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.

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Nazis in the Library

I published a post a couple of weeks ago about neutrality and why I don’t think it’s possible for libraries (or any organization, for that matter) to be neutral in a society riven with historic and structural inequality. I cited posts by Dr. Donna Lanclos and Dawn Finch. I concluded that I would prefer to use the terms nonjudgmental and unbiased.

On Twitter, Dr. Lanclos pointed out that “unbiased” is also a problematic term. She warned, ” ‘Unbiased’ could still end up with Nazis in the library.”

I responded: “We allow Nazis in the library.”

This was the week before the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom updated their interpretation of Article VI of the Library Bill of Rights (pertaining to meeting rooms) to explicitly include “hate speech” and “hate groups” alongside religious and political groups, charities, non-profits, and sports organizations as civic groups that must be allowed to use library meeting spaces, and how these groups are allowed to express themselves. Reaction to this change was swift and spawned the #NoHateALA hashtag.

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The Problem of Neutrality

I’ve written before about my misgivings regarding the ideal of neutrality in public libraries. I recently read an excellent post by Dr. Donna Lanclos titled, “Maybe We Shouldn’t Talk About Diversity Anymore.” There’s a quote in this piece which echoes the argument I’ve made about why neutrality is a problematic concept:

What about notions of ‘neutrality’ and ‘nice’ that talk about the importance of ‘all voices’ when we really should be protecting voices that historically have no platform. Let’s end false equivalencies, and recognize that people who have traditionally had power and influence (especially white men) don’t ever really lose their opportunity to participate just because we make sure that people and especially women of color get to take up space and have their say.”

(http://www.donnalanclos.com/maybe-we-shouldnt-talk-about-diversity-anymore/, posted June 30, 2018)

I want to explain a bit more about why neutrality makes me uncomfortable.

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How Do You Know When It’s Time?

I’ve long been fascinated by the question: How do you know when it’s time to move on?

For example, my dad spent over 20 years—my entire childhood and into my college years—working at a state university. When he decided to leave, I asked him how he knew it was the right time. There were several factors at play but mostly, he said, it was because he didn’t feel like there was anything new to learn there. Every year, there had been something new to do, something new to learn: a new position, a new committee or task force of some kind, a new challenge. But after 20+ years, he’d gone as far in the organization as he could go. There was nothing new.

I thought about this when I made the decision to leave theater. I’d gone to college with the goal of working professionally in theater in a big city. I did that for over a decade. But I knew when it was time to stop. There were several factors at play—the manual labor of tech work was taking a toll on my body, nonunion freelance work meant I had no health insurance or retirement plan—but mostly it was because I’d reached a point where I needed to take the next step on the career ladder, and move up into technical director and production management roles. But I didn’t want to. In truth, I was a few years past the point when I should have made this transition but those jobs had no appeal for me. In part, it was because TDs and PMs don’t typically run shows, and running shows was what I loved. But if I’m honest… The thought of taking on that much responsibility, the idea of being in charge, filled me with dread.

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Onward & Upward

I’ve written three posts over the past few weeks exploring lessons I’ve learned about customer service through a variety of past jobs and experiences, as well as from my more recent years as a public librarian. I’ve spent a lot of time lately looking back over my working life and mining it for all the wisdom I can.

There’s a reason for this retrospection:

On June 11th, I begin a new job. I’m leaving the Kansas City Public Library—today is my last day, actually.

I’ve accepted a position with the Johnson County Library system in Johnson County, Kansas (the Kansas side of the KC metro area). I’ll be the Branch Manager for three of their locations: Gardner, Edgerton, and Spring Hill.

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Experience & Context

Some years ago, when I was still doing theater work in Chicago, I had gotten off a job late one night and found myself craving a pint of ice cream. So I stopped by a corner market on my way home. Another gentleman—a complete stranger to me—arrived at the same time I did. We approached the door just in time to see the proprietor throw the lock and change the sign to “Closed”. He shrugged at us, pointed to the sign listing the store’s hours, and walked off.

I was disappointed and somewhat miffed. The other guy proceeded to throw a spectacular tantrum.

I stood there nonplussed, unsure what to do. Once this strange man had stopped yelling and stomping around, I asked him, “Are you OK?” (Inane question, I know—clearly he wasn’t—but it was late and I was tired and hungry.)

He proceeded to tell me a Tale of Woe for the Ages. All about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, very bad week, very bad month. Everything that could go wrong in this guy’s life had gone wrong. All he wanted now was some potato chips—crunchy bites of salty comfort. Is that too much to ask?

So I took him to a local bar and bought him a beer.

He apologized for making such a scene. He knew it was a ridiculous overreaction. I assured him I totally understood. And I did understand: for me, having the door locked in my face was annoying. For him, it was ONE MORE THING in a long line of crappy things that had happened to him lately.

For him, it was the one thing too many.

This experience taught me something important:

Context matters.

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Some Thoughts on Libraries & Neutrality

At the 2018 Midwinter Conference of the American Library Association, the President’s Program was a panel discussion titled, “Are Libraries Neutral? Have They Ever Been? Should They Be?” There were debaters and commentators assigned to represent both sides of the argument. This debate inspired a vigorous parallel discussion among librarians and library professionals on Twitter.

I approach the issue of library neutrality from two different directions: ideology and pragmatism. Let’s start with ideology.

When we talk about neutral library spaces and services, we talk about being a place where everyone is welcome, where all views are represented, where everyone has the freedom to make their voices heard and have their needs met. As James LaRue stated for the pro side of the debate: “Everyone gets a seat at the table.”

I passionately agree with Mr. LaRue on this point: libraries should be spaces where everyone gets a seat at the table.

But these words don’t describe neutrality—they describe equality. They envision a space where everyone is equal in access, representation, voice.

The world we all live and serve in is not equal.

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