Julie Winkelstein is the Change She Wants to See in Libraries

Community Profile

“My goal in life is for people to see that we do a lot of different things, so people can understand that social justice comes naturally to librarians.”

Julie Winkelstein
Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
iSchool Alumna (MLIS 2005)

San José State University School of Information alumna Julie Winkelstein on how libraries and librarians can create a welcoming and supportive environment.

Julie Winkelstein has a passion for social justice, for diversity and inclusion, with a focus on youth and homelessness in libraries. After working for years as a librarian in Alameda County, California without an MLIS, in 2003 she took advantage of a California State Library program offering to pay graduate school tuition for librarians who had been working for at least two years. Winkelstein joined the MLIS program at San Jose State University.

“I’m really glad I went to school,” she says.“Going to library school gave me another way of understanding my work. It was like living in a house but never understanding how it was built. It gave me an opportunity to look at the overall structure in a way I hadn’t before that.”

Winkelstein took what she learned out into the world, to make an impact on how libraries and librarians address social justice. “Diversity and multiculturalism are the reasons I went back to school,” she adds. “I wanted to do something that would make the world a better place, make a change.”

Libraries and Social Justice

It was during her first job as a jail librarian that Winkelstein really made the connection between librarians and social justice. “If you’re not into social justice before you start working in a jail library, you sure as heck are after,” she says. “I was angry the whole time I was doing this: at the set up, at the way we institutionalize and punish people. The criminal justice system I saw was not designed with any of us in mind.” 

She joined the American Library Association’s Social Responsibility Roundtable (SRRT), a group founded with the belief that “libraries and librarians must recognize and help solve social problems and inequities in order to carry out their mandate to work for the common good and bolster democracy.”

Three years after getting her MLIS, Winkelstein decided to further her education and moved to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville for an interdisciplinary PhD program. “I took every class I could that had ‘social justice’ in the description,” she recalls. “Public health, community organizing, community movement.”

One day her advisor asked if she’d ever thought about homelessness, youth and libraries, and gave her some startling statistics to think about: of roughly 2 million homeless youth in the United States, 40% identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “And I thought—the library has to be able to do something about that! But no one…was relating it directly to libraries.”

Consequently, Winkelstein switched her focus from issues of diversity in libraries to homelessness, specifically youth experiencing homelessness, and how libraries can better serve this underrepresented, often ignored group. She began teaching online courses at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, including a course on Valuing Diversity, International and Intercultural Resources for Youth. The course aims to help librarians create collections that reflect all library users and provide insight into their diverse lives.

Focusing on a Welcoming and Supportive Library Environment

For the last three years, Winkelstein has been the postdoctoral researcher on a pilot Institute of Museum and Library Services grant called Library Anchor Models for Bridging Diversity Achievements, where she provides trainings for library staff on the how to create a welcoming and supportive library environment for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.

“The trainings I do are to raise awareness about what a welcoming and safe library looks like,” she elaborates. Winkelstein, pictured right at an event for The Human Library, asks librarians to consider things like library displays and the language used throughout the system, asking thoughtful questions like: do you require gender on the library card application? Do you have gender nonconforming as an option? Do you require a permanent address? For transgender patrons who’ve changed their name-do you let them use it?

Her recommendation for full library patron inclusion is: don’t assume anything about anybody. “Don’t assume that someone has a safe place to sleep the night before; don’t assume that because they look like they’re female identified that they are; don’t assume that they can read, or see, or hear, or that when you tell them something that they can follow directions. Be culturally humble and willing to listen and learn,” Winkelstein says.

ALA’s Hunger, Homelessness and Poverty Task Force

SRRT was created during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the beginning of the gay rights movements.

Out of SSRT came groups like the Martin Luther King, Jr. Task Force, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table and the Hunger, Homelessness and Poverty Task Force, of which Winkelstein is an active member. HHPTF was founded in 1996 to raise awareness of poverty issues in libraries, and works closely with the Office for Diversity and Literacy Outreach Services.

“Two of the most important issues in libraries are diversity, and dealing with social and economic disparity,” Winkelstein explains. “ HHPTF does a lot of work with the MLK Jr. task force. One of the projects we’ve been working on for several years is to interview librarians, do a short interview on one of the aspects of MLK Jr’s idea of equality, fairness, social justice, and ask them how that informs their work.”

The small task force is also working on a resolution to get ALA to take a strong stand on addressing homelessness. Winkelstein hopes the resolution will encourage ALA to create funding to support programs for libraries to better address challenges related to serving their unstably housed users.

“People don’t understand that libraries would make great national, federal partners in some of these huge issues, like homelessness and poverty. We spend a lot of time trying to explain who we are… so our funding will continue. But we also need to be saying: people trust libraries; we are in the communities, we are doing critical work, and you need to be partnering with us. We [should be advocating] not only for ourselves but also for societal changes that help communities thrive.

Libraries do so much more than people realize,” she adds. “Libraries save lives.”

Suggestions for Further Reading

Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement.” ALA Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services.

Naidoo, J. C., & Dahlen, S. P. (Eds.). (2013). Diversity in youth literature: Opening doors through reading. Chicago: American Library Association.

Samek, T. (2007). Librarianship and human rights: A twenty-first century guide. Oxford, England: Chandos.

Winston, M. (2014). Managing multiculturalism and diversity in the library: Principles and issues for administrators. New York: Routledge.

Cooke, N.A. & Sweeney, M.E. (Eds.) (2016). Teaching for Justice: Implementing Social Justice in the LIS Classroom. Sacramento: Litwin Books/Library Juice Press.