Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Human Rights, Democracy & Librarians

As librarians we stand as guardians of knowledge. Anyone can walk through the door and learn. In Chapter 3 of The Portable MLIS we read about how what we do relates to human rights and democracy. To be honest, I was a little unsure on this chapter. It's always said never talk religion or politics, and I thought that we veered into politics a bit here.

A first we saw how librarians were nuetral, doing their job without neccessarily taking a stand on issues raging outside the library walls. However, when the fight began to come to them in the shape of banning books (like The Grapes of Wrath) and more recently with privacy issues including government entities looking for member information as it relates to security, librarians were left with the choice to do nothing or act. Which begs the question, do we, as librarians, have the responsibility to be a voice for human rights and social justice. I have varied thoughts on this.

In terms of banning books, I see it pretty clearly. All books have some sort of value and should be made available to the public. I don't much care if you think Harry Potter might make your child want to be a wizard, in fact I hope it does, becuase that means your child has an active imagination and a desire to read what is really a huge series of books. As a librarian I want to make sure that the public has the ability to gain whatever knowledge they are looking for.

Still, what if the knowledge they are looking for includes bomb building and floorplans for a public building? Yes, they have a right to come in and look. They even have the right to use a meeting room, or study desk or computer. Still, at some point the safety of my community, and their right to a safe environment has to outweigh the right of the individual who is looking to break the law. It's a fine line. I doubt the decision would come easy. There are only two outcomes, break the trust of the individual or break the trust of the community.

This also ties in with another issue, that of prejudice. You can't judge a person who enters the library on looks, race or religion. You have to be ready and willing to assist the public regardless of what they are looking for. This is one area in which librarians chose to take a stand during the civil rights movement. Jim Crow laws in the south still prevented African Americans from using the library, and this directly contridicted what the library stood for. Today the lines are less strictly drawn, but the attitudes and sentiments can still linger. It's up to us to create a safe and inviting environment for all patrons.

I will end with one last thought. The library as a nuetral means that it is a safe haven of sorts, but no place is free from the issues that exist around it. As librarians I think we have to be mindful of the political and social climate, while always remember it's the public we serve.
Haycock, K. & Sheldon, B. E. (Eds.). (2008). The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts. (locations 470-653 ). Westport, CT. Libraries Unlimited

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