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As a sophomore in college, kynita stringer-stanback read Audre Lorde's groundbreaking book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and nothing was ever the same.
"It completely revolutionized my life," says stringer-stanback, a queer, Black, gender-variant librarian from North Carolina. "It set me on a path to self-discovery, which eventually led me, a decade later, to pursue the career that [Lorde] left… There's no discussion about why she left librarianship. But if it's anything like what I've dealt with, I understand."
Having worked in both public and university libraries for over twenty years, stringer-stanback, whose preferred pronoun is Blaq ("embodying Blackness and Queerness"), says it is a struggle being a queer Black librarian in this country, especially in the South. "[At] every job that I've ever had, I am usually the only Black person in my department. And recently, what I have found is that I'm usually the only person of color who is gender nonconforming in the entire organization."
Like most idealistic librarians, stringer-stanback entered the profession in part to spread knowledge to help make a better world. But the lack of racial and gender diversity in the field and an unwillingness of white and cisgender people to share power within library institutions has meant enduring repeated unfair treatment from colleagues and management, things large and small, from microaggressions to more overt discrimination.
At stringer-stanback's first library job, a colleague used the "N-word" while describing a situation, prompting stringer-stanback to complain to a supervisor, only to be told "I was being too sensitive."
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I heard a number of other such accounts among the more than a dozen Southern library workers I spoke to for this piece, people from the Carolinas to Louisiana. Only a handful of them were willing to go on the record for fear of retaliation or worse, underscoring the culture of fear in the industry and the gap between library leadership's inclusive rhetoric and the reality for BIPOC workers on the ground.
Public library staff members are city or county employees. They typically sign agreements that forbid them from speaking ill of the governments for which they work.
Meanwhile, budget cuts perpetually loom. During the New Orleans December runoff elections for district attorney and other government officials, the city council proposed a ballot measure to cut the public library's budget by 40 percent, which was voted down after a strong community effort to get out the vote. With job security dwindling, and furloughs and layoffs imminent, many library staff fear rocking the boat even more.
In September, the Trump administration also undermined more progressive politics in libraries by issuing the highly controversial Executive Order 13950 on "Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping," which critics argue does just the opposite. The Order applies to federal employees and federal grant recipients, condemning those promoting "the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country," among other measures. The American Library Association roundly rejected the measure, likening it to McCarthyism and noting that "some colleges and universities [are] suspending all diversity trainings and canceling cultural celebrations for fear of losing federal funds."
Research libraries at universities, which are often federal contractors funded by grants, would also be muzzled by the Order. The African American Policy Forum hosted a panel on the impact of "Trump's Equity Gag Order" with several Black academics, among them Carol Anderson, professor at Emory University and author of White Rage, who said, "When you have really bad historical narratives you're able to justify really bad policies in housing, in health care, in education, in the criminal justice system based on those false narratives."
It remains to be seen whether President-Elect Biden will roll this policy back.
Since the desegregation of U.S. libraries in the 1960s, many librarians have positioned their institutions as politically "neutral," a place welcome to all, even as BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ librarians have criticized the notion of "neutrality" as tantamount to being "white" and "heteronormative" in practice.
The public rarely sees the many processes that happen behind the scenes at libraries—which cultural priorities inform decisions of what to include in a collection, or to digitize; which books to display; which films or speakers wind up on the calendar—all of these choices are determined by the priorities designated by the library leadership. And, of course, their biases play a part.
The American Library Association, the largest and oldest library association in the world, has heard this message and repeatedly discussed the need to diversify staff, programming, and collections. To bring more equity and inclusion, libraries have attempted to move in this direction, too. At the same time, the association has found itself doing damage control for one controversy after another.
In the name of "free speech absolutism," the ALA amended its policy to support library services for hate groups, only to walk back the policy after librarians pushed back. Another alarming incident happened at an ALA meeting two years ago, in which a white ALA Councilor "verbally attacked" April Hathcock, a prominent Black librarian and fellow Councilor. No one in the room intervened. Hathcock wrote on her blog, "I ran to my room to curl into a ball and cry in terror." Only after a social media outcry did the white male Councilor resign, and the organization apologize, promising to strengthen its code of conduct complaint process and make other institutional changes.
These incidents raised doubt among some librarians when the ALA released a statement in support of Black Lives Matter in June. The statement came nine days after the Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, when virtually every institution in the country was forced to take a hard look at their practices amid widespread social unrest.
The statement called for a "plan for action" to train library staff to "center the voices and experiences of Black library workers, the Black community, support the broader Black Lives Matter movement, fight against police violence, and help the cause of racial justice." A few days later, the organization's new president, Julius C. Jefferson, a Black librarian, wrote, "Racial animus and a pandemic make a perfect storm for a revolution."
This set a new tone. As the ALA has roughly 57,000 members, when the organization issues a decree, institutional changes—or attempts at change—follow. Anti-racist reading lists, discussions on whiteness, and other racial equity programming proliferated in virtually every library system in America. Georgia Tech created a Black Lives Matter reading room. All of these ideas were applauded by anti-racist librarians, but some are asking how this "revolution" will be carried out given the constraints built into these institutions.
What sorts of substantial changes are possible, especially in the South, where the struggle is harder fought?
Seizing on this moment, "abolitionist" librarians sought to articulate a concrete proposal with teeth. The Library Freedom Project (LFP), a national privacy-focused organization that provides trainings and resources to librarians, published a proposal in June arguing that "police and their surveillance technologies do not belong in libraries" because "they inhibit our ability to promote our values of intellectual freedom, privacy, and access." The piece further explained that calling the police to deal with conflicts often endangers "our most vulnerable patrons" who are often targeted by the police, and instead encouraged libraries to "form partnerships with community organizations that specialize in restorative justice, public health, and support for marginalized communities."
Many of the librarians I spoke to agree with this position, but it's unimaginable for the ALA to take that side themselves. The ALA isn't a worker's union. It's an association that includes everyone from paraprofessionals to directors of large systems. Several people told me that as library workers, they didn't feel represented by the organization—far from it. The ALA, they say, represents the interests of middle management and upper management, and it is cozy with governments from the federal level down. When push comes to shove, they say, those interests win out.
And still, despite the odds, librarians are asserting their rights and pushing the envelope to make their institutions live up to their stated core values. Last year, when the ALA allowed the Central Intelligence Agency to have a recruitment table at their annual convention, a group of librarians protested, dressed in orange jumpsuits with black hoods over their heads to point out the CIA's role in torturing detainees in Guantánamo Bay.
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In March of this year, after the governor of Louisiana shut down the schools statewide but the New Orleans Public Library director refused to follow suit with the 15 branches under his watch, library workers started petitions—both internally and for the public—pressuring the director to shut the place down. A comic was anonymously released online that outlines the entire saga, which alleges the executive director broke the law by violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. Also this year, after a group called Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia publicized workplace racial discrimination, the director of the Philadelphia public library stepped down.
It is perhaps telling that in this polarized moment, even mild positions in the South are met with backlash or worse. After one of the branches of the system that serves Columbia, South Carolina posted signage in support of Black Lives Matter, a conservative blog responded by denouncing "narrow-minded 'social justices' warriors" while parroting "All Lives Matter" talking points. In Safety Harbor, Florida, the city council unanimously voted to post BLM signage on the public library and city council buildings, only to reverse course a week later and vote to remove them, caving to pressure from a social media backlash.
Most of the librarians I spoke to were of two minds: the vision of what they hope the library to become and what they can achieve right now.
Carter Cue, an African American librarian working at the Stanford L. Warren branch library in Durham, North Carolina, has been in the trenches of librarianship since 1992. Stanford L. Warren served the Black community from a church basement during the Jim Crow era, later obtaining its own building and integrating into the Durham County system. It continues to primarily serve Black communities today. "Our whole legacy is about Black Lives Matter," Cue says. "We never had to make a public pronouncement. It was just something that we did."
Cue affirms anti-racism work in libraries and thinks the question of barring the police from libraries is a worthy discussion. He spends much of his time working on increasing literacy and access to education in the library's community. Though such efforts are not mutually exclusive, the time horizons and levels of resistance are different.
Cue says he looks to history for inspiration for his work, to African American librarians like E.J. Josey, Robert Wedgeworth, and Clara Stanton Jones, who blazed a path for librarians like him. "It's very difficult for people to really have a very clear perspective on the future," Cue says, "if you have not really taken the time to understand your history."
Libraries can serve as critical institutions for historical truth-telling. "I want us who are part of the educational structure in this nation to really start reading and interrogating the historicity of our nation, within context," stringer-stanback says. "And we need to really—especially and specifically in the south—really examine the racist terrorism that black people have been subjected to generation, after generation, after generation, after generation, after generation."