Julia Burns Petrella’s Dissertation Defense

Julia Burns Petrella

Her committee includes Associate Professor Carol Tilley (chair), Associate Professor Kyungwon Koh, Assistant Professor Rachel M. Magee, and Sandra Hughes-Hassell (UNC iSchool).


The makeup of the field of school librarianship is overwhelmingly white, standing in stark contrast to the racial demographics of today’s K-12 student population in the U.S. Studies of white educators working with racially minoritized students show many detrimental effects, including deficits-based thinking and lowered academic expectations, highlighting how vital it is that pre-service school librarians learn about topics of race, racism, and the effects of whiteness in their school library preparation programs. Simultaneously, school library preparation programs are situated within schools of library and information science, which face a documented lack of course content and scholarly discourse on topics of race and especially whiteness. 

Set within a framework of Critical whiteness Studies, this study investigates the structural and individual factors that influence the ways that today’s pre-service school librarians are taught about topics of race, racism, and whiteness. Critical whiteness Studies developed out of the historical scholarship of Critical Race Theory, and they share many foundational tenets, including the belief that race is a social construct, that whiteness is conditional, and that racism is common and pervasive. Like Critical Race Theory, Critical whiteness Studies has strong implications for the field of education, including higher education. While it explores race and racism in a similar way to Critical Race Theory, Critical whiteness Studies works specifically to problematize and analyze the visible and invisible effects of whiteness in our society. 

The methods of this study include interviews with school library program coordinators, course instructors, current school librarianship students, and recent graduates from the three ALA- accredited master’s degree programs in the state of Illinois (Chicago State University, Dominican University, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), as well as document analysis of various state and national standards that guide and shape these institutions’ school library preparation programs. Through the interviews and document analysis, this study explores current pedagogical practices, instructor and student perceptions, and challenges and successful strategies related to teaching pre-service school librarians about race, racism, and whiteness. 

The findings of this study provide a snapshot of current trends and experiences in the school library preparation programs of the three institutions named above, including the influence of the school library program coordinators on how topics relating to race are addressed in the programs, substantial variation in instructor perceptions on teaching about race, racism, and whiteness, and factors that students feel impact their learning about race in the classroom. Additionally, the document analysis shows the presence of race-avoidant discourse in the educational standards that structure these school library preparation programs. 

The implications of these findings point to a need for heightened individual responsibility in teaching about topics of race, racism, and whiteness, along with interpersonal accountability and regular self-reflection from each stakeholder involved in the school library preparation programs. Suggestions for action are provided, along with a reflection on conducting research using Critical whiteness Methodology.