“Sometimes libraries that are doing ‘all the right things’ pay a price for their excellence through uncivil attacks and attempts to dismantle their work,” Barbara Jones, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), told American Libraries. She is referring to Orland Park (Ill.) Public Library (OPPL) in south suburban Chicago, which has endured several intellectual-freedom challenges over the past few months. “It is unfair, but it happens and the library and community need to know how to respond.”
OPPL’s internet-use policies are currently being challenged by a few individuals who do not reside in that community. The complainants “use uncivil tactics and social media to attack the library, try to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with improving the library, and invade the personal privacy of staff in order to instill fear, not to advocate for change,” says Jones. A November 5 Chicago Sun-Times story provides details, as does the November 4 Chicago Tribune in a front-page article.
“Controversies over internet use policies, challenges to books, library programming, privacy policies, and other library services can be difficult ones,” Jones says. “Libraries must balance the need to address and respond to community feedback while upholding their mission to preserve free and open access to information for all users.”
Jones praises the library for offering such programs as “storytelling in a variety of languages, celebrating Choose Privacy Week with advice on how participants can protect their personal privacy, and providing services and resources to home schoolers, as well as welcoming community participation in library issues through open, regular board meetings.”
OIF is available at any time to offer support and to provide tools and resources to libraries navigating such challenges, and is currently developing workshops for librarians on how to handle such situations. Here are some tips and tools from OIF to prepare for the time your library needs to respond:
- Develop a crisis communications plan that addresses internal and external communication strategies and identifies who will speak on behalf of the library. Guidance on developing such plans is available from the OIF and the Office for Library Advocacy (OLA);
- Libraries and the Internet Toolkit: Crisis Communications.
- Privacy Toolkit: Crisis Communication with the Media.
- In Case of Controversy: Basic Tips for Crisis Communications from OLA (PDF file)
Additionally, OIF recommends that libraries should:
- Involve your library attorney as soon as you are aware of a potential controversy and ensure that the attorney reviews any response to public complaints and demands for library documents.
- Make your best effort to reply promptly and courteously to users’ concerns. Be transparent about the processes by which you handle complaints, and invite members of your community to learn more.
- Remember your mission, policies, and core values, and be prepared to explain both the value of a public library and the library’s role in a democratic society. Make sure that trustees, library staff, and volunteers also understand the library’s mission and are able to relate it to library policies.
- Do not apologize for policies that are designed to uphold intellectual freedom, users’ privacy, and access to a diverse range of ideas.
- Encourage local supporters to speak out. Often local ad hoc groups form to challenge unfair attacks on the library, and they are usually successful.
- Remember that the best response to unfair, malicious, or untruthful is one that focuses on the issue at hand. Provide facts and information about best practices, professional standards, and the library’s legal obligations. Avoid personal attacks.
Libraries dealing with challenges involving internet access may find these resources helpful when developing messaging and responding to inquiries:
- “Filtering and the First Amendment” by Deborah Caldwell-Stone, American Libraries, March/April 2013;
- Legal Issues: CIPA and Filtering, Libraries and the Internet Toolkit
- “Internet Filtering” by Sarah Houghton-Jan, Library Technology Reports (Nov./Dec. 2010)
“Finally,” Jones says, “libraries need to keep their eyes on the prize: continuing to provide excellent library services and opportunities for full community engagement.”