Librarians — It’s Time to Get on the Front Lines

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By Angie Miller

Turn on the news and there seems to be hate engulfing the world our students walk through right now. A sudden public upsurge in white supremacy, anti-Immigrant, antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-gay declarations affront us, and while racism and prejudice have always simmered beneath the surface of our society, the underbelly has been sliced open and an unsettling ugliness has been granted permission to pour out, amplified by social media.

Enter the library.

In schools, we sometimes take extreme measures to avoid politics in the classroom in order to escape being caught in uncomfortable crosshairs. We teach our content and leave what’s happening outside to the outside. But school libraries cannot (and must not) assume neutrality. Our silence when staring into the face of hate speaks to a complicity that does not coincide with library values.

Libraries may be the last truly democratic space in our communities. Rooted in the resolute voice of freedom, we accept patrons of every sexual orientation, religion, color, or heritage without judgment or bias.

But we do not and will not accept malevolence.

And so when hatred and division knocks on our doors, we must work transparently to promote equity and acceptance in our schools and communities. We must let our students know that we support and respect everything they are. We must be willing to stand on the front lines for the cause of justice, humanity, and peace. And we cannot remain silent on the backs of our students.

Librarians have always been at the forefront of civil rights battles. Now we just have to be as open and vocal about it as possible.

What does that look like?

    • Play the news. Mounting a telev
      ision on the wall that is tuned into news opens up intelligent, thoughtful conversations about truth and bias for our students. Images and commentary that scroll across the screen alerts them to what is going on and encourages them to ask questions.
    • Create thoughtful and authentic displays. Make sure books that promote tolerance and acceptance are visible to students at every turn.
    • Read books that inspire conversation and debate in book clubs. Dystopians, memoirs, historical fiction… read books with students that make them question societal roles and outcomes.
    • Hang the right signage. Be sure to hang signs, motivational quotes, announcements, statements that make it clear that you harbour students of all kinds. Announce loudly and transparently that compassion is the heartbeat of the library and is expected of its patrons.
    • Make diverse literature available. Flood your displays, your teachers’ mailboxes, your shelves, and your students’ hands with books that represent all walks of life. Reading culturally diverse work develops empathy. It is important that our students understand their own lives, but also see others’ perspectives.
    • Be transparent and vocal. Call out any behavior that intimidates or judges another patron. Be open when students ask you about your positions. Tell students why you believe certain pieces of work are valuable contributions to our societal conversations. Don’t back down.

Librarians have long embraced tolerance and equity. But embracing is no longer enough--we must safeguard those persecuted and promote benevolence with unapologetic ferocity, reminding everybody: We will not watch hate from the sidelines. We will not be complicit to any ideals that could threaten our schools, communities, and families. Instead, we will grab books and media and unflinchingly step straight into the line of fire to defend those who are most vulnerable to any deconstruction of our democratic future: our students.

Angie Miller is the 2011 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, a TED presenter and a National Geographic Teacher Fellow. A freelance writer and school librarian, Angie can be followed at www.thecontrarianlibrarian and @angieinlibrary.





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