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Librarians Are Heroes

For National Library Week, we share four of our favorites stories about social progress initiated in the library 

By Courtney Suciu, Marketing Communications Specialist

Over the last two years, I’ve relished getting to know librarians, immersing myself in the culture and learning what librarianship is all about. At first glance, it seems like contemporary librarians are gatekeepers of information faced with unique challenges, helping us navigate a technological landscape where it might be harder than ever to shift fact from fiction, ensuring that all citizens have access to the knowledge they seek, and protecting our privacy in doing so.

Over time though, I’ve come to realize librarians aren’t simply gatekeepers – they are Sherpas, guiding us on our journey to interpret and understand the world. And it’s always been this way.

I’ve been able to research and share stories about librarians over the decades who have had a profound impact on our culture at large, leading the way to the heights of progress.

The truth is, librarians are audacious pioneers and courageous rebels! They are trailblazers for social change and human rights. They are our heroes.

Librarians are the real unacknowledged legislators. So much social progress made over the last century started in the library, and librarians have compelled the rest of us to keep up (Thank you!) There are myriad stories I could cite to make this case. Below are some of my favorite stories we’ve already written about extraordinary librarians who have changed our world.

Standing Up Against Racism in the New York Public Library

Regina Andrews might be best known as the librarian of the Harlem Renaissance – she created a hub for iconic African-American writers and musicians of the era to connect and form one of the century’s most influential cultural movements.

But this blog post focused on the simple heart of her story: Andrews, a dedicated and accomplished librarian, only wanted an equal opportunity to do the work she loved. As it became apparent she was treated unfairly because of her skin color (she was told in an interview, “You’re not an American. You’re not white.”) Andrews did not put up with it.

Instead, she sought back-up from the NAACP and eventually made history as the first woman of color put in charge of a library branch.

The Fight for Positive and Accurate LGBT Information in Libraries

Barbara Gittings’ story is extraordinary in a few ways. It’s powerful enough that she advocated for LGBTQ awareness and rights at a time when it was incredibly dangerous to do so. Her story also showcases the importance of the library as safe, welcoming place for people to go, when they don’t feel like they fit in anywhere else. 

But most of all, what her story illustrated for me in this blog post is the power of librarians, and how the way information is cataloged can change our perceptions and culture.

As the coordinator for the original Gay Task Force in the American Library Association, Gittings fought to re-categorize gay materials in libraries, removing them from the section for “Sexual Perversions.” Influenced by the Gay Task Force, the Library of Congress followed suit, and eventually, so did the American Psychiatric Association, which ceased to consider homosexuality a mental disorder in 1973. 

Zoia Horn, Outlaw Librarian

There is only one thing that could be cooler than an “outlaw librarian” and that’s intellectual freedom.

This blog post focuses on Zoia Horn, the first U.S. librarian sent to jail because she refused to testify against library patrons. 

In 1971, the Harrisburg Seven, a group of religious anti-war activists led by Philip Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest, were charged with 23 counts of conspiracy. The group had been gathering in the Bucknell University library, where Horn worked as a reference librarian, an informant, planted to spy on Berrigan, implicated Horn as a conspirator because she didn’t intervene in their meetings.

“To me it stands on freedom of thought – but government spying in homes, in libraries and universities inhibits and destroys this freedom,” Horn said. She served only three weeks in prison, but served for the rest of her life as an advocate for intellectual freedom and privacy, paving the way for resistance against other legislation of concern to librarians, including 2001’s Patriot Act.

An Oasis in a Resource Desert

What surprised me most in writing this blog post was the realization that more than a third of patrons at this Philadelphia library system came looking for health and medical information.

A year later, I realize now that this isn’t uncommon for libraries, and in an impoverished neighborhood described as a “resource desert,” healthcare isn’t accessible for a lot of people. Unfortunately, the library becomes an alternative to going to the doctor. 

The amazing thing is how the library responded to this knowledge and adjusted its services to accommodate the needs of the patrons. Local agencies joined forces to create an innovative new center that is part library, part health clinic. And this is just one example of the changes adopted by the Free Library of Philadelphia, designed to improve the lives of the community.

Do you know a heroic librarian? Let’s talk! Share with us on Twitter.

19 Apr 2018

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