We face a cultural crisis that calls on all who care about creating an inclusive society. There is much to do. We must speak to the rise in unapologetic manifestations of hate during and after the presidential campaign, as reports by the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center clearly illustrate.
Librarians are guardians of certain civic values. They have long been bastions of free inquiry, freedom of expression, and increased access, overcoming barriers and challenges. Our institutions have been important first responders during natural disasters and when political unrest wracked our communities. They have often been a safe place for the disenfranchised and people who feel alone because they’re surrounded by others who don’t accept what they believe in or who they are.
Libraries foster dialog. They can knit the torn fabric of communities back together. Now more than ever the people we serve—in cities, towns, and rural areas and on campuses—need libraries to provide access to authoritative information and sanctuary.
Those who staff our facilities need a new level of commitment, attention, and support to deliver on that promise and the values from which it sprang.
The election cast new light on the bigotry and hatred that have long divided our nation despite much progress in thwarting them. The threatening rhetoric of political leaders has emboldened those who may have in the past thought twice before acting against people who are different from themselves. This is not normal, not okay, not acceptable. This transcends political party or personal opinion about the ballot outcome. Those who seek to minimize the impact are mistaken if they take it lightly. Words matter. Expressing—much less acting on—hate does not get a pass. Instead, it calls for watchdogs to be on high alert.
Fostering a culture that builds a world that is truly free for everyone rests at the heart of the library mandate, and the community is responding. “As an association representing these libraries, librarians, and library workers, the American Library Association [ALA] believes that the struggle against racism, prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination is central to our mission,” said ALA president Julie Todaro in a statement November 15. “We will continue to support efforts to abolish intolerance and cultural invisibility, stand up for all the members of the communities we serve, and promote understanding and inclusion through our work.”
Public Library Association (PLA) president Felton Thomas Jr. concurred. “The public library has an unparalleled ability to bring people and knowledge together, especially in times of uncertainty and division. We are places of learning, free inquiry and free speech for people of all ages and backgrounds,” he said in his own statement. “As such, our nation’s public libraries stand as a bulwark to intolerance and a beacon of opportunity. We are committed to ensuring a safe place for all that reflects and serves the diversity of our nation in our collections, programs and services.”
The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) joined those voices and made the important step of directly addressing where neutrality ends. “While ARL libraries and archives work hard to be inclusive in their hiring, collections, services, and environments, the Association and its members will not claim neutrality in the face of discrimination, sexism, ableism, racism, homophobia, religious persecution, or other forms of oppression,” Chris Bourg, ARL Diversity and Inclusion Committee chair, said in a statement. “We support freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas and opinions, but we will not tolerate hate speech, silencing, inflammatory rhetoric, or any other speech or action that threatens the safety or dignity of any member of our community.”
We will need to concentrate on exactly how best to walk that talk. That won’t always be easy. One case in point is the important conversation that emerged when ALA released draft policy platform language that rightfully alarmed many in its passive approach to the incoming administration. We will need to confront conflicting priorities within our professional organizations to be aligned as we face this challenge. We will also need to provide support for those on the front lines to prepare for and cope with incidents inside our buildings and out. Libraries are uniquely poised to help advance opportunity for all. Indeed, they are designed to do just that. It is my hope that working together, we can emerge from this period as a society that is more tolerant, more inclusive, and more connected than ever before.