Monday, April 07, 2008

Social Justice and Public Interest

The fundamental philosophy of public libraries in the United States, starting with the Library Bill of Rights, has consistently maintained that libraries are for everyone, “regardless of country of origin, age, background, or views.”

~Library Bill of Rights, American Library Association, Adopted June 18, 1948

Since the very beginning of Public Library services in the United States, we have debated about how to best serve our diverse communities. After more than a century, the debate continues. As natural community centers and believers in intellectual freedom, libraries and librarians have been obvious defenders of social justice.

Critics of outreach to the underserved often put heavy pressure on library decision-makers. According to those who, for example, oppose library services for immigrants, linguistically relevant collections and cultural programming causes a drain on traditional library services and is a misuse of taxpayer’s money. When you have an exclusively elite (white, middle/upper-class) group in power of the allocating and advocating of library funds, certain voices will most likely be left out. These are the voices of the underserved, the poor and disadvantaged.

Not only are libraries under the elicit power of an elite group within the library, but they are also receiving intense pressure from an array of diverse stakeholders from outside the library.
An example of anti-immigrant groups pressuring libraries played out recently in Denver. In 2005, members of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform wrote a letter to the Director of the Denver Public Library, Rick Ashton, demanding his resignation. Reasons for their demand included the library’s possession of Mexican foto-novelas, sending librarians to Guadalajara to purchase materials in Spanish, for being a member of the National REFORMA organization that caters to Spanish-speakers, and for holding community forums to discuss outreach services to support their changing demographics. The letter accused Ashton of squandering public funds, duplicitously undermining their otherwise excellent English-language library system and accommodating “illegal aliens” at taxpayers' expense. (About 35% of Denver’s population is Hispanic. About 55% of the Denver Public School population is Hispanic.)(Quintero, 2005).

In response to situations like those outlined above, advocates across the country who support freedom of knowledge (especially those who advocate for library services for Latinos) have organized, prepared resolutions, and coordinated concerted efforts to guarantee equity of service. A leader in this work has been REFORMA, The Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-speaking. REFORMA has dedicated a section of their website to resources and official public statements concerning immigrants and the Spanish-speaking. ( ) In April 2006, REFORMA approved a resolution opposing H.R. 4437, stating that “REFORMA will encourage library workers to act as advocates for the education of undocumented immigrants about their human rights.” REFORMA members also developed a “Librarian’s Toolkit for Responding Effectively to Anti-Immigrant Sentiment” and signed on to the White Ribbon “Campaign for Dialogue”, an expression of support for meaningful conversations about immigration reform. The American Library Association and REFORMA both have agreements with the AMBAC (Asociación Mexicana de Bibliotecarios, AC), the Mexican national library association, to share information and opportunities.

Other efforts have been coordinated nationwide by librarians and by those who support libraries. For example, the Suffolk Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee presented “Breaking Down the Walls: Making Your Library a Community Cultural Center,” a symposium that discussed ways of serving immigrants including library cards for illegal residents. National library conferences, such as the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color (JCLC) and the American Library Association Annual Conference, have hosted programs to discuss the topic. In June 2007, Web junction hosted the webinar “
Effectively Dealing with Anti-Immigrant Sentiment.” Speakers discussed how libraries can develop effective strategies for ensuring access to information to all people in their communities. Leaders of the library world led a live-nationwide discussion about the topic for and by librarians. Topics included advocacy, federal legislation, issues and options for academic, public, and school libraries. (García-Febo, 2007)

Another initiative that promotes library services to immigrants is “The American Dream Starts @ Your Library” project sponsored by ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services. This program offers mini-grants to libraries across the nation that wish to improve and expand adult literacy services to English-language learners.

The American Library Association identifies Equity of Access as one of the guiding principles for investment of energies and resources: “The Association advocates funding and policies that support libraries as great democratic institutions, serving people of every age, income level, location, ethnicity, or physical ability, and providing the full range of information resources needed to live, learn, govern, and work.” (Ramírez Wohlmuth, de la Peña-McCook, 2004)

During January 2007, ALA passed a Resolution in Support of Immigrant Rights stating that, “ALA strongly supports the protection of each person’s civil liberties regardless of that individual’s nationality, residency, or status; and be it further resolved that ALA opposes any legislation that infringes on the rights of anyone in the USA (citizen or otherwise) to use library resources on national, state, and local levels.”

But why does this matter? Why do we need to serve the underserved, the poor and the disadvantaged? As my ex supervisor, Patrick Jones, once said, Outreach to underserved communities matters because “the ability of the public library to remain indispensable in the eyes of society depends upon our ability to serve those who need us most.” And since the golden rule of libraries is to serve our community, we would be breaking our moral contract with our communities of we denied services to certain members.

But, even after writing all of this and wanting to believe that librarians are of course warriors of social justice, I hear the echo of Sandy Berman in my head and I can't help but pause and wonder...

Whether intended or not, are we "disseminating only white, middle-class cultural values?" Is there a huge gap between everything mentioned above that ALA claims to be doing to defend intellectual freedom and the reality of how libraries actually work? Are we truly walking the walk or only talking the talk?

Is there, as Samek suggested, a "deliberate but subtle use of force by an entrenched hegemony to maintain its grip"?

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