The importance of teaching Critical Race Theory
in MLIS programs.
Twanna Hodge, Ph.D. student of Information Studies
University of Maryland, College Park
The current offerings in the top 5 Master of Library and Information Science (LIS) programs in the US are not enough. Racism is endemic and impacts all aspects of librarianship. We need tools to address and combat racism, white supremacy, and center anti-racism. The profession needs more graduates who know the importance of critical race theory (CRT).
There’s a tendency to ignore the prevalence of race, and the field of Library and Information Science (LIS) “functions in a race-blind vacuum” (Honma). In the United States, “race serves as a master status defining the person to others,” according to Merton’s social theory and social structure (found in Waters). As a Black Afro-Caribbean woman, I understand the control and dominance that race and racism have in my personal, academic, and professional life. It’s inescapable, and the American tendency to see race and ethnicity as interchangeable means “failing to recognize any ethnic heterogeneity within the racial category of black” (Waters). Critical Race Theory (CRT) provided a lens to understand how my entanglements within US society are based on this notion of race, a social construct that impacts everything, including law, education, healthcare, etc. One of CRT’s core tenets is that racism is endemic; it is in the LIS programs, especially those based in historically, traditionally, and predominantly White institutions.
Exposure to critical theories goes beyond legal or education scholarship. Theory informs practice, and practice informs theory. You need both to be an effective and engaging practitioner. With the heightened and continued attacks on CRT, along with the inaccurate belief that a post-racial society exists, “it is critical that we bring awareness to the need to acknowledge and highlight CRT in all areas, but especially education” (Johnson). My introduction to CRT came post-MLIS, when I began fully delving into it by taking a virtual course on CRT in February 2021, taught by Sofia Y. Leung and Jorge R. Lopez-McKnight. The course was rich, content-filled, and had great in-depth discussions. It was well-structured, very informative, and had me thinking differently about my work, especially around equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).
According to Janel George, “CRT, as a conceptual construct, and methodology, is about critically examining the structures and systems that maintain White Supremacy’s chokehold on our society.” Interpersonal and structural racism impacts everyone, especially Black Indigenous People of Color. How can LIS professionals then provide the best possible service if we are not genuinely and deeply aware of this country’s foundational roots around racism and its continued impacts today? CRT needs to become immersed into LIS curricula, through a revision of the Accreditation Standards set forth by the American Library Association. The standards include such language as “responds to the needs of a diverse and global society, including the needs of underserved groups,” but lack statements referring to race and critical theories.
There are many benefits to including CRT in LIS education. Learning and genuinely understanding CRT helps us: 1) to comprehend the conversations, debates, and attacks on CRT, 2) to recognize how embedded white supremacy and systematic racism are in the US, and 3) to fight for racial injustice and liberation. It’s necessary for people who live in the US to be aware of their racial identity (power, privilege, and oppression) and how they are racialized; such awareness allows individuals to continue to work on their racial identity development.
To better understand the current state of CRT education in US-based LIS programs, I examined the top 5 library programs’ based on the Best Library and Information Studies Programs Ranked in 2021, according to the US News and World Report Rankings. In 2021, the LIS programs ranked in the top 5 were the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Washington, the University of Maryland – College Park, and the University of Texas at Austin. I wanted to know if CRT is taught as an individual course or embedded across LIS curricula.
Using contextual analysis, I examined the Fall 2022 and Spring 2023 course offerings, MLIS handbooks, and course catalogs of the top 5-ranked LIS programs to identify the words critical race theory, race, and/or critical theories mentioned in course titles or descriptions. I acknowledge that being restricted to publicly available content is a limitation. Additionally, CRT may be taught as a standard in law librarianship courses, but this study focuses on non-law MLIS courses. Furthermore, I also made judgments solely based on the course title and description. I needed more time and capacity to gather and review course syllabi.
As of October 2022, when I examined the institutions’ websites, the majority of the top-ranked LIS programs do not include CRT in LIS education, either as a standalone class or embedded into regular course curricula:
Three courses were found relating to critical theories and/or race: IS 540: Social Justice in the Information Professions, IS 555: Naming and Power, and RGS 590: Race, Gender, Sexuality Information Professions. Each of these courses is elective and not required for graduation.
There is only one course relating to race, critical theories, or CRT: INLS 737: Inclusive Information Services for Diverse Populations (3 credits). The course description states that “students will develop a theoretical base in critical race theory (CRT) and other cross-disciplinary theories” (SILS Courses). This is an elective course.
Based on the course descriptions, there don’t appear to be any courses explicitly containing the words race or critical. However, there are a few courses that describe content pertaining to CRT and other critical theories, including LIS 520: Concepts, Services, and Issues for Information Professionals and LIS 505: Archival and Manuscript Services. LIS 520 is a core course required for all students.
I was able to ascertain through email correspondence with a faculty member that the above-mentioned courses contain CRT and critical theories. This information was acquired through my connection as an alumna.
There are no courses explicitly related to race or CRT. The only one that may include CRT or critical theory is INST 620: Diverse Populations, Inclusion, and Information.
There is only one related course: INF 390P: Topics in Privacy. The course description states: “Policy, value systems, and critical theory regarding privacy, studied from historical, sociological, feminist, or other perspectives,” but does not explicitly reference race or CRT (IS Courses).
Out of countless other courses, less than ten classes are available (most being elective) across all 5 institutions. There are several possible reasons for this, including a greater need for CRT scholars within the LIS field, an unwillingness to learn, and the political landscape of developing new courses or adapting existing courses to include CRT content. I agree with Dr. Aisha Johnson who wrote that “library schools, we need to incorporate CRT into the curriculum, not as an elective course or singular course but woven into the required elective classes. This would require growing the number of experts in CRT.” By not integrating CRT into LIS curricula, it begs the question — are MLIS programs further indoctrinating people into white supremacy culture?
For those in library school, do you know of anyone teaching CRT in your LIS program? Or are you aware of any CRT scholars at your institution? Can you take a class on CRT or a related course at your institution? In Dr. Anthony Dunbar’s seminal article, he affirms the importance of CRT in LIS education, as it relates to the “development of epistemological processes and a methodological toolset that can explore issues of racial bias.” His observation still holds true today. Since 2006, there has been a proliferation of scholarship on CRT in the LIS profession, most notably, Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory. There’s also been an increase in professional development opportunities for professionals already in the field, such as the Critical Librarianship & Pedagogy Symposium. Yet, LIS programs have not evolved to incorporate these developments in the field.
CRT continues to be demonized and further used as a tool to distort and distance people from understanding the true meaning of it and how it can be used to acknowledge whiteness, whitewashing, and a white supremacy culture that supports racism and anti-Blackness. There is a war for the future of the profession’s soul and identity; we cannot be neutral in the face of the continued destruction of BIPOC narratives, livelihoods, and lives.
Dunbar, Anthony W. “Introducing Critical Race Theory to Archival Discourse: Getting the Conversation Started.” Archival Science, vol. 6, no. 1, Mar. 2006, pp. 109–29. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-006-9022-6.
George, Janel. “A Lesson on Critical Race Theory”. Human Rights Magazine, vol. 46, no. 2, 11 Jan. 2021. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/civil-rights-reimagining-policing/a-lesson-on-critical-race-theory/.
Honma, Todd. “Trippin’ Over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies.” InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, June 2005. escholarship.org, https://doi.org/10.5070/D412000540.
Information Studies Courses. University of Texas at Austin. https://catalog.utexas.edu/general-information/coursesatoz/inf/
Johnson, Aisha. “CRT Before the Formalized Theory: Calling a Thing a Thing.” The Bell Ringer, 2022. https://crtcollective.org/the-bell-ringer-blog-posts/.
SILS Course Information. School of Information and Library Science at University of North Carolina. https://sils.unc.edu/courses.
“Standards, Process, Policies, and Procedures (AP3).” Education & Careers. American Library Association, 26 July 2006, https://www.ala.org/educationcareers/accreditedprograms/standards.
Waters, Mary C. Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities. Russell Sage Foundation , 1999. WorldCat Discovery Service, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=281940.
Further Readings/Recommend Resources
Gibson, Amelia, et al. “Critical Race Theory in the LIS Curriculum.” Re-Envisioning the MLS: Perspectives on the Future of Library and Information Science Education, edited by Johnna Percell et al., vol. 44B, Emerald Publishing Limited, 2018, pp. 49–70. Emerald Insight, https://doi.org/10.1108/S0065-28302018000044B005.
Hall, Tracie D. “The black body at the reference desk: Critical race theory and black librarianship.” The 21st-century black librarian in America: Issues and challenges (2012): 197-202.
Stauffer, Suzanne M. “Educating for Whiteness: Applying Critical Race Theory’s Revisionist History in Library and Information Science Research: A Methodology Paper.” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, vol. 61, no. 4, Dec. 2020, pp. 452–62. utpjournals.press (Atypon), https://doi.org/10.3138/jelis.61.4.2019-0042.