On the 2020 Library of the Year Award
Updated: Jun 10
Library Journal has announced that while they are not going to rescind the award, they will make a donation to Seattle's Gender Justice League; they also outline some plans for improved representation in the publication, among other things.
This is frankly a lot more than I expected from them, but that was pretty much nothing. The donation is a nice touch, and I understand keeping the award (the antiracism work that SPL does is very much worthy of acknowledgment). I still wish that LJ had chosen a different recipient originally, but it's much too late for that. To me, whether this response means anything will depend on how the practical steps are implemented. Mostly, the question is whether LJ plans to adequately compensate the trans people who they claim to want to center. Creating space for trans voices must include paying for the work, especially when the journal will be making money off of it. It also means not putting additional unwelcome labor on their trans employees, which is very often what happens when an organization decides to do better. It is currently unclear whether LJ plans to do any of this.
Also: DO NOT SAY 'QUEER AND TRANS' WHEN IT'S A SPECIFICALLY TRANS ISSUE. ERASURE OF TRANS EXPERIENCES WAS THE ORIGINAL PROBLEM.
Original post, 6/4/2020:
A few weeks ago, I did a webinar on how libraries can better support their trans employees. In it I said, not for the first time, that the bar is appallingly low: Trans people exist. That’s it. I really, really hate the constant reminders that this was in no way an exaggeration.
On June 3, 2020, Library Journal named Seattle Public Library as Library of the Year. From the article, the library has legitimately done some extraordinary work; I’m not arguing that. What it entirely fails to acknowledge is that the library also received large amounts of criticism from trans people and allies for hosting an anti-trans hate group in February. The section on “Hard Conversations,” which one might think is an ideal place to address the event and reaction, does not. What it does have is a story about the library’s learning and development after a trans patron was refused access to a family restroom in 2017. (The only mention of meeting rooms, regarding community support, states that “Sometimes these needs are complex; in other instances they can be as simple as making meeting rooms available,” which they sure did!) The library’s Race and Social Justice Initiative team is described as comprising “a mix of races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, and job classifications.” (Gender is not mentioned, in case that needed pointing out.)
On June 4, 2020, Library Journal posted an article in response to the many objections people had raised to the award. Unlike the original announcement, this one does acknowledge the hate group event. It’s a textbook statement for this sort of thing: “We hear the anger and disappointment and take these concerns seriously,” followed by a complete failure to actually do so in a meaningful way. This article is something of a mess; I’m particularly fascinated by the claim “we wish that the library had not allowed that event to go forward” followed by a convoluted explanation of how it was actually a viable decision. There’s a lot of description of the library’s ability to reflect on its “missteps” and a mention, lest we forget, that they got better about trans people in restrooms in 2017 (though only after the patron in question posted on social media, according to the original article). There are repeated mentions of the library’s work with LGBTQIA+ groups, which is an all-too-familiar failure to realize that trans people are often harmfully impacted by things that do not affect all other queer people. Umbrella terms are fine, but not when one particular group is being harmed.
I am wholly uninterested in revisiting the meeting room debate; among other things, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that the people in control over the issue are not willing to listen to trans people, and I’m not going to waste my time begging them. I’m not even expecting Library Journal to change its mind or for SPL to pass on the award, though either would be an excellent solution (not as good as, you know, not hosting hate groups or not rewarding institutions for hosting hate groups, but we're rather past those options now).
What alarms me is the way trans people have been described throughout both articles -- or, more often, not described. The story about restrooms in the original announcement was a version of the most stereotypical, one-dimensional trans narrative that exists: a trans person tries to use a restroom, they are harassed and complain publicly, the institution realizes the error of its ways and puts up a new sign, all is now well. (Another thing I said in my webinar was that I am so tired of talking about restrooms, and I really, really, really am.) It’s not a story that the library should get any credit for, but whatever. The really concerning thing is that this event was mentioned, but the hate group event was not. The acknowledgment of trans people only in neatly-packaged, palatable narratives, at the expense of more complex issues, is incredibly familiar (see the entirely of news media and fiction) and deeply upsetting.
When I saw the original announcement, I couldn’t decide if Library Journal was too oblivious to have heard about the hate group issue or if they simply didn’t care. Today’s statement demonstrates that it is the second option. To be clear, I have enormous respect for the equity work that SPL has done, and without February’s event, they would probably be wholly deserving of the award. One could argue, as Library Journal explicitly does, that they are anyway, because the problems are outweighed by the value of the other work.
Let me tell you what that argument says to me. It says, sure, it would have been nice if they hadn’t, but harm to trans people isn’t important enough to be a real factor. It says, we knew about this thing that destroyed so many trans people's trust in libraries, but we didn't think it was worth mentioning. The content of the original announcement says, we’re happy to acknowledge trans people, but only if you fit into a neat story about restrooms.
Library Journal (and ALA, and lots of libraries, and most individuals) don’t often demonstrate support for trans people in any kind of meaningful or consistent way. At this point, I don’t really expect it; I know we’re on our own, for the most part. It is still gutting to be told, first implicitly and then, when we make noise, very clearly, that we really truly do not matter in this profession.