On Pride, Plagues, and Black Lives Matter – The Life and Death of the Right to Information

scottmontreal. (2012, July 24). AIDS Activists protest private prison Wells Fargo [Digital image]. Retrieved June 07, 2020, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/scottmontreal/7654400724

If one does not learn from history, one is doomed to repeat it. The same goes if one is prevented from learning; and in these days where so much of what is happening afresh looks much the same as it did four to thirty to seventy years ago, I wonder how much of it is due to uncontrollable forces, and how much of lies of the feet of libraries.

You see, in this time of coronavirus and protest against US anti-blackness, in this time of hundreds of thousands of deaths printed upon page upon page in newspapers and videos of white cops knocking an old white man to the ground and fracturing his skull in the process, my relation to it is through the lenses of Trayvon Martin, AIDS, the Stonewall riots, and the Civil Rights Movement. The first taught me the power of protest, the exigencies of the US military industrial complex, and the rendering of various entire populations as expendable; the latter have reinforced that lesson again, and again, and again. I have explored the history of this country and my heritage as a white queer person through both the auspicious lengthiness of various books and the quick and brutal demonstrations of Netflix shows and Tumblr posts; and recent years of continuing such alongside the more formal intellectual pursuits of compiling research papers on queer information behavior has led me to certain undeniable conclusions. One, the field of librarianship is poisonously white. Two, the average library is 95% status quo. Three, anti-blackness, queerphobia, eugenics, and deadly viruses are far more directly observable in their devastating effects; but it is the morass of mainstream information that births, propagates, and raises them from the dead. Put it all together, and you have history textbooks telling you that such and such evil was wiped out long ago, Twitter and company proving otherwise, and libraries putting out statements of vague reassurance with hardly any teeth in between.

So, what are we librarians supposed to do? I see plenty of backlash against racists in the comment sections of Goodreads articles focused on promoting black authors, as well as against transmisogynistic remarks tweeted by famous white authors (great timing, J.K. Rowling, what with Marsha P. Johnson and Black trans women being at the forefront of inaugurating Pride Month and all). I also see clusters of people without masks in main shopping areas in the wake of my county declaring a slight relaxation of quarantine policies, as well as hear white friends tell stories about having to block numerous relations on Facebook for vitriolic and dehumanizing proclamations. There are already anonymous reports of library management choosing not to adhere to promises of quarantined sterilization of returned materials, and the increasing amounts of humanity that protesters have been able to wrest from the antiblack systems around them compete with rumors of insurance companies refusing coverage for COVID-19 contracted during such fights for life. Information as sword, information as shield, information as a disrespected pile of clichés and conspiracy theories. It is less a matter of what is true, and far more one of what is enforced.

The fact that libraries have been limited by necessary mass physical closing and less than necessary firings and furloughing (what happened to yearly budgets and the ‘nonprofit’ part of being a public library?) has only further narrowed the focus to the bare bones of financial survival and a minimum, almost corporate, response to various bigotries. Much as most library workers are doing these days, I worry about being able to get a job in the future; but so long as information is so casually wielded by its supposed guardians, where both plagues and police brutality are allowed to propagate because they will supposedly only affect a reviled section of the population, where people still think that someone’s humanity is a matter of personal opinion, where both libraries and corporations pay lip service to humanity and do not step in until it is far too late, personal financial stability is a distraction. In a capitalistic system, it is the most effective one there is.

Much as it was when I wrote on unions last month, the problem of librarianship that I am concerning myself with here is not anywhere near on the scope of the individual. There is a sizable amount of literature out there on non-neutral librarianship and the active pursuit of racial, queer, and other forms of equity in both the workplace and the law. However, I am more concerned with what methods of preservation of information access, propagation, and maintenance are enacted on the streets and in the communities, where such actions are dictated by ethics, not publish or perish. The next time I interview for a library position, I would like to ask how the library maintained the welfare of its staff and associated workers during the time of quarantine, what was its reaction to protests in their area, and whether it has programs in place that will ensure that those who are most vulnerable to such social upheaval have the resources they need to survive. In the present, I have counseled Black students who look much like those who have involuntarily bequeathed their name to various precepts of law and order. In the past, I have lost huge swathes of an entire generation of elders in my community due to the mass bad faith on the part of mainstream US society. In the future, when such horrors threaten to repeat, I would like to say that I, as a librarian, did something about it. I would like you to be able to say the same.

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