Free Democratic Public Space

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Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

At first glance it is difficult to reconcile the public library values of freedom of expression and providing safe spaces. But on closer examination both of these may be accommodated if we ask questions such as: what does safe space mean?; who decides what it means? and safe for who? There is no absolute guarantee of safe spaces in public libraries. They are public buildings and we cannot and should not screen who enters them. An attempt to do this at Regina Public Library led to accusations of racial profiling. The public library is open to all and so anyone can come in to them and start doing and saying things that other people – staff and patrons – do not regard as safe. But everyone has their own moral universe and scale of what is acceptable. At one time any indication of intoxication would get someone banned from a public library, partly on safety grounds. Today the focus is not so much on the intoxication but on the behavior of the patron; if the behaviour is not problematic, then neither is the intoxication.

As Emily Crockett has pointed out, safe spaces mean different things to different people: ‘For people in marginalized groups, psychological safety and physical safety are closely related and not easy to separate. That’s where the concept of safe spaces is rooted in the first place, and that’s why the need to have them is so powerful for so many.’

This statement is in fact true for everyone, including mainstream society.  In a library context for example, a homeless person might make a staff member feel unsafe but, at the same time, for that homeless person the library might be the safest space in town. It is possible for both the staff member and the homeless person to feel safe in the same space if they are willing and able to understand each other’s story.

Safe spaces cannot be about literal physical safety from violence; they’re a refuge, a place to relax. This is highlighted by shootings at places of worship as just one example.  Libraries are a similar societal asset, open to all, a refuge and symbol of intellectual freedom and acceptance.   Public libraries can be made into places that guarantee absolute freedom of expression so long as library staff and patrons are prepared to engage in conversations with people who have different views and moral universes to their own.

Inside or outside of safe spaces, the real problem is usually a failure of empathy, and the real solution is treating others with humility, respect, and compassion and being willing to learn from our own mistakes.  It is possible for both the staff member and the homeless person to feel safe in the same physical space if they are willing and able to understand each other’s story in a shared psychological space.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to cultural safety. The public library provides free democratic public space in which all cultures should be valued and respected.

John Pateman – If you have a comment about today’s column, we would love to hear from you. Please comment below!

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