opinion
3 min

Old politics in Vancouver’s new women’s library spark protest

But both sides forget what a library is meant to do (Hint: curate books, not ban them)

In a nostalgic callback to the glorious herstory of feminist bookstores, the Vancouver Women’s Library (VWL) opened last Friday to face another historical callback: a flash protest from younger radicals.

Gays Against Gentrification (GAG, their choice of acronym) circulated the protesters’ statement on Feb 3, 2017. It claims that VWL’s all-cis and all-white board of directors has ties to using public goodwill and dollars to steer the feminist conversation bus right over sex workers, trans folk, femmes, and people of colour — including actively campaigning via Vancouver Rape Relief in favour of the former Harper government’s anti-sex-work bill.

The protesters want transparency about VWL’s funding and organizational ties, plus more diversity on the board and in the books. And speaking of books, they want 20 of the new library’s titles removed — and that last demand has gone over about as well as you’d expect.

VWL’s activist school has spent decades scrabbling for every square foot of women’s space. “Defending women’s space” is a noble ideal, so it’s a shame that it so often gets misused as an opener to vilify any trans person or sex worker who dares to raise concerns. Still, some VWL supporters think a direct protest is a heavy blow to land on a volunteer board and a feminist one at that.

The counter viewpoint doesn’t give a damn that the board is volunteer-run. Queers, sex workers — heck, members of nearly every trodden-upon group — has boot prints on their back from unpaid panels of parents, churchgoers or homeowners. Not to mention that excusing an action just because it’s “feminist” is the lefty equivalent of wrapping yourself in the flag.

Half the story here is in the protest. The other half is in in the public response. A social media search will reveal a chorus reminding both parties that “we are all on the same side” — I mean, none of us work for Trump, right? This sentiment of allyship may be well intentioned, but it’s actually part of the problem.

Across demographics, activists have been told to suck up their internal objections, repeatedly, until it became clear that an alliance meant giving up on their equality. Such silence can’t endure.

Amidst all this, it seems that neither the protestors nor VWL have a good handle on what a library actually does. Just as my Instagram feed does not constitute An Anthology of Great Canadian Photography, a library, let alone a “Vancouver Women’s Library” is not a stack of whatever media comes to hand, nor, per the demands via GAG, is it a tool to cull objectionable viewpoints.

Libraries curate the pertinent from the irrelevant, then contextualize their contents to present a complex worldview. For example, the Vancouver Public Library shelves The Bible under Religion, rather than Evolutionary Biology, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, or Recycling.

So like any other library, VWL has to consciously choose and present what exactly makes writing “Women’s” writing — or risk getting buried under used stacks of Twilight and “Clinton 2016” lawn signs.

And the VWL volunteers are choosing. Sort of. Right now their selection is, unsurprisingly, what you’d expect to find on the recently-donated bookshelves of a half dozen middle-aged Women’s Studies buffs: classic social justice texts or reprints thereof, philosophical and human rights essays, and some contemporary highbrow lit, all of it in English. Hence the call for some conscious and directed expansion coordinated by a board that represents a range of views.

Yet counter to the protesters’ demands, when a text, especially an ideologically foundational one, pushes some fucked-up messages, the last thing a good library should do is ditch it. 

Modern women’s centres have been here and done better, searching out new titles from diverse perspectives, while also holding the kind of books that would land on GAG’s gag-list, but they do so along with contradictory voices, while making it clear that historical texts are just that.

This fracas is a tragedy of unpreparedness. VWL opened a library representing the voice of “Women” without asking whose voice that is. Protesters gave cogent demands but capped them by forgetting that banning books is neither productive nor popular. Facebook followers decided they all just need to get along. 

The lessons are clear: when activists fight, it’s probably over something important; when you open a non-profit, make sure it represents the community you claim it does; and when you don’t like a message, don’t try to silence it unless you want it to spread.