Discord in the Community

Preparing for controversial speakers and programs

June 24, 2019

Sukrit Goswami, director of Haverford Township Free Library, describes his library's experience hosting a drag queen storytime that drew large crowds and protests.

Last Saturday, the Haverford Township Free Library, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, hosted a drag queen storytime for the second time. Its first drag storytime, last summer, received two complaints total. This year, the program received national media attention and, along with that attention, hundreds of complaints and a crowd of protesters and counterprotesters.

So many people came to the program, the drag queen held a second storytime immediately after her session. Now, even though the program is over, the library is still receiving around 50 emails per day asking them not to hold it.

Sukrit Goswami, director of the Haverford Township Free Library, shared how he and his staff prepared for the event as a part of the session “Controversial Speaker Planned for Your Library Event? Things to Consider” on June 24 at the ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition in Washington, D.C. The panel of administrators and authors discussed the effects of controversial programming on libraries and their communities and shared ways that libraries can prepare and respond.

Goswami said one of the first things he did when the pushback against the event began was engage the Office for Intellectual Freedom for advice. The library worked closely with police and fire marshals before the event to ensure everyone was safe. But, importantly, when it came to the community debate he emphasized treating everyone with equal respect and attention.

“We did not take it lightly,” said Goswami. “We gave all the opponents a chance to speak at our county commissioners board meeting,” in addition to library trustees’ meetings. And, on the day of the storytime, they made a point to provide water to protesters and counterprotesters alike.

“You don’t plan an event thinking, ‘This’ll cause lots of discord in my community,’” said Peter Coyl, director of the Montclair (N.J.) Public Library. “Sometimes it just happens.” As a part of the Intellectual Freedom Committee, Coyl worked on “Responding to and Preparing for Controversial Programs and Speakers Q&A,” released last summer. The key point, he says: libraries don’t need to cancel controversial programs. But they do need to prepare.

“Everyone needs to be seen and represented in the library and we can’t let one group who disagrees with another group prevent you from performing your duties as librarians in general,” said Coyl. He encouraged libraries to have materials and program selections policies in place that can be cited when a crisis happens.

Macey Morales, deputy director of the ALA Communications and Marketing Office, had one key word of advice: “prepare, prepare, prepare.” She asked how many people in the audience had a crisis communication plan in place. When few did, she emphasized how important it was to be ready to talk to the media about things like how a speaker was chosen, where a program idea came from, and how it will benefit the community. If library staff aren’t ready with that information, “media will wonder ‘Do they really not have the information, or are they just not telling us?’” she said.

Ellen Hopkins, author of bestselling young adult novels dealing with themes including addiction and mental illness, has had speaking invitations canceled. “I’m not there to be controversial,” she said. “I’m there to offer some information about myself, my books, and to open up for a lot of kids who might be on the fringes.”

Hopkins described being invited to speak at a middle school library only for the event to be canceled after a parent complained to the local media. Instead, it was held at a local church and drew far more attendees than originally planned. “That press was the best thing that could’ve happened to me,” she said. “You could not find my books in bookstores for six months” in that town.

However, not all rescinded invitations end with an event that’s more open. Hopkins was disinvited from a book festival after controversy arose over the content of her books, and several authors also scheduled to appear withdrew from the event in solidarity. Shortly after, the festival was canceled. “That’s not what any of us wanted to happen, but we made a stand in favor of the first amendment.”

“I’ve had so many challenges to my books, it’s not even funny,” said Gayle Pitman, author of This Day in June and other children’s books. She recounted an elementary school pride festival she’d been invited to, but couldn’t attend. She sent a video to be played for the students at a school assembly, but parents complained about the event and her video was never shown.

When Pitman found out, she contacted the librarian. “She was all tongue-tied,” Pitman recalled. More than having the video cut from the program, Pitman was disappointed she didn’t have an opportunity to talk about it. “It was upsetting that I found out about it after the fact.”

“When you experience challenges, a lot of time it’s a parent that submits a challenge, but often there’s an organization behind that parent,” Pitman said, comparing the media escalation around some challenges to a football playbook. “All of a sudden a larger organization swoops in and starts flyering the community or issuing press releases to the media and finding a way to make this a big deal.” Often, these challenges happen in communities where there isn’t a strong LGBT presence, and “that’s a time for allies to step up.”

“Just be prepared for any type of scenario, for any type of situation,” Pitman said.


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