Critlib Management: Leading and Inspiring Through a Social Justice Framework

Book chapter published in Librarians with Spines (2017).


Critlib, or critical librarianship, is the discussion and application of social justice issues in the library field. Generally, the application of critlib has been focused on information literacy and pedagogy, as well as cataloging, but one important aspect of the discussion that is often overlooked is that of library management. Just like teaching, many librarians are not trained specifically to be library managers — being a good manager is something we learn on the job, though lived experience and professional development. Critlib is based in both theory and practice, and we must make a conscious effort to self-educate about the ways in which critical theory can be applied to library practices. Critlib praxis is something we continuously work on, both within ourselves and within our communities and libraries, and library management is just one aspect of our work that can be reevaluated through a feminist lens.

Management in general is not glamorous. Critical pedagogy and radical cataloging are exciting to talk about – we choose to be instructional librarians and pro catalogers, but management is just something many of us fall into. While there are definitely librarians who strive for high-level administrative positions, many of us came into this profession passionate about social justice issues, and end up in leadership positions as our careers take course. For me, management has been something learned on the job, over multiple careers, but never something I explicitly sought out or critically evaluated until recently. I’ve always viewed middle management as being a tool of the establishment, towing the line but not pushing too many boundaries. Even while being a library director myself, the images that came to mind when I thought about general management were stereotypical: White. Male. Patriarchal. Conservative. These ideas about management stemmed mostly from the media and not my own personal experience with management – I grew up working class, and my parents, extended family, and neighbors were solidly blue collar. Where blue collar work has a history of union organizing and solidarity work, white collar work seemed apolitical and materialistic, focusing on the bottom line rather than human conditions. In actuality, management is all about human interaction and power. As individuals with control over others within an organization, managers have the power to either maintain the status quo or to break down barriers that prevent inclusive and collaborative work. Thinking about management in this way has been extremely powerful for me, as it reframed it as a new way of forwarding social justice work in librarianship. Being able to make changes within an organization and create systems of support that redirect power imbalances is vital to systemic change. Library managers are vital to this work.

In this essay, I will discuss the power of acknowledging trauma, and the ways library managers can explicitly address national issues of inequity and advocate for social justice through basic diversity and  inclusion projects, as well as in-depth systemic changes. I will also discuss activism on campus, illustrating some of the ways that academic libraries can engage in social justice work through advocating for campus-wide policy changes and social justice-oriented trainings, and participating in national activist movements, such as Libraries 4 Black Lives.

Branum, C. (2017). Critlib Management: Leading and Inspiring Through a Social Justice Framework. Librarians With Spines. Hinchas Press, Sacramento, CA.