Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Displays, Library Bill of Rights

By: April Dawkins

Displays – I love them. Catchy titles, timely themes, and boosted circulation! What’s not to love? But sometimes the inclusion of specific titles in those displays or the themes of the displays themselves can become points of controversy in our libraries. Watching my social media feed over the past month, I’ve seen a trend: challenging Pride Month displays or library administrators forbidding Pride displays because they might cause controversy.

When I hear a complaint about “those” books being displayed, but am told it’s OK to have them in the collection, I think of people who say, “What people do in private is entirely up to them, but I don’t want to have to see it.” It’s just another form of discrimination. It’s OK to have that book in your collection, but don’t point it out to anyone. Maybe it should be on a restricted shelf or out of the sight of impressionable youth. Two years ago, this happened in a Hays Public Library with their pride display. It was in the teen space. “They claim(ed) not to object to the subject matter; merely the placement.”

Rock County Community Library Director Serena Gutnik received a phone call from her Minnesota county’s administrator last month “asking/ordering” that she remove the Pride display in the library based on the complaint of one citizen. She stood her ground when he said that a government agency should remain neutral. The photo on the right is a picture of the display.

So what do we do when a complaint or challenge is leveled at an entire display or just a book that is being displayed. They don’t want the book removed from the collection — just not displayed. I hope you have policies in place, but if you don’t, revisit your library’s mission statement. Is your mission statement one of inclusivity supporting all community members? If so, you have an obligation to stand up for that mission. If you don’t have policies on exhibit spaces or displays, take a look at ALA’s Exhibit Spaces and Bulletin Boards: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. In particular, this paragraph should inform new or revised policies for your library:

“In developing library exhibits, staff members should endeavor to present a broad spectrum of opinion and a variety of viewpoints. Libraries should not shrink from developing exhibits because of controversial content or because of the beliefs or affiliations of those whose work is represented. Just as libraries do not endorse the viewpoints of those whose work is represented in their collections, libraries also do not endorse the beliefs or viewpoints of topics that may be the subject of library exhibits.”

Just substitute the word “displays” for “exhibits.”

The issue of neutrality brought up in Rock County seems to be a defense for those who only want their own ideas to be displayed (or as a way to hide their own prejudice). Complaints don’t happen with just LGBTQ displays. I’ve seen social media posts where Black Lives Matter themes have also come under fire. Sure, civil rights is OK, but stick to Martin Luther King Jr. and not the Black Panthers or Malcolm X. Or the comment is “You need a Blue Lives Matter display” or “Why don’t you do an All Lives Matter display so you can be neutral and not political?”

Libraries aren’t neutral, and if you think we can be then watch us go the way of the dodo bird. We have to become instruments of improvement and access in our communities or become relics of a “glorious” past.

“To be a librarian is not to be neutral, or passive, or waiting for a question. It is to be a radical positive change agent within your community.” ― R. David Lankes


April DawkinsApril Dawkins is a May 2017 Ph.D. graduate from the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. Her research focus for her doctoral dissertation was understanding the factors that influence decisions around selection in school libraries and the role of self-censorship. April was part of the NxtWave program funded by an IMLS grant, a national cohort of Ph.D. students whose focus is school librarianship. In August 2017, April will join the faculty of the University of North Carolina Greensboro in the Department of Library and Information Studies. Prior to her doctoral studies, April served for 15 years as a high school media specialist in North Carolina. She is also a past president of the North Carolina School Library Media Association (NCSLMA). April also serves as co-chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of  NCSLMA. Find her on Twitter @aprldwkns.

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