THE RAZOR’S EDGE: Libraries in a Time of Crisis: Remaking the Social Compact

Public libraries | Democracy | Activism | Library services

by Brendan Howley

Fifty-six years ago, on Jan. 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy put millions of Americans to a very particular test: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy’s call to action has the feel of a different time—of a different America—when libraries were reverential places where books came and went in silence, except for the soft thump of the librarian’s rubber stamp on the due date card.

Welcome to the battered U.S. social compact of 2017, the centenary of Kennedy’s birth. Perhaps never since the chaos of the civil rights movement slamming into the nascent resistance of the Vietnam War has America been so darkly, damagingly split. Culturally, politically, emotionally, and even spiritually, the country has precious little common ground.

Libraries are that common ground. Moreover, they at once stand apart from their communities—as trusted repositories of a community’s past and intellectually honest resources for the community’s future—and couldn’t be closer to the day-to-day pulse of community life. They aren’t alone as essential services: Museums and hospitals, each in their own ways, serve vital needs of identity and care. But libraries are custodians of the very fabric of society, because they nurture discovery, self-worth, and belief in possibility, and they share the tools to make social goods manifest.

And libraries share something else, something intangible that needs to be made tangible: inclusivity. Libraries serve everyone without distinction. Standing up to the Department of Homeland Security, which Edward Snowden cheered in a now-famous tweet, a New Hampshire public library and its community—with the help of the Library Freedom Project—protected their patrons’ privacy by installing an anonymous internet browsing network. This is no small thing—and I write this as someone who, in his past life, was an investigative journalist specializing in intelligence and counterintelligence matters. Read more…

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Stand, Fight, Resist

 

December 16, 2016

 

The idea that libraries are neutral spaces has been well and disabused over the last few years. From the services we offer to the collections that we curate, the decisions that libraries and librarians make are political ones that reflect values. Sometimes those are the values of the organization, sometimes the values of the individuals, and sometimes they are the values of the communities that the library serves. Those values are illustrated by our technologies, our ontologies, and our descriptors. Those who attempt to hold that “neutrality” of information access is an ideal for which to strive have had a hard time holding to that stance as increasing numbers of librarians question and deconstruct our profession. I would like to suggest something even stronger…that even if it were possible for libraries to be neutral spaces, that to create such a space would be morally questionable, and potentially actively morally wrong.

I say this as someone who firmly believes in the maxim of combating bad speech with more speech. I am not here advocating controls or restrictions on speech. But it is not the responsibility of every library to collect and distribute literature of hate, or falsehoods, or lies. Some libraries do need to collect everything, the good and the bad, for archival and historical study purposes, but those libraries are fairly obviously identified in practice and the vast majority of libraries should and could take a stand with their actions, programs, policies, and collections to be on the side of justice and scientific fact.

Neutrality favors the powerful, and further marginalizes the marginalized. In the face of the current political climate, with the use of opinions as bludgeons and disinformation as the weapon of choice for manipulation and intellectual coercion, it is up to those who value fact and believe in the care of those in need to stand up and positively affirm that to do otherwise is evil.

I say this as someone who firmly believes in the maxim of combating bad speech with more speech. I am not here advocating controls or restrictions on speech. But it is not the responsibility of every library to collect and distribute literature of hate, or falsehoods, or lies. Some libraries do need to collect everything, the good and the bad, for archival and historical study purposes, but those libraries are fairly obviously identified in practice and the vast majority of libraries should and could take a stand with their actions, programs, policies, and collections to be on the side of justice and scientific fact.

Neutrality favors the powerful, and further marginalizes the marginalized. In the face of the current political climate, with the use of opinions as bludgeons and disinformation as the weapon of choice for manipulation and intellectual coercion, it is up to those who value fact and believe in the care of those in need to stand up and positively affirm that to do otherwise is evil. Read article