Growing up, my local library was a safe space before I even understood what that term meant.
My living arrangement was complicated in middle and high school. I didn’t take the bus. My parents weren’t able to pick me up right when school let out. I needed somewhere to go in the meantime that was safe for an unaccompanied teenage girl.
Luckily for me, there was a public library right down the road. At least 3 to 4 days out of the 5-day school week I went to the library for about an hour or two. The librarians knew me well. They looked out for me, let me and a few other students have first pick of the new YA books whenever they arrived, and were graciously forgiving of the countless fines I racked up over the years from checking out way too many books too often.
The building itself felt a little bit like home as well. I had a favorite spot I liked to sit in, and I was a regular at the weekly teen book club meetings where I would sit around a large table among my friends, eating snacks the way some might eat dinner with their families. On my 16th birthday I was surprised with a cake and the nerdiest little bookworm party imaginable in the back meeting room.
All of this to say, I loved my local library. A lot. Looking back, it’s clear to see how so many of those fond memories, mundane as they may seem, were made possible because of the unique role libraries have in meeting the needs of a community in a way that (theoretically) operates outside of a capitalist framework.
A radical inclusivity
Unlike so much of what we consider “public space” in the U.S., public libraries offer environments for people to just exist safely and peacefully, protected from the elements, without the pressure to purchase or perform some sort of service. They (again, in theory) welcome all ages, races, genders, sexualities, socioeconomic statuses, abilities, etc.
Anyone who thinks libraries are just for books has not spent a lot of time inside of one. Across the country, libraries provide technological access, employment services, enrichment and educational programs for children and teens, art, resources for immigrants and English-language learners, and much more. Every library plays a different role within its community based on the demographics and needs of said community.
In 2017, Library Journal published an article entitled “Why Social Justice in the Library? | Outreach + Inreach” with a compelling statement about the importance of libraries as safe spaces:
We felt that since we are a public place, we need a safe space for our teens where they won’t be judged, a place [to which], should something ever happen to them, they know that they can come. (Source)
Way before I managed to find my way out of the closet, the library was the first place I encountered where queerness was open for discussion. Many of my friends were LGBTQ+ and the library was one of the first places that felt normal and natural to talk about sexuality and gender as so many of us were grappling with the task of trying to understand ourselves. We were gifted novels with queer protagonists that our school would have never thought to provide, and then given the opportunity to talk about them (and subsequently, ourselves) earnestly.
I didn’t come out until after I graduated, but that process (whether I knew it or not) began in that library. This is just one small example of the degree of impact a space like this can have on those who frequent it.
Yet just because the potential is there, doesn’t mean it is being fully enacted.
Libraries can do better
While I have primarily positive formative memories of my library, I recognize from listening to others, particularly other queer POC, that this experience is not universal. Some have said they’ve felt unwelcome in libraries, constantly under the critical gaze of old white women who seem like they’re waiting for some inevitable trouble to be started. Others simply had no interest in the overwhelming white heteronormativity of the books and services that never seemed to make any efforts to diversify.
Racial profiling, queerphobia, ableism, discrimination of homeless individuals, and exclusion of those more economically disadvantaged take place in many libraries around the country. A 2018 report published by the Government Alliance on Race & Equity (GARE) stated:
Historically and today, libraries have been white-dominated institutions. During the 20th century many libraries — from North to South — upheld racially segregated facilities. Many more failed communities of color through neglect, paternalism and tacit approval of prevailing norms. (Source)
The recognition of this failing is an integral part of viewing libraries as critical in the social justice sphere. Upholding social norms has never benefitted anyone other than those in power, and as more facilities acknowledge this fact they move closer to the radical inclusivity that is so desperately needed in these times.
The concept of radical inclusivity starts with the idea that in any given community there exists more privileged and less privileged populations…An individual’s privilege or lack thereof can directly impact their ability to access the services a library provides if the library doesn’t take purposeful action to design services (facilities, technology, programming, and policies) that overcome those barriers. (Source)
Erin Shea, a Branch Supervisor of two public libraries in Connecticut, recently wrote a piece highlighting the ways many public libraries fall short of the racial equity mark. Her post brings attention to the overwhelming white majority of library service workers and the ways in which everything from operating hours to fines and fee structures can negatively impact minority communities at disproportionate rates. And the coronavirus has made things worse:
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has only fanned the flames of racial disparities in public libraries…And it’s not just library users — it’s workers as well. Just last week, Black library workers at the Free Library of Philadelphia penned an open letter to management because they are bearing the brunt of COVID-19 exposure while being paid less than their white counterparts. (Source)
Librarians in smaller, rural and primarily white communities have also voiced their struggles in promoting equity in these environments. Those who have witnessed racism from both patrons and coworkers have shared their stories and advice to others in the field on combating these forces and ultimately making their libraries more effective social justice spaces. Programming Librarian, a website of the American Library Association Public Programs Office, recently discussed this in a blog post entitled “Standing against Racism in My Rural Library”:
“I want our patrons to know that this library is inclusive, welcomes diversity in every form, and will not tolerate racism of any kind…Libraries are not neutral. They never have been. We advocate for the banned books that some find offensive, look to include everyone in our communities, create Pride displays that feature LGBTQ+ authors. Libraries are for everyone, and the materials, programs and services we offer should reflect that.”
Across the country, libraries are responding to demands for more equitable practices and social justice orientations in a variety of ways. Simmons College librarians, responding to a demand for more equitable treatment by students of color, began collecting zines and creating an anti-oppression guide. The Chili Public Library in NY has incorporated a Gay Straight Alliance as a regular part of their teen programming. Solutions and options are available — they just need to be pursued more actively and thoroughly.
I have seen first-hand the immense impact libraries can have when fully committed to social justice and equity. They have the potential to help level the playing field in technology access, education, community resources, and enrichment for kids and teens. They can provide spaces for social organizing and resources for budding activists. They can make people feel safe and welcome.
To put it simply, libraries are critical. And it’s beyond time we start acting like it.