Today was Day 10 of #LibFaves19 on Twitter. Every December, librarians across the land take to Twitter to list their top 10 favorite books published that year. For the complete list of my Top 10 #LibFaves19, go here:
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:
Or: OK, I Lied—My Previous Post Wasn’t the Last I Had to Say on This Subject. Honestly, I Won’t Ever Run Out of Things to Say about This Issue.
It’s illuminating to peruse the history of judicial interpretations of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. Time and time again, it’s noted that the goal of the freedom of expression is to enable and promote the free exchange of ideas.
The free exchange of ideas is the fundamental purpose of public libraries.
The freedom of expression requires us to engage with the presence of hate speech and the various expressions of hate groups in our communities. As we debate the proper approach to and place of hate in society—and more specifically within public libraries—we must at least acknowledge that hate groups don’t care about participating in the free exchange of ideas. If we believe we must allow hate groups and hate speech in libraries because we believe that we should provide access to all ideas, and a platform for all members of our community, it should matter to us that hate groups don’t care about any of that.
Hate groups have no desire to engage in discussion or debate. That’s not why they speak their hate.
They speak to cause harm.
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.
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.
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.
I’m so bored by this question. Let’s talk instead about some things Amazon can’t do:
- Amazon can’t be part of a community.
- Amazon can’t build meaningful, multifaceted relationships with people at a local level.
- Amazon can’t provide communal space.
- Amazon can’t provide boots-on-ground, in-the-trenches, front-line community services.
- Amazon can’t provide anything beyond purely commercial transactions.
- Amazon can’t be assumed to care about the common good.
- Amazon can’t build trust with people.
Libraries do all these things. Libraries do so much more than these things. All without ever advertising to you, without leveraging your needs for commercial gain.
Amazon values monetization. Libraries value people.
Can libraries compete with Amazon? This isn’t a legitimate question. If you think Amazon is competition for libraries, then you fundamentally don’t understand what libraries do.
The truth is this:
Amazon can’t compete with us.