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Safe spaces: Library values in the cultural wars

Headlines today scream about highly charged debates in the sociological and cultural sphere: Whose voices need to be heard? How do we create equity? What are the appropriate limits to intellectual freedom? Where does acceptable speech start and end as we navigate the uncharted waters of our society’s heightened sensitivity to marginalized people?

In this new, limited-series column, Safe spaces, I will consider some of these emerging and ever-shifting issues in light of how they intersect with the alleged values of the librarianship profession. In fact, I will go out on a limb and suggest that librarianship might favour the following:

  • A wide variety of viewpoints
  • Weaker or marginalized voices
  • Evidence to support arguments
  • Diversity
  • Healthy skepticism
  • Dialogue
  • Limits to hate propaganda

At the same time, perhaps our profession does not favour the following, which mirror the above values:

  • Progressive/liberal ideas only
  • The dismissal of majority or privileged voices
  • Settled interpretations of controversial topics
  • Exclusive spaces
  • Rushed judgment
  • Punishment
  • An avoidance of potentially offensive opinions

You will note that I don’t mention “political correctness,”(PC)  a term which could fall into either category depending on interpretation.  To some, PC translates into words that, when improperly used, can hurt. To others, PC is the use of rules to silence non-progressive voices. To still others, PC is a ruse, a detraction created by some to ridicule any limits to free speech.

Intellectual freedom is at the core of many of these debates and my own position is that any time a thought or expression is silenced–be it by government diktat, popular opinion, equity policies, or the tyranny of Twitter–this silencing constitutes a limit to freedom of speech. But I also think that some limits to freedom of expression are reasonable, and even necessary, and occasionally sanctioned (e.g, by the courts).

In upcoming columns, I will address a number of these debates including:

  • Cultural appropriation
  • Academic freedom
  • Hate speech
  • Race and privilege

My challenge in Safe spaces is to explore where the balance between freedom and limits may lie, particularly as we inevitably face the political implications presented by the collections, learning, and discovery services we provide in libraries. Watch for more in the coming months—the column will be appearing in Open Shelf approximately four times a year.

Written by Todd Kyle

Todd Kyle, CEO, Newmarket Public Library, is a former OLA president (2016) and an active member of the OLA community.

Photo credit: Brendan Church on UnSplash

This Post Has One Comment

  1. The preamble asks “Where does acceptable speech start and
    end as we navigate the uncharted waters of our society’s heightened
    sensitivity to marginalized people?” – perhaps we could start by asking them and giving them a platform?

    I would be very interested to see all of these topics taken on from the perspective of under-represented communities as a follow up. I note that this is a “limited-series”; perhaps a future iteration could include voices of folks who use/need/rely on safe spaces?

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