Sofia Y. Leung and Jorge R. López-McKnight, eds.
Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory
The MIT Press, 2021
Reviewed by Kevin M. Gibbs
In Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory Sofia Leung and Jorge López-McKnight enter not one fraught conversation, but two. In recent years, libraries have joined Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a subject of political controversy, and as a result while CRT has been banned from classroom curricula, many libraries have also been shut down or censored. While the debate may be mostly scattered across states, counties, and towns across the United States, in their introduction to Knowledge Justice the editors make the stakes of the debate clear: libraries do not merely lend books and cater to the reading needs of students and the broader community, they also “have a deep ethical responsibility to create information institutions and systems that portray vantage points and life experiences that meaningfully attend to difference and social conditions,” a responsibility best advanced through the application of CRT. The introduction generously provides a history and methodology of CRT (alongside a list of CRT Tenets that succinctly captures the project), before summarizing how CRT has previously been applied to Library and Information Studies (LIS). Knowledge Justice’s 13 articles build upon the existing literature, exploring not just high-level questions such as the neutrality of information, but also the more quotidian questions, like the specific means of diversifying the profession.
The collection is divided into three thematic sections, the first bluntly titled “Destroy White Supremacy.” Starting with the argument that “we need to confront how racial ontologies and epistemologies continue to (over)determine the shape and form of librarianship itself,” Part 1 introduces the application of CRT at a high, conceptual level. The first two articles, “Not the Shark, But the Water” and “Moving Towards Transformative Librarianship” question the ostensible neutrality of libraries, respectively concluding that librarianship is not neutral in its failure to make amends for past inequities, and “information is not neutral” in its creation, maintenance, or access. The third article, “Leaning on our Labor,” similarly criticizes institutional diversity efforts through an analysis of diversity statements, and the last article, “Tribal Critical Race Theory in Zuni Pueblo,” proposes Tribal CRT (TribalCrit) to better respect and incorporate Indigenous forms of knowledge sharing. This close engagement with existing theory and its adaptation to new context provides a groundwork upon which later articles build.
If “Destroy White Supremacy” is primarily concerned with the creation and application of concepts, then Part 2, “Illuminating Erasure,” is primarily concerned with absences: of Indigenous, Black and POC librarians and faculty, and specifically of queer of color (QOC) librarians and faculty; of Black special collections; and of equitable academic publishing processes. Furthermore, as this summary suggests, Part 2 highlights the importance of people, through whom theory becomes praxis. “Counterstoried Spaces and Unknowns” confronts the absence of QOC LIS professionals, while “The Development of US Children’s Librarianship” exposes the absence of IBPOC children’s librarians from the dominant LIS discourse. “Relegated to the Margins” demonstrates how academic publishing and the academy more broadly deploy gatekeeping processes to diminish and devalue the research of People of Color. Moving from absences in the profession to collections themselves, “Ann Allen Shockley” draws from the titular activist-librarian’s work to highlight the nonexistence and necessity of Black special collections at HBCUs. The authors in this section do not just provide diagnoses, but also treatments grounded in specific processes: in counter-storytelling, in librarian collections that include People of Color and discovery systems better coded to encounter them, and in publishing pipelines that welcome rather than punish authors from underrepresented backgrounds. Moreover, these solutions are frequently drawn from outside the established discourse, whether it’s in the way “CRT provides an opportunity for collection development to become a subversive, political activity, one with the potential to create a revisionist collective history, a counternarrative to the prevailing stories about Black people that exist in many academic library collections,” or in the way that IBPOC children’s librarians who lived and worked outside of the dominant have provided strategies for “disrupting the root of white dominant ideologies that have been controlling and molding our libraries, collections, and practices.”
As Todd Homna notes in his introduction to Part 1, destroying white supremacy is not an endpoint but rather a beginning, an opportunity to “[advance] alternative infrastructures and new ways of organizing information, and embrace various ontologies and epistemologies.” Part 3, “Radical Collective Imaginations Toward Liberation,” is focused on offering process-oriented interventions and solutions. As “Praxis for the People” suggests, Critical Race Praxis, rather than theory, is key to the future of LIS, and as such many of the articles in this section are focused on concrete actions. Building from “Relegated to the Margins,” “Dewhitening Librarianship” demonstrates how the racial composition of the librarian profession remains “woefully under representative of the United States’ population” and proposes LIS postbacs as one way to lessen the financial demands of training. Approaching that same problem from a different angle, both “The Praxis of Relation, Validation, and Motivation” and “Precarious Labor and Radical Care in Libraries and Digital Humanities” point to the precarity of alt-ac positions and the importance of connections, relationships, and mentorship as critical tools to resist and dismantle racist, eurocentric epistemologies and pedagogies. Part 3 concludes with “Getting Inflomation, “a short work of narrative fiction, demonstrating the application and impact of CRT, and echoing the counterstories and solutions found in many of the collection’s articles. These case studies, while at first glance limited or field-specific, prime one to consider the material conditions and restrictions of the profession, as well as to devise other ways of using CRT to make real-world changes.
LIS presents, as many of the articles point out, the intersection of theory and praxis, of labor both intellectual and physical. As such, the tools to resist white supremacy are described here as both new ways of thinking and new ways of doing. Indeed, for a work whose subtitle contains ‘Critical Race Theory,’ the included articles engage just as closely with praxis. As the above summaries suggest, there is overlap between articles, and while the similarities in both diagnosis and solution can start to feel repetitive, this repetition can instead be read as a strength: a consensus on both the nature of the problem and the ways we should work to resolve it. Knowledge Justice grounds itself firmly within an ongoing discussion, and I hope future works explicitly apply arguments made within to those fields outside libraries and archives that nonetheless are formed by LIS: digital humanities, surveillance studies, public health, and legal studies, among others. If one approach to dismantling white supremacy is relationship building, then a next step for LIS is to continue building relationships not just within LIS but across these other fields and disciplines.