Editorial, Resources

Libraries and the Election: A Whole Person Response

I just finished reading this post from R. David Lankes, best known as the author of The Atlas of New Librarianship, and this related post from Anthony Molaro. Both men are professors of library and information science, and both call for action from knowledge professionals in response to this week’s election. Lankes focuses on the work knowledge schools must do, and Molaro make suggestions for public library programs and services that anticipate the knowledge needs of our communities.

Both also, whether they realize it or not, are echoing Whole Person Librarianship’s call for person-centered social justice in librarianship.

Lankes reinforces that we need to act equitably if we truly want to support diversity. He mentions the extra work we put into reaching incarcerated patrons, for example, and the importance of promoting universal design. Molaro suggests we all begin to prepare to educate our patrons on health care following the seemingly inevitable demise of the Affordable Care Act (a great idea and one I intend to adopt). He also mentions hosting more civic conversations in libraries, which reminds me of the work ALA has done to support libraries as centers of community conversation (Libraries Foster Community Engagement). Significantly, the ALA Public Programs Office just received a grant to offer training on civic engagement to all librarians. The timing on that obviously couldn’t be better.

Whole Person Librarianship is a concept as much as a practice. It unites social work methods, rooted in social justice, with how we conceive of our roles as librarians and how we approach knowing our patrons. I sometimes find it challenging to justify the importance of WPL as a concept in a world where people are looking for direction on what to do. What good is an idea? What does it do for us? I think this moment provides something of an answer. Each of the responses suggested above, and more that are out there, are based in knowing the person in context. We serve incarcerated patrons best when we understand they’re where they are not because they’re “bad” but at least in part because of larger social systems they had no choice to be born into. We understand the importance of educating the public about things like health care options, not because we’re taking a political stance but because we see our role in a larger continuum of care. Even as we individual librarians approach the hurt and frustration of our community members – regardless of which side we’re on – a person-in-context approach can give us the strength to respond with empathy.

All of this, especially the notion of hosting community-engaged conversations on challenging topics, begins to raise the question of library “neutrality.” There’s plenty to read and discuss about that if you want to stray down that path. But one of the beautiful things about WPL is it provides a framework for action that doesn’t require worrying about being neutral. Sociology, human behavior, psychology, and other social sciences that inform social work methodologies are based in research and evidence. I’m thinking here of how children’s librarianship has been elevated by educators’ research into early literacy skills. Because of the work of researchers, we know that early language skills have a lifelong impact, that parents are their children’s best teachers, and that we can help them be aware of their teaching skills and boost their children’s achievement. This is no small part of why youth services librarians are now superstars, where they used to be seen as frivolous. Evidence-based practice inherently supports equity.

Adult services librarianship never fully emerged from our post-Google identity crisis. The more we respond to social struggles, the more we define our new and powerful role as conveners and educators. We need to name and claim this movement so that we have a common vocabulary, both for moving forward and for justifying our role to our leaders and communities. Whole Person Librarianship provides a unifying approach to piecemeal social justice-based responses and defines our purpose and identity.

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