Are libraries safe spaces?

Image c/o Parham Mortazavian on Flickr.

Image c/o Parham Mortazavian on Flickr.

Ordinarily, I don’t feel the need to lay out my credentials at the beginning of a blog post, but I want to be absolutely sure there is no misinterpretation or misunderstanding of what I am about to argue. Yes, that bodes well for what’s coming doesn’t it? But I do feel it’s important to put things into their proper context.

I’m a big advocate of public libraries. I co-founded a national advocacy organisation with a number of others to highlight their importance and value to local communities (Voices for the Library in case you were wondering). I’ve spoken to journalists, collaborated on papers submitted to select committee hearings and inquiries, written articles, other stuff I forget. So I don’t think my credentials are in any doubt. I value and defend public libraries and put myself out there in order to do so. But…

I’m uncomfortable with chatter about libraries as “safe spaces”. I wish they were. I really do. I want them to be safe spaces and, in some respects, I guess they still are. But in so many other ways, they absolutely are not. And this is something we as library workers, library supporters and library defenders need to confront and, ultimately, challenge the reasons why this is the case. Because they, like all public spaces, should be safe spaces.

We know that for many, public spaces are increasingly becoming unsafe, and libraries are certainly not exempt from this. The Prevent strategy, for example, certainly undermines any argument that libraries provide such a safe space. Library staff are being turned into snitches, with responsibility placed upon them to observe and report activity that may be deemed to be of interest to law enforcement. When students are reported to the police for reading a textbook on terrorism in their college library, the library is clearly not a safe space. When minorities are in fear because of the very policy that encouraged an individual to report someone for reading a book they deemed suspicious, then clearly the library is no longer a safe space for them.

Further, impending government legislation will very likely make this worse. With the Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill) hovering over the horizon (and likely to make its way rapidly in our direction pretty soon), the threat to intellectual freedom and, therefore, the library as a safe space, is stark. In conjunction with the Prevent strategy, the IP Bill will undoubtedly exacerbate the problem for those seeking out “dangerous ideas”. Should the IP Bill make it onto the statute book, then the library becomes even less of a safe space, not least because libraries will be expected to keep records of internet activity that will be available on demand. A safe space that is subject to state surveillance is, of course, not a safe space by any definition. It’s certainly not a place where “radical and sometimes dangerous ideas are born” (although the library certainly should be exactly that).

Of course, this isn’t a problem solely for libraries, it’s a problem with all our public spaces. They are increasingly not safe as state surveillance becomes more widespread, turning all of us into proxies for the intelligence services. Our public spaces ultimately face two substantive threats: surveillance and privatisation. The amount of public space we have is rapidly diminishing, the spaces that are truly ours are becoming rarer. Public libraries (and libraries in other forms) are not the only space that is losing the right to call itself “safe”. If we are to reclaim libraries as safe spaces, then we collectively need to reclaim the commons.

This doesn’t mean that libraries don’t offer some safety for individuals. For those children living in violent households or suffering from bullying or abuse, the library does offer a safe space. It gives them respite from the threats and dangers that otherwise exist around them. It provides a localised safe space that is valuable and that needs to be protected. For the vulnerable, libraries still provide them with a vital space to just let them be. But vital though this undoubtedly is, a truly safe space is so much more. It means being able to read books without fear of the police coming to your door questioning you. It means the freedom to seek out information, to inform oneself on controversial issues without fearing that you will face damaging accusations in a court of law. It means that you are in a safe, secure environment where you can exercise your intellectual freedom without fear of state sanction.

None of this is the fault of libraries or the people who work within them. The problem is the over-arching structures, the context in which libraries exist. It is the state, state policy and state action that undermines the notion of the library as a safe space. It’s for this reason that I argue we should confront head on. If we want a library to be a safe space, we need to confront the Prevent strategy, build opposition to it. If we want people to be able to seek out information freely and without fear, then we need to confront and challenge the Investigatory Powers Bill. Of course we all do within our powers to make our libraries safe, unfortunately for us it’s external forces that undermine and threaten this safety. Much as I respect Mary Beard, libraries are not places where dangerous ideas are born. I wish they were but, as with other public spaces, they have become a controlled environment where dangerous ideas barely reach the light of day. It doesn’t have to be this way.