If you’ve opened Twitter in the last couple weeks – and follow as many librarians as I do – I’m sure you’ve heard of the ALA Bill of Rights Amendment and the controversy that ensued. If you’ve decided to take a break from the maelstrom of frustration that is Twitter in 2018 (I don’t blame you) or you’re out of the loop of library news, I wanted to take some time to recap and discuss. There have been multiple posts recently about social justice and library school on HLS, and I feel this topic warrants continued awareness and discussion in our community.
On July 3, 2018, the Office of Intellectual Freedom announced three major revisions to the ALA Bill of Rights. The revisions were about sections on meeting room usage, library-initiated programs, and services to people with disabilities. The major controversy is regarding language added to the section about the use of meeting rooms. The amendment regarding meeting rooms states:
“Public libraries are bound by the First Amendment and the associated law governing access to a designated public forum. A publicly funded library is not obligated to provide meeting room space to the public, but if it chooses to do so, it cannot discriminate or deny access based upon the viewpoint of speakers or the content of their speech. This encompasses religious, political, and hate speech. If a library allows charities, non-profits, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library cannot exclude religious, social, civic, partisan political, or hate groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities. Allowing religious groups to use the library’s meeting rooms and spaces does not constitute a breach of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”
There was immediate uproar from the library community regarding the specific inclusion of “hate speech” and “hate groups.” You can find most of the reactions under the hashtag #NoHateALA.
A large part of the controversy was that the ALA added the language about hate speech after the ALA conference. Previous drafts did not include it and it was slipped into the final version. You can find a full timeline of changes in language from the OIF here. One councilor wrote about how the inclusion of this language evaded her in her final readthrough before the amendment was passed; she acknowledged her mistake in not carefully reading through the final version before voting on it.
Libraries Are Not Neutral
This inclusion of hate speech and hate groups stems from the larger current discussion regarding libraries as neutral entities. Some recent debate was captured at ALA midwinter 2018 where the President of ALA hosted a panel discussing this topic. The head of the Office of Intellectual Freedom, James Larue, spoke in favor of library neutrality; this amendment is a direct effect of a person in a position of power holding this viewpoint.
Libraries are not, should not, and cannot be neutral. Emily Drabinski’s comments on this topic at the ALA panel explain this point of view much better than I can:
“In focusing such a conversation on an idealized notion of neutrality that none of us encounter in our real lives, we offer an alibi to those who have the power to define themselves and their worldviews as normal, as neutral, as apolitical.”
Permitting hate groups a space that will make patrons feel unwelcome and even worse, unsafe, goes against the service-oriented side of the profession. Worse, our offer of “neutrality” is approval of and encouragement for hate groups.
It would be wrong to deny the nuance of this topic. OIF stated that their inclusion of hate groups stemmed from the various legal precedents where libraries lost court cases in which they refused service to groups such as the KKK. However, the precedents cited in the amendment were from the early 2000s, hardly relevant to the political climate of 2018. Furthermore, as the councilor cited early (a former litigator) mentions in a Twitter thread, the language including hate groups could in fact lead to an increase in court cases on this topic.
As a member of my school pointed out in a Facebook discussion of this topic, the line of defining hate groups can occasionally be blurry. My peer asked:
“Should Catholics be allowed to use meeting rooms? Why? Catholic theology is openly homophobic and transphobic. Other Christianities have this issue as well. Are we willing to say they shouldn’t be allowed to book? … If you are okay with homophobic Christians meeting but not other homophobic or hateful groups, why?”
It could become more difficult to differentiate what constitutes a “hate group” when the group, for example a Catholic Bible study hoping to use the library, comes from a community that has a history of homophobia and transphobia but is not expressing those points of view in the use of the space. There are grey areas to this question. However, I think it is safe to assume that the hate groups this amendment protects are those of the far right: the white supremacists whose words and actions aim to hurt those of marginalized communities. In the current American context that this amendment was written, a hate group feels like a recognizable entity. White supremacists – Nazis – should not be offered “safe space” to meet. I have a hard time believing that this is even up debate.
The best article I have found thus far, written by another library school student, recounts a history of complicity that we cannot let happen in the current landscape of 2018 America. The author writes: “By pledging to provide meeting space to hate groups, the ALA has lowered itself to Trump’s level when he asserted — to widespread condemnation — after Charlottesville that there were ‘good people on both sides.'” (Seiter 2018).
This article includes a historic take on intellectual freedom, explaining that this principal in fact “arose as a way for librarians to defend their involvement in efforts to oppose fascism” before the Second World War. The author states, “Today, the ALA would do well to remember not only this principle is inherently political, but that it has anti-fascist and anti-Nazi roots” (Seiter 2018).
Rescinding the Amendment
The backlash towards the amendment was not solely tweets and articles. A resolution was quickly created to rescind the amendment. A document with information on how to contact ALA circulated. A petition was created for others to show their support. All library workers are welcome to sign, and if you choose to do so, be sure to note if you are an ALA member. As of July 22, the petition was 740 strong.
As of July 20, there are plans to have councilors vote in the coming week regarding the resolution to change the amendment.
So what can we do?
This summary is not a hot new take on this topic. I wanted to collect my thoughts and provide a resource for students somewhat overwhelmed (as I was) by these events. I’ve found that, for library school students who are not currently working in a library setting, it can become easy to feel disconnected from the professional community. However, there are ways you can stay involved and engaged in this discussion plus you can be cognizant of and participate in social justice activities in the field, such as:
- Sign petitions. Such as those cited above. It’s a small action, but it is still action.
- Join your school’s ALA chapter and make your voice heard. If your school doesn’t have one, start one! Disappointed that our ALA accredited school didn’t have an ALA student chapter, I collaborated with my peer to start one. More information about that here, and don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about this.
- Tweet. As you may have noticed, librarian twitter is incredibly active. Library Twitter seems to be more active during conferences (at least I am) however, there is no lack of discussion on this platform. Become a part of it! There are also several Facebook groups within the library community, such as the ALA ThinkTank.
- Educate yourself. We are information professionals. We know how to find information. Rather than waiting for people from marginalized communities to take the emotional effort to educate you, be proactive and learn for yourself about the communities your library is serving. As mentioned in the HLS post “Social Justice in Library Education” Simmons College has a comprehensive anti-oppression libguide. See if your university has equity or anti-oppression courses and take them!
I want to end by saying that I am a cisgender, straight, able-bodied, educated, white woman in a field that is primarily that. I have many opinions about this topic, but honestly, mine aren’t the most important, and my voice should not be the loudest. However, given my positionality, it is often given more space and credibility than others.
My initial reaction to learning of this amendment was purely emotional; I felt only anger when I first the amendment. But I can never fully understand the anger and fear of people without my level of privilege and they are the ones affected by the ALA’s stance. I am not personally targeted by the majority of hate groups that would be given a platform with this amendment; we should be spending our time creating space for those who would be affected and take to heart their messages. Our policies should be crafted from a justice and equity oriented point of view, rather than a neutral one.
What else can we, as library school students, do to work towards having equitable, justice oriented libraries?
American Library Association. “Meeting Rooms.” Amended June 26, 2018. Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/meetingrooms Accessed July 23, 2018. Document ID: 51a82d7b-cfe3-1734-1106-bd6a3b871d46
Drabinsky, E. “Are libraries neutral?” February 12, 2018. Retrieved from: http://www.emilydrabinski.com/are-libraries-neutral/. Accessed July 22, 2018.
Seiter, A. “Libraries can’t afford to welcome hate.” July 13, 2018. Retrieved from: https://socialistworker.org/2018/07/13/libraries-cant-afford-to-welcome-hate. Accessed July 22, 2018.
Cover photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels
Carrie Hanson is a MISt Candidate at McGill University’s School of Information Studies in Montreal. She currently works as a student librarian in a public library and is involved in numerous student associations. Connect with her on Twitter @icarriebooks