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.

Thoughts on Anger, My Depression, and Politics

I’ve spent much of my adult life thinking about anger. When my major depression hit for the first time in college, it manifested in two primary ways: almost complete numbness interspersed with explosions of anger. I developed a bad temper. I’d fly into rages for very little reason, over the tiniest of things. I did incredible damage to my relationships, hurt my friends and loved ones, but I couldn’t make myself stop.

This lasted on-and-off through most of my 20s. And there have been a couple resurgences since then.

Looking back, it’s obvious my temper was a projection: I was angry at what was happening to me and my inability to fix it. I was angry that my anger was completely useless against my own mind. I couldn’t control any of what was happening in my head. My depression rendered me powerless.

Anger felt powerful. I couldn’t control my depression but anger showed I could still have some impact, some agency, in the world, even if that impact was destruction and pain. It was all a lie: I had no control over any of it, but the lie felt better than sliding entirely into numbness. I had to grasp at something because the only other alternative was to give up.

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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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Book Review: Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas About Our Planet by Donald R. Prothero

Cover of the book Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas About Our Planet by Donald R. Prothero
Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas About Our Planet
by Donald R. Prothero
Red Lightning, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist in August 2020.

In his latest, science teacher and proud skeptic Prothero takes on a raft of pseudo- and anti-scientific beliefs and handily debunks them: flat earth, hollow earth, young earth, geocentrism, moon landing conspiracies, faked fossils, flood myths, Atlantis, dowsing, and more. He briefly describes these schools of thought, where they come from, and summarizes the scientific evidence which shows that these beliefs are incorrect. But he wants to do more than just debunk. He believes scientists need to explain why and how they come to the conclusions they do. He ends most of the chapters with a section called “How We Know,” listing all the evidence supporting the relevant scientific conclusions. Also valuable is his introduction, in which he neatly summarizes how science works, how it evaluates evidence, the requirements for peer review and burden-of-proof, and how that process offers trustworthy understanding. Finally, he explores the reasons why some people reject science. Popular trust in science is eroding alongside decreases in scientific literacy; Prothero wants scientists to show their work to help earn that trust back.

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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F*ck the Books

Now that I have your attention with my intentionally confrontational, click-baity post title…

Last month (May 2020), my library reopened our book returns in preparation for limited reintroduction of material circulation in our community. The course of the pandemic in our service area was on a trend that indicated it would be safe to do so. The best data we have suggests we need to let returned materials sit for 72 hours before processing them back into the collection, onto the shelves, and into patrons’ hands.

Which is why a few of our branches have giant piles of books dumped on the floor:

Pile of books on a library floor

(From this news item: “Johnson County libraries busy after restarting dropoffs, holds and pickups,” Carey Wickersham. Fox 4, Nexstar Media Group, Inc. https://fox4kc.com/tracking-coronavirus/johnson-county-libraries-busy-after-restarting-dropoffs-holds-and-pickups/. Accessed June 18, 2020.)

Images like this one were presented in the media as my library reopened our book returns. It caused a minor furor online: people were offended we would treat books so callously. There were outraged comments on Twitter. Even the article this image is taken from can’t seem to avoid a slightly judgmental tone:

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