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The Library, a Safe Space?

By Catharina Boss, Bremen Public Library (Germany)

Libraries and library professionals innovate and include, they sustain, inspire and enable – this was the theme of this year’s virtual World Library and Information Congress held by IFLA. Many of us share this vision: libraries as open, inclusive and sustainable places of knowledge and creativity, where people – regardless of their age, sex, skin colour, nationality, ethnicity or religion – have the chance to become informed and educated citizens, where they can come together to build and share community. I certainly love this idea of the library. And for me – an average white cis woman in her thirties, born and raised in a democratic and wealthy industrial nation in the heart of Europe – the library has always been exactly this place: a safe space, where I would go either to find information, a good read or spend leisure time. I have hardly ever been marginalised in my life. Well, except, of course, for the usual disadvantages of being female in a still somewhat patriarchal society or the occasional experience of Germanophobia due to my heritage. WLIC 2021, however, made me realise just how dependent our success as library professionals is on making our institutions safe spaces for everyone, especially marginalised and thus vulnerable user groups – and to what degree this is actually often beyond our control.

One session that particularly caught my attention was held by the LGBTQ+ Users Special Interest Group. Rachel Wexelbaum of St. Cloud State University (USA) gave a powerful talk highlighting the challenges of serving this particular, often invisible user group. Just a few points to pick up: Do your collections include a sustainable selection of media for queer people? Do you cooperate with local organisations? Do you offer a safe space for programming? Are there any gender-neutral restrooms in your library? Does your organisation offer diversity training? Are there policies, procedures and strategies addressing the issues of diversity, inclusion and equality? If your answer to all these questions was ‘yes’, then congratulations, your library is very LGBTQ+-friendly! Luckily (and proudly) I can say that my library, too, is actively engaged in realising a variety of services and programmes for different user groups: from media presentations and book tables, to reading groups, language cafés, tours for users with different levels of education or age or language, events, campaigns and so on. Our staff receives training in serving certain user groups. We even have two full-time colleagues whose primary responsibility it is to reach out and connect with target communities. Are we doing enough? I would like to improve one or two things (a multi-language website to enable non-native speakers to browse our services more easily, for instance), but overall, we are well under way. This should not come as a surprise, since my library is located in one of those countries that Wexelbaum marked as ‘doing well’ in providing services to minority groups such as the queer community.

However, what if your country’s legal environment obstructs you from making your library a safe space? Let’s keep to the example of LGBTQ+ library users: Wexelbaum highlighted that, while libraries in anglophone and (most) western countries are doing well in providing services to their queer communities, institutions in many other countries have to operate under more difficult conditions. Earlier this year, Spartacus, an international gay guide for travelling, published the annual Gay Travel Index 2021. Going through the results, I was shocked to see how many countries score low. If a government issues anti-gay-laws and queer citizens face prosecution or even the death sentence, to what degree can their library serve their information needs or even become a safe space? Is there even room for manoeuvre? In most cases probably yes, hopefully yes. But if serving a vulnerable user group is next to impossible, because both library users and staff, would risk harm – what then?

This realisation left me rather at a loss. Article 2 of the IFLA Code of Ethics appeals to all librarians and information workers to ‘ensure that the right of accessing information is not denied and that equitable services are provided for everyone whatever their age, citizenship, political belief, physical or mental ability, gender identity heritage, education, income, immigration and asylum-seeking status, marital status, origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.’ At the same time, ‘IFLA recognises that whilst these core principles should remain at the heart of any such code, the specifics of codes will necessarily vary according to the particular society, community of practice or virtual community.’

Eventually this results in a dilemma for library professionals, who are affected by restrictive laws and conventions. They end up walking a thin line – or do not walk at all. Bringing about societal change requires a lot of effort. A fight, which cannot be fought by libraries alone. However, for ours and our users’ sake – to the extent possible (without risking harm) – we have to step up and continue the fight for equal rights to information.

Although I was left with bittersweet feelings on this matter, attending the World Library and Information Congress certainly opened my eyes. 2021 was the second time I have been given the chance by the Goethe-Institut to experience this congress and, just like the first time, meeting colleagues and listening to their thoughts, ideas, projects and challenges not only enriched my mindset, but reassured me that library professionals are deeply passionate about making their institutions better places – and hopefully at some point safe spaces, no matter where they are.