On Racism, Ignorance, and Librarianship

I begin this post by condemning the racists, white supremacist, and Nazi actions in Charlottesville.

The past few days have been extremely troubling, and left me wondering what I can do. I then remembered I was asked that exact question after the Charlie Hebdo attack in France. I put together this post: https://davidlankes.org/charlie-hebdo/

This morning I re-read it and while I stand by it, I don’t think it went nearly far enough, and I need to amend it.

In the post, I talked about three things librarians and libraries could do in the wake of a terrorist act:

  1. fight violence with information and understanding
  2. help the community develop their own narrative
  3. continue to be the resource for your communities to come together

I still think this is a good game plan for any library in the wake of violence and tragedy. Counter false and ignorant claims with knowledge and learning; help the community construct and disseminate their own story so that one is not imposed from outside; and continue to be a place the community relies upon. A library should be a safe space, but it will only be that if librarians continue to understand the threats all their community members face and work to overcome them.

What struck me upon re-reading the post was a stark difference in the situation between Paris and Charlottesville. In Paris, the worry was that a shocked community would turn against an innocent and valuable part of themselves, namely Muslims and immigrants. My post was a call not just for the importance of diversity, but an acknowledgement that immigrants and Muslims were part of the community and a need to come together a better understand each other.

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. Also, to be VERY clear, the community I am talking about here is the American community, not just one city in Virginia, or the South. Put simply there are times when a community must face the fact that parts of that community are simply antithetical to the ultimate mission of a library.

Racism is a state of ignorance. It deliberately denies the positive effect of diversity and inclusion. Purposefully living in a state of ignorance is counter to the values and mission of librarianship. Therefore, giving voice to racism does not further the conversation or learning of a community.

Now stating that racism is bad is a pretty obvious call. Talking about libraries not promoting racists views is also a pretty easy call. Here’s the thing, stating that as a librarian you have to choose or take a side in this situation is another thing altogether. It means acknowledging you are not neutral, and that as a professional you must take a stand against part of your community is hard.

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. They are platforms of learning that acknowledge the full range of the views in a community, but with the community develop and support a learning narrative that pushes against racism and bigotry.

I watched the press conference yesterday when the Virginia Governor, the Charlottesville Mayor, the City Manager of Charlottesville, and the city’s Chief of Police talked about outsiders and how their community would become stronger in the face of the racists violence. It was a moving moment. I am imploring the librarians in Charlottesville and throughout the country to be part of that process. To engage and model the power of inclusion and diversity. Don’t simply inform your population, help them learn. Don’t think that open doors are sufficient to be sanctuaries: actively engage and invite in people of all classes, and races, and creeds.

Don’t ignore the systemic racism and the passive attitude that allows white supremacy to fester. Understand also that your fighting the ignorance of racism doesn’t start nor end at the door of a library. Fight for better transportation options to allow greater economic opportunity for under-served peoples. Be a source of healthy foods and meals in the summer and food-deserts of our cities. Work to make a library card a symbol of equity to all people, not just those who can or choose to come in the door.

This is not about ideology or political party, this is about our mission: to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in our communities. Racism is antithetical to this mission. Period.

I will end this post as I ended my Charlie Hebdo post.

To my Charlottesville colleagues I ask, how can I help?

14 Replies to “On Racism, Ignorance, and Librarianship”

  1. This isn’t about political party? Someone should have told this person then:


    For those wary of clicking links in comments (I can’t blame you), the video cuts 59 seconds in to a WaPo video recording a man who said his three values as a Republican that brought him out are: 1. Standing up for local white identity, as their identity is under threat, 2. the free market, and 3. killing Jews.

    It’s a bit hard to avoid the fact that the Republican party has become the de-facto White Identity party. However much we’d like to quibble about what percentage of that party is like this man, it’s the party they have found a place in.

  2. (I did something & lost my comment so if it got through to you, just ignore this one). And, these powerful actions come from the human dignity that lies within each individual member of the library staff. A dignity & rejection of hate that motivates them to post materials on their doors, wear wrist bands & badges, include messages in email signatures, challenge hate based & discriminatory speech in info lit sessions or the public areas of a library – an “everydayness” that can come to seem mundane. But, that very everydayness has its own power. It is never truly mundane.

    Librarians all over Australia will be reflecting with US librarians today. We will be thinking of your sorrow & pain, & we will be thinking of our own country as similar situations play out in our country.

  3. The thrust of your piece is agreeable, we want to use information and knowledge to further humanity. The Library has an important role.

    How about we start with anthropology and anthropologists who reject the notion of race? How about we admit the genetic anthropologists who say the same? How about we be straight about colors and just what constitutes an African American?

    I’ve got my own rather involved papers on the subject, but the essence here is about a teachable moment. Think about this… We can talk about how we are all the same, or we can talk about how we are all different. Or we can do both.

    Is it not funny how we are all the same yet different? Even among a common color? Even among a common group of people, e.g. “white”? Is it not funny we all come from the same place (Africa) and ultimately Earth?

    You said in your blog…
    “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. They are platforms of learning that acknowledge the full range of the views in a community, but with the community develop and support a learning narrative that pushes against racism and bigotry.”

    How can we develop and support a learning narrative that will push against ignorance without admitting elemental and foundational facts?

    My read of Diversity and Inclusion initiatives is that they are largely a sham perpetuating the same fallacy which they oppose. (I am not an armchair guy, I’ve got almost a decade of activism, NPO work, committees, Task Forces and two state laws to my credit.) When you said racism should not be given a platform, you really meant ignorance. It is a dangerous proposition to deny something with a convenient label (racism) all the while there is a sea of ignorance with many names and labels. And no, this is not some “colorblind rant”, this is an appeal to reason.

    We can perpetuate class division by names and labels, identity and individuality (56 labels or identities for one otherwise “gay”, 150 for one otherwise “deaf”, etc.,) or we can actually share platforms of culture, language, arts as living diversity and inclusion. Talking about racism makes it so, instead, libraries, librarians, Library Friends, and the community should endeavor to fill the calendar with the many peoples… After all, just being there is the most important thing, being exposed is close second. And this is what libraries are for, not so much as the moral police, but as the, er, intellectual police; you can’t say what is right or wrong, true or false, you can only point to the information or resources… or provide the platform.

    Smoot-Haley 1931 anybody? My amateur sleuthing tells me that this hurt our education system more than helped it when the DOE was taken from the ribs of the Library. With about 123,000 libraries and some 17, 500 public museums today it seems plain that we have failed to properly leverage public education, participation, and inclusion in the larger Public-private Partnership.

    In a nutshell, defeating ignorance largely means leveraging the public domain. If you are a librarian, you’re a big part of this support sustem. Roll out the big guns, but don’t give credence to “the word”.

  4. I appreciate the view point that true inclusion and diversity invites all to the table and respects the views of all. That said, a library is a place to dispel ignorance and foster a learning conversation. It therefore has no obligation to be a platform for those who seek monolog, lack respect for diversity, or seek to diminish a conversation.

    On Twitter some of the reaction to this post are right to point out that white supremacy and racism are not as simple as these people not knowing better. It is an ideology that can’t be dispelled by throwing information at it. It is an ideology that is engrained in social structures, our civic institutions, and creates inequities in the allowing diverse voices to be heard, or for diverse people to move ahead. Libraries alone, no matter the services and education they provide, can overcome this. It will take our civic agencies, education, faith communities, and all the community. However, libraries can be part of the solution…so long as they abandon the myth that they can’t take a stand.

    Now, to your point, a stand against ignorance, yes. And by inviting people with diverse views of all colors, creeds, and nationalities, to have a voice. So long as those voices come with respect and a willingness to listen and learn.

  5. David, there are parts of this I find troubling. I’m reluctant to abandon the principles of intellectual freedom. The Library Bill of Rights talks about access to all viewpoints. It was created in a time when some citizens of Des Moines were trying to prevent the library from buying a copy of “Mein Kampf.” Director Forrest Spaulding said later that if more people had read the book, maybe we would have stepped in sooner. Collecting some of these works isn’t “promotion.” It’s shining a light into the dark corners of our culture. It’s tracking what’s going on, and who is saying it. Likewise, offering meeting rooms as a public forum means that the library really can’t pick and choose whether or not we like their views, provided that everyone remains non-violent. The rule of law applies to everyone, or soon applies to no one. Could you be more specific about just what “not giving a voice to racism” means in practice? Thanks.

    1. Troubling is a good word. I hope anytime there is talk of giving or not giving voice it is done with pause and concern. I also, very much appreciate the comments, questions, and a chance to continue the conversation.

      The broadest point of the post was that librarians can’t be neutral. They are embedded in a community and society, and must understand they have an impact, and a shaping role in that community. The questions that came out of Charlotteville were around racism. The answer that I am putting forth, is that assuming a neutral position is impossible. The reason librarians are professional is because they act in the face of ambiguity. More still, while we like to think that all the principals of librarianship align, there are times when they collide.

      For example, promoting the widest sharing of the widest spectrum of ideas with the desire to provide a respectful place of learning can come into conflict with a belief that librarians must respect all speech. How do we untangle the potential conflicts there? Where I come down is around the core of what I proffer as the mission of librarians, which focuses on learning, ie knowledge creation.

      I ask myself, how do racist attitudes enrich community learning? For example, am I, as a librarian, providing a forum for community members with racist attitudes to learn? How would their inclusion enhance a learning conversation? Will it be inclusive of all views in the conversation? To me that seems the opposite of a racist position. Will it be a respectful of alternative points of views? Once again when an ideology is founded on the superiority of one view, it seems to negate respect. Will it actually stop the learning conversation of others? And here is where I come back to your example of Mein Kampf.

      There is the intent of inclusion and the act of inclusion. Adding Nazi literature to a collection with the intent of adding to people’s learnings is laudable, and vital. The intent of including Nazi propaganda as a warning, or a call to action, or even shining light, all are laudable actions because they seek to enhance learning. The act of inclusion, on the other hand, is much more complex.

      For example, is the piece put in context, either where it is included in the collection, or how it is displayed, and, probably most important, what else is included with it? Also, I deliberately divide intent and act, because once a piece of material is included (the act) it can be put at the service of other intentions (recruitment, intimidation). No one can control for all possible uses of a book, or a program, or a display. The role of the professional is to do their best to anticipate. Still – the very act of inclusion for whatever intent is a choice and not neutral.

      Then we come to beyond the collection: programs, providing space, etc. As you rightly point out in many contexts these are beyond the libraries remit. That is one of the reasons I have long said that public libraries are not public spaces they are civic spaces. They are controlled by law and regulation. You point out one way this is true – libraries are not forced to host an event where they deem the public safety at jeopardy. A much more mundane version is that they can require meetings during operating hours.

      I come back again to the question of learning. Is the intent of these groups to enhance the learning of the community? Is this a dialogue or a monologue? Monologs are not in the mission of a learning organization. It’s not there for racists, and it’s not there for a specific political party’s views. If the Green party held a rally at a library, there would be bloody murder if other parties weren’t also allowed. On the flip side, if libraries didn’t carry information on the Green Party and other parties, it wouldn’t be meeting its mission to educate the public.

      What to do in the case where there is in essence no choice? Librarians have the obligation to turn the monolog into a dialog. They can do this with counter programming. By adding context in displays and materials. And before someone asks what gives librarians the right to decide between monologs and dialogs that answer is the same public sphere. Through charter, or millage, or by-laws, librarians are professionals put in place to maximize the learning and decision-making power of a community. They do this with transparency, and openness. But they make choices every day, with every book bought or weeded, and every reference question answered.

      The other part of this is that a library is a reflection of the community it is a part of. It tries to influence that community, and it is influenced by that community as well. Nazi’ism, white supremacy, and bigoted views that seek to diminish the rights or importance of others have been held before the community, and has been discredited and rejected. What we have learned from Nazi’ism and what we must continue to learn and re-learn, is that it is destructive and corrosive. Much as we as a society have made the distinction, albeit a fuzzy one, between protected speech and hate speech and incitement.

      Do we as librarians always live up to our ideals? No. But by treating principles as immutable, or context-less we create a false sense of objectivity that ultimately underlies those very principles. I am not calling to censor materials around white supremacy. Quite the opposite. I want everyone to see the hateful speech, but in context. Providing context is the professionals job and is situational.

      There’s my current thinking, but very open to other views and thoughts.

  6. Thank you, David. Here’s a real life challenge reported today. Somebody wants to show in the library, for the second time, a movie about how vaccines cause autism. Library meeting room policies establish a public forum (limited by time, place, and manner) that is, as described in First Amendment case law, *content* neutral. This group complies with the rules, so gets the room. In this case, I could easily recommend “counter-programming:” an additional meeting, sponsored by the library, with a panel of doctors, for instance. That is advocacy for a view that, in my judgment, is settled science. Providing the meeting room is neutral; going out of my way to offer a contrary view is not.

    But this idea of judging the intent is a tricky one. I imagine the anti-vaccine people sincerely believe they’re saving lives. I might buy David Duke’s “Jewish Supremicism: My Awakening,” thinking to inform my community about the history of anti-Semitism. Someone else buys it thinking to promote David Duke. It gets the same Dewey number. It’s hard for the patron to see context there. But I get your point; the rest of the collection should give a clue or two.

    My own take about neutrality is the difference between personal and professional responsibility. I think we have to be honest brokers, fairly reflecting the contradictions, community preferences, and the emerging consensus of our culture. We have to recognize, too, that librarians are also likely to reflect the blindnesses and biases of their times. It doesn’t pay to get too sure of ourselves. The Library Bill of Rights and the Code of Ethics aren’t perfect, either. But they’re pretty good, and maybe a little more objective than weighing people’s intent.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts and doing the heavy lifting on this issue.

      I was talking about the intent of the professional in fulfilling their mission. Trying to determine or assign intent to those that we serve can only be done through long-term relationship building and partnerships. I think being reflective and seeing the choices of librarians as shaping activities is a professional responsibility. What I worry about is librarians seeing their responsibility ending at the meeting room threshold. Or worse still believing that allowing all voices equal volume is neutral when it is really creating noise.

  7. An interesting discussion – thank-you for having it in public where so many others can enjoy it & think about it 🙂 As I was reading your conversation, a broader professional issue struck me. I think that we, as a profession, have to be very, very careful that these conversations aren’t isolated within the profession – we must actively seek out voices from other disciplines to help us think things through.

    These are people-centric issues rather than information-centric issues. In our recent past, we (not all of us, but certainly a great many of us) took to teaching information & digital literacy without learning about learning & teaching, & many of us still seem to see this as appropriate for professional practice. We took up teaching about information evaluation without even acknowledging the existence of confirmation bias, let alone addressing it in learning-centred ways when we work with our clients, or exploring our own biases.

    People-centred & knowledge-centred professionals such as teachers, philosophers, psychologists & journalists all come immediately to mind as people with whom we have a responsibility to engage – http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/theminefield/free-speech3a-what-is-it3f-is-it-worth-the-cost3f-do-we-even/6428764

    Further still, libraries tend to be funded by bodies (councils, schools, universities, hospitals, government departments, etc) which also have goals & they fund libraries to help them achieve these goals. They should also be part of these discussions, as should our clients/patrons/customers/members.

    I agree that dialogue is critical, but if we largely limit this dialogue to librarians because we choose (once again) to practice from an isolationist foundation, I suspect that it may just end up being another form of monologue. Let’s learn from our inheritance of Dewey Decimal – back then the social systems & power structures made it impossible for most people to be open to different ways of knowing. In the 21st Century, librarianship is only closed to different ways of knowing because librarians choose this path.

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