Social Responsibility and Libraries

Trigger Warning: This post contains slurs and epithets used against the LGBTQ+ community.

The American Library Association describes its values as the following:

  • Access
  • Confidentiality/Privacy
  • Democracy
  • Diversity
  • Education and Lifelong Learning
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • The Public Good
  • Preservation
  • Professionalism
  • Service
  • Social Responsibility
  • Sustainability

Social responsibility was the one that caught my attention immediately. To me, it describes the role that libraries play in the recording and passing down of history, and therefore influencing our very perception of the past.

“ALA recognizes its broad social responsibilities. The broad social responsibilities of the American Library Association are defined in terms of the contribution that librarianship can make in ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society; support for efforts to help inform and educate the people of the United States on these problems and to encourage them to examine the many views on and the facts regarding each problem; and the willingness of ALA to take a position on current critical issues with the relationship to libraries and library service set forth in the position statement.”

ALA Core Values of Librarianship

I think the statement above defining Social Responsibility for the ALA hits the major point of education, but lacks a critical factor of a librarian’s job — context. As librarians and archivists, it is important that we provide historical context when archiving materials. Archival materials are often taken out of their original settings and re-contextualized to fit a modern schema. This creates a disconnect between the actual origins and can alter perceptions of events, peoples, and histories.

For example, this is an excerpt from a 1979 edition of the Florida Flambeau. This edition includes stories and interviews of LGBTQ+ individuals in the Tallahassee area. It also features “A Gay Glossary” with translations for queer slang, including words like faggot, queen, and closet-case. Here, context is vital, because while these words were reclaimed and used among queer and trans people, they were slurs and epithets used against them first. These are terms used within the community because of the shared experience and would be incredibly inappropriate and flat-out offensive for those outside the LGBTQ+ community to use.

Vocabulary and culture are constantly changing, and I argue that as archivists and librarians, it is our job to adapt with it. In order to be a socially responsible institution, we should update our resources to reflect the facts available to us. Just like scientists, who update their research as new discoveries come about, as we learn how certain terms can be damaging, outdated, and just plainly incorrect, we should address that in our records as well.

How do we contextualize these terms in a way that makes sense historically? How do we make that information accessible to library users? How do we handle potentially triggering materials and vocabulary? These are the questions that should be at the forefront of our minds as librarians and archivists, especially when handling materials from other cultures and communities.

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