Image for post
Image for post
From Travel Between The Pages

The Case of the Unbalanced Librarian

In Australia the divisive public debate resulting from the #marriageequality survey has raised questions regarding the role of the Librarian and the Public Library in actively campaigning in social, and human rights issues. Below is a link to some of the questions being asked and the expectations of some librarians for action — librarians campaigning for what they believe is a human right. Librarians are asking their questions of the representative Industry body Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) and of themselves. Some public views are published on the FAIR website for comment.

Across the globe as human rights are challenged, government surveillance increases and the idea of individual privacy is attacked, librarians are being seen as subversive and as activists on civil, social and human rights matters. The interview with Deidre Conkling, a librarian in Oregon who has spent most of her career working to encourage public libraries to embrace progressive social change, environmental issues, and politics and spurred them to be part of the movements that make those changes possible, puts the case that libraries have never been neutral.

And then there are the radical reference librarians using facts to challenge authority and this role resonates with me, as we, as librarians are committed to promoting the truth — yes evidence — to help communities to make decisions on social justice issues, discriminatory policy and to correct fake news and false facts used to sway public opinion.

Globally there is a call for all libraries to deliver on the United Nations Sustainability Goals (UNSGs) for 2030 and IFLA urges libraries to take action. In Australia ALIA has signed an international agreement with IFLA to take on an advocacy role for libraries as key organisations who deliver on the UNSGs.

The Library Industry also stands up for some fundamental principles:

  1. Freedom can be protected in a democratic society only if individuals have unrestricted access to information and ideas.
  2. The principles of International Law that prohibit discrimination of any kind on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
  3. Respect for the diversity and individuality of all people.

Given these industry tenets this must mean that librarians must stand against policies, actions and laws that negate these fundamental freedoms and principles and need to speak out when these principles are encroached. So where is the professional line? And how do we decide how to be unbalanced?

  1. Equality is not equity: it is very important that librarians realise that treating everyone equally is actually highly discriminatory. Equity recognises that not everyone has the same advantages or the same needs. This is definitely an area for librarians to be unbalanced — recognise that different policies, service levels and opportunities will be required to bring about social and economic change for sections of communities. And advocating for a discriminated section of the community may be one of the roles of the library if there are no advocates, or the community does not have a voice that will be heard. So be unbalanced and unfair in providing equity in your communities, be they school students, towns or academia.
  2. Freedom to read: the free flow of information and ideas is essential to an informed democracy. Any attempt to stifle, censor or silence ideas or access to information and education should be resisted. Librarians are definitely unbalanced on this principle — so much so that some of us have been to prison to defend the right of communities to have the right to read what they want.
  3. Truth : can we handle the role to deliver the truth, which again may negate government propaganda, correct false facts and actively teach people to identify fake news. I think we do, can and excel at delivering the truth to communities and the radical reference librarians display this role beautifully. Remember to take the opportunities to promote truth in your communities.

For me it is also fundamental that we as librarians do not fall into the trap of ‘telling’ people, individuals and communities of interest how to think and what to think. Our role in libraries is to bring about social change by providing opportunities for communities to understand, socialise and know each other — bringing diverse groups together in respectful ways to lessen fear. So by all means actively promote truth, actively decry hate, and ensure our policies and practices and programs promote tolerance, equity, and learning. And be totally unbalanced in the practice of delivering a principled practice of librarianship.

Written by

Librarian, interested in libraries, digital disruption, startups, Australian politics

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store