Library Ethics part 2

Every week at my internship we have a Round Table for all the Library interns and my two supervisors. We each bring an article, blog post or whatever to share and discuss with the group. This week I shared some info from the Oak Park Public Library Transgender Resource Collection.
Today’s blog is about the discussion we had. A summary of the resources themselves will be coming soon.

To Collect, or not to Collect? That is the Question.

The discussion got away from the materials itself  and instead got focused on the ethics involved in collection development that can sometimes be considered controversial. The question of the separation between our own personal biases and our professional choices was raised.

One point made was that generally this accusation is made about the minority populations rather than the majority. One intern pointed out that when Justice Sotomayor was being confirmed there were many accusations that she would bring to the bench her “personal agenda,” as if every white man who had ever been appointed had been free of all opinions, preconceptions and intents. We all bring ourselves to our work. We can never be totally free of our biases, because another word for bias is passion. I have a passion for increasing awareness of diversity and minority groups. If this is in violation of library ethics, then so is having a passion for early literacy, book groups, or romance novels. In my experience the word “bias” is often only applied to passions that the majority don’t agree with. A choice made that is in keeping with past decisions and favored by the majority is a “professional decision.” A choice made that is a change and is not favored by the majority pushes “a personal agenda.”  A librarian making decisions based on the majority of the community is “serving the community,” whereas a librarian making decisions based on a sometimes silent minority is “judging the community.” This double talk makes me crazy.

Also, frankly, it makes me crazy when those who are in the vast majority of the population get all affronted and loudly offended when they are not in the majority for 5 damn minutes. Feeling uncomfortable because the rest of the room is in favor of adding a Transgender collection and you are not? Try enduring the smug condescending smirks from people as they congratulate themselves on being so ‘open minded’ because they are “tolerant of lifestyles [they] feel are Wrong!” Just in case you were wondering– this statement is an insult that someone has tried to cover in pretty yellow paint. Feeling like by disagreeing with you others are attacking your beliefs? Try having to weigh the pluses and minuses of talking freely about your life in every group of people you ever encounter. EVER. Try knowing that for every person who agrees with you there are 100 who think you are going straight to hell. Think its hard to keep track of one person’s gender pronoun change? Try having the fundamental tenet of your being questioned or confused by every person you come in contact with. It’s, like, so hard being straight, middle class and white, isn’t it? *cue tiny violin*
Moving on.

If you build it they will come.

I grew up close to Dyersville, famous (ish) for the location of the actual “Field of Dreams.” After the movie shoot was finished, the farmer that Hollywood had paid good money for the use of their land re-tilled the baseball diamond and planted corn, just as he had done for years. But people started showing up to the farm and asking where the Field of Dreams was. So the farmer plowed over the corn again and put the baseball diamond back up. Now, during the summer anyone can stop by and participate in the ongoing baseball game that happens. You join the infield or outfield and play as long as you want. Pitchers try to help batters hit rather than strike them out. It’s kind of a cool place actually. And my point is that sometimes if you build it they will come.

As librarians our job is to provide information. Not make judgements about whether that information is needed or wanted. We can’t use the excuse that “there are no patrons here who want transgender resources.” If we build it, they will come. And if they don’t we can always weed down that part of the collection if there is a need for space. But if we don’t build it, we’ll never know if anyone needs it. Our patrons might not know they need it until they come across it.

When I was young, trying to figure out what it meant to be gay in the world and in the conservative community in which I lived, I could really have used some help from the library. But there was no GLBT resource center in my community. “Annie on My Mind” was not on my library shelf. It never even occurred to me to go looking for books with gay characters. It never occurred to me to try to buy them, because I’d have gotten my ass kicked at home. And not knowing what I was missing, it never occurred to me to inquire at my library. It’s also important for libraries to provide access to more than just books. There are many internet sites available now that didn’t exist when I was young. I could have used a place to go and use the internet to watch videos at It Get’s Better, or read stories from I’m From Driftwood. The mere presence of books on the shelf would have made me feel less alone. I’ll venture a guess that the reason there were no gay friendly books or resources was because the librarians in my hometown thought A) the community wouldn’t use them B) the community didn’t want them  C) she didn’t want to push her progressive agenda on the community, and/or D) she didn’t have a progressive agenda. I would have used them. I wanted them. I could have used an advocate. The other side was well represented, believe me.

Library ethics dictate that we don’t allow ourselves be ruled by personal bias, but don’t eliminate our conscience, our passions. It’s good that we let our personal experience affect what we do. That’s part of being a human and not a machine. It’s why we want librarians to make these decisions and not the outcomes of algorithms.

So do we have the right to push our ‘progressive’ agenda on a community that might be resistant to it? My answer is wholeheartedly YES. We don’t have the right to eliminate whole sections from the collection. But adding new subjects of information to the library is never against library ethics. If libraries had waited until all the community was ready to desegregate racial divides, we’d still have separate libraries and horribly offensive books on the shelf. The imposition of opinion onto others is done through omission just as much as through action. Everyone gets to have their own opinion. But you don’t get to impose your opinion on me. I don’t get to eliminate all the Christian books in my library, and you don’t get to eliminate all the Gay books in my library. You can add a special resource section on guns and hunting, and I can add a special resource section on transgender issues.


Coming Soon! — Issues of concern in libraries regarding Transgender patrons, solutions and resources!


4 thoughts on “Library Ethics part 2

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