Is it something to do with the current times …?

I’ve been to a couple of meetings recently where people (who, in my view, should have known better!) have told me that social justice has nothing to do with public libraries – or that public libraries do not have anything to contribute to social justice.

One of them suggested that libraries needed to focus on their “core” service (which, when pressed, he said was book lending and increasing borrower numbers and loans), and that anything else was less important.

Isn’t this a strange argument? I have never quite grasped how someone can differentiate in this way between “core” and non-core services, or why, indeed, this core shouldn’t include social justice.

It would be terrific if a real argument grew up in favour of putting our social justice work at the “core” – and we moved away from seeing libraries in such an old-fashioned way (as I told him!!)

Seriously, this mode of thinking seems to be on the increase, and, as funding for public libraries becomes ever more threatened, there are more & more calls for a return to “basics” – a real danger to community-based approaches, for example.

How do we get the thinking about/understanding of libraries to change?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Is it something to do with the current times …?

  1. willimen

    I wonder since austerity has started to kick in, or is contemplated in different contexts, if librarians are fearful of taking a stance around social justice issues or acting in their roles as librarians from a social justice perspective – since they feel it may be implied that if they take a stance it will be viewed as a political stance? Are librarians afraid that they may not be viewed as being apolitical?

    Also, could part of the issue also be that as librarians we are taught that the materials we assist community in selecting (or we select for them) is a neutral process. Librarians view their role in the information process as neutral (and thus want to revert to what they view as a core service activity – selecting, sorting and retrieving books); although, I would argue in reality there is no way to be completely objective in this activity… it very nature implies subjectivity…

  2. BL

    I do think that many public librarians as well as other professional public workers, at least in the US, are fearful of appearing “political” or controversial in any way. The fear may be justified because they very well could lose a job or even become “unhireable” if they are too outspoken in pushing a ground-up or social justice agenda. True social justice work may mean actually empowering the poor, people of color, people who are incarcerated, all people not merely the few that currently control the agenda by dumbing us all down. We librarians, especially those of us that work with the public, are in a unique position to reach many an ordinary citizen and facilitate true knowledge growth and change. It should be our new principle of operation. It should add value to what we do and make us proud of what we do. The traditional paradigm of neutral material selection, cataloging, reference, etc. is not going to sustain what appears to be a sputtering profession, at least in these parts. We need to be a profession that empowers communities and fosters positive change. It would be great if we could find a way to do this without sacrificing our jobs or appear to undermining the often top-down approach of many of the institutions that we are employed by.

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