Libraries, politics and social justice

Many years ago, I planned a career as a librarian. It didn’t work out, but I still have a lot of feelings about libraries, library management and politics. I’m delighted to present a guest post by Friend of No Award Heidi, on the myth of the library as an apolitical space.


I’m a currently out-of-work librarian, made redundant by a council who swore they weren’t cost-cutting, but mentioned rate-capping a lot while outsourcing their collections staff and getting rid of me, the systems librarian.

As a staff member of a small, regional Australian public library, I try to follow other librarians around the world, mostly on Twitter, even though they often seem to be able to do stuff that “my library” could never dream of, due either to size, or lack of budget.  Today on Twitter, an incandescently irate librarian friend linked this article:

A woman in North Carolina was arrested (!!) for $10 in unpaid library fines.

By the way, my friend had every right to be incandescently irate, because that is garbage.

Her tweets aren’t threaded, so I’m linking the main ones, but please, check out her tweets because what Cecily is saying is important:

And then there was this:

“Remind me again how libraries are neutral and apolitical?”

And that’s the thing.  Yes, as a profession, librarians tend to (try to be) proud of being politically neutral and unbiased.  We want libraries to be a place where everyone is welcome, and we know that we have obligations to our users.

But our funding sources aren’t apolitical. In the US, increases to library budgets are often voted on by the public, and due to a number of factors, including the public just not understanding library funding, attempts to increase or even maintain current budgets are often rejected.  (Interestingly, the Library Journal reports that library funding measures in this year’s election – yep, that one the USA just had – were more successful than not.)

In Australia, you’re either dealing with the local council or with a library board that is made up of councillors.  And when budgets are being cut, boards and council look for other ways to get the money, one of which is enforcing fines. And enforcing fines is going to disproportionately impact those who a) can least afford it and b) most need libraries.

On top of that, I honestly question whether your average council decision-maker has any idea what libraries do for the community. We recently had council elections in Victoria, and not a single candidate for my council mentioned the library as one of the things they cared about (either positively or negatively). Libraries weren’t even on the radar – although “Council Budgets”, rate-capping, and “Council staff who earn too much money” were mentioned a fair bit.  (Our library is run on a shoestring, btw, and our salaries were well below the state average.)

[Liz: The one time I’ve seen a candidate for a council mention libraries, he was saying that librarians need to “move beyond books and into the digital age”. I sent him a polite email, explaining that the profession in general, and the local libraries in particular, were already on it. He didn’t reply. Nor did he get my vote.]

If the library I used to work for suddenly began enforcing fines, that decision would not be coming from the library staff, it would be coming from council management – who are not librarians.  Back when that library was sort-of run by a library board (we were in a weird situation, don’t ask), the CEO was a non-librarian.

I’m not for a minute saying that librarians don’t make mistakes, or that librarians wouldn’t make a decision to enforce fines.  I’m certainly not saying that having an MLIS makes you an ethical person, or 100% likely to be aware of the social situation of your library users.

[Liz: Oh gosh, one of the reasons I’m not a librarian, aside from being absolutely terrible at answering selection criteria, is because the course I did was run by upper middle class white women who discouraged an interest in public libraries and institutional disadvantage, while claiming to be inclusive. Literally no one I knew who did that course is still working in libraries now — even my old branch manager has moved into another field.]

Good libraries do try to be apolitical.  The problem is that our funding sources aren’t apolitical, and these days, they aren’t controlled by people with any background in the idea of a library as an apolitical space.

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So what can we do? From US librarians I always see a lot of encouragement to get out and vote on bond issues that will affect library funding, but it’s not so easy here.  In Victoria, all local councils have to report yearly on four library-related statistics that are published on a fairly easy to navigate website called “Know your Council”. It’s basically “MySchool” for councils, but it may be somewhat less problematic? Anyway.

One of the factors councils have to report is cost per visit, against “similar councils” and “all councils”.  Checking this gives you a starting point for comparing the funding of your library.  (Cross-council Regional Libraries have to break down these numbers by population.)

The Public Libraries Victoria Network statistics page has more detailed reporting, all available to the public.  These are the facts and figures to use when contacting your council about library funding.

Council budgets have to be made available to the public for submissions prior to being approved: this usually happens in late May to early June.

And if you think you have a councillor who might be convinced to be favourable to your local library, give some advocacy a go.

Oh, and if you have legitimately incurred fines AND are in a position to pay the fines, don’t argue about it with the library staff. They’re really unlikely to be the ones making the decisions.

[Steph says: I used to know someone who viewed her library fines as a donation to her library, and so she paid them willingly and sometimes intentionally forgot to return her books on time.]

[Liz: That person is better than me — I’ve been avoiding a certain library for years because I thought I owed them hundreds of dollars in fines. I finally checked on Monday, and I owe … $21.]

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