist ends. This is a betrayal.”

Shaw said the authors seem to view themselves as “saviors of the world,” but they “regard their patrons not as living, breathing human beings that they serve, but political objects to be leveraged as they ride the rocket ship of critical theory into academic stardom.”

Asked about the role of a librarian, Shaw said the profession centers around serving the public.

Librarians must be able to “engage, connect and relate with a wide variety of students,” she told The Fix. “Political activism —by its very nature— is exclusionary and divisive. It shouldn’t be hard to understand why political activism severely compromises the ability of the librarian to do his or her job.”

Shaw said she believes the profession, especially among librarians in higher education, recently has fallen prey to political activism.

As a result, she said librarians who adopt this thinking are alienating and excluding the very people they purport to serve – “or, in this case, to save, from horrible things like individual empowerment and capitalism.”

“As with many professions that have fallen prey to the compost bin of ‘critical theory,’ if more librarians don’t speak up, they will soon find themselves out of a job,” she said.

MORE: Marxist American Library Association chief: ‘Libraries need to be sites of socialist organizing’

IMAGE: Nick Fewings/Unsplash

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Julia Flower is a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville where she is studying journalism. She also enjoys painting and hiking.