I write a lot in my American Libraries column about library values, particularly those around access and privacy. My latest column (Jan/Feb 17), which
should be out soon online just also came out this morning, is a love letter to critical librarianship in which I share my conviction (shared by many) that libraries are not neutral. I believe strongly that real neutrality means supporting the oppression of many people in this country. Libraries should not replicate the fundamental inequality of our society; instead, we should be all about providing access (to libraries and information) and protecting the privacy of all members of our communities. In an unequal society, that is not a neutral act. I do not see how that lack of neutrality is not completely consistent with our professional values.
We are going to have our values tested time and again with the incoming administration and the polarized climate we’re living and working in. Our professional values aren’t only there for when they are convenient or are consonant with our personal beliefs. As Andy Woodworth wrote in his terrific Medium post, upholding the freedom to read sometimes means providing access to things we find repugnant (like Milo Yiannopoulos’ upcoming book). Sometimes holding to our values may mean pissing off the very people who hold our purse strings, as Sarah Houghton pointed out in her passionate rebuke to ALA’s misguided press releases. I get it. I quit my first library job because I disagreed with a new policy that decreased information access for the most vulnerable members of our community (something I just wrote about for the March/April issue of American Libraries). Others have suffered far worse for standing up for these values.
I was thrilled to discover Andy and Sarah’s Operation451, which is designed to affirm and remind us of values so core to our profession, specifically the promotion of freedom of expression and access. 451 stands both for Fahrenheit 451 (the book-burning classic) and the 4th and 5th articles of the Library Bill of Rights along with the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
From the website:
By participating in 451, you pledge to:
- Work towards increasing information access, especially for vulnerable populations;
- Establish your library as a place for everyone in the community, no matter who they are;
- Ensure and expand the right of free speech, particularly for minorities’ voices and opinions.
Sounds like what we do (or should be doing) as librarians every day. If you agree, check out their website and join their Facebook event. Personally, I wish they’d included privacy in there, because it will likely see unprecedented challenges under the Trump administration, but I can see how it didn’t fit in with the 451 theme. I would also add to that list that we should support and collaborate with organizations that share our support for individual civil liberties, freedom of the press, and equal access to information. We’re stronger together.
Supporting “library values” is a family affair for me. Many folks who read this blog may not know that my husband runs the largest online professional community for optometrists and has done so for more than 14 years. He is an expert at keeping an online community vibrant and sticky, and dealing with problematic members. He has had to balance the needs of the community with the interests of advertisers and has always been a staunch defender of free speech, even when it’s bitten him in the ass and run counter to his financial interests. While he’s not a librarian, he embodies all of our values around intellectual freedom and privacy in his work and I love him for it.
While the community mainly exists to discuss clinical work, practice management, and the like, there is also a non-professional forum where clinicians can discuss political topics, current events, etc. The other day, a community member asked to have her account deleted because she was disgusted by some of the more right-wing commenters and didn’t want to be associated with a site that allowed people to air those kinds of opinions. She also said that she would discourage other optometrists from using the site. My husband allowed me to share his response, which I’ve posted below:
I respect your opinion. But as one of the site’s administrators (and dyed-in-the-wool liberal — I helped Bernie Sanders get elected as my Senator in Vermont years ago), I think censoring people is the absolute wrong approach in this environment, and only worsens the problem.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of a concept called the “filter bubble”. This is where people online tend to retreat to spaces that make them feel comfortable, thus blocking out any alternate point of view (no matter how repellent or painful to them personally.) This is why people who listen to Fox news or Brietbart, or only listen to their Facebook ‘friends’ — live in a totally alternate reality from everyone else, where fiction somehow becomes fact.
Studies have found that one of the only spaces where any reasonable political discourse occurs online is actually in *sports forums* — amazing but true! And one of the reasons is because people come to those sites over a common issue that is apolitical (ie, their favorite team), and can speak to each other from a common interest, even if politically they are on opposites sides of the universe.
The same goes for our site — when we see racism, or information that is factually just wrong — we give it a full-throated rebuke. And explain why people are dead wrong. If things get out of control, we stop it. We’ve even banned people who repeatedly violated our code of conduct.
Removing these avenues of discussion through censorship only makes people harder to reach, and will make them retreat further into their own (possibly delusional) cliques.
Or I guess in medical terms, “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. If everyone took the approach of “I’m not going to this place because I am offended”, the segregation online only gets worse.
It is a tricky problem for sure, one with which we are forced to grapple every day.
Values aren’t always convenient to have, but without them, how do we define ourselves? How do we respect ourselves?