A new reality (not a “new normal”). How do we respond?

We librarians have a multilayered relationship to politics; as, of course, many professions do. On the one hand, we are rightly expected to be politically neutral for our patrons and communities. On the other, politics at some level–national, state, local, school, corporate–and usually several levels at once–inevitably affects the work we do. Added to this are our own views, interests, and responsibilities as private citizens.

If you’ve read this blog in the past, you know that I’ve addressed politics a little but not much.  Mainly, you know I have little use for a Congress that seems to get more radical, more anti-intellectual, and more hostile to the search for objective truth and the free and open exchange of ideas with every election; and you know I have great sympathy for the librarians in particular who have to answer to that Congress. (Though, credit where credit is due, that same body did surprise me by confirming Carla Hayden as Librarian of Congress.) I’ve always understood our profession in a political context but haven’t seen the need, here, to go into it too much.

That was in normal times.  Normal times ended during the early hours of November 9.

I have been struggling since then with how I would address here the presidential election and its aftermath. This morning, one of my daughters sent me a link to Barbara Kingsolver’s recent article “Trump changed everything. Now everything counts,” and it has helped me begin to get a handle on how to come to terms with our new political reality, as a private citizen and as a librarian.

I urge  you to read the whole article. It prints out at about four pages. It is dense with thought and at the same time, as you’d expect from Kingsolver, clear and conversational. The author does not try to minimize or normalize the situation we’re in. As she says, “We just woke up in another country. … We went to bed as voters, and got up as outsiders to the program.” And at the same time, as truth intelligently stated so often is, it is bracing in its way; it brings a sense of stern and clear-eyed encouragement.

Kingsolver’s article is not, in the end, a cry of despair but a call to action, or to many actions, that each of us has the choice to take according to where we find ourselves in life:

If we’re artists, writers, critics, publishers, directors or producers of film or television, we reckon honestly with our role in shaping the American psyche. … We consider the alternatives. We join the time-honored tradition of artists resisting government oppression through our work.

If we’re journalists, we push back against every door that closes on freedom of information. We educate our public about objectivity, why it matters, and what it’s like to work under a president who aggressively threatens news outlets and reporters.

If we’re consumers of art, literature, film, TV and news, we think about what’s true, and what we need. We reward those who are taking risks to provide it.

If we’re teachers we explicitly help children of all kinds feel safe in our classrooms under a bullying season that’s already opened in my town and probably yours. Language used by a president may enter this conversation. We say wrong is wrong.

If we’re scientists we escalate our conversation about the dangers of suppressing science education and denying climate change. We shed our cautious traditions and explain what people should know. …

If we’re women suffering from sexual assault or body image disorders, or if we’re their friends, partners or therapists, we acknowledge that the predatory persona of men like Trump is genuinely traumatizing. That revulsion and rage are necessary responses.

And if we’re librarians? If we’re catalogers?

That is a question we must begin to ask ourselves, and to which we must start finding and living our answers. Some of my own ideas: this would be a good time, if you can afford to, to join or renew with ALA, and start paying attention to and supporting its work in intellectual freedom and equal access for all. It would be a good time to join your state library association, if you have not done so. It would be a very good time, if you are not already a member, to join and support the American Civil Liberties Union. But those things are just a start.

I repeat: these are not normal times. Before the election, pundits were telling us how divided we are. More divided, some said, than we have been since the Civil War. Maybe. But that worry, serious as it is, seems almost quaint now. We are now, I think, the closest we have come to a one-party authoritarian state since the founding of the Republic. We librarians, we catalogers, like the journalists and artists and others Kingsolver names, have to decide how we are going to live and practice our profession in the next four years–or eight, or longer–to preserve as much as we can, and advance if we can, the open, civil society that is a fundamental premise of our work.

Two final thoughts.

First, I hope it is understood, but I will emphasize, that my thoughts and opinions here on Flaming Catheads are my own. I am not expressing, when I write here, any official position or policy of my employer, or of any organization I may belong to. If you have read every one of Ann Coulter’s books and think she is the greatest political thinker since Ayn Rand, have no fear, our selectors and collection managers buy those books and keep them in the collection by the same standards they apply to Bernie Sanders, and my cataloging team and I make sure they are accurately described, richly accessible, and waiting on the shelves for you as soon as we can get them there. If you walk into my library when I happen to be pinch-hitting at the information desk, you will get the same welcome and I will do my same level best to make you happy with your experience here, whether you are in mourning about the election, still giddy with champagne afterglow, or perfectly indifferent. This is my house here; the library is the community’s house; I know what goes where, and where the thresholds are.

Second, Flaming Catheads is not turning into a political blog. My intention is to write here about some of the smaller and some of the larger matters that concern us as catalogers and as librarians, and to keep doing so at least until I retire (which, God willing, will not be for a long time yet); and, I hope, to tempt my readers (I am taking a leap of faith by making the word plural) to join the conversation at times. You will mostly read about cataloging here. And who knows, maybe about coffee, as one of our essential resources. But at the same time we cannot afford to be silent about the kind of society in which we do our work.

~RAS

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