On October 16th, the group Racial and Social Justice in the Library hosted a meeting titled “#NoHateALA: What’s next for our community?” for librarians and information professionals. Two organizers, one librarian from the New York Institute of Technology and one librarian from the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, spoke to a small group of three information professionals from various libraries. I agreed to keep the names of the organizers and attendees anonymous.
The meeting, held at the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Midtown office, was organized to discuss the the American Library Association’s recent decision to put forth an amendment to the Library Bill of Rights that sanctioned hate groups meeting in public libraries. This decision sparked outrage among those in the library and information profession as well as among community members. Due to this outrage, the amendment was rescinded and a new version will be released. Nevertheless, ALA’s decision to allow hate groups to meet in public libraries has created a crisis in the profession. This meeting was organized to discuss what this amendment means for the profession and how we should respond as a community.
The meeting began with an introduction to the amendment and a recap of the events surrounding the passing of the amendment. The amendment was initially brought up when a librarian approached the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee about the KKK being given meeting space in their library. The IFC discussed the issue and ultimately decided that, based on the First Amendment right to free speech, the ALA should officially allow hate groups to have a presence in libraries. The amendment passed, only to be rescinded in August after information professionals on Twitter expressed their anger at the amendment with the hashtag #NoHateALA.
The two organizers posed several questions pre-written on posters to generate discussion among meeting participants. As we discussed each question, post-it notes were added to the posters. The questions were:
- What or who is ALA for? Is it for librarians?
- Is ALA working for us? How can ALA work better for us?
- Are there other professional organizations doing this better? How so?
- Can neutrality [in libraries] be an instrument for violence? For prejudice?
In response to the first question, one organizer immediately replied with a definitive “No, it’s not for librarians.” As an African American woman and a librarian, she explained that as soon as hate groups were allowed into the library, they were terrorizing her existence. Overall, the group agreed that hate groups probably shouldn’t be allowed in library spaces if ALA and libraries want to continue to promote “diversity” among their staff and patrons and keep the staff and patrons safe.
ALA was described during the meeting as a “guiding force” of the profession, and it was acknowledged that acting counter to the wishes or rules of ALA could be basis for losing a job, particularly for librarians that are already vulnerable (whom are often the same librarians that are affected by the presence of hate groups in libraries!). The professional risk involved in defying ALA can be more than symbolic.
There was a lot of discussion about the legality of the actions of hate groups and the ALA, but I and others argued that purely legal pathways to social change are quite often not the most effective, nor do they necessarily reflect the moral or ethical choice. There is a great social context of racism, hate, and discrimination that ALA is willfully ignoring by projecting neutrality.
A large part of the meeting was spent discussing the fourth question about neutrality. While the ALA believes itself to be neutral because it sanctions the presence of hate groups in library spaces just as it does other religious and political groups, in reality, neutrality is an impossibility. As Robert Jenson explains in “The Myth of the Neutral Professional,”
…a society is moving in a certain direction—power is distributed in a certain manner, leading to certain kinds of institutions and relationships, which distribute the resources of the society in certain ways. We cannot pretend that by sitting still—by claiming to be neutral—we can avoid accountability for our roles (which will vary according to one’s place in the system). A claim to neutrality means simply that one is not taking a position on that distribution of power and its consequences, which is a passive acceptance of the existing distribution. Even this is a political choice and thus inherently non-neutral. (2006: 4)
In other words, as one participant said, when the ALA projects neutrality, it is shying away from responsibility to make a moral choice that may not be wildly popular among free speech advocates, but would protect library staff and patrons that often see the library as a safer space. The first step, according to the meeting organizers, is recognizing that some expression is oppressive to others, and that neutrality is a myth. A second step is for ALA to more precisely define “hate groups” so that a more precise and productive conversation can be had about this issue.
The meeting was concluded with the question: “What can we do immediately?”. It was suggested that less vulnerable librarians (white men and women in particular) could support their colleagues in more vulnerable positions in standing up against hate groups in the libraries, though ultimately it would be in the hands of administrators with the power to hire and fire employees to stand up against such policies. There will be a Part 2 of this meeting following the release of the new ALA amendment to discuss more concrete action steps.
Jensen, R. (2006). The Myth of the Neutral Professional. Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education, 8(2), 1-9. Retrieved October 15, 2018 from https://www.eastern.edu/publications/emme/2006fall/jensen.pdf.