Resistance Support | Editorial

The employees working the front desk are the ones who face the parent angry about a book’s content, the delegate of a group challenging the library’s right to select and shelve titles as it sees fit, or the media looking for an impromptu comment.

Stand up for the ones who stand up

Lisa Peet headshotLast month I had the pleasure of attending the 2023 Knight Foundation Library Leaders Gathering, presented in partnership with the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Some 50 colleagues from libraries, tech, and philanthropy met in Miami from February 20-21 to talk not only about the field’s future—as would be expected from this cohort—but also its history, and how that informs its present.

I’ve attended annual Knight Foundation library-centered convenings since 2016, when I served as a judge for the second Knight News Challenge on Libraries. In that time, I’ve watched the organization’s definition of forward thinking shift gradually from innovation to investigating how libraries can build responses to a range of community care needs. And while much of that focus is necessarily outward-facing, at this gathering I noticed an emphasis on looking inward as well—focusing on the library and its culture, and thinking about how to better support staff at all levels.

Over the past few years, LJ has provided thoughtful coverage of library employee trauma during the height of the pandemic and beyond. That’s an ongoing issue, and one that needs to remain a priority. As I think about the discussions that took place at the Knight conference while I compile our package on censorship in this issue (pp. 14–20), I’m struck by how much of the hardship involved in current book-banning efforts falls on frontline library staff.

The people in the community who want and need access to the works being challenged—and often legislated against—are, of course, the ones who will experience the critical long-term impact of these conflicts. Leadership and administrators are dealing with repercussions that range from clashes with city officials, residents, and board members to successful library defunding campaigns. And the employees working the front desk are the ones who face the parent angry about a book’s content, the delegate of a group challenging the library’s right to select and shelve titles as it sees fit, or the media looking for an impromptu comment.

Read even a few of the articles on the growing wave of content banning and you’ll notice the violence of the metaphors right away: libraries are under fire, experiencing attacks, in the crosshairs. And these are not just words in the headlines. Online comments and correspondence from censorship factions frequently include threats of physical harm; at Downers Grove Public Library, IL, a planned Drag Queen Bingo program was canceled after a bullet and note, addressed to the library, were mailed to local law enforcement (see “Standing Up to Hate and Misinformation,” pp. 16–17).

The anger leveled at libraries is not going away, and we need to use every resource possible to stop the damage being done to our communities and within our ranks; these levels of aggression will bring new kinds of trauma to those on the receiving end. At the Knight conference, I was struck by the repeated calls for support for the people who are literally standing up in the face of challenges. The directors I spoke to about challenge preparedness (“People Get Ready,” pp. 18–20) touched on many of the same notes.

The needed support “is a lot bigger than any one situation. It’s demonstrating that you’re there and you’re willing to back people up in all kinds of situations,” says Dubuque County Library District, IA, Director Amanda Vazquez. This is good leadership anytime, but she is aware that many employees may have never encountered this kind of confrontation, and that the emotions brought up are likely to be new and scary.

“I find myself occasionally going and standing at the circ desk and having a casual conversation, just to show my staff that I’m paying attention,” she says. She also makes herself available during programs that might draw pushback.

While there are many ways we may eventually look back on this time, and how libraries stepped up to defend their values, I’d like to think that it may also be marked by demonstrated compassion on the part of leadership. Individuals only can stand up for their communities when they have the support, and the kindness, they need.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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