BLM: Why is it so hard for some libraries to say?

So, before we dive in to the meaty subject of this post – a COVID-19 update on the librarian front. I’ve filled my work-from-home time becoming a new publisher for the KCLS website (writing blog posts, creating content, etc.), volunteered as one of the judges for the adult entries in the Rhyme On! poetry contest (lots of very emotional poetry, it was more taxing than I anticipated), finished captioning and editing a video interview I was lucky to conduct earlier this year with Alson Kelen, am co-leading a KCLS collaboration with the Seattle Public Library for a new service they are pioneering, stepped up to lead planning for a series of LGBTQ+ community conversations as part of Pride, I’ve created video tutorials that have been shared with all staff instructing on the process of close captioning videos posted on Facebook….I’m sure I’m missing a ton of stuff, but the joke is that my name keeps popping up everywhere recently. Librarians all worried for a while we wouldn’t know what to do working from home, but I’ve definitely been filling my days.

Something I’ve learned about myself on this journey of landing in a library career is that I’m very passionate about the work of libraries. And I can’t help myself – if I feel like the library missed the mark, I say something about it. Bless the eternal patience of my manager, who probably had NO IDEA when he choose to hire the lowly Library Technical Assistant as a temporary Librarian what he was actually getting himself into. He listens to me, he laughs with me, and then he helps me speak up when there is room for my voice to be heard.

And something I can’t help but speak up about quite a bit lately is the disappointing way that the King County Library System leadership has responded to recent events. I’m referring specifically to how we have failed to step up for our Black patrons, Black staff members, and Black communities right now in any way that feels meaningful.

Allow me to demonstrate.

This is the current homepage of the New York Public Library:

NYPL

Image text: IN SOLIDARITY: Reflections on This Moment

We reaffirm our mission to fight ignorance, support all of our communities, and stand against injustice and racism.

And in case there was any subtlety in this statement, their Instagram is more direct:

NYPL2

Image text: The New York Public Library (@nypl) stands with the Black community, our hearts aching for our country so divided by racism, injustice, arrogance, and cruelty. In this difficult time, we reaffirm our mission to fight ignorance, support all of our communities, and stand against all forms of dehumanization.

While the promises are vague, at least it covers the major points of what is happening and why.

There are other excellent examples of library responses to these current events:

BPL

Image text: It has been an emotional week of listening, learning, and acting. our president, @dieonard, put some thoughts together about how we stand with and support communities of color and about our efforts to center Black voices (url).

I love that the Boston Library mentions centering Black voices during this time – the message is that the library wants this hurting community to be heard. That’s powerful, especially since library professionals are overwhelmingly white.

These are two huge library systems in the United States, setting fantastic examples.

Here’s an unexpected fantastic example from a small library system in Washington state – the Pierce County Library System:

PCL

Image text: The deaths of Manuel Ellis and George Floyd are yet another chapter in our country’s history of racial injustice and violence that has devastated the lives and dreams of Black children, teens, and adults.
 
We must dismantle the systems of discrimination and prejudice that have oppressed generations of Black families.
 
To our Black staff, customers, and neighbors – your lives matter. It is long past time to end systemic racism and start a different story.
 
Pierce County Library System is committed to that effort.
 
Georgia Lomax, Executive Director

 

Powerful. Direct. No cloaking what happened in vague generalizations about racism in general. This is a great statement and I applaud the PCLS Executive Director for it.

Now, let’s look at what KCLS has said:

KCLS1Image text: Social Equity

The King County Library System stands with The Urban Libraries Council (ULC) statement on the role of libraries in dismantling systemic racism. Read the ULC statement below.

June 1, 2020

Statement on the Role of Libraries in Dismantling Systemic Racism

The Urban Libraries Council stands with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and all who are calling for immediate, collective action to end the systemic racism and inequity entrenched in our communities.

While the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 has set the stage for a “new normal,” the past months have been filled with all-too-familiar demonstrations of racism’s enduring harm and deep roots. Facing increased barriers to resources and health services, African Americans and other marginalized communities are losing their lives to COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate. During this same period, the U.S. has witnessed the brutal, racist murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

Systemic racism undermines our society and putting an end to it will require all citizens to work together — with the active support of dedicated community and government leaders. As highly trusted institutions and essential foundations of civic infrastructure, public libraries have a unique and vital role to play in advancing equity and addressing racial divides.

Twenty-first century libraries are pillars of safety, inclusion, diversity and democracy for the communities we serve. Libraries provide equitable access to information and digital resources for all people, regardless of race. They provide safe, respectful and welcoming spaces for civic discourse and the expression of diverse voices. Through carefully curated collections, community partnerships and targeted outreach, libraries intentionally engage and serve the needs of all populations. And, increasingly, libraries are taking bold stands and speaking up to call out and combat social injustice.

More than 160 North American public library systems have shown their strong commitment to ending structural racism by signing ULC’s Statement on Race and Social Equity, which asserts that “libraries can help achieve true and sustained equity through an intentional, systemic and transformative library-community partnership.” Libraries use this statement as a baseline for building progressive policies, activities and collaborative relationships to advance equity.

Beyond this statement, a commitment to creating a more just and inclusive world is foundational to all of ULC’s work. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the ULC Executive Board announced a new initiative that is aligning North America’s libraries to identify the virus’ impact on race and social equity — and establish strategies for addressing that impact. 

ULC is dedicated to continually breaking down systemic inequity. However, this task is too monumental for libraries to take on alone. We are all responsible. Every community. Every person. We must all step forward and actively foster new social structures built on inclusion, justice and mutual respect.

Susan Benton

President/CEO

Urban Libraries Council

But…where is KCLS’ statement? All this is, is leaning on a larger group to speak for us.

A few days later, our Director did in fact release her own statement. Unfortunately, it reads like a pretty direct rewrite of the Urban Libraries Council statement (except it omits anything about BLM):

KCLS2

Image text: Libraries stand in solidarity

The King County Library System (KCLS) is slowly moving towards a phased-in plan to reopen our library buildings after an unprecedented three-month shutdown to help curtail a global pandemic. While we have continued to serve residents online during this time, we are eager to return to some semblance of normalcy, and greet our patrons in person once again. However, as we reflect upon the homicide of George Floyd and the protests that have ensued, it’s clear that a return to “normal” will not ensure that all people in our country are treated fairly.

We are committed to ending structural racism. KCLS has joined more than 160 North American public library systems in signing the Urban Libraries Council’s Statement on Race and Social Equity which asserts that “libraries can help achieve true and sustained equity through an intentional, systemic and transformative library-community partnership.”

As we witness these and similar events, we are reminded that public libraries do not exist apart from society. We are not immune to coronavirus, racism, poverty, prejudice, wealth inequality or any of the other challenges we face. We feel the effects of all these afflictions every time we open our physical or virtual doors.

At the same time, however, we must remember that, more than any other institution, the public library represents that which is best in America. We create opportunities for meaningful connections between people under an umbrella of inclusion. We provide services and programs to everyone regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, political persuasion or income level.

And yet, we still have work to do. We will listen to our residents, examine our own biases, and continue to educate ourselves about racial injustice. And we will offer our support and resources to help everyone in our communities do the same.

While it may sometimes feel like the library is the last true “commons” in our democracy, we cherish and embrace that role. We cannot get together just yet, but we can take comfort in knowing that the work we do every day makes a difference. We will continue to serve as the source of knowledge and the place of understanding for all people of King County.

To be blunt, I’m not sure how this fluff anything but offensive in its attempt at inoffensive vagueness. There’s no real anything being said.

Something else I’ve learned about KCLS is their tendency to follow the lead of the Seattle Public Library System. So, I was curious – what does SPLS’ response to current events look like?:

SPL

Oh look, they’re library of the year. With no statement at all from their Executive Director on the protests rocking the very city they serve.

Huh.

And I checked – their blogs, their Facebook page, their Instagram.

No statement anywhere about Black patrons, about the Black community, about Black Lives Mattering.  And their Executive Director is even a member of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.

At least this helps me understand why KCLS hasn’t taken a stronger stance on this topic.

I have a feeling that SPLS librarians, like KCLS librarians, have a lot to say about what their leadership isn’t saying.