Ethnic Studies in Academic and Research Libraries

ACRL announces the publication of Ethnic Studies in Academic and Research Libraries, edited by Raymond Pun, Melissa Cardenas-Dow, and Kenya S. Flash. This collection captures case studies, programs, and engagements within the field(s) of ethnic studies and how library workers are creating and documenting important support services and resources for these communities of learners, scholars, activists, and educators.

Learn more about Ethnic Studies in Academic and Research Libraries in this excerpt from the Introduction by the editors, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

Introduction and Reflections

We conceived of this book based on our experiences as library workers supporting ethnic studies programs, faculty, and students in academic, research, and public libraries. We learned that there were opportunities to engage with these interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs. We also saw the lack of visibility of ethnic studies in librarianship and wanted to bring light to the important work that our colleagues have been doing to support ethnic studies. Thus, this book came out of a series of conversations regarding what and how libraries and library workers support ethnic studies.

In this book, we aim to highlight such case studies, programs, and engagements within the field(s) of ethnic studies and how library workers are creating and documenting important support services and resources for these communities of learners, scholars, activists, and educators. Each chapter presented in the book serves as a snapshot of critical work that library workers are doing to support ethnic studies, including areas focusing on ethnic and racial experiences across the disciplines.

Not all the chapters specifically center on traditionally defined ethnic studies programs. Some chapters examine the overlapping and intersecting spaces between the voices from ethnic communities in the United States. It’s important to note that not all academic ethnic studies are named and categorized as such. Other curriculums or programs may emphasize race, migration, and diasporic studies. We chiefly highlight these intersecting areas to ensure that our work in supporting ethnic studies is not solely defined by a discipline but by our work and commitment in supporting programs that uplift underserved and underrepresented ethnic communities and communities of color. Ethnic studies and its program and curriculum have intentionally focused on historically marginalized communities. For this book, there are three sections largely defined by these key functions and themes and based on the submissions we received:

•   Section 1: Instruction, Liaison Engagement, and Outreach

•   Section 2: Collections Projects and Programs

•   Section 3: Collaborations, Special Projects, and Community Partnerships

Section 1 highlights the role of instruction, liaison engagement, and outreach services in supporting ethnic studies programs. The chapters cover a variety of topics such as primary source pedagogy, Wikipedia engagement, collaborations between faculty and librarians, and supporting research services in ethnic studies.

Section 2 showcases case studies on collections projects and programs. Authors share and cover ways of supporting archival and special collections; Indigenous studies collections such as children’s literature; and supporting curriculum through collections. The section also includes one interview piece with Lilian Castillo-Speed from UC Berkeley and gary colmenar from UC Santa Barbara to learn more about their work as ethnic studies librarians and their thoughts on ethnic studies librarianship.

Section 3 highlights collaborations, special projects, and community projects. These case studies range from community collaborations to archival and digital projects and building community-centered archival education. One interview piece with Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen from St. Catherine’s University reveals her thoughts on Asian American studies.

In this introduction, we want to take a moment to highlight our own thoughts on and encounters with ethnic studies as library workers.

Raymond Pun

Back when I was a public library worker in 2006 at the New York Public Library (NYPL), I didn’t know or think I was engaging with this work supporting ethnic studies at all. As I reflect, the work has always focused on ethnic studies, centering on my work in programming, outreach, teaching, and learning engagements. As a student of global and area studies, I often had closer ties to those fields than ethnic studies, particularly Asian Pacific American studies. I didn’t realize I was engaging with both ethnic studies and area and global studies work in parallel. The two fields are not necessarily mutually exclusive but should be seen as rather interconnected.

In October 2011, I was asked to co-organize a symposium celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first Arab American novel and author: The Book of Khalid by Ameen Rihani (1887–1940). NYPL had a copy donated by Rihani himself. Rihani, a Lebanese immigrant, was a writer, public thinker, and political activist. Published in 1911 (the same year that NYPL opened its doors), The Book of Khalid tells the story of two Lebanese boys who immigrated to the United States and illuminates their spiritual, cultural, and political struggles as immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York.

At that time, I was also a graduate student in Middle Eastern studies and focused on the social history of modern Egypt and Syria. I started seeing the connections of public programming being a crucial instrument and space for community engagement through the library, particularly highlighting diverse and underrepresented voices. With the City University of New York Graduate Center and the Ameen Rihani Institute, we co-organized this symposium in the library on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue celebrating the centennial anniversary of this book and recognizing Rihani’s story as an Arab immigrant who emerged as a literary trailblazer in the field.

Prior to organizing this event, I had not heard of Rihani, nor of this publication, so this activity gave me an opportunity to see how we needed to recognize these diverse voices and representations in our collection and public programming and to tell such life stories to the community. For this symposium, we had over 150 attendees. The program connected with the larger Syrian and Lebanese American communities; scholars, journalists, and diplomats attended and recognized Rihani and his literary contributions.

From there on, I organized other public programs and events, and future ones celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at NYPL. I connected to our physical and digital resources centering on the lived experiences of Asian Pacific American experiences, the scholarship, and the field at large, as a public librarian.

When I transitioned to being an academic librarian, I found ample opportunities to draw more on ethnic and diasporic studies with faculty and teachers. At Fresno State, I collaborated with library colleagues, including ethnic studies librarian Vang Vang and faculty members such as Dr. Jenny Banh, in supporting programs and outreach efforts. I co-organized Wikipedia-edit-a-thons centering on the Asian Pacific American and women’s experiences respectively and encouraged and developed new opportunities to incorporate scholarship and research in Asian Pacific American studies into Wikipedia. Collaborating with faculty to support student learning and centering on ethnic studies resources were very critical opportunities to illuminate voices and experiences that are marginalized and underrepresented in Wikipedia.

Supporting ethnic studies is an opportunity to uplift diverse stories and perspectives and to build and affirm such communities and their voices, experiences, and histories; as library and information workers, we must always ask ourselves, Whose stories need to be told? Who is missing in the picture? We need to think critically about how we support ethnic studies and our faculty colleagues in these departments, especially during challenging times in fiscal crises and the systemic violence and oppression that occurs in higher education, in our institutions, in our communities, in our profession, and in our histories. What we collect, preserve, share, and uplift reflects who we are and our priorities.

Kenya S. Flash

My undergraduate experience with ethnic studies was rather limited. At the liberal arts college I attended in northeast Pennsylvania, there was Africana Studies, but not much beyond that. It wasn’t something that was paid too much attention by my advisors or many of my peers. My only experience would be the Black Politics in the United States course I took within the government and law major. Of course, I had also taken comparative politics and international relations, but these have very different disciplinary foci. Subsequently, when I was informed that I would be the librarian for Yale’s Ethnicity, Race, and Migration major, I felt completely out of my depth. I must admit that I often still do.

There were many other surprising things about my support for the major. It actually was not listed as a part of my job description, and thus technically fell under other duties assigned. I found out about it when one of the faculty members reached out for an instruction session. Indeed, I came to learn that not only was I supporting the major, but also the affiliated center, the Center for Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM for short). I honestly felt that I would not be able to serve this major well, as the necessary knowledge was far from my own knowledge base. To complicate this matter further, I support teaching and programming in the major, but another colleague facilitates the collection development.

In my first meeting with the coordinator for the senior essays, I expressed my concern and asked what was expected in the first session. We ended up speaking for over an hour. It was the first time that I felt my own experience as an émigré could be validated in a scholarly space, and yet, I approached the first instruction session much as I would approach any other. That year, I approached most interactions with the major in the same manner.

In the next year, I developed programs with the major and with RITM. I continue as usual in providing orientations and engaging with courses, but I have also worked with RITM and the major in sponsoring talks that highlight interests with the major, engaging the major and RITM in a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, and cosponsoring a Decolonizing Archives series. Indeed, I have attempted to foster stronger connections between the library and the major through providing a platform for the library to discuss and potentially include the major and RITM in conversations around the reparative archival discussion work that is occurring within the libraries.

I feel that as a result of the work I have done, I have grown and now envision service to Ethnicity, Race, and Migration through a different lens. This lens has influenced my entire re-creation of my research guide and my desire to be involved in this book. Ethnic studies librarianship isn’t supposed to be approached with the frame of simply doing one’s job; there needs to be engagement, a desire to listen and engage with one’s constituents, and (I cannot reiterate this enough) a focused approach to re-humanizing and emphasizing the voices of those who are being studied. This last part is particularly important as it runs counter to “objective” processes within academia and most research circles. Objectivity and neutrality often subvert the narratives of the oppressed and favor those narratives that frame them within a certain lens—it is my view that ethnic studies librarianship should run counter to that.

Melissa Cardenas-Dow

My journey to ethnic studies librarianship starts with my undergraduate career in sociocultural anthropology and Asian American studies at San Francisco State in the mid- to late 90s. From sociocultural anthropology, I have learned that we can glimpse big events in history through our lived-experience moments. Before coming to San Francisco State, I had lived in the Philippines and moved to the United States with my family. Asian American studies has taught me that these events in our lives—as well as the events we see in the news or our neighborhoods—can be seen through different lenses. My family’s immigration can therefore be seen as a family reunification story or as a chain migration narrative. The lenses we choose to see through have great power to color, to obscure, to accentuate aspects of the world we live in and the relationships we have. They also say something about ourselves.

Let us flash forward a few decades. At the present time, I work as a social sciences librarian at Sacramento State University Library. Ethnic studies, psychology, women’s and gender studies, and education are the subject areas on which I am assigned to focus. Some of the work I do as an ethnic studies librarian is developing programs that nurture student awareness and activism. Most recently, we sponsored a panel discussion to highlight how library words and systems uphold problematic narratives and how we, students and library personnel, can work together to change them. Change the Subject, the 2019 documentary film that highlights the efforts at Dartmouth College to change the Library of Congress subject heading illegal aliens, was to be screened at Sacramento State. The 2020 shutdown of the state of California due to the global COVID-19 pandemic changed these plans. We’ve since revived and changed our pre-pandemic plans to suit the online environment. Our new program still highlights the narratives prevalent in library systems and how counternarratives from various areas of the university community and beyond are employed to support change. Only now, the revised program is focused on the panel discussion on work and narratives and necessitated that our audience view the documentary on their own.

At different times, my public university had been designated and received grants as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution (AANAPISI). Through these grants, various projects and programs focused on meeting the needs of underrepresented and minoritized students in attaining their educational goals and improving retention and graduation rates. Part of the work of meeting the educational needs of underrepresented students is the task of helping them engage with the many different lenses through which they can view the world, as well as the viewpoints that will be imposed on them by others. Such a task is complex and multifaceted and involves critical thinking and engagement with various information and cultural materials. These, in turn, assert, dispute, and perpetuate narratives and counternarratives that undergird what we see, hear, know, and learn about each other and the worlds we inhabit. This critical awareness is the aspect of education that does not end with graduation and certification. This continuous engagement, and the decision to generate action from awareness, is the great hope for which many educators strive. Recently, California passed a state law requiring ethnic studies be a graduation requirement for all California State University programs and degrees. This is a welcome change to many of us, signaling the central significance of race and ethnicity in shaping, and even determining, the path of so many. Though we assert that race is a construct made up of values, abstractions, and ideas, it nonetheless affects our material world. Such a lens is powerful and has tremendous reach across disciplines, fields, time, and space.

The significance of this collection of essays lies in the counternarratives emphasized by projects, cases, and programs we develop through our work as ethnic studies librarians. The voices and the struggles we emphasize are at the heart of learning and demonstrating how race and ethnicity, despite their abstractness, have real, concrete meaning and consequences in American society. The struggle for equity and social justice is not a neutral arena. Creating programs and supporting equity isn’t enough. Being able to see who speaks and who is silenced matters tremendously. It is a question we should all ask ourselves and the work we do. Thinking about and critically interrogating our own positions and situatedness as individuals and ethnic studies librarians (and simultaneous agents of institutions of higher learning) matter greatly. We support critical thinking when we ourselves engage in critiquing our motives and impact and those of our work. In many instances, perhaps giving way for others and quietude are better, prudent options.

Supporting critical thinking and engagement with ideas and knowledge is central to our mission as academic librarians and library workers. Ethnic studies librarianship, therefore, helps focus the work of academic engagement outside the walls of the classroom. Through our cocurricular library programs and collections, we support the intellectual journey of students to become aware of the various ways we see the world and the numerous stories we tell and come across in our lifetime.