Sunday, November 17, 2013

FAU Library Denies Access for Maybe Legitimate Reason; Still Fails All Around

A very unfortunate thing happened at the Florida Atlantic University library a few weeks ago.

(WPTV) Turned away for looking like a woman. That is what a gay, male Florida Atlantic University student claims happened on Wednesday at the campus library.
Abdul Asquith said he was trying to check out a laptop to study for his communications classes.
"She looked at the ID and looked down at it. She said, 'You sound, look and act like a girl and in this ID is a man, therefore I'm not giving you a laptop,' " said Asquith.
Asquith said he was wearing an FAU hoodie, shorts and had his long hair pulled back. (
Asquith apparently made his way through several levels of what he and the media refer to as librarians, each impugning his identity, before he was finally allowed the use of a laptop.
I have two rants to deliver on the subject of this appalling story: first, about the library staff’s ignorant and hurtful behavior, and second, about deeper issues of perception and trust that the incident places in stark relief.
The incident: A breakdown of librarian values

The following is predicated on the assumption that the staff who denied Asquith a computer were, in fact, making the call on the basis of discomfort with his gender expression.

I’m sure that there are plenty of librarians out there who would personally disagree with my avowed progressive, humanist philosophy, a personal philosophy that nevertheless deeply informs my approach to librarianship.  It’s entirely possible to be a good librarian without having voted for Barack Obama or whatever other political benchmark you want to set.

That said, there’s a certain minimum standard we need to meet in order not to betray the ethics of our profession, and that standard does align with a liberal worldview.  It’s right there in the very first point in the ALA Code of Ethics:

  1. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests. (emphasis mine)

So, I’m sorry--whomever you pull the lever for, whatever you rally for, whatever unfortunate opinions on issues of race, gender, sexuality, etc. that are counted as a-ok wherever you were raised or currently live--you have to leave all that baggage at the door when you walk into the library, because if not, you are going to be a terrible librarian.  And we all want to be good at our jobs, don’t we?

I’m really trying not to have a big subjective political screed here, but our professional forefathers got together decades ago and looked at what we do and how we do it and laid out, in simple terms, the basic things we must accomplish in order to consider that we are doing our job ethically.  If you have a serious issue with ‘unconventional’ gender expression and you can’t look past it for eight hours a day, you should perhaps consider another profession, one that isn’t so rough on your prejudices.

Again, I’m sure that lots of librarians who are perfectly decent human beings hold differing thoughts and feelings from me, and then manage to behave appropriately and helpfully to all patrons they encounter at work.  But the folks at FAU failed that big time, even if they denied Asquith the laptop under the most generously-assumed version of events, and we should talk about why and how that happened.


To be sure, this would not be the only time that libraries have flirted with the worse angels of the American character.  During the Jim Crow era, many southern libraries and library systems practiced segregation--but even then, it was recognized that this spat in the face of library ideals, and libraries ended up desegregating at a much faster pace than other institutions.

Now, I have more than a suspicion that at least a couple of the ‘librarians’ who behaved so execrably to this student were no librarians at all, but most likely FAU students hired to man the various service desks, or possibly paraprofessionals.  That doesn’t get the FAU librarians off the hook, though.  If we are going to populate library service jobs with non-librarians--as is increasingly the case--we need to make sure that those employees are as on-board with our professional ethics as we are.  We’re not really fulfilling our role, and the ALA code of ethics, if we are letting anyone make our patrons feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in our institutions, chilling their pursuit of information and entertainment and building walls between libraries and some of the most information-hungry segments of society.

That is the main issue, and whether or not discrimination was intended, FAU should apologize to the individual affected and to the community at large (which I cannot find any indication that they have done).  The fact is that the appearance of discrimination is troubling enough, as is the appearance that the library and university don’t care enough to bother setting the record straight.  Which leads nicely to my second rant...

The aftermath: An imbroglio of public perception

And now to address the controversy under the assumption that staff did not intentionally discriminate against Asquith.

Despite the awful way this situation was handled, some commenters have pointed out at least one justification for the library’s vigilance, if not the tactics employed--a justification I am inclined to be sympathetic to, as it corresponds with efforts to carry out and protect the library’s mission.  Basically it boils down to protecting the library’s property from what employees perceived as a possible fraudster--an individual misrepresenting him or herself as a student to gain access to potentially valuable equipment.  This is possibly, then, a case of the failure of appropriate training, and not one of sexual identity discrimination (another point that makes me feel that these weren’t actual librarians, as we tend to be sensitive to the need for verification before denying access to anyone).  And yet nowhere is there a statement from the library or the school explaining their rationale, however misguided, for challenging Asquith’s right to equipment--leaving a resounding silence filled with uncomfortable questions.

(And can I say, for just a moment, how stupid it would be for a female identity thief to present the ID card of a male student in order to pull off this fraud?  I know that criminals have done dumber things, but really, let’s think this through before jumping to point ‘z’ here.  Yet another factor that leads me to believe that these were not librarians, and probably not adults, but, in fact, somewhat dull student assistants who really should have gone to a supervisor immediately.)

So, on top of all the other failures here, we have a failure of that activity that we as librarians seem to have an ongoing problem getting right, despite the exhortations of our most visionary library school instructors: PR.  This has been a disaster of perception not just for the FAU library, but for librarianship as a whole.  I don’t know about you, but I have a problem with colleagues who cause comments like this and let them go unaddressed:

“Three different librarians?  Wow.”

“Asquith: 1; Library Nazi: 0.”

Now the librarians are stupid? Time to run for the border.”

(All from the comments section of the story on ThinkProgress.)

All three of these representative reactions demonstrate a different PR nightmare that FAU could have ameliorated with a sincere and accurate statement responding to the controversy.  The first quote demonstrates the uncritical view that anyone working in a library is a librarian.  The second shows what may be a pre-existing animus towards libraries (perhaps another symptom of the same kind of anti-librarian sentiment I explored in this post), or at least a willingness to ascribe a general skepticism of authority figures to librarians, as well.  Finally, the third quote, perhaps the most upsetting of all, seems to come from someone who initially had faith in librarians’ positive role, but for whom that faith was shaken by our complicity in the mistreatment of Asquith.

Why, why, why, FAU?

It would be so easy to set people’s minds at ease, let them know that this isn’t what librarians are all about, and that you will try to fix the issues at your institution.  But no--nothing.  Please let me know if I missed it somewhere, but I have found nothing by way of a response.

And if they think that there’s no reason to respond to such a “small” story that has no doubt been blown out of proportion by at least one “liberal media source”--sorry, no.  Even if ThinkProgress hadn’t picked the story up, FAU still owes its community an apology.  That done, the library owes our profession a signal of its efforts to restore the reputation that its failings have marred.

This isn’t the only recent story that paints librarians in a bad light and has left a bad taste in the public’s mouth.  Remember the librarian that “robbed” a child of his reign at the top of the summer reading program?  At least that library responded to criticism, to its credit, but for some reason our message has less of a chance of bursting through the narrative when it comes to negative PR.  We do a great job with the positive stories most of the time, for which I am grateful, but the negative stories catch us flat-footed and paint us as totally out of touch--even when there is another side to the story.

What a disaster. And what's worse, now there's ammunition people can use against us from both political sides. There are the perennial rightward attacks about too much access and the children, my God, the children! (as most recently embodied in the current dust-up in Illinois where it's claimed that libraries allow kids to access porn)--now there's a little more weight to the paranoid Left's potential criticisms that we are yet another institution that punishes diversity, no matter how isolated such instances are, and no matter how much evidence there is that we are actually, generally, great allies and resources for everyone in the American tapestry. Check out LAMBDA for one great recent example of our efforts as a profession to reach out.

So, FAU library and librarians, you have failed.  If your administration gagged you and you went along with it--sorry for the rough decision, but, well, fail.  

And I think that’s it.  That’s what gets in the way of librarians really fostering an ability to “do” PR and shape negative public perception in positive ways.  That’s why we might be okay as long as we’re promoting cutesy and successful kids’ programming, but we’ll always be behind the curve when it comes to image damage control.  This is it: we don’t want to rock the boat.  We want to believe that if we keep our heads down, it’ll all go away and everything will work itself out.  Anything else is just too uncomfortable.

Until the profession can move beyond this discomfort en masse, we’ll keep sending mixed signals as in the Asquith case, and we’ll keep leaving too many resounding gulfs of unanswered questions.

No comments:

Post a Comment