The Surprising Political Power Of Libraries

By Amy McLay Paterson

Håkan Dahlström/flickr

There’s a practicum student at the desk when I arrive for my shift. She’s here for a three-week work term before finishing her Master’s in Library Studies. We chat for a while between serving customers, and then she turns to me: “Did you know that our Health display is all diet books? All of them!” I’ve been working here for two months, but I didn’t know that.

I walk over to the display, a permanent showcase of books vaguely categorized as “Health and Wellness.” I’ve walked by it countless times, but this is the first time I’ve paid attention to the titles staring back at me: The South Beach Diet, various Dr. Oz tomes, and Body with Soul, weight loss advice from celebrated nutritionist, American Idol’s Randy Jackson. Without intending to, simply by grabbing the most accessible books in the relevant sections, we have created the impression that health is synonymous with fad diets.

The public library is considered a bipartisan environment, and many library systems have explicit policies to that effect. But there are many types of political statements beyond partisanship, and it would be a mistake to equate bipartisanship with neutrality. In a public institution, even minor actions can have widespread consequences. This means that libraries have the potential to effect tremendous social good, or to tacitly support a harmful status quo. It’s important that library users recognize that a library is more than just books, and even more important that librarians use their power consciously and carefully.

The American Library Association (ALA) defines core values of librarianship that include access, privacy, diversity, intellectual freedom, and serving the public good. When these values are kept at the forefront of our policies and actions, libraries can be a haven of social progress and political conversation. For example, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library was vaunted for its efforts to remain an open, safe space during the weeks-long protests following the 2014 murder of Michael Brown. Without taking sides in the protests, the library prioritized access to a calm space and provided peaceful community service when other public services closed down due to fear. It was a move that was politically bipartisan but socially progressive in the larger sense.

All too often, however, the public — and even sometimes librarians themselves — forget that the library is a social and political agent. And this refusal to recognize the library as a political force ultimately limits both our accountability and our effectiveness.

Popular opinion tends to cast libraries as archaic book warehouses, rather than community-building centers of education and entertainment. It’s impossible to complete a Library Studies education without exposure to S. R. Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science. Proposed in 1931, the first four laws deal exclusively with books and readers, but the fifth admits that the library “is a growing organism.” The books-only vision of the library runs directly counter to the idea of libraries as political agents, especially since the primacy of print literature is so often used as a silencing tactic for libraries that would dare to grow and expand their mission. In a 2014 article for Slate Rebecca Schuman chastised the “whatever-brary” for daring to move books aside to create a learning commons with tutoring and writing centers. Just last month Kate Schweitzer wrote an infuriatingly tone deaf article for Popsugar, voicing her shock and outrage that libraries would dare make toys available alongside books, after her toddler got a virus from playing with communal toys. I’m sure that the many families whose children have access to toys only at the library have the utmost sympathy.

Library policies can inadvertently serve as a referendum on poverty, either positive — as when toys and computers are accessible to the public — or otherwise. Edicts against sleeping in the library are particularly overt attacks on homeless patrons, and yet many urban library systems continue to adopt and enforce these policies against their most vulnerable community members. I have reason to be proud of my hometown library system, Halifax Public Libraries (HPL), for actively reaching out to homeless residents and touting the library as a place to “come in from the cold.” HPL has also worked to relax identification requirements for obtaining a library card and to streamline guest access to library wifi and computer terminals. Many patrons may never notice these changes, but for a silent minority, these small adjustments may determine whether the library is a hostile or welcoming place.

On a larger scale, political updates to library subject headings both shape and reflect public attitude towards controversial groups or issues. Library materials are sorted by subject, and the ways we describe and organize these subjects are continually evolving. In a rare public acknowledgment of the political impact of classification, support for the Library of Congress’ (LOC) update of the term “illegal alien” to “noncitizen” and “unauthorized immigration” was divided on partisan lines. Democrats largely supported the change, though Florida representative Debbie Wasserman’s comment that the library should “[choose] subject headings without political influence” can’t help but read as disingenuous. The GOP ultimately passed a bill forcing the LOC to restore the term, despite the obviously pejorative nature of the word “alien” and the negative attitudes this term perpetuates towards immigration.

While it is not uncommon for the LOC and equivalent national organizations to attempt updates that reflect social progress and embrace cultural diversity, other aspects of the library’s values must be addressed closer to home — for example, by hiring librarians and stocking and recommending works that accurately reflect the community. The stark whiteness of the North American library profession severely limits the range of our perspective. Currently there are few programs in place to correct this imbalance. An offhand comment by a customer that we didn’t “have any Black movies” stands out in my mind as a problem not easily addressed by an almost entirely white staff.

Affecting colorblindness in the face of a racial diversity problem can bleed into other programs and services, including the library-sponsored One City, One Book program, which attempts to persuade all members of a community to read and discuss the same book. The goals of fostering literary community and discussion are admirable, but my own community has thus far featured only books with white authors as their selection. To be fair, identifying a writer of color from our region with a recently-published, accessible adult work of fiction is far more difficult than it should be, but by limiting representation in its selection choices, the program creates unacknowledged barriers to access.The One Book program done correctly is an opportunity to foster diversity and to increase access through representation, but in my experience, that opportunity is too often missed.

Making value judgements about our customers’ reading preferences is anathema to the library profession. The second and third of Ranganathan’s laws are, respectively, Each reader his/her book, and Every book its reader. In practical terms, that means that I try to keep the same smile for the patron who asks for Ann Coulter’s Adios, America as I do for the one who pulls my staff pick off the shelf. What these laws don’t reflect is that we can’t avoid making value judgments about what to buy, what to weed, what rules to make and enforce, what to display and promote, and what language to use when we do it. It is important that core values are incorporated into these decisions, that they are made at least deliberately. For public libraries, finding an appropriate balance between reflecting current cultural attitudes and actively shaping public perception means asking a lot of hard questions. But within those questions our value lies, and we need to make sure that everyone keeps asking.

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