Saturday, November 14, 2009

Why SafeLibraries is Wrong about Private Intervention in Public Libraries.

Much of SafeLibraries’ rhetoric depends on a claim that local citizens have a legal right to control the detailed operation of their public library, a right he claims the American Library Association is trying to take away. This authority, supposedly, allows citizens to override the decisions of librarians and library boards, and to dictate which books to buy or not to buy, dictate which children’s books get moved to the adult shelves, and dictate which books get one or another kind of a warning label. As he showed in his recent postings regarding the Cheshire, CT, controversy, no vote or other measure of majority opinion is required; apparently any sufficiently organized and noisy group can assert this authority.

It is difficult to imagine how anyone could get such a ridiculous idea.

It is obvious to anyone who bothers to think for even a minute that no group of aggrieved citizens can tell the police department what color their uniforms should be, nor dictate that the mayor’s office must buy paperclips from Office Depot rather than from Office Max. It should be equally obvious that a library is just another agency of local government. The people who work there are paid by a city or county, they report to elected or appointed officials, and are bound by state and local laws of public administration.

Individual requests or group petitions for changes in library policy or review of materials are fine: they’re as valid a means of communicating citizen interests to the library as they are to any other department of government. But they’re only requests. There is no requirement, in a library or any other part of government, that what citizens request must be implemented. It is the elected and appointed officials who must ultimately make the decision. They’re the ones who run the day-to-day operations of any government agency, and they must consider not only citizens’ input, but also the law.

Citizens who don’t like the way their elected and appointed officials are running things can try to change laws through a ballot initiative. They can try a recall campaign, if they’re motivated enough. Certainly, they can make choices about how to vote in the next election. But they can’t arbitrarily take over the day-to-day operations of the library, any more than they can take over the detailed management of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

So this right to intervene in running local library, a right SafeLibraries urges citizens to defend against ALA encroachment, does not exist at law. Am I being unkind if I call it a figment of his imagination? Given that he asserts the existence of the non-existent, there are only two other possibilities: 1) he's lying knowingly, or 2) he's just plain ignorant of the facts. I don't think he's either of those, and calling this a figment of his imagination is the kindest of the available alternatives.

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