In my post about hatred the other day, I mentioned my life motto: “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” (In the Latin, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”)
And all at once it strikes me—this is why I have always loved libraries.
Libraries give me access to the full depth and breadth of humanity. All of our thoughts and ideas, our hopes and dreams, our fears, our creativity and cultures, our histories, our plethora of worldviews and philosophies and beliefs.
All our stories.
I can access all of this through my library. If my library doesn’t have it on the shelf, they can find it and get it for me.
Libraries are where I go to learn how to be human, in all our myriad aspects.
One of my goals this year is to participate more in professional conversations and debates. For me, this means getting more active on Twitter. That’s where I keep track of most of my professional connections.
This past week saw my first forays in that direction.
There’s a quote from Donny Miller that has become ubiquitous among information professionals:
“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.”
There have been several reports over the last few weeks identifying a rise in incidents of hate speech, racist graffiti and slogans, and acts of violence toward members of various minority groups throughout the country. Several libraries have been targeted—books and buildings have been defaced with swastikas, racist, sexist, homo- and transphobic epithets, explicit threats of violence toward minority groups, etc.
Libraries are targets because we stand at the vanguard of promoting inclusion and diversity. We seek to empower the disempowered, to give voice and provide access to all individuals and groups within our community. We hold as a core value that no one be excluded from the tools and services we offer, that no one be silenced or impeded from equal participation in our community. Libraries function as a safe space for anyone who needs it.
Libraries pose a great threat to those who seek to exclude all those who are different from them.
Libraries hold a resolute belief in the freedom of speech and expression. This is fundamental to everything we do. How, then, are libraries supposed to handle incidents of hate speech?
People don’t always know how to ask for what they really need.
We all frequently struggle to voice our needs properly—we say things badly, misunderstand ourselves, head down misleading paths, etc. Also, library patrons often aren’t aware of all the options and resources that are available to meet their needs—but they usually think they know what the best option is, and so come in asking for something specific without realizing that there may be much better resources for them.
When it comes to digital library services, the issue tends to be that patrons don’t understand how these systems work, aren’t fully aware of what they can and can’t do, so when a service doesn’t behave the way they expect it to, they assume that it’s broken.
As librarians, it’s our job to connect our patrons to the best resources to answer their needs. The purpose of the reference interview is to make sure we know what their need really is, so we can find the best resources for them, or teach them how to get the most out of the services we provide.
Normally, we talk about diverse books in terms of the ethnicity and cultures of characters, authors, and story traditions. What speaks to me about the two articles linked above is the call to increase the diversity of the genres I read. The call to “read outside [my] own taste and interest” (from Bookriot), to read things I dislike or that scare me to try (as per the RA for All post).
This is definitely the book my siblings and I read as kids. As fragmentary as my memories of it are, I was shocked at how familiar it felt to read through it again as an adult. I found that I remembered almost every page as it was revealed to me. And I was delighted to discover that the copy I received via ILL came from a public library in my home state. Seems appropriate.
The Trigan Empire was a comic that ran from 1965 to 1982, published in Britain by Fleetway, with Butterworth and Lawrence as the primary writer and artist. It ran as a serial installment in an educational magazine focused on science. The hardbound novel-length book my siblings and I read was an omnibus collection of the earliest stories from the comic, published in the United States in 1978 by Chartwell.
When my siblings and I were in early grade school at the beginning of the 1980s, we discovered a strange book in the children’s section of our local public library. It was a heftier tome than we’d ever seen on the shelves, oversized and thick—close to 200 pages. Barring encyclopedias, we’d only seen books this big in the adult section or on our parents’ bookshelves at home.
But the best part was that this strange book was a comic book!
Today we’d call it a graphic novel but we hadn’t heard that term back then. We checked it out, brought it home, and each read through it a couple of times.
My memories of reading this book are difficult to properly describe: fragmentary, dissociative, surreal, and dreamlike all come close. I recall that my in-the-moment experience of reading it as a little kid was similar: surreal, dreamlike, dissociative, fragmentary. I had a difficult time keeping the narrative strung together as a cohesive whole in my head.
It was the most challenging thing I’d read up to that point in my life.
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.
In his book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Dr. Wayne Wiegand groups library services into three major categories:
These categories clarify a nagging issue I have with the language we use to talk about the importance of internet access in libraries. The following quote from a recent article by Larra Clark is a good example:
I spoke to a gentleman recently about the efforts of public libraries to bridge the Digital Divide, both in terms of offering broadband internet access to those who otherwise don’t have it, and teaching digital and information literacy to those who need it.
This gentleman told me that he thinks the internet is useless. He’s been online, tried the social media thing, wandered around the web, and he sees no value in any of it. He concluded that it’s all just a flood of unreliable, unverified information, and people being mean and wasting time. He believes that we’d all be better off without it.
He told me that he can’t understand why we work so hard to provide access to something that people don’t need and shouldn’t be using in the first place. I don’t believe this man was intentionally exclusionary or prejudiced—he sincerely couldn’t understand why anyone would value something which, to him, is so obviously value-less.
Rather than argue with this gentleman’s opinions regarding the supposed value of the internet, I responded: