This quarter’s issue of the BeZine is focused on Social Justice: listening, learning, reaching out. What do others tell us about their experience? How do we listen and learn? How do racial, economic and social inequalities affect people we know? What do we say to our children and who else do they hear? What do you have to say about your experiences with social (in)justice?
I’ve worked in both public and academic libraries for many years, and I have come to see them as equalizers, especially when it comes to Social Injustices. When one thinks about Social Injustices, things like poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, racism and bigotry may come to mind. So how can libraries help with those things? Read on.
These hallowed halls store and provide so much more than just books! For people who live in poverty every day, who pinch pennies for all they’re worth, libraries can provide access to free books, movies, music and more for entertainment and education. More importantly, they can provide computer access to programs which can help people find jobs, and government or local financial help to pay for basics like rent and utilities. That access makes a huge difference. Computers have become as important to everyday life as having a telephone, but not everyone can afford them. Most libraries today provide access to computers, and those act as a bridge of service for the users who need connection to important social programs. That particular freedom of access and connection to broader, available help is what we librarians consider spanning the “Digital Divide”; poor communities, especially minority communities, do not have as many resources for computers or computer access. Libraries provide a bridge.
That bridge opens the way to help hungry people, too. While libraries cannot physically feed those who are hungry, they can often connect food insecure people with missions and food banks, where they might find at least one free meal, probably more. They also have books on growing your own garden, your own food. Some libraries host gardening club meetings, where people can learn about such things, or even have a “Seed Bank“, where people can “check out” seeds to grow as long as they in turn bring other seeds back to the Seed Bank, where other users may borrow and return their own seeds, keeping it going in perpetuity!
On the issue of homelessness, consider that there are not a lot of places for homeless people to go to escape the streets. In the summer, the temperatures might be boiling hot, or freezing cold in the winter. Most libraries are temperature-controlled buildings which homeless people find bastions of relief in extreme weather, and as long as they obey the rules, they are usually tolerated and left alone, from opening to closing time. Libraries have restrooms and also usually have at least one water fountain, which can fill a water bottle or canteen, or simply quench a person’s thirst. If the homeless person wants help finding lodging or shelter, or a job, once again the computers can connect them with social programs that can help.
Speaking of programs that can help, lots of libraries provide programs like Summer Reading and/or After School Programs, which can keep kids busy and engaged in reading, rather than running the streets and/or getting into trouble. There are also literacy programs at many libraries, which can help anyone learn to read, whether young or old. This is extra important for immigrants or minority ESL (English as a Second Language) speakers, who need to be able to read signs, applications, etc. in order to live, work and become productive members of society here in America (or wherever in the world they happen to be! There are libraries all over the world!).
Libraries can also provide a safe place for people to gather and discuss sensitive or socially volatile subjects. They often offer private meeting rooms or safe spaces where people can get together and discuss important social (in) justice topics, and perhaps mobilize or create ideas about how to find real solutions together.
One of the best things about libraries is that they do not discriminate. There (usually) is no racism or bigotry allowed. I say (usually), because patrons/library users come in all different shapes, ages, colors, sizes and social beliefs. There may be other library users who are racists or bigots, but the librarians will remove problem patrons and they are happy to welcome everyone to the library equally. Of course, there are plenty of books about those subjects, if people should be inclined to read about the differences in opinions, or history behind racism and bigotry, but the best examples are the people who don’t practice either one.
The buildings may be great, but let’s not forget the librarians! They are the keepers of the knowledge, and they will do their best to find answers, whatever the problem or question may be. That knowledge is the key. It can open doors and remedy all manners of social injustice. Librarians are trained in Information Sciences. That’s what they DO. However, aside from being intelligent, most tend to also be pretty compassionate people who want to help in any way they can. Remember that, if you should ever find yourself in a position of social injustice. And if you’re ever asked about whether or not to continue to FUND libraries, I hope you’ll unequivocally say, “YES!” They are the great equalizers of our time. Perhaps they always have been, but it is especially true now.