Monday, November 16, 2009

A reply to my offended colleague.

I debated with myself for a while whether I wanted to write about this or not. My three readers are reading it here, so they know what I decided. I agree with the idea of a librarian having something in the library to offend everyone equally. I don't believe it out of spite or meanness but rather because I think libraries should be places where as many views as possible are represented and expressed. Some days we do better than others, and there are days when even I struggle with that idea. The title of this post is probably not the best one, but it is one that reflects what I would like to say to that colleague if I felt it might make a difference. If nothing else, for me, this is a learning experience.

Let me start with a little history. My library is running a book display in honor of Veterans Day. The display will be up until the end of November. In addition to the display, I have placed some slides with facts and data about veterans on our electronic display at the library, and I did the blog post about the display, which includes some additional links for information and the full list of the books on the display. A big reason for creating the display is that one of our paraprofessionals actually asked me if we were featuring a display for Veterans Day. I said we would make one, and I made it. One of the books featured is a large photo book, The Wall: Images and Offerings from the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. The book is a collection of photos from The Wall Memorial, including many moving images of veterans and their families visiting the place. I have set the book so it is open on a photo, and I am basically turning the page every couple of days so people can see highlights. As I was putting the display, I found myself having to take a pause and deep breath for some of the photos are very powerful images. Once the person making the request saw it, he later gave us a compliment on the display.

Now, when I make a thematic display, be it for Darwin Day or any monthly celebration, I try to provide as broad a range of materials as possible. I don't always have all the books and resources I wish I had (there are some collection development limitations that we can leave out for now), but overall, I try to be respectful, mindful, and open, and I try to provide something educational as well. So, there is the context. Now on to the rest of the story.

Shortly after the display went up, I get an e-mail note stating the following:

"In my opinion, the Veteran's display is an absolute insult to any veteran. Veteran's day is not about the gay agenda."

We can leave names out, but I will certainly mention this came from one of our librarians, which is why I have been pondering it. The issue at hand was the inclusion of another book in the display. The book in question is Steve Estes's Ask & Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out. One book out of 12 books (and one DVD) caused this librarian to feel a bit alienated to the point she also went to my director and expressed her concerns. That is certainly within her right. I would not deny her that, but from having a disagreement to claiming flat out that I am being intentionally offensive or following an agenda, I think we should clear the air. So,

Dear Colleague:

I am sad to hear that you feel the way you do. The book in question was included as part of a larger display to honor and recognize veterans. The display features books about various wars as well as various groups who have fought in those wars such as Latinos, African Americans, women, and yes, gays and lesbians. Those folks and others have answered the call of their country, and whether drafted or volunteered, they served honorably. They deserve to be honored and recognized, and they deserve the thanks of a grateful nation.

Have you even looked at the book in question? Estes's book has nothing to with any agenda or attempt at indoctrination. What it does is give voice to people who have served honorably but have been forced to remain silent about their service due to intolerance, ignorance, and fear. The book is a collection of oral histories of veterans who happen to be gay and lesbian. The book also puts into focus the consequences of the 1993 directive from President Clinton to "don't ask, don't tell." These are stories of folks who chose to put on the uniform of this nation and to serve, often under fire, even when their nation refused to acknowledge them or their service. Consider my inclusion of the book in the display a way to help others learn about another side of the veterans' histories.

I understand you have family members who are veterans. Guess what? So do I. My family members have been, as far as they are willing to talk about it, to Korea, Vietnam, Panama, and the Gulf. What I saying is that the "I happen to know how veterans think because I have family who serve(d)" is just not good enough. I could make that claim (and we could have a very serious discussion about the proportion of Latinos who have fought in wars for the U.S.), but I choose not to because I think it is disrespectful to just assume. It is because I try not to assume that I tried to make the book display as diverse as possible in terms of the voices represented. I chose to include the book in the display because it is relevant. I chose to include it because it adds to the dialogue, even now as you disagree and pretty much refuse to even look me in the eye at work. I chose to include it because it is a pretty good book on a timely topic, and it is a book about veterans, which is the topic of the display.

At the end of the day, I would like to think that our veterans have fought around the world so we can express our views freely. They have fought around the world so we can present, consider, and discuss various viewpoints. They have fought around the world so we can be inclusive, so we can be free to learn from each other, and so everyone can have equality and fairness in this nation.

The book is staying in the case, and you are just going to have to deal with it. Maybe you should consider checking the book out for yourself (all books in our displays are available to be checked out. You just have to ask), and reading it. At the end of the day, I happen to place value on simple concepts like equality, fairness, and understanding. The only thing I am sorry about is that you do not seem to recognize similar values and would prefer to keep certain people oppressed or deny them rights you take for granted.

And maybe, if my words are not good enough, why don't we listen to a veteran who has something to say? I leave you with the words of World War II veteran Philip Spooner:

P.S.We did get at least one positive comment about the display on the library's blog, so if nothing else, at least I know people are looking at the display (or reading about it on the blog). Getting people to look at the issues and considering them is part of why we do it. Sure, some may get offended, but we hope after the offense that they will keep talking as well.


Mark said...

Thank you for including that book, Angel! I am sorry that it has led to "difficulties" at work, though.

This veteran--and I will also speak for my son who now has over 10 yrs in & 2 combat tours--thanks you.

How dare that person begin to try and speak for ALL vets!! They do me and millions more a huge disservice by pretending to do so.

I could go on but I won't. Grrrr. How dare they presume to speak for me!

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Hey Mark: Hope things are going well on your end. Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Not the first time I've had a "little friction" over a book display here, but this one made me write because it came from a fellow librarian. And by the way, thank you and your son for your service.

Best, and keep on blogging.

Scout said...

Also, if your colleague says its offensive to ANY vet, then your colleague thinks NO vets have ever been gay! And that is just not true! Ugh.

Thanks for doing this! There are lots of perspectives on Veteran's Day. There are peace activist vets, war resister vets, patriotic vets, jingoistic vets, POWs, MIAs, and lots of personal experience with military service that can't be rendered accurately under ONE version.

May I commend the documentary Sir! No Sir! to you?

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Scout: For me, that was why this moved me to write about it. How she took for granted (or seemed to) that there simply could not be any gay soldiers or vets. Indeed, there are many perspectives on war and conflict. As a librarian, when I do displays like this, I try to include as many as I can find or am aware of, but I am always learning something new.

I was not familiar with the documentary. I did find the website, and as soon as I get a chance, will try to look it over. Thank you for the tip. See, I learned yet something else new. Thank you.

Best, and keep on blogging.