Roz Warren reads Ta-Nehisi Coates

A personal (and very quiet) revolution

In the 15 years that I’ve worked at my suburban Philadelphia library, I’ve noticed that people have a tendency to take care of their own. I’m not saying we librarians are unfair. But each of us has a certain amount of discretion and I’ve noticed some patterns in how we make use of it.  

What would Ta-Nehisi do? (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Fairness in lending

For instance, I’m Jewish. If a library patron is Jewish, we begin any transaction with a certain level of familiarity and trust. If you owe the library money, I won’t let you off the hook just because we share the same faith. But if you give me a good excuse, I’m likely to believe you.    

I once had a coworker who was politically conservative and strongly pro-life. If you came into the library wearing a pro-choice button, she’d treat you with civility, but she certainly wasn’t going to do you any favors.

On the other hand, if you gave her a plausible reason for keeping that copy of If Democrats Had Any Brains They’d Be Republicans past the due date, your fine just might get waived. 

A while back, after noticing that one white co-worker consistently gave white patrons the benefit of the doubt, but was more by-the-book with patrons of color, I took a hard look at my own behavior. Did I share her bias? I didn’t think so, but just to be sure, I resolved from then on to go out of my way to adopt an evenhanded  “customer is always right” approach.  

See no evil

If you give me an excuse for bringing a book back late, or swear that the magazine you’ve just returned was missing those pages when you checked it out, unless I have good reason to doubt you, I’m going to trust that you’re telling me the truth. 

Does this cost the library money? Perhaps. But I hope that what we lose in fines we gain in public trust. It’s important that all our patrons feel they’re being treated fairly.    

I was recently tempted to take it a step further. 

I’d just read a terrific article by author (and former Philadelphia Weekly writer) Ta-Nehisi Coates, who argues that African Americans continue to suffer the impact of 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate-but-equal, and 35 years of racist housing policy. The U.S. government, Coates concludes, should pay reparations to the descendants of African-American slaves in order to help undo this enduring legacy of racism. 

And I totally agree with him. But it's never going to happen.  

A few days after I read that article, an African-American patron returned three overdue DVDs, resulting in a significant fine and asked, as patrons often do, if I’d consider cutting her a break.     

Upon which this word floated into my head: reparations. 

Long overdue

There was little I could do to end the impact of 250 years of racism on African Americans in this country. But I could make things a little easier for this particular African American. 

So I did.  

Did I tell her that I’d waived her library fine because, as someone who’d enjoyed white privilege every day of my life, Coates had inspired me to do something, however small, to push back against the systemic racism she copes with on a daily basis?   

Of course not. She would have thought I was a lunatic. 

Can my action be justified as a form of ad hoc, grassroots reparations? If every white person who’d read Coates starting doing this kind of thing, would it help level the playing field? Or was this a totally misguided exercise of reverse racism that deprived my library of badly needed funds? I don’t know. You tell me.    

Clearly, it’s not my library’s job to fix racism. Nor was my action a well-thought-out solution to a serious problem. It was just an impulsive gesture. I don’t know if Coates would applaud that impulse or call me a fool. But we librarians waive fines every day, for a variety of reasons. We’re allowed to use our discretion. I decided that day to use mine.     

I just might do it again. 

Our readers respond

Suzanne Fluhr

of Philadelphia , PA on August 16, 2016

Good on you for being self-aware. If we all start checking our subtle prejudices — even the ones we never thought about before — the world will be a better place. I'm making it a point to say "Good morning" (or the appropriate time of day) to people I pass when out walking. It's the people who don't look like me who are surprised, but then they smile and say the same.


of Tucson, AZ on August 16, 2016

I looked for Mr. Coates's books, not really expecting to find them at my library, and was I surprised! All the copies are on hold, not available for at least 20 more readers or so. Great article, Roz. I'll put his books on my later shelf, and maybe in a couple of months an ebook may become available. Thanks for the story.

Margaret Darby

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on August 17, 2016

Roz, Brava! You were not just improving race relations and the reputation of the library system, which many feel is an extension of authority, but you also showed someone compassion.

I am a former librarian and learned that most people will be so grateful that you gave them a second chance they will do their best to return their items on time in the future. And what incentive do people have to turn in an overdue item if they will be punished with a major fine for finally handing it in?

As to fixing the race relations of the United States, I do believe that if every person in America decided to be nice to their fellow man, the entire fabric of society would improve. Thanks for your action and your well written description of life behind the library desk.

Ellen Sue Jacobson

of Bala Cynwyd, PA on August 17, 2016

What you did may seem like a small gesture, but it was also a shift in your mindset to become more aware of the tiny biases that many of us hold, even unconsciously. So even from just that viewpoint, I think you did a mitzvah (good deed) for the day. And the mitzvot will add up so that you become a more conscientious and conscious human being. Mazal tov!

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on August 19, 2016

Would that cash reparation payments were all that was needed to rectify 244 years of legalized slavery plus another 100 years of legal race segregation.

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