A People’s Library and a People’s University

The UChicago Library Activist Network stands with the UChicago Student Activist Network and sets forth parallel demands to create a transformative and community-based library.

“As library workers, our labors are central to the academic mission of a world class research university. As citizens of this University, we are answering the call of #CareNotCops to join their fight. We demand that President Zimmer and Provost Lee meet all the demands of #CareNotCops, beginning with disclosing the budget of the University of Chicago Police Department.”

—“Open the Books on UCPD,” a petition from the UChicago Library Activist Network

One year ago, we wrote these words to declare our support for #CareNotCops. Today, we write to declare our support of the UChicago Student Activist Network and its demands to divest from death, invest in community, and reimagine our University. We uplift the foundational work of community organizations such as GoodKids MadCity, Assata’s Daughters, and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression (CAARPR).

In the past year, we have seen a surge of campus and community support for the #CareNotCops demands to disclose the budget of and defund, disarm, and disband UCPD. Calls to defund UCPD and “open the books” have come from #MoreThanDiversity, Black graduate students at UChicago, the University of Chicago Labor Council, Graduate Students United, and the Chicago Maroon Editorial Board, to name a few. At the same time, we have received multiple emails from University administrators declaring their support for #BlackLivesMatter and their commitment to anti-racism. But we have still not seen the University of Chicago’s budget. The Board of Trustees, outgoing president Robert Zimmer, and Provost Ka Yee Lee refuse to tell us how much they spend on a private police force that shot a student during a mental health crisis, taunted student protesters and endangered their health, and harassed students. While UCPD is exempt from public oversight, its few published statistics show that officers disproportionately stop and question Black people, the majority of whom are not breaking any laws. Despite daily reminders that UCPD does not keep our community safe, University leaders continue to defend UCPD and seek to avoid and delay accountability through yet more committees that go nowhere and accomplish no actual change.

We have been heartened by the increase in discussions about racism in Library spaces in the past year. Library administrators, consisting of the Library director and her director’s council, reported to Library workers in February that they completed four half-day sessions and a wrap-up with Ingrid Wallace Presents, a consultancy that specializes in diversity and inclusion training. This spring, administrators required a similar training of the Library Leadership Council, which consists of department heads and upper-level managers. All staff were informed in June that the next step is “advancing diversity training” for supervisors. We are grateful for the work of the Diversity and Inclusion team, whose members have created spaces for staff to discuss institutional racism and oppression and have uplifted the importance of self-care for all workers. We have seen an increase in information sharing at the Library, in the form of monthly Q&A sessions (though these were eliminated in November 2020) and operational updates over email, first sent daily and now weekly. We have had members of the provost’s and president’s office share information about reopening plans and the current search for a new Library director. And we have seen an increase in acknowledging and celebrating staff and Library achievements.

We are grateful for these changes—but none of them have addressed the systemic racism present in the Library and University or the use and abuse of power, nor have they even acknowledged power imbalances in the Library. As activist and scholar Peggy McIntosh wrote in an essay Library leadership shared with staff, “To redesign social systems, we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here.… Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.” We are disappointed that the Library administration has not advocated for systematic changes that would dismantle institutional racism—in fact, it often undermines the efforts of staff trying to implement changes. We received no response when we delivered our call to embrace anti-oppressive approaches to safety in Library spaces, which was signed by almost 3,000 UChicago and South Side community members. Despite the anti-racism training by Library leadership, there has been no change to the Library’s complex, hierarchical committee structure that concentrates decision-making at the top and excludes unioned and student workers, who typically work in essential, frontline positions and who were among the first to return to work on-site. The vast majority of Library staff continue to lack the “freedom of confident action.”

For those of us at the periphery of this hierarchy, we typically do not hear about reopening plans or changes to services and policies until they are finalized and scheduled to be implemented in as little as a week from the announcement. Allied Universal security forces now patrol Library spaces to enforce COVID procedures, but there are no rules for engagement with anyone not following the COVID policies listed on the Library website. Currently, the only engagement protocols are pre-pandemic policies that are almost a decade old and rely on escalation—not de-escalation. When staff members ask about accommodations for continued remote work or hybrid work, we get different and conflicting answers. We have heard from colleagues who quit or plan to quit if they are not given accommodations, such as those offered by peer institutions. An internal communication on July 7 informed us that we must arrange hybrid work accommodations with our supervisors to go into effect by September 7, but the policies have yet to be shared. Neither has the Library administration explained how it will standardize these policies to ensure that supervisors are treating staff equitably within and between departments. We need clear and equitable practices across the library, developed with transparency, accountability, and power sharing, that work to uplift every member of our community, not just the privileged. In other words, we need Library leadership to honor its commitment to anti-racism and diversity and inclusion.

We acknowledge and celebrate that the Library director and her director’s council love the Library and its communities as we do. We acknowledge that the decisions they make often require weighing the desires of one group over the needs of another. We question why the desires of the privileged are so often prioritized over the needs of the vulnerable. We are left with the conclusion that the Library administration bases its decisions about Library policies and services on the needs and desires of University administration, whose members prioritize students and faculty—to the extent that these groups generate profits and prestige for the University. We ask: Are we not part of this community? How is this a community if those in control are never accountable to those outside hierarchical power structures?

For the above reasons, we agree with the UChicago Student Activist Network that we need a People’s University connecting all our struggles and uniting against all exploitation. We support its demands and add our struggles as Library workers:

Divest from Death: Abolish all forms of policing

  • Commit to ending all policing of patrons and staff in Library spaces by 2027.
  • Forgive all debts and end all fees and fines. The Library’s budget should not be balanced on the backs of money extracted from our patrons.
  • Stop sharing patron data with Unique Material Recovery Service to locate missing materials.
  • Stop intimidation and policing of Library workers, including monitoring our social media accounts and internal communications.
  • Eliminate any background checks or questions about drug use or arrests from the hiring process of all positions in the Library.

Invest in Community: Reparations to those harmed

  • Create a council of South Side community members and researchers to research the Library’s connection to slavery and policing. Members must be compensated for their work and funds made available to pay for programming.
  • Offer Library access and borrowing privileges to members of the South Side community at no cost.
  • Hire librarians and Library workers with expertise in reparations to support the proposed critical race studies department.
  • Increase non-administrative staff at the Library by 20 percent by 2027, with a focus on de-escalation training, reparative justice, community engagement, and building and supporting collections in service to liberation from white-supremacist, capitalist systems.

Reimagine our University: Abolish administration and the Board of Trustees and replace with student-staff-community council

  • Disband the Director’s Council and Library Leadership Council.
  • Reorganize Library staff and departments around a non-hierarchical, power-sharing, consensus-building model that empowers all staff, especially union staff.
  • Adopt a restorative justice model to move away from calling law enforcement on patrons and staff. Adopt a reparative justice community agreement for internal operations.
  • Publicly affirm the right to freedom of expression for University workers, including union staff, non-academic staff, and staff employed by University vendors.
  • Provide free childcare, 12 weeks of paid family leave, six weeks of paid bereavement leave, and remote work options for all staff, regardless of appointment.
  • Implement a base salary of $50,000 for all full-time University employees and a minimum $20 per hour for part-time staff.
  • Provide full tuition remission for all University employees to enroll in classes at UChicago.
  • Offer reduced rent in Hyde Park and Woodlawn and zero percent interest mortgage loans for all employees.

The Library Activist Network also endorses the demands of the individual organizations of the UChicago Student Activist Network:

  • Release the budget, disclose investments and endowment spending, and give students control in determining where University money is spent (UChicago Student Action)
  • Cut all University ties to Israel and adopt Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) principles on campus (Students for Justice in Palestine)
  • Fully fund student and community-led community centers and an ethnic studies department (#CommunityCentersNow and #EthnicStudiesNow)
  • Defund, disclose the budget of, disarm, and disband the University of Chicago Police Department (#CareNotCops)
  • Allocate money for affordable housing and end University expansion (UChicago Against Displacement)
  • Create a truly accessible University that includes physical, academic, and digital accommodations, with a fully funded and community-led disability community center (Students for Disability Justice)
  • Divest from all systems of war and militarism, domestic and international, including UChicago’s Crime Lab that works in service of the Chicago Police Department (UChicago Dissenters)

The Library Activist Network at UChicago is a group of UChicago library workers who are committed to promoting social justice within library spaces.