Charlottesville Violence Poses New Challenges for Libraries

August 18, 2017

Jefferson-Madison Regional Library in Charlottesville, Virginia (Photo: Billy Hathorn/Creative Commons license)
Jefferson-Madison Regional Library in Charlottesville, Virginia Photo:Billy Hathorn/Creative Commons license

White supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville that erupted in violence and left three dead and dozens injured have prompted discussion among library officials on the institution’s role in everything from intellectual freedom to disaster relief.

Libraries at both the public and university level historically have developed response plans for natural disasters, but the Charlottesville demonstrations and similar white nationalist rallies planned for other cities have library administrators working not only to protect patrons and library infrastructure but to assist in relief efforts.

Both the University of Florida and Texas A&M have denied permits for white supremacist events, citing safety concerns in the wake of the Charlottesville demonstrations. But administrators like Judith Russell, dean of university libraries at the University of Florida in Gainesville, are still searching for answers.

“We don’t have gates at the doors and we don’t check IDs other than late at night,” she says of the university library.

Before University of Florida officials decided to reject plans for white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on September 12, Russell said administrators were considering requiring IDs to enter the library the day of the event.

“We never got through the discussion about whether it would be an appropriate thing to do,” she says.

Although both schools have temporarily avoided the immediate threat of such events, Russell says she’s still concerned they will gain access to the school through lawsuits. “Unite the Right” rally organizers sued in Virginia to receive permits to march through Charlottesville, but they were never granted permission to occupy the University of Virginia campus.

“It’s unknown what their response might be,” Russell says. “The whole thing is so very difficult for all of us.”

Experts have spent more than a decade developing plans for libraries in numerous disaster scenarios, so a roadmap for establishing one for violent protests and mass casualty events exists. But the challenge for local library officials will be fine-tuning a plan to fit their community.

A new kind of disaster

Daniel T. Wilson, associate director for collections and library services at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library at the University of Virginia (UVA) Health System in Charlottesville, has led a national effort in developing disaster relief plans for libraries since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

During the recent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Wilson hosted a family assistance center (FAC) at the health sciences library to provide support for family members of those injured. He tells American Libraries that the FAC response plan had been in place for about two years prior to the recent protests, but administrators had hoped they’d never have to use it.

The National Network of Libraries of Medicine, which has spearheaded library disaster relief preparedness efforts nationwide over the last decade, noted in a prepared statement that “grieving and anxious family members were brought into the FAC where they were met by social workers and chaplains. UVA Health System Telemedicine was on hand to facilitate communication between family members and health care professionals in the emergency room, and volunteers escorted family members to and from the FAC.”

Wilson said in a telephone interview that only in recent years have library disaster response efforts begun to consider the prospect of mass casualties—particularly those from a mass shooting. Planning for violent demonstrations with armed white supremacists is new territory, though, he says.

Wilson advises library administrators to begin the emergency planning process with their local community emergency response team (CERT). Planning with CERT officials at the local level is critical because “every library is different and every community is different,” Wilson says.

“Law enforcement also plays a role in all of this,” he adds. “But the best place to start is to go to the emergency coordinator. He or she can bring in the right people based on what you can offer them.”

A facility on the front lines

Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL) administrators were on the front line during the Charlottesville protests, choosing to close the library for the day, secure the facility, and provide support to local law enforcement.

In the lead up to the protest, white supremacists already were targeting the library to spread their message of hate, according to Krista Farrell, assistant director at JMRL.

“Last Thursday, the 10th, library staff noticed upon opening at 9 a.m. that white supremacist signage had been placed on the front door of the building overnight (which we quickly removed),” Farrell said in an email.

In addition to closing the library, officials removed outdoor trash cans and police removed bricks around the library garden “so that they couldn’t be used for harm,” Farrell said in an email. Library administrators also chose to shut off JMRL’s free Wi-Fi connection to discourage people from congregating on the building’s porch, she said.

JMRL Director John Halliday was the only staff member in the building that day. He allowed law enforcement to use the facility’s loading dock area, bathrooms, and electricity. “With Market Street and Emancipation Park nearly empty, I invited a few state troopers to come in and cool off, then a few more, now the library is full of exhausted, overheated police and soldiers. They are really knocked out,” Halliday wrote in an email the day of the protests.

Farrell said that even before the protest JMRL was working with Wilson and others to further develop the library’s response plan to include emergency and disaster scenarios.

Organizing at the state level

The Virginia Library Association (VLA) also is taking action in response to the Charlottesville demonstration, releasing a statement shortly after the protests condemning the violence and extending condolences to those killed and injured.

“Diversity and inclusion are among the Virginia Library Association’s core values, and we represent library professionals who seek to serve all residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia. We come from a variety of political perspectives and affiliations, and value diversity of thought, but we unequivocally reject the white supremacist ideology, exclusion, and intimidation represented at the ‘Unite the Right’ march,” the statement reads.

Lisa Varga, VLA executive director, said in a telephone interview that the association also has added a session about the events in Charlottesville to its annual conference in October. The session will be but one opportunity to explore the lessons learned from the Charlottesville protests, she says.

The conference, scheduled and planned months before the protests, is themed “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges.”

“Our focus is library staff and the support they need as frontline and administration when events like this occur and to prepare ourselves for anything in the future,” Varga tells American Libraries.

Efforts by VLA to challenge threats to intellectual freedom in the form of labeling and banning books in Virginia in recent years have united librarians across the state and created an infrastructure for political action, Varga says. That community will be useful in preparing for protests and other scenarios, she says.

“I think what I take away from these experiences with intellectual freedom and Charlottesville is no one of us can do this alone, and it’s best when we network and communicate with one another to help our communities,” she says.