Friday, 29 September 2017

Playing it safe...

We work in a risk-averse profession.

We learn to play it safe - whether it be in providing access to collections or making copies of materials... whether in committing resources to innovative services or trialling programs that are completely out of the circle we exist in.

Sure, there are the trailblazers who we all admire at conferences, but once the inspiration and associated endorphins wear away, we return to work - back to the safe old familiar surroundings.

And then there are times where we adopt new, exciting innovations - usually in the form of a software platform that an external vendor has developed, and done all the required risk analyses and beta-testing - and preferably one that another library has already used, so that we have an working example to observe first.

Of course, this all makes sense. We need to be accountable for our actions, decisions and the consequences that follow.

On the other hand, one of the core values of librarianship is defending and promoting Freedom of Expression as a fundamental human right.

Exercising one's freedom of expression is not safe. I've lived in countries where people aren't able to express themselves freely, because to do so would make them physically unsafe. Even here in Australia, there are many who cannot express a political opinion online without the consequence being a torrent of abuse - much of which involves threats or physical harm.

We see it happen to others and yet we remain silent, lest we become a target ourselves.

And of course, many of us are public servants, and have to choose our words carefully, in case we're perceived as being critical of the government employers and put our employment - and financial security - at risk.

We demand to have the right to be safe, but also the right to freedom of expression - even though, in practice, these two freedoms rarely coexist peacefully.

So, what's the solution? Continue to play it safe, keep our heads down, work hard, achieve results and get along with our colleagues, so that we can enjoy a safe and stimulating career? Or strive to be a revolutionary, railing against the systemic social biases and pushing for more equitably accessible services, build teams and collections that are more representative of our communities... and risk the inevitable push-back, whether it be those who would decry your actions with words such as "social justice warrior", "political correctness" or "playing identity politics", or, worse still, silent passive-aggression.

Or is this a false dichotomy?

Is it perhaps possible to be progressively outspoken and still play it safe?

Is it possible, as champions for intellectual freedom, to facilitate safe forums for the exploration of highly-contentious issues without the fear of some form or retribution? Or is this nothing more than preaching to the choir, tweeting outrage into our own homophilic echo-chambers, and avoiding real discourse - however dangerous - with those whose mindsets are truly opposite to ours.

I don't have the answers. Sometimes I feel emboldened and inspired to try to push for social change, but sometimes I feel exhausted enough just trying to stay on top of my professional work and maintain the professional relations I need with my peers. I know many people who keep these two parts of their lives completely separate - and that is, in itself, a way of playing it safe. But just as the personal is the political, so too is the professional.