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Mellon Foundation Grants $1.25 Million to Create the Radical Librarianship Institute and Community Press at UCLA

By Jenny Burman
Assistant Professor of Information Studies Robert D. Montoya

Robert D. Montoya will serve as PI to establish and implement inclusive and socially-just librarian training and an accompanying community press.

The UCLA School of Education and Information Studies is honored to announce a $1.25 million grant by the Mellon Foundation to support the creation and implementation of the Radical Librarianship Institute and an accompanying community press. 

As its name suggests, the Radical Librarianship Institute represents a break from traditional librarian training. Led by Principal Investigator Robert D. Montoya, UCLA assistant professor of information studies and director of the California Rare Book School (CalRBS) at UCLA, as well as Gregory Leazer, UCLA associate professor of information studies and Sean Pessin, information studies doctoral student and lecturer in the CSU Northridge departments of liberal studies and English, the Institute will exist to redefine the role of librarians, centering principles of inclusion and social justice as it convenes working librarians from across the nation. The grant also will partner with Skye Patrick, UCLA IS doctoral student and Los Angeles County Library Director, who will serve as the public library expert and core member.

“It is truly an honor to be recognized by the Mellon Foundation for this project. I’ve long hoped to implement a project of this scale and scope,” says Professor Montoya. “The Mellon Foundation grant will help create a space where libraries can support strategically excluded communities toward the aim of pushing against these structural injustices, especially by providing publishing avenues to amplify social concerns and work for a more humane collective future.

“The UCLA Libraries, Ethics, and Justice Lab believes deeply that ‘print culture’ wielded ethically and broadly, is a core tool in the push for social change,” he says. “It is our intention to democratize and widen access to these arenas of knowledge and communication in support of a global community that moves forward with an ethic of care for human equality, a belief in the power and beauty of difference, and a foundational belief that an environment destroyed destroys humanity wholly. After all, it is the collective that will promote a more just world, especially when the few in power work concertedly to quash this potential.”

A key part of this program will be the articulation of a radical and transformational library curriculum articulated by some of the leading librarians in the country. The problem these participants will confront is simple but deep-rooted. Based on race, ethnicity, or income status, too many people live in information deserts, excluded from the knowledge wealth that exists in libraries, special collections, databases, and the public sphere. Additionally, many of these communities are also excluded from formal librarianship, spaces of knowledge production, and publishing avenues that allow ready distribution of their knowledge, creativity, and activism, which is a key element for community and collective solidarity and organizing. 

“In no uncertain terms, the globe is experiencing the harsh realities of human neglect on the environment, as well as an erosion of ethical principles in most all of our political and social domains,” says Montoya. “Because these problems are systemic, the inevitable result is that poor, minoritized, and vulnerable populations take the burden of society’s injustices. Specific communities are overtly and strategically barred from arenas of political representation; minoritized communities are unfairly targeted by the justice system under the false promise of social order and the collective attainment of peace; and they are unable to access quality medical, educational, and social infrastructure. The benefits of our social systems are dependent on one’s access to wealth, favorable social identification, legacy systems, and other forms of capital. On top of this, these same communities have no consistent, fair, or easily accessible public venues to express — and potentially remedy — their suppressed positionalities and experiences of these injustices. This is especially important since most of our social systems are failing to work in the favor of all, but to the benefit of the few. Formal publication platforms such as books, magazines, and others, suffer from the same inequities we see in everyday society, and thus socially-excluded populations are unable to access these sources of public discourse. Specific populations are being overtly silenced. Yet, reaching the goal of collective equity and freedom depends on the ability of the individual and collective to feel represented in the public and social sphere, and thus more able to advocate and push for social change. 

“All communities deserve to share their stores, to be earnestly heard, and to—and this is important—find others with similar experience such that they can organize and contribute to the improvement of their circumstances,” says Montoya. “It is my deep belief that libraries—especially public libraries—are spaces that can work with communities to help them organize collectively to demand social equitability. Librarianship’s professional potential to ameliorate the root problems of our society is what excites us and motivates us in this project. The future of our field is one with a global view with global concerns and aims for justice.” 

Libraries and librarians help facilitate access to much of this information; unintentionally, some of their methods and practice may perpetuate barriers. The Institute will identify those barriers and propose remedies. Importantly, librarians also have the unique ability to build and promote spaces that can amplify community voices in the public sphere. The institute will invite upward of 20 librarians to the UCLA campus, and – in concert with CalRBS – will engage in an intensive training and workshop session to craft community book-making projects that will be developed at their home institutions.

An integral aspect of the Institute will be the community publishing press, run in partnership with the Book Arts Lab of California State University Northridge, led by Pessin. The community press is established in recognition that printed communication is alive and well, lasts longer than social media, and often has greater impact. As part of this initiative, UCLA will establish a substantial fine press printing lab, with a number of historically significant printing presses, type specimens, and bookmaking supplies. CSUN will obtain an adequate amount of modern printing equipment, situated to produce community book objects on a large scale. 

The Institute will seek to realign the role of librarians in relation to the communities they partner with, giving library users the power to “speak” and join the information economy directly and durably, with expert guidance. The goal here is also to provide avenues for community members to disseminate their own experiences navigating a deeply unequal and discriminating social sphere. The UCLA fine press printing equipment will also be tightly integrated into the MLIS curriculum to enhance the education experiences of students pursuing work in librarianship, print and visual culture, and history of the book.

The Radical Librarian Institute is a division of the Library, Ethics & Justice Lab that is directed by Professor Montoya at UCLA. It will begin in July 2022, and its first iteration will culminate 36 months later.

This grant is the latest in a number of major initiatives partnering the Mellon Foundation with UCLA in ways that synergize each organization’s commitment to greater opportunity for marginalized people. At UCLA, the Mellon Foundation has previously supported social rights initiatives, such as “Archiving the Age of Mass Incarceration”; urban humanities; arts and culture; archives and collections; and more. It would be an understatement to say that the Mellon Foundation has played a major role in enabling UCLA to aim higher in educating some of the best minds in our culture.

The Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Since 1969, the Foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding. The Foundation believes that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence, and freedom that can be found there. Through our grants, we seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive. Learn more at

For more information on the Radical Librarianship Institute at UCLA, please contact Robert D. Montoya at .