Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve worked in more than one bookstore. I read obsessively when I was growing up; I wrote constantly, and I wrote so compulsively that it didn’t occur to me to write professionally until my twenties. I didn’t see writing as work — it was just something I had to do. Stories were sacred. The name Clarisse came from Ray Bradbury’s classic anti-censorship tale of book-burning, Fahrenheit 451.
At my second bookstore, I was working behind the counter one day when a middle-aged Black woman came in. “Is this a library?” she asked.
“No,” I said. My tone edged on rudeness. Wasn’t it obvious that this was a bookstore and not a library? It was a city storefront — whereas libraries have nice façades and sometimes pillars, right? I mean, my library did. I had seen libraries without pillars, but I figured that at least they made an effort, perhaps with elegant doors or incised stone signage.
“Sorry,” she said, and left.
An antique postcard depicting the pillared edifice of Chicago’s Blackstone Library branch (only a few blocks from Obama’s house!). The image came from this Chicago postcard history website.
A year later, someone else came in and asked the same question. This time, it was a Black gentleman. I was less snide this time, and more puzzled. He, too, left when I said “No.”
There were other differences in how many (though not all) Black customers interacted with the store. For example, Black customers would often ask for Philosophy but leave empty-handed if I showed them the gigantic section containing Kant, Kierkegaard, Heidegger. One of my coworkers eventually solved the mystery by asking which authors the customer sought; we learned that when most Black customers came in and asked for Philosophy, they’d be looking for authors we shelved in our tiny New Age & Occult section.
After years of working at that store, I thought I knew all the bookstores in the neighborhood. We even kept a directory of neighborhood bookstores on the counter, so that people could do a bookstore tour of the area. But one day I was out with a boyfriend grabbing brunch at a place we didn’t usually go, and we passed an entirely different bookstore. When I went in, I discovered that it stocked crystals and incense and books by authors I’d never heard of; a lot of the authors were New Age. I browsed for an hour. Not a single other White person came in.
That store? Was maybe four blocks from the store where I worked. It wasn’t in our bookstore directory. My boss had never heard of it. And it had been around for years.
A while after that, my boyfriend and I were driving across an area of the South Side where we didn’t normally go, and we passed a book-lined storefront that sported a laser-printed sign: LIBRARY. “Oh my God,” I said. “Pull over right now.”
“In this neighborhood?” he asked.
“Pull over,” I insisted, and I jumped out of the car before he was even done parking. I ran into the storefront. “Is this a library?” I demanded at the counter, although I could already tell from the spines of the books on the walls.
“This is a branch of the Chicago Public Library?” I couldn’t believe it. It was a storefront.
“Yes,” said the Black librarian patiently.
I left, exhilarated by the discovery, but also humbled. I wished I could go back in time and apologize to the woman who’d asked: Is this a library? I hadn’t said anything overtly rude, but my entire demeanor had been rude. I’d thought that my answer was obvious, but she’d been accustomed to libraries in storefronts, whereas I’d never heard of such a thing. The truth was, I had responded to a perfectly reasonable question by being patronizing and cruel.
This was one of my first concrete lessons in accessibility.
* * *
I told this story to my friend Lisa, who works at the amazing Chicago social justice site Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (which incidentally hosts my glorious Sex+++ Documentary Film Series). In return, Lisa told me a story she’d heard about the Smithsonian, one of the most famous and established museums in the world. The Smithsonian offers free admission and it happens to be located within walking distance from some very underprivileged neighborhoods. But the museum collects demographics from attendees, and people from those underprivileged neighborhoods almost never go to the museum.
Lisa was recently involved in curating an exhibit (now open) about the history of a Chicago gang, the Conservative Vice Lords. Brilliantly, the exhibit was placed — not at the Hull-House Museum — but rather in an urban activist gallery that has neither a nice façade nor any pillars. The exhibit includes “pop-up” sections that move around to different places in the Conservative Vice Lords’ original neighborhood. In other words, it goes to the community whence the Conservative Vice Lords came. This is especially important because that’s not a community which is accustomed to having space in a museum, and isn’t likely to go visit one.
So here is a useful moral about making something accessible: outreach is part of accessibility. If an exhibit, or a piece of art, or whatever is really intended to be reached by the public, then sometimes it has to seek out the public.
The Conservative Vice Lords exhibit did not yet exist in 2009, when I went to work in sub-Saharan Africa. But I’d already heard Lisa’s parable of the Smithsonian. It was much on my mind as I spent time in one semi-rural African town; I sought out their library within my first 24 hours. I started feeling like something was wrong as soon as I looked at their books.
The books were mostly in English. That made sense, for that particular area, because books in the local language were scarce and the local language was rarely written anyway. (The newspaper was in English, too.) But the actual books that were stocked … well, there were some African writers, like Chinua Achebe. But the majority of books in the library were donations from the USA.
I found a cheesy thriller featuring a suburban housewife who falls for a handsome kidnapper. I found an obscure novel by my favorite fantasy author, Tanith Lee. I found old books by the early-1900s British humorist P.G. Wodehouse; he sets many of his novels on gently rolling lawns with golf, or in high-class townhouses with butlers. I sat around that library a lot, and my instincts were confirmed when I did not see a single local person read those books. They came in for shade, and conversation, and for newspapers and magazines.
My sensibilities, trained by Fahrenheit 451, might encourage me to believe that those castoff Western books were serving an important and holy purpose just by being in that library and preserving cultural knowledge. But in fact, I think it would be better if they were burned and the entire library given over to something that was locally relevant. The idea that a novel by P.G. Wodehouse — a writer who is, for the record, hilarious, but somewhat obscure even among modern USA readers — would be fun to read for people in that community is totally absurd.
I mean, having the Wodehouse novels there was definitely awesome for me, but I think it harms the community’s relationship to books. The vast majority of those books were relevant to zero local lives. And so the unspoken lesson was this: books that were not personal or interesting for the locals still deserved to be hallowed and preserved. Because why? Because books are just plain valuable, I guess (especially if they chronicle the culture that colonized that area, of course). This makes books into icons, into sculptures: unreadable. The library becomes more like a shrine that reinforces the importance of a foreign colonial culture than a place of knowledge. And with too many examples of inaccessible books, books themselves will become a thing that is generally inaccessible.
I would imagine that the people who built that library and donated the books felt they were doing a good and important thing. And they were probably thanked for their generosity. Here is another useful moral about accessibility: it’s easy to forget, when you’ve got a lot of power. You’ll be praised and rewarded for whatever you create. You might not realize that you’re failing until you’re all done making something that doesn’t feel relevant or welcoming for the people meant to use it. And they’ll simply never bother to use it as long as it stays inaccessible, no matter how good your intentions were.
* * *
I’m not aiming to be glib or self-righteous. I just think that a lot of people who use books, or libraries, or museums, don’t think about these questions very deeply. I also think a lot of people who use the Internet don’t think about these questions deeply. Accessibility matters on the Internet, too. It really does matter everywhere.
I once saw a post from a sex blogger who insisted that only people who use the acronym “BDSM” are knowledgeable about the topic. She was particularly snippy about the acronym “S&M,” which she said is basically never used by people who are actually in the community. Laying aside the question of who “counts” as a community member, and laying aside the fact that my considerable experience contradicts hers … “S&M” is the acronym that most outsiders know about. It’s the one that Rihanna sings. If the goal is to reach a wide audience, why not use it?
Of course, that may not be her goal. But it’s mine. There are a lot of ways I’m not great at reaching out widely; I have trouble writing short posts, for example, and I know those tend to be more popular. But I have an advantage, which is enjoying the challenge of communicating past gaps.
The “S&M vs. BDSM” example highlights a strand of accessibility that deals with cultural boundaries and jargon, sort of like the P.G. Wodehouse problem I outlined earlier. There are other strands of accessibility that have to do with how Internet media is used, or how it’s constructed. For example, a lot of social justice blogs have taken to using text to describe pictures and transcribe videos. This can be helpful for, say, deaf or blind people. It can also be helpful for people with bad Internet. I can attest from my time in the Third World that I turned off images and videos, because they required so much bandwidth. I was grateful to the blogs that gave descriptions.
It’s fashionable among web evangelists to claim that the Internet is universally accessible, but that’s just not true. The Internet itself, as a tool, is certainly accessible to a lot of people, especially if they have money; but it’s worth noting that it’s not only the Third World that often has bad Internet. An astonishing proportion of the USA doesn’t have decent internet access.
I’m more concerned with a culture gap, though. How many people don’t use certain websites because the architecture of the site makes them think it’s something else, the way the bookstore in my Chicago neighborhood got confused for a library? What about websites that don’t get included in certain directories, like the bookstore in my neighborhood that was ignored by all the other bookstores? Is there reason to worry about racial gaps or gender gaps in online usage?
And, while my compulsive writer’s soul weeps at the thought that any of my work might be less than important … what about problematic writers’ assumptions like “This knowledge is important and nice to have, even when it’s as irrelevant as a P.G. Wodehouse novel in sub-Saharan Africa”?