Librarians Across America Are Using Their Powers For Political Good

Whether it’s community organizing or battling untruth, they do far more than just shelve books.
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When he was coming out in college, Martin Garnar found solace in his campus library, where he read affirming stories about and by LGBTQ people.

“I knew I wasn’t alone,” he told The Huffington Post in an interview. “Everyone wants to see themselves reflected in their library, and the library should represent all members of its community.”

Today, he looks back on his own positive experience with libraries, which influences the choices he makes as the dean of the library at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and as president of the Freedom to Read Foundation.

In the 20 years he’s spent working as a librarian, he says his goal has always been the same: “to help people change their lives through access to timely, relevant information.”

But the day-to-day of that goal is in constant flux, for Garnar and others. For some libraries, serving the community means hiring a social worker who can assist the homeless population; for others, providing internet access to visitors who wouldn’t have it otherwise is key. And, since Donald Trump was elected president, issues such as the distribution and validation of fake news have grown in importance for librarians, who are uniquely poised to combat it.

Peter Coyl of the American Librarian Association.
Peter Coyl of the American Librarian Association.
DeAndrew Upshaw

In his role at the Freedom to Read Foundation, Garnar supports legal cases in which the First Amendment is being challenged ― be it by liberals or conservatives.

“The current administration’s early stances on civil liberties are troubling,” he said. “There are indications that they would support changes that could curtail free expression, whether it’s ending net neutrality or changing libel laws to make it easier to sue someone for saying unpleasant but true things about you.”

“We feel it’s important to model the kind of civil dialogue we wish we saw more of in our larger society.”

- Martin Garnar, Freedom to Read Foundation President

Battling this means more than providing amicus briefs for First Amendment cases. The organization also aims to offer educational materials about free expression, through webinars and scholarships.

Garnar counts fostering a welcoming space for trans library visitors as another one of his chief responsibilities.

“For the trans community, it’s important to find that same kind of welcoming experience,” he said. “This not only includes having books and other materials representing the breadth of the trans experience, but offering the full range of library services to this community. It can be as simple as putting your preferred pronouns on your name tag or in your email signature.”

To this end, he hosts a series at his college called Just Talk, where students are invited to openly discuss equity and diversity.

“Libraries have long been known as a place where everyone is welcome and where no topic should be off limits for researchers, so we feel that the library is the perfect place to host discussions on topics that can be difficult to broach,” Garnar said. “We also feel it’s important to model the kind of civil dialogue we wish we saw more of in our larger society, and we think students need opportunities to learn how to engage with people with whom they disagree so that they can begin to find common ground to address today’s issues.”

Garnar isn’t alone in feeling that his job as a librarian puts him in a position to create a space where disenfranchised groups are welcome, and where topics related to contemporary political issues can be discussed openly and truthfully.

The President of the American Librarian Association, Julie Todaro, spoke with The Huffington Post about reorganizing her priorities since November’s presidential election, and everything that has transpired since, especially regarding the issues of fake news and inclusivity. She says that offering library signage to reflect that the spaces are safe ones for LGBTQ visitors as well as immigrants is among her chief concerns. She’s also compiled educational materials to help young readers spot fake news.

Her mission echoes that of librarians nationwide.

Peter Coyl, who serves on the ALA’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Round Table, works to promote the resources that the organization has to offer, not only to librarians but to library-goers. Starting in June, he’ll serve as a member of the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, too.

Coyl told HuffPost that his responsibilities as a librarian haven’t changed significantly since November ― he’s always considered it his job to connect people with information ― but he has seen a shift in how that information is provided, and in how libraries are perceived by the general public.

“Our role as the community center has become more recognized in recent years and the fact that many libraries offer GED, ESL, citizenship and other classes has been something that has been rediscovered,” Coyl said.

“There’s been a cultural lack of communication which has fostered misunderstandings and hard feelings. Librarians are sensing this and responding to it.”

- Samantha Lee, co-organizer of the Connecticut Library Consortium Social Justice Roundtable

Samantha Lee, who works at the Enfield Public Library in Connecticut, feels similarly. While she says her role as a librarian hasn’t changed since November, she’s picked up on a general want her fellow librarians share, a want to make use of their abilities.

“What’s become more obvious, is how fractured the country is,” Lee told HuffPost. “There’s been a cultural lack of communication which has fostered misunderstandings and hard feelings. Librarians are sensing this and responding to it. We’re reaffirming libraries as community spaces ― welcoming and safe spaces. We celebrate diversity, intellectual freedom, and democracy.”

Sensing that her fellow librarians wanted a place where they could embrace and discuss their skill sets, Lee started a Social Justice Roundtable, as part of the Connecticut Library Consortium. The first meeting in February yielded some productive conversations and ideas. Librarians decided to do book talks about titles dealing with social justice issues, and to lead community forums on the opiate crisis.

“We also wanted to make sure these other librarians knew that they weren’t working in a vacuum and that they had support from their peers,” Lee said.

So, while the stereotype of a librarian may still be an image of an isolated academic with her nose in a book, these roles are populated by civically engaged individuals. It’s a good thing, then, that a recent ALA report suggests that library funding may finally be looking up, after a five-year downslide. In an age of fake news and political discrimination, these welcoming community centers are vital as ever.

Celebrating National Library Week by having a postcard party to #SaveIMLS and defend libraries. #nationallibraryweek #postcards

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