How a librarians’ union helped communicate municipal politics online

Over the summer of 2019, an unlikely McMaster-affiliated Twitter account garnered an online following at the height of municipal conflict.

As tensions peaked around the police and the city’s response to attacks at the 2019 Pride celebration, an unexpected source pierced the flurry of commentary.

The McMaster University Academic Librarians’ Association, a certified bargaining agent for academic librarians, provided sharp analysis of the Pride events through its Twitter account.

Tweets ranged from public information to scathing critique, but all provided context to the collective confusion and anger around the city’s failure to protect Pride attendees and the subsequent inaction from city officials.

The Association’s critical analysis provided an alternative to divisiveness while city officials and people were listening. Retweets and likes reached hundreds as calls to action were echoed through the Twittersphere.

Not the disembodied voice of the library, but rather a collective call to action.

According to Myron Groover and Abeer Siddiqui, the president and vice-president of MUALA, respectively, libraries have long been places for activism.

The union was formed nearly ten years ago by just over two dozen librarians across McMaster’s campus. The union has since grown to around 30 members. Still, they remain a relatively tiny bargaining collective compared to the university’s giant administrative apparatus.

One of the few unions in Canada with a membership solely of librarians in the country, MUALA provides a unique space for librarianship and politics to meet. Its members come from different communities in Hamilton and all have individual stakes in political conversations. Not only are they union members or professional librarians, they are first and foremost members of the community with unique identities.

Groover sees union members as having professional skills that lend themselves well to political organizing, while still fundamentally being community members who have a stake in municipal politics.

“We also have members who are affected by the discourse around queer people and racialized people in Hamilton. It’s not just that we’re trying to do something benevolent from afar for the community, these are issues that touch our members’ lives as well.”

Groover also sees similarities between the philosophy of public librarianship and the organizing work of the union.

“I don’t see a tension between the work we do in the union to support the people that live in this community with us and the work we do professionally to support students on this campus and the broader public to whom we answer. Those are different functions but they complement one another,” said Groover.

Public and academic libraries are central to the communities in which they reside. In Hamilton, public libraries offer social services and support. At McMaster, the academic librarians are dedicated to the well-being and scholarship of students and staff. But beyond that, libraries are one of the few open spaces. There is no entry fee to a library, there is no time limit and there is no cost for its services. This is rare in our contemporary moment, where the drive towards privatization seems inescapable.

If libraries are truly to be public spaces, then the politics of communities in which they are situated are necessarily a part of the work that they do.

“If we think of ourselves as community spaces and as public spaces … politics doesn’t stop at the library doors. People’s lives don’t stop at the library doors.”

While librarianship is founded on the principle that information should be accessible to all, this is a complicated task. Libraries do not exist as apolitical places, and sometimes they themselves can create or perpetuate harm in the communities they serve. Just like any field, they are imperfect institutions, certainly not above criticism.

Siddiqui explains this complexity.

“A lot of times librarianship, especially in the context of archives, a lot of that history was kept by people with privilege for people with privilege,” said Siddiqui.

It is the task of librarians today to recognize this history and work against it. Yet, some libraries take the opposite approach.

The Toronto Public Library recently came under fire for renting out a space to a third party event feature a speaker who opposes transgender rights. Some support the premise but not the message, saying free speech should come first.

Despite accusations of hate speech, Vickery Bowles, the city librarian for the Toronto Public Library, held firm in their decision to let the event organizers rent the space in an interview with the CBC. Bowles said that the library is committed to its democratic values and offering a safe space for everyone, including trans community members, although actions say otherwise.

There is a tension in the field of librarianship over how to facilitate public, safe spaces. While our neighbours in Toronto have been criticized for being removed from the political realities of their community, McMaster might model an alternative.

Of course MUALA represents academic, not public, librarians, but the purpose of these institutions are still largely the same. The contrast between the Toronto library and MUALA is stark.

In June when Cedar Hopperton, a transgender activist and anarchist, was arrested, MUALA weighed in and supported Hopperton on the grounds of free speech

It is easy for libraries to forget their political roots, but MUALA works to remember them.

“Well I think for one its absolutely the right thing to do . . . but I will also say that part of union work is that one day we will absolutely be seeking solidarity from our community members as well, and it would be foolish of us to expect that without ever providing some of our own,” says Siddiqui.

Using Twitter as a tool for solidarity, the librarian’s union shows one way of thinking about collective action for the future. The union provided analysis of an important issue for their community, while also working to ensure equitable working conditions for themselves. Not just altruistism, MUALA shows that union work can rally entire communities for collective action. Librarians are knowledge preservers, working to inform the public in 140 characters. With topical tweets, memeing and more, MUALA is where cyberspace meets labour organizing.

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