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.

Public libraries, police and the normalisation of surveillance

Police presence in libraries, no matter how abstract, normalises state surveillance. (Image c/o Thomas Hawk.)

In an era of unjustified, economically incoherent cuts in investment in public services, there has been an increasing drive to make various parts of the public sector work together to cut costs (“cut costs” in a very superficial sense of course). One such collaboration that keeps popping up is a partnership between the police and public libraries. An idea that should never even be entertained, let alone discussed as a serious and reasonable proposition.

The latest such proposal is one that would see one particular police force close down its inquiry desks and effectively move them to the local public library service, requiring library staff to assist in the reporting of crimes online for those without internet access at home. According to a statement on the Norfolk constabulary’s website:

The six month trial will run from the end of September in Thetford and Gorleston and will involve library staff signposting customers to police services, while also helping them complete online self-reporting forms, a function which will soon be available as part of the Constabulary’s new website.

Such a move changes the library space from a safe one, to one that is subject to a subtle form of surveillance whereby people’s behaviours are modified by the knowledge that the space is one where the police have a presence, even if in abstract. Effectively, it normalises surveillance. The knowledge that it is a space to report crime impedes the library as a space to freely engage in ideas, particularly in the current political climate.

Take Prevent, for example. A racist strategy that demonises non-whites, it has led to a series of actions that have been an affront to the rights of the individual, particularly in terms of intellectual freedom, both directly and via the culture that it has encouraged. The recent detainment of Faizah Shaheen being a good example of the consequences of not only the normalisation of surveillance but the encouragement to “snitch”.

The experiences of Faizah Shaheen and Mohammed Umar Farooq should serve as a warning to library workers and those providing library services. Where there is a police presence, no matter how abstract it may be, there is a risk to people of colour. Facilitating police reports in libraries has a very obvious and malign consequence. It makes the library a space of authority and control. In an environment whereby people are detained due to their reading habits, using a public library as an extension of the police inquiry desk poses threats not only in terms of people reporting individuals (although this online crime reporting will happen in the library whether the library encourages it or not, the key is the normalisation of the space as a place to interact with the police), but also has an inhibiting effect upon those using the space.

Would a person of colour feel comfortable accessing information or borrowing books if they do so in an environment that encourages and enables the reporting of crime, particularly when reading can lead to detainment under anti-terrorism legislation? Individuals will feel that they cannot access information freely in an environment that has become an extension of the police station (which is partly how surveillance works – controlling and directing individuals, preventing activity from taking place).

This relationship with the police continues to be proposed in authorities across the country. Earlier this week it was revealed that police desks in Angus would be moved into the council’s libraries. And there have also been “community police hubs” (how innocuous sounding) relocating to public libraries. And what’s coming around the corner should very much set alarm bells ringing about the suitability of public libraries and the police sharing space, whether it be abstract or physical.

Earlier this year, it emerged that under Theresa May’s proposed investigatory powers bill, public libraries will be required to store internet users’ records for up to 12 months, again, seriously undermining the library as a safe space for intellectual freedom. Not only does such a move normalise surveillance, making it part and parcel of every aspect of every citizen’s life, but it turns public libraries into a space less about intellectual freedom and more about monitoring citizens on behalf of an authoritarian state. It goes without saying, that this poses a threat to the very notion of intellectual freedom, a notion that public libraries should be actively defending and advancing.

As public libraries increasingly become a place where the state seeks to control and observe the intellectual behaviour of others on the basis of supposed threats posed by organised terror, so public libraries lose their purpose. They cease to become places of exploration and interrogation and become nothing more than repositories of state sanctioned ideas and values. This process of normalisation needs to stop, for the benefit of all the communities we serve.