Are public libraries really equitable?

lisa dempster
Jun 16 · 3 min read

I was drawn to work in public libraries in part because of their ideals of access, inclusivity and learning for all. In a world that is increasingly corporatised, the library is free, it’s safe, and — you’ll often hear — it’s for everyone.

So it may seem radical to question the inclusivity of libraries, but it is vital: values is one thing, practice is another. Yes, the doors may literally be open for anyone to walk in, but are we doing enough to ensure that the most marginalised and vulnerable in our communities will?

This question is being tackled, at least at an industry level. At the Asia-Pacific Library and Information Conference 2018, Caroline Beatty of Librarians for Refugees questioned whether libraries are doing enough to support their most vulnerable communities, particularly for asylum seekers and refugees. At the 2019 ALIA Info Online conference, solicitor and IP expert Terri Janke spoke about the role libraries play in archiving of and access to First Nations languages, noting that projects in this space need to happen with Aboriginal people, not simply be for or about them. At the same conference, Rachel Franks of the State Library of NSW gave a rallying cry for implementing inclusive collections: “let’s not rehearse, repeat and rely on the canon”.

It is into this context that literary journal the Lifted Brow has published its most recent edition which includes a section on public libraries. The pieces within present personal reflections, and question whether public libraries truly embody their own stated value of being “for all”.

Writing in Public Libraries, Vanessa Giron noted a recent survey undertaken by the University of Technology Sydney found that 80 per cent of patrons felt that public libraries were sites of discrimination and inequality — a sobering statistic which provides a framework for the pieces. As she said in her editor’s note, with Jini Maxwell, the writers in the Lifted Brow sought not to present answers but provide “a richer understanding of the stakes and terms” of public libraries.

Sumudu Samarawickrama wrote about libraries as spaces “where accident and juxtaposition can expand one’s capacity for self”. The returns trolley is her favourite place in the library because the books are gathered based on when they were returned — a loose connection but one where she “can find something I wasn’t looking for”. The importance of finding is central to her observations, and the library is noted as a place where reader’s blind spots can be addressed, sometimes through lucky finds. To facilitate finding for others, Samarawickrama has been requesting more BIPOC Australian authors so that others may connect with them — a wonderful and radical act. (Of course, inherent within is the suggestion that there is a need to do so.)

Writing from a First Nations context, Nathan Sentance addressed how institutions often reflect the entrenched power dynamics at play in society, and cautions libraries to be aware of their role in supporting those oppressive structures. For example, who is stocked in the Aboriginal culture or history section of the library, and are their facts current and correct or are their views underpinned by certain ideologies? Sentence writes that when racist books appears on shelves, it not only legitimises the material and silences other voices, but is a statement to First Nations people that they are not welcome there. For institutions largely considered to be neutral, libraries need to recognise their own power and work to address inequities rather than strive for ‘objectivity’.

Overall, the pieces in the Lifted Brow reflect the true importance of libraries as public institutions. They should also be read as a plea for those in the industry to safeguard their values and seek to ensure their services are truly offered to all.

What would a truly equitable library service look like? As an industry we need to question what more we could be doing to ensure safety and access, not only for those that walk in the door, but also for those who haven’t yet.

lisa dempster

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adventurous bookworm