Reflections on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Holiday

Recently I’ve been thinking about why I became a librarian. A generous reading of my motivations is that being a librarian allows my idealism to run free. I want to believe that in devoting my labors to the library I’m actively working to build a better world. A less generous reading of my motivations is that librarianing1)Dr. Chris Bourg is to be thanked / blamed for my use of librarian as a verb. is one of the few ways someone with an excellent education in the humanities but few practical skills can keep a roof over their head. Most of the time I assume librarianing is a good thing and most of the time I don’t feel the need to question this assumption. However, as I write this, it is the Doctor Martin Luther King Jr holiday. As the United States spends the day celebrating the life and work of Dr. King I’m questioning how well my avocation is serving the work of Dr. King. The standard narrative is that libraries provide the public with free access to information;  libraries are a necessary element of an open society. Openness and freedom are the natural enemies of bias and institutionalized privilege and thus libraries are creating a free and open future.

I like this narrative. It’s nice. It’s comfortable. It’s the kind of thing that can help one believe in one’s work when the tasks in front of us are tedious and unpleasant. It’s also the kind of narrative that enables me to remain blind to the contradiction in claiming love for humanity as a whole while loathing the particular examples of humanity that I interact with. It’s the kind of narrative that needs to taken out and examined on occasion. Today’s holiday is one such occasion.

Today I’m re-reading Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. I’m asking myself if the comfort I take in the goodness of libraries is the comfort of the white moderate. Am I preferring a “negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice?” To help me answer these questions, I’m considering the story of Paul Coates, founder of Black Classics press. Paul’s story both make me wonder why I am comfortable in my nice library profession and he was not.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ autobiography The Beautiful Struggle he tells the stories of a son and his father. The father, W. Paul Coates, is a veteran and a Black Panther. Paul earned a BA and then a Master’s degree in library science.  He found work at the Howard University library, but did not remain a librarian for long. As his son tells the story, Paul became fascinated by hidden or lost classics of black America, classics that were frequently not found in library collections. These books contained narratives that counter or even contradict the stories Americans tell ourselves about racial reconciliation and healing. Libraries, even the library at Howard University, have a bias towards the published record. Unpublished knowledge or out of print works aren’t always protected by libraries and archives. Coates and de jesus both remind us that the structural bias against this kind of knowledge is neither accidental nor unforseen.

See, brother, those books are out of print. You know what that means? The white man ain’t gonna let you see those. He don’t want those books in print. (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle, 90)

Paul Coates left librarianship to become a publisher. He founded and ran Black Classics Press and returned some of “those books” to print and provided an publication venue to a perspective that too frequently been excluded from the American record. I think he’s done more good as a publisher than he would have as a librarian. He has certainly done more good as a publisher than I have done as a librarian. He’s also not the only example of a trained librarian realizing that our profession can hinder justice as well as enable it. nina de jesus has also written persuasively on the complicities of libraries in institutional oppression.

So today, as our nation reflects on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, I’m thinking about how my work intersects with The Good Work of Dr. King. Am I librarianing for social justice or am I living comfortably in denial of tension and injustice? I think (hope) that the answer is mostly the former. I’m satisfied with my values and with my goals. I’m satisfied with the course I’ve set to reach them. I am not satisfied with the position I’m currently occupying. There is work yet to be done. To look into this more fully, I’m writing a series of three further reflections. The first tells the story of the values and ideology that led to me choosing librarianship as a profession. The second tells the story of the ugly realities and compromises that clash with those values and ideologies. The third reflections wraps things up by explaining how I can be committed to working for these values through a system even when I recognize that this system is often flawed and complicit in the injustice I’m trying to undo.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Dr. Chris Bourg is to be thanked / blamed for my use of librarian as a verb.

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