Ok – for starters, just to be clear: bigotry and racism is always ugly, and is always repugnant and wrong. Violent acts because of those beliefs? Horrible, and illegal.
I’ll also say this – pretty much every library has ugly, repugnant, and wrong content in our library collections. For example, my library has Mein Kampf (it’s currently checked out).
Why bring this up? Because in light of recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere, I’ve seen some of my library friends and colleagues talking about libraries NOT being neutral spaces.
Some of that’s been in conversations on Facebook. I get that those types of conversations are more personal, off-the-cuff, random thoughts rather than official organizational policy from a library. Gotta blow off steam somewhere, right?
But I’ve also seen more formal commentary that seems to also be advocating a “libraries are not neutral” viewpoint. Here’s one such example from R. David Lankes. Really smart dude, and I usually agree with him.
Here are two things he said in a recent blog post that I don’t completely agree with:
- “In Charlottesville, there is absolutely a need to acknowledge that racists are part of the community, but librarians should not be giving them an equal voice or justifying their beliefs.”
- “Shouldn’t libraries be place for all voices in the community? No. Libraries are not neutral microphones placed in a town square open to all comers.”
You should read the whole post, and the comments too. There’s a really good discussion there between David and Jamie LaRue (Director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association).
I also just read Joseph Janes’ column in American Libraries magazine (Sept/Oct 2017, pg. 24). I found much more to agree with in his column. Joseph said this: “We fight in public for the rights of our patrons to read and think freely without fear of exposure, surveillance, or censure, as well as for open and equal access to a range of materials. We stand for the principle that government and public information shouldn’t depend on the whims of the moment.” The whole article’s good – find a copy and give it a read.
This isn’t easy to say because of current events, but I’m saying it anyway: As libraries and librarians, we are defenders of the First Amendment and of free speech. Even if we don’t always agree with that free speech.
This isn’t some weird idea of mine. It’s in our Library Bill of Rights. Some highlights:
- Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
- A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
- Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.
I certainly agree with David about librarians not “justifying their beliefs.” That’s simply not our job. But I don’t necessarily agree when David says “librarians should not be giving them an equal voice” or the library not being a place for all voices in the community. That seems to be pretty much the opposite of our Library Bill of Rights.
I support the idea of libraries serving the whole community, and providing a neutral and trusted community space where ideas can be heard, discussed, and debated. Free speech is free speech, even if we don’t agree with that speech. That concept is pretty foundational to libraries.
I’m certainly not the only one working through these issues! Here’s what some other organizations have been saying:
- From the Electronic Frontier Foundation: “Protecting free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected. We do it because we believe that no one—not the government and not private commercial enterprises—should decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t.”
- From the ACLU: “We fundamentally believe that our democracy will be better and stronger for engaging and hearing divergent views. Racism and bigotry will not be eradicated if we merely force them underground. Equality and justice will only be achieved if society looks such bigotry squarely in the eyes and renounces it. Not all speech is morally equivalent, but the airing of hateful speech allows people of good will to confront the implications of such speech and reject bigotry, discrimination and hate. This contestation of values can only happen if the exchange of ideas is out in the open.”
- From the TorProject: “We are disgusted, angered, and appalled by everything these racists stand for and do. We feel this way any time the Tor network and software are used for vile purposes. But we can’t build free and open source tools that protect journalists, human rights activists, and ordinary people around the world if we also control who uses those tools. Tor is designed to defend human rights and privacy by preventing anyone from censoring things, even us.” They were talking about why they aren’t moving to block websites they don’t agree with (actually, why their software is designed to not let them do that).
Libraries need to support the whole community – not just the parts we like and agree with. We need to provide safe, neutral and open community spaces where ideas are shared, debated, etc. We need to actively support the First Amendment and the Library Bill of Rights, even when we don’t agree with certain ideas – in fact, even when we find some of those viewpoints appalling and ugly.
It’s one way we can help change our communities for good. I’m a strong believer in people, and in the idea that if really wrong ideas are voiced, the community will take notice, will speak up, and will help better the community. I’m seeing that in Topeka, and I think our library has been part of that change.
Thoughts? Please share… (and please keep it civil).
Image by John Nakamura Remy