2016 was a dumpster fire of a year. It began with Brexit and its close-minded, “Little England” xenophobia, it continued with the re-emergence of Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, she of the “Barbaric Cultural Practices Tip Line” fame, and it finished with perhaps the most disturbing event of all, the election of reality television star, dubious real estate billionaire, and darling of white supremacists, Donald Trump. We’re left wondering: With the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Black Lives Matter continuing to reveal ongoing, systemic racism and sexism in our society, what’s next?
It was in this context that a group of librarians got together to explore what it means to be a professional librarian today. What does a Master of Library and Information Science degree (MLIS) mean and what value does it provide to our communities? We were particularly interested in investigating our value outside of our libraries, which we know do wonderful things every day, but if a doctor can tend to a wound outside of a hospital, what can a librarian do outside of a library? People in our communities are clearly hurting today, and are in danger of being harmed even further. What can we do?
To try to better understand and answer this question, a call went out to BC librarians to engage in an informal discussion and to think about possible actions. The feedback was overwhelming, with close to 100 responses, with strong cross-sector representation (public, academic, special) and many coming from outside of Metro Vancouver, some from across Canada, and a few internationally. We quickly discovered we weren’t alone in our concerns for our communities in this new era, and curious about what we, as professional librarians, could do about it.
The first meeting was held in Vancouver, with about 20 people in attendance. The opening roundtable revealed that many of us share feelings of distress, are unsure of what to do, and are looking for some tangible steps forward. Many had already taken actions as individuals, such as writing letters to their MPs and volunteering with human rights organizations. Others had been involved with actions through their libraries, including working with newcomer communities, running Wikipedia edit-a-thons to strengthen existing articles with solid citations, and teaching information literacy classes that helped students assess sources and identity “fake news.”
There was a general agreement that any action we decide to take would benefit from the powerful library brand to establish relationships based on trust, inclusiveness, and goodwill. Possible actions discussed included developing internet privacy self-defence lessons, creating toolkits for organizing local discussions, becoming more active and visible “fact-checkers,” and more.
There was also consensus to continue the conversation. Next steps include setting up a virtual space to continue brainstorming and sharing ideas, building on the momentum for our group’s BCLA Conference session, and holding an online meeting for those unable to participate in person.
Although we have not yet found all of the answers we are looking for, we continue to have a sense of optimism about who we are as librarians, the value we bring to our communities (both inside our libraries but also outside of them), and the difference we can make when we step up to take concrete action based on our shared professional values of intellectual freedom, protection of privacy, and access to information, as well as our commitment to inclusiveness, promotion of information and digital literacies, and community-based organizing.
If you’d like to get involved, please get in touch!
Phil Hall has spent 37 years of his life working in libraries or as a librarian. Starting as a “Stack Assistant” in a medical library to his current position as Systems Librarian at Vancouver Public Library. He has operated various collaborative provincial programs for public libraries and non-profit professional communities and helped a wide range of library colleagues identify and learn new techniques, new subjects, and new tools as the world changes around us.
Tami Setala is the Licensing and Business Development Manager for the BC Libraries Cooperative and really hates writing bios. She does love engaging with the library community to talk about ways the profession can thrive through these challenging times. With over 18 years experience in public and special libraries, she’s witnessed lots of changes in the library world.
Kevin Stranack is the Associate Director for Community Engagement & Learning at the Public Knowledge Project at Simon Fraser University. He’s been working in public and academic libraries since 1990.