Meeting Rooms, Libraries, and Neutrality

Oct 18, 2018

Janice Grover-Roosa

By Janice Grover-Roosa
Wyoming Library Association ALA Representative
Director, Western Wyoming Community College Hay Library

ALA has recently demonstrated its commitment to uphold the foundational principles of librarianship by way of policy. As if to say, “The only way to satisfy most of you most of the time is to follow the policy every time”—ALA is adhering to the long established policy governing patrons’ rights to freely access ideas and information via library meeting-rooms. This is not to say, however, that reaffirming this stance was easy. After the ALA Council revised a policy in order to stipulate that hate groups should have equal access to library meeting rooms, many people from around the country weighed in about the collective library ‘voice’ and entertained a dialog about libraries, neutrality, and policy. Library policies are perhaps the most concrete tool available to librarians to clearly communicate the rights of library users, and it is important that Wyoming librarians stay abreast of national conversations like this one so that our library policies remain current.

ALA’s Library Bill of Rights is a set of foundational policies that guide libraries in their role as “forums for information and ideas.” In order to help librarians across the United States understand how these policies should be applied to “specific library practices” like meeting-room access, the ALA also publishes a set of policies referred to as Interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights. It was a revision to the latter that caused deliberation between ALA staff, librarians, library advocates, and library patrons last June when the “hate group” language was added. The revision, later rescinded amidst the uproar, read, “If a library allows charities, non-profits, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the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.”

To be clear, there was no functional difference in the practical application of this revised policy, only a change in the rhetorical value of the language therein. The policy reverted back to the previous 1991 version after a resolution to vote to rescind the revision was passed by the ALA Council last August. The policy, in short, once again reads, “If meeting rooms in libraries supported by public funds are made available to the general public for non-library sponsored events, the library may not exclude any group based on the subject matter to be discussed or based on the ideas that the group advocates.” This policy doesn’t detail specific groups like the revised version but rather notes, “any group.” Though the policy on meeting rooms changed and swiftly changed back, the action provided a larger platform to discuss library neutrality and the responsibility libraries have to all members of their communities.

It was no accident (was it?) that, preceding the short-lived policy revision adopted at the 2018 ALA Conference in June 2018, ALA President, Jim Neal, hosted a panel discussion, Are Libraries Neutral at the 2017 Midwinter Meeting. Taken together, the panel discussion and policy revision/reversion seem to be suggesting that there is an internal conflict regarding the collective ‘library voice’ and just who or what that voice should be protecting. To summarize the essential elements of this conflict one can refer to comments from two speakers from the panel discussion mentioned above. James LaRue, Director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom and Executive Director for the Freedom to Read Foundation notes (see full remarks):

I will argue that neutrality has a precise and essential meaning. Here it is: we do not deny access to library services and resources, and we do not seek to silence people on the basis of their backgrounds or beliefs. We do set limits on behavior. People who start shouting at or punching other patrons get kicked out or arrested. But our courts have consistently held that speech — whether spoken, written, filmed, sung, or worn on a T-shirt — is not the same thing as action. There has to be imminent and immediate physical danger. When we suppress speech, or shut out, or shout down people in public space — whether it be to advance the cause of conservative or progressive agendas, whether it be in the name of preservation of power or social justice — we conflate word with deed. We claim that just by listening or reading, we have been injured. So my safety requires someone else’s silence. This view is the foundation of censorship and tyranny.

Emily Drabinski, Coordinator of Library Instruction at Long Island University in Brooklyn thoughtfully countered LaRue’s points, with the following statement (see full remarks),  regarding library neutrality as it relates to library policy:

Those steeped in and rewarded by dominant ways of seeing the world don’t have to know how intensely political the ostensibly neutral position is. If the white supremacists booking your meeting space are not after you, you don’t have to know how dangerous they are. Books about reparative therapy for gay people can be simply another point of view if yours is not the body and mind those authors seek to destroy.

There is a lot to be considered regarding library policy and though the current stance of ALA is clear for the time being, it’s never too soon, or too late to ensure your library policy is up to date. For detailed information about what to consider, like state and local law, when drafting your library meeting-room policy, refer to Guidelines for the Development of Policies and Procedures Regarding User Behavior and Library Usage published by ALA.

The opinions relating to library neutrality are cause for consideration here in Wyoming. How do we as Wyoming Librarians understand the nuances of this debate? Do you think this is something we should discuss in a session at the Wyoming Library Association conference or via webinar? Do we have valuable input to share in terms of this discussion? If we want our voice to be heard, don’t we need to know where we stand collectively? Please contact your ALA Chapter Councilor, Janice Grover-Roosa, if you’d like to discuss library neutrality further as a Wyoming library community.

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