i dream of being possible

why framing libraries as oppressive matters

Jacob Berg poses two questions in his recent post:

  1. So what now? (re: after acknowledging that libraries are oppressive)
  2. Does the above question matter? (not this above question, but the question of whether or not libraries are oppressive)

I’ll answer the first, disagreeing with his conclusion of ‘no.’

This question is important not because of the intent of libraries (whether oppressive or not) but because it allows us to reframe discussions about diversity, social justice, and anti-oppressiveness within librarianship.

I know my personal desire to address and discuss this question isn’t about understanding libraries are worse or better than other oppressive socio-political institutions1, but out of desire to move past the rosy, nostalgic rhetoric that often frames these discussions. It is a desire for us all to start taking a more complex, nuanced approach to how we understand the library as an institution – not as something wholly good (or wholly evil, for that matter).

On my part, this reframing is part of how, as Cecily Walker wrote about the #libtechgender conversation, I’m trying to move the conversation forward.

One of the points that I do agree with Jacob is that while we can understand libraries are oppressive, librarianship (and thus librarians) do not necessarily have to be. This is most definitely true. Despite what might be assumed from my views and writing, I actually do think that most people sincerely want to be good (even if they may occassionally misinterpret or have been mislead about what ‘good’ is – not to say I have the firmest grasp on this either):

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人之所欲生甚矣,人之惡死甚矣;然而人有從生成死者,非不欲生而欲死也,不可以生而可以死也.2 | source

人之所欲生甚矣,人之惡死甚矣;然而人有從生成死者,非不欲生而欲死也,不可以生而可以死也. 2 | source


I feel that this question matters because, to be really honest, the main problem with libraries isn’t librarians.

Jacob is right that intentions don’t really matter, but I actually feel like this is exactly why we must (as a profession) become intentional about how we construct and build our institutions.

Focusing on oppression in libraries as an institutional problem, rather than an interpersonal one3, allows us to move past recriminations and accusations. It gets the conversation moving forward.

More importantly, it allows us to begin focusing on solutions rather than reprimands or reconciliation.

So now what?

Now we start the far more difficult conversation (but more satifisfying, in the end) about how we can actually start dismantling the structures within libraries that prevent them from living up to their ideals. I deals that, yes, I actually still believe in.

We need to start working on how to make systems, policies, and institutions that allow good people with good intentions to be great, rather than being constrained by tradition, bogged down by the status quo, and a feeling that – for once – we are actually moving forward and towards something instead of bailing water from a leaky boat.

So I do think the question matters. I also don’t expect anyone to necessarily agree with me with how much/little oppressiveness I seen in the library as institution. For me, what matters is that we start viewing libraries within their historical and social context, truly start examining all the ways that they impact our communities – good and bad, and start making them live up to the hype.

  1. I mean, the judicial and police systems will always beat out libraries every single time. 

  2. One of my all time favourite quotations from Xunzi “The greatest amongst what people desire is life, and the greatest amongst what they detest is death; despite this, there are those who in seeking life, find death. It isn’t ecause they hate life and love death, but because they cannot life and only die” (My translation)  2

  3. Which, yes, I get that institutions are primarily built from people, rather than abstract entities.