Social Responsibility

Graduate Articles

Academic Librarians and Social Responsibility: The What? So What? and What Now?

Catholic Library World, December 2001. Vol 72 N 2.. pp. 94-98

By Renee I. Rude
Associate Professor and Reference Librarian
St. Cloud State University

Abstract: Explores the connections between social responsibility issues facing academic librarians who recognize their conscience, and offers suggestions for progressing toward creating a more just world.


A university’s mission statement addresses service to its users and the mission of its academic library addresses serving patrons. Statements of a goal or mission for a university speak to general areas such as encouraging diverse scholarship, stimulating intellectual and personal growth, recognizing a variety of cultural groups, honoring both genders, promoting the valuing of a multicultural world and assisting access to life long learning experiences. The exact terminology may change, but the usual intent remains fairly consistent. A university, of course, does not limit itself to broad goal statements; rather these are the guiding principals on which the various elements of the organization operate. The academic library is one integral part of the university, and as such must adhere to its tenets.

As students, staff and faculty of universities have become more diverse, the institution as an educational community is responding to that change. Universities propose to provide knowledge of the social, intellectual, and artistic foundations of culture and history--the academic library needs to do the same. The library can be a mainstay of social responsibility in the university.

Being socially responsible mandates that academic librarians treat all associated with universities in a humane manner. We also need to assure that the environment is both effective and equitable, in both services and resources. Many institutions of higher learning have taken a stand against racism, xenophobia, sexism, heterosexism, religious oppression, ableism and classism. The academic library can do no less. We cannot profess to participate in the mission of the university unless we provide leadership towards its implementation. The library needs to respect diverse scholarship and be sensitive to multiple perspectives and paradigms.

All who access, manipulate and deliver information through libraries need to be aware of the privileges granted some but not others in our society. Automatic rights are bestowed upon white, male, heterosexual, Christian, temporarily able bodied, upper class members. Those who happen to belong to any of these groups, some of whom control academia, are privileged simply because they fall into what is considered the norm. Unfortunately, all who live outside of the boundary called ”usual,” receive a lower level of service or have to work harder for what they do obtain.

Questions and answers as well as the content shared need to reflect the knowledge that many people live outside of these privileged groups. Academic libraries can and should be a model of integration of the wide variety of people in society. Equitable service with equitable resources demonstrates fairness.

Academic librarians play an intrinsic role in meeting the mission of the university to create a safe and equitable educational environment and to educate socially responsible citizens. We can provide a secure location for students, staff and faculty to learn, grow and thrive. We can promote justice and educational equity for all users. It behooves academic librarians to share the responsibility of encouraging collaboration to integrate global and multicultural perspectives--in a safe environment. We have all of the ingredients to fulfill the mission of the university within our midst. Now, we need to act on them.


A university has a number of core elements of which the academic library is one. Since we are an integral part of the whole, a commitment to the mission of the institution needs to be demonstrated in our service to library users.

Academic librarians have an exemplary history of providing users with a multiplicity of aids to use in accessing collections: study/reference guides, specific and general bibliographies, lists of reference tools, bibliographic instruction, help sheets for databases, webliographies for web interfaces, etc. In order to participate in the mission of the university which includes encouraging diverse scholarship, stimulating intellectual and personal growth, recognizing a variety of cultural groups, honoring both genders, promoting the valuing of a multicultural world and assisting access to life long learning experiences, it is recommended that we model social responsibility.

There are a number of feasible ideas that can be readily implemented, or if already in place, augmented. Academic librarians can begin to explore the steps that can be taken to work toward creating a more just society in the following ways:

1) Demonstrate care. Academic librarians must possess a sincere interest in the diversity of library users, and display a commitment to serve their information needs to the best of our ability. Sometimes it is difficult to answer questions. Students often are confused about both the source and the content.

Judith M. Arnold and Elaine Anderson Jayne (January, 1998) relate some of the common experiences of reference librarians in “Dangling by a Slender Thread: The Lessons and Implications of Teaching the World Wide Web to Freshman.” Arnold and Jayne state “Too often professors assume that students have a model for research, that they understand its component parts, and that they can tolerate the ambiguities and decisions necessary for research, while in the library librarians see the manifestations of students’ confusion.” Sometimes the reference librarian on duty balances a fine line between giving a clear, concise direction that may be incomplete and/or misunderstood, or embarking on a lengthier, in-depth research process that a student may find condescending.

Whether serving students, staff or faculty, academic librarians need to support a humane, effective and equitable environment for teaching and learning. Just as students, faculty and staff are all individuals from varied backgrounds with diverse needs and learning styles, they are also the library users. While attempting to serve the user’s needs, academic librarians must differentiate between users.

In a most interesting article, Virginia Massey-Burzio (May, 1998) talks about users and needs in the academic library in “From the Other Side of the Reference Desk: A Focus Group Study.” Virginia quotes Margaret Steig who earlier stated “Few scholars, professionals, or average citizens care to acquire the expertise necessary to solve their own information needs.” In distinguishing between users and their information needs, we need to simply serve their requests to the best of our knowledge. We can serve without overpowering.

Even a patron who is incredibly intelligent, with several advanced degrees, can easily be intimidated by the online technology that has replaced the card catalog with which she or he is familiar. It is not only the words used but the mechanics of usage that keep many patrons from accessing needed information. Library personnel who work with the technology on a day-to-day basis sometimes speed through the necessary instructional steps, adding to patrons’ overwhelming sense of incompetence.

Also, it is imperative that academic library personnel be alert to the difficult situations some students, staff and faculty might be faced with in their personal environments. Whether or not we witness evidence that indicates need, brochures should be available announcing the address of the local food shelf, a battered women’s shelter help line, pregnancy crisis center, youth center, parents anonymous and other handouts. Reminders of no harassment allowed should be posted. Assuring a humane environment needs to be paramount.

2) Be cognizant of language and all its nuances. Librarians throughout history have used specific words, terms and phrases that the lay public cannot and does not have at their disposal. Patrons must rely on library staff to translate from library jargon to common words. The knowledge gap is nowhere more significant than in language, since in order to express oneself, all use a combination of body language and words, even with sign language.

Sanford Berman (1971), in his critique of library cataloging, quotes Joan Marshall: Libraries use lists. The use of maintained, up-dated lists is an economic necessity. Since the use of lists is the norm, the list-makers must accept responsibility for viewing their reader as an aggregate who has varied social

backgrounds and intellectual levels. Since the reader cannot validly be identified, assumptions about his [sic] probable psychological approach to a subject result in serious lapses in logic. (p. xiii)

A number of books have been authored by Berman regarding Library of Congress subject headings and language. He states that if the product or policy that is not working can be repaired, we should let the responsible parties know about it. (Berman, 1988, p.29) He also indicates that communicating with a proposed remedy to the professional group, e.g., Library of Congress, is necessary to start change. Berman, and librarians who agree with him, have initiated and accomplished many of these socially responsible and progressive changes.

It is not necessary to examine library subject headings to find problem words. Some infrequent library users, if advised to look in an index, assume that means the back of a book. The author was once questioned if an index wasn’t just like the table of contents. For academic librarians, the term index signifies something far more complex: a reference to other sources which might be in print or online format and bears little to no resemblance to the alphabetical list at the end of a book.

Definitions can sometimes perplex rather than invite academic library usage. Regardless of intelligence, many of the terms frequented in our work areas invite confusion, or even worse, cause the needed information to be delayed. For example, real time computer online searching such as Dialog or Biosis researching mandates “branching” that has no relation to the dictionary definition of “natural plant subdivision” in deciduous trees. ERIC, Educational Resources Information Center, is not totally current with terms used in education, e.g., a search for the word “ageism” will find few articles, although it is by no means a new word to educators.

Academic libraries are an ideal location to promote and model behavior and education in gender fair language. There must be a personal commitment throughout academic libraries to challenge sexist language and content. The “birdification” of women, labeling females as chicks or birds, is not acceptable, nor are sexist posters and calendars.

3) Purchase, then promote, to all academic library users, a wide variety of ethnic press and small press publications, authored by members of groups whose perspectives have been omitted. Many groups have historically been denied voice, the privilege to have their perspective heard--both individually and collectively. Even though a few individuals may have gained recognition, each group lacks power and privilege in this society. Reading racks displaying multicultural resources indicate a fine start. However, much more needs to be done for reflective education to occur. Ethnic NewsWatch, a multicultural full text online newspaper, is one example of applicable ethnic coverage that is not found in other sources. A plethora of non-mainstream journal and magazine articles is available on every topic discussed in this article, through the Alternative Press Index For all social responsibility issues, academic libraries need to demonstrate equality of resources and services.

4) Confirm our ability to demonstrate fairness. All marginalized people need socially responsible allies; academic librarians can help fill that need. Recognize that authority figures in academic libraries are subject to the same biases as the rest of society. For example, those closely affected by disabilities are often forced to educate the rest of society regarding accessibility needs, just as people of color often feel burdened by having to educate others about racism. Those who need accessible parking need spokespersons as allies, coming from outside of the disempowered group. It is important to not divide the issues--taking a stand on ability issues is crucial to a safe life for all, as is challenging sexism, religious oppression, etc. Oppressions cross over and intermingle and it is important to challenge them whenever and where ever possible. Is the academic library a welcoming place for users of various abilities? If we truly care, then it will show in how we serve patrons.

5) Be acutely aware of classist barriers, which can affect all social groups.

The rudiments of basic service include language used, as discussed previously, and library policies and procedures. The structure of imposing and collecting fines against faculty, staff and students can be a source of incredible stress for conscientious users. Class background is purported to be inconsequential to obtaining service, however waiving of fines and bills in the academic library is not necessarily equitable for all patrons. Some universities withhold from students grades, transcripts, financial aid, classes and resident housing/food allowances until library fines are paid in full. It is not an issue to be disputed since payment is required before financial aid, housing, and even classes are granted. Alternative remedies might possibly include paying half of the fine or paying according to a sliding fee schedule.

Lee Warren, at Harvard University, has written “Class in the Classroom.” (November 1998) He states “Class is an often invisible form of difference. Yet it is there all the time, affecting how and what students learn at every turn. It pervades the values and the purposes of colleges and universities. Still, it is a diversity issue rarely acknowledged.” One thing Warren describes is that the choice of examples that students use in academic discourse can be very revealing of class background. Academic librarians need to be aware of the difficulties that class differences can make in requesting service and/or resources.

6) Refer users to special collections. There is an obvious reason numerous special library collections exist; the patrons who use these holdings have had their information needs unmet in “regular” libraries. Gays and lesbians have their own special libraries, as do Native Americans, women, and other groups that have not been adequately served by academic and public libraries. It would be a noteworthy public service for all if a list of special library collections were researched, constructed and freely distributed to all patrons. Of course, such a list needs to be updated and maintained on a constant basis.

7) Utilize web sources for information regarding issues of social responsibility. For example, information on hate crimes can be found by simply entering “hate crimes” in any of the common search engines. Using Alta Vista, three recommended sites can be readily located: “Not in our Town”, “Hate Crimes in America” and Daily Opinions (Online) of Stanford”. Academic library users might find the most current information regarding each oppression from using the World Wide Web.

8) Include support staff in formulating policies and procedures. This is vital in our own environment--support staff at libraries sometimes operate in positions with little positive reinforcement. Some timely suggestions can and should come from our own people. Giving voice to all opinions as valid, no matter the job classification of originator, shows integrity and sincere caring for employees as well as library users.

9) Use displays for education on social responsibility. Academic libraries are an ideal location to display multicultural, gender fair art work, an assortment of religious exhibitions, paintings and prints showing all abilities and a variety of social class art work, and esthetically pleasing posters and signs. Large, visually attractive displays advertising community and school activist groups such as “Men Against Violence Against Women” can be easily constructed and placed in appropriate library areas. A “no tolerance for violence” approach is necessary.


Various oppressions impede students from receiving an equitable education and citizens from contributing to a safe, just and healthy world. These barriers to harmony--racism, sexism, heterosexism, anti-Semitism, ableism and classism, operate in most institutions including universities, of which the academic library is an integral part.

In addressing the mission of universities, it has been shown that encouraging diverse scholarship and valuing a multicultural world are key elements--of both the institution and therefore its academic library. Users of the library take part in the university experience at large, and must be treated with utmost respect and dignity. If academic librarians are serious about participating in the mission of the university, then we, too, need to honor the same values to which the university ascribes. We cannot assume it is “human nature” to do so.

In both print and non-print sources information abounds on human behavior of many types--positive, negative and everywhere in between. One of the terms often used is human nature. The Council for Interracial Books for Children (1996) proposes that most of what has been labeled human nature in our society really should be called culturally conditioned behavior. CIBC goes on to state:

there is the popular assumption that jealousy, possessiveness, competitiveness, and war (between nations, peoples, classes and sexes) are inevitable because of the invisible, all-powerful force called human nature. Yet, actual experience, in the United States and other countries, shows that those human tendencies assumed to be immutable are in fact variable. If we assumed that human beings are doomed to continue harming and destroying each other without end, there would be no point at all. But we do not hold that assumption; we firmly believe that when the cultural environment is changed, people will change. We reject that version of the future, which portrays human beings as oxen forever yoked to the painful weight of so called human nature. (p.98)

Since negative behaviors are culturally conditioned, it follows that racism, sexism, heterosexism, religious oppression, ableism and classism are not inherently part of us. These barriers to a humane environment are learned negative behaviors.

Information and education can be powerful tools for creating a more socially responsible citizenry. Academic librarians have many resources with which to assist this process. We can be harbingers of social change, showing our belief in working toward a just world for all. By addressing the recommended changes discussed previously, academic librarians will demonstrate that we are intent on meeting the mission of the university. We can and should be socially responsible within our academic libraries.


Arnold, J. M., & Anderson, Jayne E. (1998). Dangling by a slender thread: The lessons and implications of teaching the World Wide Web to freshmen. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 24 (1), 43-51.

Berman, S. (1971). Prejudices and antipathies. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

_____(1988). Worth noting. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. Council for interracial books for children (1996) Human (and anti-Human) values in children’s books. In J. Andrzejewski (Ed.),Oppression and social justice: Critical frameworks (pp. 97-110). Needham Heights, MA: Simon and Schuster.

Massey-Burzio, V. (1998). From the other side of the reference desk: A focus group study. Journal of Academic Librarianship 24 (3) 208-215.

Warren, l. (1998-1999) Class in the classroom, teaching excellence: toward the best in the academy, 10(2). reprinted from POD Network, a publication of the Professional and Organization Development Network in Higher Education.

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