Passivity in Library School

Midway through my first quarter in library school, I sat in class with twenty or so of my classmates and potential future colleagues as they conducted a lively conversation about the lack of gender-neutral bathrooms in libraries, and how that was a disservice to library patrons. While my classmates chattered, I struggled to process my rising frustration with the dialogue currently taking place.

It was not that I disagree with gender-neutral bathrooms replacing single-gender bathrooms in libraries – far from it. It was the performativity that I heard throughout the conversation: this room of mostly cisgender people cheerfully complaining about how backwards their libraries were for still sticking to single-gender bathrooms; all with an underlying sense of self-satisfaction at how progressive they all were, without any evidence of having taken difficult action to back up their words.

Whether or not this was in my own head, I could not stand it. Eventually, I asked that the conversation be turned to library staff.

“Oh, gender-neutral bathrooms for library staff!” the instructor said, misunderstanding. “No,” I said. I wanted to talk about identity and libraries, the ostensible topic of that day’s class. I confessed that reading articles about the whiteness of the library field and about the systemic challenges that librarians of color faced in their profession made me question how I, a woman of color, would be able to advance my career. I feared burnout and eventually having to leave the field, as so many BIPOC had done before me.

The room was silent, and the instructor only said, “Yes…that really is a difficult question,” before the conversation moved on.

At the end of class, I departed for my next lecture, only to have to leave that class to cry in the (single-gender) bathroom.

Beyond the failings of the course and the instructor, and by extension the shortcomings of the program – which could comprise a completely separate article – I was disappointed in the silence of my classmates. Though a few came up to me to speak after the incident in class, the vast majority said nothing then, and said nothing in following weeks. 

In the current sociopolitical climate, I hear a lot of people talking about “having difficult conversations” and “embracing discomfort.” This language encourages people to opt in and take action, but also implies that for people to opt out, an effort in the opposite direction is not necessary. Opting out does not require action, it only needs silence. It only needs passivity.

Passivity is a privilege. Staying passive means not feeling – or at least being able to completely ignore – the visceral burn in your gut when injustice takes place, the leaden lump in your throat when you realize that the system you willingly bought into was never meant for you, or people like you, to succeed within it. In our profession specifically, staying passive can also be tied to vocational awe and the belief that librarianship is an inherently good profession beyond critique.

I don’t feel that I have the option of staying quiet and passive, not when I look the way that I do and move through the world in the way that I do, and certainly not when people are being gunned down in the street or even in their own homes because of the way they look and move through the world. It would be a huge betrayal to everything that has brought me here to this moment and has made my place in the world possible. But I am so tired of hearing my own voice calling out injustice, hoping that someone in the sea of silent faces will understand and speak up.

Library school does not exist in a bubble; it is a microcosm of our future careers as practitioners. Our field, I’ve discovered, is an incredibly small one – I fully expect that many of the people I sat side-by-side with in the classroom (and now, in Zoom rooms) will become my future colleagues. That thought often frightens me because if I couldn’t trust them to speak up for me when we were students, then how can I expect them to speak up for me when we are working together? 

Everyone approaches graduate school from a different place. I recognize my relative privilege in not being a sole caretaker for my family, in not having to balance a full-time job in addition to my studies, and in being able to dedicate so much time and energy to my education. I don’t fault those who have other pressing obligations, and who do not always have the energy to dedicate to endless, emotionally draining conversations in class or with academic administration.

But, I also want to point out that often these people – the ones who are already interacting with library patrons and navigating the explicit and implicit hierarchies within their workplaces, who may be bringing experiences from previous careers – have valuable insights to contribute to our discussions, and which can inform our critiques of current systems. This is particularly true when courses are not taught by current library practitioners.

As I move into the first quarter of my second and final year of library school, I want to encourage readers of this post to consider passivity and how that ultimately hurts our entire profession. We will complete our degrees and venture out into the working professional world, but the library programs that trained us will exist long after we’re gone. Any lasting issues will linger after our departures as well, left for future students to discover and potentially try to address. These students will be the ones following after us into the professional world, and if we do not push our programs to address shortcomings in the curriculum and to encourage critique in the classroom, to push more voices to speak up, then we are doing those students a disservice.

Injustice and inequity thrive on isolation and passivity. I want to keep these conversations going, where we can be reflective and critical of our field and our positions within it. Not because I despise librarianship, but because I believe that it can be better, that we can be better, moving forward into the new year.

3 replies

  1. Thank you for writing this. I am working to encourage my institution to further embrace justice and combat intolerance. I will use this piece to help in that effort.

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  2. Thank you for writing this. This was the reason I left teaching to get into libraries because I kept getting in trouble for calling out problematic things I was seeing as a student-teacher. It’s for that reason that I refuse to be passive in my discussion groups. I force them to have uncomfortable conversations with me and I call out their problematic comments. Change won’t come from staying silent.

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