Indigenous Reads novels at the Creston Public Library. Photo: Saara Itkonen

Indigenous Reads novels at the Creston Public Library. Photo: Saara Itkonen

Lit Column: Systemic Racism Exists in Libraries Too

“The Creston Library uses the Dewey Decimal system to categorize its non-fiction materials. It is the most used organization system by libraries in the world, with over 200,000 libraries in over 135 countries using the same system. And it’s racist.”

By Saara Itkonen, chief librarian at the Creston Public Library

Everyone likes to think that libraries are welcome spaces for all. Libraries, after all, pride themselves on being champions of free speech and beacons of diversity and inclusivity. But, like most long-time institutions founded on colonialism, libraries are also guilty of perpetuating systemic racism.

When the famous American congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis passed away recently, many librarians and writers shared a story he told when he was awarded the National Book Award for his “March” graphic novel memoirs. Lewis was an avid reader, who grew up very poor in Louisiana and couldn’t afford many books.

He said, “When I was 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and cousins [were] going down to the public library trying to get public library cards, and we were told the library was for whites only, not for coloureds.”

A heartbreaking story, for sure, especially for myself as a librarian. It is tempting to dismiss this as a one-time thing, a product of a different time and place, in America, not Canada. But, like a fungus, systemic racism spreads and grows in the dark wherever the seeds are planted.

So what does this have to do with Creston Library, then?

The Creston Library uses the Dewey Decimal system to categorize its non-fiction materials. It is the most used organization system by libraries in the world, with over 200,000 libraries in over 135 countries using the same system. And it’s racist.

Under this system, all Black authors used to all be filed under the number 326 for “slavery”. Although Creston Library does not follow this, thank goodness, the system is still problematic in other ways.

For instance, 200 is the number for religion, but 200-290 is all Christianity with only 290-299 reserved for the rest of the entire world’s religions! In addition, Indigenous creation stories are filled with fairy tales. Could you imagine how Christians would feel if Bible stories were also placed with fairy tales?

It’s, therefore, no surprise that Melvil Dewey – creator of the Dewey Decimal system – was racist, anti-Semitic, and a well-known sexual harasser. One could argue that “it was a different time” but many librarians, especially women, called him out for his behaviour when he was alive and he was also forced to step down from the board of his private club for not allowing Jews to join.

In an attempt to address these racist origins, the American Library Association – which Dewey founded— renamed an award that was originally named after him. Over the years many librarians have also worked to amend his classification system, due to its implicit racial and religious bias.

But Dewey’s not the only problem. Libraries also use “subject headings” to group materials in ways that make it easier to search. Today, many Indigenous works are still grouped under “Indians of North America”, an obviously outdated term here in Canada. In order to address this, Vancouver Public Library recently announced that they were updating over 20,000 of their subject headings to move away from “historical, colonial views” to more “current language.”

And that is the thing about systemic racism. It is everywhere in this land that was colonized by Europeans and it is the responsibility of all of us—even us here at the library—to slowly dismantle these systems that continue to perpetuate harm.

In June, the Creston Valley Public Library board adopted new values for the library, including “Reconciliation, Respect & Inclusivity, Understanding & Empathy, and Universal Access.” These values will guide us as we take a hard look at the way we do things and work to dismantle systemic racism in our library. I’m looking forward to working with our board, staff and patrons to make Creston Library a place that is truly welcome to all.

Upcoming Events:

  • Let’s Make Music with Ellie Reynolds – Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m. on Facebook Live
  • Family Storytime with Saara – Thursdays at 10:30 a.m. on Facebook Live
  • Children’s Creative Writing Class – Thursday, Nov. 12 at 5:00 p.m. via Zoom (register by phone or email)
  • Teen Creative Writing Class – Thursday, Nov. 19 at 5:00 p.m. via Zoom (register by phone or email)
  • Kootenay Teen Book Club – Thursday, Nov. 26 at 7:30 p.m. via Zoom (register by phone or email)
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