Lizzo visits the library.
On September 23, 2022, Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress (as well as the first African-American and the first woman to hold the role), tweeted about the impressive 1,700+ flutes in the Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection at the Library of Congress (LOC). Hayden invited Lizzo, the model, rapper, and singer, to come by and see them.
Lizzo is probably the most famous and celebrated contemporary flutist in the world. Leonie Cooper of The Guardian said of her, “The flute’s brightest champion is the rapper Lizzo, who also just so happens to be a classically trained player.” In another article titled, “Lizzo Has Some Words For Haters Who Doubt Her Flute Skills,” author Jael Goldfine writes, “The Minnesota-by-way-of-Houston artist played in marching bands from 8th grade until she graduated University of Houston, where she majored in classical flute performance and blew, as she once said, ‘the baddest piccolo in the land.’ Danny Schwartz of Vulture praised Lizzo’s skill, writing in 2019, “The flute traditionally connotes themes like spring, nature, and innocence […] Lizzo deliberately juxtaposes these connotations against her identity as a vivacious, profane, self-loving woman. But she operates less in the instrument’s musical lineage than in its cultural lineage […] Thanks to Lizzo, we have now entered a new flute epoch.” A 2020 article from classicfm raved about her virtual performance with the New York Philharmonic during the pandemic. If you want to market a collection of flutes and draw attention to the rich history contained in the national archives, I can think of no greater ambassador.
Lizzo responded to the tweet in joyous exclamation, ““IM COMING CARLA! AND I’M PLAYIN THAT CRYSTAL FLUTE!!!!!” She visited the LOC in September of 2022 and took a tour of the archives with Carla Hayden and a small team of library staff. She was welcomed into the flute collection and was invited to play and interact with the contents which she did with reverence according to Director of Communications April Slayton.
A library archive, as opposed to an exhibit or private collection, has a development policy/philosophy for maintenance, cataloging, and scope. For the Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection, part of the philosophy is not just keeping the instruments safe but cataloging the working conditions and features of the instrument. They play the flutes and record the unique tone and sound quality, and those recordings then become part of the collection. If a flute is in too poor condition to be played, its sound is recreated, “by replicating them from original specimens rather than by trying to repair those specimens.” These are common standards among libraries and museum collections that are always finding a balance between conserving and learning from unique materials.
Lizzo played several flutes, including a crystal flute owned by James Madison in 1813. In a comfortable looking black track suit, she stood in the atrium of the collection and played a series of scales, a tune from The Carnival of Venice by virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini, and finally an excerpt from Francis Poulenc’s Flute Sonata. With permission, she played Madison’s flute again the next evening at Capital One Arena. Library Curator Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford transported the flute onto the stage and presented it to Lizzo who gave the best elevator pitch for the Library of Congress I have ever heard before stunning the audience with a short performance on, what she told the audience was, “like playing out of a wine glass!” She concluded with these words, “Bitch, I just twerked and played James Madison’s crystal flute from the 1800s. We just made history tonight! Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history freaking cool! History is freaking cool you guys!” It was the greatest promotion that libraries could get from a dynamic and passionate ambassador. It was cool. It was history in action. It was an American artist interacting with something from our collective American heritage and adding to its value.
The culture war has entered the chat.
Similar to how young Black kids who dare to use the library with the same joy and exuberance as their white classmates often spark the ire of unconscious bias, Lizzo’s performance drew the wrath of commentators who prefer unequal access. Former Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis said Lizzo’s performance was a “desecration, literally of America’s history.” Podcaster and Daily Wire columnist, Matt Walsh tweeted that “Lizzo playing James Madison’s flute was a form of racial retribution, according to the woke Left. And I have no doubt that this is part of the reason the Library of Congress facilitated this spectacle.” Moral panic aficionado Ben Shapiro claimed that the entire exchange was the “vulgarization of American history.” MAGA social media agitators, The Columbia Bugle, quote-tweeted the performance with the description, “A humiliation ritual. They don’t care about our history. They just want to mock and defile it.” They later wrote, “When we take back the White House we’re going to let Kid Rock crowd surf on Obama’s presidential portrait.” The grift of these personalities is to stir up outrage and they hit paydirt with this issue. Shapiro’s twitter coverage exceeded 700,000 individual engagements and his weeklong coverage on his Youtube channels is over 1.5 million. The comment sections are full of ordinary people echoing the idea that Lizzo is desecrating American history.
Thousands of reactions followed suit with similar outrage and anger at 1) Lizzo’s access to the antiquities, 2) Lizzo’s physical interaction with the flutes, 3) Lizzo’s language and body positivity while playing the flute, and 4) the overall safety and condition of the flute. There are no good-faith arguments behind these reactions. As I believe I have established, the collection’s mission includes the regular testing and recording of these instruments by professionals, everything was done under the care of archivists, and it was a strong promotion for our Library of Congress and the National Archives. There’s no way any of these critics were even aware of the Madison flute that they are now so desperate to protect from this professional musician before her performance. Even so, if you were to put both the Madison flute and Lizzo’s flute “Sasha” up for auction, I have no doubt demand would favor the latter. But these reactionaries needed a thin veil for their anger over the access and agency of a confident Black woman so they threw the switch on their outrage machine. Seeing these reactions online immediately reminded me of all the people who suddenly cared so much about the preciousness and precarity of the public library when forced to share it with someone they deemed unworthy or inappropriate. Segregation is over but disenfranchisement through culture wars is alive and well.
Why the double standard?
The National Archive has over 8,000 instruments and they regularly go on loan to performers, exhibits, museums, and libraries across the world. The only difference in this situation is that Lizzo is Black and her touch and her body are a problem for people. In 2010, violinist Joshua Bell took his privately owned, 1713 Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius down into the L’Enfant Plaza Metro subway station in Washington D.C. and played a mix of Bach, Massenet, Schubert, and Ponce for 43 minutes. The experiment was called “Stop and Hear the Music” and it showed how only a small number of people stopped and appreciated the music, the musician, or the instrument. He made just over $50.00 in busking profits with a majority coming from fans who recognized him. Bell played the Gibson Strad, which is more valuable than the 1813 crystal flute, in an environment much less reverent or controlled than the venue of Lizzo’s performance and under no institutional provision, but was never scrutinized by the listening public. Dutch Viola player Anner Bylsma regularly performs and records with the 1701 “Servais” Stradivarius Cello that belongs to the Smithsonian Archive. For all of the outrage that Lizzo reverently played the flute, there was virtually no public outcry when Kurt Russell inadvertently smashed an 1840’s Martin guitar on loan from the company’s proprietary museum for the filming of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015).
In contrast, many expressed outrage over Lizzo expertly playing the flute, and the only difference in the current situation seems to be that Lizzo is Black. The week that Lizzo received negative backlash for her use of Madison’s flute, It just so happens that I was to be running a discussion group for senior citizens at my library on Brenden Slocumb’s book, The Violin Conspiracy (2022). The author’s protagonist, Ray, is a young black violinist who fights the uphill battle of inclusion in the world of classical performance. One member of the discussion group easily identified parallels between Ray’s and Lizzo’s experiences. I paraphrase from memory: “There will always be an underlying sense that Black people shouldn’t have the same rights and privileges as white people. The same thing that is celebrated for a young white person will be picked apart when it’s a young Black person for a bunch of nonsensical reasons that will eventually add up to the will to segregate.”
On Lizzo, the Library, and Access for All.
Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan was an Indian librarian and mathematician from the early 20th century. It was during his tenure at Madras Christian College in Chennai that he published The Five Laws of Library Science (1931). Those five laws read as follows:
- Books are for use.
- Every reader their book.
- Every book its reader.
- Save the time of the reader.
- The Library is a growing organism.
At the time in India, George V of England was the colonial Emperor, Mohandas Gandhi was released from his second imprisonment, and literacy rates in British India were at a troubling 9.5%. For centuries, access to things like education (even self-education) were reserved for the privileged. Even as the dissemination of information became simpler, colonial and provincial powers erected barriers on the lines of race, gender, class, religion, etc. As basic as they appear to us today, Ranganathan’s groundbreaking laws of the profession were a line in the sand against the entrenched gatekeeping of both colonization and caste that had turned education into a luxury and libraries into sanctuaries for oppressors. Books are for use and not to be kept safe from hands deemed unworthy. “Every reader their book,” means that Libraries should not discriminate against readers or their needs. “Every book its reader,” means that books don’t have to be universally approved or accepted to have a purpose. “Save the time of the reader” means that librarians should not moralize or educate, simply provide access and break down barriers. “The Library is a Growing Organism,” is a message to the profession that we must be empathetic and reactive to the changing information needs of the patrons we serve.
American Libraries Resistance to Ranganathan’s Laws
Despite aspirational values to democratic learning, US libraries have been sites of exclusion. In the early twentieth century, libraries were largely subscription based and catered exclusively to upper-class, white men. In the mid-twentieth century, libraries in the Jim Crow South opted to shutter their building rather than be forced to desegregate. As with many institutions in our modern society, most libraries exchanged explicit segregation for systemic disenfranchisement. People of color were no longer outright banned from using libraries, but the contradictions to Ranganathan’s rules could be used to ensure they were still not welcome or safe. For decades, libraries serving Black population across the country would open up only to be closed by local ordinance, defunded by city councils, or closed by threats of mob violence. In a recent acknowledgement of our complicated history with racism, the American Library Association shared dozens of stories of descrimination and abuse in public and school libraries. To this day, there is ample evidence that implicit bias informs our services and creates segregation. 2019 study of over 19,000 librarians titled, Racial Discrimination in Local Public Services: A Field Experiment in the United States, found that Black sounding names were markedly less likely to receive any response much less good service. Regarding this report, librarian Jessamyn West told Bloomberg, “Librarianship is super white—and it’s not always self-aware about that point.” Here are the attitudes libraries often operate in which are total opposition to the longstanding laws of our profession:
Anti-Rule #1: Books are for keeping safe and pristine, and out of reach of anyone deemed not worthy, careful, or deserving.
Anti-Rule #2: Books are only for specific people– the library is a meritocratic institution for those who will use them for the things that hegemony values, mostly generating profit for the ruling class and upholding their cultural values.
Anti-Rule #3: Every book must be deemed relevant and useful to the aforementioned class; if a privileged person decides fiction, graphic novels, technology, or anything particularly popular with, let’s say women, teenagers, or BIPOC communities as “unworthy” of the institution, it should be rejected or censored entirely.
Anti-Rule #4: Unwritten rules and societal expectations of conduct make sure that library access is only for the right people who know from generational enfranchisement how to jump through all the right hoops.
Anti-Rule #5: The library should never change. No matter the year, population, needs, or cultural movements, every library should be the exact fusion of Victorian England, Classical Greece, and Mayberry RFD that the imaginary libraries of patriarchal memory were.
When I worked in library security for seven years in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois (yes, most libraries require security to facilitate operations and deescalate patron incidents), I witnessed how patrons and staff who acted out of prejudice and hid behind these disenfranchising behaviors to segregate library services. Rules would be interpreted harshly towards some users and overlooked entirely for others or themselves. Some patrons find that noise is suddenly impossible to abide by depending on the age, skin color, or spoken language of the “offending” patron. Moreover, collections are built on the basis of existing users rather than changing demographic needs. Good customer service is reserved for patrons who know exactly what they want and very little patience offered for those who don’t know through generational experience how we operated. Anyone who works, volunteers, or represents the library is more than likely someone who grew up with library access and is desperate to preserve their formative experience, not cognizant of how it was unique to them and not a universal privilege. The post-Jim Crow legacy of public libraries is clear: the library is seen by privileged people as a rare thing of value in public services and they want it to support their privilege.
The Library is for Everyone.
Many librarians have made it their mission to ensure that libraries are open and introduced to everyone. After all, breaking down barriers and enfranchising learners of all ages, identities, and backgrounds is the essence of the laws of our profession. But as I mentioned before, it’s an uphill battle. It isn’t enough to just say that everyone is welcome to libraries, schools, and community places. We must remove the barriers to access. We may not have explicit segregation in our signs, library cards, doors, and restrooms, but the radical disparity in our behaviors and attitudes towards people of color having equitable access is proof that disparity exists. The need to segregate through disenfranchising bad faith standards shows up everywhere. Critical librarianship will be necessary for the profession to root out and keep out systemic racism and disenfranchisement or else we will uphold the spirit of segregation well into the 21st century. I believe Ranganathan’s century-old rules are the best place to start:
- Flutes are for use.
- Every Lizzo her flute.
- Every flute its Lizzo
- Save the time of Lizzo.
- The Library is a growing organism.
Featured Image: Lizzo at the Library of Congress. Photo by Shawn Miller. https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2022/09/its-about-danged-time-lizzo-at-the-library/