“Choose your own adventure,” we’d been instructed for our Hyperlinked Environments module. I was struck by this whimsical directive that recalled the series I grew up with, accompanied with a burst of nostalgia and excitement to dive into all the different modules for the week.
The Power of Choice
“Choose” and “adventure” are also two words that have not recently found their way into my personal vernacular. But this week, as we were ushered into a space that invited us to explore, the joys of choosing and learning took me by surprise.
When libraries thrive, they function similarly to a Choose Your Own Adventure book: empowering their communities, incorporating their wants and needs, and giving them a safe space to explore. The gift of choice is a powerful one. Using “Responding! Public Libraries and Refugees” as a launching point, I found an excellent article on the public library’s role in Athens refugee camps, “Libraries as a space for self-actualization in the refugee context.” The author reminds us that “the case for the library is not only a sentimental impulse but research suggests that access to safe spaces offered by libraries not only support learning and literacy but also builds trust, self-reliance and social capital.” The library is not the hero of the story, as so much vocational awe might lead one to believe. The user should be. And the choices libraries make should be made with users in mind.
“No choice”? Roll with it!
Of course, sometimes the choice is wrested from us, or one we begrudgingly make for the greater good of the community. As part of the CYOA adventure for this module, I visited the Denver Public Library’s page for Cultural Inclusivity services (formerly services for refugees and immigrants specifically) to see their current offerings, and they are robust! Conversation groups, social hours, tutoring, an audio archive of stories from home, citizenship classes. They’ve simply pivoted to virtual offerings. At the very top of their page they have a pandemic-related update, pictured below:
While letting users know of a choice that cannot be made at this time, this update also provides three options for contact: email, phone, and text. With welcome guides for 13 languages and multiple methods of contact, this web page conveys a safe (albeit virtual) space.
In the midst of the chaos of today, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and like a passive observer, helpless in face of the onslaught. Sometimes all it takes is someone offering you the power and perspective of choice- whether that’s a professor’s module, a library’s services, or which fast food to eat for dinner- that us to put one foot in front of the other and make it through.
Like everything else for me these days, any piece of media or literature I consume is tinged with a pandemic perspective. And our class readings are no exception to this. As I read through the excellent offerings for our module on Hyperlinked Communities, I was struck by the questions we as librarians ask of and about our communities.
When You Ask, But No One Answers
In his article “Asking the Right Questions: The User Experience,” Aaron Schmidt posits that perhaps the kneejerk question we eager librarians ask our users, “what do you want out of the library?” is in fact not as incredibly helpful as we sometimes think it is. While the inclination to tailor our services to users is a good one, asking community members what they want from the library when many of them do not know all the resources libraries offer will not get us mind-blowing results. Instead, taking the time to get to know the public, what they do, what they need or would like to see in their daily lives, could help us bring more innovative services that would successfully integrate the library into the community sphere.
When our county first closed down back in March, we asked on various social media channels for folks to “tell us what they’d like to see from us!” While we actively sought public opinion during the beginning of our community being thrown into chaos, we didn’t get much feedback. I saw similar narratives from other librarians reaching out in various library facebook groups.
I’ll tell you what did get us a lot of feedback, though. Doing things! Before we’d even closed, I started offering virtual programming. Virtual storytimes, virtual ukulele clubs, and more. I felt overwhelmed, I desperately wanted a positive point of connection to my community, and it turns out that the community wanted that, too.
I think it’s incredibly important to reach out for feedback and input, seek it from sources that don’t normally come to you of their own volition, and to listen to your patrons when they tell you what they want. But while the library may be the most important place in the world to a lot of us seeking to make it our career, it isn’t for many members of our communities. I don’t think it’s our job to make it necessarily hold that place of importance for everyone, but I do believe it’s part of our job to meet community needs as they arise and meet the public where they’re at.
Access to Tech: An Urgent Need, Not an Indulgence
This is why a library student’s question Michael Stephens brings up in in his article “Libraries in Balance: Office Hours” struck me in light of the pandemic. The question asked, how we balance emerging tech with the basic needs of the people we serve, has a painfully apparent answer now. The people we serve have always and will always need and deserve access to technology, emerging or otherwise. As Stephens points out, “3-D printing isn’t emerging, it’s here.” We are now feeling the digital divide in ways we never have before, with many districts now using an at-home learning model and parents worrying about bandwidth, devices, to say nothing of the time itself to be able to aid their kids with homework and distance education.
Some libraries are responding to these needs by quite literally bringing their library to the community, with bookmobiles serving as mobile hotspots. It’s a service community members likely would not have conceived of, if asked. But by getting to know what it is that people need in the moment, and envisioning a service to get it to them, we can earn a place in the heart of the places we serve. I continue to look forward to seeing how services evolve and adapt in the face of the virus.
So how can we help right now? I often feel powerless. Beyond the obvious takeaways of listening to our communities, and throwing ideas at the wall to see which ones stick, I’d say this: take care of yourself. Library staff are no stranger to burnout and stressors now are even worse. Please take the time for meaningful rest. The world will still be waiting for you when you get back.
Zeynep Tufekci begins and ends her book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest with a striking Zapatista saying: “Preguntando caminamos,” or “we walk while asking questions.” The author learned of this phrase during time spent with the Zapatistas, an indigenous group of rebels in the southernmost state of Mexico, and she hears it echoed quite by accident years later when speaking to a Spanish activist who was a part of the Indignados Movement in Madrid.
In the library, where tradition often reigns, we don’t walk while asking questions. We sit while waiting for patrons to ask us questions.
Librarians as Learners
This, of course, is not an entirely fair accusation- as we are learning about even just in this class, libraries are innovating in incredible ways around the world. But we have all heard the pushback when it comes to change in the library world, whether from coworkers or bosses or entire institutions, and this is precisely what Library 2.0 reacts to. As David Weinberger reminds us in The Hyperlinked Organization: “Your organization is becoming hyperlinked. Whether you like it or not. It’s bottom-up; it’s unstoppable.” What would it look like for us, then, to take the plunge and stop simply dipping our toes in the water? To not just use twitter for advertisement about an upcoming LEGO club, but to learn from the activists who often rely on social media as a more dynamic and responsive library than our brick and mortar branches?
Tufekci, herself present at the 2013 Gezi Park protests and chronicler of many antiauthoritarian political uprisings around the world, traces the link between such movements and the integration of social media, what she calls “networked protests.” Many of us have likely participated in a protest in the last few months. Even in my sleepy county in the San Joaquin Valley of California, a small yet dedicated faction has erupted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The central town of Kern, Bakersfield, saw protests lasting multiple days, and smaller mountain towns nearby represented in their towns, too. Much like the hyperlinked organization, this movement is grassroots and unstoppable. Through the power of social media, Tufekci tells us, we can now organize at lightning-speed.
Looking Ahead, Holding What’s Behind
But she also warns that the use of social media for organizing can cause what she calls a “tactical freeze,” in which movements are unable to pivot to enact lasting social change beyond showing up for a protest. This can often happen when movements are young and born of the moment. As a counter case study to modern, networked protests, Tufekci offers the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the 1963 March on Washington. These efforts took years of planning and internal struggles that forged a united front and strong tactical decisions. (It is worth pointing out, and Tufekci does, that these internal struggles were kept internal likely in large part due to the lack of social media, which necessitates transparency for better or worse.)
Tufekci’s book, published in 2017, touches on Black Lives Matter but begs a followup given today’s reality in the wake of recent protests against police violence. She refers to the movement as “young,” but with “great narrative capacity” that “has changed the public conversation” (Tufekci, p.209). She published “Do Protests Even Work?” in June of this year in the Atlantic, and the informative, short read not only looks optimistically at the future with Black Lives Matter protests and strategies in the foreground, but touches on and summarizes many key points in her book as well.
In response to Tufekci’s worries about young, networked movements reaching stalemates, journalist Jane Hu argues we have reached “The Second Act of Social Media Activism.” Activists, she says, are now more aware of limitations and can more deftly navigate the uses of social media in raising public consciousness. Black Lives Matter has itself pivoted from attempts to co-opt the movement, such as the misguided #8cantwait campaign as well as the #BlackoutTuesday faux pas that overloaded feeds with black pictures and misused the #blacklivesmatter hashtag which was meant for information and updates. Not only is the movement itself learning, educating and pivoting, but the greater public is proving teachable in these critical moments.
The Library is Leaving the Station
So where is the library in all of this? Why does this matter to our futures as librarians, and the future of libraries itself?
Because protesters around the globe, radically imagining a better future for the world and bravely showing up to make that future a reality, are creating their own libraries. Libraries “are among the first structures constructed by protesters and are subsequently defended with enthusiasm” (Tufekci, p. 87). If we don’t get out there, it’s not that libraries will go away. It’s that libraries will go on without us.
Librarians: Roaming & Radical, or Out & Obsolete?
The main branch of my county library system closed early, the first day of protests in Bakersfield this past June. But it was not to join the protesters, armfuls of book donations in hand asking “how can we help?” (preguntando caminamos, walking, we ask questions). It was so they could avoid the protest entirely.
The world will not wait for us to wait for them to ask their questions. We must walk alongside, and ask of them what it is they need. The crowd is moving, and growing, and changing life as we know it. It’s past time for librarians and libraries as an institution to join the ranks before they pass us by.
Anti-austerity movement in Spain. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-austerity_movement_in_Spain
Gezi park protests. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gezi_Park_protests
Hu, J. (2020). The second act of social-media activism. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-second-act-of-social-media-activism?fbclid=IwAR1ucy2imXbwfFQpzcZjjjIadS9AzlrLAD30fgZ3ld0VCdZ1kFhsBwUz2hQ
Saxon, S. (2020). What went wrong with the #8cantwait police reform initiative?Retrieved from https://www.colorlines.com/articles/what-went-wrong-8cantwait-police-reform-initiative
Smirnoff, N. (2020). Photo gallery: Local protesters take to Tehachapi streets. Retrieved from https://www.tehachapinews.com/news/photo-gallery-local-demonstrators-take-to-tehachapi-streets/article_dddf8722-a5c0-11ea-a88e-e7ac833f1d70.html
Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and tear gas: The power and fragility of networked protest. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Tufekci, Z. (2020). Do protests even work? Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/06/why-protests-work/613420/?fbclid=IwAR1ucy2imXbwfFQpzcZjjjIadS9AzlrLAD30fgZ3ld0VCdZ1kFhsBwUz2hQ
Visser, J. (2011). DOK delft, inspirational library concepts. Retrieved from http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2011/01/22/dok-delft-inspirational-library-concepts/
Wienberger, D. (2001). The hyperlinked organization. Retrieved from https://www.cluetrain.com/book/hyperorg.html
Westfall, A. (2020). Protesters gather in northwest Bakersfield on day 8 of demonstrations. Retrieved from https://www.turnto23.com/news/local-news/protesters-gather-in-northwest-bakersfield-on-day-8-of-demonstrations
Willingham, A. (2020). Why posting a black image with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ hashtag could be doing more harm than good. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/02/us/blackout-tuesday-black-lives-matter-instagram-trnd/index.html
Zapatista Army of National Liberation. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zapatista_Army_of_National_Liberation