A Statement from LJ on the 2020 Library of the Year

When we announced The Seattle Public Library (SPL) as the 2020 Gale/LJ Library of the Year yesterday, many librarians protested our celebrating a library that had allowed the Women’s Liberation Front, an anti-trans group, to rent a meeting room for an event in February. We hear the anger and disappointment and take these concerns seriously. We understand why SPL’s board of trustees made the decision it did, but we wish that the library had not allowed that event to go forward. Nonetheless, Library Journal stands by the award, and we want to explain why.

When we announced The Seattle Public Library (SPL) as the 2020 Gale/LJ Library of the Year yesterday, many librarians protested our celebrating a library that had allowed the Women’s Liberation Front, an anti-trans group, to rent a meeting room for an event in February.

We hear the anger and disappointment and take these concerns seriously. We understand why SPL’s board of trustees made the decision it did, but we wish that the library had not allowed that event to go forward. Nonetheless, Library Journal stands by the award, and we want to explain why.

The important debate about what to do when intellectual freedom and equity and inclusion collide is far from settled in the field. Today, most American libraries’ meeting room policies, like SPL’s, are consistent with the American Library Association’s (ALA) interpretation of the law. We hope libraries will find a way to meet their legal obligations and advance both core values; until then, we must grapple with the ways that policies designed to provide equality of access can reinforce, in practice, an unjust status quo.

We are convinced that SPL conducted a thoughtful, consultative process. The leadership and board held discussions with internal and external stakeholders from the LGBTQIA+ community (as well as attorneys, city officials, and others) before deciding to reaffirm its meeting room policy. And the conversation is not over: SPL’s leadership is in dialogue with LGBTQIA+ groups, including those who spoke against the policy, about how to build a better relationship with the trans community. Leaders and staff are continuing the anti-bias training they have implemented since 2017, including from LGBTQIA+ organizations.

One of SPL’s great strengths is its willingness to engage in deep reflection on the impact of its policies together with those most impacted, and to change as a result. It did so on the issue of refusing a trans patron access to a family restroom, and on disproportionate enforcement of rules of conduct on youth of color. As SPL director Marcellus Turner was quoted as saying in the Library of the Year profile, “We have made a few missteps. And in some instances they have been conduits to help us bridge or reconnect with these communities.” We hope the same will ultimately be true here too. We encourage the library to follow through on this issue as it has on its other deep work toward inclusion.

Overall, we feel the balance of SPL’s radically improved service to vulnerable communities stands as an exemplar for others to learn from. The library’s efforts to redress entrenched, systemic racist bias and anti-Blackness are groundbreaking, thorough, and effective. Few other library systems in the country are working toward racial equity at the same level. The SPL team’s collaboration with the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative; their internal Change Team; and their methodology, which takes considerations of racial justice into every operational decision, are all exemplary. They have both quantitative and qualitative results to show they’re truly moving the needle. And SPL is going above and beyond to bring these tools to the larger field and make them easily replicable across the country, where they are so needed. That work is why we chose SPL as the Library of the Year.

LJ ’s own dialogue is also ongoing. We invite those who feel we made the wrong choice to submit an opinion piece. We commit to prioritizing coverage of the ongoing debate over meeting room policies. We had planned to convene a conversation on that topic at the 2020 fall Directors Summit before COVID intervened; we will explore how to move that to a virtual environment. We have reached out to ALA’s Rainbow Roundtable for its members’ input, and welcome other queer and trans organizations and individuals to share their perspectives.

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Meredith Schwartz

mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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John Otto

I am a transgender man and work at SPL. On the basis of my professional commitment to intellectual freedom, I supported the library providing meeting room rental access to WoLF. I find it very disturbing and anti-trans that 13 of the 14 commentators vigorously attack SPL for permitting the event rental to go on. The one commentator who supports giving the SPL award has been attacked in not very kind ways.

The below is what I wrote during internal SPL staff dialogue when there was great discussion on the event. I still stand by my words. The one point I regret not including is that transpeople will be one of the first groups excluded from equal access to library resources when there is an opposing group/person in charge at a library, unless we hold to our intellectual freedom principles.

+++

I am heartened to see, so far, a unanimous outpouring of support for transgender people on this thread. However, I am equally dismayed by not a single voice weighing the importance or applicability of intellectual freedom to the situation.

It is easy to support intellectual freedom when that freedom does not challenge your own viewpoints or belief systems. More difficult is when someone has a different viewpoint than you. By its very nature, intellectual freedom is bound to make all of us uncomfortable at one time or another. This meeting room use appears to be one of those times for many of us.

I encourage everyone to read the American Libraries Association’s, “Meeting Rooms: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights”, and see where this Women’s Liberation Front reservation fits into it. As a supporter of intellectual freedom, even when it is uncomfortable, I agree with this from that document:

Article V of the Library Bill of Rights states, “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.” This applies with equal force to the library’s meeting rooms and spaces designated for public use as it does to the library’s collections and services.

Further, I encourage everyone to review the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, and specifically to pay attention to Article VI, which states:

VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use. [my italics added for emphasis]

The Women’s Liberation Front meeting room situation has exactly those hallmarks of intellectual freedom outlined in the ALA’s Bill of Rights and the Meeting Rooms Interpretation. The group, while making many people uncomfortable enough to colloquially describe them as a “hate group”, does not rise to the level of hate group as defined by legal standards.* Yes, the group’s views are in conflict with many of our library staff’s beliefs, but that should not be grounds for blocking the group’s rental or use of the library if we truly support intellectual freedom.

The ALA’s Meeting Room interpretations acknowledges that the “presence and activities of some groups in public spaces, while constitutionally protected, can cause fear and discomfort in some library users and staff.” However, library policies regarding acceptable behavior still apply. I think we all can think of times when someone’s presence in the library lead us to feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. However, that feeling alone is not enough to block them from using the library—they have to actually do something that disrupts, threatens, or harms others in the library. So far, controversial as they may be, I have not seen anything that indicates that the Women’s Liberation Front intends to harass library users (or staff) or cause them harm.

As a library professional, whether my personal views agree or disagree with the Women’s Library Front, doesn’t really matter. As a library professional, I stand for that group’s right to exercise their intellectual freedom and access library resources, just like I do for anyone else.

I’m not thrilled about this group coming to the Seattle Public Library’s Central location, both for my own ideological reasons and due to concerns over reactionary responses to this event. However, I still stand for their right to use our facilities. I hope someone will do the same for me or any other person or group whose views may be unpopular at any given time.

Respectfully,
John Otto

* For more info on what constitutes hate speech and hateful conduct, and how to support staff, readers may find this document from ALA useful: “Hateful Conduct in Libraries: Supporting Library Workers and Patrons”

Posted : Jun 09, 2020 08:35

Deb Sica

TY, John - I stand with you on this. IF and Equity are two sides of the same coin. I can take the heat as long as public libraries continue to have to conversations.

Posted : Jun 09, 2020 08:35


A Schafer

Thank you so much for standing up for intellectual freedom in an environment that is increasingly hostile to it.

Posted : Jun 09, 2020 06:39


Anonymous Librarian

As someone who spent years of my career working at SPL and attempting to advance my career there, I can attest to the fact that there is a great divide between what SPL presents externally and the experience of staff within the institution.

I am aware of multiple qualified librarians from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds whose careers have been stalled at SPL due to lack of internal promotional opportunities. Many qualified librarians at SPL work as paraprofessionals and repeatedly get passed over for promotion (eventually leaving or giving up on advancing their careers) while library leadership goes to national conferences to try and recruit more diverse librarians--all while continuing to hire white women from outside the organization who have more "professional experience" than their internal candidates, who are prevented from gaining this "professional" experience by rigid job classifications and lack of support for career growth. In many cases, these overlooked candidates are locals who come from the communities served by the library.

In addition, there are many minority ethnic and racial groups in Seattle who see nothing of their own cultures reflected back to them through SPL's programs or services, which cater mainly to the communities with the highest populations.

Finally, let's not forget about the two women of color who were sexually harassed while working as security guards at SPL and whose sexual harassment settlement required them to leave their jobs at the Central Library downtown and never work for the City of Seattle again. That certainly doesn't sound equitable or just to me!

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/seattle-settles-with-2-former-library-guards-who-sued-over-kisses-spanking/

Posted : Jun 09, 2020 05:25


Steve Lawson

I'm sure the Seattle Public Library has done many wonderful things, but giving them this award in this year amounts to tacit approval of their giving a platform to TERFs. Actually, after this statement, it amounts to *explicit* approval.

Please remove my name from your list of "Movers and Shakers" as I do not want to be associated with your magazine.

Posted : Jun 05, 2020 06:35


Michael Stewart

This statement is a disgrace. To suggest that consistency with the law in regards to intellectual freedom is admirable in libraries is to confuse justice with complacency, and runs against the precedent established by professionals during the implementation of the PATRIOT act. To suggest that SPL is strengthening their relationship to the trans community by consulting with groups after-the-fact is to undermine the fact that this relationship was entirely destroyed by their blatant endangerment of both SPL's patrons *and* its staff. To reward an institution whose transphobic policies have repeatedly been the target of professional anger because of their progress in other areas is to ignore the fact that other institutions acknowledge the importance of intersectionality in the establishment of justice. To tout that "few other library systems in the country are working toward racial equity at the same level" as a point of defense mutates the fight for justice into a perverse competition. To suggest that SPL is "moving the needle" is perhaps true, but do we as professionals want to accept the lauding of that needle being moved in the wrong direction? SPL's practices, and LJ's handling of this award, are evidences of supreme failures on the part of professionals to understand and serve their communities in the pursuits of justice and equity, both within the library and throughout our lives.

Posted : Jun 05, 2020 04:33


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