Librarians´ social work is not about going out to the street and saving the world or the humankind. We´re far from being superheroes (even if, in my closet, I keep a dress of Zorro and, one of these days… who knows, who knows…). I think that to take a compromise with reality (from any profession, situation or point of view) doesn´t mean at all to assume the responsibility of solving every problem, every conflict and every misery.
(First, because each human being has a very particular concept of what a “problem” is. Second, because current social situation is more complicated of what it seems).
To take a compromise with social reality, its conflicts and the problems happening in our environment, means to assume just a responsibility and a basic moral duty: to give what we can for the stabilization, improvement, change or delete of every critical or negative situation.
Sometimes, the things we give –this little “grain of sand”- is completely useless. But sometimes –just sometimes- it´s precious. And extremely useful.
How do we know what situation is “critical” and “negative”? Ah, ah… “that is the question”. I think that is necessary just to learn to look around us and to listen around us, carefully and slowly. To listen the surrounding voices. We´ll find necessities soon: the hands looking for support, the people who need us… We´ll find this place where our work will be useful. And then, in this exact moment, we take a compromise with a cause, with a situation, with a human group. Maybe a tiny, ridiculous, stupid one… But it´ll be our cause. Valuable for us (because it allows us to help and to improve ourselves) and for the helped one.
Librarians´ (or any other) social work doesn´t mean to force anybody to do anything. It doesn´t mean to force someone to listen us, to follow us, to accept us because we believe that they need us, or because we believe that our reasons or our service is good and wise. It means to look for the hands that need and desire our help. And it means to give them what they need or ask for. To force, to impose, has been the great mistake of a lot of (inter)national programs (e.g. development or education support). Provided services are not wonderful just because we believe they are, or because we think the others need it. In this sense, we need to work from a grassroot development perspective.
This perspective points out that every person with a problem can recognize (sometimes with a little bit of help) which is this problem, its source and its best solution (or the wished one). It´s necessary just to listen or to ask the right questions. Listen, listen and listen. To learn which one would be the best solution that people would use if they could afford/obtain/make it. Our work is to help them to get/do it. Or, at least, to try.
And every activity implemented using this method must be done by collaborating with the community of final users. We have to put the tools (whatever they were) in their hands, and to help them to use them, and to try a successful outcome.
By this way, our help will be a natural, easy, acceptable one… and it´ll not be an artificial implant ready to be refused by the receptor as something strange.
Maybe we´ll not change a lot. But I swear that, at least inside of us, something will change.
As always happens to everyone who wants to be solidary or to implement new things, we´ll face indifference, lack of understanding, stupid answers, envies and jealousies, and even aggressive attitudes. Frustration will arrive soon (I know a lot about this). But there are always good reasons for going on, for not letting the fire to die, for making every day count. It´s necessary just not to fall after the first failed trial, to believe, to forget the word “impossible”… and to go on.
And if, at the end of a long way of trials, we find that we´ve always failed, we´ll have, at least, the satisfaction of belonging to the “we-always-try-even-if-we-usually-fail” Club, and not to the “I-prefer-not-to-do-anything-just-in-case-I-would-fail” Society.
Indifference and neutrality
As a good father giving advices to his young son, my colleague told me that, according to his opinion, I should forget my ideas of social change and improvement, dedicating my days and my hours to the simpler technical work and lefting behind my deliriums and wanderings, because with my attitude I´ll get just problems.
After a couple of hours of this “wise conversation” (whose contents I´ve listened lots of times before), my good friend left me alone in front of a beer and my pipe. And inside my brain–in the middle of the vapors of alcohol and tobacco- just raised a single, silly question: “Maybe the world works as it works because it´s full of persons like this one?”.
I´m still wondering it. And now, I am sober.
I don´t think that my opinion is the correct one. I didn´t buy reason in a supermarket, neither an arcangel came down from Heavens to put truth in my hands. But throughout my short –but intense- professional life, I realized of the power a book has for changing people´s lifes. It accompanies old people, it opens new worlds to children, it informs, it gives possibilities and opportunities, it gives fun, it educates… And much more: wisely used, it breaks chains, it opens closed mouths and it takes off bandages from eyes and corks from ears.
I live in a complex world, in a painful reality. Sometimes it looks like Hell, but I cannot anesthesiate myself by ignoring what´s going on around me, what´s happening with my family, my people, my society, my country… I´m a part of all this. I am one more of all these millions doomed to live a life that, normally, shows injustices daily. I am not pesimistic: I love life and I admire it challenges. But I am realistic: there are more problems than solutionms.
To be indifferent, to believe that everything´s happening here is not my bussiness… it´s not my way. I cannot do it. Because what´s happening around me is huge, it´s brutal, it´s cruel, it hurts me a lot, and I should be very blind or very coward to put my eyes in the other direction and not feeling it. Maybe I am too young (I am 32… Am I young? Or maybe my head is full of birds?). Maybe this young mind push me to take compromises with things that older people prefer to avoid.
But I have listened such indifferent opinions in the mouth of teenagers. And I wonder… "what´s going on here?”.
After finishing my university career and feeling that I had a little chance in my hands for changing even a little aspect of reality, I cannot cross my arms over my chest and say to myself “I am neutral. My work is just technical”. It´s simple: I have got a higher education (in this continent, that´s a honour), so I am morally/ethically compeled to apply, out of the classrooms, what I learnt inside them. I know that, with my knowledge, I can change the life of someone –or a lot of lifes, who knows?- and this pushes me to struggle, to do it.
We daily read about the power of education, about the value of information, about the role of library in the development of societies, in the preservation of identities and memories… We listen these ideas in hundreds of conferences, congresses, meetings, seminars and workshops. We know about all the problems that lack of information can provoke. So… honestly speaking… what are we waiting for? What`s the use of all these “important meetings” and “brilliant ideas and papers” if we finally show a total indifference about the same ideas we have applauded 2 minutes before? Are we lefting the real action to the mad idealists… and we talk the talk but we don´t walk the walk?
The concept of librarian neutrality scares me. During my 32 years, I never witnessed real neutrality. Hmmm… maybe I am terribly radical (black or white) and I don´t understand middles or grays. Anyway, in my opinion, neutral positions don´t exist in libraries: people who declare themselves neutral are just avoiding to take a position. And, as far as I know, we can´t: we, librarians, are all the time taking important decissions (and, therefore, assuming positions). Which books do we include in the collecxtion? Who is allowed to use the library? Are photocopies allowed or not? What use will we give to the (usually scarce) economic resources? These are just a few of the decissions (= positions) we take weekly. And, behind all them, there are reasons: philosophical, ethical, ideological, personal….
We are not neutral. We can´t. But many colleagues are indifferent, a pretty different thing. They are indifferent to what´s happening outside (or even inside) the walls of their libraries. I don´t know if such an attitude is a good or a bad one (the fact that I don´t agree with it don´t allow me to state a judgement… even if this text is just this… buh). What I know is that we cannot disguise indifference under the label of neutrality. And I know that we have an ethical duty, as professionals, towards our users and towards the services we must provide.
Out there, in the outside world, things happen, things with no relationship with UDC and AACR2R. Out there, tons of hands and minds are needed. OK, we´ll not change our reality in a couple of days (maybe we´ll never change it). But sometimes, a simple gesture is enough for helping a person. A single smile can change a life. Mine was changed years ago by a little, single tear. It turned me into what I am right now (yes, I know, a lot of people are regretting it, hahaha). And I know that, with my work, I´ve changed a couple of the thousands lifes I touched.
It just necessary to take a compromise with something, even if it looks tiny or silly. It´s just necessary to give this little step for finding that our profession isn´t so insipid, that we are not so invisible as the stupid steorotypes said, that we are not neutrals or simple book-carriers, and that our work is terribly important. It´s just necessary to leave indifference and mutism at one side of our way… and go on.
It´s just necessary, sometimes, to open the heart and the mind, and to forget logic and technicisms. To look for the hands who are needing help. And to live this action with passion. Our profession has a terribly strong social side, and nobody is teaching it at LIS Schools. Let´s forget indifference, neutrality… or whatever. Let´s take the compromise with our social environment. The payback will be… none. Maybe a smile. But you can be sure that this little payment will last forever, inside there, in the little corner of the heart where we keep all things that were really worth the pain.