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Public Libraries as Instruments for Social and Political Activism

by on March 14, 2017

When I became a public librarian I had my own ideas about what the job would entail. I knew I loved books and that I loved helping people. I knew that I relished the idea of giving people access to information and ideas they couldn’t get in other places. I didn’t connect being a librarian with being an activist for social or political change. I didn’t realize how important my role would become in helping people make decisions that can change the world we live in.

A recent article published by MTV News profiled several librarians around the country who have worked tirelessly for years to keep public and academic libraries constantly moving forward not only as instruments for social and political change but as the standard bearers who lead it. (Fuller, 2017).

Diedre Conkling, one of the subjects in the article, is a librarian in Oregon who has spent most of her career working to encourage public libraries to embrace progressive social change, environmental issues, and politics and spurred them to be part of the movements that make those changes possible. She graciously took the time to answer a few of my questions on February 16 via email about the role public libraries should take in this time of great social and political upheaval.

Public Libraries: In the MTV article “In Trump’s Amerca, Activist Librarians Who Won’t Be Shushed” you’re referred to as an “activist librarian.” Do you consider yourself an activist and how do you define what an activist librarian is? What made you want to become one?

Diedre Conkling: I never really called myself an activist librarian or an activist at all. That just seems to be the current label. I have always thought that as librarians we needed to be aware of current trends in our communities and the world. I also always felt that being a librarian naturally puts us into a position to do work in the spirit of service. It is that this social service that now seems to be called activist.

I started out in the American Library Association by being involved with the Feminist Task Force, a part of the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT). We were doing preconferences based around understanding racism and working to make change and add diversity to our libraries and our library resources. This was in the early 1980s. There have been lots of changes in our libraries and in society since then but we could do these same workshops today and they would be just as relevant. Now we have some other projects. We have the Amelia Bloomer Project, which reviews feminist books for birth through 18. We also do the Women of Library History Tumblr during Women’s History Month,

So, I have not given a clear definition of an activist librarian but I think that the definition seems to be applied to anyone working for the public good, freely providing service to all members of society, and considers that an important mission. I find this very interesting. In 1985, when E. J. Josey was president of the American Library Association his presidential program was on “libraries, coalitions, and the public good.” I was very fortunate to have attended the all day workshop around this topic and it has been a part of my thinking since then.

PL: It has been said that librarian culture can be very slow to change. You spoke about public libraries’ reluctance to take firm stands on civil rights issues. Where do you think that reluctance stems from? What is the most effective way to combat it?

Conkling: I think there have been times when we have been slow to take a stand on civil rights or human rights. We were slow to desegregate libraries in our southern states. This is probably the area of discrimination in libraries that was most written about until current years. Here is a very small sample of what easily pops up doing a search.

  1. https://dp.la/exhibitions/exhibits/show/history-us-public-libraries/segregated-libraries
  2. https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/blog/index.php/2013/03/25/from-the-archives-historic-library-desegregation/
  3. http://lithub.com/on-the-battle-to-desegregate-the-nations-libraries/
  4. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/timeline-in-library-development-for-african-americans/
  5. Robbins, Louise S. The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000)
  6. http://bookriot.com/2017/02/15/freedom-to-read-the-1939-alexandria-library-sit-in/

I wish there was an easy way for all of us to just except all people as equals and deserving of all of our services but this seems to be difficult. I know much of this is unconscious behavior. We create policies in our libraries to address one behavior and don’t always see the big picture and recognize the barriers we are putting in place for being able to serve all populations in our communities. When we try to break down these barriers we become activists.

For some libraries it has taken a long time to actively collect and provide up-to-date materials by and about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and to be supportive of lgbtq staff and patrons.  However, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT) of the American Library Association (ALA) which was founded in 1970 as ALA’s Task Force on Gay Liberation is the nation’s first gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender professional organization. So we can be ahead in some areas and behind in other areas.

Our libraries have been used by the homeless for many decades but only recently have libraries started actively working to provide more than a chair, a newspaper, and room deodorizer for this section of our communities. Now libraries are starting to provide social workers onsite instead of treating this population as a population that is a problem for our libraries.

We still often put policies in place that make it difficult to work with adults with developmental issues.  My own nephew has not been allowed into the children’s area of his local public library because he is an adult and yet the books and computer programs in the children’s section are more appropriate for him than those in the adult area of the library. He, and his mother, now never use the library because of this.

Our libraries are now trying to hire staff able to work with people who are non-English speakers and/or new to the country.  This is not something that was very prevalent in libraries in the past but is more and more just an everyday part of what we do. Now we are also being put on the front lines protecting our patrons feeling in danger because they are immigrants to this country. The new immigration guidelines coming from the Trump administration are causing a fear among immigrants. Many libraries are making even more of an effort to help these people find good information about the new immigration guidelines. They are trying to still encourage children and their parents to attend library programs and use the library resources and not be in fear of being deported. Libraries are maintaining the privacy of their records and strongly requiring court orders before releasing any information and trying not to store any unneeded information about patrons. Not every library is going to do this but many are. Those that aren’t will probably have staff members who want to be more upfront about helping these patrons. They may have to work on making incremental changes in their libraries and putting together good arguments for the library administrators, boards, and governing bodies about why they need to take these actions.  This can be a slow and frustrating process but it works. In other libraries they will be willing to be right on the front lines.

PL: Public library policy can often leave librarians feeling like their hands are tied in terms of actively taking a stand while on the job regarding social or political issues. There’s also the concern that voicing an opinion one way or even appearing to have a stance that might make a patron uncomfortable will result in a reprimand or the loss of a job. Is there a way to strike a balance between providing a neutral, safe place for everyone and still being able to feel you are staying true to your personal politics and beliefs? Should libraries even be considered “neutral territory” or is it part of our job to share and express our beliefs constructively so others can be exposed to them?

Conkling: Libraries have never been neutral territory. I’m not sure how they even could be. We may not do political campaigning over the desk, usually not just library policy but also a restriction on public employees by state and federal laws, or force our opinions on our patrons but we do provide information on as many topics as we can with as many viewpoints as we can and that certainly makes us anything but neutral places.  By serving all our communities we are going to have people using our libraries who have viewpoints that differ from ours. Sometimes we do just listen and hold back on our own opinions.  Sometimes we answer a question by saying these materials support your view and these materials give some different viewpoints. This is being a professional. We don’t have to be confrontational.

We can have programs and displays representing different ideas. The programs don’t always have to address all possible sides of an issue. They actually can represent just one viewpoint. We can always refer people to our collections for more information and other viewpoints. It is frustrating and unrealistic to think that we must address all viewpoints in every program, every display, and every conversation.

We can be out in our communities belonging to various groups and involved in various activities. We cannot legally be told what to do and not do politically on our own time. We might even bring to the library a new group of enthusiastic users by being a part of these groups. We can learn about sustainability and start bringing in suggestions for changes in our buildings. We might learn about new programs to help refugees or the homeless and bring that information to the library and take information about library services and resources to the groups. Some will think this is political or activist and others will think this is just being a good librarian.

Today, just following the mission of libraries we are being thrown into an activist roll. When we stand up to other people and government agencies in support of free access to information today we are suddenly activists, even though this is what we have done for years. It is our job to fight for free access to information and to support the retention of all kinds of information, especially information created by our government agencies. We are now on the front lines of activism.

PL: My favorite moment in the article is the story you tell about a gentleman’s concern that CD-ROMs were going to make libraries obsolete. Many of us have faced similar questions over the years. Like you, I agree that libraries are in a very good place now and if anything our work is getting more complex and fascinating. We need to change how we do our jobs to accommodate how people want to get their information. Do you think part of that change is also about becoming more active participants in the social and political world?

Conkling: I will always remember the reporter who sat next to me on an ALA Conference shuttle bus at the ALA 1986 Annual Conference. CD-Rom products were just becoming widely used in libraries and were displayed everywhere at the exhibits. He really seemed to think we would soon have everything on CDs so wouldn’t need libraries.  Even by then it was obvious to me that this was just one more tool for libraries to use as we change and adapt to our environment. This was a bit before the Internet became one of our major tools. These things are tools used in libraries and do not signal the end of libraries.  They do signal changes in what we can do in libraries.

I think that some of the changes that have occurred really are the changes being made in libraries to work more in other areas including working with the homeless, refugees, health care, legal services, makerspaces, and much more. We were plunged into the political front when we became very vocal about how those of us in libraries could help people analyze information on the Internet and judge whether a site has reliable news or fake news. I think we welcomed this change because we have been working on computer literacy, diagnosing valid and invalid works on the Internet, and even plagiarism for years. It is nice to be able to easily demonstrate our expertise in these areas but it certainly is a political issue this year. I think that this is now a political issue may surprise some working in libraries because this was just day-to-day information that we provided until now.

I am not going to pretend to know what this means in the future but I do see libraries continuing to be active and vital institutions in our communities. I do believe that this quote from Herbert Schiller remains true.

PL: As I’m sure many of us do every day, I recently had a very difficult reference interview where a patron was requesting material I found not just contradictory to my personal politics, but outright vulgar. What is the best approach, in your mind, when confronted with a patron who wants to discuss or requires information or access to something that is in direct contradiction to the librarian’s moral, social, or political beliefs.

Conkling: I’m pretty sure that no one has an easy answer for this question and an answer somewhat varies with each person and question. We sometimes get questions that really are meant to harass and in those instances it is reasonable to not answer the question but to walk away and immediately report the incident to your supervisor and/or library director. You might say to the individual something like “I will be right back.” Many times we have patrons who want to get us involved in political discussions.  It should always be fine to say that you have found the topic interesting but you have other work to do so.

While at work you do need to have nonconfrontational ways to get away from these uncomfortable situations with our patrons. It is not good or safe for anyone to create a confrontational situation. It really is best to have thought about the possibilities of these kinds of situations and already have a plan for dealing with them.

On the other hand, if someone asks you for information on a subject like abortion, or legalizing drugs, or closing our borders you have some other options. I tend to show the person all of the materials we have showing ones that agree with their viewpoint and those that disagree. If someone is writing a paper remind them that their paper will be better if they have references from various viewpoints. Even if they aren’t writing a paper it doesn’t hurt to point out the variety of ideas expressed in our library collections.

We are always going to disagree with many of our patrons but the library itself is about these various ideas and promoting using the library resources to learn more about the topics and further form our opinions. However, we are also there to help people understand what information is good and well-researched and what sources they may be using that are giving them false information and how to tell the difference. Many times we have patrons who want to get us involved in political discussions. It should always be fine to say that you have found the topic interesting but you have other work to do.


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