Libraries are oppressive?

I was browsing my Feedly feed Tuesday – while simultaneously blowing my nose about a million times and realizing I should have stayed home with this killer cold – when this headline from BeerBrarian popped up, “Yes, Libraries are Oppressive. So what now?” , I had one of those record scratching, pumping the brakes, “Whaaa??!?!” moments, and then settled in to read the article.

This is what stuck out to me the most when reading this post. BeerBrarian says:

“The library is an institution, which has policies to define who is and is not a member, channels to resolve disputes, as well as feedback mechanisms. These structures intentionally legitimate some behaviors, and just as purposefully discriminate against others.”

Oh yikes. This is true, and I don’t think I’ve really ever thought too deeply about this. Yes, in grad school I did take a class – one of my most memorable and influential – entitled “Literacy and Library Services to Underserved Populations” with Shelley Quezada and we did discuss this. But I don’t think since then I have seen this problem presented so succinctly and almost, shockingly.

Maybe it also stopped me so suddenly in my merry little librarian-who-saves-the-world tracks  because I am pretty idealistic about libraries. If you encounter me on the street and ask me about my job, there’s a good chance I’ll ramble on about the power of the literature, the wonderful free-ness of the library, how it’s a community center like no other, and a safe space for teens and other underserved and potentially marginalized populations. Thinking about libraries and how cool they are can often bring me to tears.

But this is not always true, as BeerBrarian has reminded me. Libraries are exclusive: So many library policies (including my library) require you to have a picture ID and proof of your permanent residence in order to get a library card. This can make it very hard for homeless or transient people to get a card. Libraries assume a certain amount of base level knowledge that you need to use them. And if you don’t have that knowledge – literacy, like how to use the catalog computer, heck! how to use a computer, often unspoken rules of conduct, etc – you have to feel safe enough and brave enough to ask for help. That’s incredibly hard and makes you feel vulnerable and stupid. I hated asking for help at the Simmons library and I was there studying how to help people find things in libraries, and a lifelong library user!

The Working Together Project in Canada,  a group of city libraries used a community based approach to learn to be more inclusive of all community members, reiterates the exclusion of libraries:

“The reality is that to the majority of socially-excluded people, we are a club and they do not feel welcome. Our atmosphere is oppressive, our rules and codes are alienating, and, often, we ourselves are unapproachable and/or intimidating. We require identification and proof of address for membership; we charge fines for overdue materials; we have policies about smelly patrons and behaviour that we as staff find challenging to manage; we implement policies and architecture to “protect” staff from patrons; and we use complex jargon to discuss our services.”

This is very, to borrow a term from Christian college, convicting to me. I am guilty of this all the time. I try to  be super-inclusive, but I have had conversations with other staff members about the paranoid conspiracy theorists who use the library, or the people who don’t seem to understand why you might need an address to check out books. People, we scoff. What’s their deal?! It is hard when you run up against your own prejudice and confront your failings. It has the potential to be transformative as well, which is why I wanted to share this with you all. One of the reasons I became a librarian, is because I care about people, and I think I am fairly compassionate. But I really needed this reminder that there is always room for more compassion, more understanding, and more work to do on making the library, and other community spaces, truly equal for all.

What do you think? Are libraries oppressive and what more can we do to make them truly inclusive for everyone?

3 thoughts on “Libraries are oppressive?

  1. Well first of all, Libraries are not oppresive but a high quality place where you can pick the book. movie et al you wished. If you think something should be removed you can bring it to management and they can review it. The Nevins Memorial Library is a world class place to go and it is located in Methuen MA

  2. I guess the trick is to be as welcoming to everyone as possible without developing such an “anything goes” atmosphere that it keeps more mainstream or “traditional” library users away!

    1. Agreed. And work with the people who feel excluded to figure out what they need and/or why they aren’t using the library or don’t feel comfortable doing so. The library should truly be for everyone. We try that, but don’t always get there!

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