A librarian reflects on library values


Since the election and inauguration of Donald Trump, I have found myself reflecting on borders and land. Very soon after Trump had signed his executive order to implement the immigration and travel ban in the United States barring the entry of those from specific Muslim-majority countries, I attended a “learn-in” event at the University of British Columbia (UBC) where I work. “Ban the Ban: A Learn-in for UBC Students, Faculty, and Staff” included a panel of speakers who came together to provide “an immediate and urgent response to President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration and Refugees,” and a discussion that connected the ‘Muslim Ban,’ to Islamophobia and historical precedents of domination over lands and peoples.

The event began with an acknowledgement of the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Musqueam people on which UBC is situated. While this is a standard, expected, and important action at UBC, the speaker who provided the acknowledgement, Dr. Ayesha Chaudhry, a faculty member at UBC teaching in the Social Justice Institute, went on to discuss what that acknowledgement meant in the circumstances of this event, contextualizing these words and this practice as not only a simple statement about Indigenous lands, but also as a statement of solidarity with Indigenous peoples. She asked that attendees recognize that this acknowledgement does not simply identify the land that UBC sits on, but it is a much more radical action, highlighting that it is stolen land and that we are uninvited guests on it. The acknowledgment is a way of challenging the actions of colonialism that have resulted in the occupation of Indigenous lands by settlers, and also an action in opposition to the systems of domination that further attempt to silence any recognition of these forces of colonialism. So the acknowledgement itself operates as an act of resistance and a way of seeing dominant and powerful forces at play that work to silence other ways of seeing and talking about history and power.

Ayesha Chaudhry was then followed by another speaker, Iman Baobeid, a Yemeni graduate student at the UBC Social Justice Institute. She spoke about lands and borders as contested sites and locales of violence for many people, as well as the realities of immigrants and refugees around the world who experience that violence as they attempt to flee dangerous and unstable situations. For an immigrant, and particularly now for immigrants of colour and those from Muslim countries, who are fleeing dangerous situations in their own countries, borders are sites of exile, racism, and Islamophobia, exclusionary at best and at other times, sites of violence and death.

I realized with a heightened awareness, that to me a border is often completely unnoticed, or simply an inconvenience that I must contend with as I travel to destinations that are chosen for work or pleasure rather than survival. And I recognize the layers of privilege and power that I show up with at any border, that are easily discernible from my white skin, my middle class background, the western and globally northern country of wealth that issued my passport and that provides me citizenship and significant amounts of safety. I am protected in ways that are unearned, that are a mere chance of fate, birth, and circumstance, and that correlate with systems of safety, protection, privilege, and power in our society. And I feel that this privilege I have brings with it an imperative that I use my power, my comfort, and my safety to make space and create agency and safety for others. As Ayesha Chaudry said at the UBC Learn-in event, “Privilege is always on the backs of other people and we must use it to lose it.”

My motivation to attend the UBC Learn-in event was a personal one and was (and is) tied to my feelings and need to react and respond to the ‘Muslim Ban’ and to fight against and resist the racism and Islamophobia underpinning Trump’s executive order. I have a life long passion for social justice issues and taking direct action against inequalities. Recently, I have also found myself often reflecting on how it was my interest in social justice and my aspiration to make a difference in the world that led me to work in libraries and to librarianship. The values of libraries, librarians, and the BC Library Association are social justice values: standing up for intellectual freedom, protecting confidentiality and privacy, providing access and inclusion, supporting diversity, democracy, and the public good.

Our work within libraries also functions within borders: borders of our organizations, communities, municipalities, our province, and our country. Our values of supporting and promoting access, inclusion, and diversity ask us to create inclusion, safety, and sanctuary within those borders, as well as call us to interrogate those borders themselves and consider the ways that we can collaborate to expand or eliminate those borders so that together we can create communities and a society that is equitable, that works to undo oppression, and that amplifies the voices and lives of those who are not heard as we strive to remove inequalities and provide opportunities and agency for all.

I also appreciate the ways that our values situate us in a much larger historical and ongoing movement that strives for social equality and inclusion. I was recently reminded of these larger movements when reading Emily Drabinski’s statement of professional concerns and aspirations when running for election to Council with the American Library Association. Emily wrote:

“Libraries function in political economies that shape the problems we identify and the solutions we can imagine. Too often, our vision is too narrow, imagining the future of libraries as separate from the maldistribution of wealth, regimes of white supremacy and patriarchy, and the impending climate disasters that threaten us all. As one of the only professions grounded in a commitment to collective ownership and shared resources, librarians have both opportunity and responsibility to position ourselves in opposition to capitalist modes of production, distribution, and consumption of knowledge and information….”

I also find myself thinking about the 2017 BC Library Conference, which is only a few days away as I write this (and will be over for another year when this issue of BCLA Perspectives is published), where speakers, events, sessions, and colleagues will continue to remind us of our values and inspire us to work together to act on these values. I have been so impressed and inspired by the arc of social justice issues and the theme of activism that has now been well established and incorporated into the conference, and while thinking specifically about the intersection of our values and social justice, and my recent reflections on borders and immigrants, I am reminded of our closing keynote speaker Harsha Walia at the conference last year and her discussion of the ways libraries can and do support the work of undoing border imperialism. I am looking forward to and anticipating the words, thoughts, and ideas that Khelsilem will share with us in the opening keynote that connect our values to indigeneity, cultural sovereignty, and language reclamation for Indigenous peoples.

Our values provide us continuity and courage in these challenging times of austerity, disparity, inequality, racism, and exclusion, and as the significance and relevance of libraries themselves continues to be challenged. I will continue to return to our values as a source of inspiration for myself and all of us working in libraries, values that foreground listening, learning, thoughtfulness, reflection, dialogue, and actions that continue to create agency and change for all who we work with together in our communities and our world.

Anne Olsen is the President of BCLA and the Head of the Koerner Library at UBC Library.