Conversations about Libraries, Conversations about Privilege

A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a gentleman who insisted that public libraries are going to disappear soon. He voiced the standard arguments about how everything is online now, and how ebooks are going to replace print entirely. His conclusion: libraries are irrelevant in the modern digital age.

Like so many people who take this position, this gentleman personally loves libraries and sees their inevitable passing as a loss to society. It makes him sad to think that there won’t be any more neighborhood libraries (even though he freely admits that it’s been years since he last set foot in his local library).

Of course, I spoke up to correct him. The stats make it very clear that libraries are as relevant to their communities as ever. Public library usage has actually increased with the advent of the digital information age, increased yet more during the recent economic crisis, and popular approval ratings are as high as they’ve ever been and holding steady. I shared all these stats with him. I shared multiple calculations of the economic impact of libraries and the ROI for every tax dollar invested—libraries are the single best public investment most communities can make. I talked about how libraries bolster and expand educational opportunities for kids and adults, citizens and immigrants, and the illiterate. I talked about how libraries can function as neutral gathering places during times of community upheaval. I talked about the library’s role in upholding the freedom of information and expression in our society. I talked about our computer labs and maker spaces and coding sessions and 3D printers and recording studios, our creative writing groups, our book groups, and our art spaces. I talked about our public programming and community discussion forums.

It was so clear to me that this gentleman would be happy to know that libraries are doing very well, adapting more-or-less adeptly to changing circumstances as they’ve always done, and they remain well-used and beloved by their communities.

That’s not what happened.

Instead, he got defensive and argumentative. In reaction to me, he became even more intractably entrenched in his belief that libraries are irrelevant now. He slammed the door on the conversation.

I’m confident that just about every public librarian in this country has had some version of this same conversation, and they’ve probably gone mostly as well as mine did.

I think I’ve finally figured out how this conversation fell so far off the rails:

We weren’t just talking about libraries. We were also talking about social and cultural privilege. And as a conversation about privilege, I handled it badly.

This gentleman is a well-educated, professionally successful, upper middle class, married white man. He was raised by solidly middle class parents in a safe and prosperous neighborhood with good schools. He has never depended on the library to help him find a job, increase his literacy, or to supplement a sub-par education. He has never sought out a trustworthy and inclusive provider of English language learning or citizenship classes. He doesn’t come to the library for social space, because he has plenty of social opportunities in his friendly neighborhood, as well as through his career. He doesn’t need the library to use computers or access the internet. He has never turned to the library for shelter or as a safe place to escape violence.

He doesn’t need a dedicated forum where he can make his voice heard or participate in his community, because his social, cultural, and economic positions grant him a voice and include him in society by default.

When librarians list all the services we provide to our communities, all the ways we can benefit those who need us, much of what we do is completely irrelevant to this gentleman’s life. For him, public libraries have only ever been places to find cool stuff to read, watch, or listen to, and maybe to conduct a bit of research on occasion. These services have value but they’re clearly not necessary for him.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but by pointing out all the ways that public libraries serve the underserved and disenfranchised in our communities, by enumerating the stats to show how well-used these services are and how so many people depend on libraries in times of crisis, I was intrinsically demanding that this gentleman check his privilege.

Conversations about privilege are tricky things. It’s all too easy to conduct them badly. It’s very difficult to conduct them well. Done badly, conversations about privilege come off as accusatory, as guilt-tripping—no one likes having fingers pointed at them. No one likes being told that they’re part of the problem, whether or not they’ve done anything to personally deserve it. It may be true and necessary to acknowledge, but conduct these conversations badly and you’re far more likely to antagonize than inspire a change of heart.

When I had my conversation with this gentleman about libraries, I didn’t recognize that we were really talking about privilege. I thought we were just talking about libraries, and so all of my rhetorical strategies were miscalibrated. My arguments were aimed at the wrong targets. I was having the wrong conversation.

Given how many librarians and library advocates have this conversation, and how often; given the persistent popular belief that public libraries are being inevitably rendered irrelevant by the presence of the internet and ebooks, and the pressure this puts on us to defend them; I think it’s important for all of us to realize that these aren’t just conversations about libraries.

These are conversations about the various roles that libraries play in different peoples’ lives, and about the different ways that libraries benefit different demographics. Which means these are conversations about our society and culture, and about our entrenched inequalities.

These are conversations about privilege. Those in our communities who don’t need the library are those who have the privilege of rejecting its relevance. To convince them otherwise means checking their privilege.

And privilege is a very delicate subject. If we want to be effective in our conversations and defense of libraries, we need to be strategic and careful, and we need to talk about privilege.

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