Since I listened to the Incendium Radical Library (IRL) cardiCast episode I can't stop thinking about the collecting policy they have adopted (time stamp 17:49). IRL have broad frameworks they align the library with, so when accepting new donations or looking at acquisitions they look at how these items could harm the wider community and balance that against the good they could do. In Tilly's words:
"I guess like the frameworks of this library is social justice, anti-oppression, intersectional feminism, prison abolition... lots of the academic books that came were first wave feminist books which are really trans exclusive we would have a conversation as to whether that in itself as like a resource is ok enough to have in here or is it too harmful? So we like talk about harm like what does this mean for people, and largely like we don't have books... that talk about trans women as... not women. And so yeah it really is a conversation between the two of us around thinking about our broad frameworks and whether they like fit into that."
The idea that you can run a library where items are weighed against how much harm they could create, rather than blindly accepting everything based on a false sense of neutrality is amazing to me. I think we're all past the idea that libraries (and the wider GLAM community) can be neutral, but so far I haven't found any work that looks at harm minimisation as a suitable replacement. This has lead me to come up with a very (very) draft model that could be used to help libraries assess services, collection items, and even event bookings.
Harm Minimisation Approach
The medical community has been using a harm minimisation approach for decades now, and since I used to work in this area the comparison is easy for me. Based on the public health model, this approach aims to reduce the harm caused by alcohol and other drugs (AOD) on individuals and society in general.
NB: It should be noted that while comparing libraries to AOD could be seen as negative, remember that AOD can be used in moderation for many beneficial things, it's when the usage becomes addictive that it becomes a problem. Since my background is in sex education, I can mentally substitute AOD for 'sexual behaviour' pretty easily, but I figured that comparison might be off-putting for many people so decided to use AOD for this example.
The harm minimisation approach is based on the following:
- Drug use, both licit and illicit, is an inevitable part of society
- Drug use occurs across a continuum, ranging from occasional use to dependent use
- A range of harms are associated to different types and patterns of AOD use
- A range of approaches can be used to respond to these harms.
What is interesting is that through this lens, AOD use is viewed as the result of the interaction between the following three parts: the individual; the social, economic, cultural and physical environment; and the drug itself. Any strategies that aim to reduce harm related to AOD use need to be focused on these three intersecting parts (The Department of Health, 2004).
For any AOD harm minimisation strategy to work, you need to understand the individual and their place in the wider environment (social factors, economic factors, community, etc.) before you can understand how they then interact with AOD. Interventions are aimed at different parts of the system, with goals and strategies broad enough to encompass and accommodate: safer use, controlled use, and abstinence.
Something else to consider is Shaffer's model for drug use. This gives a scale for AOD use that ranges from experimental, recreational/social, situational, regular/intensive, and dependant/compulsive.
Harm Minimisation Strategies
Three main strategies can apply when looking at harm minimisation (The Department of Health, 2004):
- Harm Reduction: Aims to reduce the harm from drugs for both the individual and community. Examples include: needle exchanges, drug testing, and peer education.
- Supply Reduction: Reducing the supply of illicit drugs. Examples include: legislation, and law enforcement.
- Demand Reduction: Preventing the uptake of drugs. Examples include: media campaigns, and community development projects.
The Library Approach
So from that very brief explanation of harm minimisation theory, how do we take it and apply this model to libraries? What I really like about this model is how nothing is looked at in isolation. To get to the 'drug use experience' you need to consider all the other factors before you can understand why people use AOD. I feel that this can be easily extrapolated to libraries.
The library does not exist in a vacuum. Anyone who has worked on a library's front desk will know how individuals will bring their own lived experience, coupled with wider social, and economic factors with them. For example, patrons needing to use the internet, will often clash against terrible mining induction courses run entirely in Flash, coupled with the stress of finding a job. Single parents on low incomes, facing large fines for items eaten by their pets, clash against rigid and often unforgiving borrowing rules. Or old, white, men who refuse to understand that casually dropping racist comments to circulation staff is unacceptable behaviour.
So can we adapt the harm minimisation approach to libraries?
Information, both helpful and harmful, is an inevitable part of society
Expanding this we can see that peer reviewed papers, government reports, blogs, misinformation, propaganda, and bias news media all exist together in various forms. Not all information is harmful, but harmful information does exist which is why we have adopted things like content warnings, rating systems, etc. being aware of what information could be harmful and how it affects people and society is important.
Library use occurs across a continuum, ranging from occasional use to dependent use
If libraries are for the community then it makes sense to see that there are people who fit along a wide scale of usage. Some might come in only to complete an assignment, while others might study every day. People also move along the scale depending on their own personal circumstances. Job hunters might use the library daily until they can secure employment and then are never seen again. While non-users might have children and end up using the library every day for children's activities and borrowing.
A range of harms are associated to different types and patterns of library and information use
Thinking about this, it makes a lot of sense to not only look at information consumption but how often certain information is accessed. The easiest example that I can think of is someone watching alt-right/nazi YouTube videos. Watching one or two (experimental), watching with friends for a laugh (social/recreational), researching for school or your own YouTube channel (situational), subscribing and watching every new video (regular/intensive), and only watching similar YouTubers/making your own videos (dependant/compulsive).
Libraries need to consider how our collections are being used along this spectrum, not just in isolation. Take for instance the case of the Facebook moderators, rational people who are constantly exposed to radical content and were radicalised, and traumatised as a result. What this means for GLAM is that having one speaker, exhibition, or event in isolation might not seem 'so bad'. However, if your community has been repeatedly exposed to particularly harmful content (inside or outside of the GLAM sphere) this might be adding to the greater weight of harmful information.
A range of approaches can be used to respond to these harms
Libraries have a lot they can do to help reduce these harms. For example: purchase more diverse stock, don't purchase everything, provide information sessions and events. There are many ways to help and target harm minimisation strategies, we should be open to looking at these multi-pronged approaches.
The same can be done for the harm minimisation strategies discussed earlier:
Harm Reduction: Reduce the harm from library/information use for both the individual and community.
Examples include: Provide a diverse range of events and information sessions; more diverse collections, enable the community to see themselves in the stock; staff training; hire more diverse staff (this does not include hiring more men), and provide a safe and welcoming environment for them; look at the wider context when selecting items i.e. Libraries need to understand how the item, the individual, and the environment interact, and what impact(s) this could have. Nothing exists in a vacuum and we need to get better at recognising this.
Supply Reduction: Reducing the supply of harmful information.
Examples include: Don't purchase racist/bigoted/right-wing materials; refuse to book harmful speakers; develop policies and practices to make library spaces safer for our marginalised communities; decolonise our collections and institutions.
Demand Reduction: Preventing the uptake of harmful information.
Examples include: diverse media campaigns lead by our professional bodies; community development projects such as diverse storytimes; engage directly with community and help reflect them in library spaces. Ultimately, providing a place where people can learn, experience, and be supported.
Let's look at how this model could apply in practice, starting with our collections. This is where I can see this model getting the most use, and we can see it in practice with IRL. Anna-lise talks about this in the IRL podcast:
"...I think it is a really hard process of deciding what is too harmful and what is really worth having here as a resource. Like a lot of second wave feminism, to take that as an example, is really problematic in all these ways, but I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. Like there is stuff in there that is really redeemable as well, and also the eco-feminist stuff as well... I don’t know, it’s tricky sometimes."
It is tricky. If you follow the pure idea of 'neutrality', for every text the library has an equal and opposite text should sit along side it. However, we know that this isn't how neutrality in libraries operates. If it was, we'd have several alternative papers attached to every Murdoch press paper just to balance out the extreme right-wing views they publish. Instead it is used to justify having anything in the library, and occasionally getting rid of something that might express too much of a particular opinion.
So how would this harm minimisation view work then? Ideally, every item coming into the collection would be considered in the wider context of the individual and the environment. Does this item cause harm to any individual or marginalised group? What environmental factors could combine with this item to cause harm? Would having this item in our collection make someone feel unsafe to be here?
To simplify it even further (and to invoke Marie Kondo): Does this item bring harm to my community?
Adding to this, ideally staff would be aware of items that might cause harm and be able to explain this to potential borrowers. For IRL their caretakers know the collection enough to be able to explain these problematic titles, as Tilly says:
"And so for us, like we want people to be able to speak to that, so people are coming in here so, we would want the caretakers to talk about the complexity in that book."
Harm minimisation can focus on the interaction between staff and clients, in catalogue records, and within the materials themselves. Staff being aware of the content and being able to convey that to patrons could be invaluable in helping to minimise harm. An example of this could be a student asking for a local history book for a school project. While discussing this particular title you could mention to the student that this item primarily focuses on post-colonial history and the area has a rich First Nations history that isn't covered, and that they may want to do further research on that. Ultimately it's up to the borrower to interpret the information, but if they have been made aware of the limitations, and possible harms associated with particular texts they can make an informed decision.
A problem with this approach is looking at our growing online content. The interaction between library staff and patrons has reduced significantly in this area. This can cause problems in terms of context, and possibly expose people to potential harms. Another problem is the capacity of front line staff to provide this service, is this something we should expect from them or start training for?
One event that has prompted me to write this post was the handling of the recent booking at TPL. Building in a harm minimisation policy to the events/booking practice might have given space to prevent such an event from going ahead (although from what I have seen, I'm not sure they wanted to stop it). The trans community, repeatedly told TPL that this booking can and would cause harm to them. Looking at the results of the event it seems that TPL not only harmed their local LGBTQI2-S+ community but harmed themselves as well.
If allowing an event/booking to be held in the library can cause harm to your users, community, and partnerships is it worth going ahead with? An interesting juxtaposition comes with Brisbane City Council's ban of Extinction Rebellion groups from meeting in their libraries. One could argue that Extinction Rebellion protest activities could bring harm to protesters and the wider community (the Australian Government certainly thinks so), but it could be argued that not allowing climate change groups to organise and protest would cause a greater harm to the community, and planet. There will always be a level of personal judgement that needs to be exerted here, you will always need to do research and make an informed decision, and even then you may get it wrong! We need to be prepared for being wrong and accepting that fact, how you handle being called out could potentially cause even more harm going forward.
Role Of The Library
One major criticism of this model that I am sure it will attract is some version of 'libraries are not here to push social change on communities'. Shannon Mattern recently wrote an amazing piece about this topic that is well worth a read. In it she quotes Patterson Toby Graham:
""What is the role of a library and a librarian in an intolerant and fearful society? Have librarians been active agents or just passive observers in the ebb and flow of social change and social conscience?" In what ways do libraries act as "instruments of social control," and how could they be made into instruments of restoration, reparation, or transformation?"
Unlike IRL, most public libraries I've worked with don't have a framework of social justice, anti-oppression, intersectional feminism, prison abolition, etc. to fall back on. I did however work for (what was then known as) Family Planning, now Sexual Health Quarters, which did have a strong feminist framework and allowed us to review materials in a similar manner. Public libraries have instead a 'framework' of 'freedom of information' that is sometimes construed as 'neutrality'. A kind reading of this framework is allowing everyone access to everything, when in reality it's mostly used as an excuse to include anything and everything (this can be good or bad).
Harm Minimisation VS 'Neutrality'
By adopting a harm minimisation approach, libraries might find themselves having to create a more defined framework. A confronting thing when you find yourself having to justify why you have particular items, events, and programs in your library, rather than arguing why not. Are we going to be passive observers maintaining social control, or active agents and helping transform society? Eventually we're going to have to get off the fence and make a decision.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this model is a rough idea at most. I'm a huge fan of being critical of the things we love and this is no different. I'm putting this idea out there as a conversation starter. I want it to be pulled apart, critiqued, pushed, and questioned. For example:
- What do we consider 'harmful information'?
- Who gets to say what is harmful?
- Who are we protecting through this model and what frameworks should we adopt to support them?
- How can this approach be misused (because you know it will be)?
- What outcomes would we expect from this approach?
- How will we measure them?
- What barriers exist to implementing this (or similar) approach?
- Is this entire approach actually harmful to someone/some group?
- What would this mean to the profession?
- Does this approach actually make our libraries safer and more welcoming for people?
I don't have the answers to these questions and feel that the GLAM community should answer and debate them collectively. Diverse voices need to be directly involved in developing something like this, and this very rough idea is just the start of a much bigger conversation.