August 17, 2017

Libraries Are Not Neutral Spaces: Social Justice Advocacy in Librarianship | ALA Annual 2017

L-R: Cory Eckert, Kendra Jones, Karen Jensen, Debbie Reese, Nicole Cooke, Jessica Anne Bratt

For Cory Eckert, doing social justice work in libraries is not radical. “It’s what we’ve always been doing, but now we’re thinking about it through a different lens.” Eckert, a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker, reminded attentive listeners on Sunday, June 25 that libraries are not neutral and have never been so.

Before embarking on her current role as a librarian at the Post Oak School (TX), Eckert worked at the Houston Public Library and the Octavia Fellin Public Library (NM). In this latter role, she served a primarily Navajo community where children rarely saw themselves positively represented in literature. Eckert asked the audience to consider whether their libraries perform outreach in English (or other languages), and which parts of town they advertise in (or don’t).

Collection development, organizing displays and shelving, labeling materials with stickers, and taking a stance for or against legislation such as the PATRIOT Act are other common library decisions that may appear neutral but lack objectivity. For those interested in further reading, she cited April Hathcock’s blog At the Intersection. “These are our patrons,” Eckert asserted. “If we can’t make the library nice for them, what are we doing?”

the myth of Neutrality

Kendra Jones elaborated on her 2014 blog post for SLJ, Ditch Holiday Programming. A District Manager for Youth & Family Services at Timberland Regional Library (WA), Jones reaffirmed her decision to stop holding holiday-related programs. “Having Santa come to your library is not a neutral stance.” She suggested talking directly to members of your community to see what they want. “What would happen if you stopped doing holiday programs?” Eckert reminded the audience that, “We don’t live in an America where it’s safe for people to speak out.” Panelists advised figuring out which members of your community do not visit the library and why. “Even when you think libraries are being neutral, they’re not,” Jones added.

SLJ contributor Karen Jensen, founder of Teen Librarian Toolbox, relayed her efforts at creating successful Black Lives Matter and Pride displays in her conservative, mostly white town. Although she admitted that not all of her coworkers have agreed with her decisions, she stated, “I talk to teens and listen to their fears…My job is to create a library where people feel safe.” Jensen recommended developing or re-writing your display policy to focus on your needs. To achieve this goal, she suggested including circulation staff in the process since they might have a different idea of what the library is (and should be). Most importantly, she stated that her goal was for all patrons to be able to find books about themselves in the collection-—and for her daughters to read these books too.

A video contribution by Debbie Reese, founder and editor of American Indians in Children’s Literature, examined the complicated facets of native identity. After informing listeners that colonialism is not neutral, she mentioned that librarians may not realize they have native patrons in their communities as people may not “look” the part or may not vocally identify as native. To counteract this, she asked if materials about native nations and sovereignty are available at your library and whether the materials are written from the perspectives of settlers or native peoples? Does your library provide resources about laws affecting native peoples? She also reminded listeners that Library of Congress Subject Headings subject headings can be misleading; native creation stories are treated as folklore and mythology, while Christian creation stories are not.

recognizing race

Jessica Anne Bratt, a Branch Manager at the Grand Rapids Public Library (MI), recounted her efforts to incorporate discussions of race and ethnicity into her story times. Recently, she stared distributing hand-outs to patrons offering relevant resources and the advice that it is okay to point out racial differences when reading aloud to children. “When speaking outside your experiences, you’re modeling what inclusion looks like,” Bratt maintained. She cautioned against the avoiding effect (choosing not to discuss the subject of race with children) and the osmosis effect (arranging playdates with multicultural friends), since those methods fail to address the complexities of race. “It’s okay to be different. Don’t ignore it,” Bratt announced to applause.

Lastly, Nicole Cooke recalled her experiences as an Assistant Professor and Director of the MS/LIS Program at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois, where she is often the first black professor her students encounter. While relaying the efforts of the Ferguson Public Library (MO) after the death of Mike Brown in 2014, Cooke mentioned that social justice is what librarians have always performed; the city just happened to be in the news at the time. Her current teaching touches on several subject areas including stereotypes, feminist pedagogy, ethics, microaggressions, privilege, and marginalization. She argued that race must be an early conversation, not one that is started in graduate school. “Don’t appease people. People might have to be uncomfortable; that’s part of the process.”

About Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula (ssendaula@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. anonymouse says:

    Please see link to why Neutrality is the mission of libraries- http://bit.ly/2tL2iaU

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