Libraries and social justice: reflections after the looting

Posted on October 28, 2021

In July 2021 South African and international TV viewers were horrified to see many thousands of our citizens arriving at shopping malls and warehouses to participate in a sort of feeding frenzy. Law and order were restored with some difficulty.  This raised questions.  For how long? And to what sort of normality do we want to return? To the same society, with its political, economic, social, and demographic fault lines, unemployment, poverty, hunger and deprivation, the same inequality?

Professor Peter Lor who is a Research Associate at the Department Information Science at the University of Pretoria, presented a paper at The Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) 2021 virtual conference which took place 27-30 September. His paper offered an initial reflection on inequality, information, and what roles libraries can play to promote social justice.

The concept of justice as fairness, as conceptualized by the American political philosopher John B. Rawls, offers a point of departure. Simply stated, Rawls set out three principles for a fair society:

(1) Society must give each citizen an equal claim to basic rights and liberties.

(2) Social structures should ensure equality of opportunity.

(3) More controversially, economic inequalities are acceptable provided they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

While South Africa has a splendid constitution which satisfies Rawls’ first principle, we fall down woefully in respect of the other two. To a large extent, our social structures ensure that poverty is self-perpetuating. From birth many children are condemned for life to the disadvantages affecting their parents. In particular failure to acquire basic skills in reading and writing, limited access to computers and the Internet, and inadequate information literacy, are severe handicaps in the labour market and constrain participation in the political process. Information inequality (or information poverty) is an integral component of social injustice.

Combating information poverty is high on the agenda of librarians and information workers. Libraries, especially public libraries, do indeed promote equality of opportunity and combat information poverty. Among many responses to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries Initiative launched a multi-stakeholder and multidisciplinary programme to share expertise in the field, and much has been learned.

There is much more we can and must do, but changing what we do is mostly easier than changing how we think. In Lor’s view the greatest challenge to us as South African librarians and information workers is to think inside-out, from inside the disadvantaged communities to what we do on the margin. We need to see society from their perspective and escape the insidious “us versus them” mentality which blames the poor for their poverty, lamentably confounding cause and effect. We must avoid the trap of denying what sociologists call the agency of the poor. We should respect them as autonomous human beings. LIS professionals are not higher beings who have to “uplift” the “lower classes” to our level so that we can maintain a status quo we find comfortable.  To borrow from the feminist critical theorist, Gayatri Spivak, we must allow the subaltern – the disadvantaged, marginalized and disparaged – to speak, so that we can critically rethink the status quo and what we do from their perspective. If libraries are indeed “innately subversive institutions”, Lor suggests that we must be prepared to be subversive.

- Author Peter Lor
Published by Joukje Geertsema

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