This morning, I learned of a disturbing situation unfolding in the northern Chicago suburbs – the backyard, it’s worth noting, of the American Library Association. According to accounts by the Electronic Intifiada’s Ali Abunimah, his upcoming book talk there, scheduled by an Evanston community group in one of the Evanston Public Library‘s public meeting rooms, had been cancelled by the library’s director, Karen Danczak Lyons. As is most often the case in such situations, I suspect the library director was under great pressure from other vociferous community members, and, quite possibly, her own board, to cancel this event. In the following letter, which I have sent to her, I explain why this is an extremely problematic and disturbing move, and implore her to rethink her actions. The letter in its entirety is included below:
Dear Ms. Danczak Lyons:
I am writing to you today regarding the cancellation of the Ali Abunimah book talk, arranged by a local community group, Neighbors for Peace and scheduled for August 11th. As a professor of Library and Information Studies who frequently instructs future public library managers and other professionals in the field, I was very disturbed by what appears to have been a unilateral decision on your part to cancel this event, likely due to pressure from other patrons and/or groups.
Whenever libraries come under attack for material that some find offensive, it is an important and powerful moment in which that library has the opportunity to stand for freedom of information and for the profession as an essential component of the public good. While it is certain that issues related to Palestine and Israel frequently come on the heels of great emotion, that is perhaps an even stronger case to allow a public event on a timely book on the topic to go forward.
I have reviewed your policies for the obtaining of meeting rooms for the public, and can find no reference to how or why the Abunimah event contravenes any of those rules, to wit:
Summary of Meeting Room Rules
1. No reservation is made until all fees are paid.
2. Meeting rooms can only be used by not-for-profit organizations.
3. All meetings are open to the general public. No admission fee can be charged.
4. No alcohol can be served.
5. Cancellations must be made at least 48 hours in advance of the program.
6. The Library does not provide refreshment supplies such as coffee pots, cups, plates, trays, containers, paper goods, tea and coffee.
7. The Library does not provide easels, newsprint paper, dry-erase markers, or other consumable presentation materials.
8. Signs and posters may not be placed on Library walls, windows or doors. Please bring your own display stands or tripods.
In addition, it is my belief that the canceling of this event falls very much afoul of the ALA Bill of Rights’ article governing such practices. Suggesting that “balance” is the issue, particularly after the event has been scheduled, is not an appropriate nor adequate reason for cancellation. I include the following passages, both from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/meetingrooms:
“Many libraries provide meeting rooms for individuals and groups as part of a program of service. Article VI of the Library Bill of Rights states that such facilities should be made available to the public served by the given library ‘on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.’”
Further, from the ALA:
“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 an group based on the subject matter to be discussed or based on the ideas that the group advocates. For example, if a library allows charities and sports clubs to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library should not exclude partisan political or religious groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities. If a library opens its meeting rooms to a wide variety of civic organizations, then the library may not deny access to a religious organization. Libraries may wish to post a permanent notice near the meeting room stating that the library does not advocate or endorse the viewpoints of meetings or meeting room users.”
The ALA and its member-libraries and practitioners have a long and storied history of defending citizens’ right to access information. In canceling this event, even under the claim that more “balance” is needed in order for it to go forward, the Evanston Public Library is depriving its patrons of access to important and timely information, points of view and dialogue. These are main tenets of intellectual freedom as practiced in the library setting, and ALA has been clear on these matters. I quote from their Q&A on the subject:
“Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.”
“Intellectual freedom is the basis for our democratic system. We expect our people to be self-governors. But to do so responsibly, our citizenry must be well-informed. Libraries provide the ideas and information, in a variety of formats, to allow people to inform themselves.
Intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive and disseminate ideas.”
Ms. Danczak Lyons, I implore you to revisit your decision to cancel this event and to respond to the pressures you are facing from community and, likely, your own board, by sharing with them these critically important tenets of our profession and field. If librarians and libraries renege on their duty to serve the public by hosting events that may be controversial in nature, then we have failed in our position as a site of information for all. It is absolutely in these moments – the toughest of moments – when public libraries can prove their worth to the public by offering them points of view that a highly monopolized and commercialized media system and troubled public education system do not provide. I urge you to reconsider your decision and to align yourself and your institution with the espoused policies and values of our practice and field.
I look forward to your reply and thank you for your time and consideration to this matter.