Libraries Are Vital Community Spaces (And, They Need to Change)

a reader pulling books from a library shelf Photo: Getty Images / Klaus Vedfelt

The Radical Librarianship Institute and Community Press seeks to train librarians of the future to be agents of inclusion and change.

Libraries are crucial places for knowledge and information access, and increasingly offer critical social and civic services like voter registration, citizenship and language classes, and more. Yet, many people are left out or overlooked—whether they live in a place without a local library or do not have their interests represented in the collections. Mellon awarded a $1.25 million grant to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for the Radical Librarianship Institute and Community Press to not just better meet these needs, but shift the idea of what a library—and a librarian—can be. 

The Institute is focused on reimagining a conventional librarian curriculum and forming a new certificate training program, which will be open to librarians from across the country. Also part of this initiative is a community press that puts the power of publishing and bookmaking in the hands of people who live in these libraries’ communities. The first iteration of the certificate training program is planned for August 2023.  

With a home base at the Department of Information Studies in the School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, the Institute is led by Robert Montoya, assistant professor of information studies and the director of California Rare Book School and the Libraries, Justice, & Ethics Lab. Although the project is based in an academic framework, Montaya noted, “There are many different kinds of libraries: public, school, special, museum, academic, private, and many others, and each has their role to play within our societies. The Institute embraces each and every one of them for their strengths and functions.” To that end, the team behind this initiative includes people from a range of settings, including Jonathan Furner, professor of information studies; Gregory Leazer, associate professor in the department of information studies; Skye Patrick, Los Angeles County Library director; Sean Pessin, PhD student in information studies, lecturer at California State University, Northridge, and director of the CSUN Book Arts Lab; and Liza Mardoyan, PhD student in information studies. 

Montoya shared why it is the time to reconsider libraries, why communities should have the power to make their own books, and a reading list for those interested in radical librarianship. 

Discourse around librarianship often frames the profession as passive purveyors of information, but ... we make people visible with and through our work and, by doing so, help empower people to imagine a more just and equitable world. 

Why is now an important time to rethink our definition of who a librarian is? 
The world is experiencing a wave of challenges that threaten the very fabric of our social constitution. Librarianship is a critical component in the counteraction against these ills and can help individuals and communities understand how they have agency and how they have actively been erased by oppressive systems.  

Libraries and librarians need to see themselves as active agents in this world that unavoidably must support community participation and take a stand against social injustice. Discourse around librarianship often frames the profession as passive purveyors of information, but even the mere act of collecting is powerful. We make people visible with and through our work and, by doing so, help empower people to imagine a more just and equitable world focused on humanity, global coordination, and mutual care. 

How did the idea for the Radical Librarian Institute come about?  
The project is the culmination of many activities at UCLA and California Rare Book School, but programmatically finds its root in humanitarian work that started over six years ago in Kosovo, where I began working with the National Library of Kosovo to create a continuing education program to train the nation’s librarians. The library network and infrastructure were destroyed after the Kosovo War (1998–1999), leaving the country with no coherent program to drive librarianship into the future.  

You’ve noted that public libraries are especially well positioned to work with communities. What are they doing now that you think could be expanded or transformed to better serve their diverse audiences? 
Libraries are deeply integrated into our community spaces; and, while we always need more libraries, they pepper the entire landscape of the United States. Very few institutions have this capacity. Schools are another deeply integrated institution, but they have mandates and concerns that limit their ability to do what libraries are capable of. Libraries are an extension of our schools, our social support systems, our built environment, and our intellectual curiosities. It is this deep integration that makes libraries the exact place to do this kind of public and cultural work. 

Librarians are members of the community, and being members of a community, must recognize that there are power relationships that we need to be cognizant of and work to counteract. 

There’s been increased awareness in recent years to how institutions uphold inequities. How can librarians be leaders in expanding the reach of a library’s resources to improve access to knowledge for marginalized populations? 
We believe that libraries can help people better understand their positions within society. Libraries need to create service models that do not replicate the social hierarchies inherent in the communities we work in. Centering community voice is one way to accomplish this, as is giving a critical eye to how our resources are allocated within the institution. Further—and many libraries already do this—we need to actively identify at-risk or minoritized populations and support them on their cultural terms. 

Librarians are members of the community, and being members of a community, must recognize that there are power relationships that we need to be cognizant of and work to counteract. Communities need to be part of articulating the services libraries provide and building the collections we steward. We need to continually ask ourselves, “Who is accessing what kind of knowledge?” 


Robert Montoya. Photo: UCLA.

Part of this initiative includes the establishment of a community press in a collaboration between UCLA’s Libraries, Ethics, & Justice Lab and the California State University, Northridge (CSUN) Book Arts Lab. Why focus on bookmaking rather than digital publishing or other online platforms? 
Publishing is a very powerful social tool, and print has historically been vital to social movements pushing for justice and social change. A community press website will also be created, but there is durability to analog printing that does not always exist online, where there are mechanisms of control that print at a local level can circumvent. What we want to convey is that the physicality of print is still vital to individual and community agency, and that will continue to be the case as time marches forward. The process of making books diversifies the cultural record, the editorial landscape, and library collections. 

Are there people, groups, or organizations doing work now that you see as striving toward the same goals of the Radical Librarian Institute? 
There are so many amazing organizations doing fantastic work that aligns with the Institute. We can think about Library Futures, the Library Freedom Project, or, for example, the Sims Library of Poetry, which engages with the South Los Angeles community to create brilliant publications by community members. It’s also important to acknowledge the thousands of programs that already exist in libraries, such as maker spaces, zine projects, and poetry workshops. We see ourselves as supporting each of these initiatives and finding a space where librarians can learn, through the Institute’s curriculum, how to empower communities with the suite of tools we have available to us. 

A major part of the program is shifting the library curriculum, especially related to how librarianship is currently taught, with an emphasis on activism. Could you share a short reading list for librarians who are interested in learning about radical librarianship? 
There are so many great resources that we can point to as formative in this space. Here are some resources that were expertly compiled by UCLA Professor Jonathan Furner for people to explore.