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Checking Our Political Differences at the Door

by on September 6, 2019

Providing Bipartisan Service in the 2020 Election Year

A few weeks ago, a patron approached the reference desk to request that we buy a book titled Unfreedom of the Press by Mark R. Levin. My first reaction was to recoil. Should we be buying a book that fills patrons’ heads with this kind of nonsense, I thought. If I could refuse to place books on the library’s shelves, that would be one of them. Yesterday, another patron came to me and requested that the library purchase a book titled The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American by Andrew L. Seidel. My reaction to this request? The polar opposite. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “This is an informative book that the library should have readily available for its patrons.”

The difference between these two interactions isn’t the way the patrons approached me–both were respectful and kind–or the process by which I submit a new purchase request to our collection development librarian. The difference was me, allowing my political bias to inform my interactions with patrons and decide what is good information and what is bad information. My political interests have leaned to the left my whole life. Even before I registered to vote on my eighteenth birthday, even before I was arguing with classmates in eleventh grade American Government class, I was campaigning for Al Gore during first grade recess, out on the playground. I’ve always thought of politics as a black and white thing: you’re a Democrat or you’re a Republican, you’re good or you’re bad. For roughly twenty five years, I’ve been encouraged to vocalize my opinions. The last thing I ever want to do is bite my tongue in the face of political adversity.

In this job, that’s exactly what I have to do. Libraries are hubs of information. Librarians, as they say, are the original Google, and as the slogan goes, Libraries are for Everyone. That includes people with whom we might disagree. Library staff are not the gatekeepers to knowledge, deciding what information is valuable or who has permission to access it. I may know immediately that I disagree with the man who comes into the library wearing a Make America Great Again hat, but it’s my duty to serve him just like I would serve a patron wearing a shirt announcing Warren 2020 or Nevertheless She Persisted or any number of catchy slogans.

Libraries are not in the business of censorship. In fact, many of us actively fight against censorship as we fight for freedom of information. We are on the frontlines of battles over challenged books and drag queen story times and the necessity of Narcan in public libraries. There’s a whole week in September dedicated to the reading of banned and challenged books and every library I’ve ever worked at has celebrated this week loudly and joyously. I fight for a citizen’s right to read Mein Kampf or The Diary of Anne Frank, so why would I not fight for their right to read Unfreedom of the Press or The Mueller Report, just because those books happen to be political? For the record, so was Mein Kampf, and controversial to boot, and we still fight for every person’s right to read it.

Now more than ever, libraries feel political. They feel revolutionary. They even, for many of us, feel like they’re under attack. In his FY2020 budget, President Trump proposed completely eliminating the Federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. This act would essentially eliminate all federal funding of public libraries. Library staff may fear for themselves in the face of this possibility, for our jobs and livelihoods. But we fear, most of all, for our patrons. What becomes of the young students whose families can’t afford at-home internet or a computer, who come to the library to complete their homework? What becomes of our homeless population, in need of a safe, warm, dry place during a snowstorm or a cool place during the hottest days of the summer? Libraries are not just housing facilities for books–they are a refuge for members of the community. Though there was bipartisan support for the IMLS in Congress, many library supporters may find it hard to engage respectfully with someone who vocally supports the president, and therefore his policies and proposals–including the proposal to shut down the IMLS.

It’s redundant to say that I love libraries. That should be obvious! As a child and a teenager, I could spend hours exploring the central library in downtown Rochester, NY–a library so big that it took up two buildings, connected by a tunnel that ran under the road. I would check out stacks of books so tall that I could barely read them all before they were due again. Now, from behind the desk, I’ve learned that libraries aren’t just about books. Libraries are for the public and my job is to serve the public. That’s something I can’t do if I’m thinking about myself. To serve the public in any great capacity, we have to check our personal views at the door. Because it’s not about us. It’s about them.

Tips for leaving your politics out of your public service:

  • Go above and beyond to help a patron: I find that doing work that I’m proud of, even if it’s as simple as helping someone navigate the Dewey Decimal System, negates the crummy feeling I get after watching the news.
  • Take some time for self-care: After a long day working with patrons, self-care could mean taking a bubble bath, reading a book or simply changing the channel from the news station to something fun and mindless–reality television comes to mind.
  • Donate your time or your money: Give your support to the political candidates that you do believe in, both on a federal and local level, instead of complaining about the candidates you don’t believe in.
  • Try to see things from someone else’s perspective: You probably won’t end up changing your mind, but reading a book by an author with whom you disagree or having a civil discussion with a friend or family member with polarized political views could help you develop some much-needed empathy for others.
  • Leave your work at the library: It can be tempting to sneak a peek at your emails after dinner or stew about an ill-tempered patron but the best thing you can do for your mental health is to say “I’m not going to worry about this again until I’m back at the library.”