February 17, 2018

Charlie Hebdo | Opinion

RDavidLankesThis post originally appeared on R. David Lankes’ blog.

This morning [January 8] in a Tweet Bredebieb asked me “what should public libraries do,” about the Charlie Hebdo attack. It was frankly a bit of a humbling and scary question. After all, I am not in Paris, and I cannot claim to know everything that French libraries do now. However, it would be an obvious act of cowardice to simply claim ignorance or to respond with some high level non-answer like “help the communities have a conversation.” So I provided some ideas:

  • “provide a safe place to talk about the attack and the reasons for the attack and free expression. Provide access to Charlie.”
  • “host talks and forums on free expression and democracy. Host a human library event with different faiths.”
  • “host sessions with therapists and parents on how to make kids feel safe.”
  • “above all use this as an opportunity to be a safe place to express feelings and help your community.”
  • “help your community compose a narrative and then project it to the world. Is it ‘we shall overcome?’ Or ‘we stand with Charlie?’”

and ended with:

  • “all libraries should provide safe place to recover and the tools to turn tragedy into action and understanding.”

Still, Twitter is not exactly a place to have a deep discussion of where these ideas come from, nor truly share what I think public libraries should do. So in this post I’d like to give a deeper answer to how I feel public libraries should respond to horrific acts like the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. I’d like to present three lessons I have learned.

The first lesson is to fight violence with information and understanding. On September 11th 2001 I was the director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology. I came in to work that day just after the first plane had hit the World Trade Center Towers. After the second plane crashed the entire clearinghouse staff gathered in my office with a TV watching the coverage. Horrified and a bit numb, I sent everyone home. This was a time to be with family.

Over the next week we met asking exactly the same question that Bredebieb asked: “What should we do?” At the time we ran a service called AskERIC that received hundreds of virtual reference questions each day plus a well trafficked website for educators. The answer we came up with was developing InfoGuides (think WebGuides/FAQs) on the attack that we updated as more was learned as well as other related topics. We posted them on the web and sent them out in email. The overwhelmingly viewed/used resource we develop was on Islam.

What I took away from that episode was that in the wake of tragedy, people look for understanding and knowledge of the unknown. So librarians need to inform their communities through FAQs, an archive of media coverage to create an accurate memory of the event, and lots of opportunities for interaction between cultures, races, and ideas.

The next lesson I have to offer I learned from the libraries serving Ferguson Missouri during the racial unrest this past year: help the community develop their own narrative. During riots and violence in Ferguson the public libraries (Ferguson Public Library and Saint Louis Country Public Library) not only stayed open and provided a safe place for children and citizens, it offered up an alternative narrative to violence. While much of the media focused on police versus the black community, the libraries took to social media, traditional media, and even signage outside the buildings talking about Ferguson as a family.

They highlighted how with the schools closed, educators, children and parents came together to create their own ad hoc school among the stacks and shelves of the libraries. Rather than allowing their community to be solely painted as angry black mobs fighting a militarized police, the libraries showed Ferguson to be a place of multiple races coming together around children, learning, and a desire for a better future.

The libraries did not diminish the conflict, nor ignore systemic racism. Yet the libraries did not close, and did not retreat. The libraries – no, the librarians did something and showed the world that Ferguson is not so different from Syracuse, or Seattle, or communities across the country…and that like those communities, they are more than the headlines. They humanized a narrative.

What I took away from Ferguson was that libraries not only provide a constructive space; they add depth of understanding to the world. Give the community a chance to breathe, morn, reflect, and then act and speak.

My last lesson comes from the librarians of Alexandria during the Arab Spring. In the midst of riots and civil unrest the protestors protected the library. Where many government buildings were torn down and looted, the library was protected. Why? Because for the years leading up to the riots and uprising the librarians did their jobs. They become trusted resources for the community because they provided real benefit to the average citizen of Alexandria and intellectually honest services.

So the lesson? Continue to be the resource for your communities. Continue to demonstrate the values of librarianship: intellectual honesty, intellectual & physical safety; openness & transparency; and the importance of learning.

What I hope the French libraries do is what I hope I would have the courage to do in their place: be a safe place to talk about and learn about unsafe issues. Invite in all faiths to talk about how to eliminate violence, and how to respond. Provide ready access to Charlie Hebdo, and controversial materials. Talk about (host lectures, town halls, and events) around the importance of free expression in a free society.

Help to craft the community narrative and project it to the world. What is the community thinking about and learning from this tragedy? What do you do as librarians and what works. What can other librarians learn about responding to these horrible events?

I have made it my mission to advocate for librarians to be active agents of transformative social engagement. In other words, I have made it my mission to have librarians make their communities better through active service. I believe it is crucial for librarians to actively try to change the world and make it a place for fewer abominations like yesterday’s attack. Doing that is scary. We were not trained as grief counselors and no one choses easily to run towards conflict. Yet if we believe that librarians and libraries should make our communities better (more knowledgeable, more capable, more empowered) than we cannot shy away from actively helping.

To my French colleagues I ask, how can I help?



  1. Thanks for your article.
    I share your views : as a french librarian, I felt a deep emotion when I heard the news of the shooting in the street in front of the Charlie Hebdo building.

    First, in the beginning of the afternoon we tweet a link to the catalog notice of Charlie Hebdo on the twitter feed of the library @Buangers.

    Second, when the names of victims were known,the 2 libraries made un the floowing hour and exposed a selection of the journal archives, and books of Cabu, Wolinski and Bernard Maris. Almost all the documents were borrowed in 24 h. The day after we exposed the front page of all newspapers.

    Third, I wrote as a head librarian an editorial on the library site with a great picture #charliehebdo saying : “The Ducks* always fly higher than the guns” *french slang for newspaper (http://bu.univ-angers.fr/billet/2015/liberte-dexpression and took the drawing as timeline on the facebook pages of our libraries.

    Forth : we had in the library an exposition with a Wolinski photograph by Claude Dityvon and a fantastic original drawing of Wolinski. At midday the 8th of January, a silence minute was done in the library (like everywhere in France). We invite all the students to come in the exposition room share this moment together and around 200 students gathered. It was really moving (I nearly cried when I said that only photographers can shoot a dessinateur) : http://bu.univ-angers.fr/billet/2015/les-heros-du-moment

    As David says : we try, all the times to keep our words on the memories, and keeping them alive when reading and try as you say better than I can, my english being quite bad, “to be a safe place to talk about and learn about unsafe issues. Invite in all faiths to talk about how to eliminate violence, and how to respond. Provide ready access to Charlie Hebdo, and controversial materials. Talk about (host lectures, town halls, and events) around the importance of free expression in a free society.”

    Thanks for your thought for us, french librarians.

  2. Thanks a lot David. We translate your editorial in french and shared it on the social media, and asked every libraries who try to do something for their communities after #charlie to share it on Twitter with the hashtag #bibenaction
    Maybe, some US libraries did some actions after le 01/07/2015 ?
    If american librarians did something, please, help us to know and to share your actions by tagging your blog post ou tweets with #bibenaction !

  3. Do not host a Human Library to resolve interfaith or cultural differences. As important as these issues are, if you read the information on the Human Library website you will see that the methodology is about challenging all prejudices, not just those around faith. Every Human Library should seek to address multiple social issues and seek to include as many people as possible who experience prejudice. It is not a tool to be used for restorative justice. There are other methods that can help resolve these issues, not the Human Library. I have organised Human Libraries for over 6 years and am a dedicated servant.

  4. A political cartoon (not necessarily one from Charlie Hebdo) could be the basis for a respectful big-topics discussion like those organized by the Center for Civic Reflection. An image (or text) is used with a group of customers to introduce difficult questions about identity, community, civil rights, and other topics. We’ve been having these discussions monthly at our public library for more than a year. http://civicreflection.org/