Cornell University librarian demands LIBRARIES be held accountable for their ‘fraught history of being complicit in racism’

  • Cornell University Librarian Reanna Esmail says libraries are often ‘complicit in racism’
  • Esmail, who works at the Ivy League college’s Olin Library, spoke at a virtual event on confronting anti-Asian racism 
  • The librarian also highlighted the Dewey Decimal System, which is used to classify books by giving a different numbered section to different subjects
  • English, French and Greek languages have multiple Dewey sections apiece – but East and Southeast Asia languages are given just one  

A librarian at Cornell University has claimed libraries are ‘fraught with racism’ – and highlighted their book classification system as evidence of this bigotry. 

Reanna Esmail, an outreach and engagement librarian at Cornell’s Olin Library, spoke during a discussion last Friday aimed at combatting anti-Asian racism.


She said: ‘As a librarian, I see the ways in which my profession has the capacity to confront bias and misinformation in ways we approach and teach information and digital literacy. 

‘Libraries are predominantly white fields, and Cornell is no exception in this regard. Libraries themselves also have a fraught history of being complicit in racism, and in some cases, upholding and disseminating racist ideas.’ 

Esmail made the comment during a virtual school event on Confronting Anti-Asian Racism on Friday. The librarian said she believes libraries should be held accountable for reinforcing white supremacy, even if it’s inadvertent, The Cornell Daily Sun reported. 

Esmail used the example of the the Dewey Decimal System to illustrate her point.  

The system, also known as DDC, was devised my American librarian Melvil Dewey in 1876. It is used to classify books by assigning them all into 10 broad sections. They are then further subdivided further within these individual sections. Decimal points are then used to subdivide sections further – 974 is used for New England, with 974.1 then given to Maine, 974.2 used for New Hampshire, and so on.  

Esmail accused the DDC of using ‘outdated’ language to refer to Asian people. She did not elaborate further, but the system gives individual sections to many western nationalities, then refers to Thai people as ‘Tai,’ and puts them into the same ‘miscellaneous’ section as people from Vietnam.

Similarly, the entire continent of Africa appears under a single section in the ‘people’ category of the DDC, which also includes people from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. 

DDC has faced similar criticism for the uneven focus on languages.

Jane Behre, a library research scientist explained her issue with the DDC in a June 2020 post on 

English, German, and Greek each have eight individual numbered sections dedicated to them, while French, Italian, Spanish and Latin have seven sections dedicated to each language. 

These split those languages into topics as varied as etymology, grammar, dictionaries and historic variations.

But nine ‘other languages,’ including those of east and southeast Asia, as well as African languages, have just one classification code each.  

The number 495 is given to classify books on Languages on East and Southeast Asia – their only mention in the system. And the number 496 is the only one dedicated to African languages, despite the continent being home to 54 countries, and an estimated 2,000 languages.  

‘Western European languages have highly specific classifications, while the majority of non-white and non-western European languages are all lumped together; even if they span an entire continent,’ Behre wrote. 

‘A similar pattern exists when looking at the Library of Congress classifications for languages,’ she said. 

Similar criticisms have been made over the Dewey System’s representation of religion, with 89 sections devoted to Christianity, but just one assigned to Islam, and another for Judaism. 

Homosexuality initially appeared in the DDC in the sections numbered 132 and 159.9 – devoted to mental derangements and abnormal psychology.

It has since been moved to section 306.7, which covers sexual relations. The classification system was also branded sexist, after previously putting its section on women close to its ‘etiquette’ section.