August 17, 2017

Librarians Mobilize Resources, Information, and Solidarity in Response to New Administration

Image by Rebecca McCorkindale

Image by Rebecca McCorkindale

The results of the 2016 presidential election caught many by surprise. With the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, and his immediate remaking of American policy through executive orders—including actions to halt travel from many Muslim-majority countries, threats to a number of federal agencies and their flow of information, the endorsement of “alternative facts,” and a series of often controversial appointments—public and academic librarians began to mobilize. From book displays addressing resistance and inclusivity, to graphics proclaiming that all are welcome in the library, to topical LibGuides, to online groups organized by discipline or principles, library staff and supporters across the country joined forces with like thinkers to do what they do best: share information where it’s most needed.

#LIBRARIESRESIST

The #LibrariesResist Resource List, targeted to librarians, archivists, records managers, curators, and other information management professionals, addresses potential areas of action and access to critical information, as well as an impressively comprehensive range of human and civil rights issues.

Matthew Haugen, rare book cataloger at Columbia University, began compiling the list on January 29, in response to the rapid developments put into motion by the new administration. That weekend—which also saw the launch of the @MuseumsResist Twitter account—”There just seemed to be a lot of energy about defending cultural institutions, fact-based discourse, and arts and humanities from funding cuts and censorship,” as well as other converging issues, he told LJ. “I’d been thinking a lot about how to play to my strengths, to do something that felt productive and activist.”

Haugen created a Twitter account and FB page to promote the list, “and then it just took off,” he recalled. As others expressed interest in helping add to the list, Haugen assembled a team of three more librarians to compile, vet, annotate, and organize resources, all working remotely. (Haugen’s team members preferred not to give their full names or institutional affiliations.) Together, the four have been sorting through links sent through Twitter and Facebook, making sure the information is credible and not behind paywalls, and that authors are attributed correctly.

In their first week the #LibrariesResist Facebook and Twitter accounts had close to 900 followers; there are now several thousand. While he has received many offers of help, Haugen, who also contributes to the Que(e)ry Librarians resource site, said, “I’ve been sort of hesitant to make it a public free-for-all document. I’ve seen that happen with other resources and it can either become exhaustive or people start having arguments about whether something is appropriate.”

As the majority of contributors are academic librarians, he noted, “I would like to have more input from public and school librarians too, just to get a more diverse set of resources.” Haugen hopes the list will be used actively, to supplement teaching, inform programming and displays, help librarians diversify collections, and become part of libraries’ toolkits for crisis response. “We can be prepared and on the lookout for things…that might potentially be under threat or get worse in the years to come,” he added.

Because, as the site’s introduction states, “if Park Rangers can do it, so can we.”

RESOURCES FOR REFUGEES, IMMIGRANTS, DISPLACED RESEARCHERS

A number of libraries, both public and academic, have posted LibGuides that include lists of suggested reading and resources for immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and those in need of legal aid, health care options, and social services. These are not new topics for libraries, but the administration’s recent actions have seen them stepping up their game and explicitly connecting resources to resistance efforts.

Libraries Serve Refugees, a website sponsored by the advocacy group Urban Librarians Unite, was created to help public libraries provide services to refugees in their communities. The site contains general practical information, toolkits, government resources, locations of libraries providing direct support services to refugees, and articles on the subject. As content is added, the site states, “We will be looking at best practices, toolkits, case studies, government resources, NGO partnership possibilities, and asset development.”

In the wake of Trump’s travel bans and recent increase in actions by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), libraries will need to know how to steer patrons toward the appropriate legal services—and legal service providers will have to be on top of the most current resources for immigrants and their families as well. The Social Responsibilities Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) is putting together its own resource list for immigration attorneys and their clients. Currently the list is a working document, including information for free research and management tools, translation services, lawyer referral services, organizational materials, research guides, and instructional materials. Eventually the document will become a webpage on the AALL website; all are encouraged to contribute resources and information.

Vendors are adding their voices as well. ProQuest announced on February 9 the launch of its Displaced Researchers Program, which will provide no-cost access to its databases for students and academic researchers who are unable to reach their libraries or institutions—although Trump’s January 27 executive order banning travel into the United States from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen has been blocked by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, it led to the cancellation of at least 60,000 visas, stranding many academics and students who work and study here. Displaced researchers can contact ProQuest at ContinueMyResearch@proquest.com to arrange for access. According to the press release, “ProQuest representatives will work directly with impacted individuals or their advisors to set up online, no cost access to all databases needed to continue their studies or research.”

UNDERSTANDING THE ELECTION

Not all recently created LibGuides intend to cover every aspect of the new reality, however. The Post-Election 2016 Recap and Resources guide, hosted by Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) Libraries, was created to serve as “a snapshot in time of what the resources were that everyone was looking at in those first few days after the election, and what those reactions felt like,” according to Hailley Fargo, reference and instruction librarian at the University Libraries’ Knowledge Commons.

The original idea, said head of Library Learning Services Rebecca K. Miller, stemmed from a university-wide email sent by Penn State president Eric Barron on November 10. In his message, Barron stressed inclusivity and the importance of sharing, listening, and learning in spite of the divisive atmosphere.

Miller and some colleagues “had been talking about using LibGuides as a platform for generating conversation and as more of a learning space than we had in the past,” she told LJ. “This seemed like a really good opportunity to build a robust learning space in a LibGuide that focused on helping students sift through all the information that is out there, and also giving them a space to participate in that dialog, and maybe build some community around all of these questions that people were asking.”

Because they wanted the guide to serve as a learning space, and not simply a resource, Miller first wrote up a series of learning outcomes to keep its scope focused. One, she said, was to help students understand that although the university library provides access to databases and a strong collection, it is also a space to learn about non-library resources—various media outlets and Internet content—and to use that analysis to better understand the election and its results.

Fargo spent ten days compiling links through newsletters, article hyperlinks, and topic searches. She then organized these resources into sections for Election Recap, How America Responded, Media’s Influence, Campus Resources, a discussion space, and a link to Penn State’s All In Initiative, which spotlights personal narratives of diversity and inclusion on campus. Subtopics within those sections include understanding the electoral college, an analysis of voter turnout, and tools to sort through “post-truth” and social media. A draft of the guide was sent to colleagues, who gave feedback and suggested additional resources.

The site, which launched December 19, is still a work in progress, said Fargo. In addition to adding pertinent links and working on a bibliography of all the sources used, she told LJ, she would like to see it used for “more programmatic aspects that would incorporate the guide as a kind of jumping-off point, some sort of space where we could bring people together and then use the guide as a teaching tool to continue those conversations.”

Feedback has been positive; Fargo noted that she was careful to use neutral language throughout and to call for respectful dialog. “The hope is that students will go to learn more about what happened, leading up to the election and after the election, regardless of what side of the aisle they sit on,” she said.

PRESERVING THE RECORD

The new administration has already threatened the public record on many fronts, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the National Park Service. But it was Trump’s announcement of a possible Muslim registry that struck a chord for archivist Jeremy Brett as “a grievous violation of democracy, of civil liberties—but [also] as a particularly sort of noxious use of recordkeeping.” Such a database would require government records, he realized, and the cooperation of archivists. “And I thought this would be the kind of thing that the archival profession should be making a statement about.”

Brett, an assistant professor, processing archivist, and curator of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection at the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University, proposed that the Society of American Archivists (SAA) issue a statement on the subject. When SAA was slow to respond, he posted his query to the SAA Listserv. Katya Hering, project archivist at the National Equal Justice Library, Georgetown Law, Washington, DC, responded that she thought it was a good idea. They were joined by two more colleagues: Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook, processing assistant at the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and project coordinator for the Medical Heritage Library.

The Concerned Archivists Alliance’s concerns extended to record-keeping issues as a whole under the new administration. “One of the things archives do is allow you, in a sense, to search for truth,” noted Brett. “There’s no evidence [members of the current administration] have any connection or commitment to a full and honest public record. It’s worrisome for archivists, for record keepers, for people who want future generations to have a documentary record of what is going on.”

In December they submitted a draft of an independent statement to various Listservs for comments. Some respondents felt it was too politically biased—“When you’re formulating a document against specific…policies, you are going to be biased; we made no secret of that,” answered Brett—and others thought it was too polarizing to change minds. That, Brett noted, was not the intention either. “This sort of statement is to let the…administration know where we stand as archivists, what our objections are, what we believe needs to happen, what we’re going to do to ensure that public records laws are obeyed, that record-keeping continues unabated. It’s not really a document meant to convince the other side.”

Most, however, were pleased with it, and the final Statement to the Archival Community was posted on January 15. It stated, in part, “As professionals committed to these values and as custodians of society’s historical records, we have a responsibility to ensure that what we do, and how we do it, benefits society as a whole, while holding public officials and agencies accountable. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to speak out when the public good is jeopardized by political action.” As of February 15, the statement had gathered 865 signatures.

Brett understands why government archivists aren’t able to pursue political activism—he has worked as one himself—and acknowledges that they do a lot of important work. But, he added, “I think resistance and progress in…the preservation of the archival record in the next few years is probably going to come less from government agencies and more from independent archivists, independent organizations, data-saving initiatives” such as groups that took on end-of-term federal website harvests in the last months of 2016.

The group is working on a more formalized mission statement, as well as a resource list, even if it overlaps with other efforts in the library and archives world, such as the Los Angeles Archivists Collective Handbook for the Activist Archivist. “We’re hoping to be an informational conduit for ways that archivists, librarians, and other information professionals can help be part of the resistance to the administration,” Brett told LJ. “We’re hoping to put groups together to work on joint projects.” He added, “I think if nothing else, we’re a way for people in our profession to realize that there are other people like them, and like us, who believe the same things.”

FOCUSING ON VALUES

For the many years they’ve known each other Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael Public Library, CA, and a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker (M&S), and Andy Woodworth, reference and adult services librarian at the Cherry Hill Public Library, NJ, and a 2010 LJ M&S, have kept up an ongoing discussion about library issues. In the wake of the election, said Woodworth, “we, like many other people, were in a state of shock, not really sure what to do.” But they knew they wanted to do something.

The two launched Operation 451, an independent group for like-minded librarians, on January 2. Operation 451 takes its name from two sets of references. The first is Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, which tells of a future where books are outlawed. In addition, the three numbers match up with the fourth and fifth articles of the Library Bill of Rights and the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Operation451

“There were two things we wanted to focus on,” Woodworth told LJ. “We wanted something positive…to reach in toward the values that brought us to the profession in the first place. And we wanted to do something that could be universal, because for most, if not all, public and school librarians, there’s a prohibition on political speech…. We wanted to make it so that no one could [say], ‘Well, I’d like to do that but I can’t because that’s too partisan.’ ”

Rather than an action plan, they wanted to create a symbolic affiliation, said Houghton, “reminding people to revisit those library values and ethics that we all have signed on to uphold, but so few of us have looked at recently or think about consciously every day.” Participants pledge to work towards increasing information access, especially for vulnerable populations; establish their library as a place for everyone in the community; and ensure and expand the right of free speech, particularly for minorities’ voices and opinions.

Those who want to show their allegiance can purchase a lapel pin; any profits from sales beyond what is required for the website upkeep will go to the American Library Association (ALA) Freedom to Read Foundation. At the ALA Midwinter conference in late January, where Houghton spoke on library ethics and values to a packed room, she saw a number of posts and tweets using the #Operation451 hashtag in connection with sessions and ideas that aligned with the initiative’s values.

But although many in the library world have embraced the idea, said Woodworth, people are also clamoring for something more—“Well, symbolism is nice, but how can we turn this into action?” To that end, Houghton and Woodworth have been working on several action items, which they will roll out during the course of the coming year; they will post updates on the Operation 451 website and Facebook page. “We didn’t expect this to become quite as big as it did,” said Woodworth, “and quite as much demand from people for more continuance. I think that’s great. We’re still, in our copious amounts of spare time, trying to put things together. But you should see something within the next month or so.”

He added, “It’s more of a long game kind of plan here. Trump will not be president forever, and there will still be inequality in America that will need to be addressed…. We will still need to be true to our librarian values and ideals ten years from now.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Lisa, thank you so much for taking time to talk to Sarah and myself. I’m pleased to say that we have unveiled our first set of 451 challenges. You can read more about them here:

    http://operation451.info/mission4.html

  2. The best way for librarians to “resist” is simply to do what we’ve always done — promote literacy, critical thinking, and lifelong learning. Librarians, like all Americans fall on all sides of the political spectrum and hold a wide array of values and views on controversial issues. One thing I hope we can all agree on is that the trend of Americans toward getting their news from memes and quick soundbites and forming knee-jerk responses rather than trying to consider multiple points of view and think deeply and critically is a serious problem. (Quick — how many of you out there have had a student, either k-12 or college, ask you for the shortest book on a list of choices or complain that a 10-page journal article is too long?) If we as a culture allow this dumbing down to continue, our nation will continue to lose ground to societies that promote and value learning and hard-won expertise.

    If individual librarians wish to get involved in political activism, that is fine and their right as American citizens, but as a profession we librarians are fundamentally educators, not politicians. These days, what we do to promote critical thought is controversial enough, even if we don’t get involved in advocacy movements.

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