For the past two (3 as of January!) years since my article on vocational awe came out, I have spoken about the disconnect between our values and our reality. Yet I’m repeatedly struck by how enamored librarians are of their characterization in liberal circles as “the good guys.” Despite the prevailing ideology that libraries not only support but reinforce democracy, there has been instance after instance proving it demonstrably false. And what happens each time? Librarians act shocked. Or, only slightly more offensively, they trip over themselves to justify, “logic,” and “devil’s advocate” themselves into a world in which “free speech” rules and they have no culpability for the atrocious behavior of their colleagues. And then, inevitably, Librarianship buries it, never to be spoken of again. The fact that a large number of libraries shut down rather than integrate? Gone from history. The fact that libraries continue to profile and overpolice POC in their communities? “Well those aren’t really librarians,” people say. “They’re the security guards” or “It’s just policy!” There is rarely any accounting for the harm librarianship has done towards marginalized communities. And when harm is done, we as a field are quick to justify it and/or rationalize it away with convenient concepts like values-neutrality, intellectual freedom, etc. …Anything besides deal with, acknowledge, and sit with the ugliness, and yes, systemic oppression, that inevitably permeates our overwhelmingly white field. Anything besides admitting: This is who we are.
When Toronto Public Library (along with Vancouver Public Library, Seattle Public Library, and many others) invited known TERF Meghan Murphy to speak hypothetical trans patrons were propped up to demonstrate intellectual freedom while the very real trans workers and community were silenced. When some libraries created reading advisory lists for those who wanted to move away from JK Rowling and Harry Potter, others claimed that was censorship despite the very real patrons who expressed discomfort with her transphobia. There was an actual program at ALA Midwinter in which James LaRue argued for Nazis in libraries. The very fact that discussions happened to consider allowing Nazis in libraries and meeting room spaces show how hollow our espoused values really are! The only people who can be comfortable in spaces where Nazis and other hate groups congregate are those who believe in the ideology, or, and this is what so many “progressive” librarians fail to see, those who are privileged enough not to be harmed by them.
And now a librarian has been discovered to be a Proud Boy. And people are shocked. Responses I’ve seen so far: “But he seemed so nice! He was so kind to me! Could he really have hated ‘diverse people’ this whole time?” “How can you be a librarian and also a Proud Boy?”
If only those were the worst reactions. But no, there are actual discussions about whether or not there should be active hate group members as librarians!
And not only that, but there are people whose answer is YES.
People that say what librarians do in their own time, out of the library, is their own business. As if white supremacy is something you only do on weekends.
It is time to stop being shocked. POC have been telling you this forever. Trans people have been telling you this forever. The disabled. The queer. Librarianship is not the last bastion of democracy. It is not inherently good and sacred. It is an institution. And like other institutions it is riddled with white supremacy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so on, and on, and on… This is who we are.
And until you all actually come to accept that fact, we will NEVER move forward as a field. It will always be white, exclusionary. Vocational awe, though always damaging, is comforting. Especially in these times, we crave comfort. But it’s a deceptive comfort. One that hurts. Every justification for a “really nice but misguided” colleague, drives a Black librarian from the field. Or a patron from the desk, who gives up on attaining that “free information” you hold so dearly. Every meeting of a gay conversion therapy group held in our spaces, lends the practice legitimacy, inflicting horrors on the queer youth of the community who will grow up with such abuses normalized. Because of us.
I propose that the true comfort will come in doing the hard things, the uncomfortable things. Leaving behind vocational awe, to fight for a librarianship that is always fighting to be better. That is never in awe of itself, but always in awe of how far we have to go. It all starts with admitting one thing. Say it with me: This is who we are.
p.s. As always thank you to my lovely fiancé and wifey Elena Rosa Maris as the best copy editor ever! Any eloquence is because of her.