When I was in library school, I had the opportunity to take a course with Dr. Emily Knox, one of the world’s experts on intellectual freedom and its cousin, censorship. It was, and remains, one of the most foundational courses I have had the opportunity to take. Intellectual Freedom & Censorship is the sort of class that provides those who take it (particularly if, like me, they are consumed by anxiety and overthink absolutely everything and always assume that the Worst Is Coming™) endless opportunities for reflection.1 For example, would our profession be a profession without intellectual freedom? Dr. Knox argues that it is our support for access for all, and our stand against censorship, that has made us a profession.2
Why am I obsessing over Dr. Knox’s class right now, in particular? Oddly enough, it’s less because of current challenges (there are a lot of them) than because of language use, word choice, and the obligations of being a professional (in these cases, of being a librarian or a teacher/instructor/professor). Darned if I can find exactly when we discussed this one, but it was made clear to us as librarians (and, thus, guardians of the First Amendment) that we did not “like” or “love” or “hate” books when we were at work.3 (Similarly, we were told in Adult Popular Literature not to use the word “recommend” but rather “suggest”; if you ever deal with me in person, you will probably notice that I do, indeed, avoid “recommend” at work.) Why must we avoid these words, or these value judgements? Because we cannot impose our values on our patrons.
So, obviously, we’re imperfect, and this is a hard line to toe—but I’d also argue it’s an important one. It’s not for us to press value judgements on our patrons, to tell them that their romance or their space opera or their western is WRONG, or even that it’s the BEST THING EVER—after all, if they hate that damn book, we want them to feel safe coming back to find another (which is why I tend to end readers’ interactions with some variation of: and if this one doesn’t work, come back and we’ll find another!). And, of course, the only places thus far I’ve found fellow dyslexics and people with chronic pain, who exist as humans in space rather than inspiration porn, are in genre fiction (usually romance—thank you Tessa Dare and Courtney Milan and Anne Brockaway!) and young adult (here’s to Leigh Bardugo!), which, I think, should hopefully underscore the importance of not automatically discounting something because it’s written for teens or, you know, has a happy ending.
So, maybe because people almost never take me all that seriously at first glimpse, and maybe because ever since I was young I’ve run into Men who Explain Things to me (and also get angry when it turns out I’m not as stupid as I apparently look), professionalism is incredibly important to me. There’s a reason I swear like a Victorian gentleman at work, and it is definitely not because I can’t tell you to go F yourself in three languages (I totally can). So, for instance, when I was a teacher, I was always very careful about how I gave feedback. What a ghastly piece of shite usually became something like what an interesting concept, let’s work together to make this better!
Having grown up a dyslexic I am, perhaps, a bit touchy about words, and what they can do—that’s probably even one of the reasons I am so careful when providing feedback. So, as a dyslexic, and as someone who often ponders how to be a better professional (gotta hide all my judginess in public forums, yo), it’s been bothering me to watch some of the discourse, of late, on assistive technologies.4 Basically, a lot of assistive tech is super unpopular with a lot of instructors and professors. For an excellent example of this sort of crappiness, see the prof at UIUC who not only refused to provide accommodations5 for a student but then emailed the entire class about it—because why stop at denial when you can achieve public humiliation, too?
In any case, I have been running into some unnervingly similar comments in my own life. (I even get to be the Inspirational Disabled Person sometimes!) Now, I totally understand that, say, computers in classrooms are not a drama-free topic (kind of like the 4,000 Patterson novels that are published every year! or what makes it to the top of the NYT Bestseller list!), but it’s one of those things that needs to be discussed with, as it were, one’s professional language, and with the understanding that people are always listening—or, as dear old Aethelwold reminds us, a written thing is rather constant. Put it out there that laptops are the devil’s work and no one should use technology in a classroom as it will make them stupid, and, well, not only will I remember forever (and let’s face it, Slytherins suck at forgiveness), but a whole lot of students are realizing that they can never ask this particular person for help. And that’s a huge problem.
Acquiring safe and non-judgemental readers’ advisory might not be quite as important as finding professors in whom one can confide, but I would certainly argue that it is, indeed, important—and it’s important that the library professional not judge either what’s being read (Patterson ahoy!), or the method of reading (or consuming) said material. Prefer to listen? Excellent! Read only on eReaders? Let’s help you set up Libby6 and Hoopla! We all have our favorite genres, we really, truly do. And that’s fab, and okay, and it’s fab and okay that we have our preferred methods of consuming said genres, whether those are by listening, reading a print book, or utilizing an eReader. (Ironically, I’ve noticed that for the most part, librarians care infinitely less about how people consume literature than the general public. Así es la vida or something, I guess.)
So, in this assortment of obsessive musings, I guess I am trying to say something very simple, and very fundamental: when we are in helping professions (or any profession, really), what we say has a fundamental impact upon those we serve. In a profession such as mine, I need to be safe and available for my patrons, regardless of their literacy level, or their ability to read Cien años de soledad, or their preference for reading erotica on their phones. (I only read my smut on Kindle, personally. Can’t stand that tiny phone screen.) I don’t always assist my patrons in finding books that I personally like. Honestly, readers’ advisory for People Who Read Like Me is very, very rare, and that’s okay. If I can’t do readers’ for people with different tastes than mine, then I am a piss-poor excuse for a librarian, indeed. Honestly, if we the helpers can’t help without making people feel like garbage, then I think we might need to rethink our professions, or at least our commitments to them. Because we’re really not here to make people feel terrible.
1 Or obsession. Anxiety is weird.
2 Emily Knox. “Intellectual Freedom & Censorship,” 4 February 2014. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
3 At home we can do anything we want, up to and including making book arches or book clutches or book art.
4 What the hell is assistive technology? Check these out:
- “Assistive Technology” from PBS
- “What is Assistive Technology?” from the Assistive Technology Industry Association
- “What are some types of assistive devices and how are they used?” from the NIH
- “What are the treatments for learning disabilities?” from the NIH
- “Types of Assistive Technology” from UC Berkeley
- “Tools & Technology” from the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity
- “Software & Assistive Technology” from UMichigan Dyslexia Helps.
5 There’s also an interesting comment from a student who screenshot emails from the prof, including notes he sent in prior terms.
6 Libby is the current Overdrive/Media on Demand platform. It was also named one of the Google App Store’s best apps of 2017, which is pretty darn cool.