Libraries are Radical

Libraries are safe spaces. We welcome anyone and everyone, regardless of belief, political leaning, or economic status. So why are librarians expected to be politically neutral?

I recall a conversation I had with a group of female colleagues in my library about the Art+Feminism Wikipedia event in March. Supposedly, one of the women had mentioned the event to our boss, who wondered if using the word “Women” instead of “Feminism” would feel more welcoming. I immediately recoiled from the thought.As the oldest woman in the room (although not by a lot) I felt a bit stodgy, but stood my ground. Our campus is historically very white, upper class, and male. Women were not admitted to the undergraduate college until 1985. In my opinion, privileged white men had been prioritized enough.

Academic instruction librarians have such strong external and internal pressure to increase attendance to events (classes, workshops, socials) that it’s very easy to try to use more inclusive language to describe our events, but we must be thoughtful. In progressive circles, inclusiveness is always a positive thing. We like to include those of all ethnicities, sexualities, socioeconomic statuses, and gender identities. So, inclusiveness always equals good, right? It depends on your surroundings. If you have a very underrepresented population (in this case, proud feminists and/or women of color) giving them a space that they own and are able to manipulate to be heard is more important than making sure literally everyone feels welcome.

I don’t really care if someone is scared off by the “Feminism” part of the event. Sure, they could benefit from the event, but I’m not sure this is the time for that. This event is more than a protest or informational session; it’s an activity for women (especially women of color) to have a voice not just on campus, but in the world. Editing a Wikipedia article is a radical act.

So who will teach these dominant populations about equality, true inclusiveness, and marginalized people’s experiences? Is it the library’s place? We already offer our physical space to any student group who wants it for displays, meetings, and demonstrations. Is that enough?

In the same conversation from earlier, we talked about how someone had posted Women’s Strike posters on bulletin boards throughout the library, and someone mentioned that they would have to be removed. We have a loose set of rules regarding our bulletin boards, including “nothing political allowed.” I translate “political” as something intentionally divisive, such as any kind of anti-person event, or any controversial stance, such as abortion rights. Someone could truly feel silenced if the library sponsored something like this. But feminism (or LGBTQ rights, or bathroom rights, or Black Lives Matter, or any other civil rights issue) seeks to expand rights to marginalized groups. What’s controversial about that? Dominant populations should not feel threatened by the expansion of a less powerful population’s rights, and if they do feel threatened, librarians are in the perfect position to help them along the path to becoming informed and making their own choices.

After all, isn’t that why we became librarians? Isn’t the act of becoming a librarian inherently radical?

BTW, the posters remained.

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