Every December, librarians across the land take to Twitter to list their top 10 favorite books published that year. This year, I picked 11 because I just couldn’t whittle it down. For the complete list of my #LibFaves2021, go here:
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?
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.
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.
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.
Or Jack of All Trades but Master of None?
Justin Hoenke recently voiced the argument that public librarians need to be “everything to every community member.” This argument unleashed a lot of push back from librarians. Stephanie Chase posted a tweet thread in response to the push back and it’s worth reading.
Her essential argument responds to librarians who, as she perceives, don’t want libraries to be different than what they were in our romanticized youths.
HARD FACTS TIME: THE LIBRARY OF YOUR YOUTH DOESN’T EXIST ANYMORE.
I agree with this 100%. There are librarians who resist change because they don’t want the library to evolve. That’s a real problem. She also links to a recent LitHub article, “Stop. The library isn’t your private, childhood memory palace.” I love this article and I agree with it 100%. I tweeted it out myself when it was first posted online.
I came to libraries because they’re so adaptable. Because I’m excited to serve my community in a time of tremendous change. Because I relish the challenge of figuring out how to respond to changing needs and demographics. In his book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Wayne Wiegand points out public libraries have always adapted to changing needs and circumstances. There’s always been resistance to change, both internal and external. This is all to be expected.
Libraries should never be static entities—we need to be adaptable. The core of what we do is timeless—access, information, self-directed learning, self-directed entertainment—but of course our communities’ needs will change, and even the timeless needs will manifest differently, and technology will continue to alter how we access and consume information, sometimes in radical ways. This is good and healthy and exciting.
But I can’t completely agree that librarians need to be all things for all people. It’s not for the reasons Ms. Chase thinks. It starts with the following statement from her tweet thread:
The American Library Association recently tweeted an article about an outreach program the Chicago Public Library is doing.
“Literacy at the Laundromat” by Joseph P. Williams. Published by U.S. News & World Report, December 25, 2018.
CPL is offering story times in laundromats. I had two thoughts immediately upon reading this:
- What a wonderful idea!
- I would never come up with an idea like this.
I’m not a creative person. I love ideas but I’m not someone who dreams them up very well. I’m not much of a visionary in that sense.
This offered a moment of clarity for me. It helps me articulate what I really want to accomplish in my career.
The traditional definition of library neutrality holds that the library is a space where everyone is welcome, where all views are represented, and where everyone has the freedom to explore ideas and make their voices heard.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: This definition doesn’t describe a neutral space. It describes a space where everyone is equal.
Equality is a direct concern of libraries—especially public libraries. We pledge to serve all members of our community equally, without bias or judgement. We commit to making space for all voices, perspectives, and cultural traditions of the communities we serve. Equality is built into our professional values.
Let’s say you have two lines that are unequal in length: