Controversy in the Library

When I was in the fourth grade, I won the first book of the Cranberry Cousins series in a spelling bee. The series is about two cousins with clashing personalities who are forced to live together when their mothers inherit the family business, a New England inn. I must have read that book twenty times, and I blame it for my irrational fear that one day I’ll wake up and find myself in New England, refurbishing a community touchstone. But in my case, instead of an inn it will be a local museum or library. I know that’s not how libraries and museums work, but it still crosses my mind whenever a sticky situation pops up in the world of cultural institutions.

On my mind lately is the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) and an event they’re holding at the Seattle Public Library (SPL) WoLF espouses a number of controversial views, the most pertinent being that women are born women and transgenderism is another form of misogynistic oppression. Many people in the Seattle community find these views offensive, feel that they threaten the safety of transgender people, and advocate for the library to cancel the event. If you wake up one day to find yourself the director of the Seattle Public Library, what do you do?

There are two essential library values at play here: the right to free speech and the right to access information. One argument is that by banning offensive groups, a public library not only impinges on their free speech but on the rights of patrons to hear what these groups have to say and judge for themselves. Another is that allowing these groups space discourages others from using the library, either because of safety concerns or because of a desire to avoid a perceived hostile environment, which would also be a mission failure for the library.

Every librarian faces this balancing act at some point in their career, probably more than once. It’s essential to know where you stand before it happens, to avoid making a bad situation worse. Before you leave school, you should have seriously considered

  • Where you draw the line between dangerous speech and speech that’s merely offensive.
  • The balance between freedom of expression and cultivating an inclusive environment.
  • The balance between your personal opinions and those of the local community, and between the differing opinions within that local community.
  • If you are in a position to dictate policy, what sources you’ll consult and who you’ll collaborate with.
  • How you’ll clearly and consistently communicate policy to patrons, staff, and the community. Nothing upsets people more than a surprise- if everyone is already aware of why a controversial event is or is not being allowed, it will be easier for them to accept, even if they don’t like it.
  • How you will handle disagreement, especially from your staff.

An excellent place to start is the American Library Association’s “Meeting Rooms: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.” This will bring us back to first principles, and remind us that there are legal questions involved as well as moral ones.

Check out this WikiHow on how to craft a mission statement. Guides to constructing mission statements specifically for libraries exist, but I find it useful to take a step back sometimes and really think about the difference in mission between a library and a bookstore, or a library and a coworking space. This keeps our purpose fresh in our minds and helps to sharpen our arguments.

Consider taking a workshop or course in communication. Free classes are available online, like this one through EdX. If you keep your eyes open you can find local opportunities as well, through conferences or business groups. I took one as part of a certificate in labor studies that I’m working towards.

Beef up your social skills to improve your odds of successfully navigating a sticky situation. Here is a great list of books to help you get started. It has the added bonus of containing links to my favorite things ever: even more lists of books.

Spend a few minutes each day preparing for these and other conflicts that will be part of your library career. Planning ahead is essential to success and reduces confusion and anxiety. If you’re able to act calm and confident, people will believe that you are, and that’s the important part.

Feature photo by Antenna on Unsplash.

Emily has just completed her first semester at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. If a career in librarianship doesn’t work out, she will write romances/murder mysteries about a character who inherits a private museum in New England instead.

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