Librarian Jessamyn West on the Classroom Where We Learn to be Human

photo of Jessamyn West
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Librarian Jessamyn West on the Classroom Where We Learn to be Human
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In part 2 of our interview with Jessamyn West, the new MetaFilter owner tells us about her day job as a librarian in rural Vermont. We dig into what it’s like to be a librarian in the Internet age, from bridging the digital divide to weathering the storm of right-wing reactionaries enraged about Drag Queen Story Hour.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

So let’s pivot for a moment here, because in many ways what you’re describing for MetaFilter is a very particular form of social infrastructure. It’s the place that you go when you want to talk to people when everybody else in Randolph, Vermont is asleep. It’s the place where people go when they are too weird or too nerdy to feel like they can geek out on their passions with the people immediately in their community. I think we’re starting to see a recognition of the importance of social infrastructures.

You’re seeing folks like Talia Stroud and Eli Pariser building on this analogy of physical infrastructure in digital spaces. You’re seeing folks like Eric Klinenberg making the case for social infrastructures, whether they’re schools, whether they’re parks, or whether of course they’re libraries, as examples of things we need more of within our society. So you are both an internet librarian and a literal librarian. You have a wonderful talk that has a slide that says, “The library is the classroom where we learn to be human.” I love that. What does that mean?

Jessamyn West:

Well, the talk itself is about practice and about social justice issues through the library. There’s a huge debate within librarianship now because we used to be like, “Oh, neutrality. There’s something in my library to offend everyone.” And that’s important to a point, but we’re moving through unprecedented times in America where it’s not just like, oh, you’ve got Republicans are good, Republicans are bad books. You’ve got like, oh, gay people are okay and gay people aren’t okay books. And that’s not right. If the library is committed to inclusiveness, in the American Library Association, they have this fight all the time. You can’t both tell gay people they are welcome at your library and then have books on conversion therapy and how the religious right doesn’t feel like they have a right to exist. But that becomes a very tricky way to walk.

I think in general, being a place where people can openly discuss ideas, while at the same time shaping what it means to discuss an idea and what it means to just be an ideologue who thinks other people shouldn’t exist, various kinds of other people, I think becomes really tricky. So hopefully the library is a place that facilitates conversations about difficult issues like race, sexism, institutionalized poverty, institutionalized racism, transgender people and their right to participate in sport. All sorts of things like that where you can have a conversation where you can talk about them without just being like, “You shouldn’t even be thinking about not my way of looking at it.” So, you have a conversation.

I had a weird conversation with the guy who mows the lawn here the other day who was saying he was going to retire, move to New Hampshire because people thought more like he did. And I was like, “Oh no.” Then he was general and then he got specific and I was just like, “Wow.” But instead of just being like, “You’re an idiot, you’re an asshole, you don’t understand things,” I was like, “Well, I really see that issue as different from you,” and dove in to engage with the guy because I feel like that’s what you have to do.

I feel like on the internet in general, there’s some supercharged conversations where maybe we act like the people who don’t think well about these topics are just going to eventually, what, die, go away? I think January 6th for instance taught us not only are these people not dying or going away, they are mobilizing and angry and together. So I think having conversations about dealing with issues like the election, fascism, what it means to vote, Nazis, things that are difficult, you almost need a safe space to have those conversations. And the internet, absent social infrastructure, isn’t the place.

We’ve seen social media companies who have no interest whatsoever in doing anything about most of those things, or they try, but they can’t because scale is more important to them than other things. As somebody who’s Jewish and uses Twitter, my God, there’s some awful people saying awful things and they’re un-moderate-able. Whereas if human beings in person talk about these issues, number one, I think you get fewer people going off. Not always, but sometimes. And number two, you can have a reasonable conversation with them about these issues. You may not change their mind, but you can be like, “We’re all in this real life community. We have to find a way to make it work.” And I feel like the library is one place that those things can happen, and it’s too bad there aren’t more.

Ethan Zuckerman:

The fact that the library is both singular and physical seems to have a lot to do with the ways in which it can generate very different community than online community. Part of what happens on Twitter is that you can find yourself in spaces where you’re hearing nothing but those reinforcing points of view. You can live in a digital universe in which the guy who mows the lawn and disagrees with you never shows up. But the library, particularly in a community where it’s not easy to pick up and go to the next community, you’re going to have common ground.

There was a project that was going on in the lab that I inherited at MIT when I moved in, where someone was trying to build community in Framingham, Massachusetts, which is a town that has a big gap between wealthy white suburbanites and folks of Brazilian origin who are in the center of town. And the one place that he found that he could get people to join together was the library, was the one piece of social infrastructure that everyone was using. So he started organizing tours of Framingham led by Brazilian residents for non Brazilian Framinghamians, but it was that notion that there is this one place that we’re all going to find ourselves. That added a particular weight to it.

One thing about that one place is, as you pointed out to me in a number of conversations, the demands on librarians are becoming pretty challenging, that librarians are often providing social services to one extent or another. Can you talk about the ways in which that one public place means that librarians end up being everything to everybody?

Jessamyn West:

Well, I mean again, I see analogs to MetaFilter, because the problem … You get a lot of people who are like, “Eh, the library. There’s a whole bunch of people there who don’t have places to live and I have issues with them,” or the books in general, like who wants a book that other people have touched. You never know what somebody’s got, blah. You find people who are better off don’t want the library because they feel like, oh, it’s for the hoi polloi or whatever. And then you get people who are in need of a warm place to be or a bathroom that it doesn’t have a picture on it that doesn’t match who they are, or whatever the thing is who both gravitate towards it, but depending on the library, I mean you see it more in urban libraries than rural libraries, have other concerns and other needs.

Part of the real problem, as I see it, is our civic infrastructure isn’t doing what it should be doing because we’ve had decades of bullshit austerity measures that are just intended to punish the poor. So you wind up with no other place with people experiencing homelessness where they can go, or you’ve got a hostile community towards transgender kids for who knows why. So you want to create a welcoming space, but maybe that also means being a place that kids hang out from after school until the library closes because they don’t have a place at home or another place where it’s okay for kids to hang out. I mean, I think especially in New England, that third space used to be the church, but different people feel comfortable. I mean, there are lovely people in the churches in my community, some of them. Other churches in my community seem very not for me, but as somebody who’s Jewish, they’re not my spots. You know what I mean? I’m not just not Christian, you know what I mean?

So that civic infrastructure is missing. The library steps in, but then it does mean either you create these boundaries, like we can’t help you with blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Or they’re like, “We do help you with blah, blah, blah, blah, and we’re burnt out and exhausted.” We’re having this discussion in MetaFilter right now. Should we have threads that are just for despair and anguish? And part of the issue is not, hey, despair and anguish, that should be acceptable to talk about. But if you get threads that are purely despair and anguish and people who are talking about suicidal thoughts or harm or dead parents and pets and everything, really terrible things, having to have the moderators be those people who watch out for that stuff is incredibly taxing for them. And I think we need to think about our library staff, but we also need to think about our library community.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I very consciously wrote most of my last book in public libraries, and I did it for two reasons. I did it because I work better when someone can hold me accountable. I don’t need anyone to actually say anything to me. I just need the eyes over my shoulder so that I’m actually doing work rather than reading MetaFilter. But I was also writing a book about public goods and public funding and the effects on society.

I will confess, when I started doing it, I was favoring some of the really tiny towns around where I live, Dalton, Massachusetts, these beautiful old Carnegie libraries, and then eventually I really gravitated toward the library in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which is very much library as social services area. I would show up first thing in the morning and I would be showing up with a dozen people. We all had our Cumberland Farms coffee in hand, and a lot of those people didn’t have anywhere else to go. And that library had created a publications area where you were allowed to have your coffee and you were allowed to stay as long as you wanted. And that was the third place for a whole lot of people who didn’t have anywhere else to be.

I actually found myself getting very suspicious of the small town libraries. Were they actually doing the job of serving the people that they needed to? What I wonder in many cases is how libraries are going to deal with being this one public space now that it’s becoming a highly contested public space. We’ve had this wave of the Proud Boys coming to disrupt Drag Story Hour. Now, I think Drag Story Hour is a lovely example of what you were talking about with trying to create a classroom for humanity. But there is this sense in which as one of the few public institutions that can be disrupted, there now seems to be this opportunity to disrupt these spaces, and people really seem committed to making themselves present in that space.

Jessamyn West:

Yeah, I mean it’s a real challenge. In many ways, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of materials challenges, especially on books that are about not just racism, but just being Black is okay. You know what I mean? Books about Rosa Parks, books about Hank Aaron, just books about notable people in the space of people of color, primarily Black people, not just all people of color, and also any GLBTQ topic. So we’ve been dealing with these materials challenges, but they’ve really stepped up because I feel like what’s happening is people are trying to attack the libraries, especially school libraries, so that they are really going after public education, I feel like. But these in person issues historically, the issues we would mostly have is like, oh, you’ve got a public room that’s available to members of the community and then you get turfs or Nazis who want to use it.

And again, similar to these materials challenges, this isn’t just a random community Nazi who wanders into your library. This is a concerted effort to push the envelope on libraries’ First Amendment statements, and the fact that they’re civic institutions means that you can push that because theoretically there’s laws that affect what you should be able to do in a library. What we’re seeing now with Drag Queen Story Hour, which we had at my small library, kids freaking love it. It is super fun. It’s just about being yourself. It’s not about you should be gay, not that you should dress in different clothes to your gender or whatever. It has nothing to do with that. Even if it did, it should be fine, but it doesn’t. And Proud Boys are disrupting it almost not because they care about GLBTQ topics or drag queens, but because it’s a wedge, because they can get other people who are conservative, but maybe wouldn’t do that to be like, “Oh, I don’t know how I feel about that.” And then suddenly, maybe you’re enlisting people.

It’s really interesting because if you watch these people organize online, you watch them conflate Drag Queen Story Hour, which is just super fun and kids love it and communities love it, for the most part, with actual creepy people who maybe one time donated to a Drag Queen Story Hour event, but it turns out they’re a bad person and they’re in jail and they’re like, “Oh, it’s the same.” They bend reality. And I feel like the library has a obligation to the reality of the situation, but sometimes it means we miss how to deal with the stunt atmosphere of the situation.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I wonder also whether there’s this sense of being the last accessible space. You made reference to this idea that in New England, the church used to be a third space. I was thinking about my dear friend and ex-wife who is the rabbi of Williamstown in North Adams, and realizing of course, that because of threats of violence, her synagogue is now closed most of the time, and even on Saturday mornings, you need to be let in to be in that space. In many small communities, our public schools have traditionally been that third space where people mix and interact with one another. But of course, with a wave of school shootings, you now have those spaces being hardened and these efforts to ensure that there’s one locked door associated with them. Obviously, private space is not open for many things, including for protest.

I feel sometimes like libraries are the last public space. Somehow we’ve grandfathered them in. I sometimes like to believe that if libraries had not existed since more or less the formation of the Republic, we would have a tough time starting them now. But that notion of a space that is open and accessible to everyone feels like something that’s remarkably hard to provide in the 21st century. Do you think most librarians have that commitment to the space and to the public in the way that I’m articulating it, or am I projecting something on my feelings about libraries?

Jessamyn West:

No, I really feel like that’s accurate. I mean, I sometimes talk about globally issues with librarianship and concerns that I have, but almost every single librarian I meet has that kind of commitment, to have the space accessible and available to do the job, even when the job is hard to defend everybody’s right to access the library. And it varies a little bit. Every now and again, you’ll hear about a public library in Texas where you have to be a citizen to use the library, where that shouldn’t be a thing. And in most libraries, it’s not a thing. Some libraries don’t let unhoused people get library cards. Many of them, most of them do that kind of thing. I think on balance, librarians are committed to that.

And I would have to point to on Facebook, I also am one of the moderators for this massive group called the ALA Think Tank. It’s not affiliated with the ALA. It’s an old name. It’s hard to change, but it’s like 50,000 librarians strong, talking about very difficult issues in librarianship. And most of the time, on balance, the librarians that I see talking about these difficult issues are very much trying to do the right thing. In fact, so much so that occasionally it gets used against us. There’s this concept that we call vocational awe, which is that you don’t believe that your job is just your job, it’s your calling. So you stay late even when you’re not getting paid or you bring supplies from home because you can’t afford them at the library.

So you’ve got to work on boundaries and stuff like that, but in general, I really do think that commitment to accessibility, to the extent that you can, digital accessibility is a lot harder for a lot of libraries and maybe they’re not as proactive as they could be. The accessibility of the physical space for all the people is I think something that’s important. And I think having a collection that represents … The collection in my library is more diverse than my community, a lot more, and that’s how it should be. That’s a positive. I think it helps my community understand that the world is richer and more diverse maybe than this community is for various rural reasons. You see that a lot, and it’s heartwarming, but it’s also challenging because you’re worried that it’s a little under attack more than usual.

Ethan Zuckerman:

But that feels like maybe a transition into where I want to bring this in for a landing, which is the theme of our podcast, is that the internet as it is, and particularly social media as it is, could be a better place than it is right now. And in many ways, you are associated with two institutions, MetaFilter and libraries, that I suspect have a lot to say to the contemporary social internet. I think you just said one thing, which is that you actually need the information universe to be more diverse than your universe of people in the community so that you don’t end up isolated in an echo chamber, so that you can be open to new voices. What’s maybe one or two takeaways from MetaFilter or one or two takeaways from your work in the library that you could imagine bringing into Facebook, Twitter, this much larger and troubled landscape that we and others are trying to make better?

Jessamyn West:

Well, I think to be honest, Twitter and Facebook are working on it, but at the same time, they don’t have the ability to do the thing they want to do at scale, and they decide that scale is more important than doing the thing they want to do. I saw some really good analysis of moderation, maybe you sent it to me actually, on Twitter and Facebook, which talked about the in group, out group dynamic, that what you find is moderators are often part of whatever the in group of various communities are. They’re not fancy tech workers, but they’re still tech workers. They’re still people who work with a computer for a job, which puts them at some echelon level above maybe the people who are getting punched down at, let’s say.

And just the idea of having a diverse moderation force can mean you can get somebody from the Uighurs being like, “This isn’t cool what they’re saying on” … Chinese Facebook may not really be a thing, but you need somebody from the out groups to be able to highlight what’s happening from the in groups in ways that the in groups may not even understand. So from a thing that’s actually attainable, try to hire from out groups as well as in groups, have diversity be all the way through your organization, not just in your middle management, and make a commitment. Twitter’s got this thing now, bird watch, where you can leave comments on tweets that are visible to other people. And then they have a team of experts who can leave these comments and who can evaluate other people’s comments. I’m part of this beta, so it’s really interesting to see it happen. I learn from it.

But more stuff like that, that enable you to crowdsource more of the truth of a thing and not just be like, “Well this guy’s really popular. So even though he’s saying completely unpalatable things” … You don’t have a right as a politician to be a terrible person on Twitter and just not lose your account because you’re a politician. That kind of thing. Being more serious about timeouts and bans and bad actors and being able to track them on the back end. There’s tools. You can build them. Especially when you look at Facebook, that’s one of the richest companies in the world, come on, you’re not trying.

And then from the library, my advice is almost the opposite. Engaging more with the digital space so that you understand the nuances of the conversations that maybe you think are only in your community. You know what I mean? Understanding what the push against Drag Queen Story Hour is really about, understanding what the push against critical race theory is really about. Being out in front of these things … When Drag Queen Story Hour came to my town, and my town’s 30% voted for Trump people, there was some conversation on Facebook, which was just like sexualizing children and just bullshit.

But I showed up as an extremely online person and was like, “Actually, here’s some information about that that’ll help you.” You don’t have to agree with me, but you’re going to have a hard time refuting these things that I say because they are true. So more librarians engaging and doing advanced work on difficult stuff. And again, it’s hard because they do a lot already. But understanding those spaces and understanding they need to be in those conversations and understanding that there are threats and figuring out ways to be relevant to a 2020 world when they were created in a 1850s world.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I mean, Jessamyn, if I can pick a theme that brings the two of those together, you and I are both very interested in small communities, whether they’re the small community of Randolph Vermont, whether they’re the small community of MetaFilter, or whether they’re some of the small websites my team at UMass is building, those small communities are always embedded within a larger community, which is increasingly global and connected. You just gave a great example of this, whether it’s Drag Queen Story Hour or the counter reaction to it, this is one small town encountering these much larger social forces and trying to figure out what’s the reaction to it. I’m sure with everything from spam and also extremism on MetaFilter, all the way through to the politics of what happens at the library, some of this is about how the local and the global interface with one another.

Jessamyn West:

Yeah. No, I think that’s really true, and I think it’s those talking to each other and also the erosion of the public sphere is a larger issue. I think we, in small town New England, are experiencing that very different than we would be in small town Oklahoma, in small town Alabama, where of the insides have already been ripped out of many of those communities. So it’s sometimes hard. I have a newspaper in my town that gets published every week and it’s all about showing the community back to itself. And sometimes I feel like in smaller communities that have already been decimated by whatever, global capitalism and Walmart and a whole bunch of other things, there isn’t that mirror, or the library could be that mirror to show the community to itself.

So you wind up looking for representations of your community in mainstream media that do a terrible job and just feed you stereotypes of yourself back to you. That’s not the way to be a fully realized human, I think, because then it just feeds itself. You see librarians on TV that look like this kind of thing, and then you look like that kind of thing and then suddenly that reifies that at the expense of the real life librarians and the real work we do.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, Jessamyn West, real life librarian, extremely online librarian, new owner of MetaFilter, and lovely human being. It is a beautiful afternoon here in western New England. I am going to free you so that you no longer have to be extremely online with me. It is always such a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for joining us on Reimagining the Internet.

Jessamyn West:

Thank you. It’s been a joy to talk to you too, Ethan. It’s always good to see you.