(This is a dual podcast episode and blog post. Click play to listen, or read onward.)
I want to apologize for the slight delay this week, but it was important to me that I say the right words in the right way given the current circumstances than to rush out the first Librarian Think Piece on what just transpired in the United States. Because I think most of us, whether we voted for Trump, Clinton, or another candidate, would agree that this election season has been a textbook case of people saying the wrong words in the wrong way out of haste, anger, or fear. And for that reason, I needed to not act in haste, and to fight through my own initial response of anger and fear. This post, which is also going to be released as a brief podcast episode, will present the six steps that I believe all librarians and information professionals can best respond in this moment to ensure that our libraries remain safe, welcoming places for all people and ideas. I believe this is also a moment where we could do a lot to increase the visibility of information literacy in the public consciousness, IF we keep our heads while not losing touch with our hearts. That said, we all need to approach our work with the sense of humility in the coming years. If Authority IS constructed and contextual, then it’s become apparent that many people in this country understand authoritative information in a very different way than we do. Whether that should be the case and what we do about the situation is a topic for another day, though believe me I have strong opinions on that topic. But in this moment of transition, it’s best we approach these tips with the knowledge that all of us librarians are also blind people grasping only one part of an elephant.
- Don’t Panic: For those who are distressed by the outcome of this election, I would point out that panic doesn’t help anyone. Take it from someone who had her first panic attack at the age of 3—fear paralyzes your mind and drains your body. It is of no good to anyone. Take deep breaths. Go for a walk. Talk to a friend or a colleague, maybe even one who understands the situation differently, to see if they can share facts that may reassure you. Get it out of your system. Remember, as Thomas Jefferson said in Hamilton, the sun comes up and the world still spins. Your worst fears are unlikely to come to pass, but in the event they do, you will need all your strength to face them. For those who are pleased with the outcome of the election, I would point out that half of the country is feeling much the same way you may have felt eight years ago. I want you to remember that feeling. Hold on to it. Live it. And help your friends who do not believe as you do to avoid or get to the other side of that panic, because we will all need to work together to make the changes we wish to see in this country.
- Don’t get complacent: That said, denial’s not a useful place to be either. Just because whatever your worst case scenario may be is unlikely to happen, it doesn’t mean that this election will not have consequences. Some of these consequences may fall on our budgets, as in the case of my home state of Oklahoma, where a failed ballot resolution will mean further cuts to a higher ed system that has been slashed by a third over the past two years. Some of these consequences may fall on our patrons, especially those who are vulnerable due to their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or economic status. Libraries are designed to be spaces where all ideas can be engaged with safely. This implies that all people need to feel safe in our libraries. Publicize your commitment to this value in as many places as possible.
- Get “it” out of your system: Once you get beyond panic and the exhausted denial of complacency that may follow panic, you may be dealing with a lot of emotions. Anger and despair will be common on one side of the coin. Others of you may be feeling a certain amount of amusement or downright schadenfreude. While none of these emotions are as toxic as blind panic, they can and will lead us down the wrong roads when interacting with colleagues and serving our communities. Accept your emotions, acknowledge them, and work through them. In that way you can channel what is useful, and transcend what is not, as we turn back outward to live and work in a world where it may seem like both nothing and everything has changed.
- Be Kind: Be kind to everyone around you, because emotions are high and everyone has problems you will never know (I say this as a person with a semi-invisible physical disability). Be doubly kind to people who you disagree with. Yes, impact matters more than intent (and I’ll talk more about that in a moment), however human beings are mostly complex people who make decisions for complex reasons. I’ve been thinking a lot of a story I read recently about a young man who was born and raised in a white nationalist household. He came to rethink and eventually abandon the beliefs he had been raised with since the day he was born, not by pressure, but by friendship and reasoned conversation. And finally, be triply kind to those who are feeling vulnerable or experiencing repercussions from the events of the past week. Service is the foundation of Leadership, and although I’m not a terribly religious person, I believe that everyone who likes living in a stable, free civilization has an obligation to use their position, skills and privileges to help others thrive. It’s also just plain common sense.
- Ask Questions: I said above that Impact trumps intent. I read it on a secret Facebook group I belong to—yes, that one, and yes I can hook you up with an invite. That may be the smartest sentence I’ve heard all week, and it goes both ways. For instance—I heard about the Safety Pin thing a day or two after the election. I put one on, even set a bag out at the registration desk of a conference I happened to be chairing last Friday. But I wasn’t a hundred percent convinced about it even as I wore it, so I kept my mind open through the backlash and the backlash to the backlash. Having read it all I still wear it, but just as much as a reminder to me that my words of support need to be backed up by actions. In addition, asking questions of those we disagree with, not to convince but simply to understand, can give us new insights into the subtler motives beyond the headline, and an understanding of which minds can be opened and how best to open them. If you’re not sure how to go about those conversations, consider taking my Library Juice Academy course on collaborative leadership that I announced in the last episode. Given current events, I will be looking for ways that I can incorporate tips on communicating with collaborators with different viewpoints into my course.
- “Be a hero unto yourself”: I wear a wristband I picked up recently that has a quote on it that I try to remember as I go through my life—it says, Be a hero unto yourself. I first heard this line something like 20 years ago, and It’s one of those seemingly simple phrases that’s actually pretty deep and layered. but here’s what I think that means. There are things in all our lives that we can and cannot control. We all have different strengths and weaknesses and interests. But what we can control is how well we live up to our core beliefs and strengthen them to make a better world wherever we find ourselves, even—nope, especially–when the world doesn’t seem to share those values. I believe with every fiber of my being that libraries matter, that librarians matter, and that they can and will continue to matter. After my week of shock, denial, anger, depression, and reflection, I think that the way we can matter the most in this moment is by advocating for information literacy in the classroom, in the office, in the voting booth, and especially on social media. We can’t wait for Mark Zuckerberg to change his algorithms or for Twitter to kick off all the trolls and bigots. It is time for all of us to become heroes unto ourselves, and teach our students, colleagues, family, and friends the standards and concepts of evaluating information that we all say that we hold dear. We also need to make sure our own houses are in order before throwing stones. I’ve been sharing around a list of false and misleading news websites, and I’ve reflected with no small chagrin how many stories from those sites I’ve seen shared by librarians—and NOT ironically. There may be more, less pleasant battles for librarians to fight in the coming years, and that one’s plenty complex and huge as it is. But as library leaders, we all made a commitment to fight those battles where we are, in the ways that will best serve the communities where we live. That commitment was our purpose already, and it will remain our purpose going forward. I will continue to write and podcast on all aspects of library leadership, but the nature of topics and guests may evolve as I explore more deeply what aspects of our purpose seem most relevant in the coming years.
One last thought–Libraries and librarians have endured through worse times than this, hard as it may be for some of you to believe right now. Stay strong, be of good cheer, and look for opportunities to serve others and to be a hero unto yourself. If you need to talk things out, drop by the facebook community. Because, as you all know, when librarians lead with purpose, we can never become obsolete.