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Magazine Feature

Quiet Rebels at Brooklyn Public Library

by Nick Higgins on March 5, 2018

NICK HIGGINS is Interim Chief Librarian, Brooklyn (NY) Public Library. Contact Nick at NHiggins@bklynlibrary.org. Nick is currently reading Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje.

“Actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective, and remembering this is reason to live by principle and act in hope that what you do matters, even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious.”—Rebecca Solnit1

This winter, Brooklyn Public Library partnered with Bard College to invite students who have faced multiple barriers to higher education to enroll in free, credit-bearing classes taught by Bard faculty at our Central Library. Recently, some of us got a chance to meet the new cohort of seventeen students over lunch. It was the students’ second day of classes. The students were excited or nervous (or both) and were talkative and appreciative of the library and how welcoming it was. They all seemed to share a readiness to jump into reading, discussing, and learning about new ideas, and developing and expanding upon their own. This is a group, like other groups of college students, where lifelong friendships are bound to form.

“We’re reading Darwin this week,” one student told us. “We’re reading Kafka tomorrow,” another said, evoking an evolutionary theory that marches deliciously toward the morning when humans wake up to find they’ve transformed into giant insects—sounding like a class I would have loved as an undergrad.

“What impresses me about librarians,” someone else offered, “is that they’ve always been the world’s quiet rebels.” He went on to praise the Connecticut librarians who in 2005 challenged the U.S. government over a national security letter demanding they hand over patron records to the FBI. The librarians refused and questioned the legitimacy of provisions in the Patriot Act. These librarians decided not to act against profession-wide values of privacy and intellectual freedom, even while facing an authority of the highest order.

There are noisier ways to resist, to be sure. But as one of my colleagues informed everyone in the room that day: “We’ve been getting a lot louder.”

Equity, Diversity, Inclusion: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights

“The American Library Association affirms that equity, diversity, and inclusion are central to the promotion and practice of intellectual freedom. Libraries are essential to democracy and self-government, to personal development and social progress, and to every individual’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To that end, libraries and library workers should embrace equity, diversity, and inclusion in everything that they do.”2

To be committed to the practice of intellectual freedom and to embrace equity, diversity, and inclusion in everything we do makes us neither a quiet nor a neutral profession. We make choices that imagine specific outcomes for our fellow human beings. I’ll go further and say that it’s necessary for a public library to first recognize that people in our communities face all kinds of oppression. Some of that oppression is systemic.3 Part of our role is to help people better understand what those systems are and to then create a space to think critically about them. It’s the hope that with support, people can disentangle themselves from these oppressive systems and even assist in the changing or dismantling of them altogether.

Seeking Justice

A few years ago, my job was to oversee the operation of several jail libraries across the city. There was a lot to love about the work, including the freedom I had in making decisions on the operations of these small libraries from top to bottom. I puzzled constantly over collection development, reader advisory, circulation processes, marketing, programming, customer service, reference, and (mostly) relationship management with the Department of Corrections. I touched all of these things every day on the job. And because we never had enough money for anything, including staff, I was also responsible for volunteer recruitment.

Some of our volunteers had been inspired by the same writers and advocates as I was. We all had similar reading lists and we talked frequently about the “Angola Three,” three strikes laws, and draconian practices in some states of sentencing children to life sentences. Among us we didn’t need convincing that the criminal justice system affects some communities far more than others in various intentional ways. And having seen the inhumane conditions at Rikers Island firsthand we believed that NYC needed to initiate the transfer of the island’s ownership back over to its feral cats, rabbits, and sundry ghosts. We just couldn’t agree, especially early on, how a small library within a large jail system could effect change and push toward justice.

There were many difficulties in running those libraries. Near the top of a long list was the difficulty in maintaining cordial working relationships with Corrections staff so that our librarians could get into the jails to do the work. We also struggled with simultaneously maintaining our position that the entire enterprise of keeping people locked up (particularly in a place as deeply flawed as Rikers Island) was a largely destructive practice. We walked a narrow line each time we stepped onto the island. And while we refused to make any compromises to what we felt was our principled position, we also knew if we pushed in a certain way against the injustices of the system we’d risk being locked out altogether.

We started to adopt the idea that the simple act of giving a book to someone who has no other access to information is, by itself, a principled act that can lead to change. This simple, quiet act demonstrates a commitment to certain community norms that require all who participate to take care of collectively owned goods. We agree to these norms so that others in the group are able to enjoy the same rights to those goods down the line. This act (an act repeated over and over again in every public library), when sprung from a place of kindness or empathy, may help to inspire powerful individual and collective action over time.

Jails and prisons are wholly artificial environments that are built and operated in ways that establish clear power relations among individuals. The physical expressions of these power relations (cells, solitary units, mess halls, commissaries, etc.) are scaffolded by color-coded uniforms, internal labor and economic systems, and industry lingo (inmate, offender, officer, civilian, etc.) leaving no confusion as to who’s in control and who isn’t.

Libraries are not interested in those things. We seek liberation, not confinement. We demonstrate within this artificial environment what respectful human interactions look like. We ask someone’s opinion on the book they read (and ask their opinions about other things). We hand a person a book and come to an understanding that it should be taken care of because someone else will want to read it. We discuss the idea of a lending library—that looking out for others requires good stewardship of shared resources. We thank people for returning books and ask them to recommend others that people might want to read. We treat people like they matter to other people—because they do.

Libraries are Different

We choose to work in libraries over doing work in other industries (Yes, this sentence sounds as fatuous to me writing it as it does to you reading it—but it’s true!). There are many other jobs where we could be serving the public. There are a ton of other jobs where folks are “making a difference.” But in the end there’s no place left like a public library; a space that every community member has equal rights to and ownership of.

Many of us are drawn to the work because we’re attracted to the principles of access and inclusion that make up its foundation. These principles also reflect our profession’s aspirations. We’re at our best when these principles animate our everyday work, but some days are easier than others. Some days we’re short staffed, or there’s a problem with the heat in the building, or there’s no one on the schedule to help clean the bathrooms, or our catalog goes offline, or any number of real life things are happening that distract us and make it difficult for us to do our work the way we’d like.

This makes the hard work in a public library even more difficult. But we continue to be drawn to it despite the real world difficulties and the fact that we hardly ever know what impact our work has on people from week to week—let alone ten or twenty years down the road. We’re drawn in by the hope that our work does indeed make a difference, just like it made a difference in our own lives. It just might take some time. So we continue to live by principle and do the unyielding work of the quiet rebels and hope for the change that will surely come.

References and Notes

1. Rebecca Solnit, “Protest and Persist: Why Giving Up Hope Is Not an Option,” The Guardian (Mar. 13, 2017), accessed Feb. 4, 2018.

2. “Equity, Diversity, Inclusion,” American Library Association (July 5, 2017), accessed Feb. 4, 2018.

3. Some of that oppression we replicate in our own professional practices (hiring practices, customer service, program offerings, etc.) within the library.

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