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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Libraries: Everything to Everyone?

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.

She states:

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:

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A Moment of Clarity

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:

  1. What a wonderful idea!
  2. 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.

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The Challenge of Fairness

I struggle with the idea of fairness. Fairness is important to me. It bothers me, deeply, when I see things that are unfair. As a kid, I hated it when people would say, “The world isn’t always fair!” It was always just a transparent excuse for people treat others unfairly. Just because the world isn’t fair doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be.

Most libraries have a Patron Code of Conduct: a document laying out behavioral and usage expectations for people who use the library. Fairness is essential when it comes to these codes of conduct and especially when it comes to disciplinary actions in response to infractions.

Fairness requires us to apply our codes of conduct equally to all patrons. That seems obvious, right?

Maybe not.

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Theory vs. Practice

Or: My Last Thoughts on the Controversial Update to the Interpretation of the Meeting Room Policy of the Library Bill of Rights

I’m happiest when exploring the realm of ideas, big picture theory. As a kid, I would spend hours sitting in my room thinking about the nature of reality and existence, our minds and souls and bodies, perception, the Universe and time. As an undergraduate in college, I took enough philosophy classes to qualify for a minor in philosophy. A good intellectual debate is one of my favorite things.

I love delving into theory. But there’s one thing about this world which I know to be true:

Nothing ever works in practice the way it works in theory. Reality never matches the model.

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The Problem of Neutrality

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.

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Onward & Upward

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.

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