There is a script for a mid-crisis column: acknowledge the situation, reference previous crises we’ve overcome, extoll the virtue of the audience, then make a call for action toward a bright future.
Except, the situation we find ourselves in today is different. To begin with, what crisis are we referring to? The global pandemic, mass unemployment, or the institutional racism in our society? And what past do we reference? The influenza pandemic of 1918? The Great Depression? The civil rights era?
As I write this, the novel coronavirus has caused more than 133,000 deaths in the U.S., with new infections on the rise in as many as 40 states. Presidential tweets are not fireside chats. Mobilizing a nation to fight an “invisible enemy” by staying home or wearing a mask is not like preparing for war against a foreign adversary. The only all-too-familiar script playing out in America today, sadly, is violence being used against peaceful protestors and those marching for their basic human rights. Situation acknowledged. Previous crises referenced. But no comfort to be found.
How about extolling virtue? Throughout these past four months, librarians have worked to vastly expand digital services to help those sheltered in place. Publishers and authors have pitched in by tossing out embargoes, reducing prices, and in some cases making resources freely available. New digital relationships have been formed, and new modes of community implemented.
Yet here too the script is failing. Four major publishers are now suing the Internet Archive. Library staffs are clashing with management over the wisdom and safety of reopening in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. Educators are fighting with administrators about online instruction. And classically defined noble institutions are laying off workers.
We are all probably weary of the term unprecedented. But these times are just that—because the crises we face are finally forcing us to recognize and confront an uncomfortable truth that has persisted for generations: It is true that libraries, publishers, and schools and colleges work for the betterment of society. But as part of that society, we have also played a role in sustaining its worst elements. This includes supporting institutional racism, as well as too often putting our grand mission before the well-being of our workforce—a practice Rutgers University librarian Fobazi Ettarh has defined as “vocational awe.”
A 'Better' Normal
It is acknowledgments like these that make so many recent calls to rise to the occasion as we have in the past fall flat. No matter how well-intentioned, too many of these calls lack the radical empathy needed for a time of such change, disruption, and loss. People are rightly angry and afraid—and not just because of what has happened but because of what is happening and what might still happen.
The crises we face today—in public health, in our economy, and in confronting the structural racism in our society—demand that we rethink everything, including what we’ve always considered virtuous institutions, like libraries, schools, and publishers. Yes, we must rise again to serve our communities. But not in the same ways as in the past.
Like unprecedented, another expression many of us are growing weary of is “the new normal.” It is a term that is almost always presented in terms of loss, too often defined as things we can’t do (no hugs, or handshakes, no crowds, no job security) or the unpopular things we must now accommodate (masks, social distancing, temperature checks). The implicit assumption being that the “old” normal was better.
I disagree. Students unable to succeed in their studies because they lack access to the internet should not be normal. People dying at home because they cannot afford healthcare should not be normal. A world where misinformation and conspiracy theories about racist-labeled state-engineered viruses are accepted alongside expert medical evidence should not be normal. Having the zip code of your birth determine your future prosperity should not be normal. Black men dying under the knees of police officers should never be normal. And racism embedded in our institutions can never be the norm again. We need a new normal. Because the reality too many of us accepted just a few months ago must never be normal again.
The world is changing. And I submit to you that librarians, publishers, authors, and educators must play a key role in guiding that change. Because every hole in our social safety net exposed during this pandemic, all the disparities and racism and systemic inequality, and every crack in our response, has a knowledge component.
We have seen how data can be misreported, misinterpreted, or ignored. We have seen how the work of teachers and educators cannot simply be shifted to overstressed parents. We have seen how politicized responses to the pandemic and the protests can sow division instead of unity. And we see how institutional racism leads to fundamental injustice and to disproportionate deaths and economic loss in communities of color.
As librarians, authors, publishers, and educators, we must fight for an inclusive society. And that means we ourselves must do the work to become anti-racist. We must actively recruit, hire, promote and retain more knowledge workers of color. We must support and defend new research agendas from too-often-marginalized communities, including LQBTQIA+ citizens and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color). We must offer more than words of support to authors of color—we must respect their knowledge and disseminate their lived experience. We must pursue a more diverse and humane work environment. And we must constantly, ruthlessly interrogate our own motives and contributions to the health and well-being of our nation.
And as knowledge professionals, we must embrace an agenda that expands democratic participation. Yes, in terms of the vote, but also by demanding more transparency—in our government, in our communities, and within our own professional organizations. Key to that effort will be winning the fight for universal broadband. No longer can we accept Wi-Fi in our library parking lots as “access.” Broadband is essential for participation in a new normal America—for work, for learning, for wellness, and for basic participation in our democracy.
It is time for a new script. A script that commits us to building an equitable and inclusive society, and a future based upon the common good. A script that puts the physical, mental, and spiritual health of our communities first, including the health of our own workers. As librarians, publishers, and educators, our virtue does not lie in continuing the work of the past but in constantly recreating ourselves to be more just in the present.
Perhaps that work has finally begun. In a statement released at its virtual conference last month, the American Library Association accepted responsibility for its past racism and pledged to become a truly equitable association. The ALA statement joins a growing chorus of in support of Black Lives Matter, the trans community, and LGBTQIA+ rights. Such statements are a necessary, if long overdue step. Acknowledging our complicity and demonstrating a new resolve to recreate our institutions puts us on the path to becoming honest, trustworthy partners with the communities we reside in and serve. Now, we must back up those words with actions.