“Welcome,” she said. “Welcome, and thank you for agreeing to be a volunteer with Multnomah County Libraries. We are so grateful for you and your commitment to our community. For the next hour, we’re going to go over some important information that you need to know as a volunteer, no matter what role you play.”
I expected that we were going to learn about things like policies for canceling our shifts, or maybe where to find first aid kits. We probably did talk about those things. But the part that I remember most vividly is the first thing she talked about.
“We’re going to start with the Library Bill of Rights from the American Library Association,” she said, and she projected the text of the document onto the screen. “Everyone who works for libraries, including volunteers, helps to support and uphold the Library Bill of Rights.”
This was new to me. I’d been a regular patron at my local public library for years, graduating from Dr. Seuss to The Babysitters Club series to, most recently, my fixation on books about neo-paganism and queer sex. No one had mentioned this whole Bill of Rights thing. It was a short document with just a few bullet points.
“Libraries support free access to information,” Bess explained. “One of our core values is intellectual freedom. This impacts all of you because when you’re volunteering for the library, we expect you to support the rights of library users to find and read whatever they want, even if you don’t agree with what they’re looking for.”
She continued, “For example, let’s say that a small child came up to you and asked where to find the Stephen King books. You might think those books are too scary for someone that age, or that he shouldn’t be reading that kind of stuff. But that doesn’t matter. No matter what, we help people find the information they want, and we don’t censor their interests. Does that make sense?”
Heads around the room nodded, and I leaned back into the wall, letting her words sink in. It was absolutely, positively the most radical, punk rock thing I had ever heard in my life.
I can read whatever I want. No one can stop me.
I can help other people read what they want. And no one can stop them.
“This is core,” Bess added, “to a functioning democracy. We believe that fighting censorship and providing free, unrestricted access is key to helping citizens participate in the world. And, most importantly, we keep everyone’s information strictly confidential. So, even if you know what books your neighbor is checking out or what they’re looking at on the computer, you don’t share that with anyone.”
As someone who kept carefully guarded notebooks full of very personal thoughts, I was especially excited by the library’s emphasis on privacy. All of this sounded great. I wanted more. I wanted in. I wanted to be a crazy, wild, counterculture librarian-witch who would help anyone read anything from The Anarchist’s Cookbook to Mein Kampf. I would be a bold freedom fighter in the face of censorship. I would defend unfiltered Internet access and anatomically correct picture books. Maybe I was only in the eighth grade, but I was ready to stand up to anyone who tried to threaten the ideal of intellectual freedom. Fuck blink-182. Libraries were the real punk rock.
The next few years are going to be tough on education, and as many have said, we need to support our teachers.
I’d also like to add to that: SUPPORT YOUR PUBLIC LIBRARIES. SUPPORT THE HELL OUT OF THEM.
Libraries provide many valuable educational opportunities for kids and adults alike, and with the impetus of the responsibility of education shifting from public schools to the public itself, they are perhaps more vital and more important than they have ever been in our nation’s history. Make sure they have the resources they need to keep fighting for our children and their futures.
Librarians may not be able to change Google or Facebook, but we can educate our patrons and support the development of the critical-thinking skills they need to navigate an often-biased online world. We can empower our patrons when we help them critically evaluate information and teach them about bias in search engines, social media, and publishing. Libraries that have created research guides for Black Lives Matter and other social justice topics are helping to curate information and points-of-view that might not be traditionally published.
We are not doing our job if we remain neutral when it comes to library technologies. Accepting many of the technologies available to support our missions means accepting technologies that are biased, not accessible, not protective of the privacy of our users, and not easily usable by some of our patrons. A commitment to social justice is a commitment to equal access, which is at the heart of our professional values. We are not being neutral when we advocate for our patrons, but we are being good librarians.
One of 20th Century America’s greatest literary voices, James Baldwin and his work are garnering renewed interest, thanks in part to the Oscar®-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, which should be opening at a cinema near you soon (if it hasn’t already). The trailer is below a companion volume for the film is now available fom Vintage Books, home to much of the author’s backlist, including Go Tell It on the Mountain, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, and The Fire Next Time. Baldwin’s literary work has also been issued by the prestigious Library of America in three essential volumes.