Editorial: “Staying Safe” is not an ption by Deborah Rinio
There are times when I feel like we live in an educational system that is broken. The
values we uphold as librarians – intellectual freedom, diversity of the human
experience, the value of truth and knowledge – seem to exist only in our own library
bubble, while our society undermines these ideals with lies, half-truths, hypocritical
legislation, and the inability to work together.
In our local schools and districts, parents challenge these ideals when they question
our collections. Teachers challenge these ideals when they fail to seek out and
expose their students to diverse opinions. Administrators challenge these ideals when
they fail to support the librarian who encourages students to engage in inquiry that
tackles controversial issues.
It’s tempting to disassociate oneself from these issues and wrap yourself in the
comfort of the day to day. To buy books, read to children, teaching the basics but
never delve deep. It’s tempting to ignore the political debates, to avoid the school
board meetings and the advisory councils, and stay safely hidden in the library. It’s
tempting to “stay neutral.” But is it possible?
Meredith Farkas wrote that”neutrality is not only unachievable, it is harmful to
oppressed groups in our society." Sometimes it seems like everything is a and it’s just too hard a hill to climb. Sometimes it is tempting to sit back and do our jobs and tell
ourselves this “isn’t my battle, I did my job.” But when that means allowing others to
censor, to restrict access, to deny truth, then staying silent – just doing your “job” –
isn’t being neutral, it’s being complicit.
If you’re a librarian, your job is to protect the freedom to read, to ensure equity of
access, to celebrate diversity. If you’re a librarian, you can’t stay silent in the face of
the inequalities we live with daily in our schools and our homes because they fly in
the face of the philosophical underpinnings of our profession.
At the 2017 ALA midwinter opening, W. Kamau Bell talked about finding a place of
hope in a time and place that doesn’t seem right. He talked about feeling lost and
out of place, but taking that kernel of hope and using it to be strong, using it to find
his place in that moment of fear and uncertainty. He talked about the importance of
exposure to new ideas through literature and the power of words. He talked about
how we cannot stand by and let hate and bigotry and intolerance be normalized.
It’s easy within the safety net of our libraries to view our work as apolitical. To view
service, teaching, and curating as something that holds no political value and could
have no opponents. And yet, every year libraries have ballot measures voted down,
they close because cities stop funding them, they remove books from their shelves
because of local challenges. Although these are both fiscal and ideological issues, they share in common the fact that decisions are being made that affect the patrons
and students in our communities. Defunding the school library or removing the librarian is not about saving money, it’s an act of inequality; it denies access to students who need computers and printers and books. It removes the ability for them to get instruction on how to effectively and safely engage with our information–rich society.
We must speak up when we see inequality of access, inequality of instruction, or lack of
freedom. We must speak up when we see hatred and intolerance normalized. We
must speak up when we see our students underprepared for what follows. We must
advocate for our students, teachers, and community.
W. Kamau Bell suggested that to do this effectively, we must find the kernel of hope
in the hopeless situation. When everything seems to be going against us, we must
find the one thing that keeps us going. I suggest that when it comes to our school
libraries, that kernel of hope is that fact that, as Lyndon Johnson said when he
signed the 1965 Elementary & Secondary Education Act “Education is the only valid passport from poverty… we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than five million educationally deprived children. We put into the hands of our youth more than 30 million new books, and into many of our schools their first libraries.”
Now, with the Every Student Succeeds Act, we once again have a chance to integrate
libraries into our state laws and local district implementation plans. Right now, it
may be just a kernel of hope, but it’s one small piece we can hold onto as we
continue to do the good work that we do everyday. But remember, we cannot sit idly
by while our students have unequal access to resource and professionally trained
staff. We must tell our superintendents, school boards, legislators, and state ESSA
implementation team that equality in our schools in the form of libraries with
certified librarians is critical. We can’t stay in our safe spaces if we want to uphold our profession. We must venture out into often scary terrain, but at least we can do it together.