In a whiplash series of events, the board of the Medina County District Library (Ohio) on September 21 voted 4-3 to withdraw the library’s institutional support for the American Library Association. But just days later, after generating a local backlash and drawing national scrutiny, the board swiftly convened an emergency meeting and rescinded its decision.
In a statement shared with PW, Kyle White, president of the Medina County District Library board of trustees, confirmed that the board had voted not to renew its ALA membership after “members of our board raised concerns that ALA may be drifting from its core mission ‘to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship.’” But, "after hearing from members of our community who feel our action was premature,” White's statement noted, the board met again on September 24 and voted to rescind the September 21 resolution “pending possible further discussion and research.”
According to the library's social media, the board member who initially introduced the resolution to withdraw from ALA, Mary Schultz, was not present to vote at the emergency meeting, and one other board member voted against rescinding the decision.
"This is about an organization leaning in one direction," Schultz reportedly said about introducing the vote to leave ALA this week, according to a report in the local Medina Gazette. "We can’t support a partisan organization. It’s leaning to the left. We’re representing this county. We have to be totally neutral.”
Those sentiments were reportedly echoed by another board member, Sharon Jenks, who according to the Gazette also accused ALA of being too political. “The library is supposed to be Switzerland. Like (Schultz) said, our doors are open to everyone. I don’t know how we can do that and affiliate with an organization like this.”
Gazette reporter Bob Finnan noted that board members "wanted to go out of their way to say that their decision on Monday wasn’t because the ALA supports Black Lives Matter." However, the ALA's vocal support for racial and social justice issues clearly form the political subtext behind the vote. “We’re not doing this because of Black Lives Matter,” another trustee, Mary Ogden, reportedly said of the initial decision to walk away from ALA, according to the Gazette. “The question is, do we object to the ALA taking a social justice position that doesn’t further its mission; or, as a government entity in a racist society, are they required to take a social justice position?”
The ALA is of course a membership organization, and not library or government entity. And as a 501(c)3 organization, the ALA is required to be politically nonpartisan. But being politically nonpartisan is not to be confused with being "neutral," especially, librarians say, when it comes to such core library values as diversity, equity, and inclusion. The idea that libraries are not neutral has been a prominent theme and topic of discussion within the library profession and within ALA for years.
Meanwhile, a Change.org petition set up this week to oppose the board’s decision to leave ALA suggested that the board member who proposed the initial resolution did so "stating that the ALA supports defunding the police." ALA, however, has not voiced support for defunding the police.
“Let's not have our cherished library system associated with such nonsense," the petition notes. "The library is a service to the entire community, not a tool for the political machinations of a select few. The ALA has a long tradition of supporting First Amendment rights and advocating for diversity, inclusion, and equity. Such rights are important for all of us, minority or not, and are rights we should be supporting, not hindering.”
In a separate post on the MCDL Facebook page, one commenter urged the library to recruit a person of color to sit on the library board. "There is currently no diversity," the comment states calling that "unacceptable."
ALA members PW spoke to (and on social media) were bemused with the idea that ALA was perceived as a far left organization. In fact, ALA has faced criticism from members, especially in recent months, for not doing enough in support of racial and social justice.
MCDL director Julianne Bedel, who took the helm in February of this year, told the Gazette she did not personally support withdrawing from ALA, but politely declined to comment further on the matter for PW.
"I appreciate the board's decision to revisit the question of ALA membership," Bedel noted in an emailed statement, adding that "the issues surrounding the board's original vote" were "important" and "deserve serious discussion and input from those who use our services and support our work."