A street sign labeled "right" and "wrong" with arrows pointing in opposite directions.

The curious case of free-speech-loving librarians who don’t think the Toronto Public Library should provide space for Meghan Murphy: Part Two

No comments

Meghan Murphy will be appearing at the Toronto Public Library’s Palmerston branch on October 29, despite outcries from the local trans and non-conforming community. To the disappointment of many librarians I know, multiple library associations (CFLA, CULC) have written letters in support of Vickery Bowles’ reverse-rationalized commitment to a principle of intellectual freedom over all other values and considerations.

In part one I discussed librarianship’s core values as a system (more than intellectual freedom alone) that has always been a little fluid and has often clashed internally.

In this part I will outline a particular shift in values that seems to be taking place in the profession. It is a shift that is complete in one sense, but not universally-recognized in another, and it is a shift that has come to odds with progressive librarianship in this situation.

From Missouri to Utah, with stops in between

Let’s begin with an exploration of recent Library Lore. In 2014, Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The news that Wilson would not face charges sparked two months of riots in the town. Business were burned. At times, schools were closed. An NPR article described the local library, which stayed open during the crisis, as a “quiet refuge.” In response to the tumult outside, Wilson wrote out a sign and put it on the door: “During difficult times, the library is a quiet oasis where we can catch our breath, learn, and think about what to do next.”

Later, Bonner said “the public doesn’t really understand our mission…we are an institution that supports the community.”

More recently, Emilio Estevez’s film, The Public, presented a fictionalized account of homeless people taking over the main library in Cincinnati during an intense cold snap. The story was loosely based on an essay by former Salt Lake City librarian Chip Ward, who illuminated his library’s function as a homeless shelter during the day due to the lack of other available support for vulnerable people. His essay trains a mirror on a society that aggressively cuts social programs and assistance, leaving the public library as one of the retreats of last resort. Ward is candid about the challenges created by the situation, but he empathizes deeply with the people who need the library’s help:

Imagine the degradation of waiting an hour in the cold rain to get into a soup kitchen for a meal; the hassle of hunting endlessly for an unpoliced spot to sleep; the constant fear of being robbed or attacked by other street people; or the indignity of defecating in a vacant lot. It’s a combination that would probably drive a mentally healthy person to psychosis and substance abuse.

Chip Ward, What They Didn’t Teach Us In Library School

The Salt Lake City library served as a solace from these conditions, and Ward’s essay is dated 2007. The idea of libraries as a welcoming community space for the vulnerable is not new at all.

Both of the previous examples are in the American context, but there are Canadian ones as well: for example, the Edmonton Public Library employs three social workers at its downtown branch who build and sustain relationships with the homeless and other marginalized people who frequent the space. And Winnipeg’s Millenium library (which also employs crisis workers, incidentally) has come under fire for implementing mandatory bag checks and metal detectors at its entrances in February 2019: these checks are barriers to access for vulnerable people who may be fearful of security, or may not enter the building for fear of having critical belongings confiscated.

For at least a decade and a half, libraries have been taking about the concept of the library as a place. I have paywalled articles dating to 2004 and 2006, but here are two recent examples of the ongoing discussion. The early 2000s were the time when libraries began to move books out of their front entrances, creating communal spaces for conversation and programs for everything from childhood literacy and English as a Second Language classes to tax filing support and resume preparation. Of course, none of this happened in a vacuum. Libraries exist within a larger cultural context that (as Chip Ward outlined) does not tend to lavish resources on social programs, and libraries are increasingly relied upon to provide services that are not available elsewhere. And while it is not uncommon to talk about how libraries build community, let’s not pat ourselves on the back too firmly: the focus in this discussion is often a defence of library funding for the sake of economic impact. This Urban Libraries Council article [web archive] gushes about how libraries improve “human, physical and community capacity” in its byline, but the text is all about jobs and prosperity: the main bullet points tout literacy programs, career resources and small business supports.

Regardless of its neoliberal underpinnings, the New Role of libraries as a community space has taken deep root, and you would be hard-pressed to find a public library in North America that does not claim community engagement and support as a core principle. In fact, you could suggest that this “new” value has moved beyond entrenchment to the point of fetish. Due to the paperback release of a Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People (also celebrated in an episode of 99% Invisible), I was forwarded two articles by colleagues in the past week: an article from the National Endowment for the Humanities discusses the library as critical social infrastructure; and a Literary Hub piece wonders why civic leaders fail to fund institutions that selflessly celebrate inclusivity and abolish loneliness. Both of the articles provide examples–some from Klinenberg’s book and some from personal recollections of the authors–that highlight the value of the library as a community space. Librarians are more than happy to blush over them, fawn over them, and share them. They are less happy to deal meaningfully with what happens when a desire to be a “community space” creates conflicts between different members of the community, or between different understandings of what is welcoming. [Though I risk veering off topic here, I do feel the need to nod at Fobazi Ettarh’s Vocational Awe article, which tackles the idea of librarianship as a “sacred calling” head-on. To bring us back into focus, though, you should also see her post about the Toronto Public Library situation]

From community to social justice

As a result of the desire to understand how community needs balance with other values, it was inevitable that the conversation about the appropriate use of library space would eventually run parallel to the conversation about how library spaces should look and feel. After all, when you are talking about making a space that is welcoming to everyone (animating the core values of access and diversity), you need to think about what “welcome” looks like and you need to think very carefully about who is and is not traditionally welcome in public spaces. It was only a matter of time, in other words, before “community building” discourse in librarianship would turn into a discussion of inclusion, safety, and social justice (or, the principle of equity for all).

I’m going to draw quite heavily on a book chapter by Rachel Wexelbaum (2016), because she draws a very clean line from the ideal of libraries as safe spaces for books to libraries as safe spaces for people and communities. Wexelbaum points out that “safe spaces” date back (at least) to the civil rights movement, but specifically notes the creation of LGBTQ safe spaces in beginning in the 1990s (here, she cites Poynter & Tubbs [paywalled article]). More important to our larger discussion of values, though, she emphasizes the role of diversity in librarianship by highlighting the work of Josephine Adams Rathbone. Rathbone proposed a code of ethics for librarians that emphasized friendliness and acceptance of diversity in 1930 (nine years before the American Library Association adopted its first code of ethics).

Wexelbaum is one example; there are many, but I’ll offer another two. In 2012, Sarah Hashemi Scott asserted that library staff and policies should reflect the local community with an emphasis on inclusion, and that we must always consider who “loses” when, for example, we shift to new resource types like eBooks. And less than two weeks ago, Alice G. Smith gave a talk called Social Justice is a Library Issue; Libraries are a Social Justice Issue, which explicitly links issues of equity and social justice to the core value of diversity. Her argument is simple: diversity implies that everyone feels included, and a great way to help people feel included is to provide them with a space where they feel safe. Both Wexelbaum and Smith discuss the queer community, and their use of the library as a safe space, at length. This is the “new” shift in library values that I mentioned in my introduction.

If you take some time to look at Wexelbaum’s work (it’s worth it, I promise) you’ll note that she interprets two of our field’s codes of ethics (ALA and IFLA) to include the provision of safe spaces. You’ll also note that, through examples of censorship in collections, internet access, and ongoing discrimination and harassment in library spaces, she asserts we still have a long way to go. I think Alice Smith feels the same way, but her talk ends with several great suggestions on how the work can and should be done.

All of this discussion suggests a couple of things: first, that the idea of libraries as a safe space (even as an interpretation of “diversity”) is not as widely-held as some would like; and second, that there appears to be active resistance to the idea from people in the profession who operate from previously-established patterns.

The tide has changed

As at least one other person has noted (Sam Popowich’s eloquence makes me swoon), the core values of librarianship seem to be shifting, so I’m not exactly prophetic about this. When I look back at all the examples of the proposed (or enacted) shift that I’ve provided in this post, however, I see a pattern related to the types of leaders that are promoting the change: librarians who are largely female-identified, and largely of colour. It’s hardly a scientific analysis, but it stands in stark contrast to the demographic of the Defenders of Free Speech I highlighted at the top of part one. Like the microcosm of the Meghan Murphy issue, we seem to be in a situation where previous ideas are being vigorously defended because the people who hold them — like Vickery Bowles — feel that their values are under threat.

I do not write this to shame Vickery Bowles or old white guys in general (after all, I am one… or, at least, an old white gay), but to point out that it’s the non-default, non-normative perspective that makes change possible because it calls the default into question. In her talk, Smith suggests that people in positions of power should recognize that position and use it for good; that we must interrogate and reflect on our own implicit biases and reflect on how they inform our decision-making; and that we must understand that our words and deeds can hurt people in ways we take for granted. Excluded and stigmatized people see these things by default; the rest of us need a bit more introspection.

It’s still a mistake

I was asked by someone on Twitter who read part one whether I could consider that intellectual freedom should subordinate all other library values. In theory, I don’t hate the idea. After all: you can’t have diversity without freedom of expression; or access, or democracy. But subordination is not exclusion (setting aside the fact that I still think the Toronto Public Library has abused its own policy), and when I weigh other factors related to this situation (community impact and the sense of the Toronto Public Library as an inclusive and safe space) the net benefit is still negative. There were many other possible solutions to this challenge that the Toronto Public Library ignored for the sake of dogmatic stubbornness, and that’s a real shame.

The context of the Toronto trans, non-conforming, queer and intersectional community is especially notable here. This is the city where a fast food restaurant with a well-known anti-LGBT history opened its first Canadian location 400 metres away from the village where Canada’s largest queer community gathers; the city of a serial killer who targeted gay men of colour while the Toronto Police ignored the community’s insistence that something terrible was happening; the heart of Black Lives Matter’s demand for more inclusivity in queer and BIPOC spaces; the city with a history of tense relationships between the LGBTQ community and police. This community remains marginalized and is under threat. Safe spaces like the Toronto Public Library matter, and the context in this situation matters very deeply. None of this was taken into account when the decision was made to allow Murphy to use Toronto Public Library space.

If this were a discussion of balancing the safety of trans and non-conforming folk with the comfort of people who are being asked to adjust to all-gender facilities and new approaches to how libraries operate, it could be held respectfully. I believe that. But this is not that discussion. When your staff, your community, and people you collaborate with are all telling you that the words and rhetoric Meghan Murphy hides behind to back her position on an issue are hurtful, and that her presence makes them all feel unwelcome, you must listen. They are telling you that they don’t feel safe or included, and the safety and inclusion of our most vulnerable community members must be taken into very serious account. Sadly, the effect of this event and its aftermath has corrupted the safe space that the Toronto Public Library purports to provide, and the effect will reverberate for a long time to come. It’s already being felt: I have a friend who works as a book publicist, and she says that she’s spending her days right now dealing with authors’ requests to pull out of Toronto Public Library events in support of the trans and non-gender-conforming community.

The “old guard” of librarianship now stands firmly-rooted in the door of the public library, presuming to know best while the city in front of them and the building behind them are shifting beneath the doorframe. I sincerely doubt that Vickery Bowles understands the pain and ongoing trauma of intentional misgendering and deadnaming; at least that is the logic I apply when I try to understand the chasm between people who see Murphy’s speech as hateful and those who don’t. People who have viewed Meghan Murphy’s videos and claimed that there is nothing hateful in them are also, I suspect, unfamiliar with the violence that this malicious erasure causes. But here’s the bottom line for me: it is hate speech because it denies the very existence of an entire community. That is not a “discussion” at all.

Twitter removed Meghan Murphy’s account because they qualify intentional misgendering and deadnaming as hateful conduct. Twitter’s policy reflects this because they listened to their community. We should expect no less of our public institutions.