Meeting Rooms and Sacred Spaces Cause Schisms in Seattle

Access, LGBTQIA+, Political Viewpoint

By: Ross Sempek

Seattle Public Library. Photo by kconnors at
Seattle Public Library.
Photo by kconnors at

Seattle Public Library is under scrutiny for the use of their auditorium by a controversial feminist group. The Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) is scheduled to hold an event there in February, but their critics would rather they not show up at all, citing concerns over the content of their guiding principles and stance on trans identities. These groups fear that if such content gets normalized by being granted a venue at the public library, said assimilation will have a dehumanizing effect and lead to increased violence against transgender people.   

Amid the looming pressure, director and chief librarian Marcellus Turner released a statement addressing the concerns of the polarizing event. The missive establishes that SPL will not cancel the event, but will hold the event outside of library hours and increase security. Mr. Turner cited their anti-discriminatory meeting room policies, as well as their commitment to intellectual freedom and resulting reluctance to stifle speech based on speakers’ perspectives.

The library board of trustees president, Jay Reich, concurrently offered his own remarks in a piece that essentially echoed Mr. Turner’s espousal of intellectual freedom. In it Mr. Reich explicated the necessity of protecting controversial speech: censorship works both ways and can just as easily (and more severely) affect minority groups — already vulnerable populations whose lives would be exacerbated by speech restrictions.

A similar conflict ensued north of the border just about a year ago when Megan Murphy, founder of feminist current, was slated to speak at the Vancouver Public Library. The trans community’s objections to this event were not dissimilar to those given voice in this contemporary account, and the response from the brass at VPL fell in line with what Mr. Turner and Reich explicated in their statements. And, I gotta say, to those in opposition to both of these, their response must sound like a tepid cop-out. It must feel disenchanting to see a trusted institution break bread with a group anathema to one’s existence. But, unfortunate as it may appear, this is the only position libraries can proffer.

Public libraries, like many government agents, while certainly not inextricable from politics, exist in an apolitical milieu. Libraries don’t endorse, sanction, promote, or otherwise advocate for the views presented in their collection or events. It’s precisely because of this position that we can say that Libraries Are For Everyone. Note the lack of an asterisk at the end of that statement. It’s not; Libraries Are For Everyone…except those you disagree with. They’re for everyone and this is true if and only if everyone can use them. We don’t have to like it, but we also can’t dismantle it based on ideological leanings.

Imagine if libraries in Oregon and Florida caved to the pressure from groups who railed against Drag Queen Story Time. Imagine if the Colorado Library Consortium nixed their EBSCO subscription because of a vitriolic vocal minority. Imagine if OBOB scrubbed “George” from their reading list to satisfy livid constituents. Controversy is understandably unwanted, but it is the driving force behind a library’s content. If libraries kowtowed to the exclusive tastes of patrons, our cherished institutions would cease to exist. Libraries will almost certainly carry materials one person or another will find controversial — it’s a byproduct of the human condition.  

So this is the unwavering position that libraries will continue to espouse in the face of the controversies that forge their existence. This is not the first, nor the last time libraryland will manage objections to collection development or programming. In fact it seems like a condition of existence. You can’t please everyone but when our mission is just that. It’s a difficult task to mitigate animosity when patrons feel that we fall short. Libraries do so much for their communities — they don’t deserve to become a battleground where activists quarrel to demand an espousal of ideological hierarchies. So as vexing as this is to me, it’s also encouraging. Jay Reich has it right when he said, “We believe that the honesty and passion we have heard on this topic speaks to the sacred nature of Library spaces.” Truer words…

Ross Sempek

Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.


  • I strongly object to the author’s classification of WoLF as a “feminist group” in the first sentence of this blog post. Librarians are both trained and trusted to classify things accurately. A simple review of WoLF’s website reveals that they devote zero effort to women’s liberation and gender equity and all of their effort to opposing the rights of transgender people. They are more accurately classified as an anti-transgender hate group. The existence of this blog post on this website will empower this hate group to claim that they are just “feminists,” and cite the American Library Association as a source. This is a harmful misuse of the power of our profession and the trust that people place in us, and as an active ALA member I ask that you change it as quickly as possible.

  • There is SO much to unpack in this blog post (and much of that work is currently being done on Twitter). As a current LIS student, I feel that this piece should be taught in our courses as illustrative of the smugness and piety of the absolutist IF position.

    “Public libraries, like many government agents, while certainly not inextricable from politics, exist in an apolitical milieu.”
    – This is a complete fiction that proponents propagate (when convenient) to abdicate from the political. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the project of #critlib knows that it was basically fundamental to it as a loose movement to problematize this kind of blinkered thinking in the profession and its problematic legacy. Libraries as institutions have always been political and have been imbricated in structures of oppression, technologies of subjectification, nation-making projects, discourses, etc that are inextricable from politics. The invocation of this tired trope here is really nothing more than that: a centrist trope more reflective of what it is trying to elide than of anything else.

    The kind of false equivalencies trotted out in paragraph 6 are also telling. Actually listening to voices from the trans community and preventing an event that trans individuals feel is dangerous to their identity and safety in the world is … equivalent to “OBOB scrubb[ing] “George” from their reading list”? This is a dangerously flippant and telling equivalence.

    Finally, the tenor in the final paragraph is (as I stated above) pious to an almost self-parodying degree. This isn’t the Divine Mission of libraries to do what they are doing. The philosophy that undergirds the absolutist IF position (parroted in this piece) has a particular, contingent liberal humanist lineage, one that, as librarians, we have the power to change if we so choose! If we chose to acknowledge libraries as institutions embedded in the political, we might consider the problematic legacy that libraries have had in serving so-called “minority groups” (author’s words, not mine) adequately, let alone in a fashion that ever lived up to the lofty rhetoric of absolutist IF. Considered against that backdrop, hearing out concerns from the trans community isn’t equivalent to “kowtow[ing] to the exclusive tastes of patrons” – it’s trying to do better on behalf of an institution with a troubled and troubling history.

  • Policy Reminder

    The Intellectual Freedom Blog’s purpose is to educate and encourage discussions about intellectual freedom principles and promote the value of libraries, librarians, and professional membership in the American Library Association (ALA). The blog is managed and edited by staff of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) to raise awareness of time-sensitive news, issues in the field, upcoming events, helpful resources, and the work of members.

    Our writers represent a broad range of types of libraries, backgrounds, viewpoints and passions. Publication by the Intellectual Freedom Blog does not constitute an endorsement of the content or represent the official position of OIF or ALA. Content will align with ALA policy or will be clearly stated otherwise. All writers are required to consent to the policy and purpose of the Intellectual Freedom Blog.

    Lively commentary and reactions to posts are welcome but are moderated by OIF staff. Comments should be relevant to the specific post to which they refer. OIF reserves the right to remove, or not to publish, comments unrelated to the topic of the post or purpose of the blog. Spam, flaming, personal attacks, and off-topic comments are not permitted.

  • “Publication by the Intellectual Freedom Blog does not constitute an endorsement of the content or represent the official position of OIF or ALA.”

    I feel it’s unconscionable to throw a recent MLIS graduate like this. “OIF serves as the administrative arm of the Intellectual Freedom”. If you’re going to post material people rightfully criticize, the least you can do is own it. It’s unfair to your writers, and I would argue, is precisely the kind of intellectual freedom you *should* support.

  • I’m pretty disappointed that a website claiming “Intellectual Freedom” is completely ignorant of the concept of the Paradox of Tolerance, and further pushes an agenda of letting people spread hatred, ignorance and lies in the name of ‘freedom’. If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that standing back and letting hatred fester only causes it to gain more strength. Truly intellectual people know when to draw a line and hold it, not hide behind a myth of apoliticalism.

  • Oh come on. By this standard, libraries ought to host KKK rallies.
    The argument against these events is not that librarians disagree ideologically, but that these groups, as the author actually states in his first paragraph, “…have a dehumanizing effect and lead to increased violence against trans people.”
    We can and should draw a line here. If a group intentionally promotes hatred and dehumanization, they don’t get to meet in a public space whose goal is to be welcoming. TERFs shouldn’t get to meet in libraries. Nazis shouldn’t get to meet in libraries.

  • I am well versed in free-speech absolutist talking points, but the idea that libraries—or anyone, or anything—can “exist in an apolitical milieu” in the year 2020 CE remains frankly baffling to me.

    Libraries, lest we forget, are older than the government we currently live under (not referring to only the current executive administration) and have existed in a beautiful variety of forms within diverse and thriving cultures throughout human history. If you want to talk about “kowtowing,” please think a little harder about the line this blog post is pushing and its commitment to defending the status-quo from a position of privilege.

  • This is an excellent post that supports intellectual freedom and free speech in their entirety instead of subverting those ideals to an agenda outside the field of library science. As the author notes (and, as we like to declare as professionals), libraries are for everyone and, if there are materials or meetings that include viewpoints with which one personally disagrees, those should still be included in a library collection and within the the use of library meeting rooms. As is noted in Meeting Rooms: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, “Libraries do not advocate for or endorse the viewpoints expressed in meetings by meeting room users, just as they do not endorse the viewpoints of works in their collections. The presence and activities of some groups in public spaces, while constitutionally protected, can cause fear and discomfort in some library users and staff. Libraries should adopt and enforce user behavior policies that protect library users and staff from harassment while maintaining their historic support for the freedom of speech.”

    If a members of a group espouse violence or demonstrate other behavior issues like harassment, then ban them and the group from use of the meeting room. If the group merely has an unpopular opinion, let that opinion stand on its own merit in the intellectual debate of the community. Other groups opposed to that opinion have access to the same meeting rooms and can present their arguments against that opinion.

    While it seems to be unpopular to say this lately, as library professionals we should strive for neutrality in library services, as libraries are for everyone in the community in all of its diversity–including diversity of thought.

  • As many, many people have pointed out, and as Ross Sempek explicitly states in the blog post, transphobic speakers and trans people are not simply holding incompatible opinions which the Lockean liberal state is then called upon to “neutrally” mediate. Rather, the library is “break[ing] bread with a group anathema to [trans people’s] existence”. Popper’s paradox of tolerance was made for a situation like this. If liberal society is so tolerant as to tolerate actual existential threats to people’s lives, then what is the point of tolerance itself? Rather, society can and must draw lines in the sand beyond which an “opinion” must not be tolerated.

    One of the many flaws with the hegemonic, absolutist position on IF is that it ignores the fact that what would be unacceptable for just about any other identity-group is deemed acceptable when it comes to bigotry against trans people.

    Finally, I need to take issue with the idea that what critics of IF absolutism hold is “an agenda outside the field of library science” – not only are many of the critics library workers, but the idea that there is some sacrosanct, hermetically sealed “field of library science” that does not engage or intersect with wider society is astounding. If this was the case, what would be the point of our protestations of democratic importance, or any of our other values? Furthermore, the idea that librarianship should restrict itself to the “operation of information agencies” and no other social question is obsolete: we have been engaging with issues “outside” the profession for decades.

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