When I read Nina de Jesus’s blog post “Locating the Library in Institutionalized Oppression,” I stashed it away so that I could mull it over. I am a bit of a library Pollyanna, making grand claims for the values libraries uphold, but I also remember the many times I went into libraries and felt intimidated. I am, as many undergraduates are, loath to announce publicly my ignorance by asking questions that I can’t quite articulate. Where is everything? How does it work? Am I in the right place? Should I even be here?
There is something about a library that speaks volumes about insiders and outsiders. When you walk into a library with other people who are more familiar with it, you notice that they head purposefully for some place they already know about, or stride up to the computers and start searching without asking permission. They belong in the library, or, perhaps more accurately, they feel the library belongs to them.
New students feel intimidated, as we know from observation and from the recent Project Information Literacy report, Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Research When They Enter College. They’ve never been in such a large library before. They’ve never had to do this kind of writing. They’ve never read an article in a scholarly journal. They have lots to learn, and it’s both exciting and a little terrifying. That’s true of students who grew up knowing college was in their future, whose family members have told them about their college days, who have to figure out how to fit in but know they will. It’s even harder for students who are first generation, or came from a school where college was never assumed, who look around and see nobody who looks like them and wonder who they’re kidding. As welcoming as we try to make a library, it may well be saying in various ways, “This is not yours. You don’t belong.” And those messages are invisible to us insiders.
As I was thinking about this issue, the American Library Association’s (ALA) new Code of Conduct was released, and Will Manley read it as an alarming development that could chill speech and limit intellectual freedom. The response to his post was heated and vigorous, and Manley has since removed it from the web. Lisa Rabey put together a very good roundup of the prelude, the post, and the responses. I found Andromeda Yelton’s personal reflection on why we need the code (and why that need is invisible to many people) particularly moving. We need a code because people who attend ALA conferences should feel safe and welcome. And sometimes they don’t.
My knees have strong reflexes when it comes to free speech, and I can see how many librarians who haven’t had the experiences that the code is intended to address would be puzzled and might think that it is designed to put some topics or forms of expression off limits. Will potty-mouthed poets be ejected from the exhibit hall if they read their latest sexually explicit book? Will people with controversial views about race be punished? Are we banning certain kinds of speech?
No. The code suggests something fairly radical: that free speech and respect for all people are compatible. This is a truly tricky thing. Some beliefs do run absolutely counter to others, and expressing beliefs passionately could be seen by some as threatening behavior. I suspect implementing this code will include situations that aren’t easily resolved. But what the code does is announce that harassment happens and the association has your back. It says in no uncertain terms, “We know some of you have felt silenced. We want to create a space where you feel able to speak.”
We need to think about this in our own libraries. The debate about the code illustrated that we are often blind to other people’s experiences. Privilege is particularly hard to deal with because it is invisible to those who have it—unless they look carefully and with an open mind. How do we address the needs of students who come to the academy and experience intimidation or exclusion or ignorance-based insults? How do we help students feel ownership of a library that may at first seem like it belongs exclusively to people with entirely different life experiences? How do we create safe and supportive places where the silenced can speak? What are we not seeing?