Humility in Libraries: Finding Balance in Creating Coverage for Immigrants: Choose Privacy Week 2019

by Madeleine Ildefonso

Libraries and librarians are on the front lines working with immigrant families all over the state of California, both in welcoming and in xenophobic jurisdictions. While librarians speak up and take action to support vulnerable populations, there is a necessary balance to consider. The specialized help that can be accessed at libraries or via knowledgeable staff may be invaluable to a patron, but in highlighting and promoting this work it may come at a cost of privacy to the very populations that are seeking protection.

I happened to be a meeting in Los Angeles where there were some legislative policy type people. One of the topics slated to be covered was SB-54, the “California Values Act” also known as the “Sanctuary State” law. The law is essentially a privacy act and prevents the sharing of local data to federal immigration enforcement (ICE) and in effect, creates safe spaces for immigrants. They were introducing the bill to the audience and in the list of suggested safe zone spaces included health facilities, public schools (including state universities), and courthouses. I thought, in many ways, a library is all of these things to many people. We host services providing flu shots, we provide spaces for legal experts to meet with residents who have questions about tenants’ law or immigration. People regularly learn about the things they need and want to know in our facilities, so why weren’t public libraries named in that institutional list? I asked the question, and a policy analyst in the room heard me. The policy analyst later followed up to let me know that she was able to amend the language to add public libraries to SB-54! Pretty awesome, right? I felt like it was a great example of street-to-legislative hall action and would allow for public libraries to exist in that same protective space as health facilities and schools. Finally! I understand that ICE will go and do what it will when it wants, but this felt like a positive action for libraries and for the people who use them.

And then I wondered if I’d just made libraries and the immigrant families who use them a target for federal enforcement agencies? Or angry patrons? In what felt like a pragmatic contribution, had I weighed all of the pros and cons of this addition for the population I wanted to support?

Librarians always have good intentions when they create a program, but may not be fully weighing the outcomes for patrons. We make some noise about new work to get people in our doors and engage with the public; to show our solidarity with our patrons. But what if drawing attention to the library isn’t the best strategy to protect the privacy of the very people you want to serve? It’s difficult to know the precise answer.

A lot of what we might think about in librarianship about privacy is through the lens of what are more traditional library services, conducting personal research on a computer, borrowing materials, signing up for a computer class or using the library catalog, and through the lens of education and privilege. How do we convey library values to our communities when they are vulnerable?

Libraries, as municipal institutions rely on written policies to convey our values regarding privacy. A written notice works for an educated library user, but some of our more vulnerable populations will understand our professional values through our actions and services. In order to serve everyone and make sure that they understand we will keep their information confidential and private, we should be inclusive in thinking about how we convey things that are traditionally written. When you’re serving the most vulnerable, it’s important to stay in a service-first, person-first mindset and think outside the box in how to convey our values.

In order to have a service-first, person-first mindset librarians may have to shift how they think about delivering programs and services to immigrant populations. Step out from behind the lens of education and privilege to think about how much exposure a person seeking services may be willing to have.

After the last Presidential election, there were “Know Your Rights” presentations all over Los Angeles. I went to a few, and there weren’t many attendees. Many of our branches wanted to host similar sessions, and so we did. There were posters and calendar listings, tweets and Facebook announcements. Still, very few people came. Then, some librarians began asking for “Red Cards.”

Red Cards explain your rights; one side is in English, the other side in a different language. Everyone who lives in the United States has rights under the U.S. Constitution, regardless of immigration status. For example, you have the right to remain silent. You may refuse to speak to immigration officers. No organization had enough Red Cards for our system, so we decided to print and eventually translate the cards into 18 languages. We ran a first printing of about 19,000 cards and are about to order our third run. There is a small sign advertising the cards next to the multi-deck card holder in branches, and that’s about it.

Our immigrant populations were fearful of coming to a program that federal law enforcement may target, but were taking these cards in droves. They wanted the information, we just had to figure out a way to get it to them in the way they needed it. Consider this when approaching any of your services to these populations that live in fear of government agencies. We know that our motivations are good, but some may just see libraries as another institution.

As municipal organizations, library staff may not always have a choice in how work is presented to the public. And, as institutions supported by tax dollars, transparency is necessary, but so is patron privacy. Doing small things quietly can be effective in helping patrons and in communicating your professional values of privacy. Public attention about new and really useful programs may be a good problem to have, but it’s important to balance that message with activities and policies that support privacy and confidentiality in creating spaces and projects to interact with our patrons with humility.


Madeleine Ildefonso is the managing librarian for Los Angeles Public Library’s Department of Lifelong Learning.

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