Libraries Are Still For Everyone, Period

In my reference class this spring, we talked about the ethics of librarianship and our duties as reference librarians when creating our policies to think about how it impacts patrons. My professor said that we should think about who a policy harms as much as it helps, and it is something that has stuck with me: every policy hurts someone, intentionally or not.

Consider my old undergraduate library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis: alumni could check out books but could not use interlibrary loan or access consortia books. Non-UMSL affiliated could use our public computer terminals, but not our Wi-Fi, as it was tied into student and staff logins. Access for some people means less access for others, and there are varying levels of access for all patrons, on multiple levels.

However, when libraries start throwing up artificial accessibility barriers, that’s a problem. At Librarian.net, someone wrote in saying that a local U.S. library was asking for patron’s proof of citizenship before they could get a library card. The article writer gave them a lot of good resources, but it rankles that it should even be happening. They did say something worth repeating outside of the various links and organizations provided: Everyone should be allowed to use the public libraries and everyone should be welcome.

Libraries have an obligation, practically and ethically, to serve every patron to the greatest extent that they can at any time. When it comes to signing up for a library card, thus opening the gateways for access to everything the library provides to its patron, what do they need to know beyond proof of residence and name? Asking for proof of citizenship, especially in this current political climate of hostility against refugees and immigrants, makes the library a hostile place for the underserved and marginalized. It demands more of them than required for any other patron group. It swings shut the gateways and closes off an amazing amount of resources to people who need them.

Then there are people who simply don’t have any proof of citizenship. Yes, there is your birth certificate – do you know where it is, right now? I know my mother has mine, but if I needed it in a pinch, it would take time to find it. Some don’t even have that. Imagine that through no fault of your own that your birth records have been lost, misplaced, destroyed, etc., and you’re without definitive proof. What then? You could use a passport, but according to this AP article on a recent surge in passport renewals, only 41% of Americans hold a passport. Other forms of citizenship involve jumping through application hoops with Immigration Services – and, really, how much hassle does the average person want to go through for one piece of paper so they can get a library card?

Besides, there’s something darkly sinister slithering under the surface of this library’s request: why are they asking in the first place? If they have a photo ID proving their local residency (which is another can of worms considering how certain areas have been shutting down their only DMV offices in past years, but that’s another conversation), it’s proof that they pay local taxes, which means they get a free library card, end of discussion.

What would this library do with this information once obtained? Could there be low-key discrimination against residents from other countries going on, especially if this information is permanently tied to their patron record for every employee to see? There is no good usage of this information, aside from casual discrimination and a fostering of ill will towards certain groups. Because I bet you that there’s a good chance this particular library isn’t asking every patron for proof of citizenship, just some.

If you work as a librarian at a public library, your duty is to serve the general public that walks in every day, and that’s it. You wouldn’t randomly ask someone if they were a veteran or LGBT or widowed or anything else outside of what is required while they signed up for a library card, would you? Then don’t ask for proof of citizenship, especially since it has no practical use in the application process. And if you are at a library that has a similar policy, maybe question why it is there and who they are trying to keep out with it. Every policy has a sting to it in one way or another, but not every harmful policy needs to be in practice.

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3 thoughts on “Libraries Are Still For Everyone, Period

  1. Wonderful article, I like your underlying motivations, but I am deeply uncomfortable with your statement – “every policy hurts someone, intentionally or not”. I don’t believe that is true. Policy is about procedure and protocol, it is about making explicit the way things work. I have found policy to be an incredible tool, that making and writing good policy is one of the most direct ways to foster and to ensure ongoing inclusion in libraries.

    • Thank you for commenting! I hope I didn’t come across as saying policy is inherently a bad thing, but that every policy has a benefit and a negative, even if the negative is something like ‘this patron type can’t access our databases’ or ‘patrons who arrive after the building is closed can’t access our stacks’. Policy is definitely a great tool for inclusion and access. I’m definitely glad that libraries are writing more and more inclusive policies and making their resources more open and fair. Perhaps ‘hurts’ was too strong a word, in retrospect.

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