I wrote this email last week Friday and emailed it to Meredith Schwartz, who assumed the position of Library Journal‘s editor-in-chief this past January. I have lightly redacted some references to a specific project we were working on together but left the substantive critique of Library Journal‘s actions around the Library of the Year award intact.
Updated 2020-06-11 in response to the second message LJ posted. See below the original email.
This isn’t the email I wanted to write this morning. I was hoping to be able to touch base about [project]. Instead, it turns out I need to put my [participation] on pause. I’m sure you know why.
I learned yesterday that the 2020 Gale/LJ Library of the Year award has been given to the Seattle Public Library. As I know you are aware, based on the statement Library Journal issued in response to criticism, the SPL decision to create an unsafe environment for their trans/nonbinary staff and patrons by hosting an anti-trans group in the library this past February makes this award deeply problematic. Even if – as the LJ statement argues – the SPL is taking critique seriously, and working to make institutional change, this award would be (at best) premature.
It’s particularly difficult to stomach such an accolade during Pride month, when we remember the queer and trans youth of color who led the Stonewall uprising. You also made the decision to gloss over the February event during a historical moment when trans/nonbinary people in the United States are being targeted by organized, reactionary forces on the political right who feel emboldened by the Trump administration to pursue an aggressive anti-trans legislative and legal agenda (see for example here, here, and here). Context matters. It is also important to remember that trans and nonbinary people are part of the “vulnerable communities” that you argue in your statement SPL has “radically improved” services for. Trans and nonbinary people of color are disproportionately likely to experience homelessness and poverty, for example, and struggle to access trans-competent mental and medical health services. SPL should not be earning gold stars for “radical” improvements in addressing systemic racism while ignoring the experiences and needs of trans people of color in their community.
Your statement frames the backlash about the award as one that revolves around a harmful, imagined binary between “intellectual freedom” on one side and “equity and inclusion” on the other. Such a framing suggests that for libraries to be champions of intellectual freedom – a notion that makes most white, cisgendered, straight, middle-class, able-bodied liberal-identifying Americans feel warm fuzzy feelings – they must, sadly but necessarily, accept the cost of harm done to marginalized people. Freedom, after all, is supposedly an ultimate good. Where does this leave the freedom (intellectual and otherwise) of trans and nonbinary staff and patrons of libraries like the SPL that allow groups that jeopardize trans lives to convene? Where does that leave the freedom of the trans staff member who must welcome individuals who aggressively misgender them, or patrons unable to access the library’s resources because the presence of the anti-trans group makes the library inaccessible to them? True freedom requires equity and inclusion rather than standing in opposition to it. If an institution argues that maintaining the “freedom” of group A requires the continued unsafety or dehumanization of group B, that is a false freedom.
My relationship with Library Journal since 2013* has been a long and rewarding one. I value my relationships with my editors, and the staff I work with on professional development courses, deeply. They have all helped me do better work as a librarian and as a human being who cares about justice and strives to do better. It is because of these relationships that I am taking the time to write this email at the end of what has been an exhausting week.
UPDATE: Library Journal has issued a second response to the criticism it is receiving. They continue to refuse to withdraw the award, arguing the racial equity work of the Seattle Public Library outweighs harm done to the trans community. They plan to, separately, donate $10k to the Gender Justice League and outline a series of things like trainings and special issues and forums they plan to host on queer and trans issues as next steps.
First, I want to foreground the activism of both LJ staff who called out this problematic award and members of the broader library community who organized a swift response with clear demands. It is never without risk to stand up to your employer and we should remember those who did and continue to support them. And the $10k to the Gender Justice League is a clear win for those who crafted the open letter and identified concrete reparative action. You didn’t get everything you asked for, but this donation surely would not have happened without you. Organized activism works!
Second, I continue to be deeply frustrated by the way LJ is using racial equity as a shield to deflect criticisms about harm to trans people. This erases the embodied experience of trans people of color who were harmed by SPL actions, and for whom racial equity will not be effective in the absence of trans-inclusive practice. It’s also incredibly tacky and transparent to argue that work on behalf of marginalized group X makes you immune from criticism about, or cancels out harm done to, marginalized group Y. White queer folks don’t get a pass on racism because they’re queer; libraries don’t get a pass on trans harm because they do anti-racism work.
Third, a suspicious number of LJ’s promised “actions” rely on the labor of queer and trans people. While trans people are the experts on their own experience it is not their job to fix this situation. All that I can say at this point is anyone approached to provide labor for these action points should make an informed decision about participation, be clear in writing about what they will be responsible for providing (and make sure the intellectual rights remain with you), and ask for an abundant amount of money. This work should be well compensated, full stop. A company that can find $10k to donate in less than a week can pay queer and trans people well for their labor.
*In the email I mistakenly indicated I had been reviewing since 2014.
**I have signed this open letter (signature #1172) and by doing so indicated that if the award is not rescinded, with the award money going to Gender Justice League, by 30 June 2020 I will voluntarily rescind my 2019 Reviewer of the Year award due to “irreconcilable differences in values” (wording suggested by Fobazi M. Ettarh).