Sometimes You Have to Step Out of the Library

**Disclaimer-While I have my MLS, I am not currently a librarian. I’m a PhD student in Rhetoric and I’m a graduate research assistant in the TWU library, where I’ve worked for 5 years. I also happen to be taking a library school class as an elective. These posts are part of a weekly reading response. I am not speaking as a library expert. I’m speaking as a student and observer.**

When you look around your local library (public, school, academic) does it have the feeling of being a secret society where only certain patrons are welcomed and catered to, almost as if the rest of the community has never, ever been asked what they would like to see in their libraries? Almost as if the library staff is completely out of touch with the community? Do you think this is due to a lack of research or is it by design?

This week’s readings focused on ethical research and conducting community analyses in order to ensure a library that serves the entire community, not just a subset. There were a number of articles that focused on different types of research and the ethical ways in which to do it. Now, I’ll be completely honest here and say that reading research articles is not my favorite thing. Anytime I see quantitative data, my eyes glaze over because my brain does not like numbers. Having said that, there were some moments that struck me as being particularly important, especially when it came to conducting health research. 

In “Moving towards a more inclusive patient and public involvement in health research paradigm: The incorporation of a trauma-informed intersectional analysis,” Shimmin et al state that:

Substantial and robust evidence points to the existence of a social gradient in health, meaning social and economic conditions and their effects on people’s lives determine: their risk of illness; the actions they are able to take in order to prevent themselves from becoming ill; and treating illness when it does occur [12–14]. (2)

Shimmin, C., Wittmeier, K. D. M., Lavoie, J. G., Wicklund, E. D., & Sibley, K. M. (2017). Moving towards a more inclusive patient and public involvement in health research paradigm: The incorporation of a trauma-informed intersectional analysis. BMC Health Services Research, 17(1), 1–10.

This hit me hard, given my own health history. I had a partial hysterectomy in 2006 due to endometriosis.  After my divorce and the loss of my job and insurance in 2008, I was unable to see a doctor for my continuing issues with endometriosis. By the time I was able to secure health insurance in 2019, my condition had deteriorated to the point that I had to have an oophorectomy. I lived with near-constant pain for 12 years because I had no access to health insurance, and, to be honest, the issues still haven’t completely gone away. My endometriosis went untreated for too long and now there is little that can be done. 

At the same time, I know how fortunate I was to be able to even have a hysterectomy in the first place. I was a 30-year old white woman with no children which means doctors tend to become incredibly patriarchal and tell you that they won’t do that kind of surgery because “you might change your mind in a few years.” Reader, I wasn’t going to change my mind and I was very lucky to have a doctor who wanted to help me instead of controlling my reproductive abilities. On the flip side, we all should know by now the facts about forced sterilizations that have been (and continue to be) conducted on just about any woman in the U.S. who isn’t white. 

I’m running off the rails a bit here but my point is that American healthcare is terrible and we all know this. Everyone in this country is aware of the horrific state of our healthcare system. There is truly a social gradient when it comes to healthcare and these aspects must be considered when any kind of health- or medical-related research is conducted. An intersectional approach is absolutely necessary in order to gain valid and informative results.

 What the people at the top seem to be blind to is the fact that good healthcare, from an early age, for everyone, lessens the possibilities of chronic and potentially fatal conditions later in life. Our system seems to be set up to triage, by default, and that is no way to do this. Healthcare should not be based on who can afford it. Because when you have a system like that, you are condemning people based on their race and socioeconomic status. You are saying that only some people, the “right” people, deserve good health. 

So, understanding how to conduct ethical, comprehensive, and intersectional research is one thing, but in order to even begin to conduct research, librarians need to be able to step away from the counters and carrels and start talking to the people that aren’t coming through the doors. In “It Takes a Community to Create a Library,” Williment makes the point that:

By entering community spaces, outside the confines of the library, librarians can connect with members of the public who do not feel comfortable entering libraries. In order to make these connections, it is important to identify locations where socially excluded community members feel comfortable meeting. (416)

Williment, K. (2019). It Takes a Community to Create a Library. Public Library Quarterly, 0(0), 1–11.

In truth, this was something that I didn’t understand before I started library school. For me, the library was always a welcome and inviting place and I never felt like I didn’t belong. But I did belong, because libraries were made for people who looked like me. I know now how important it is to make sure that libraries are accessible to everyone in a community, no matter who they are. 

But, the only way for libraries to be a place where the entirety of the community is welcome, is to understand the community in its entirety. And this isn’t something that’s necessarily going to be easy.  Librarians have to get to know the people in their communities. All of the people. They have to understand their patrons, and potential patrons and make sure that the library is a place where everyone feels that their needs are being met. 

Communities are vibrant, multicultural, and widely varied in needs and wants. Stepping out of the doors and meeting potential patrons in their own space and in their comfort zone helps to demonstrate that you’re committed to making necessary changes. Conduct your own research, ethically, and with the full and informed consent of the community that you’re approaching. 

Talk to them about how they can best be served, and then FOLLOW THROUGH. Don’t just ask a few questions and then shelve the ideas because it might be difficult to make the change that’s required. It’s hard work to create a library that can serve everyone, but by meeting unsure patrons where they live, and getting to know them, a better library can be built.

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