Last week my library colleague, Chris Gevara, and I, hopped on a bus full of (mostly) women, and headed to Washington DC for the Women’s March on January 21st. Our former colleague and emerita library staffer Sage Holben was on a different bus in our same group. A number of our library colleagues and their families marched at the Minnesota State Capitol for the “sister march” held the same day. By now you’ve heard the stories of the march and seen the pictures, and have likely read that the March may have been the largest demonstration in US history. It was truly inspiring, an experience that I will never forget, and that still gives me chills to think about. It felt good, and positive, and safe, in spite of my apprehension around crowds. And I think it is no accident that I know so many librarians who marched.
I brought with me some hand-knit pink hats crafted by friends, a sign that my two young sons helped me make and a Kindle e-reader full of books to inspire me, such as Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine and We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As it happened, I didn’t read all that much on the bus, mostly because the people seated around me turned out to be some of the nicest, most interesting people I have met, and we learned a lot about each other on that trip… on the 22 hour ride to DC, and the 22 hour ride back to Minnesota.
Marches, protests, rallies and other forms of civic engagement are fundamental parts of our democracy, and are an important form of free speech. As a librarian, I relish and strive to protect speech in all forms. Speech in books, in song, in prayer, in tweets, and in handwritten signs held by marchers. Libraries exist as a way to foster the creation, dissemination, and preservation of speech. Did you know that libraries and archives have already begun collecting and preserving the signs held by the women’s marchers? I think it is amazing!
My own walk at the Women’s March was relatively easy, but I march in the footsteps of so many others who have had much harder walks, who have put their bodies on the line for civil rights, for suffrage, and for equality. In Birmingham, where firehoses and dogs were turned on Black bodies as they marched for civil rights. In Stonewall, where the LGBT community rose up against the police to fight for the right to live and love freely and openly. These protests were not always peaceful, and they were not always “legal”, but they were right. Martin Luther King Jr. is best known for his powerful words, but he blocked traffic, too. But these marches and these actions were just, they were important, and they changed our country for the better. I look back at various points in history and I think about what I would have done if I had lived in “those” times. I feel like now is one of “those” moments, and THIS is what I need to be doing. I occupy a space of privilege in our society, and I am trying to find ways to put my body on the line, to put myself next to, or in front of, bodies that are facing harm.
“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
Libraries are not neutral spaces. Librarians, as a profession, have a Library Bill of Rights that we adhere to. We fiercely protect the privacy of our patrons, protect their access to computers and to reading material, and fight censorship of all types. But this goes far beyond the space within the library walls. Inequality, injustice, ableism, racism – all these things can become an issue of lack of access. Libraries can be a site for resistance to that. But if we (libraries) remain silent, we can become part of the system that perpetuates injustices. We become part of the problem. We like to think of libraries as a safe space, as place of sanctuary. But it is not enough just to exist, to just open the doors and hope people come in. We need to fight to create a space that is truly open and welcoming to all.
“I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this
reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” – James Baldwin
As a librarian I am troubled by the way the news media seems to be failing us. I am hopeful that some of our best reporters will write good pieces, challenging pieces, and that we will listen, that we will be able to separate the important news from that which is distracting or untrue. But I also hope we will turn to each other and listen to our individual lived experiences and learn from them, too. There are people who you know, in your life, people who have important stories to tell, who have lived through wars and turmoil, who have seen great things and beautiful things and who suffered and who marched! You should listen to them. In real life, and not just on Facebook. Ask them about what they experienced. Ask them to share their stories with a library, or to participate in a project such as with the Veterans History project of the Library of Congress or the Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota. And you should tell your stories, because they are important, too. And if you want to learn more about the Women’s March, feel free to reach out to me, Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org because I’d be happy to share more about my experience with you.
“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.”
About the Author
Jennifer DeJonghe is a Librarian and Professor at Metropolitan State University Library.