Moral Certainty vs. Practical Action

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s this: Moral certainty is easy. Practical action is hard and almost always requires some degree of compromise.

Here are two principles of public librarianship which underlie our work:

  • Public libraries have a mandate to provide materials that represent multiple perspectives on a range of issues and subjects, especially to reflect the various viewpoints of members of the library’s community.
  • Public libraries are trusted sources of reliable, authoritative information. We vet information sources to be sure we offer good info to our patrons.

What happens when these two principles stand in direct contradiction with each other? What do you do when you can’t fulfill both of these principles?

As Neil Gaiman said, “Google will bring you back … a hundred thousand answers. A librarian will bring you back the right one.” There’s been a great deal of talk these past few years about the role libraries can play in fighting the spread of misinformation and promoting information literacy.

But we have people in our communities who hold to ideas and perspectives that are incorrect, at least when assessed by standards of information literacy and authority. These people expect to come into their library—which their tax dollars help fund—and find materials which reflect their beliefs.

How do you balance that?

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Ditch the Small Talk

When I was younger, I was very much one of those people who hated small talk. I’m a strong introvert and I was painfully shy as a child. Small talk was too much social effort for something I considered trivial and unimportant. If I had to interact with people, I would much prefer to share deep meaningful conversation than chat about nothing. Deep meaningful conversation is worth the energy; small talk costs too much for something with no substance.

I reconsidered my stance on small talk as I got older. For one thing, I grew less shy and less frightened by the prospect of interacting with strangers. But, too, I realized it’s a matter of respect. I have to earn the right to know someone’s deepest thoughts and feelings. That’s not a level of intimacy I can demand from anyone. You have to earn a person’s trust first and that takes time. It requires an investment of attention and care. Relationships matter more than any single conversation, and I need to do the work to build a relationship so someone will know they’re safe to share more meaningful things with me.

Small talk is how people start to establish that sense of safety with each other. It’s how people feel each other out without too much risk to start. It’s the first step on a path to earn someone’s trust.

But then I read this article:

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Reconsidering My Career Goals

I decided pretty early on in graduate school that I wanted to be a library director someday. I could picture myself in that role and I wanted it. That’s how I knew librarianship was the right career for me: it’s literally the only thing I’ve ever done in my life where I want to take on that level of responsibility.

I’ve been questioning this goal over the past few years, though. I’ve been thinking lately that maybe I don’t want to be a director anymore. This sounds like a major shift in my goals but it doesn’t actually feel like it. I don’t feel like my goals have changed. This career still feels right for me.

I’ve realized that library director wasn’t my goal: it was an assumption I had made about my goal. My goal, put simply, is this:

To do the most good I can for my community and my chosen profession.

I assumed library director would be the role where I could do the most good. I now believe this assumption was incorrect.

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Masterpost of My Current Beliefs about Queer Identities

I’ve posted somewhat often over the past few years about queer identities and the issues surrounding them. I think it might be useful to try and gather together my thoughts and offer a mostly comprehensive explanation of my beliefs.

Let me be clear: I have very strong beliefs and principles around this—fundamental value buttons—so I’ll do my best to lay out my perspective as clearly as I can. Forgive me if this gets long-winded. Brevity may be the soul of wit but it’s not the soul of precision nor comprehensive and nuanced understanding.

Keeping up with the vocabulary is one of the biggest challenges of committing to being a queer ally and accomplice, which is something I’ve commitment myself to. The vocabulary around queer identities is in a state of flux and changes frequently. Culture evolves, politics change, movements coalesce and grow and fracture, visibility and acceptance waxes and wanes, and language changes concomitantly. It’s also worth noting that the “queer community” isn’t a monolith and there’s disagreement between queer folk about what words should be used and what they should mean.

Part of the challenge is that English has a poverty of words sufficient to describe the variety of queer experiences. We have to make due with many words that aren’t quite good enough, or try to convince people to accept new words we invent. Neither option is ideal. We do the best we can.

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Grammar Doesn’t Matter

A Rant about the Arguments over “They/Them” Pronouns

Once again, I see arguments online about the grammaticality of the singular “they/them” pronoun. People yelling that it can’t be singular and using it that way is just confusing and it’s therefore illegitimate, followed by people illuminating the history of the word and pointing out that language changes all the time anyway and citing numerous examples of how easy singular “they” is to understand in practice. I, myself, have done the latter on multiple occasions. And I’ve come to the following conclusion:

This is all bullshit distraction. The grammar DOES NOT MATTER.

Trans youth are at the highest risk of suicide of any group in our country. When trans youth have adults in their lives who support and affirm their chosen gender identity, their risk of suicide drops by half.

Using people’s preferred pronouns can help save lives.

Trans folk of all ages are at elevated risk of violence, suicide, employment discrimination, healthcare discrimination, homelessness, and incarceration. When communities support and affirm trans identities these risks are substantially reduced.

Using people’s preferred pronouns can help save lives.

I don’t give a shit about grammar. People’s lives are at stake.

If you’re more concerned about grammar than the lives and well-being of actual people, your position is morally indefensible.

I personally found the singular “they/them” confusing at first. It contradicts a lifetime of grammatical conditioning and it took time for me to get used to it. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever not be confused by of most of the newly invented gender-neutral pronouns that have been introduced over the past few years. I’m afraid of messing them up. I’m afraid I’ll hurt someone if I get their pronouns wrong, and I’m afraid of how people might judge me for my mistakes.

My confusion doesn’t matter.

If using preferred pronouns can help a trans kid turn away from contemplating suicide, I’ll do it whether I understand the language or not. If using preferred pronouns helps a trans person feel accepted and affirmed, I’ll do it. If using preferred pronouns contributes even in some small way to building a more accepting and supportive culture, one which materially improves the lives of people and reduces suicide rates, then HELL YES I’ll do it. I have a moral obligation to do it.

I don’t give a shit how confusing it is.

There’s no morally defensible position which can hold my personal confusion as more important than the lives and well-being of other people. Pronouns may confuse me but they don’t do me any actual harm. If using them can materially improve the lives of trans individuals, then I’m happy to be confused.

We need to stop engaging with arguments about grammar. Engaging in this allows TERFs and transphobes to control the terms of the argument. It grants de facto legitimacy to an anti-trans platform that should never be legitimized. It’s a distraction and a sidetrack and we keep falling for it. We have to stop.

People’s lives and well being will always matter more than any concerns about grammar.

Anyone who argues about the grammar of pronouns for trans folk has no legitimate argument to make.

The Moral Obligation of Literacy & Access

In my years working as a librarian in the Digital Branch at the Kansas City Public Library, one thing I witnessed over and over again was the need to pair digital access with teaching digital literacy. It didn’t do any good to give patrons access to tools they didn’t know how to use. People need to develop digital literacy in order to use the tools we provide access to.

To resort to metaphor:

When someone is lost, it doesn’t help to hand them a map if they don’t know how to read it.

Then I read Reader Come Home by Maryanne Wolf and came across this passage:

[T]he study was to investigate the effects of providing books and digital access in libraries to underserved children and families. The results ran counter to every hoped-for outcome: simply providing access to digital tools to underserved children could actually have deleterious effects, if there was no participation by parents. The children in that study did significantly worse on tests of literacy than other children did, and the disparities between groups increased after technological devices were introduced. … This study highlights a pivotal and persistent mistake in the use of digital technology for education. The positive effects of digital learning cannot be reduced to issues of access or exposure.

It actually does harm to provide access without guidance. It’s worse than simply not helping. It would be less harmful to not provide access at all.

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Empathy, Prejudice & Structural Inequity

I’ve written often about the importance of reading for the development of empathy. I believe developing empathy is essential to address the deep divides and problems we face in our society.

But I also know you can’t fix structural inequity and intolerance by addressing individuals. If your strategy to overcome prejudice is to change the minds of prejudiced people, then you’re going to fail.

These convictions contradict each other. But I’m certain both are correct and necessary.

In his speech for the Book Award Celebration at the 2020 ALA Virtual Conference, Jerry Craft said:

“We can’t change the way the world sees us if we don’t first change the way we see ourselves.”

This perfectly encapsulates my division over this issue.

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Vocational Awe

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about vocational awe. There’s been significant research done on this in multiple fields and it’s a legitimate issue. Our work as librarians is important and worth working hard to deliver. It’s right and good for us to take pride in our commitment. Our desire to serve motivates us to do the best work we can for the sake of others. We can make the world a better place. Our respect for our work, our desire for doing it, empowers us. It gives us deep satisfaction and helps people in our communities. That’s a good thing.

But our desire to serve makes us vulnerable, too. People can leverage it to manipulate us in ways we shouldn’t allow. I’ve been guilt tripped into doing work I shouldn’t have had to do, without sufficient compensation, because I wanted to be helpful. Our desire to do good can be used against us. It happens and it’s a problem. Our work is important but not enough for us to risk our health or well-being. It’s not important enough for us to work so hard for insufficient compensation.

We all deserve appropriate pay for our work, a healthy work-life balance, and safe working conditions. But it can be a challenge for those of us driven by a desire to serve to draw and hold appropriate lines when our communities depend on the services we provide. We should be proud and celebrate what we do! But we shouldn’t get lost in it.

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Cultures of Storytelling

Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-fi Anthology edited by Hope Nicholson
Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-fi Anthology
edited by Hope Nicholson
Bedside Press, 2016

I’ve made it a point over the past several years to seek out SF written by people from other countries and cultures, Indigenous people, LGBTQIA2 people, minorities, etc. The most recent book I read was Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-fi Anthology. I was discussing it with a friend and he asked me:

“Are the stories any good?”

I had been talking about the Two Spirit and queer authors and characters, the Indigenous settings and perspectives, the prefatory material which lay out the history and politics and which argue the need for stories like these—the important context surrounding these stories—and my friend noticed I wasn’t talking much about the stories themselves. Thus, his question.

I fumbled a bit to answer. Yes, some are good, a few excellent, some just OK. I voiced my belief that there’s benefit to reading stories like these even if they’re not good: I appreciate these works because of what they can teach me, how they challenge my assumptions and show me very different experiences and understandings of the world.

But the truth is also this: I don’t always know whether the stories I read are any good. I’m not always qualified to assess the quality of these works.

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Drag Queen Story Times in Public Libraries

NOTE: Everything on this blog is an expression of my personal opinions and not those of my employer. It’s especially important to keep this in mind for this post.

Drag Queen Story Times in public libraries are causing quite a lot of controversy lately. The most important thing for me is to state as clearly as I can:

I am an ally.

I do not believe it’s legitimate to cancel these programs because of the prejudices of some members of a community. It’s discriminatory. Public libraries have an obligation to represent all members of our community, which includes LGBTQIA+ folk.

It also includes representing those people who are offended by the drag queen story times. But when you cancel one at the behest of the other, you’re de facto showing preference for the people who are offended.

Some people argue this the other way around: if you go through with a drag queen story time, are you not de facto showing preference for the queens over those who are offended by them?

For me, the answer lies in who’s doing harm.

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