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One of these things is not like the others

ALA’s latest elucidating Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights‘ Article VI (“Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use”) has it in hot water. In this revision of the 1991 interpretation, specific groups which may desire meeting room privileges are now named:  “If a library allows charities, non-profits, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library cannot exclude religious, social, civic, partisan political, or hate groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities.”

As Office for Intellectual Freedom director James LaRue pointed out in the SLJ article linked above, there is nothing new here. ALA has not expanded the scope of Article VI, it has simply named the breadth of groups entitled to access, among them charities, non-profits, sports organizations, religious groups, social groups, partisan political groups, and hate groups.

But one of those things is not like the others. The inclusion of “hate groups” in the list was prompted, LaRue told me, by librarians who told the OIF that the KKK and the like were seeking meeting-room access, and that libraries needed more explicit direction/cover for handling such situations. (The only pertinent real-life reference I can find to the KKK is some student pranking at McMaster University.) Of course on Twitter, the story became “libraries embrace hate groups!” which is not what was meant at all. What was meant was that a public library, once it offers a meeting space to its constituency, cannot, as a public institution, discriminate on the grounds of viewpoint in providing that space. It is an issue of law as much as one of intellectual freedom.

While I agree that public libraries must offer their meeting spaces equitably, regardless of a group’s viewpoint, I don’t understand the inclusion of such a loaded term as “hate groups” in the list. Twitter is horrified that we’ll let hate groups use the meeting room; I’m horrified that ALA chose this context in which to editorialize. While members of charities, non-profits, etc. will not generally hesitate in identifying themselves as such, people who belong to hate groups don’t call them hate groups, and even among those who hate hate groups, there is not agreement about just which groups should be included under the rubric. I get that the use of the term was ALA’s way of answering the question “So by equitable you mean including racists?” with an unqualified “yes,”  but it had the unintentional side effect of both labelling speech and confusing the rhetoric–and, as we’ve seen, the public.

After I went back and forth a bit about the issue with @MagpieLibrarian on Twitter, she made the entirely reasonable suggestion that we need “concrete ways to support library workers and patrons in spaces where they must interact with hate groups.” Absolutely. I would add that most librarian workers habitually interact daily with people whose prejudices and ideas and speech may horrify or even frighten them, but we understand that these people have the same rights (and obligations) in the library as anyone else. They always have. ALA is not telling us something new, and if its latest reiteration of a library’s obligations is clumsy, it is also clear: including racists. Because someday you might be grateful it includes you, too.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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Comments

  1. I appreciate your viewpoint regarding this issue and thank you for sharing your thoughts. Over the years I have come to trust your knowledge, experience, and wisdom and I’m comforted by your remarks today. At some point in time, when I wasn’t looking, I moved from the group of “movers and shakers” to the group labeled “out-of touch” or “old-school”. It happens to everyone, I guess, although I never saw it coming. It is difficult to pass the torch and relinquish the decision making power to a younger generation at times when this group appears to shows ignorance, as I believe is demonstrated by the use of the term “hate” group. My generation understands without question what equal access means as well as freedom of speech and right to assemble. We also understand the boundary between speech and behavior. Have we failed to teach those younger than ourselves this difference? ALA obviously saw a “problem” where none existed. Now they are out on a limb and must define “hate group”. Good luck with that.

    Thank you for the opportunity to express my thoughts.

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