Civil rights in libraries

This Fourth of July holiday weekend I’ve been thinking about our country. Specifically I have been examining how little I really know about racism and other types of bias (directed at women, transgender people, native American people, muslims, immigrants) in America. Not that I don’t know it exists, but I’m a glass half-full kind of person and until the most recent national elections, I bought into the “it gets better” narrative. Look at the progress we’ve made, I thought. A black president! Better protections for women, transgender kids in school. Support for refugees. It was easy for me, a privileged white professional, to assume that the rash of police shootings of unarmed black people was a blight on progress, not a sign that the progress I felt proud to support was really like a shiny coat of paint on a rotting porch — it covered up what had never been fixed underneath.

For me, that’s been the most eye-opening realization these past several months — not that our government has changed direction, but that institutions and systems of all kinds — political, commercial, social — and also communities of all kinds are hobbled by implicit bias. And that seems overwhelming, especially when I’ve seen myself as part of the solution, not just because I tried to raise my kids to do better, because I vote, pay attention, write letters, and sometimes protest, but also because I am a librarian.

What does that have to do with anything? If you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian over the years you know that I was a public librarian before I moved back into academia, and I have frequently championed the role of libraries as places of radical hospitality, the last public institutions truly open to all. Our professional organization, the American Library Association, actively works for the freedom to use libraries without fear of government intrusion — ALA and its members has for over a decade spoken up about immigrant and refugee rights, resisted the Patriot Act, spoke up about hate crimes, and more recently, opposed both the rolling back of protections for transgender students, and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Librarians are the good guys! Right?

In the most recent ALA magazine, American Libraries, there is an article about the Tougaloo Nine, and several other protests during the civil rights era where black people, often students, tried to use white only public and academic libraries. I knew in a I-learned-it-in-school kind of way that libraries were segregated like everywhere else, but these articles really grabbed me. These were librarians who told black students they had to go and couldn’t use the library or read library books. I cannot imagine ever denying anyone a book. Through this little thought experiment, picturing myself in that situation, I realized I have never really truly learned about the civil rights era struggles. I’ve read about that time, sure, I have shaken my head and wondered how on earth the South (because I always think of it as the South where institutionalized racism was born and where the vestiges of that infect society, another false perceptions I am trying to correct) could have been like that. I’ve felt ashamed that people were so terribly mistreated in my country.

But I’ve never placed myself in the stories. I’ve never tried to imagine wanting a book and ending up being beaten my police. I’ve never tried imagining denying someone that book. Not that imagining is experiencing, I don’t mean that at all, but imagining is stronger than just learning. I hope that making the mental leap to put myself right into someone else’s perspective will help me break down the implicit bias I, like all Americans, carry. I hope it makes me a better librarian, better able to truly serve every person who comes through our doors. I’m grateful that my professional association walks that walk, provides members with information about challenges to freedom, and expects that standing for “liberty and justice for all” is a part of what we do.

Advertisements

Helping the homeless in libraries

The New Hampshire Library Association posted this story about San Francisco Public Library’s homeless outreach team on their Facebook page today. I find it intriguing that libraries are hiring outreach staff, some of them formerly homeless themselves, who are working with homeless patrons to help them meet their physical and even psychiatric needs. I immediately recalled an article in Harper’s last fall about Seattle Public Library and its much more punitive approach. Instead of social workers they hire guards.

Our library has rules that impact the homeless particularly (like no sleeping), but no guards.  We have a good relationship both with our homeless patrons and with area outreach organizations. We have a handout at the reference desk about local social services, food pantries, shelters, and other resources. I think most of the staff are very respectful and kind to all the patrons, regardless of whether they’re homeless.

I think it’s great that libraries are stepping in to offer information — a core part of our mission after all — but I wondered about going so far as having “a full-time psychiatric social worker” as San Francisco has. Then I read that the ALA’s “Library Services to the Poor” policy, implemented in the 1980’s. As a part of promoting “equal access to information for all persons” the policy notes “it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society.” A social worker who can refer someone to the help he or she needs is doing just that. And quite possibly making library guards a little less busy.

I felt pretty proud to be a librarian when I read the ALA policy, and I’ll be keeping it in mind when I’m working tonight. What’s your library doing to help the poor, and particularly the homeless?

Do Libraries Sap Attention Spans?

My son’s freshman class at college read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr this summer. My husband is reading it now. Last night he read aloud: “until recently the library was an oasis of bookish tranquility” but now, Carr dramatizes, “The predominant sound in the modern library is the tapping of keys, not the turning of pages.” The implication that by offering internet access, libraries are contributing to the “shallowing” of our minds struck me as fairly improbable.

At the public library where I work, I recently chatted with an English teacher looking for a good book to take her mind off work. She’s the second teacher to tell me this summer that her students can’t read as much as when she began teaching. She assigns shorter classics so they won’t get frustrated, and because she’s learned that they won’t finish longer works. But she says they are reading, and she noted that how and what is probably less important than she once thought. As she put it, she sees teaching English as helping  kids become competent, not cramming them full of particular titles.

The teacher and I agreed someone reading an entire New York Times article on a smart phone (like my son) is getting the same depth as someone reading the print edition (more if like me, that person is skimming over morning coffee before rushing off to start the day).  So aren’t libraries broadening access to reading by catering to both print and online readers?

As Carr notes, library internet service is very popular. But many of the same people using the computers at my library are checking out books. And those who don’t use the computers are probably not Luddites, who are really fairly rare, but rather people who can afford computers and internet service at home. According to the ALA’s 2012 State of America’s Libraries report, libraries across the country have seen circulation increase, as my library has. From what I can see, people who have nowhere else to use the internet are finding their way into the stacks while they’re at the library, and not the other way around.

As for that bookish tranquility? The “shushing” era of librarianship was over long before I was in library school, twenty years ago. Libraries are community centers, and we’ve always been places where information is freely available to all. If the internet and its keyboard clicks are a part of that open access, so be it. Reading, whether on a screen or a page, is still very much alive in our hopped-up, attention-challenged, 24 hour news cycle world. It has faced other challenges in its history, as have libraries, and I think both will adapt and survive.