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.

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Shining a light on civil rights

This week the New York Times reported that American students don’t learn much about the Civil Rights Movement. That was on my mind as a co-worker shared his memories of learning first hand about segregation while stationed at an Air Force base in Mississippi in the1950’s. Then I heard Rev. Dwight Haynes, a retired minister who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Montgomery, speak at the Love Your Neighbor rally in response to the recent hate crime in Concord. When he invoked King’s speech, the grayer members of the crowd responded in unison.

Listening to these lessons from the struggle to realize the American ideal of equality made me wonder what resources I could share with young people who may not know that the response to Dr. King’s “How long?” is “Not long.”  When my own teen said she hated hearing about people being hurt and mistreated, I empathized, but told her that examining history is a first step towards not repeating it.

From the reference desk I’ve observed that busy students don’t read much beyond assigned texts, so I’ll stick to online resources. Ed Tech Teacher’s Best of History Websites includes a rich selection of Civil Rights Movement sites. C-SPAN features videos on a variety of civil rights related topics, from Mt. Vernon’s slave quarters to gay rights.  CivilRightsTeaching.org recommends websites.  Visit the Infoplease Civil Rights Timeline for a historical overview and links to people and events from 1948 to 2009.

My favorite resource?  The Library of Congress (which is really everyone’s library), whose Virtual Services Digital Reference Section has compiled an excellent Civil Rights Resource Guide, filled with primary source materials such as oral histories, letters, and photos, as well as links to other sources and a bibliography.

If a young adult in your life has time to watchYou Tube videos and sports highlights, he or she can visit a couple these sites, too. Share a link and see what happens.