Developing an Anti-Racist Strategy for the Library


I came to the CfA in 2015, and in 2017 I became Head Librarian here. At that time, I decided I wanted to update the library’s mission. I also wanted to make explicit the library’s priorities (what we do) and guiding principles (how we do it). However, at the time, I was not considering the library’s values (why we do what we do), and I did not realize until now that leaving our values unexamined could be harmful.


When I say values, I mean things that motivate the work done in the library. For example, patron privacy and intellectual freedom are both values that heavily influence the norms of how the library operates and the things that we consistently take into consideration throughout our workdays.

For instance, we shred all documents containing patron information. We also never share information about patrons outside of our small team. It would be absolutely unthinkable for us to do something like provide someone a list of people who borrowed a specific book. This is so inconceivable, in fact, that we could not do it even if we wanted to. Our systems do not allow this type of reporting.

Intellectual freedom is similar. We would never censor what the community has access to. Indeed, we participate in two of the largest lending networks on the planet and do our best to make sure our community can access anything they need to do their work, and anything they want to satisfy their intellectual curiosity.

These values take the form of norms that are so ingrained that we don’t need to think about them. They are part of the library’s culture of practice and act as bedrock for our work. Until recently though I hadn’t realized we should be critically examining one of our values much more closely.


Prior to George Floyd’s murder and its aftermath, I would have thought of equality as one of the library’s values, but what I meant by “equality” would have been incomplete and overly simplistic. For instance, library staff do not give preferential treatment to faculty requests over requests from students (or anyone else). Everyone’s work is important, and we’re here to help the astronomy community at large.

But equality is not always about treating everyone the same. Equality is about enabling equal outcomes for people who have different obstacles in their way.

Understanding this, the library has already taken some steps to move beyond basic definitions of equality. For instance, we regularly focus on ways for the library to address gender inequities in astronomy, and we have worked to amplify discussions about cultural diversity at the CfA through the library’s small exhibits program. We have also sponsored events that respond to the needs of our non-native English-speakers and early career scientists and, for many years, we have advocated for physical changes to the library so our space can be more supportive and equally accessible to anyone who visits.

So why then, have we managed to not give racial equity the same degree of attention?

The simple answer is this: Despite our efforts to fully support the community, we have benefitted from White privilege— the implicit and systemic advantages that people who are deemed White have, and that people who are not deemed White do not have.1 As a result, we have not been addressing racial equity in astronomy as the problem it truly is.


The recent wave of discussions about racial equality around the world (and at the CfA) has made it abundantly clear how necessary it is to incorporate anti-racist values into what the Library does. So I’m writing here that the library is dedicated to resolving this blindspot and incorporating anti-racist norms into our operation.

Thanks to decades of work by people focusing specifically on how to actualize systemic change to address racial injustice, we have a better understanding of the type of change the library should be trying to enable. Specifically, the AIP TEAM-UP report has been incredibly useful for helping us understand how the library can fit into a broader culture shift at the CfA by supporting “second-order” change rather than simply focusing on “first-order” changes. The AIP TEAM-UP authors write:

Why is systemic change difficult, and what can physicists do about it? To answer the first question, it is helpful to distinguish between two types of institutional change (Kezar 2014). First-order institutional changes are those that modify processes to better achieve an established goal. Second-order changes are those requiring that underlying norms, values, and culture be addressed before changes can occur.

The TEAM-UP report also makes it clear that actualizing second-order change requires institutions to move beyond traditional approaches to strategic planning.

Standard approaches of strategic planning are unlikely to succeed because the underlying norms, values, and culture of the profession need to be addressed before lasting changes can occur… First, a theory of change must be developed to guide the change process.

A theory of change (ToC) is a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. We have therefore begun to develop an anti-racist theory of change for the library.

Getting Started on an Anti-Racist ToC

In 2009, the Aspen Institute created a guide to constructing a Racial Equity Theory of Change that emphasizes “backward mapping.” Backward mapping requires you to think backwards from your end goal and consider what needs to be in place to make progress toward that goal possible. In this way you can create a “logically consistent explanation of where one needs to start and what one needs to accomplish in order to achieve a desired outcome.” This approach has given me a starting place. Below I’m outlining progress on the Library’s ToC and where we think we need to go from here.

Step 1: Define a goal

Through discussion with members of the CfA community, both from the perspective of running the library and through my role as chair of the SAO Council, as well as many internal conversations among the library staff, I realized that defining an ultimate goal specific only to the library would not meaningfully address structural racism at the CfA. We need to acknowledge that the library is only one small part of the institution’s infrastructure, so shifting norms within the library will not be sufficient— for this reason our goal is a CfA-wide aspiration:

Develop an anti-racist environment that fosters
respect and opportunity for all people at the CfA.

Step 2: Define roles for the library

Defining roles for the library will allow us to realistically assess our capacity to do anti-racist work at the CfA to reach our goal. Knowing the roles we can play will also help us define progress and identify allies as we move forward.

The library’s ability to instigate change and the roles we can play are heavily influenced by how we are situated within the CfA’s governance model and organizational hierarchy. We have no direct control over institution-wide policies and very few procedures are purely governed by the library itself. However, immediately reporting to the CfA Director, we have the ability to advocate to the community’s executive and CfA management more broadly. The library team is also made up of both HCO and SAO staff, and our funding is provided by both HCO- and SAO-sources. This split, while administratively challenging at times, is an asset that allows us to advocate to both of the CfA’s parent institutions and participate in wider discussions happening at both HCO and SAO. The CfA Library Committee is also an asset that will act as a valuable sounding board as its membership represents both SAO and HCO staff, as well as all of the CfA’s various divisions. By collaborating with people employed by both HCO and SAO, as well as participating in CfA-wide efforts (e.g., Equity and Inclusion Journal Club, APS-IDEA task force), the library staff can contribute to goals that implicate issues beyond the scope of the library itself.

The library’s combined HCO/SAO identity is necessary because the library provides resources to all members of the CfA community and, to every extent possible, the astronomy community as a whole. For this reason it is clear that another role the library can play in addressing systemic racism is to provide resources that are not otherwise being made available at the CfA. To do this we must critically assess the resources we provide now and address existing gaps. The AIP TEAM-UP report specifically emphasizes the need to bolster physics identity and belonging among black and brown people in the field, so we will therefore deliberately (and continuously) re-consider how our resources enable both. We will also consider how the resources we provide could discourage physics identity and belonging and factor this consideration into collection decisions.

Step 3: Define strategic priorities for the library

Once the library’s roles were clear, the next step was to determine where we have the greatest capacity to instigate change. Without understanding where we can make the biggest difference it would not be possible to create a realistic set of anti-racist priorities for the library. Through discussion and a lot of reflection, we settled on three areas where the library’s work can meaningfully contribute to our broader goal for the CfA. Specifically, the library has the greatest capacity to influence our own policies and priorities, the library’s physical space, and the community’s understanding of the issues surrounding race-based oppression.

Narrowing in on these areas, we have developed an initial set of anti-racist priorities and begun carrying them out:

Wolbach’s Anti-Racist Priorities

Incorporate anti-racist values into the libraries policies and priorities
Specifically, we will work to ensure that our policies, collections, projects, and professional development resources provide both academic and personal support to help build an anti-racist community. We will also dedicate both financial and staffing resources to projects that directly confront systemic racism in astronomy.

Use our physical space to reinforce anti-racist norms at the CfA
We will develop exhibits that respond to problems of “White space”2 at the CfA and sponsor events that foster discussions about racism, colonialism, and gender-based oppression in the field. We will also double down on our commitment to addressing the library’s long standing accessibility problems (i.e., stairs) which significantly contribute to an unwelcoming and exclusionary work environment for anyone with mobility issues who has ever wanted to enter our space. We know that accessibility is a civil rights issue and that ignoring this fact undercuts the CfA’s ability to give many people a sense of belonging.

Foster community understanding
We commit to providing resources that support cultural competence and belonging. We know resources like this will be essential to ensuring racial equality at the CfA in the future. But to figure out why our community functions as it does and why harmful aspects persist despite attempts to change, we must learn from our past. This is to say that defining our community in the present without considering our history would be unwise at best and at worst, damaging. For this reason the library will prioritize astronomy history-focused and archaeoastronomy resources that can enrich discussions and inform decision-making at the CfA. We also plan to contribute to committee work and collaborate with on-going community efforts to actualize change.

Putting all of the above together, here is our current Racial Equity Theory of Change diagram:

Diagram summarizing the library's goal, roles, and anti-racist priorities described in this blog post.

Step 4: Act

Our anti-racist priorities have been made clear, so we have begun to act on them with the resources we already have at our disposal:

We incorporated astronomer’s humanity into the Library’s Guiding Principles:

  • Conversation: The Wolbach Library will work to foster conversation among members of the community and actively engage in those conversations to provide resources that meet the community’s continually changing and diverse needs.
  • Ownership: The Wolbach Library is a shared resource for all members of the astrophysics community. Community members are invited to contribute their ideas about how the Library can develop collections that help meet their scholarly and personal goals.
  • Adaptability: The Wolbach Library will maintain a willingness to adapt to the community’s needs and to enable discovery, sharing, and publication of all research artifacts.
  • Support: The Wolbach Library will support the community by providing resources that lower technical and social barriers that impact the future of astronomy research.
  • Humanity: Astronomy is a human endeavor, and the Wolbach Library sees people as the most valuable resource at the CfA. The Library therefore prioritizes people and astronomers’ human needs when making decisions about our collections, services, and projects.

We edited sections of our Collection Development Policy to reflect our anti-racist priorities:

  • Evaluative Criteria
    The ultimate responsibility for selection of resources lies with the Head Librarian of the Wolbach Library, who operates within a framework of institutional policies established by the President and Trustees of Harvard University and those of the Smithsonian Institution… The Wolbach Library also acknowledges the historical and ongoing influence that racism, sexism, and colonialism have on astronomers and their research. The Library therefore commits to continually evaluating how the Library’s collections can be useful in combating these forms of oppression and violence…
  • Subject Breakdown
    The Wolbach Library collects materials that are mostly classified in the QB subject heading according to the Library of Congress classification scheme. However, due to the interdisciplinary nature of astronomers’ work and the diversity of the astronomy community, the Library collects in a broad range of relevant subjects…
  • Format Statement
    Formats which the Wolbach Library collects include books, ebooks, audio, print and digital journals, manuscripts, maps, microforms, objects, and visual media… The Library also builds its own digital and physical collections (e.g., CfA Bibliography, PHaEDRA, Astronomy Theses Collection) and invests in non-material resources like training opportunities that supplement the traditional collection.

We have begun identifying resources and defining new projects to support our goals. We will be reaching out to the community more in the coming weeks about these efforts, and hope you’ll be able and willing to be involved.

Ally Skills Training
This fall we will be sponsoring an ally-skills workshop for the CfA. We plan to work with The ReadySet on this to help members of the community position themselves to successfully undertake allyship. We hope this session will act as a foundation for further training and discussions that can make the CfA a healthier and more inclusive place to work.

The Asterisms in Marginalized and Indigenous Cultures Initiative is the library’s new ethno-astronomical endeavor which aims to broaden the astronomy community’s exposure to astronomical traditions from marginalized cultures, focusing on asterisms. Colloquially defined as a grouping of stars, asterisms differ from “constellations” in that they may include small groupings of stars, and do not have an official, IAU-sanctioned location. The project will consist of two major deliverables: a persistent multi-platform display of non-Western asterisms, and an online database. The scope for the project will undoubtedly change, but will initially focus on astronomy of Native Americans and Native Hawai’ians, and astronomy of the African diaspora. We believe this project will provide a new way of looking at the night sky for a wider audience and make astronomical traditions of marginalized cultures a more prominent fixture in contemporary discourse.

HCO is allowing us to dedicate funding to hiring a historian to work with us on diversity, equity, and inclusion research this year. Our hope is for this temporary position to help us develop grant proposals and new resources to support our efforts at instigating changes in all areas where the library has influence. You can find more information about this position here. Note that our goal is to ensure a diverse applicant pool for this position. Please help us circulate this posting by sharing it with your networks.
Update: this position has been filled.

In addition to the work we plan to do with AMICI and with the help of a Historian-in-Residence, we hope to develop an updated bibliography of resources representing the contributions that people of color have made to astrophysics.

What comes next?

The library’s Racial Equity Theory of Change is incomplete. We still need to work on defining areas of entrenchment that will hinder our work and identify collaborators both within the CfA and external to it. This will help us understand the resources we need to make a difference and ensure progress continues.

We also need to define mechanisms to ensure accountability. At the time I am writing this, the library’s staff is White, and we are just starting to deliberately incorporate anti-racist values into our work. We need you to point out our blindspots. Individual actions are the drivers of culture change. Please tell us when you think we can do better.

1 Throughout this post, we capitalize the word “White” intentionally– for an explanation of this decision, see the following:

Ewing, E. L. (2020). I’m a Black Scholar Who Studies Race. Here’s Why I Capitalize ‘White.’ Medium.

2 “Since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, large numbers of black people have made their way into settings previously occupied only by whites, though their reception has been mixed. Overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, restaurants, and other public spaces remain. Blacks perceive such settings as ‘the white space,’ which they often consider to be informally ‘off limits’ for people like them.”

Anderson, E. (2015). “The White Space.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 1(1), 10–21.

1 Comment

  1. That’s great. I do note that you might include Indigenous South Americans in your scope. They are so marginalized in Chilean society, they are not even a factor in appropriating telescope sites, although in the last decade and a half, telescope site selection does give some consideration to the presence of ritual sites on mountain tops. Have a look a at the pictures on the Wikipedia page for Julius Popper.

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