Libraries Promoting Reflective Dialogue in a Time of Political Polarization: A Conversation with the Editors

Book Review, First Amendment, Political Viewpoint

By: Rebecca Hill

Several questions have come to light about the role of libraries and librarians in facilitating dialogue within this politically polarized climate.  When asked, most librarians might argue that dialogue in the library, with its history of being a place as community centers and intellectual salons, is appropriate.  Many libraries have embraced these efforts. Other libraries, though, have not. 

Libraries Promoting Reflective Dialogue in a Time of Political Polarization

The Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, recently published Libraries Promoting Reflective Dialogue in a Time of Political Polarization, edited by Andrea Baer (Rowan University), Ellysa Stern Cahoy (Penn State University Libraries), and Robert Schroeder (Portland State University).  The book encompasses sixteen essays written by academic librarians from around the US and globally about this critical issue.  

The essays address access to information, the idea of the library as a neutral place, confronting the limitations of dialogue and issues of truth and intolerance.  While this book fails to give anything other than an academic viewpoint, it does offer some interesting insight. Unfortunately, despite efforts to open the book to public libraries, the book is only accessible to the academic world, excluding the question of where public libraries stand with these issues.

I talked to the editors, and here is what they told me about the books and why they wrote it. 

RH:  Tell me why you thought that a book of this nature was timely?

Andrea Baer:  I came to Ellysa and Robert with this idea and was initially thinking about student learning. I was thinking about how our teaching could address these affective dimensions of learning and thinking about how this is particularly relevant at a time where the political conversation seems much more intense.  We started in December 2017, a year after the election results. As we were talking and even though we were talking about student learning, we moved to the broader topic of polarization and the challenge of dialogue amidst that polarization and reflecting on how we were seeing this with students and within our own profession.  This experience of polarization in our profession was surprising because, in our profession, we value intellectual freedom, inquiry, listening, and thinking about things from different perspectives. 

RH: Did you see polarizations at conferences with other librarians?

Andrea Baer: Yes, and in other settings too. In professional discussions where people who we think share our values, it felt like there was more tension in our profession that wasn’t really being addressed. To me, it felt so volatile, which may be too strong a characterization, but it was a thing that you were afraid to open up a conversation about because you didn’t want an explosion. So, we were thinking not only about how librarians promote dialogue outwardly but also looking internally, which goes back to reflective dialogue piece, looking inward and outward. 

RH: Your book relies mainly on academic librarian essays.  Why did you choose to present only the academic side of this issue? 

Andrea Baer: We decided to make it very open because we knew that public libraries were doing a lot with public dialogue. But we did not know how realistic it was that public librarians would have time to put together a proposal and submit it. We didn’t get any response from public librarians. 

Ellysa Stern Cahoy: Public libraries are in a lot of ways an epicenter of all of this 

RH:  What is the role of librarians in mitigating polarization in their community?

Ellysa Stern Cahoy: Before I started as a librarian at Penn State, I was a public librarian.  I once had a staff librarian come to me that she wasn’t buying books that addressed or included references to abortion because she felt that it was a bad idea, and she didn’t want that on her shelf.  I said to her that when she was making collection development decisions, she had to think about her community. If it was 100% evangelical community, maybe I wouldn’t have that much on my shelf, but if I was in a community that wants information that presents a range of perspectives, then I need to have that on my shelf. I think that is the librarian’s role, whether it is through programs, collection or the building itself, to open up that possibility for sharing ideas that reflect the needs and wants of the community. It is the community that drives those decisions.  

RH:  And when the community is divided, what then?

Ellysa Stern Cahoy: Then, they have to provide perspectives from both sides. 

Robert Schroeder: The essay on archives of South Carolina is an example. We need to have these primary sources, so we know what was going on 50-100 years ago in South Carolina to understand what was going on in South Carolina with white supremacist organizations.  It will be a harmful and hurtful area for the researchers, but we need to preserve those materials for those researchers.  

Andrea Baer: For me, it is how the information is framed.  In our library, we have lots of access to primary sources, some of which contained offensive ideas. If it is framed in a way to look at it as a primary source rather than an incredible scholarly source, then we are doing our job there. 

RH: What are your thoughts on the recent ALA Library Bill of Rights statement on making space for hate groups that one essayist called “tone-deaf.”  Do you agree or disagree? Does a real threat of violence negate the right to access to the library?

Andrea Baer: I think that it is complicated, and I do worry about this idea of having to be neutral in some way. If you are neutral, you have to share your space with any group. We have these principles about providing access to all, but I think that there needs to be ground rules about using the space. For instance, if it is an event founded on values that aren’t clear, or don’t value other human beings like a threat presented to other human beings in the ideas that the group is floating, then I don’t think we should have spaces for that because it conflicts with our other values.  If we want access to space for all, then the library needs to be a place where people can have confidence that they will not be threatened or emotionally abused in some way. To me, having a space in which hate speech may be condoned doesn’t fit with our other values.  

RH:  And if there is a program on gun control and a pro-gun group shows up with guns in their holsters, what about that situation?  Does the library have an obligation to say that this is a threat? 

Ellysa Stern Cahoy: I think a library always has an obligation to assess the threat to its patrons. That was the case with the Seattle library and transgender hate group. As much as you can keep the library and academia open for that expanse of ideas from one extreme to the other while preserving safety, that is important. I get scared when I see my library colleagues limit topics because they may not agree with them. That is scary to me because we can only create new knowledge when we see the limits and expanse of knowledge on both sides.  

RH:  What is the role of the library in terms of creating dialogue? Do you think that librarians are good at fostering dialogue in the community? 

Robert Schroeder: I think that we have collections where we do try to have a sort of diverse opinions.  But while we have the luxury to frame materials, it is a great but the unfortunate thing that all the things and programs that we have are in the library walls which can be misconstrued. For instance, if you have a panel of flat earthers in your library, how do you say that this is intellectually an interesting thing to investigate, but you probably don’t put the flat earth books in the science section. I wouldn’t think that they would be shelved next to next to Darwin. 

Andrea Baer:  I would say that it is hard to make a generalization about all librarians. Our field is so diverse. Some librarians may not have any interest in trying to open a dialogue about topics.  I think that is completely fine. I don’t want to think about it as “should librarians be doing this” or saying, “all librarians ought to be doing X to foster dialogue” because I think that there are a lot of different ways to foster dialogue and reflection.  I think that a lot of it depends on a person’s role or their context. I think that the diversity of our field was one reason why we wanted to leave this call for essays so open because there are so many different reasons for engaging in this topic. Some librarians are really good at facilitating things like that.  But I think that you do normally need special training for facilitating dialogue. When I think of our book, I don’t think of it proposing a certain kind of work to foster dialogue. The book is a way to explore the many ways that we can hold true to endowing librarianship to encourage a spirited inquiry and encourage more listening.

Rebecca Hill

Rebecca Hill is a freelance writer who writes on libraries, literacy, science education and other topics for a variety of online and national magazines. Currently she writes a science education column for VOYA magazine.  She holds a MLS from Indiana University Purdue University and JD from Valparaiso University. Her interest in intellectual freedom has been peaked by the increase in technology via artificial intelligence and social media. Currently she serves on the Indiana Library Federation Board of Directors and the Purdue University Libraries Dean’s Council. She is also on the Library Board of Trustees for her local library. A long time advocate of libraries, reading, writing and all things words are her passion.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.