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  • Writer's pictureShea Swauger

The Thing that Gets Us to the Thing

Updated: May 31, 2022

This is adapted from a presentation from the Julie J. Boucher Memorial Lecture on Intellectual Freedom for the 2021 Colorado Association of Libraries conference (CALCON). Content warning: police violence and domestic abuse.

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Hi. My name is Shea. I’m an academic librarian at the Auraria Library in Denver, Colorado. More importantly though, I’m a white, cisgender man. This means I’m given default creditability and authority in my job regardless of if I deserve it, and honestly, sometimes I don’t. I’m documented, which means I can pretty easily navigate higher ed institutions without friction, that I don’t have to prove anything about my identity to anyone, and that I don’t live in fear of deportation or racist, xenophobic law enforcement. I’m salaried, benefited, and middle class, which means I have a level of economic security that provides me both financial and emotional safety, and the ability to take risks at my job. I’m a middle manager, which means that, although I have bosses, I’m also other people’s bosses, which gives me more agency and autonomy than some others.

All of these things make me feel safe enough to yell online, and apparently in keynotes, about injustices, and sometimes it means naming specific people and institutions who are acting unjustly without feeling like I’m in imminent danger of losing my job or risking any harm to myself or my family. All of these things matter. Together, they create an experience of general immunity from consequences that informs how I understand things like privacy, what it gives me both personally and professionally, and what harms are even possible if my privacy was ever taken away.

As we go through these ideas together, you may have certain reactions, positively or negatively, about what I’m saying. I hope so, at least, and I invite you to pay attention to how your identities inform those reactions.

Your identities absolutely impact how you understand and experience privacy, which in turn impacts how you navigate librarianship.

So, this talk is titled “The Thing That Gets Us to The Thing” which is a line I’m totally stealing from a TV show called 'Halt and Catch Fire'. In it, there’s a character named Joe McMillan who’s trying to convince his coworkers at a computer company that the computer, the thing they’re all investing enormous time and effort to make, is actually not the end goal. He says, “Computers aren’t the thing, they’re the thing that gets us to the thing’. He’s imploring his colleagues that computers, if done well, are something that allows people to access something else, something even better than a computer ever could be. I like the metaphor, so I’m stealing it.

I’m saying, “Privacy isn’t the thing, it’s the thing that gets us to the thing.” I think that, as a profession, librarianship has focused on privacy as the end goal, the Thing, the institutional commitment we make to patrons that is inherently good and important for everyone. I also think that it’s wrong. Not wrong as in ‘privacy is bad’. It isn’t. It’s great. It’s just not the end goal for me. I suspect that privacy is only a tool that gets us other things that are actually what we’re after, and I want to explore what the thing is behind privacy. That way, when we figure it out, we can be more explicit about what we’re even doing as librarians. Also, if we know what the real goal is, then we can identify what the threats are to getting there and what to do about them.

But let’s start off with a totally real, not at all made up, parable to help frame what’s going on in libraries today.

“There once was a small village called Library Town. In this village, there was a group of arsonists who often lit houses on fire. A few well-meaning villagers started handing out fire extinguishers. They offered Fire Extinguisher Literacy workshops and even micro credentials! However, the village ignored the arsonists and let them keep their matches. They felt it was impolite to acknowledge arsonists, let alone mention that they lived in the town, ran the City Council, or enforced the law. Eventually, when the fires in Library Town hit a crisis point, the villagers heroically banded together to make LibGuides about fire extinguisher safety.”

First of all, so wise.

Library Town is how I see our profession often respond to social harm. The arsonists burn down buildings and some villagers rightly hand out fire extinguishers to help put the fires out. Great! Good job villagers, way to go. But after that, fire extinguishers are pretty much all they can think about. When the real threat is coming from the arsonists who are embedded in the local institutions, the villagers respond by ramping up informational campaigns about how to respond to fires, as if more information will keep people safe. There’s no calls for accountability, there’s even a culture that interprets accountability as being impolite, all of which allows the arsonists free to continue lighting things on fire.

I see this reaction all the time in libraries. When Trump got elected, when Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were murdered by the police, when BLM protesters were being targeted, and during so many other events of violence, I saw librarians respond with more information. “Here’s resources learn about your rights, about police or protests, or a database on immigration law.” And those were the progressive responses! We have a habit of avoiding anything beyond informational responses to oppression, God forbid actually engaging in conflict or accountability.

The thing behind privacy that’s so important is… lots of things. I came up with a list of some of them, but it’s not comprehensive. You may come up with a different list and that’s okay. Privacy will probably achieve different things for different people. Here’s mine:

And yes, privacy

When I have privacy, one of the most important things it gets me is the feeling of safety. Psychological, emotional, and physical safety. If I don’t have this, not much else matters. Privacy also helps enable things like forming community, experiencing connection with others and myself, and being vulnerable. These things are essential.

There have been times in my life when I wasn’t safe. I was in an abusive marriage for many years, isolated from any family or community, and I had absolutely no privacy. The cumulative effect of this abuse hollowed me out. I was a shell of who I used to be before the abuse and almost didn’t survive. So, when I say these things are important, I mean I need them like I need oxygen. My survival and wellbeing depend on them. That’s what’s at stake.

Privacy also means I have protection for dissent. I know I often tweet-storm critiques about things like my university’s president on an account attached to my real name, but even in that space I hold back. If I need to, a private account allows me to say the things I won’t when my identity is public.

Lastly, privacy can be an end in itself. Like, sometimes I just want to be alone, or do something without anyone else being all up in my business. That’s fine. Everyone needs that sometimes and it should be granted without consequence or questions.

Ok, so if that list represents some of the things that privacy gets us, that should help guide libraries about what they’re trying to create for our patrons.

We’re not just here to ensure people’s privacy, we're here to ensure their safety, community, connection, vulnerability, and dissent! That’s a HUGE difference. That’s a very exciting mission statement. It should inform how we design services and spaces, how we create and enforce policy, how we hire and compensate employees, everything. It changes everything.

If we have an institutional goal of privacy, including all the things that privacy gets us from the list above, it’s good to know what things threaten privacy and what can we do to address those threats. I made another list, this time of threats, and like the last one, it’s incomplete and yours will probably be different.

1. Surveillance capitalism.

This is a pretty obvious threat to privacy and one that I think librarians to a decent job of naming and addressing. Go us! There’s lots of books, resources, and trainings we’ve created that explicitly spell out what’s going on, who’s culpable, and what we should do about it.

2. The Police.

Not just the police, but also the Prison Industrial Complex and the whole carceral system. The police are an incredibly well-funded, organized, and legally protected threat not just to privacy, but also to your safety and community. Let me be very clear: the police do not keep us safe. They do not prevent crime. They are not even legally obligated to protect and serve you. However, they are very interested in violating your privacy and civil rights on the regular. Outside of war, prisons are some of the most violent technologies we’ve ever invented. They are the embodied opposite of privacy, community, connection, vulnerability, and dissent. The carceral state is antithetical to existence and mission of privacy and, hopefully, of librarianship.

3. Domestic Abusers

There’s a significant overlap between the people who are police officers and the people who are domestic abusers (about 40% of police officers are domestic abusers, compared to about 10% in the general population). That said, if we’re interested in privacy, safety, and connection, then we need to be talking about domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. Abusers isolate their victims, control their access to money, community, information, and often engage in physical violence. Libraries may be one of the few safe spaces for people in abusive relationships to access resources or get help. Abusers are a threat to our core professional values; we need to start acting like it.

4. White Supremacists

Yes, I mean the more visible and aggressive forms of white supremacy like the Proud Boys, the 3%ers, Turning Point USA, etc. - we’ve found out that you can be a librarian AND a Proud Boy – but I also mean the casual white supremacy that we see every day in the library and society. Its why librarianship is so incredibly white. It’s why voting rights are being attacked by Republicans, why climate change is hitting Black and brown neighborhoods hardest, and why we still haven’t moved any closer towards reparations for enslavement. White supremacy is the sustained, systematic, violent, plundering of our communities. It is the epitome of a threat to safety or community; we should start treating it as such.

5. The Government

Today is the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, which means you’ll probably hear a lot of patriotic propaganda about America, our sacrifice or bravery, and coming together. What I saw after 9/11 was a massive political and military campaign that, in response to the murder of 3,000 innocent people, murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent people. I saw the rationalization of civil rights violations, torture, and death because of Islamophobia. I saw the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and ICE that enabled more violent and racist immigration policies. I saw the Patriot Act and the NSA legally and illegally spy on American citizens without cause and with significant abuse. The American government is often a threat to our safety, community, and definitely to our privacy, and it should not be valorized today as a way to process our collective trauma.

6. Punk-Ass Haters

This is the best term I could come up with for a catch-all insult for ableists, homophobes, transphobes, TERFs, trolls, and assholes. You probably know more than a few. They suck. They need to be called out and held accountable.

A couple things to note. First, these threats aren’t equal for everyone. Like, I’m a white cis man; I’m pretty safe with the police, but that’s not true for everyone. Second, risk and harm are contextual and dynamic. How people calculate these things will depend on a lot of variables and change over time.

So, why do librarians focus so much on privacy in the first place? Centering privacy, especially ‘privacy for everyone equally’ allows librarians to maintain the myth of institutional neutrality. Libraries aren’t neutral, never have been, let go of that fucking debate already, please! We need to move on, people. Also, centering privacy as a core value as opposed to, say, dismantling white supremacy, allows librarians to maintain existing power structures. Centering white supremacy would cause trouble, it’d make too many library boards, city councilors, donors, and university presidents uncomfortable and we can’t have that.

Privacy is social justice-y enough to satisfy librarians and make us feel like we’re doing something, but not too social justice-y to make real waves. It’s like this goldilocks zone of political activism that prevents us from enacting more progressive changes.

What should we do about all this? How should librarians respond? Like before, there’s several things we need to do on my list, but it’s incomplete, and you can probably think of other stuff.

1. Abolition

I’m talking the abolition of the police, prisons, the whole carceral state. No cops in libraries; no cops anywhere. This doesn’t mean that once cops go away we descend into The Purge. Abolition is a radical investment in communities towards things that actually keep people safe: affordable housing, healthcare, mental healthcare, good jobs, public transportation, child care, food justice, climate justice, and so much more. Abolition has been the most helpful framework for me to understand my place in libraries, education, academia, and the United States, as well as what steps to take next.

2. Overthrow racial capitalism

Okay, I know I probably sound like the guy in your freshman philosophy class who just read Marx for the first time and can be an annoying, self-righteous little shit. He probably had long hair and smoked clove cigarettes and drank coffee all the time, and, very unfortunately, I was that guy. I’m so sorry. But if you can get past that stuff, I’m very serious about this. Capitalism will kill us all. It already is. It’s why the planet is on fire and unless we do something very different very soon, it’s gonna be over for humanity. I say racial capitalism because white supremacy and capitalism work as interlocking systems and they both need to go.

3. Smash the patriarchy

Patriarchy is one of the most violent, sustained forms of oppression that we’ve ever invented. It’s also one of the harder ones to identify because we’re so used to it. It’s pointing out the water in the ocean. We experience it every day in libraries. It’s why we’re paid poorly compared to other information professionals. Remember, women were the first computer programmers and were low wage workers until men started joining the field and then it became a high wage profession. Sexism is why, despite being a majority-woman field, we see so many mediocre white men in administrative positions and, perhaps even, giving conference keynotes.

4. Stop being nice

Librarians have a niceness problem. Three problems, actually. There’s toxic positivity, which will suck your soul dry and tell you to ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ the whole time. There’s the Nice White Lady as a cover for “I will call the cops on your BBQ” form of white supremacy. Those both have to go. But then there’s a niceness that’s about wanting to help and/or not wanting to make people uncomfortable. It’s hard to disentangle this professional pattern/stereotype from internalized sexism, the performance of gender identity, and the gendered expectations of working in a perceived service profession. It’s messy as to the how and why we’re nice, but it’s not helping us regardless. Audre Lorde once said ‘your silences will not save you.” I promise you, your niceness won’t save you either.

5. Start being kind

Kindness can be gentle. It can also be fucking ferocious. Kindness is about being deeply invested in the suffering and wellbeing of the people around you. The kind respond to a violent police state is its abolition. The kind response to a system that burns the world for profit is overthrowing that system. Kindness is about care, about seeing my liberation as bound together with your liberation. We need to stop being nice and start being kind.

Privacy isn’t the thing. It’s the thing that gets us to the thing. For me, those things are safety, community, connection, vulnerability, and dissent. We live in a town full of arsonists who continually threatening those core values. Librarianship needs to let go of our illusion that more information, or a nicer disposition, will stop the arsonists from burning everything down.

It’s time we take away their fucking matches.

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