The TPL Debacle: Values vs People

I can’t stop thinking about the situation at TPL. The short version is that the library has accepted a room rental from an anti-trans speaker, and despite outcry from trans people and their allies, despite a petition and a boycott by writers, despite their own policy on room rentals not allowing events that promote discrimination, they insist on letting the event proceed. Some library associations are supporting them because librarians love being Champions of Intellectual Freedom.

Many people have made cogent arguments about why TPL’s stance is wrong (see posts by Fobazi Ettarh, Sam Popowich, Kris Joseph). I agree. But there seemed to be more of a reason why the whole thing made me so sad. I’m writing because I think I’ve figured it out.

In its two public statements on the matter, TPL has made sure to say that they “are supporters of the LGBTQ2S+ community.” They “are aware that the upcoming room rental event has caused anger and concern.” But the “community is asking us to censor someone because of the beliefs they hold and to restrict a group’s right to equitably access public space and we cannot do either. Doing so would also weaken our ability to protect others’ rights to the same in the future.” Fine.

But they also said “While TPL encourages public debate and discussion about differing ideas, we also encourage those with opposing or conflicting viewpoints to respectfully challenge each other’s ideas and not the library’s democratic mandate to provide space for both.” That doesn’t sound super supportive. And at the board meeting held on October 22 where the matter was discussed, it was clear they were more concerned with a respectful tone than with actually listening and understanding. Reading how the trans women who spoke at that meeting felt about how they were treated was heartbreaking.


It does not sound like these women were talking to “supporters” of their community.

And that is what’s making me extra sad about the whole thing. Not only is TPL choosing to value intellectual freedom more than they value trans people in their community, they are choosing to value intellectual freedom instead of valuing trans people in their community.

It is not incompatible with upholding intellectual freedom to also acknowledge that it’s doing harm. TPL could reach out to the community and say “we know this event makes trans people feel unsafe. But we’re convinced that not allowing it to go forward will set a precedent for future decisions to shut down other events, possibly those that actively support trans people, and we cannot let that happen. We understand that this event will cause harm and undermine our relationships with LGBTQ2S+ people and your allies. What can we do to mitigate this harm?”

It’s not as good as cancelling the event entirely, but at least it would show that TPL has been listening to its community. It would show that they have thought through the consequences of choosing values over people. It would show that they are not just “aware” of “anger and concern” but they understand the fears, risks, and harm their actions are causing. And of course, the community would have every right to tell them, no, there is nothing you can do to mitigate this harm. But that doesn’t mean TPL shouldn’t try. To not just say “we uphold intellectual freedom,” but to acknowledge exactly what that means in this particular case.

I’m reminded of the saying that goes something like “your right to swing your arm ends when your fist meets my face.” TPL is insisting that they have the right to keep swinging. Fine. But they have been told that their fist has already met the face of the trans community. The compassionate thing would be to offer first aid.

But TPL is not interested. Which, sadly, speaks volumes. It makes it crystal clear that they do not care about the trans community. It makes it crystal clear that they believe that the trans community and its allies are dispensable to their operations. The consequences of their decision (or, to be fair, their decision not to make a decision) are acceptable collateral damage; they are happy to make no attempt to mitigate any of it. If they really were supporters of the LGBTQ2S+ community, they would be supporting the LGBTQ2S+ community.

In a way, it’s not surprising that the trans community is the group that so many librarians are choosing to not care about. Being trans is simultaneously visible and invisible. A trans person may be visibly trans in that they do not present in the way that some might expect, but what makes them trans is inside them, not outside. What makes a person trans is in their heart and their mind. They know who they are *inside* in a way that cannot be seen by people who don’t know them (people who do know them can see how much happier they are when their outside gets closer to matching their inside). But to the outside eye, to the dispassionate eye, there is no evidence. And without evidence, their trans-ness can be seen as just a belief. And if it’s just a belief, well then, we can debate it. And we should debate it because, as librarians, we are Champions of Intellectual Freedom.

I so wish that we were champions of people instead.


Library Workers and Resilience: More Than Self-Care

An article in the Globe and Mail this spring about resilience was a breath of fresh air—no talk about “grit” or bootstraps or changing your own response to a situation. It was written by Michael Ungar, the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family, and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University and leader of the Resilience Research Centre there. The research shows that what’s around us is much more important than what’s inside us when it comes to dealing with stress.

The article was adapted from Ungar’s book, the now-published Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success. I know, the title is a little cringey. And honestly, some of the book veers into self-help-style prose even as it decries the self-help industry. But on the whole, there is quite a lot that it interesting here. I was looking at it for an upcoming project on help-seeking, but it keeps coming to mind during discussions about self-care and burnout among library workers.

Ungar writes of the myth of the “rugged individual” who can persevere through their own determination and strength of character. We get fed a lot of stories about rugged individuals, but Ungar has found that when you look closely at them, what you find instead are “resourced individuals”—people who have support from the people and environment around them.

“Resilience is not a do-it-yourself endeavor. Striving for personal transformation will not make us better when our families, workplaces, communities, health care providers, and governments provide us with insufficient care and support.” (p.14)

Ungar is mostly focused on youth but also writes about workplaces, even though this is not his direct area of research. Two passages in particular caught my eye: “Every serious look at workplace stress has found that when we try and influence workers’ problems in isolation, little change happens. … Most telling, when individual solutions are promoted in workplaces where supervisors do not support their workers… resilience training may actually make matters worse, not better.” (p.109)

A now-removed article in School Library Journal explained how one library worker changed herself to deal with her burnout. The reaction to this article was swift and strong. Many of us know that individual stories of triumph over adversity are bullshit, particularly when we have seen those same efforts fail in our own contexts. I have found it validating to find research backs that up.

Ungar does allow that there are times when changing oneself can work—either a) when stress is manageable and we already have the resources (if you can afford to take two weeks off to go to a meditation retreat, why not), or b) when there is absolutely nothing else you can do to change your environment or circumstances (your job is terrible but you can’t leave it and you’ve tried to do what you can to improve things, so sure take some time to meditate at your desk to get you through your day). But most of us live somewhere between perfectly-resourced and completely hopeless. So what needs to be fixed is our environment, not ourselves.

I have noticed resilience has been coming up as a theme in my own university over the last year or so—workshops on becoming more resilient or fostering resilient employees. Ungar says “To be resilient is to find a place where we can be ourselves and be appreciated for the contributions that we make.” That’s not something individuals can do by themselves. People in leadership positions would do well to better understand the research behind resilience rather than the self-help inspired, grit-obsessed, bootstraps version. Workshops and other initiatives that focus on individuals will not fix anything. At best, they are resources for people who are already doing pretty well. At worst, they add to the burden of people already struggling by making them feel like their struggles are caused by their own insufficiency.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts based on a single book; I’m nowhere in the realm of knowledgeable on this subject. But I thought it might be helpful to share that there is research that backs up the lived experience of the many library workers who struggle in their organizations, despite their own best efforts.