Sunday, April 15, 2018

There’s No Room for “Priceless” in My Advocacy

I’m rather disappointed by something that was shared with me online over the weekend, and that thing is a particular Libraries Transform campaign Because statement that apparently was voted the best submission to a National Library Week contest: “Because screen time can be pricey, but storytime is priceless.”

At first read—and that’s how the Because statements are meant to function, as quick and impactful points that hit home without requiring much though—it probably reads just fine. After all, yay, storytimes! Right?

Wrong. Let’s unpack.

This statement is at best an oversimplification and extension of false dichotomies that have been plaguing conversations in youth librarianship about how best to serve children and their families in our current landscape, which unequivocally includes technology. At worst, it’s outright exclusionary of the children and families whom we serve and who depend on devices for their very existence.

See, when we make statements like these, whether we intend to or not, we’re setting up a binary: in this case, with devices and storytimes at two opposite ends of a spectrum that has values of “pricey” and “priceless” respectively. The human brain is evolved to sort and categorize according to broad values, and so these sorts of binaries typically feel like they just make sense. Either/or, good/bad, strong/weak feel natural. The world makes sense.

Guess what? It’s a trap! Our brains have evolved to sort and categorize, but the categories we’ve ascribed as opposing ends of a spectrum are nothing more than social constructs. (We’re having more conversations recently about how binaries are false; if this conversation feels new to you, please take some time to research constructs of binaries related to gender, race, wealth, etc. It is your job as a human who works with other humans to do this work.) The reason this becomes problematic really quickly is that these constructs can typically be boiled down to two opposing positions: one thing has no value, and the other has all the value.

So let’s think about this Because statement recognizing that its syntax is deliberately constructed to have us ascribe zero value to one thing (i.e., devices) and supreme value to the other (i.e., storytimes). (If you don’t think that’s how this particular value dichotomy works, I submit to you the incredibly successful MasterCard campaign of yore.) This construction sets up a relationship in which inherent value is the bottom line descriptor. Storytime is inherently valuable and devices inherently valueless.

Value can be many things, but every interpretation here is reductive and false.

Devices cost money and storytimes are free, and we all know free is better than costly. What a ridiculous value judgment completely devoid of any realities of socioeconomic status or class.

Devices require a threshold for participation (cash, tech know-how, etc.) and storytimes are for everyone. This particular interpretation of value is complete and utter nonsense because storytimes are not for everyone. Do you offer storytimes in English? Your storytimes aren’t for non-English speaking families. Do you have storytimes only during weekday work hours? Your storytimes aren’t for children whose families work. Do you have behavioral standards for children who participate in your storytimes, and ask the “disruptive” ones to leave and try to come back another time? Your storytimes are demanding conformity to particular cultural norms and excluding children whose norms may be different. “Different” does not equal “worse,” but that’s the relationship this binary implies.

Devices inherently have potential personal risk and storytimes are universally beneficial. I call crap. On the one hand, there are many, many uses for devices that are outright ignored by those who like to articulate in every library forum they can find the same tired talking points about “what we don’t really know about technology and kids and so you’re a bad librarian if you use technology.” Once again, do your own research about the ways in which devices—in particular assistive devices, but devices generally—can and do positively impact the lives of children in our communities. On the other hand, to suggest that storytimes are always beneficial is utter nonsense. I read and hear all the time about librarians who share in their storytimes materials that deal in stereotypical representation of people of color, exclude any mention of persons with disabilities, show only one type of family (heteronormative), celebrate the traditions of only one culture (typically Christian), and otherwise diminish the histories and experiences of the very people gathered around our storytime rugs. Children who do not see themselves represented in storytimes—and in particular those who see their experiences excluded, negated, or denigrated—are not reaping the supreme benefits from storytimes that we like to think we’re providing. Rather, we may be causing more harm than early literacy goodness. Intention doesn’t matter.

Devices are bad and storytimes are good. This binary gets me the most annoyed because of how our own internalizations of bad/good get passed on to the kids and families we serve as though they were universal truths. If something is bad, and you use it, the implication is that you are bad. If something is good, and you use it, you are good. This easy use of the transitive property leads to straight-up shaming of parents and caregivers who are legitimately doing their best by their kids, all because their kids have touched an iPhone. Is one of your library goals making parents feel like they’re failures because of what they do with their kids, or because of what their kids do (or don’t do) in the library? Probably not, but by ascribing descriptors that translate to “bad” or even “not good” to broad tools like technology does just that. We shouldn’t assume we know how parents and kids are using devices, and ascribing a clear “bad” descriptor to them is both presumptuous and unnecessarily judgmental.

No matter how you’re opting to interpret pricey vs. priceless, this Because statement doesn’t tell the full story and in all likelihood perpetuates myths and behaviors—about both devices and storytimes—that negatively impact the kids we’re meant to serve.

Stepping away from the reductive values interpretations, there’s still the problem of why we’re even comparing storytimes to devices in the first place. They are not in a shared category to begin with, with storytimes being a service and devices being a tool. If there’s any relationship here, it’s that devices can be a tool to support the storyitme service—not that they are in the same category.

Let’s leave behind the false dichotomies readings here and finish with the worst case scenario of what this Because statement asserts: that devices have no place in storytimes, and so children and families who rely upon devices of any kind have no place there either. I have colleagues who can and do speak to this topic with more eloquence, expertise, and experience than I can, and once again I encourage you to seek out reputable resources should you find yourself needing some professional development in this area. For here, suffice it to say that this Because statement is essentially saying that children and their caregivers who depend upon assistive devices to communicate, participate, cope, and live are not welcome in storytimes. That’s disgustingly ableist.

Look, I get it. It’s catchy phrasing, and I’m hopeful that those who composed and promoted this Because statement didn’t mean to perpetuate unhelpful dichotomies or to exclude families who use assistive devices. But intention doesn’t count for anything in these conversations, no matter how pithy an advocacy statement may sound. Statements like this one only serve to oversimplify important issues deserving of real consideration and research, or to judge and alienate those children and families we’re mission-driven to serve. I don’t have room in my advocacy toolbox for that kind of thing.