Because our culture is so divided now, the role of public libraries as an anchor in our communities is even more important. Libraries are not only the center of our communities. They help us stay grounded. Public libraries are safe zones, places where all people are welcome and included. Places where it is safe to explore different cultures, food, and religions. Places to be introduced to ideas that might be different. Places where it is safe to have conversations with people you might not know and who you might disagree with. Places of civic discourse.
In the wake of the net neutrality repeal, now more than ever, public libraries need to rise to the challenge of engaging in digital justice work. As librarians, we know that the repeal of net neutrality hurts all of us. However, in a climate of increasing inequality and opportunity gaps, marginalized communities, especially people of color, low-income households, and rural communities, are primed to be most negatively impacted by the FCC’s egregious party-line decision.
During the past year, the public discourse on sexual harassment and gender-based abuse of power has shifted. Women’s marches, the social media #MeToo movement, and the public condemnation of high-profile individuals accused of sexual misconduct have disrupted the nation’s previously accepted complacency and led to demands for accountability. While the national focus on sexual harassment represents an elevated platform and increased visibility for (primarily white) women speaking out against gender oppression, it has yet to translate into a mass movement for pay equity, improved workplace conditions, increased access to childcare, reproductive freedom, and an end to violence against and exploitation of women. This is a case where the individual actions are receiving a lot of attention, but we are in danger of missing the deeper institutional and structural drivers of persistent and entrenched gender inequity.
In 2017, Seattle Public Library (SPL) staff spent the year exploring the social impact of mass incarceration in our city and country. This project marked the second year
that a civic topic was selected to explore through a series designed to empower and center communities throughout Seattle.1 The Criminal Justice Series leveraged traditional engagement techniques that reflect libraries’ “bread and butter” work of information sharing, awareness raising, and enrichment, including public programs, a social media campaign, art exhibit, and related booklists. What made it noteworthy as an instrument of civic engagement was that it relied on a community-led process that placed individuals who are directly affected by criminal justice at the center of program development while library staff played a supporting role.
If you’ve worked with young people for just about any length of time, a teenager has likely shared something painful with you and you may have felt momentarily powerless to help them. I experienced a moment like that on an afternoon when I heard a small group of young teens in my library branch discussing police brutality. I sat down with the teens that day and I listened. They were furious, frustrated, and sad. Absorbing their words and their feelings, I felt those same emotions. I also felt helpless. Their pain was so large and I felt so small in that moment.
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.