Public Libraries, Police Abolition, and Serving Your Community in a Time of Change

If we abolish the police and reimagine the ways in which our societies cope with disorder, violence, and transgression, what else will have to shift? How radically could public libraries change, if we reimagined the institutions of information as profoundly as we might reimagine the institutions of justice?

I led strategy workshops last month with some very senior librarians in Australia, and at the beginning of these sessions, we gave an Acknowledgment of Country, acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land we were on and paying our respects to Elders past, present, and emerging.

We didn’t just speak these words as a formula and then move on. We talked about what it meant to acknowledge country in digital space, when each of us was in a different location, from Australia to the UK. We talked about acknowledging the histories which have led us to a world in which I could speak the traditional language used for generations in the place where I was born, and not make any effort to adapt the way I speak for audiences in Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, the US, Canada, or many other nations.

We talked about what it would mean for the institutions represented in the workshop not just to acknowledge these histories, or to carry out the work of recognising and remedying them through diversity and inclusion efforts, acts of reconciliation and decolonisation, and so on. We talked about what it would mean for these institutions to become explicitly antiracist.

It was important to talk about this, because for some public institutions, it proves hard to take a stand against injustice. The political environment in which public library services and other organisations operate is shaped by the elected governments which determine their funding and policies, and this can make it challenging for institutions to do the right thing.

Finding ways to speak and act for justice

We know that it still proves hard for libraries to speak out on issues of justice, even when those issues seem to be fairly cut-and-dried. This problem of the political limitations placed on such institutions was evident during the marriage equality survey in Australia in 2017. Rather than simply present a bill to Parliament allowing for two people to marry irrespective of sex or gender, the Australian federal government chose to organise a voluntary postal survey of Australians’ views on same-sex marriage.

The Australian Library and Information Association initially felt unable to advocate for or support a “Yes” vote in this survey, leaving it behind Telstra, Qantas, Holden, ANZ Bank and the AFL, NRL, and FFA football codes.

While the sporting bodies were able to say that “football is about fundamental Australian values like equal opportunity, respect and a fair go, and so is marriage equality”, the librarians’ association announced that “…we have stopped just short of stating that the Association promotes a yes vote. We have done so, not because we think the topic is unimportant, but because it is vitally important and extends far beyond our library world.”


After lobbying from various librarians, and in particular a committee of next generation library workers, the association updated the phrasing of their response in September 2017, after the forms had gone out for the survey:

“The ALIA Board agrees that the current Commonwealth legislation dealing with marriage is discriminatory, and that a yes response to the postal survey is required to right this discrimination. At a human level, we regret the divisions that are forming and the impact on the well-being of our Members. We believe the majority of our personal members will support a yes vote and we, as a Board, do so too.”

The association had initially felt unable to explicitly support the human rights of Australia’s LGBTQIA+ community, and their belated message of full support then made it look as if they were turning with the prevailing winds, rather than having held a strong and clear stance all along. This was especially disheartening given the degree of misinformation which had been spread by the No lobby in the run-up to the survey.

Perhaps having learned from this experience, ALIA has this month put out a statement against racism, racial discrimination, and race-based violence.

It describes how libraries are already “continuously working to improve the ways that they support and advocate with First Nations people and multicultural communities, and act to actively oppose systemic bias and discrimination” and lists many activities, largely based upon traditional library services such as offering collections and supporting the development of information skills. It is heartening to see that ALIA supports the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which offers the prospect of constitutional recognition for Australia’s first peoples.

This is all laudable, but it still makes me want to ask the question: this is a long list of all the good things you are already doing, but how will this moment change ALIA and similar organisations? How will such bodies go further, move faster, allow themselves to be reshaped, redirected, and transformed by this moment of crisis so that the old injustices definitively become things of the past?

Some of the changes that will be needed in Australian society, and other communities around the world, will be even less palatable to some politicians and community members than the prospect of marriage equality was. The strange, turbulent historical moment in which we find ourselves is dangerous and uncertain, but it also creates an opportunity for profound reimagining of the ways we live and the institutions which form our society.

Abolish the Police…then Abolish Libraries?

The unrest in North America, and the worldwide protests which have followed, have come about in response to the brutal and murderous treatment of African Americans by police who should serve and protect their communities. There are long histories of violence, prejudice, and mistreatment, and this moment reminds us of the limits of policing  – especially, but not solely, American policing -as an institution.

In a recent interview with NPR, Alex S. Vitale, author of The End of Policing, says:

“Part of our misunderstanding about the nature of policing is we keep imagining that we can turn police into social workers. That we can make them nice, friendly community outreach workers. But police are violence workers. That’s what distinguishes them from all other government functions. … They have the legal capacity to use violence in situations where the average citizen would be arrested. So when we turn a problem over to the police to manage, there will be violence, because those are ultimately the tools that they are most equipped to utilize: handcuffs, threats, guns, arrests. That’s what really is at the root of policing. So if we don’t want violence, we should try to figure out how to not get the police involved.”

Vitale argues that part of the problem feeding the current crisis is the expansion of the scope of policing, so that police are tasked with addressing problems related to schooling, mental illness, and homelessness, among other issues. (In a COVID-19 context, the British legal commentator David Allen Green has been writing lately about the problems inherent in taking a law enforcement approach to questions of public health).

Vitale goes on to say:

“But the policing has become more intensive, more invasive, more aggressive. So what I’m calling for is a rethink on why we’ve turned all of these social problems over to the police to manage. And as we dial those things back, then we can think more concretely about what the rest of policing should look like and how that could be reformed.”

Police abolition sounds shocking to many people who have grown up taking it for granted that a police presence is fundamental to our society. Police are omnipresent and heroic in our TV dramas, our movies, and our children’s play, the place where the youngest members of society rehearse for their future roles, where we teach our children to dream of cops alongside teachers and chefs and firefighters and doctors, and all the other stock characters in the theatre of everyday life.

Yet abolition needn’t be so shocking; it is also a pragmatic, realistic search for nonviolent community solutions for justice. In a 2016 Chicago Reader article, “Abolish the police? Organizers say it’s less crazy than it sounds“, community activists pointed to practices such as peace circles, restorative justice, and even daily barbecues hosted by local mothers in public spaces which had become notorious for violence:

“neighborhood residents have noted a palpable easing of tensions on the block, especially when the “army of moms” is around […] ‘Nobody wants to come through here shooting if they see 50 kids outside waiting to eat dinner'”.

“Defund the police” is now a slogan which is being discussed in the American op-ed pages, where a law professor reassures Washington Post readers that the prospect of reducing police funding, and removing duties such as resolving family disputes or moving homeless people into shelters, ”is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds.”

The impact of the movement is perhaps also being seen worldwide; Aotearoa New Zealand, for example, has just stepped back from the rollout of Armed Response Teams who would have carried firearms while on general rounds. This follows sustained community pushback during a six-month trial period, but the timing makes it hard not to connect the Kiwi decision to the mood of the global response to American unrest.

If we can imagine a post-police world, in which some of the police’s functions are given to other organisations or entities, what would that imply for the public library’s role in the community? In such a radically transformed world, how should we rethink not only our access to justice, but also the ways in which a community connects with, creates, and has access to knowledge, information, and culture?

Something better, beyond the library?

Public library services are fond of announcing that they are brave, safe, inclusive institutions, built on principles of equity and fairness to the communities they serve. But this narrative is not historically accurate, and not always reliable in the present. As Australian librarian Tegan Darnell found in her “macrohistory” of the profession,

“As a liberal and critical thinking library professional, I like to think of the profession as a kind of rebellious and radical information distributor; challenging the dominant paradigm and bringing about social change. Perhaps this is true for some, but the profession as a whole belongs to the powers that be. […] I come from a long line of what can only be called “culture enforcers”, with a repeating theme of the reinforcement of dominant forms of power. It has made me decidedly uncomfortable.”

The work of libraries under the Third Reich, or the segregated regimes of the American South, provides extreme but clear examples of the ways in which public libraries, for all their fine ideals now, must reckon with a legacy of complicity and oppression.

In Australia, the country whose libraries I know best, the library was always a colonial institution, which arrived on the back of waves of violence by British colonisers who espoused the doctrine of terra nullius. Under this legal fiction, the land was deemed to be unoccupied and uninhabited, despite belonging to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who had never ceded their sovereignty.

The waters off Thursday Island in the Torres Strait

Information, knowledge, and culture had been managed, created, and shared by human beings on that land long before 1788 – it’s just that the structures and entities responsible for that work didn’t resemble the European notion of a library. I’m particularly minded of the Mabuiag culture of the Torres Strait. For those Islanders, the landscape served as the storage place for histories and narratives: “where something happened is more important than ‘when’ it happened. What first appear to be undifferentiated patches of coral and salt water are Islanders’ exclusive marine domains – a vast, intricate water library where history dwells in places, not in time, and all the sea is named.”

Today, we see a range of decolonisation efforts worldwide, with many voices calling for much-needed change, and a diversity of approaches to, and opinions on, how the library needs to transform. Nathan Sentance is one of the most prominent among many advocates for reform and decolonisation of Australia’s Galleries, Libraries and Museums (GLAM) sector.  In the UK, groups such as DILON strive for diversity in British library services through a range of events and actions including last year’s Decolonising Libraries conference. At the start of this year, Cecily Walker, a librarian based in Vancouver, gave a speech on “being the horrible goose” within an organisation, tenaciously and indefatigably making your institution reckon with its biases, even if you must make as much of a nuisance of yourself as the eponymous character from Untitled Goose Game. These voices, and many others, create hope and energy for transformation of the old institutions.

Could it be that in a future world where we can imagine no police force, or a reduced police force, we also have to imagine something that is as far from today’s public library as a butterfly is from its caterpillar form? What institution or entity would be best designed to do that work of connecting a community with knowledge, information, and culture? Would it look anything like the library we see today? Would it even share the name?

That might sound radical, but such reimaginings are possible, even in institutions which are traditionally slow to change. The court case which put an end to terra nullius in Australia is one relatively recent example. When the Australian High Court made its judgment in the Mabo case recognising the land rights of the Meriam people, this was, as legal scholar Kate Galloway puts it, “for lawyers […] a high water mark in legal thinking: thinking outside what might seem possible. “

Imagine the same transformation happening both for justice and for access to information. In such a world, how would the public library’s mission – connecting a given community with what it wants and needs in terms of knowledge, information, and culture – be transformed? Whose voices and visions would design or define that reimagined work? What tasks, traditionally associated with a given institution, might be bundled together or separated out in that future?

What would be asked of libraries’ heirs and successors?

Perhaps such institutions’ social role would continue to grow. This might cause consternation at first; library workers understandably fear being used as a “gap filler” or “sticking plaster” for communities being affected by wider social, structural, or policy choices which impact on public services.

Some librarians have already balked at being asked to do “social work”, even as others have worked hard to better support vulnerable community members such as the homeless.  There are also significant ongoing debates about libraries’ service to community members with severe mental health or drug issues. Wider social changes will presage transformation for any library service which seeks to survive and thrive in times to come. New tasks, roles, and duties will arise for information institutions – some perhaps daunting, some appealing, to those who work there.

I’m not going to presume here to inflict my vision of what that butterfly of a future library might look like, or how it might fly. But what’s coming for our societies might require information professionals, and especially public librarians, not just to build upon their successes, or address their failures and blindspots, but to truly and completely transform the institutions which they are part of.

Unlearning the future library

Reimagining the public library in this way might require unlearning old ways as much as learning new ones.

I came across this term, “unlearning”, twice in one day at the start of June 2020. The first was in a Time magazine piece by the Australian commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied. There, she talks about “the unlearning, tackling structural change, committing to anti-racism”, which is necessary to make a lasting systemic change on matters of equality and justice.

Later that day, I read a piece on strategic foresight by researchers at the Universities of Stirling and Strathclyde. Seeking to understand how institutions benefited from imagining plausible futures as part of a scenario planning process, George Burt and Anup Karath Nair talked about how the work of imaginative foresight enabled unlearning: “the process by which individuals and organisations acknowledge and release prior learning (including assumptions and mental frameworks) in order to accommodate new information and behaviours.”

They argue that whereas “to learn” derives from a Germanic word related to tracks or furrows, to “unlearn” implies “eradicating furrows and returning to the unfurrowed flux of […] experience […] Unlearning requires letting go or relaxing the rigidities of previously held assumptions and beliefs, rather than forgetting them.”

If we understand unlearning in this way, then acts like those of British protestors tearing down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol can also be seen as unlearning: not forgetting the past, but toppling the reverence we had for it, and its security in our society, in order to depose old values and install new ones in their place.

Beyond all the good and worthy things which many public libraries have already been doing up to this point, all the things listed in that ALIA statement mentioned earlier, what can be unlearned in this moment of crisis? What old ruts can be escaped, and what new paths found, so that we come out of this moment of appalling suffering, this moment in which we recognise injustice at a global level, having made a lasting difference for the better?

How can we unlearn and reimagine communities’ relationship to information, knowledge, and culture from the ground up, in a way that might be as radical as the notion of abolishing the police?


I recognise how hard it is for publicly funded institutions to imagine themselves undergoing such radical change, or taking a stand based on values which might not be shared by every part of the community they serve (or every staff member!).

Working on strategy with public librarians in Sweden in 2018, just after the electoral successes of the far-right Sweden Democrats, we found ourselves asking questions like “what should you do, as a librarian, when your community has overwhelmingly voted for politicians whose values are at odds with a modern, inclusive public institution striving to provide equity of service for all?”

Similar questions have arisen in sessions with professionals across a range of sectors in North America, Europe, and Australasia over the past few years. Sometimes it seems unimaginably difficult for public sector employees to push back on fraught political issues – but then it happens, and a precedent is found.

In 2016, medics at Brisbane’s Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital refused to release a badly burned baby into Australia’s offshore detention system, on the ground that the detention centre on Nauru was not a suitable home environment. Their Hippocratic oath and duty of care to their young patient trumped Australia’s heartless policy towards asylum seekers, and they refused to send the baby back into detention.

If health professionals can find ways to stand up to an unjust government policy and do what is right, then so can library workers and information professionals.

Libraries urgently need to learn how to move with political agility while living up to their values in turbulent times – and this is especially important in matters of equity, inclusion, and justice.

We can already see this in questions of gender equity and liberation; the Australian experience with marriage equality isn’t even the most recent example. Toronto Public Library recently found itself at odds with its own mayor over its willingness to host an event featuring a speaker who had made controversial remarks about transgender people. Similar issues have plagued Seattle Public Library, which has been selected as 2020 Library of the Year by Library Journal despite criticism for hosting an anti-trans group.

These issues show how much work is still to be done, and return us to the question of the wider social changes which are highlighted by the current push against unjust, racist policing in the US.

Alex S. Vitale’s argument about scope creep in The End of Policing suggests that part of the problem for law enforcement right now is that its role has been shifting and expanding, slowly and steadily, in response to social changes. Perhaps, to some extent, the same is true of the public library: broader social transformations are happening, some of them with such a long arc that individual library leaders have not been aware of, or inclined to address, them. But, whether it has been noticed or not, the seas in which the public library sails are changing in significant ways.

As a result, institutions now find themselves in challenging and turbulent conditions, needing to exercise sound strategic judgment, great ethical awareness, and integrity, all against the background of political disturbance, the rise of the far right, a global pandemic, and the prospect of tougher financial circumstances on the far side of the COVID-19 response.

It is a daunting time. But that also means that the option of sticking your head in the sand has been entirely taken away. Many parts of our society will have to change, much of what we once took for granted may be dismantled, and while there is a need for privileged people to step back and ensure that the new order is shaped by those whose voices were previously excluded, marginalised, and diminished, there is also an onus on the privileged to do some hard work: unlearning the old, dismantling the unjust, and supporting the growth of something new, fairer, and better.

So: how should libraries emerge from this moment, not just with cosmetic changes, but deeply and fully reimagined? Should they emerge at all, or should something else take their place? What should be dismantled, and who will take responsibility for that work?

These questions go beyond the usual issues of “what should our collection contain”, “what services should we offer”, “what is the right balance of physical and digital resources”. It involves serious foresight work to imagine the possibilities and challenges for a radically transformed information institution in a radically transformed future world. It demands unlearning, as much as development, of what already exists.

In the future that lies beyond the current crisis, what will it mean to serve a community with respect to its wants and needs for culture, knowledge, and information? How can we take advantage of this moment to think the public library anew?


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