Librarians: Helping people (we disagree with) find information since 10,000 BC

That’s part of our ethos: helping people find information, even if we disagree with their beliefs or opinions. We can’t help it–we need to help people. Even when we’re off the clock,  on lunch break, or even out and about town. It’s like a primal urge that’s honed and refined in library school, and it’s unaffected by differences in opinion.

This is good, because as a profession, we’re against censorship.

Today, while on lunch, some teen missionaries were canvassing the campus to convince people to come to a Bible-based poetry slam in the bookstore tonight, and to come to their new plant church somewhere else in Chicago. While I was not interested (and disagree with the whole premise of teen missionaries on college campuses or in third world countries), I helped her anyway. I told her where some of the public bulletin boards were on campus so she could post signs.

A librarian friend of mine was on campus after an event late one night, and some missionaries tried to recruit her, too. She declined, but she also told them of resources for setting up a student group.

That’s just the librarian way, isn’t it?

I remember the 2008 elections, when I was working in a public library. Obviously, as a government agency, we took no political stance, and kept on helping people find information they wanted for their side (and secretly jumping with glee when someone actually wanted help seeing what both sides had to say).

I also remember having to store the newspapers behind the circulation desk because they either kept disappearing, or they appeared elsewhere in the library with devil horns drawn on then-Senator Obama. That’s another post, too: “How to promote accessibility of our materials while preventing graffiti and vandalism.”

There was this one very sweet older gentleman at one library who needed help navigating the Internet to find articles about certain, ahem, theories about Obama and the Liberal Left. Many of them had been debunked by Politifact and Snopes, while others were merely news stories with a clear and announced bias. Yet we helped him anyway.  It doesn’t matter if I agreed or not–what matters is that he felt welcome at the library, despite his somewhat unique views. I wanted to preserve that.

I remember when I was in high school and I applied for a job at Borders. My mom asked me what I would do if someone wanted a book on Wicca. She believed it was sinful to even help people find information like that, because it would make me “morally culpable” and share part of the sin of Wicca. I can’t remember what I told her, but I remember thinking that

  1. It would be presumptuous of me for assuming that someone wanting a Wicca book was going to use it as a practice guide.  They could be studying it for academic or theological reasons. Who am I to judge? What people do with the information I help them find is up to them.
  2. it would be wrong of me to use my beliefs to prohibit others from accessing information about their beliefs, if they were indeed practicing Wicca. I have the freedom of religion, and so do they.

Granted, my beliefs have diverged from my mom’s in the past few years for numerous reasons, but the concepts are still there. In fact, it grew stronger while I was working on my MLIS. Being a librarian, having so many tools to find even the most esoteric of information, we have the power to prevent people from finding information. Because of that power, we have a special obligation to help people anyway, whether or not we disagree with them.

Sometimes, I think some of library anxiety stems from the fear of our power. I fear that some people see us as gatekeepers instead of as facilitators, as guards instead of helpers.

How can we help alleviate their fears?

One step is to always help people find information, even if we may vehemently, virulently disagree with it.

p.s. Unless you think the person is a clear and immediate danger to him/herself and/or to others–but that’s more than just disagreeing with the person.

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