University Librarian Elaine L. Westbrooks reflects on reckoning with the past and creating a more just and inclusive organization.
In 2020, following the police killing of George Floyd, Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian Elaine L. Westbrooks committed the University Libraries to action in reckoning with systemic racism and oppression.
Westbrooks spoke with Windows about her vision for the future and her goals for the organization’s new Reckoning Initiative. Learn about the initiative at library.unc.edu/reckoning.
Let’s start with a definition. Your statement refers to systemic racism and oppression. What do you mean by that?
When most people think about racism, they think about acts by an individual, such as a member of the Ku Klux Klan or a white nationalist group. Of course, those people exist. But systemic racism is embedded in the values and practices of organizations and it can oppress people in less overt ways.
You don’t have to intentionally say “I want to discriminate” or “I want to keep certain people out of our organization” for that to be what happens. Culture and customs can give advantages and opportunities to certain groups and disadvantage other groups. We’re trying to create an organization where that kind of bias is noted and checked, and where we disrupt it to create a better environment for everybody.
You’re talking about something that’s unintentional and even unwitting. What does this kind of inequality actually look like?
If you really want to know about that, you should ask the people who are not at the table, who feel as though they don’t have the same opportunities and advantages. We have essentially designed our systems, policies, practices and procedures around a certain kind of person—typically a white person who has been trained in an education system or a professional program that was also designed specifically for them.
When I got my first job in libraries after I earned my master’s in library and information science, I was at a significant disadvantage when it came to negotiating my salary and moving expenses. It was challenging for me to afford to have the “right clothing” for the interview. I felt like there were so many barriers that made it difficult for me to be my best self.
Today, I have a lot of privilege and much more power. But all I have to do is reflect 25 years ago. Those barriers are very memorable because they were so challenging. Just because you overcome them doesn’t mean that the energy and cost of competing for a position don’t have negative consequences. I want us to do everything we can to eliminate those barriers for others who want to join the University Libraries.
Let’s talk specifically about the work of libraries. Why is a focus on inclusion and racial justice important?
For decades, librarianship as a profession has claimed to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion—it’s part of our foundation, part of why libraries and the profession exist. And yet we still perpetuate systems that exclude.
When you look at the way we operate, we don’t value everybody. If we did, there would be more African American, Indigenous, Hispanic and Asian American people in our profession—not just at Carolina, but everywhere. If 14% of the population in the United States is African American, then that percentage should be present in our profession, and it’s not. We see these discrepancies and outcomes again and again.
If we’re going to create a service and say it’s for all students, well, does that mean students who are blind? Who are first generation? Does that mean students whose first language is not English? We often don’t stop to ask these questions. We have to get better at removing barriers for everyone. Because when a group doesn’t have access, that’s unjust.
If we really want to live up to who we want to be and be inclusive for diverse communities, then we have to look at ourselves and not just say that, inherently, librarianship is a great profession called to do this amazing work. We are a great profession, but you can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.
Do you think that doing this inward-looking work helps us to be better at serving our community?
Absolutely. We have to live up to our ideals and values. Libraries were designed to be social infrastructure, to improve the social mobility of communities. When Andrew Carnegie talked about “palaces for the people,” that’s exactly what he meant. You have this organization that is open to everyone, regardless of physical ability, ethnicity, class, gender. It’s an awesome learning space where people can have access to knowledge, regardless of who you are.
In academia, the library should be designed to provide equity for researchers no matter what field they are in. We value the performing arts, humanities, social sciences, the health sciences. We provide services across the entire curriculum for our entire University community, whether it’s faculty, students or staff.
We are designed to be a common good, but we can’t do that well if we are an organization that benefits certain people, that only lets in certain kinds of people, that only promotes certain kinds of people. We haven’t fully lived up to our potential yet because of these persistent inequities in our own organization.
I firmly believe that we will be a better organization—we’ll be more innovative, bold, relevant and valuable for our community—because we have chosen to lift all voices and to be more inclusive.
Optimistic seems like too strong of a word here. Can this work truly be done?
I think it can be. The activist Mariame Kaba said hope is a discipline. I don’t have the privilege or luxury to despair or to be pessimistic. What I mean is, we must go down this path and it will be very difficult. If it were easy, we would have done this by now.
Human beings like to see the rewards of our labor. This is not something that’s going to happen overnight. Right now, we are trying to build a foundation by which we can look at ourselves and say, we are going to be a new kind of organization for everybody. It might not be as good as I want it while I’m here, but that’s the goal, to build a better organization and, in the process, we will be a better organization for our community.
Many libraries are talking about social justice. What’s unique about being at Carolina?
What makes Carolina unique is the fact that we are a public institution in the American South. The legacy of slavery requires an honest connection with the past to understand who we are. The Library has a responsibility to the state to archive and preserve that past, no matter how painful or unflattering it might be.
In addition, we have the preeminent collection on the history of the American South in the Wilson Special Collections Library. Nobody else has a Southern Historical Collection. It’s what we’re known for. The scale of the collection is amazing.
But we have to understand the terms by which it was formed. We have to understand who was erased and who was included. If you’re a researcher today and you want to understand what it was like to be an enslaved person on a plantation in North Carolina, you are going to have to do a lot of work. Because our predecessors didn’t think that the lives of enslaved people were important enough to document or that anybody would care about them.
Well, we do care. We care about them a lot. They had families, they have descendants who are interested in their lives, and what plantations they lived on, and who they loved, and what they valued. It’s an important part of the history of the American South and of the University.
The reason we collect documentary evidence in the first place is to understand who we are and to build a better future. If we can’t look at our preeminent collection and understand how it was created and some of the biases it contains, that would just be dishonest.
Given that history, how should an organization like ours approach these collections going forward?
Because of the collecting areas that we focus on, I feel like we have a responsibility and we can lead. That’s why we’re asking: How do you revisit racist language? How do you rethink descriptions of archival collections? How do you reckon with the collections and how do you do it responsibly and equitably? That’s something that I think we are on the path to doing better than anybody.
The new American South is global, diverse and being reimagined here at Carolina in our archives, but also in interdisciplinary scholarship, research and the performing arts across campus. We are going to continue to capture that, to expand what we are collecting, to preserve it and archive it for future generations.
It’s important that we have people with the cultural humility to understand that, yes, there are certain decisions made ninety years ago. Now we have a different perspective, we have an evolving appreciation and understanding for what it means to document the American South in the 21st century.
Let’s end with the name “Reckoning Initiative.” What does that term mean to you? Why does it describe the work that lies ahead?
I get asked that question a lot. I like the word reckoning because it really is about accounting for what kind of organization we have been as well as what kind of organization we’re going to be. We value accessibility, equity and inclusion, so when we engage in this reckoning process, we are trying to live up to our values.
I see reckoning as a promise for the organization to look deeply at where we’ve come from, so that we can understand who we are, to create a better future for everyone. It’s a promise to become the best organization we can be. It’s a deeply reflective process that’s embedded in our mission of preservation, our mission to help students learn, to help them elevate their minds and become global citizens, successful entrepreneurs and engaged citizens.
It’s a very powerful word. Some hear it as an ominous term, but I believe it’s liberating. It’s much more about today and our future than our past. It’s a term that is aspirational, one that should motivate and inspire us to say: We’re a great organization, we’ve been great for a long time. And, we’re going to become an even stronger, healthier and more equitable organization. We’re going to be better for our community, better for our state. We are making it possible for everyone to live up to their fullest potential. That’s something to be really proud of.
Story by Judy Panitch, Illustration by Nicole Basile
This story originally appeared in the spring/summer 2021 issue of Windows, the magazine of the Friends of the Library at the University Libraries.