November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Hate Incidents in Libraries Spark a Renewed Commitment to Serve All

 

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One of the defaced books found in the Evanston (IL) Public Library.

Working in the teen services department of a small town library in rural, mostly white Knox County, OH, Karen Jensen (SLJ’s “Teen Librarian Toolbox” blogger) has heard young people say racist things before. But in the last year, she’s noticed a change.

“We noticed an increase in racist conversations, particularly against black people, like using the ‘n word’,” says Jensen, young adult services coordinator at the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County. “I think in the past, they wouldn’t have said it in front of adults. Now all of a sudden, they felt like they could.”

At the same time, Jensen says, African American students were coming to her, stressed and angry about similar incidents in school hallways and on the bus. And she’s not alone. For the past year or so, librarians and teachers around the U.S. have observed the so-called “Trump Effect,” an increase in harassment and hate speech against people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ students.

Ninety percent of teachers and school staff say their school climate has been negatively affected by the recent election, according to a survey of 10,000 educators by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit that tracks hate crimes and groups. Incidents range from graffiti (see image above), harassment, and outbursts (such as students chanting “Build the Wall” in a Michigan middle school cafeteria), to fights, threats of violence, and assaults on students and teachers.

Similar incidents have happened in school and public libraries as well. Swastikas were scrawled on a library window in Toronto, according to The Province. At Bernardo Heights Middle School in the Poway (CA) Unified School District, an African American and a biracial student reported feeling threatened when a white student dropped a book on racial divisions on their desk while they were studying in the library, reported the San Diego Union Tribune. A school librarian in Colorado told SPLC that a library bulletin board was defaced with the words “Death to Diversity.”

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Graffiti in a school library maker space in Madison, AL that was reported November 9 to SPLC. Photo courtesy of SPLC.

“Since the recent presidential election, it has come to my attention that a few of our staff and students have recently been targeted because of their race, religion, or political beliefs, creating an unsafe learning and working environment,” said Dr. Mel Robertson, Poway’s acting superintendent, in a statement shared with SLJ. “Our students cannot learn when they are afraid or bullied, and I know I speak for our full community in saying this cannot continue.” Staff at Bernardo Heights Middle School declined to be interviewed for this story.

Although the common perception is that kids and teenagers don’t care about politics, Jensen says this election demonstrates the opposite. “They’re listening to what’s being said, repeating what’s being said, and internalizing what’s being said,” says Jensen. “I feel a great sense of responsibility towards them to vote to protect them and advocate for them and their best interests.”

Although Jensen has always advocated for her library to be a safe space for teens, she says the negativity surrounding the election has made her more vigilant about preserving that safe space, as well as being more aware of the materials she offers. On library listservs, school librarians have been asking for recommendations on materials that can help them address racism and Islamaphobia in the classroom.

“We’re being more vigilant about making sure our books represent everyone and everything. Our goal is to not just have them on the shelf, but put them front and center and work to try to get them in the hands of kids,” says Jensen.

But diverse materials can also invite controversy, as librarians from the Evanston (IL) Public Library (EPL) recently found. While pulling resources for an upcoming program on Islam, the staff discovered that several books about Islam were defaced with swastikas and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Although the incident received a lot of press, librarian Lesley Williams, head of adult services at EPL, says it’s unclear if the books’ defacement was related to the election. “We don’t know how long it had been there. We don’t actually know that this happened because of the program or because of Trump’s election,” says Williams.

Although the community rallied to support the library and reject the hateful statements, Williams says some of the responses were misguided. “People said we should have more security and cameras in that area, which I think shows a profound misunderstanding of intellectual freedom. The last thing we want is surveillance for people who are reading about something that is sensitive or controversial,” says Williams. “It’s a scary thing to contemplate, much scarier than a person who writes in a few books.”

In response, community members held a protest against hate speech outside the library and many patrons donated copies of the Quran to the collection. But Williams says it’s the local Muslim community, not the library, that needs support.

“The library is not being threatened. The library is fine. Muslims are being threatened. Muslims are in danger and afraid,” says Williams.

Williams said members of Evanston’s Muslim community told her they were a lot less concerned about books being defaced compared to the worries brought on by a Trump administration. “They felt really perplexed that the community was so upset about [the books], when they’re upset about the no-fly list, the idea of Muslim refugees—their friends and family— being unable to come to this country,” says Williams.

“There are women I know who have lived in the United States their whole lives and are thinking of taking the hijab off because it would make them or their children a target of violence,” Williams continued. “The fact that American citizens are frightened to wear a symbol of their religious faith is what’s really disturbing.”

Like Jensen, Williams says the response to incidents of hate and harassment need to go beyond outrage and focus on protecting and supporting the people and groups who are being targeted. “Protesting some books being defaced shows me that people are fundamentally missing the point.”


Megan Cottrell is a freelance reporter based in Michigan.

 

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Comments

  1. Thanks you Megan for an excellent article. There is one vital element of our interview which did not make the edit, and that is the need for libraries, especially public libraries to have truly diverse collections that reflect the make up of their communities and our country. Many of my Muslim, African American and Latinix friends complain that they do NOT see themselves reflected in library collections, and that when they do it is often in books written ABOUT them but not by them.

    There are great resources out there for creating diverse collections: We Need Diverse Books, ( http://weneeddiversebooks.org/) Global Literature in Libraries (which has lists specifically for teens and children, and of banned books from the Middle East: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1u9xFkKii02BbkbVIfCW0L_trnCFofo_K77yFGsiub24/edit#gid=0 )

    But what’s required is not just collection development skills, but courage. Courage to challenge accepted notions of what our communities want, to push beyond the bland sameness of our Collection HQ lists, to explore small, offbeat presses and self-published authors, and to actively buy books that make some of our taxpayers uncomfortable. There is a lot of self-congratulation and complacency in the library world around Banned Books Week; it’s high time libraries paid more than lip service to the values of intellectual freedom and inquiry.

    • Rosalie Riegle says:

      I am a resident of Evanston and profoundly interested in the future of its libraries. I frequently attend programs organized by our Adult Services Librarian, Lesley Williams, who works collaboratively with progressive community and university groups and attempts to offer provocative and balanced programs. I notice, however, that Palestinian views are not as well represented as those of other Middle Eastern citizens, especially in the programs sponsored by Northwestern University’s Middle East and North African Studies Program (MENA). Ms. William’s comments on diversity of book purchases is a point well taken, and I know she is working with MENA to diversify their programming as well.

  2. Tho after nearly 20 years, no longer an Evanston resident, school parent, & property tax payer, I still attend events at the EPL & my partner is an employee. I remain impressed by the Library’s programming as well as by the good sense in Ms. Williams’s remarks, cited in the blog piece, as well as in her comments.

  3. I savor, result in I found just what I was looking for. You have ended my 4 day long hunt!

    God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

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