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Inclusive vs Safe

I was listening to an episode of Accidental Tech Podcast, Not a Cactus in Sight, (one of my favorite podcasts, mostly because I’m a total John Siracusa fanboy), and during their discussion of the Reddit community John mentioned two tweets by Laurie Voss that totally made my brain explode with thought:

(here I think Voss is using “inclusive” in a legalistic/law oriented way, not in a norm or cultural sense…inclusion means “the ability to be a part of a community regardless of any aspect of your identity”…a lack of exclusion of any type)

Prior to the World Wide Web, I was an avid Usenet user, falling deeply into any number of alt. and rec. subgroups. Usenet was, in retrospect, where I learned so many things about “being online”, including tone, behavior, expectation….the entire culture of many parts of the social web were preceded and predicted by Usenet. Reddit is one of these spaces, as the concept and execution of a site that’s basically many user-driven bulletin boards is, in abstraction, just a modern execution of Usenet.

Reddit has been in the tech news a lot lately, and while I’m not interested in debating the pro and con of the decisions that have been made there, I think it’s fairly obvious that there’s a lot of terrible things on Reddit and that the response to said terrible things has been horribly blundered. I agree with the ATP guys above in their analysis…if you want to build a horrible place, keep doing what you’re doing Reddit…but that’s not a place that non-horrible people will choose to continue to hang out. I think there are lots and lots of other online communities that have been ran very well and have managed to be smart and useful places to have discussions online…the premiere example of this is probably Metafilter. It isn’t clear if Twitter and Facebook will do as well over time dealing with their respective issues.

There is, however, another social space that includes text based information resources that I am very attached to and fond of: the library. And in thinking about the axes of “inclusion” and “safety”, I realized that the rhetoric of the library world is very much the same rhetoric that is often used in the online spaces to justify what is usually horrific behavior. The oft-used quotation is Jo Godwin’s fantastic turn of phrase “A good library contains something in it to offend everyone.” Library collections are constrained by collection development policies that are driven by their local boards and communities, while calling back to the ALA Library Bill of Rights:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
  4. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.

In a way, a library collection is a conversation between the librarians and the community, written not letter by letter or word by word, but book by book over the course of decades or even centuries. That conversation is under the same tensions that online conversations are as it relates to safety and inclusivity. When someone challenges a book, they are in effect saying “this is a kind of speech that makes me feel unsafe.” And as Voss notes, the library gets to decide who to side with: those that feel unsafe, or those that make them feel unsafe. In the library, that answer is almost always the latter.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t limits…each library draws its own limits of the things they are willing to collect. In my personal opinion, not collecting particular items is not problematic; for example, I would have no trouble as a librarian not purchasing nor shelving anything published by the KKK.

I’m intentionally trying to frame this in the most difficult way, because I think it’s a difficult thing to navigate. Let me state my own position, straightforwardly: I think that the Library Bill of Rights is a positive document, and that the library providing access to material that the majority of their patrons would disagree with is absolutely fine. I also think that individuals deserve to be protected and feel safe in their activities and surroundings. The tension between these two positions puts me in a disharmony…I dislike being contradictory in my positions.

It has been pointed out by those much smarter about these things than I that librarianship has inclusivity issues written deep in its core. While our collection development statements tend towards inclusivity of multiple perspectives on social issues, once purchased those collections are often described and presented to the community using a grammar that is anything but. For many public libraries, the Dewey classification system is massively problematic, and Library of Congress subject headings are no better. We have inclusivity issues baked into our classifications (indeed, it’s likely epistemologically impossible to categorize without exclusion of some sort).

I don’t know how these issues get reconciled. How do you square inclusion and safety of spaces, both real and virtual? What are your thoughts on that dichotomy? Is it a false one? I’d love to hear from the library community about these seemingly opposing perspectives.

3 replies on “Inclusive vs Safe”

Life isn’t easy or simple. Neither are libraries. I think the dichotomy exists, and we continue to struggle with it. But I do think that the fact that we are aware of it and continue to discuss it is a good thing. I just don’t think it’s easily resolved–and probably never will be.

Alright, so I spent a while wrestling this into a more manageable number of words, and here’s what I’ve got:

The strongest parallel I have is handling of potentially alienating, yet on-topic, material in a conference with a code of conduct. The principle here is one of *choice about engagement*. Can you talk about, say, erotica at ALA? Sure, you totally can (LJ had a cover story on this topic!). But you make it clear in the session description that that’s what you’ll be talking about, so that people who prefer their conferences sans explicit sex talk can be somewhere else. And you don’t make that a plenary session. And depending on the particular take, it might be an after-hours thing and not a session at all – “erotica collection development” vs. “let’s all read our favorite sexy stories to each other”.

Library collection development and programming seem similar to me. Are collections and programs likely to have things that are totally within the library’s mandate (important!) that some patrons nonetheless find alienating (or offensive, triggering, upsetting, etc.)? Yes. But they have titles and descriptions and (places they’re shelved/times and places they’re held), which give people choices about whether and how to engage with the material. (As with the hypothetical plenary session, different standards might apply to your one city/one book selection vs. your collection as a whole, or to programs you’re doing in the open air at a city festival vs. in a closed room inside the library.)

I think, in fact, there’s more room for difficult books in libraries than for difficult people at conferences, because the books don’t jump off the shelves into your face being all “well ACTUALLY…” (or worse).

This does leave unresolved the question of patrons who feel unsafe because of the mere existence in the library of materials on certain topics. And they’re real people, and I don’t mean to discount that, but also there’s not a solvable problem there – the only answer is “let them dicctate what’s available to everyone”, which is an unacceptable infringement upon others’ librerties.

In unrelated news, this textarea isn’t scrolling as I type, so Havebeen unable to see a single word I’ve typed since “mere”. I really hope this makes sense.

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