Safety In the Stacks

LGBTQIA+ youth find advocates and community at their local libraries.

The idea of ‘safe spaces’ has taken on a new urgency. Libraries are a logical place to offer them. Many public and academic libraries have taken steps to provide this crucial resource, but the setup requires thought and care to serve those who need them.

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Who Do Libraries Serve?

The library’s image to the public has in some ways stayed static, only adding more products to the mix, from music and movies to computers and 3D printers and accessible-cost public programming. However, among librarians, this is a more complicated question. The ALA has wrestled with this idea. One can see how this has changed by studying their professional ethics statement over time and, by their definition, who needs protection.

A beginning, and still important, concept is that the library houses resources. As a democracy, we need them to serve an informed public. In 1930, Josephine Adams Rathborn created the first written code of ethics. This document shifted attention away from the library’s things to the people who used them. It stressed access and basic respect for all. It is a surprisingly inclusive and modern document. Unfortunately, it did not last until the end of the decade. It was replaced in 1939 by one that put the focus back on the items in the library.

Libraries Are Space Spaces

We see evidence of a shift in the creation of the Intellectual Freedom Committee as libraries began fighting censorship. We see them shift again in 1981 with a new ethical code; this one focused on the flow of information. Though pre-dating the internet, it was crucial in helping libraries navigate these new waters.

Recently, though, libraries once again embraced their role as a place for people with the inclusion of an addition to the Code of Ethics, one stating its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This opens the door to the concept of safe spaces as a role for libraries.

What Is a Safe Space?

A safe space has several definitions, but a good one comes from Advocates for Youth.

“A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or challenged on account of biological sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect, dignity, and feelings and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.”

The idea began during the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements. Students of color embraced this to help each other navigate many historically white college campuses. At the same time, women used consciousness-raising groups to explore the implications of new trends and get help to escape dangerous domestic situations or find support for sexual assault. Today, safe spaces are needed for LGBTQIA+ youth who lack support and community.

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How To Build a Safe Space

To create a place that builds trust with marginalized young people, a thoughtful plan is needed. It includes a solid set of policies, training, and transparency. Many libraries are implementing the following to make their spaces welcoming.

  • They consider their physical layout and create areas where informal interactions could happen.
  • Clear policies are communicated to staff, patrons, and the community, empowering librarians to act in the most compassionate way possible.
  • They create a diverse collection that includes many different voices and points of view and a development policy with a protocol for dealing with challenges.
  • They ensure that library internet allows access to sites like GLADD and the Trevor Project, where people can get accurate information and support.
  • Developing programming with LGBTQIA+ perspectives year-round and not just during the major holidays like Pride (June), Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic History Month, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and other markers.
  • Training for security staff. Teens from marginalized communities have good reason to distrust security and law enforcement. If they are necessary for the safety of a building, libraries are striving to make sure that they have the training and clear parameters for when they need to engage with patrons.
  • Engaging community resources to provide training in spotting mental health issues and the knowledge of, and easy access to, local services such as suicide prevention and rape survivor hotlines and other entities that offer professional help. Organizations such as The Safe Place Network provide training and help on demand.
  • Support for staff dealing with these issues as needed.
  • The consent of the Board, government entities, and others. 

According to the Trevor Project, 42% of LGBTQIA+ youth considered suicide in the past year, and 48% wanted some form of counseling but could not find it. The library cannot hope to solve this problem. Still, by building safe spaces where they encounter positive support, we can create a bridge between them and get to a place where they can find the support they need.