There’s an ongoing discussion, on library twitter,1 about the problems of privacy in libraries. It’s part of our core values, and one of the major ethical tenants of our profession, and we’re pretty much failing. It’s so great! Or, rather, so profoundly infuriating and depressing that it can sometimes feel insurmountable, but luckily we have some great folks who are, and will continue, to rage against the data-consuming machine.
Anyway, the discussion—about the myriad ways we fail our patrons, and participate in surveillance while pretending not to, reminded me of that time a then-supervisor went through all my holds on the library hold shelf. The supervisor had a thing for going through staff members’ holds. I’m going to guess it was a power trip. It was certainly unnerving. One of my coworkers said we should all order The Anarchist’s Cookbook, or, preferably, something even further out. It would have led to something interesting, I’ve no doubt—likely more spying.
We pay lip service, in my field, to our professional ethics and to the ideas of privacy and of equity. I don’t think we’re doing a good job of living up to those ethics. My former supervisor, whose trips through my holds (and my checkouts) have made me uneasy using the libraries in which I work, is one relatively minor example of some of the ways we fail to live up to our ideals. The glaring racism of the Indianapolis Public Library is a glaring example—though not at all the only one of its kind.
Between the snoopers and the accidental spyware and the white supremacy, there are inaccessible buildings—I don’t think I’ve ever been in a library that was really, truly, entirely accessible. There are also a lot of inaccessible websites, from databases to library web pages themselves, some of which are even difficult for me to use. Neutrality aids the oppressor—and our insistence on neutrality helps hold up the status quo. (I’d argue that it can also lead to sloppiness.)
Where am I going with this? Well, in a way—absolutely nowhere. I had a noisy supervisor; I’m no longer comfortable using the library. It sucks. But, in another way, my supervisor is a symptom of a larger disease within the library ecosystem. I’m coming off a rough week, and I’m discouraged and frustrated, and the current discourse on library twitter is making me think about all the ways our institutions fail, and fail again, failing both the labor that keeps them running and the patrons who keep them essential.
Our charge may be noble, our work hugely important and also spectacularly undervalued—yet libraries, and librarianship, are as deeply flawed as every other institution. But we’re not going to improve by looking away. When we look ourselves in the mirror, we’ve got to let ourselves see, rather than patting ourselves on the back. We’ve had an awful year, a terrifying year, a year that will remain seared into our collective identity for a long time to come. But that doesn’t give us the right to pretend that our profession is spotless. If anything, it’s another call to fight—to improve the profession for those we serve, but also for those of us who work within it.
1 Here’s part of said discussion.
I write a lot about libraries and librarianship, actually. Here’s some of it, under the category librarianship (because I’m so creative whomp whomp).