Vanessa Irvin Morris carries over 20 years’ experience serving in libraries: academic, special, school media, and public. Her research interests include the socio-cultural anthropology of small, urban and rural libraries, literacy practices of public service librarians, and literacy practices enacted and learned in Second Life.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
I grew up during the 1970’s, during the aftermath of the Civil Rights riots. I remember the 1968 riots and how we moved from North Philadelphia to Camden, to escape the violence. However, we did not escape it, because I remember my father putting a red cloth over our front door to let rioters know we were black and to please not bother us. So that had an impact on me … having to stay away from the windows at night (and we lived in a 2nd floor apartment at that), my father bribing neighborhood guys to watch our house and have our back as me and my sister walked back and forth from school … I learned early on that being black in America is a political identity, inherited from the crib to the grave.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
As a writer, as a librarian, as an educator, I am very sensitive to everyone’s cultural locations. My personal experiences of being left out, left behind, accosted for my skin color (either too light or obviously not white) taught me to be empathetic to the many identities that everyone carries. These experiences continue to fuel questions that I seek to explore that have to do with library service and how educators all around, work with students, patrons, and communities of color. I am interested to learn what do mainstream librarians know about communities who are not of the mainstream? How do they service these communities? How does what they know and don’t know about other cultural experiences translate in the services they provide? Are librarians really helping or hindering when they are not culturally competent? These are the questions that have come as part of the impact that racism has had in my personal, and professional, experiences.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
I am looking at this for my dissertation research as well. I am very interested to explore, observe, and learn how literary genres can be used to foster cultural understanding and personal inquiry for librarians. I think that literature can be used to challenge librarians to be lifelong readers of literature (not just acolytes) and lifelong learners of life, people, and society. This is not to say that librarians are not already doing this, being this. It is to say that there may be a trend in the profession where librarians do not embrace reading literature as a form of continuing education and professional development. I believe we need to always engage in literature throughout our entire careers and lives, so that we have our fingers on the pulse of social issues, trends, and discourse.
Professor Morris is a full-time faculty member at the College of Information Science and Technology at Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA (The iSchool at Drexel).