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Inside Annoyed Librarian

The Perfect and the Good, or at Least the Better

Kind Reader sent this article on racist librarians a couple of weeks ago. It covers the same topic an LJ article also covered this month.

If you haven’t followed this topic that’s of little interest except to well meaning librarians who feel guilty about their existence, the gist is that some European social scientists decided to spend a lot of time trying to find out –  and this is not a joke – “whether racial discrimination exists in access to public services in the United States.”

Whatever else this study shows, it shows that European social scientists can be  just as useless as American social scientists, and they spend time and money proving the bloody obvious.

I mean, seriously, how ignorant about either the United States or human nature do you have to be to believe this is a question worth asking, much less wasting any resources trying to answer.

The conclusion, and it’s a shocker, is that racial discrimination probably exists “in access to public services in the United States.”

They could never have figured that out without sending 19,000 emails to various public service providers around the country using “black names” and “white names” trying to get responses, because apparently they were unaware of the many, many studies on racial bias in human beings.

Various librarians have fretted and moaned about the study, trying to point out the ways it’s flawed, or worrying more about the lack of responses than the responses themselves and the implications for public service..

Or fretting and moaning about how libraries are the “most racist places in a city,” a comment left by someone who apparently goes nowhere but the library and her home.

The researchers are based in Britain and Italy. They could have just as easily queried their own public service providers to find out exactly the same thing. Would libraries respond just the same to “English names” as to “Pakistani names”? We don’t even need a study.

The only remotely surprising thing about this study, the one thing that keeps it from being utterly useless, is finding out just how unracist libraries and other public service providers in the United States are.

Here’s the takeaway from one of the authors himself writing in LJ:

What we found is that 69 percent of U.S. libraries sampled reply to requests from a person with a white-sounding name (we used Greg Walsh and Jake Mueller) while the response rate for those with a black-sounding name, either Tyrone Washington or DeShawn Jackson, was lower, at 65 percent. This difference of four percentage points is statistically significant: we can exclude with a high degree of confidence that it is owing to simple randomness.

Four percentage points is “statistically significant,” but barely. Regardless, for anyone who knows anything about the United States and about human beings in general, the real surprise is: ONLY FOUR PERCENTAGE POINTS?

Wow! That’s amazingly unracist compared to what anyone but white Republicans would expect, since they’re the only people who seem to be unaware of racism in America.

Instead of fretting and moaning about how racist libraries are because they’re not perfect, it’s actually a reason to celebrate how far America has come since the 1960s, when the results of such a study would have been far different.

Even based on the evidence from the study, libraries are only half as racist as sheriff’s offices. Not bad!

Librarians who like to be “change agents,” and for many insufferable years that seemed to be all of them, like to talk about making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Librarians who look at this study and see nothing but how awful libraries are succumb to the same temptation: they make the perfect the enemy of the better.

Their only standard for judgment is perfection: racial discrimination shouldn’t exist, and therefore if it does libraries are terrible places and we should all feel bad because libraries aren’t perfect utopias.

That’s just silly.

Instead, people who are better adjusted to the realities of libraries, politics, and human beings themselves might think this way: racial discrimination exists because humans naturally discriminate against people unlike them; public services in the U.S. used to be legally racist; now the racist argument is over a few percentage points on email responses; things have gotten better!

Plus, librarians in general are increasingly aware of their own biases and the reality of diversity within their communities, so things will likely improve even more!

Expect perfection, which never exists, and you’ll be perpetually disappointed and probably whine about that disappointment and annoy the sensible people around you. Expect improvement, and once in a while you might actually find some.


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. Bob Holley says:

    To follow up on your comment on racisms in the 1960’s, I was doing some research that required me to consult “A right to read; segregation and civil rights in Alabama’s public libraries, 1900-1965.” Things were pretty bad. ALA was having trouble dealing with the issue of racism. In 1963, a research report commissioned by ALA also found de facto discrimination in many Northern cities. At the1963 ALA Conference, “librarians from outside the South, particularly those from the cities covered in the study, were incensed.” (p. 124)The book did say that libraries desegregated faster than most other organizations.

  2. In any case, statistical significance isn’t meaningful without some measure of effect size. A study of the use of aspirin in preventing heart attacks with 22,000 subjects showed a highly significant result: p < .00001. But this is just a consequence of the large sample. The actual improvement, however, was less than 1%, so many people ended up being told to take aspirin who would not materially benefit and who were placed at risk of side effects. A quantitative study without an appropriate measure effect size belongs in the oubliette.

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