By: James LaRue, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom Director
A local drag queen contacted his library. He had been reading about drag queen story times and wanted to give back to his community. Would the library be interested?
A few youth staff visited with the man, and found him genuine. The staff talked it over with library administration, and went to visit a drag queen story time at a nearby university town. Judging by the over 200 laughing and mesmerized children, the program was a great success.
So the library decided to give it a try. They announced the program through all the usual channels. One of those channels was Facebook. Then, in a matter of days, a group of mothers in the area declared themselves outraged. They made eleven phone calls to the director, who had only been on the job and in the community for a few months. In all of the calls, the moms expressed their strong disapproval of the program, which they viewed as the promotion of sexual deviance, and thus inappropriate for preschool and elementary school students.
In one of the calls, the director felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. A mom mentioned casually that she knew where the director lived. In the moment it was hard to tell if that was small town friendliness or almost-threat.
Uncertain, flustered, the director decided that maybe her town “wasn’t ready” yet for a drag queen story time. She called the performer, and explained that the program would be cancelled.
Then she and I had a chance to talk about it.
First, let me note that administration can be a very stressful and isolated life. The director was smart and sincere. Like most of the librarians I meet, she was deeply committed to doing the right thing. But eleven calls about anything in the public sector can feel like a tidal wave. It’s easier to listen to people who are speaking than those who are silent. She didn’t want to damage the reputation of the library.
But second, I think what she learned, and what I have seen repeatedly in my career, is that appeasement doesn’t work.
I asked the director, “Do you feel that you won over the folks who called you? Are they now library supporters?” The answer was no. In fact, they watched the library far more closely. They were now convinced of two things. First, the director could not be trusted. Clearly, she didn’t know her job. Second, but the good news was, she could be bullied into doing the right thing.
But appeasement affected at least two other constituents, too. The first attempt by the town’s queer community to connect with the library ended in betrayal. It’s easier to lose trust than to earn it.
A second casualty was the trust of staff. They had diligently explored the option, and gotten approval to proceed. But at the first sign of controversy, their director abruptly undid their work. That trust, too, is hard to get back.
What should the director have done instead?
- Thank the callers for their concern.
- Refer them to policies adopted by the board guaranteeing a broad offering of programs in response to current events and community interest.
- Remind them that library programs are voluntary. The programs were clearly advertised, and had in fact proved popular elsewhere.
- Invite them to propose their own programs. Say that the library belongs to the whole community, and of course not everyone would find each program of interest.
Such a course does not guarantee that a program will be successful. It might even spawn protests — but see our “Responding to and Preparing for Controversial Speakers Q & A.” More importantly, however, it establishes that the institution knows its job, and walks the talk. That may not win over the eleven moms, but it does establish a foundation for respect. Moreover, it builds trust with the many subcommunities of a town — which could have been homeschoolers, single adults, Mexican-Americans, chess players, etc. It also sends a clear and supportive message to staff.
Some of the lessons we learn in our professional career are painful. And to all of you have made a decision you regret, I say: Welcome to the club. The best response is to learn from those decisions. The takeaway here: our policies articulate our values. Let’s not throw them away just because someone yells at us. Let’s live them.
Jamie LaRue is the Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, and the Executive Director of the Freedom to Read Foundation. Author of The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges, he has given countless keynotes, webinars, and workshops on intellectual freedom, advocacy, building community engagement, and other topics. Prior to his work for OIF, Jamie was a public library director for many years in Douglas County, Colorado. Find him on Twitter @jaslar.