The Right Decision Is Harder Than You Think

Teresa Elberson, the director of the Lafayette, Louisiana public library system, abruptly retired this past Friday, January 22. She had been working for the Lafayette Public Library since 1982 and had been director since 2016. Earlier in the week the library board had rejected a small grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities that was to go towards the purchase of books about the history of voting rights in the United States, along with related speakers. The board felt that the planned speakers were too “far left” and wouldn’t provide a balanced perspective about voting rights. (Click here for a news article on the subject and click here for another one.)

This story grabbed my attention for the obvious reason: what the heck is a “balanced perspective” of the history of voting rights? Please leave a comment below if you know what that would be, because the only thing that I can think of is that the Lafayette library board wanted to bring on speakers to argue for disenfranchising everyone but white landed gentlemen. I know there are a lot of people in this country who believe in that, but surely we’re not at the point where city officials are just saying it out loud. We’re not, right?

This event is an example of something that’s been on my mind since I started library school: the limits and pitfalls of doing the right thing. Lafayette Public Library had a major controversy around Drag Queen Story Time in 2018-2019, including an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit. (Click here for a link to the ACLU’s news release.) It has also been steadily losing funding since 2018, with voters and city government declining to renew sources of revenue. The two are almost certainly linked, and feed into the board’s current reactionary position.

Libraries are a public space in a society that’s running out of public spaces, and cultural debates aren’t going to confine themselves to social media posts and newspaper editorials. Eventually someone in your library workplace, whether its an employee or a patron, is really going to piss off the community. How will you manage that? What kind of sacrifices are you willing to make, personal and institutional, for an unpopular but morally correct position?

I don’t know all the details about the Lafayette Public Library and its recent events, so the following is just a thought exercise and not a commentary on what really happened. How much of a budget hit is it worth to host Drag Queen Story Hour, or another controversial event? Drag Queen Story Hour helps normalize LGBTQIA+ folks as members of everyday society, promote inclusivity, and provide role models for queer children. What kind of message does it send to LGBTQIA+ patrons if the library declines to host a Drag Queen Story Hour, or other queer-positive events?

On the other hand, what happens to a library that loses millions in funding? People lose their jobs. Hours and services get cut, especially in the branches, hurting the most vulnerable. A decline begins that can be hard to stop or reverse.

Compounding the difficulty, it’s often hard to foresee what will turn into a major crisis. An average book-and-lecture grant on a topic that’s standard in every public library in America somehow morphs into a political dispute. Suddenly you’re out of a job and the library you worked at for 38 years is the topic of Library Twitter commentary and iSchool student blog posts. It’s rough out there, folks.

Featured image by Phil Desforges on Unsplash

Emily is in her final semester of library school at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She will never be a far-left extremist because she just doesn’t have the interpersonal skills to live in an anarcho-syndicalist commune.

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