This story out of Lafayette, Louisiana has gained national attention. I think it is a great, cut and dry example of how public libraries cannot be neutral spaces. This Library Board was committed to political neutrality in the context of voting rights. The other side of voting rights is voter suppression. As MIT Library Director, Chris Bourg, said at Midwinter 2018, “allowing those who deny the humanity and the basic dignity of others to co-opt the legitimacy of our libraries and our profession is not a neutral choice.”
Now, you may remember the Lafayette Public Library from another recent controversy in 2018-19 about a Drag Queen Story Hour program. Two major events in just a few years? I decided to talk to someone on the ground in Lafayette because there is really only so much that can be learned about a town from just articles and data. This person prefers to remain anonymous but trust me, they know what they are talking about.
Oil and Gas are the name of the game in Louisiana, especially Lafayette. The industry was a financial boom to the area until the 2010s. This boom made it possible for construction bonds to be issued back in 2007 that were intended for library face lifts and expansion. North Lafayette, a historically Black community, was promised a new library branch within the actual neighborhood. The original library meant for North Lafayette is not easily accessible, especially if you rely on public transportation to get there.
“So, what happened?” I asked.
“The South. It’s tied to race.”
There is another player here and they go by the name of Citizens for a New Louisiana. They are the local tax-fighter group, bent on finding malicious intent within local government, no matter what the reality may actually be. You might have a similar group within your own community. It appears that all paths lead back to Citizens for a New Louisiana and that is something to be mindful of.
In 2016, Louisiana was affected by massive rains and flooding. This destroyed much of the Lafayette and Baton Rouge area. Then in 2018, the Lafayette Public Library put on its Drag Queen Story Time program and purchased a Bookmobile with $26 million in its savings account. This program caused a national controversy during a midterm election year and Lafayette is known for being quietly conservative. By 2019, $8 million of Library savings was rededicated to Drainage and $2 million to Parks and Recreation. To add insult to injury, a property tax increase that could help the library was voted down in the November 2020 election. As of this writing, it is reported that the Library has $7 million in savings and a budget crisis on its hands.
It is at this point that the Library Board rejected a $2,700 grant offered by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities for a “Who Gets to Vote?” reading and discussion program. The Board had originally approved the Library’s application for the grant but rejected it after the Library Director failed to produce two additional speakers to represent both sides. Just days later, the Director of the Lafayette Public Library retired.
Rejecting the program on the grounds of partisan or doctrinal disapproval goes against Article 2 of the Library Bill of Rights, which the Lafayette Public Library endorsed in their Program Policy dated July 15, 2019. That being said, there is no legal recourse for breaking one’s own policy. ALA and United For Libraries sent a letter to the Library Board urging them to reconsider their decision to no avail. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette took the grant instead and the Who Gets to Vote program will still be happening in Lafayette as a four week series in March 2021.
That is not the end of the story though. The February 3rd, 2021 Board Meeting was the first time anyone from the public could voice their concerns over the grant rejection. A quick mobilization led to a lobbying campaign on the Parish Council for filling a Library Board vacancy on February 9th, 2021. Although it is too late for Who Gets to Vote, there is a real grassroots effort going on in Lafayette right now, as I type these words. People care about organizing, lobbying, and being active or even casual members of local politics. They want their Library Board to do a professional, serious search for a new Library Director. That is absolutely possible and United for Libraries is ready to help out any Board of Trustees.
What is disturbing to me is that this is not the only recent scenario involving a Library Board at odds with its own Library. In January I wrote about the Douglas County Library System in Nevada in which Douglas County charged its citizens $25,000 to investigate the Library Director for posting a diversity statement on the Library’s social media. Half of that sum, $12,508.43, came directly from the Library’s own budget. Not only do these attacks erode intellectual freedom and civil discourse, they cost money. This is why public services do not need to be fighting one another!
I want to leave you on a happier note though. As you may suspect, the anonymous source is one of our people. Their favorite part about being a library lover?
“I have a heart that seeks justice and I can do that at the library. I can be the foundation of my society’s success in the library.”
Cheers to that, my friend.
Holly Eberle is the Teen Programming and Outreach Librarian at the Algonquin Area Public Library District in Illinois. She received her MLIS from the University of Illinois in December 2015. In addition to intellectual freedom, she is also passionate about the opioid epidemic and getting Narcan inside every public library.