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Librarians and Social Activism

by on September 18, 2016

As we enter election season, I am reminded daily of issues of politics.  As public servants, librarians must be apolitical in their work life in terms of candidates and parties. But at the same time, librarianship in many ways is a highly politicized occupation.  In fact, regardless of location, the librarian can wield a great deal of social power and influence.  Like it or not, intended or not, the librarian can bring about and effect social change.

Daily in our choices of collection development, readers’ advisory, display creation and programming, we expose the public to ideas and issues.  Many make conscious choices to include a wide range of perspectives.  We focus on issues of diversity and multiculturalism. Often these are intentional decisions designed to inform and educate, two of the American Library Association’s library values.

Further, when we intentionally choose materials that represent a wide range of perspectives or a multicultural tale for story time, we implicitly are doing this to bring about social change.  Our goal may be to have the library be more inclusive, to reach out to a less dominant population, or to promote intellectual freedom and democracy.

The definition of social activism is an intentional action with the goal of bringing about social change. It is doubtful that any would say directly that we are doing the above activities to promote social change, but we do at times say we are doing this to promote peace, tolerance, and another ALA value, the public good.   Therefore, librarians inherently are social activists.

For me this raises several questions:  How do we actually define what the public good is?  How much do librarians realize they are subtly influencing the political world?  What happens when there is conflict between our personal and professional values?  Are librarians also political activists?  And if so, isn’t this actually a contradiction of the other values that we uphold?

I don’t know the answer to these questions.  I agree that librarians should not promote a particular party, candidate, or political position.  At the same time, I know that I often have strong feelings about such things.  Likewise, while I personally agree and support ALA’s values, they are still in fact values, a judgement on what is viewed as important or an appropriate standard.   So I wonder, is my interpretation and manifestation of these values appropriate?

Despite all the considerations this raises, I am also happy to be a social activist.  I am happy that in my own small way I can help encourage diversity.  I am happy that in so doing, I can help fight prejudice and discrimination.  I can encourage critical thinking and lifelong learning. As a librarian in this role, I am a leader in my community and I am choosing to be actively leading tolerance.

I am also happy that I question these things and question my personal values and their definitions.  I believe it is because I have these goals and I question myself in these ways, that I strive to present all perspectives, whether they match my politics or not.

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