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How white is your conference: message from the OCULA President

By Angela Henshilwood

Hello! My name is Angela Henshilwood and I’m an Engineering Librarian at the University of Toronto. I am thrilled to be writing this first piece as OCULA President for 2020.

An open white book against a white background.

We are just wrapping up OLA’s premier event: Super Conference. Every year, the conference attracts thousands of library workers—not just from Ontario, but from across Canada and beyond. Let me give a big shout-out to Emily Burns, Zack Osborne, Elizabeth Obermeyer, and all the divisional planners for curating a great conference!

This year, the conference included several sessions addressing the problem of white supremacy and a lack of diversity in libraries and librarianship. For example, the session “How White is Your Collection?” grappled with identifying the lack of diversity in a rural public library collection; and the session “How to Lead White People” gave Indigenous and racialized library workers a safe space to discuss issues around supervising white people. I am thrilled that the planning committee supported these sessions and I am grateful that these conversations are happening. Unfortunately, while I’m sure the majority of our community feels the same way, OLA staff and board members have received a few complaints about these sessions and others; there are also rumblings on Twitter, and yesterday an article was published in the Toronto Sun lamenting that “librarians denounce white privilege”.

Four differently-coloured hands supporting each other.I feel compelled to address these complaints, even if they come from a very small minority. The Super Conference provides a safe space for our community to address these difficult problems, and is one key way that OLA signals its support for groups that have been historically and systematically marginalized, oppressed, and discriminated against. To those sounding the ‘reverse racism’ alarm: your hurt feelings over identifying with the oppressing group are nothing compared to the abuse and discrimination that Indigenous and racialized people have faced for generations in every area of life, including in libraries.

In my time leading OCULA, I want to support an open and safe space to have conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion, or the lack thereof, in the library sector. I acknowledge that these problems are not always clear, but that only reinforces the need for these discussions. Systemic racism and white supremacy are real, and they have major and lasting impacts on the library sector. We know that social problems are not caused by individuals, but they are solved that way—one person and one conversation at a time—and we are each responsible for doing what we can to make our society better. People need to be able to ask awkward questions: as a white person coming to terms with the privilege that white supremacy has afforded me, I know that these conversations can be uncomfortable. Mistakes will be made, but that’s okay; our missteps are how we learn, and they will eventually lead to greater openness, inclusion, and diversity—and that makes life better for everyone. We cannot escape this deeply-rooted problem: we must work together towards change. Let’s do this!

A neon sign with the words "think about things differently", with the last word reversed.Switching directions, I would also like to take this opportunity to thank our outgoing president, Cyndi Smith, for her wonderful leadership of the 2019 Council and for being such a fantastic mentor to me over the past year. She has prepared me well, but I still feel grateful that I can rely on her (heavily) in her new role as Past President. Let me also thank all members of the 2019 Council: it has been a pleasure working with you, and I am so happy that I will continue working with most of you in 2020. Thank you to Monique Flaccavento, whose term is up: as always, you were a delight to work with, and we will miss your lovely presence in our meetings—but I know where you work, so you cannot really get away! Finally, a big welcome to Zack Osborne, our incoming Vice President/President-Elect: I could not be more excited to work with you on OCULA Council.


Angela Henshilwood is an Engineering Librarian at the University of Toronto and President of OCULA, 2020. You can reach her at angela.henshilwood [at]

Image credits

  1. Header image provided by Angela Henshilwood.
  2. Photo by Olia Gozha on Unsplash.
  3. Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay.
  4. Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi from Pexels.
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