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Intentionality: Reconstructing Library Spaces as Safe Spaces
by Rachel Wexelbaum


The author will identify her intentionality in library work, which involves the construction of library spaces as safe spaces. She briefly defines “safe space”, and makes the argument that the American Library Association Code of Ethics can provide a framework for creating safe spaces in libraries. Through exploration and discussion of a case study, the author recommends that library policies and procedures align with our professional code of ethics to ensure that the library remains a welcoming space for all patrons.

Intentionality: A Personal Statement

In the higher education administration program where I am a student, we must take a class called “Social Justice and Diversity in Higher Education”. We are told in this class that we must be intentional, and have intentionality in all that we do. At eighteen years old, I had made a lifelong commitment to inform LGBTIQ populations about library resources and services, and how to locate LGBTIQ books, information, and communities. As I advanced in the library profession, pre-Internet age narratives of “how the library saved my life” ran through my head as I did my work. As peoples’ information searching behaviors and reading preferences have changed with ubiquitous online access and social media, and more college students have access to LGBTIQ support services now than they had back in 1990, I realize that today’s undergraduates - in particular, LGBTIQ undergraduates - may have different attitudes, perceptions, and expectations of their libraries today. The major focus of my dissertation research is whether or not academic libraries exist as safe spaces, and whether or not LGBTIQ students perceive academic libraries as such. For this reason, I have been doing a great deal of research about safe spaces in higher education environments, as well as the construction of safe spaces in libraries, for all populations.

Definition of Safe Space

A generic definition of “safe space” is a physical or virtual space where people can feel secure and free to express themselves, learn, and achieve without censure or harm[1]. It also is a term for an area or forum where a marginalized group is not supposed to face stereotypes or further marginalization[2]. While critics claim that safe spaces actually restrict freedom of speech or “authentic” academic discourse[3], students and faculty both clamor for civility and collegiality in the higher education environment, whether created by ground rules for behavior[4] or “trigger warnings” on readings or films for students[5]. Safe spaces can exist in physical or virtual environments. Ground rules for behavior, the presence or absence of particular people, geography and engineering provide the foundation for a safe space. With that said, are libraries safe spaces?

How Libraries are Safe Spaces

Libraries historically have defined “safety” through policies and procedures to protect employees, patrons, library resources, and the physical building itself from harm[6]. Libraries have designed smart practices for handling emergencies[7], cybersecurity[8], and “inappropriate” behavior[9]; quite often they perceive innovations as disrupters and potentially dangerous[10]. At the same time, most librarians, particularly LGBT librarians, assert that libraries are safe spaces for all who are different[11] and that librarians should act as change agents, teaching the community how to maintain the library a safe space for learning, expression, and the marginalized[12].

As reading groups, literacy programs, social services, and community engagement activities sprung from libraries, inadvertently the libraries provided a “third space” perceived as a safe space[13]. For homeless patrons, a library provides shelter from the elements. For the bullied, it provides sanctuary. For recovering addicts, it provides resources and activities in a substance-free environment. For parents, it provides a space that they perceive as monitored and safe for their children. As librarians took note of the increasing diversity of their patrons and their needs, librarian perception of their role and their space began to change.

While libraries have not traditionally used the term “safe space” to describe themselves or the environments that they create, librarians commit to a code of ethics that, if practiced, would make libraries a safe space for information gathering and exchange. This would involve protecting freedom of expression, fighting censorship, respecting diversity, and protecting individual privacy, for patrons and coworkers alike. Reviewing our library policy and procedures with the intent to align them with our profession’s code of ethics, and conducting our work with these core values as our framework, then all libraries, ideally, would be safe spaces for learning, teaching, and sharing for everyone.

Case Study: Upper Midwest Public Library

Upper Midwest Public Library is the main branch of a large regional public library system in the Upper Midwest. The main branch is located in what is considered an “urban” area by the region. The building has been called “the jewel of the city” by longtime residents, and older community members - predominantly white - are extremely particular about the cleanliness and order inside the library and its surrounding grounds.

People who make use of the main branch library space include teenagers of color, senior citizens, Somalis, a growing Latino population, and homeless individuals. While senior citizens use all areas of the library, teenagers usually frequent the teen space or the lobby area. The Somali and Latino population are also more likely to use the lobby area to sit at the tables and talk. The homeless population, depending on the season, will frequent the lobby area or move to areas of the library where they can use computers, read newspapers, or sleep more comfortably. The teenagers of color, Somalis, Latinos, and homeless are viewed with disdain, disgust, suspicion, and fear by the majority white community.

In the summer of 2016, a homeless Latino man set a fire on the second floor of the library, which a staff person caught just in time. The man was imprisoned, the library closed for several months for repairs. Community members wondered how someone could just come in and start a fire; community reactions ranged from questions about fire alarms and sprinkler systems to complaints about building security to statements such as “this is what happens when we let those people in”.

The community rejoiced when the library re-opened, but not everyone noticed a few subtle changes in the building. First, there were no signs welcoming people to the library at the entrance. Instead, a sign with the heading “INFORMATION” stood at the entrance to inform people of the week’s events in the building, with a taped on sign that stated “Theft will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” Second, the coffee shop in the library, run by a Somali man, was closed. Third, someone had posted table tents on each floor of the library that stated “Please report all suspicious activity to the staff.” A regular patron of the main branch had noticed that, after the fire, she had stopped seeing Somali families in the library.

In response to expressed concern about the signs directing patrons to report “suspicious behavior” to library staff, a library system employee stated that the signs were in response to the fire, and asked defensively, “What else can we do? Do you want to see this happen again?” as well as “Do you think our staff are not qualified to determine what is suspicious behavior and what isn’t?” The library system employee then stated, “If my supervisor tells me to take down the signs, I will take down the signs. In the meantime, I will continue to put them up.”


A state of emergency often drives people to consider giving up rights or freedoms in exchange for what they consider to be “safety”. Americans have approved of, and experienced, a slow erosion of their freedoms since the 9/11 tragedy with the passive willingness to endure humiliation and surveillance if it means freedom from terrorism[14]. This passivity on the part of the majority has led to increases in hostility toward those minorities perceived as “dangerous”, including legislation to monitor and evict such minorities.

What is the intention of a library? A library must not only be a safe space for things, but a safe space for all of its patrons. Should a library follow suit of our local, state, and federal governments in response to unexpected acts of terrorism, or should it remain true to the code of ethics that provides the framework for its existence? According to the American Library Association Code of Ethics[15]:

I. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources.

The physical space of a library itself is a resource, not always designed appropriately for all library users. This is something to consider when reviewing current or upcoming policies and procedures.

III. We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.

Directives to patrons to report suspicious behavior to library staff violates III of the ALA Code of Ethics. The exchange of information, as well as the quest for resources, takes place in a myriad of ways—especially for those from other cultures and those with visible or invisible disabilities. While it is important to report true crimes to staff, such as assault or vandalism, or medical emergencies such as seizures, heart attacks, or fainting, we must not criminalize those who speak loudly in a foreign language, those who may need to use a public restroom to do their laundry, or those who have verbal tics. Doing so may be in violation with state or federal civil rights laws; discussions with the local human rights office or other state anti-discrimination law specialists are required prior to making policies that impact human rights.

VI. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
VII. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

As library professionals, we must continually check our biases when engaging in our work with patrons, as well as developing policy. If we have integrity as library professionals, we must remain true to this code of ethics and also check and challenge the biases of library boards, donors, and the community. A library situated in a community that grows increasingly fearful of diversity while simultaneously becoming more diverse must do the hard work of rediscovering its intentionality, and remaining true to it, in creating a safe space for everyone.


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Copyright 2017 by Rachel Wexelbaum.
Some passages in this book come from “The Library as Safe Space” by Rachel Wexelbaum, a book chapter in The Future of Library Space, Advances in Library Administration and Organization vol. 36, eds. Samantha Schmehl Hines and Kathryn Moore Crowe, Emerald, 2017.

About the Author:
Rachel Wexelbaum is a professor, librarian, and doctoral student at St. Cloud State University. She also serves on her university’s President’s Diversity Advisory Council and the St. Cloud Area Regional Human Rights Commission. She is the author of “The Library as Safe Space”, a book chapter in The Future of Library Space, Advances in Library Administration and Organization vol. 36.