VANESSA GIRON & JINI MAXWELL
We live in an era of hostile architecture, disinformation, and privatisation. Our right to exist in public freely is increasingly compromised. In 2018, Forbes ran an op-ed suggesting that libraries could be replaced by Amazon. In the same week, Omar Sakr wrote a twitter thread celebrating the social, intellectual, and domestic role of Liverpool public library in his teenage years. When Vanessa Giron, the commissioning editor for this series, wrote a Brow by Numbers for TLB 39, she focussed on the increase in public library membership and patronage, and paradoxical decrease in staff and funding on both a state and federal level. It seems we need public information and safe spaces for congregation and learning now more than ever—but how ‘public’ can these public spaces be when they are entrenched in the logics of colonialism and capitalism? Are these spaces truly free, if they propound colonialist narratives under the guise of objectivity? Are they truly public, if they are inaccessible to those who would benefit most from them?
We asked five writers to consider the public, personal, and structural role that public libraries play in our society. The responses from our writers were generous, ranging from writing from poetic, to academic, to critical, to playful. For some, public libraries provided access, safety, education, or entertainment. For others, they may symbolise hierarchies that privilege particular narratives over others. They conjured memories, provocations, and projections about the future of public information and public space.
We hope this series provides, if not answers, a richer understanding of the stakes and terms of the issue at hand.
Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.
This quote is frequently shared by libraries and librarians. I have issues with it; namely, what is meant by ‘right’? And who is this answer ‘right’ for? It plays into this idea that librarians are neutral, impartial agents, an idea that has been continuously proliferated by libraries themselves. But librarians are people who have personal biases, and these biases consciously or unconsciously affect what answer they give, and what they think of as ‘right’.
Libraries are also not neutral, and they do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of a society that already has entrenched power dynamics at play, such as income inequality and the over-incarceration of First Nations people. To be neutral in these circumstances is to accept and reproduce these existing power dynamics. When libraries strive to be ‘objective’, it is usually to the detriment of some the most oppressed in society.
I used to visit different public libraries and browse their Aboriginal history section, just out of interest. I would often find that the most contemporary book the library had on Aboriginal culture or history was a volume of keith windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, a series that, among other things, makes the claim that the history and effects of the Stolen Generations were exaggerated. I have always wanted to steal these books and throw them in the bin.
Many libraries will say they cannot get rid of these types of books because that would be censorship, and fundamentally not neutral. This ignores the invisible censorship already at play in the absence of First Nations perspectives from the shelves, voices that have been excluded in favour of windschuttle’s work. This is a silencing of First Nations voices.
Many libraries will say they cannot get rid of these books because their role is to be objective, and just to present information. However, if you choose to give some of the limited space on your shelves to racist material, then you have given said material legitimacy, you have given it weight and power. This also neglects the fact in their often-small collections, having books like this is a statement to my fellow First Nations people that we are not welcome, which is in itself another form of censorship.
The effect of detrimental neutrality extends beyond library collections. This ideology fuelled the American Library Association’s highly criticised revision of their Bill of Rights, which removed any public library’s right to exclude hate groups from meeting in their facilities and meeting rooms. This hands power and legitimacy to hate groups, such as white supremacists, and makes the people oppressed by said groups feel unsafe in the library.
Libraries, their collections, their programs, and their spaces have an impact, positive and negative. As such, they have power. They need to be aware of their role in supporting oppressive structures. They should not be, or want to be, ‘neutral’.
I am unsure of how I feel about my local library, and I feel uncomfortable when the question is posed to me.
As a teenager, I would spend afternoons there with my friends on the pretence that we were studying, a lie we told our parents in order to hang out a little bit longer. Really we were laughing at the stock images in our textbooks, pointing at them and saying “That’s you!”
I remember the feeling of being unwelcome. That hypothetically they couldn’t tell us off for not really studying like we said we would.
In our naivety, we took delight in the idea of being anywhere without our parents—a taste of the freedom to come, even if it meant hauling our textbooks everywhere with us. I would go home feeling patronised, that I was still being watched over anyway, and not for my safety but because we were guilty of something we hadn’t done yet, a reason they were still looking for, and that it was worse that they thought we wouldn’t notice.
A recent survey on public libraries in Australia conducted by University of Technology Sydney indicated that 80 per cent of patrons felt that public libraries were sites of discrimination and inequality.
On Saturday mornings my partner volunteers at the local community hub, where he tutors high school students and helps them with their homework. I usually walk around the corner to the library and to wait for him to finish up, when we can go and get bánh mì and three colours across the road. I spend my time looking up books and reserving them, flipping through others that I don’t intend on borrowing, but making a mental note to come back for them when I finish the books I’m currently reading.
I am acutely aware of the guilt sitting in my gut if I show up without work to do. For weeks I would arrive and borrow a stack of books, overcompensating to justify my place there, until I got a notice that I had over-borrowed. I feel unsure of myself when this happens, and look around feeling lost about what to do next if I can’t prove how busy I am.
When I’m sitting in one of the booths, I’m conscious of how much I’m on my phone, and I am sure to put it away when a librarian walks past, like a student hiding something from a teacher during class.
I take note of the students that come in after he finishes volunteering, or the teenagers already there first thing when the library opens. They come with their own controllers and play PS4, sometimes with friends, and sometimes with kids they’ve just met. I notice how one librarian will always sit across from the couches, watching from the desk. I take note of how they pretend to do work, flicking through a stack of books, some papers, and looking at the computer screen, but never actually type anything or write anything. They fake it so easily, I think to myself.
I feel shit when I see the kids enjoying themselves, not realising they’re being inspected slyly, then feel shittier when they do realise. And I remember how helpless it is to have nowhere left to go, when you don’t have a Playstation at home, or the books you need, and how they will potentially (definitely) remember this feeling every time they walk into the library, or any public space. They’ll remember the targets on their backs when they walk into a shop, when they are accused of opening something they just walked past.
They’ll remember boarding a train, how the passengers around them hold their handbags a little closer to their bodies, averting their eyes. And they’ll learn that faking it, for us, isn’t actually faking it, rather just proving to everyone else: I’m not a fucking criminal because I’m brown. And faking it, for them, will be pretending they agree, and that their authoritative presence in your vicinity is a coincidence, and not an accusation. But it is, it always is, and once you see it, you’ll notice it everywhere.
This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read the full series alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.
Vanessa Giron is a Latinx freelance writer based in Naarm. She primarily writes on identity and culture, and how these things have shaped her as a woman in country that is not her own. She is a member of the West Writers Group with Footscray Community Arts Centre as well as a critic for The Big Issue.
Nathan "Mudyi" Sentance is Wiradjuri librarian from the Mowgee clan who grew up on Darkinjung Country, NSW. Nathan writes about Indigenising libraries and museums.