British Columbia Library Association

Canadian libraries in the 45th US presidency: An actionable guide

By Allana Mayer

[ACCESS & INCLUSION]


Libraries across North America have seen and contributed to a flurry of policy and advocacy efforts since the United States presidential election in November. Among this work have been impressive efforts in sharing resources for refugee settlement and support, ensuring government-produced scientific data is preserved, and documenting protests against the Republican government.

Personally, I’ve been looking for resources for Canadian libraries—especially public ones—that are trying to be safe spaces and good allies in these trying political times.

Libraries in the US have historical precedent as spaces of political resistance and citizen support. Less so for libraries in Canada (and archives, and museums, and other heritage sites and organizations). While Canadian information professionals kicked up an admirable fuss during the Stephen Harper budget-cut and scientist-muzzling era, our record as all-around sanctuary is on the short side. This will need to change, as American politics continue to impact Canada. We have an influx of refugees entering Canada from the US border, and ongoing debate about whether we should repeal our third safe country agreement with them. And we have a slew of hate crimes, too.

What will happen to libraries in Canada as a result of fascism at the fore in America (and in Britain, and around the world)? And as a result of our right-wing politicians trying to play a similar rhetorical game?

What I’d like to do is suggest ideas for walking the walk, and putting that library mission statement you already have (the one that asserts inclusion, intellectual freedom, privacy, autonomy, non-judgemental research support, etc.) into practice in a politically relevant way.

For starters, the grassroots organization Libraries Resist recently crowdsourced a website of readings and resources for American library workers. It’s been most recently updated with the proposed cuts of federal funding for heritage (something many of us are familiar with). It’s on the general side; it generally lacks library-specific (and actionable) tasks for staff and managers.

Note that some sections, such as the one on digital security, is work that the Library Freedom Project has been doing for ages and in times less pertinent. So, be aware that you don’t always have to learn these things from scratch: a bit of Googling will find you some experts to invite in to your library instead. (Or six or seven LibGuides to link to, instead of building your own, if that’s your flavour of #resistance.)

In Canada, your library may not face much political opposition to declaring itself a safe and inclusive space. This gives you the space to push it further: see what kind of relevant and proactive offerings you can provide. See how far you can go in service of the newcomers and religious minorities in your community. See what kind of accolades you can get for your humanism, your compassion, your prescience. We may never have a federal government more willing to pay lip service to feel-good rhetoric than right now. Use that to your advantage.

Here are some actionable responses for Canadian library workers, assuming your position allows you any power. I’ve roughly divided these tasks into things you can do at the workplace level, and things you can do as a citizen who happens to be an information professional. While the size of your organization will be a determining factor, I think most of these can be accomplished within a one-year timeframe.

Workplace

– Issue statements reaffirming the library’s mission as a safe and inclusive space where patrons’ autonomy and privacy are respected. These are small and symbolic gestures, but it’s better to say something than remain silent.

– Make displays, exhibits, and events that reflect your commitment to the above. (There are some ideas on the Libraries Resist page under Displays and Exhibits.) Host rallies and talks. Be loud about it.

– Run a series of events that invite local religious groups in to introduce their beliefs and dispel misconceptions. Be smart about the security risks of doing so.

– Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal, and London are the only official Canadian sanctuary cities, where undocumented residents can avail themselves of public services without being asked for paperwork. Several other cities are considering the declaration. If you’re in one of the former, train your staff on what that means and how best to put it into practice. If you’re in the latter, or you want such a designation, you can sign petitions, send open letters, post position statements, and share resources with your staff and community. There may be room here for a “sanctuary libraries” movement, where libraries put it into practice before their municipality does.

– As Laura Saunders alludes to, making a political stand could cost you, so make sure you have contingency plans in place in the threat of losing funding from one or more sources. Be prepared with agile responses: What can be cut? What services will be even more essential if the library is partially incapacitated? If, say, your makerspace had to close tomorrow in order to keep your ESL program running, could you manage that transition easily?

– Write (and practice) an operating plan for times of civil unrest. Create a social media plan to proactively share information about privacy and safety with your community. If you’re on a protest route or near City Hall, offer longer opening hours, or increase staff to handle the foot traffic. Get your first-aid kits ready to deal not just with outbreaks of violence, tear-gassing, and pepper-spraying, but with frostbite, hunger, and dehydration. Train your staff. Be wary of encouraging people to “meet up at the library if you get lost;” you don’t want to make yourself a target for heavier surveillance.

– Offer programs or classes around civic engagement, civil rights, and economics. Libraries teach lots of personal finance and other self-sufficiency classes, but rarely general-interest “how to be a good citizen” material. I’d love to see public-library curricula shared that include classes on “Why the government regulates the actions of corporations” and “Why pay taxes” and “Why public science exists.” There are people wondering these things, but who are too shy to ask.

– Hold postcard-writing or letter-writing events so people can communicate with their elected representatives.

– Use your makerspace to make protest signs, buttons, bumper stickers, and other visible signs of support. Make a few in-house designs that people can print out for themselves if they’re not design-inclined. Offer training to community groups on how to use these tools to run their own campaigns.

– Invite the Library Freedom Project to give privacy talks to your staff, so they can pass those skills on in one-on-one interactions with patrons; invite LFP to give privacy talks to the public who are interested (and train your staff to give regular talks in the same vein after they leave).

– Teach Freedom of Information Act classes too. Bring in a local investigative journalist.

– If you’re in the procurement process right now, require an ILS or OPAC that doesn’t hold borrowing records by default. Allow patrons to opt in manually to that kind of data-gathering. (Yes, there are laws about this and you should read them first.)

– Write letters to vendors whose products don’t allow you to do these things. Tell them what you’re disappointed about, and tell them you won’t buy from them until they fix it. For bonus points, make them open letters.

Abolish library fines. Just do it.

– Offer library account types that require no fixed address.

– Take gender identification off all of your library accounts.

– Try to get #Canada150 or other funds to run oral-history projects that help brand-new residents become documented in your local history collection.

– Enable your staff to volunteer their time on local archival initiatives, whether it’s documenting a protest, collecting materials from underdocumented demographics, or collecting oral histories from community members. By “enable” I mean both encourage them, and offer them workplace incentives and accommodations to do so. Make it a formal collaboration if you can.

– Encourage your staff to learn languages. Support them however you can.

Professional/Personal

– Volunteer with groups documenting protests. It’s usually just remote data-entry into an Omeka; you can do this!

– Volunteer more formally with local groups. They often need help building social media presences, or dealing with records management, or finding funds.

– Related: Sometimes local groups just need a sort of unofficial library ambassador: sitting in on meetings and piping up when they have a problem you think library resources can help solve. Obviously, talk to your boss about this one first – but if your workplace is game, you can perhaps facilitate a more formal collaboration.

– Start local chapters of interesting things, or start community archives that are independent of your workplace but still benefit from your professional skills and network. Again, it’s just Omeka.

– I can’t suggest that you join a committee and commit a ton of thankless hours in professional service. It’s all pay-to-play, and that doesn’t sit well with me. That said, you can write letters and make noise whether or not you’re a member of a professional association. I can’t write a comprehensive list, but the ACA has a Truth and Reconciliation Taskforce, as does the CFLA. BCLA has a number of divisions you can badger with your leftist agenda. You can also work with a member to submit resolutions to the organization at large! And no one has done so since 2015! OLA has an advocacy committee; while it’s not as clear how to get position statements into the works, you can “submit ideas” directly to the President.

– Learn to edit Wikipedia. Combat fake news and internet-search bias on a small scale by editing locally relevant articles or improving the coverage of underrepresented groups. Keep information current and as verifiable as possible given that there are probably a ton of people out there working night and day to skew and distort what those articles say.

– Do something similar with local news organizations: fact-check them daily. When your local paper (probably some arm of a huge ____Media conglomerate) promotes questionable content from other areas, call them out. Make it fun. Do it on social media.

– Keep up-to-date. Find a newsfeed system that works for you, whether it’s connecting with library workers on social media or signing up to a few list servs or setting up advanced feed aggregators. I don’t advise you keep up with American politics right now. It’s interminable and makes you feel completely helpless. So, stick with a local scope, or focus on Canadian policy, or choose only to read about professional matters.

– Educate yourself. The history of anti-black racism in Canada, the history of Indigenous genocide in Canada, the history of Japanese internment in Canada, our immigration policy history, our current laws surrounding immigration and refugees, our economic dependence on the States, the history of protest and resistance, the history of workers’ rights, how to be a good ally, how to be intersectional: pick a topic and dig in.


Allana Mayer is an archivist, researcher, and writer living near Toronto. She currently works as Media Coordinator for OurDigitalWorld, a non-profit that helps heritage organizations share digital collections. She writes most often about visual literacy, the digital divide, labour, and copyright.

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