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Culture and Bias in Library Policy (Part One?)

I’m here to talk about the hard stuff today. I want us to take a look at some common public library policies and to examine who they’re impacting and how. I want us to go to work and really examine our experiences. Are there policies that are having heavier impacts on marginalized populations? Are there ideologies at work that show cultural bias?

Public libraries have a history of raising barriers to access and putting policies in place that are biased or discriminatory. Many of us in the South are working in buildings that once had separate entrances for white patrons and people of color. Dewey is downright offensive for pretty much every population but white, Christian men. We know that fines are especially hard on patrons with limited income and access to transportation. The movement against neutrality in libraries has brought so many of these issues to the foreground, but I’m of a mind today to call out some specific policies and practices that I haven’t seen tackled elsewhere. Ready?

Eating and drinking in the library.

Okay, I get it. People can make a mess, or eat something smelly, and they may even smuggle in alcohol in a juice bottle. I see you and I hear you. The flip side is that during the school year, I see lots of children who arrive on the city bus after school and they don’t leave until the library is closing. If we don’t allow them to eat or drink, it means that they’re probably hungry until they get home, which could be 8:30 or 9 pm. (That’s assuming they have food at home, which is not always the case.)

It becomes an issue of culture because the people I see trying to bring in a snack are usually people who need to spend as much time as possible in the library. They’re the family struggling to get homework and job applications done at the same time because they don’t have internet at home and unemployment is running out soon. It has a bigger impact on patrons who live in poverty, because, sure, if you have a car and income, you’re probably not the kind of person who needs to spend a whole Saturday at the library. You probably can leave at will to have lunch across the street or to just go home. If you have the kinds of struggles that come with poverty, it’s not so easy, and eating lunch over the keyboard or huddled over homework assignments seems like a necessity.

And, actually, depending on where you live and the demographics in your area, issues that largely affect impoverished patrons probably have a lot of overlap with racial economics, too. If you find yourself primarily telling people of color not to eat or drink in the library, I think it’s worth examining if that’s a discriminatory or even racist policy.

What might be a more balanced approach? If all things were possible, I would look at designating a certain space in the library for eating and drinking. I would try to make it as easy to clean as possible, and then I would also consider giving the custodial staff a small raise for the increase in their duties, as well.

Could most libraries do this? Probably not. I think some could, though, and that’s worth something.

Swearing in the library.

Some patrons are offended by it. It’s considered impolite or inappropriate, but by whom and in what circumstances is totally fluid. What I know, living in an urban area and spending plenty of time around people from all walks of life, is this. For lots of people, it’s completely normal conversation and it’s even a friendly, communal practice at times. People who like it and people who don’t are all over the place in terms of what demographics they could fall into, and, honestly, if I tried to describe how it works in my city, I would probably be relying on stereotypes and that’s never helpful. However, there is an observable culture around swearing as a gesture of friendship.

In my experience, most library personnel won’t stop an adult from swearing if they’re not being really loud and angry, or cussing someone out directly. If they get a complaint, they might step in and point out that, technically, the library does have a policy against swearing. (This has been true in all of the libraries I’ve worked for.)

It gets trickier with children. Lots of people in my area swear in front of their children, and lots of people don’t. Most families that are on opposite sides of the issue seem to co-exist pretty peacefully beside each other. But should I let adults (or children for that matter) swear in the children’s department?

For me, it’s not as easy as having a policy or not. It comes down to differences in culture and what my role is when there’s a clash. I am a white lady and most of my patrons are black. If there are two black women who are casually talking and they happen to drop in some swear words, but are otherwise pretty happy and keeping an eye on their kids, I let that go every time. It’s a private conversation and walking over to ask them not to behave a certain way┬áis just…wrong. It’s making a judgment on their way of life and it feels imperialist to me. If a patron happened to complain to me about that situation, I would probably say something like, “I understand how you must be concerned about what your child is exposed to, but I think those patrons are using the library in a respectful way and don’t feel it’s necessary for staff to step in.” This has never happened to me and I doubt that it ever will. If it did, though, I imagine it would be hard and the patron would be very angry with me, but I would try to make them comfortable, provide my supervisor’s name if necessary, and stand up for my decision.

I would and have interceded when adults have used loud and angry swearing in the children’s area. I say, “This is not a conversation that’s appropriate for a library. It’s our policy that you go outside.” I’m fortunate that I have security available if I need back-up, but including that “policy” word is important for signaling that they need to comply.

 

I feel like this post is long enough for now and I’m running out of juice today. I hope to return later with what, doubtless, will be more unpopular takes on policies that overlap with cultural bias.