So Plan A was to write a long, insightful essay on the role of libraries in times of community crises, political turmoil, or both, and to focus specifically on Orlando and the ways that libraries could and should respond to support the LGBTQ, Latino/a and Muslim communities, and engage with the politics around gun control and growing cultural diversity. But you know what? Last I checked, I’m a cisgender straight white woman. I’ve read the posts of too many anguished-but-determined friends who belong to one or more of these communities to feel particularly comfortable drowning out their voices with a bunch of smug librarian proclamations about intellectual freedom or crisis response. Instead, this is going to be a less formal, and hopefully more humble exploration of three questions that have been rattling around my brain this week. Most librarians are both smart and caring enough to realize that we can and should go beyond offering our “thoughts and prayers”. Here are some very preliminary thoughts, as well as some resources that have popped up on my radar.
One side note—some of you may have raised an eyebrow at my inclusion of Muslims in my cover image and this post. Leaving aside how much the shooter in Orlando was or was not influenced by religious radicalism (as of this writing that’s still a matter of some debate), the vast majority of Muslims are good, law-abiding people, and it frustrates me that every time an incident like this comes up we have to restate the obvious. The Muslim community often faces a backlash after incidents like these. If we truly serve the whole community, then we need to make sure all parts of it that have been impacted by this tragedy are included in our response. End sidebar, on to the post.
How can (and should) we help?
Librarians, being librarians, have already started working on resources and projects to support the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the wider LGBTQ communities, and other communities like Muslims who may be negatively impacted or scapegoated in response to this tragedy First, and most notably, I bumped into the Orlando Syllabus on Twitter—a Google Doc that is being used to compile resources related to just about every aspect of this tragedy I can think of. It’s a good first step, and I plan to share it out on my library’s facebook page later today. It’s being updated almost continuously, so keep looking. The #critlib and #orlandosyllabus hashtags on twitter are also good places to keep an eye out for resources.
The second thing we can do is make sure that the LGBTQ, Latino/a, and Muslim communities feel like our libraries are safe spaces that they can use to come together and learn more about their own communities and others touched by this tragedy. All over facebook, I’ve seen photos of beautiful book displays and social media posts sharing resources, and no doubt new programs and book clubs will start popping up soon.
Finally, we need to support each other as a community of librarians. I was recently turned on to the LGBTQIA Librarians and Librarianship facebook group, which is pretty much what it says on the tin. If you know of other groups that we should be aware of, please post them in the facebook thread for this week’s post. The ALA (more on them later) has also shared some resources that librarians can use to respond.
How can we encourage our communities to be inclusive without being scolds?
The tension between serving our communities as they are versus serving them as they could become is a tale as old as libraries. Preaching and nagging won’t get us very far. What can work is listening to our communities, understanding their fears (which are often born of ignorance), and helping to resolve those fears. As I discussed a while back in my piece on Critical Librarianship, empathy is a key piece of the puzzle. We need to listen first, and then respond. That said, the longer I think about these issues, the more I realize that “neutrality” in itself can be a position. We can and should make it clear that libraries are and will be open and supportive to the communities that were victimized in this tragedy, because they are an important part of the community. And who knows? A patron not directly affected by Orlando and the issues surrounding it might pick up a book from your display and learn a little something. We can’t bend the arc of history in the direction we want it to go, but there’s no reason we can’t put up a signpost or two. If nothing else, we should make it plain that libraries are a safe space for all members of the communities we serve. And on a related note…
How do we as a profession engage with hot-button issues like gun control. Should the ALA weigh in on this?
As I write this, the Senate leadership have just agreed to vote on two gun control-related measures after a 15 hour filibuster led by Senator Chris Murphy. Time will tell if this is a one-off compromise or the start of a broader movement. Libraries and librarians face some challenges in dealing with this issue. On one hand, most of us have patrons who are law-abiding gun owners that care about their second amendment rights. On the other hands, libraries have been the site of numerous mass shootings and no doubt will be again. How each of us threads that needle as a library leader depends on our community, but providing a space where people on both sides can have a reasoned debate without resorting to rhetoric seems to be a good start. Zooming out, the American Library Association has a long track record of passing resolutions related to various social issues, and I heard some online chatter this week about whether the ALA should or shouldn’t pass a resolution at the conference in support of gun control legislation. My immediate response was a strong yes, but then I started thinking about it some more. Leaving aside the fact that the ALA Council has passed resolutions on this issue at past conferences, I’m actually not sure a resolution of this sort would do anything other than make us feel good. It’s easy for librarians to be dismissed as finger-wagging scolds when the ALA passes resolutions on topics that are tangential to its core purpose. We can and should pass resolutions in support of the victims and their communities, and we can work to educate our communities on issues related to gun violence. However, just because we have the hammer of ALA resolutions doesn’t mean that every social issue is a nail.
So, that’s where my head is right now, for what little that’s worth. I’m not totally sure that I made much sense, but then again, this whole situation is senseless. On a lighter note, I’m less than a month out from the launch of the Better Library Leaders podcast, and I’m hoping to provide a sneak preview of the first episode in an upcoming newsletter. If you’re curious, scroll down a bit and sign up. You’ll also receive a FREE 5-part course on mastering difficult conversations. If we’ve learned nothing else this week, I think we’ve learned it’s high time for all of us to start looking for ways communities can explore these issues with words, not bullets.