Theory vs. Practice

Or: My Last Thoughts on the Controversial Update to the Interpretation of the Meeting Room Policy of the Library Bill of Rights

I’m happiest when exploring the realm of ideas, big picture theory. As a kid, I would spend hours sitting in my room thinking about the nature of reality and existence, our minds and souls and bodies, perception, the Universe and time. As an undergraduate in college, I took enough philosophy classes to qualify for a minor in philosophy. A good intellectual debate is one of my favorite things.

I love delving into theory. But there’s one thing about this world which I know to be true:

Nothing ever works in practice the way it works in theory. Reality never matches the model.

My work as a technician in live theater proved it—building and installing sets, hanging and circuiting lighting rigs. Over a hundred shows spanning more than a decade and not one ever went off without some kind of problem. Every set, no matter how carefully designed bespoke for the space, no matter how precisely built, not one of them ever fit the stage perfectly. There was always something that didn’t line up, some obstruction in the way, some mechanical feature that just didn’t work the way the designer thought it would. Lamps in the lighting units go bad, the circuits blow, the dimmers crap out, the cables short, the hang pipe can’t handle the weight of all the instruments that need to be loaded on it, the lights and sets get in each other’s way despite all our efforts to coordinate them.

There was always something that went wrong, no matter our best efforts and careful planning. Always something we had to adapt on the fly to get it to work. Every. Single. Show.

My brother-in-law is an engineer who works on hydrodynamic systems: pumps and pipes. He’s part of a team who design and build fluid flow systems. They start by doing the math, working the numbers to the nth decimal point, checking and rechecking their figures; they use sophisticated computer programs to model their systems in every conceivable detail, to anticipate behaviors, to track different variables. They plan these things to the last micrometer, the last pound of pressure, the fullest range of volume of flow, account for every last erg of energy.

I asked him how often these systems work according to plan when it comes time to build them and his answer was simple:


Every time they build a new system, there’s always something that doesn’t work right, some aspect that doesn’t behave the way they predicted, that diverges from the model. There’s always something that needs to be adapted or fixed or tweaked to get it to function properly.

Nothing ever works in practice the way it works in theory.

You need a plan in order to build a set or install a pump and pipe system. We need theory to define our values and vision, to guide our goals and figure out the best course of action. But when it comes time to put our theories into practice, we have to be ready to adapt when things don’t go exactly according to plan. And the consequences of our actions affect real people in the day-to-day world. We’re responsible for those consequences.

In theory, a commitment to free speech and the freedom of ideas requires libraries to allow hate speech and hate groups.

But I know that if hate groups use libraries for explicitly hateful purpose, marginalized members of our communities won’t feel safe in library spaces or at library events. If libraries are perceived to be welcoming of hate groups, marginalized members of our communities won’t feel welcome.

I know, too, that the opposite isn’t true: the presence of marginalized people in the library won’t scare away hate groups.

In practice, I don’t think it’s possible for us to welcome both hate groups and also the people who are targets of their hate, to support hate speech and also the free expression of those whom hate speech is committed to silence. The effect of such practice is too disproportionate.

I’m certain that circumstances will require us to make a choice.

Maybe we should try to stay as neutral as we can for as long as we can, cleave to our ideals for as long as possible. Maybe we should stave off the moment of choice until we have no choice. But history teaches us, time and again, that those who refuse to choose have choices forced upon them—without our consent and outside of our control. Or we’ll be sidelined, marginalized, rendered irrelevant and impotent.

When the time comes (and I think it already has) I want the choice we make to be our choice: a personal choice, so we can each live with ourselves; a choice as an organization, so we can continue to do the greatest possible good for our communities; a choice as a profession, so we can bequeath a better legacy to those who come after us.

I know that for those people who are the target of hate groups, nothing about this is theoretical. Hate groups pose a direct and immediate threat to their safety and well-being.

Lord knows I love me some high-minded, well-intentioned theory. But I have a hard time swallowing theory when it comes at the cost of people’s safety.

We need theory to define our values but we serve our communities in practice. We have to allow for the translation of one to the other. The Library Bill of Rights is our statement of value theory. The interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights are supposed to help us figure out how to put theory into practice. When those interpretations lead to practices which are destructive and dangerous, which position different values in conflict with each other, which don’t allow for the reality of practical needs and consequences, that’s a problem.

Twitter user T R U D Y has a phrase I love: “debate cosplay without material consequences.” Too often, people who defend theory do so as though it’s only an intellectual debate, without demonstrating an understanding of the realities of practice. Such an approach has the potential to put real people in real danger.

As librarians, we have a responsility to help our communities, to do the greatest good for the most people we can. When clinging to theory will cause harm, we have an obligation to cede theory in favor of less harmful practice. Anything else is inhumane.

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