I spent some time this morning reading various Martin Luther King Jr. quotes and articles. In particular, the article in The Intercept “What the ‘Santa Clausification’ of Martin Luther King Jr. Leaves Out” by Zaid Jilani (2017).
Jilani points out that “King was not just a fighter for racial justice, he also fought for economic justice and against war.”
I wasn’t born until years after the assassination of Dr. King. One of the things that struck me when I started to learn about this period of our history was how recent it was—in that horrified realization that those who spoke and acted against equality and peace were still around. Today that realization is more powerful than ever as we approach the inauguration of a divisive President-Elect.
Librarians and the Library Bill of Rights
Librarians stand for equality and equal access for everyone. The Library Bill of Rights defines these values.
I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
Many people (including librarians at times) struggle with the notion of including materials for all people of the community. Sometimes a subtle filtering takes place that excludes materials because someone believes that they don’t have those people in their community, e.g., not including books that show other cultures because of mistaken belief that the community lacks members of those cultures, or that members of the community won’t be interested in those materials. The library is the place where the confirmation bias bubble pops. If the librarians do their jobs well, that is.
II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
If there’s one issue I have with this, it’s the use of “Libraries” instead of “Librarians.” The language is used throughout the Library Bill of Rights. On its own, the institution doesn’t do anything. It takes librarians to provide materials and information—even when those materials represent views the librarian may personally disagree with.
III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
Once again we see the use of “Libraries” in this section. If I was rewriting the Library Bill of Rights I would also make the language active rather than passive, e.g., Librarians challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment. Likewise, the previous section would read Librarians provide materials and information… The extensive use of “should” throughout the Library Bill of Rights makes it sound weak.
IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
What does cooperate mean in this case? ALA also provides a number of interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights. It also provides the Freedom to Read Statement which addresses these issues. I particularly like the end of that statement, “We believe rather that what people read is deeply important; that ideas can be dangerous; but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.”
V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
People struggle with this one. Age becomes a frequent barrier for people under the age of 18, with obstacles placed on obtaining a library card. For all that librarians strive to do, they often struggle with this particular barrier. Another issue, tied to background, are perceptions of people due to their economic status, health, or other factors such as mental health. Policies are passed that exclude people based on traits that make some people uncomfortable. People may be profiled even at the library.
VI. Libraries which make exhibit space and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.
People have the right to peaceful assembly, yet often lack spaces in which to associate. Time, place, and manner restrictions, along with requirements for permits, makes it difficult for people to assemble. The lack of free meeting space also creates challenges. Many city-owned community centers requirement payment to use the space. The library is often one of the few places which may have a freely available meeting space in the community.
I believe there is room for improvement in the Library Bill of Rights, yet it remains an important document, along with other statements produced by the American Library Association. It’s also worth looking at the work done by the Progressive Librarians Guild to see additional views on the librarian’s role in the community and the ongoing conflict between librarians advocating for neutrality and those arguing for social justice. Librarians haven’t always challenged inequality and discrimination, though it remains a key part of a librarian’s role. The fact that librarians advocate for unrestricted access is not a neutral view.
Librarians need to reevaluate some of the assumptions around the profession. As information scientists, as advocates for justice and equality, they stand poised to take on a significant role in the information age—or risk being supplanted by commerical interests with different motivations and values.