the ethical librarian

I started writing this post in October of 2010, and it’s an issue that still bothers me today. On a listserve recently there was a pretty brutal backlash against a teen librarian who essentially said he was burning out and that (I paraphrase) “So many teens suck these days and I don’t want to serve them.” Several librarians called him out and mocked him mercilessly on twitter and in other venues, and while it got very heated, I think that ultimately this sort of calling out is justified and, in the long run, can weed out the bad librarians.

And we’ve seen the bad librarians. Hell, sometimes we end up being the bad librarian, if we’re feeling tired or burnt out (I’m looking at you, end of summer reading program) or beaten down by circumstances beyond our control. But there is a big difference between having a bad day or week and being so fundamentally ill-matched to your position that you’ll never have a good day, because you either hate the work itself or you hate the people you’re supposed to be serving.

The institutions are at fault here. Coworkers who don’t call out their peers who are doing a bad job are at fault, and managers who don’t take the time to adequately hire, review, and fire employees if it’s warranted are at fault as well.

(Here is where the original post began.)

A [couple of years] ago I was thinking about ethical courage, conformity, and what it all means for me, my profession, and everyone else–you know, your usual fluffy [end of summer] thoughts.

[After I] listened to This American Life’s The Right to Remain Silent episode, it pissed me off. The first story pissed me off because the guy in it is an obvious moron and jackass, and the second story because the blatant quota pushing by the NYPD went on for so long and so few people spoke out.

Here’s TAL’s synopsis of the cop story:

For 17 months, New York police officer Adrian Schoolcraft recorded himself and his fellow officers on the job, including their supervisors ordering them to do all sorts of things that police aren’t supposed to do. For example, downgrading real crimes into lesser ones, so they wouldn’t show up in the crime statistics and make their precinct look bad. Adrian’s story first appeared as a five part series in the Village Voice, written by Graham Rayman. Schoolcraft’s website looking for other cops to come forward is here.

One of the more infuriating parts was the serial rapist who kept ending up back on the streets because his assaults kept getting downgraded and not reported. Eight or nine–the actual number isn’t known–women were assaulted because of the negligence of the police. No one said anything. Willful ignorance and blatant lying became the norm because people were afraid and, I think, lazy. (As an aside, it is incredibly hard to write this post without using a ton of profanity). Fear is sometimes understandable and sometimes forgivable. Laziness, however? Fuck that shit. (Sorry. You have to give me that one.)

It seems to me that ethical apathy is the new default mode for society. Isn’t that part of how our economy tanked, because no one balked and extending large amounts of credit to people without savings, jobs, or collateral? Didn’t the Gulf Oil spill become so terrible because people cut corners without considering the possible outcomes? And what about those miners in Virginia? Not to mention that poor guy in France getting hit so hard, while the big corporation that encouraged his bad behavior is getting off without any kind of punishment.

How does this relate to libraries and librarians? Well, seeing as all librarians are humans (so far, just wait until that arrow robot starts doing reference), we, just like all other people, have an obligation to each other to speak up when we see injustice, and take action when it is needed. Compared to an oil spill or a mine collapse, speaking out against tiny workplace injustices might not seem worth the effort, but every large catastrophe began as a small problem that, if nipped in the bud, could have stayed a small problem. When we allow small injuries to be left untreated, they will fester and spread until the entire organism is infected.

Once I was waiting for a bus. Near the bus stop, a couple was having a fight. The man kept moving close to the woman, and the woman kept saying things like “Get off of me.” She would walk away, and he would follow. It was around nine at night, dark, and a light rain was starting to fall. I stood under the bus stop shelter, listening to their argument, fretting about whether or not I should call 911. Chances were high that by the time the cops arrived, the couple would be gone, or that they were merely playing. My gut, however, told me that this was serious.

I called 911. I told the dispatcher the location, what was happening, and described the couple. My bus arrived. The couple began moving off. I watched them walking off as I rode away on the bus. Their body language was awful. He kept encroaching on her space and she kept edging away.

I don’t regret making that call. I only regret other calls I didn’t make. I regret all the times when I was growing up that no one noticed what was happening with me and my family. Or, rather, I regret that no one did anything about what they did see, because in retrospect, it’s all terribly obvious that things were not quite right. I lived so many years regretting the help I never got that I became a person who vowed to never let anything else like that happen again if I had any possible way of changing it.

Working with the public, we have many unique and terrifying opportunities to be confronted with problems and injustices that we don’t really want to deal with. We might be committing these injustices ourselves with discriminatory policies and practices. Children’s librarians might become the confidants of young patrons and hear stories about their home lives that they’d rather not hear, and really have very little power to do anything about. We might have to stand idly by while services and materials are denied based on a coworker’s prejudices, because we have no power to do anything else.

In my working life, as a teacher and a librarian, I’ve always made it a point to speak out about things that find wrong, unjust, and unethical. And sometimes–often times–this gets me in trouble. I’ve been escorted out of buildings after exit interviews for accurately using the words “censorship” and “emotional abuse.” I’ve felt sick to my stomach having to accuse parents of abuse. I’ve had to speak sharply to good friends who have told me “Why do you even bother? There’s not point and no chance for you to change anything.” But I’ve done all these things, because it’s the right thing to do. And loyalty to my ethical standards come before any loyalty to an institution or a profession, even one I love as much as I love librarianship.

Even though I love librarianship, I’m mad at libraries. And librarians. I see so many libraries (libraries here meaning specific library cultures) letting shitty librarians continue being shitty. I see teen librarians who hate teens getting to keep their jobs, or even get promoted. I hear from patrons about home libraries who refuse to offer storytimes in the evenings or on the weekends for working families. I see librarians who are too lazy and self important to help someone use the photocopier, or speak up for the user’s experience, who do the same damn thing day after day and year after year because they are too lazy to think of a new program or class or event. I want to be somewhere where it matters if I try; where excellence is expected & rewarded; where the dead weight is cut loose instead of shuffled around.

I’m mad at libraries, because I know they can be better than they are.

When you see bad things go down, document it. Get a witness if you can. To thine own self be true, because you’re all you have. Your identity as a librarian, as a teen librarian, as a professional, all of that can disappear in an instant– and if all that gets taken away, don’t you want to be left with the identity of someone who stood her ground?

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6 thoughts on “the ethical librarian

  1. Truth! There are a great deal of people in library positions where they do a great deal of damage or simply languish, at best. There are a number of reasons for this and we could debate the factors that have resulted in this problem for at least a week. The profession needs more people willing to put it on the line for the people we serve and the services themselves. We need to encourage more bravery and more . . . well . . . rebelliousness in our profession and our culture as a whole.

    Also, I do feel for the guy who posted in Yaac, which is why I tried to post something positive. However, I do feel his actions/inaction is discriminatory . . . to not have any kind of enthusiasm for serving ALL teens means he is missing the point. Sure, we all have our favorite types of teens (I love the freaky artsy kids and geeks, myself); but, that should NEVER result in a person not providing services for the those who aren’t our favorites. We serve ALL people, not just our favorite patrons, not just our favorite age groups, and not just our favorite social strata. I mean, isn’t that the main reason most of us went into this field: to help people . . . ALL people?

    The social cliques rise and fall. The amount of people who self-identify as a jock, geek, nerd, goth, artsy, freak, girly girl (or boy), tomboy, and so on changes all the time. That is normal. It is something we must adapt to, and even anticipate, in order to adequately serve our teens and the public in general. As a result of this, I feel his post would have been better constructed to ask for advice on how to get more of the artsy kids he missed into the library. How to foster an environment that is, once again, a place they enjoy. And more importantly, how to do those things while still being a place for all his other patrons.

  2. […] The post also offers indirect but clear insults to people I am friendly with. The insulted are adults who can handle criticism or mild Internet bullying. However out of loyalty and fairness I want to be direct and point out what I perceive to be a lapse in manners. ( I hesitate to pick a fight and refuse to choose sides, but I am loyal to my friends and I respect Julie enough to take her own advice on speaking up when we witness a perceived wrong.) […]

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