Cornell librarian condemns libraries for being ‘racist’ and says they have ‘fraught’ history of hatred
A librarian at Cornell University has claimed that libraries are “fraught with racism” – highlighting their outdated book classification system as evidence.
Reanna Esmail, an outreach and engagement librarian at Cornell’s Olin Library, spoke during a discussion on fighting anti-Asian racism last Friday.
She said, “As a librarian, I see the ways my profession has the ability to cope with bias and misinformation in ways we approach and teach information and digital literacy.
Libraries are mostly white fields, and Cornell is no exception. Libraries themselves also have a fraught history of complicity in racism, and in some cases of upholding and spreading racist ideas. ‘
She made the comment at a virtual school event on Confronting Anti-Asian Racism on Friday, saying she believes libraries should be held accountable for bolstering white supremacy, even if unintentional. The Cornell Daily Sun reported.
Esmail used the example of the Dewey Decimal System to illustrate her point.
Reanna Esmail, an outreach and engagement librarian at Cornell’s Olin Library, said libraries have a “ fraught history of complicity in racism and in some cases uphold and spread racist ideas. ”
Libraries, like the one on the Cornell University campus, pictured, have a history rooted in racism, starting with the creator of the Dewey Decimal Classification
Esmail made her comments during a virtual discussion about how to end anti-Asian American hatred. Cornell’s quad is pictured, with its Olin library just to the right of the large tree
Protesters take to the streets of Washington DC on March 21 to demonstrate against anti-Asian racism in Washington DC, with libraries now in the spotlight
Also known as DDC, the system was invented in 1876 by my American librarian Melvil Dewey. It is used to classify books by subject by assigning them a number between 000 and 999. Decimal points are then used to further subdivide categories – 974 is used for New England, with 974.1 given to Maine, 974.2 used for New Hampshire, and so on.
Esmail accused Dewey of using “outdated” language to refer to Asian people.
DDC has also come under widespread criticism for the uneven way it classifies different languages.
Jane Behre, a library researcher, explained her problem with the DDC in a June 2020 post at hacklibraryschool.com.
She said language in the DDC is classified into 400s.
English, German, and Greek have eight individual number ratings for each language, while French, Italian, Spanish, and Latin have seven ratings for each language.
These divide languages into topics as diverse as etymology, grammar, dictionaries and historical variations.
But nine “other languages,” including languages of East and Southeast Asia and African languages, each have only one classification code from 490-499.
The number 495 is given to classify books on languages about East and Southeast Asia – their only entry in the system. And the number 496 is the only number devoted to African languages, despite the continent being home to 54 countries and an estimated 2,000 languages.
Western European languages have very specific classifications, while most non-white and non-Western European languages are all lumped together; even if they span an entire continent, ‘Behre wrote.
“A similar pattern exists when we look at the Library of Congress’s classifications for languages,” she said.
Similar criticism has been leveled at the Dewey system’s representation of religion, with 89 codes devoted to Christianity, but only one for Islam and another for Judaism.
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The country’s first library was the Boston Public Library, which opened in 1852, nine years before the start of the Civil War.
In the 20th century, ‘black libraries’ opened, with libraries not being desegregated until 1964.
And even after segregation, it took 22 years for the American Library Association’s Black Caucus, which first met in 1970, to be formally recognized by its parent body, the American Library Association, she said.
Even today, the librarian profession is overwhelmingly white: only 6.8 percent of librarians are identified as black or African-American, according to the ALA.
“Racism in American public libraries has had a long and complicated history, as has racism in America,” Behre said. “Perhaps it is no surprise that an institution born in this country is also grappling with its most persistent problem.”
Librarian Anna Gooding-Call said Melvin Dewey, who created the Dewey Decimal Classification that classified books in libraries in 1876, had “ shockingly biased views ” even before the Victorian era, according to Bookriot.com.