By: Ross Sempek
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 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.