safe-spaces and critical discourse at library conferences

At this year’s Internet Librarian International conference, Jodie Ginsberg delivered a timely keynote speech on protection of privacy and free expression in the library and information sector. As CEO of Index on Censorship, a magazine about freedom of expression and censorship, Ginsberg was well-placed to discuss the issues around freedom that are affecting libraries today. In a witty and engaging speech, Ginsberg spoke to the audience of librarian and information professionals on a subject little discussed in the profession but which is of pressing importance to our professional ethics and our relationships with users.

About two-thirds of the way through her keynote, Ginsberg started talking about free speech issues in Higher Education. Various trends among undergraduates and students’ unions in UK HEIs serve to stifle the academic freedoms that are important for meaningful intellectual discourse. Increasingly “universities seem to want to shut down controversy, sheltering behind the dangerous notion that protecting people from anything but the blandest and least contentious ideas is the means to keep them “safe”, rather than encouraging students to have a wide base of knowledge.” (Ginsberg, 2015) The trends leading to this bland epistemological consensus include: the introduction of trigger warnings for sensitive issues; universities advising students not to study material that they find upsetting; no-platforming contentious speakers at universities; safe-space policies.

In the UK, increasing intolerance for free expression is manifest in the “no platform” movement – which no longer targets speakers or groups that incite violence against others, but a whole host of individuals and organisations that other groups simply find distasteful, or in some way disqualified from speaking on other grounds.

The decision to cancel an abortion debate at Oxford in late 2014, which would have been held between two men – and noted free speech advocates – came after a slew of objections, including a statement from the students’ union that decried the organisers for having the temerity to invite people without uteruses to discuss the issue. More recently, a human rights campaigner was barred from speaking at Warwick University – a decision that was subsequently overturned – after organisers were told she was “highly inflammatory and could incite hatred” and a feminist was banned from speaking at the University of Manchester because her presence was deemed to violate the student union’s “safe space” policy. (Ginsberg, 2015)

At the end of the keynote, the audience clapped enthusiastically. A few pertinent questions were asked regarding censorship in school libraries, expressing agreement with the free expression issues facing UK HE, and exasperatedly asking where the librarians talking about these issues were to be found.

Outside of mainstream LIS conferences.

The librarians talking about issues of freedom of expression, widespread government technological surveillance, censorship of marginalised groups, and engaging in other critical discussion are doing so outside of mainstream LIS conferences precisely because of the lack of protection mechanisms like safe-space policies.

This essay argues that the continued lack of safe-space policies at conferences – along with the other protection mechanisms highlighted by Ginsberg in UK HE – serves to perpetuate the inherently conservative nature of traditional mainstream LIS conferences, the non-critical pedagogy employed at traditional conferences, and the embedded power relations of the library and information sector. (1)

Safe-space policies enforce the creation or active continuation of places in which everyone’s right to express themselves is upheld regardless of an individual’s background, identity, ideas, or body. (2) A safe space is one in which all participants think about the other people in the space, feel able to challenge their preconceptions and cultural assumptions, and recognise – really understand – that other people might think differently. A space in which other people are recognised has having different experiences based not only on who they are but how society treats that person based on who they are. Creating a safe space requires empathy and constant reflection from all the people in the space. See, for example, the Radical Librarian Collective’s ‘safer spaces policy‘ which acknowledges that sometimes even with the best of intentions spaces will not be completely safe for everyone. (3)

In her keynote, Ginsberg (2015) referred to safe-space policies as one trend contributing to “increasing intolerance for free expression” in UK Higher Education. Safe-space policies are associated with censorship for several reasons.

First, in this case, because Ginsberg mistakenly conflates ‘no-platforming’ with ‘safe-space policies’. No-platforming is about denying offensive speakers a platform when they have specifically indicated the intent to promote offensive views. For example, when Cardiff University Students’ Union recently called for a lecture by Germaine Greer to be cancelled because of her expressed (and abhorrent) views on transgender people. One justification for no-platforming may be that the speaker would violate an existing safe-spaces policy but enacting a safe-spaces policy is not the same as no-platforming. (4)

Second, because safe-spaces can be applied wrongly and communicated badly. A broad-brush generic safe-spaces policy that doesn’t acknowledge the context of a specific situation or the people involved runs the risk of communicating that you ‘will not allow’ certain things to be said or certain issues to be discussed. Safe-spaces are a context-dependent exercise and misguided attempts to impost generic policies are easier to perceive as creating censorship in the academe.

Third, because of a perception of how students ought to be and how they ought to behave. ““While keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision.” Here safety is about feeling good, or not feeling bad. We sense what is being feared: students will become warm with dull edges, not sharp enough in wit or wisdom.” (Ahmed, 2015)

Criticising safe-spaces is a way for the privileged to avoid dealing with the difficult issues that require a safe space for discussion. “By hearing student critique as censorship, the content of that critique is pushed aside. When you hear a challenge as an attempt at censorship you do not have to engage with the challenge. You do not even have to say anything of substance because you assume the challenge is without substance.” (Ahmed, 2015) What kind of discussions would require the use of a safe space a conference? Discussions about sexism, racism, classism, inequality, and other forms of systemic oppression that exist throughout society and, in this case, Higher Education. These discussions are ones that require the participation of all voices.

At their core, safe-spaces policies are about privilege. Privilege was not discussed in Ginsberg’s keynote and is not regularly discussed in public forms at mainstream LIS conferences. Safe-spaces are about providing spaces where the non-privileged (5) feel free and able to speak without the privileged preventing them from doing so whether through overt violence (physical or nonphysical), covert suppression, or subtle behavioural cues contributing to a sense of power. The privileged are those who have historically held power in society and who benefit from those unequal power relations. Conversely, the non-privileged are those who have historically had power exercised over them. “Marginalized groups are those who have been categorically denied access to privilege including educational access, political office, high-paying jobs, and access to health care.” (Bales & Engle, 2012, p. 17) A non-exhaustive list of the privileged includes: white people, men, cisgender people, extroverts, neurotypical people, the upper-middle class, the university-educated. Safe-spaces are not created to censor these privileged groups: they’re created to make space for and/or amplify the voices of the non-privileged. They are about considering your own privilege, whatever that may be, and acting on that critical reflection to give non-privileged people an opportunity to speak.

Contrary to Ginsberg’s understanding, critical reflection and honest, even painful, self-appraisal is precisely what Higher Education is about. Safe-spaces therefore protect Higher Education and pedagogy more broadly. “Safe spaces are [a] technique for dealing with the consequences of histories that are not over (a response to a history that is not over is necessarily inadequate because that history is not over). The real purpose of these mechanisms is to enable conversations about difficult issues to happen.” (Ahmed, 2015) Safe-spaces don’t censor expression: they enable expression. But the expression might not be the form with which privileged groups are familiar.

By equating safe-space policies with censorship, Ginsberg encouraged the conference to talk about the voices of the privileged rather than the voices of the non-privileged. It exhibited the self-centric perspective of the world that characterises the privileged and in so doing made that self-centric perspective the central one at the conference. For the privileged, discussions have always had us at the centre: talking about our experiences, reinforcing our perception of the world, addressing our needs. (6) History is taught from the perspective of white affluent Western men. The perception of safe-spaces by the privileged can therefore be that, suddenly and without warning, our voice is being minimised or cut out entirely. From a self-centric perspective, we see ourselves being stopped from talking. The reverse is the other-centric perspective where we realise that safe-spaces are about letting other people speak: others who have not had the opportunity because of the structure inequalities of society.

In voicing issues around censorship in the academe, Ginsberg created the opportunity for further discussion of social inequalities and power relations. But by framing her comments as negative, i.e. as ‘against’ students, Ginsberg promoted negative rhetoric around safe-space policies, trigger warnings, etc. The negative rhetoric that followed in the post-keynote discussions was functionally similar to internet discussions against ‘social justice warriors’ (or SJWS): the rhetoric used by the Gamergate movement (7) to criticise social justice initiatives, inclusion, and cultural diversity. In one discussion related to the keynote, a conference attendee was overheard complaining about the trend towards self-definition of gender identity. The individual railed against political correctness towards people who ‘choose’ which gender they are: women deciding to be men and men deciding to be women. And some people deciding that they’re not either! (8)

Negative rhetoric around e.g. safe-space policies causes damage by encouraging LIS professionals to not be critically reflective or to discuss difficult issues at LIS conferences (or indeed anywhere). Negativity towards methods designed to protect marginalised groups in the profession and particularly unhelpful given the now-more-or-less-silenced discussions of sexual harassment of women librarians at mainstream LIS conferences. Last year, the #teamharpy case and high-profile cases of sexual harassment at mainstream conferences (9) generated discussion about the inappropriate behaviour and the skewed power relations at conferences and other events. (10)

The enthusiastic acceptance and the propagation of the negative rhetoric around protection mechanisms for the marginalised highlights the lack of critical discussion at LIS conferences and the inherent conservatism of such events. Despite years of handwringing discussions about how to introduce more cultural diversity into the profession, means of discussing actual possible solutions are dismissed – either as censorship or with some other excuse. Safe-spaces are a method that could contribute to non-privileged voices speaking up in the library and information sector. But when the issue was raised, alongside trigger warnings and other methods, it was in a traditionalist and conservative position railing against SJWs trying to censor and suppress freedom of expression. “There are lots of people who will say ‘great’ when you mention the need to challenge assumptions, but bring it close to home and they’ll turn on you.” (Brookfield, 1994, p. 209)

The structure of mainstream LIS conferences perpetuates this non-critical status quo. ‘Why isn’t the profession more culturally diverse?’, asks an all-male panel. The audience – made up of people from organisations able to pay for external CPD events or of people wealthy enough to be able to pay their own way – listens attentively, repeats a few key points on Twitter (11), and claps politely at the end. A few extroverts ask questions or give short-lectures-disguised-as-questions. The audience shuffle off and small-talk about how much they enjoyed the session.

Traditional conferences use a transmission model of pedagogy (Freire, 1996): the speaker transmits knowledge and the audience act as containers to be passively filled with knowledge. The keynote speaker talks at the audience about a topic and there is little or no opportunity for the audience to reply or debate or express alternative viewpoints in a balanced way. Even with a Q&A, the speaker still stands at the front of the room or on a stage in a position physically embodying power. “Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.” (Freire, 1996: p. 53) The transmission model causes (or perpetuates) power inequalities by giving the speaker explicit authority and stripping the audience of their power by making them passive participants in the learning process. (12)

As well as pedagogical structure, conferences perpetuate unequal power dynamics through epistemological approach. The philosophical underpinning of conferences (and indeed library and information science in general) is the pre-postmodern epistemological view that knowledge transmission is politically neutral. Power does not inform knowledge because the academy stands apart from the petty power struggles of the political. Discussion of power relations has no place in discussion of conferences because knowledge transmission – the raison of conferences – is neutral and set apart from power relations. The figure of the keynote speaker is ‘one of us’ and we are all equal and we are all just talking about library staff.

In reality, knowledge and knowledge transmission are intimately tied to power relations. “We should admit rather that power produces knowledge…; that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” (Foucault, 1991, p. 27)

Both of these factors lead to critical perspectives on conference topics either not being raised (due to the transmission model being used or due to the lack of explicit safe-space provision or both) or being dismissed out-of-hand (due to the power relations involved in knowledge transmission). Those who do raise critical discussion either on Twitter or in meatspace are labelled ‘subversive’ or ‘cheeky’ or ‘troublemakers’ or otherwise classified as people-not-to-be-taken-seriously. Power relations are again skewed towards those perpetuating the status quo and away from those challenging norms or offering critical perspectives. Challenging discussions with the non-privileged – with voices other than those of neurotypical cisgender white people (predominately men) of Western heritage – are uncomfortable and require the privileged to think about their embeddedness – and complicitness – in a system of structural inequalities. Discussions about unequal power dynamics and how those invited to speak at conferences got to their position by stepping on the backs of others might upend the optimistic tone that mainstream conferences aim to strike. Such discussions would counteract “the relentlessly upbeat, positive tone which advocates for the field believe will serve to gain us professional attention…” (Ahmed, 2015) Critical points are incorporated into the relentlessly positive narrative by viewing them as coming from only the cheeky, the young, or the naïve. At a conference “[t]he more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.” (Freire, 1996, p. 53)

This line of reasoning leads us into the thicket of broader social justice issues. LIS conferences are a microcosm of professional conferences more broadly which in turn are a microcosm of society with all of society’s attendant issues with pedagogy, power relations, and structural inequalities. We effect broader social change on a macro level by changing our practice at a micro level and so LIS conferences need to show the kind of social change that we want to see in society.

Until we encourage protection mechanisms for social inclusion, including trigger warnings and safe-space policies, at mainstream LIS conferences, we will be unable to discuss social justice issues intelligently, develop new inclusive methods of pedagogy, adjust the skewed underlying power relations of our events, or actively encourage cultural diversity in LIS. At the very least, we should avoid negative rhetoric towards non-privileged groups and mechanisms that enable the contributions of non-privileged groups.

Safe-space policies do not suppress freedom of expression. They protect it.


(1) There are assumptions behind the use of the words ‘mainstream’ and ‘traditional’ in the context of the library and information profession. ‘Mainstream’ as a term is defined almost entirely by its opposition: the alternative, the non-consensus, the critical, the radical. Some definitions by example (1a): The Beatles are mainstream, The Flaming Lips are alternative; Mac OS is mainstream, Linux is alternative; Netflix is mainstream, Popcorn Time is alternative. In the library and information sector, the mainstream is the prevailing ideology of neoliberalism (the ideology of the library and information sector reflects the sector’s status as a synecdoche of society). See Clark & Preater (2014) for more discussion on neoliberalism as a prevailing ideology. The alternative therefore refers to LIS stuff that actively opposes neoliberalism: critical librarianship, progressive librarianship, critical theory in LIS, poststructuralism and/or postmodernism in LIS, radical librarianship, etc. In terms of LIS conferences then, mainstream library conferences are those big events that happen around the same time every year and are structured as a keynote, several thematically-related sessions, lunch, several thematically-related sessions, an evening reception, and a canvas bag. (1b)

(1a) These examples themselves are not uncontentious.

(1b) definitions by example: Cilip Conference, Lilac, Liber, Internet Librarian International, etc.


(2) Throughout, ‘safe-space(s)’ is used to refer to the concept of providing a space that is safe and ‘safe space(s)’ to refer to a space that is safe.


(3) Radical Librarians Collective is not above criticism. There are occasions when the safe-spaces policy has been breached. The collective has discussed at their regular open meetings how to prevent this and promote greater mindfulness of the concept among participants.


(4) rebuttal: In that case, Ginsberg wasn’t saying that safe-spaces relates to censorship at all. Yes, she misused terminology (4a) but she wasn’t arguing specifically against safe-space policies and so structuring the whole argument around this one trend is creating a strawman argument.

rejoinder: In the larger context of the whole keynote, it was implied that all of these mechanisms – trigger warnings, safe-space policies, no-platforming – contribute to increased lack of freedom of expression in Higher Education. Even if the specific point about safe-spaces can’t be applied to the keynote, the point that few mainstream LIS conferences consider these issues is sufficient to set up the next part of the argument re. conservatism of conferences.

(4a) Or rather, based on context, The University of Manchester Students’ Union misused terminology.


(5) For lack of a better term. Equally applicable and more emotive terms would be ‘the oppressed’ or ‘the marginalised’.


(6) Dipping into first-person plural here because the author as a white middle-class cisgender man can only be grouped as privileged.


(7) Gamergate is a movement of people who self-identify as belonging to the video-gaming community. The movement is a thinly veiled campaign of harassment of women online. (7a)

(7a) Actually it’s about ethics in games journalism…


(8) rebuttal: In singling out and ridiculing this individual who has views that the author obviously does not agree with, the author is implying that this individual should not be allowed to speak. Surely a safe space would require that this individual be allowed to express whatever views they (8a) want?

rejoinder: First, there was no safe space established at the conference. Or generally at any mainstream LIS conference. That’s the point of the essay. Second, that’s not what a safe space is about. Safe spaces are not intended to allow the expression of any views no matter how offensive they may be under the easy-to-justify aegis of ‘freedom of expression’. They’re about realising that you may not know the full facts of a person’s identity and that, by criticising e.g. the right to self-identification, you may be denying them a fundamental part of themselves through your views. Third, there needs to be acknowledgement of the power structures involved. Transgender people and non-binary gendered people have not historically held power over other groups. By expressing views affirming traditional gender norms pitched as ‘against’ binary gender identity, this individual was using their power and privilege (8b) to ‘punch down’. They imposed themselves as having power by denying a group that does not have power the right to self-identify.

(8a) assumption: This individual would disagree with the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun.

(8b) assumption: This individual presented as an affluent white cisgender man.


(9) For the avoidance of doubt, this refers to e.g.


(10) “And yet despite sexual harassment being widespread (this “despite” is probably misplaced), it is rarely publicly discussed, sometimes because of confidentiality clauses attached to the resolutions of specific cases, and sometimes because, I suspect, a frank discussion of the problem would require challenging entitlements that some do not wish to challenge.” (Ahmed, 2015)


(11) During the keynote, several people tweeted the views expressed by the keynote speaker (that which has been referred to as ‘negative rhetoric’) and were challenged on what-appeared-to-be their perception of safe-spaces. This caused upset. A similar situation happened following the Cilip New Professionals Day when some tweeters felt that other tweeters were overly harsh towards new professionals who had been repweeting problematic neoliberal motivational bullshit. There’s a whole freshman-level point here about criticising content not being the same as criticising the commentator.


(12) Slipping into first-person singular for this endnote…

I was a session speaker at Internet Librarian International 2015. (12a) In delivering this session with a transmission model, was I not perpetuating the status quo and contributing to the lack of radical approaches to pedagogy in LIS? The power relations are further skewed in this case because I am a white cisgender man cf. (6).

Yes, in contributing to a mainstream LIS conference, I was perpetuating the very approach that this essay criticises and implicitly supporting the status quo. I spoke at ILI because:

a. it’s nice to be asked to speak and I enjoy doing presentations.

b. it got me a free place at the conference which is useful for CPD, building professional networks, and just plain fun.

c. it was an opportunity to advocate for the use of free and open-source software in libraries to a broad audience so a wee bit of ethical cost-benefit analysis can be invoked.

The conundrum then for a white cisgender man who spoke at a mainstream conference and who then wants to write an essay against mainstream conferences is how to approach the issue without seeming churlish to the kind people who asked him to speak and without getting himself blacklisted from every library conference in the future. Addressing it directly, this essay does not criticise Internet Librarian International. The keynote speech at ILI 2015 and some of the troubling rhetoric of conference attendees at ILI 2015 is a starting point for a discursive analysis of LIS conferences in-the-abstract.

The conference being criticised is the Platonic form of a conference: the traditionalist theoretical mould that conferences aspire to fit. In practice, conferences fall on a non-binary spectrum between conservatism and progressivism. Conferences include more or fewer workshops, discussion sessions, etc. There was a fashion from 2013 to 2014 for mini-unconference sessions within the main conference to encourage non-structured discussion. Internet Librarian International 2015 had some particular elements tending towards progressivism The conference plenary session incorporated a range of crowdsourced opinions and viewpoints from conference attendees on the perceived ‘themes’ of the conference. These included critical perspectives such as ‘Radical ideas’ and ‘Open-source’.

And of course there’s the larger point that the people embedded in problematic structures are not necessarily problematic individuals. The organisers of Internet Librarian International 2015 are lovely people who always seemed very harried but exuberant rushing around keeping the conference running. The starting points of this analysis, Jodie Ginsberg and the individual-who-doesn’t-think-gender-identity-is-a-thing, are misguided people rather than finger-quotes bad people.

As in all debates, criticism ≠ condemnation. (12b)

(12a) Barron, S., 2015. ‘Using free and open-source software to open data’ presented at Internet Librarian International 2015, 2015-10-20

(12b) This lengthy endnote is a prime example of the kind of ad nauseum clarifications and justifications and backpedalling and uncomfortable-to-read apologising that discussing difficult issues around power relations and structural inequalities involves.



Ahmed, S., 2015. ‘Against students’, The new inquiry, 2015-06-29

Bales, S. E., and Engle, L. S., 2012. ‘The Counterhegemonic Academic Librarian: A Call to Action’, Progressive librarian, 40, pp. 16-40.

Brookfield, S., 1994. ‘Tales from the dark side: a phenomenography of adult critical reflection’, International journal of lifelong education, 13 (3), pp. 203-216.

Clark, I., and Preater, A., 2014. ‘Creaters not consumers: visualising the radical alternative for libraries’, Infoism, 2014-11-13

Foucault, M., 1991. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. Translated from French by Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin Books.

Freire, P., 1996. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Translated from Portuguese by Myra Bergman Ramos. London: Penguin Books.

Ginsberg, J., 2015. ‘Fighting to speak freely: balancing privacy and free expression in the information age’ delivered at Internet Librarian International 2015 on 2015-10-21