I published a post a couple of weeks ago about neutrality and why I don’t think it’s possible for libraries (or any organization, for that matter) to be neutral in a society riven with historic and structural inequality. I cited posts by Dr. Donna Lanclos and Dawn Finch. I concluded that I would prefer to use the terms nonjudgmental and unbiased.
On Twitter, Dr. Lanclos pointed out that “unbiased” is also a problematic term. She warned, ” ‘Unbiased’ could still end up with Nazis in the library.”
I responded: “We allow Nazis in the library.”
This was the week before the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom updated their interpretation of Article VI of the Library Bill of Rights (pertaining to meeting rooms) to explicitly include “hate speech” and “hate groups” alongside religious and political groups, charities, non-profits, and sports organizations as civic groups that must be allowed to use library meeting spaces, and how these groups are allowed to express themselves. Reaction to this change was swift and spawned the #NoHateALA hashtag.
In light of these events, my response to Dr. Lanclos now makes me very uncomfortable. Looking back on it, I realize she was referring to Nazis as a group—Nazi organizations using libraries—but I responded by talking about individual library users.
I went on to argue that all library users are required to abide by the Patron Code of Conduct of their library. Pretty much every library I know of has a code of conduct which prohibits patrons from harassing, threatening, intimidating, or harming other patrons, which forbids the use of racial epithets or derogatory name-calling, and which states that no patron can act in ways which interfere with other patrons’ use of the library.
In other words: A Nazi can use the library but they can’t act like a Nazi while they’re there. If they do, we kick them out.
This isn’t to defend my response. But it highlights why the OIF’s new interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights is so dangerous: It allows hate groups to use the library as hate groups, explicitly to further their hateful agenda. Nazis will take it as permission to start acting like Nazis while they’re in the library.
And then what are we supposed to do? If we kick them out for violating our Patron Code of Conduct, they’ll quote this new version of the Library Bill of Rights and insist we have to allow it. It completely hamstrings our ability to manage our spaces for the good of all users.
I’m confident we’d win every such challenge, should it come to that. But to answer these challenges takes time and resources we don’t have to spare, and it’s exhausting. It’s enervating knowing we have to fight this fight, that we’ll have to keep fighting this fight. It will destroy employee morale.
This is one of the most common strategies hate groups use to gain ground: They tire you out by making you fight the same fight over and over again. They twist every rule, utilize every loophole, and exhaust your legal options until you give up. They’re experts at this kind of legal semantic maneuvering, and the OIF just gave these groups the perfect tool to leverage to their advantage. The ALA just played right into their hands.
To say nothing of endangering the safety of patrons and staff who are the targets of hate groups. On that topic, many people far more knowledgeable and eloquent than I have spoken out, people directly affected by this new threat in ways that I won’t be. Please follow the #NoHateALA hashtag to learn what they have to say.
So, while my response the Dr. Lanclos made sense to me at the time, I can no longer stand by it. This isn’t just some intellectual exercise. The safety of the most marginalized people in our communities is threatened and the ALA has proven they have no concept of how to protect them.