August 15, 2017

Public Libraries Grapple with Hate Incidents

Evanston Public Library By Amerique [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Evanston Public Library
Photo credit: Amerique [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

From the run-up to the 2016 presidential election to its aftermath, incidents of hatred, anger, and intolerance have been on the rise across the country and beyond. Academic libraries have been the sites of several incidents, as have schools. Even public libraries, generally thought of as safe spaces for their communities, have not been immune.

The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) has redesigned its Challenge Reporting web form to make it easier for libraries to document hate crimes, including vandalism, harassment, and assault targeting specific groups. “Better information means better support,” said OIF Director James LaRue. “The new form lets people report things quickly, in their own words. That helps us understand the nuances of their challenges.” In addition to making sure these incidents are reported, libraries are considering how they can empower conversation and empathy in their communities.

BOOK DEFACEMENT IN EVANSTON

On November 21, staff at the Evanston Public Library, IL, discovered that seven books about Islam, including a copy of the Qur’an, had been defaced with derogatory and racist graffiti. Librarian Lorena Neal was selecting material about Islam and the Qur’an in preparation for a lecture that evening by anthropologist Zareena Grewel, one of a regular series on Middle Eastern topics cosponsored with Northwestern University’s Middle East and North African (MENA) Studies program. As Neal described the incident on Facebook, she opened a copy of Walter H. Wagner’s Opening the Qur’an: Introducing Islam’s Holy Book (Univ. of Notre Dame) to find the phrase “Bullshit hatred cover to cover” and a swastika scrawled on the front endpaper. Staff members looked through the entire section and discovered that six other books had been similarly defaced.

The timing of the vandalism is not known—there were no surveillance cameras in that aisle of the library and the books had not been checked out since 2015—so it cannot be assumed that the graffiti was written in relation to the election. However, Neal wrote on November 22, “They were not like this a week ago,” when a librarian had been showing books to a patron. A police report has been filed, and EPL reported the incident to the Southern Poverty Law Center for its #ReportHate database on bias-related incidents.

CONTINUING TO BUILD COMMUNITY

In response to the incident and to demonstrate solidarity, about 60 Northwestern professors and students and Evanston residents gathered at a rally outside EPL on November 29. Several community members spoke out against Islamophobia and intolerance, and the importance of learning from one another—“exploring those differences at the library, and supporting the library…by coming together and talking,” director Karen Danczak Lyons told LJ.

In addition, said Danczak Lyons, patrons have come forward and offered donations to replace the books, or have bought copies of books to add to the library’s collection on Islam. And many have offered verbal affirmations that they support the library as an important center of tolerance and communication—including email from former patrons who have moved away.

“We’ve positioned ourselves at EPL as a place to come together to build community,” noted Danczak Lyons, “to talk about topics that may be difficult, that there may be strong feelings about, but to do it in a format that is an opportunity for civil discourse and listening to other points of view. So this isn’t new work for us.”

The library will continue hosting MENA Mondays events. In a November 24 statement, Brian T. Edwards, Crown Professor in Middle East Studies at Northwestern and director of the MENA program, wrote, “At the heart of our collaboration is the belief that public education around a complex and frequently misunderstood region can help address misunderstanding. Books are central to that project—our speakers frequently discuss their own books or works in progress, we display books, and the MENA program donates books by our speakers to the library collection.”

Although staff members have not experienced any racially motivated incidents directly, EPL employs a full-time social worker who regularly talks to staff about how to de-escalate confrontational situations. All of the defaced books have been replaced. And going forward, said Danczak Lyons, the library will continue to explore ways to reach out to patrons, both within and outside the library walls. “[Outreach] is nothing new; this is nothing that we’re creating in reaction to the defacement of seven books,” she told LJ, adding, “Community building is baked into what we do.”

GRAFFITI AT KCPL

Kansas City Public Library Central Branch Photo credit: Charvex via Wikimedia Commons

Kansas City Public Library Central Branch
Photo credit: Charvex via Wikimedia Commons

A December 8 New York Times article noted the incident at EPL, as well as several incidents in academic libraries and anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled on the window of the Toronto Public Library’s Mimico Centennial branch on November 14.

One of the libraries the Times reached out to for comment was the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL), MO. But although as an urban library, KCPL gets its share of graffiti, Deputy Director of Public Affairs Carrie Coogan told the reporter, it hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary.

Then, on the afternoon on Sunday, December 11, a vandal wrote anti-Semitic, racist, and misogynist graffiti in four different locations within the Central Library branch of KCPL. Four swastikas were drawn with a marker inside a men’s bathroom stall, in a stairwell leading down to the library’s vault level, on the glass window of the main entrance, and on a portrait of Taylor S. Abernathy, a former executive of the First National Bank, which hangs on the library’s main level.

Library surveillance camera footage shows what appears to be a tall white man with a shaved or bald head defacing the portrait at about 4 p.m. KCPL is working with the Kansas City Police to identify and apprehend him.

“We were all just shocked and completely disheartened and discouraged by what we saw…the strength of what was written,” Coogan told LJ, “We promote free speech, we promote any kind of expression, openness of all people…. But this is obviously not anything that we support or welcome in any way whatsoever.”

“PEOPLE WANT TO DO SOMETHING”

While the investigation is ongoing, KCPL is working to make sure that staff and patrons feel safe. Although library administration was worried at first that reports of the incident might keep people away, there has instead been an outpouring of warmth and support from the community, said Coogan. “People want to do something”—some have offered to donate to the library, and others to create library-centered advocacy groups.

KCPL is also looking to expand its programming to address community tensions, said Coogan, with an emphasis on civil discourse. “We believe that encouraging people to continue to use the library as a source of understanding and education and awareness about all kinds of topics—politics, religion, gender—is something that we are already doing and it’s been an important part of what we do. But because of this current culture and what happened at the library, we do want to emphasize this even more.”

While community members have suggested a vigil or gathering in support of the library, Coogan hopes to initiate ongoing interdisciplinary programming that would continue the discussion for longer than a single night. To that end, partners ranging from the University of Missouri–Kansas City (UMKC) to local cultural institutions such as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum have suggested collaborations with KCPL on programming focusing on tolerance and equality. The Friends of the Library hopes to help raise funds in support of this programming and visits by writers who focus on political issues.

What she wants the library to encourage, Coogan said, was empathy. She recalled a 2012 exhibit about the Titanic at Kansas City’s Union Station (an interdisciplinary museum, science center, and exhibit hall) where, on entering, visitors were each given a ticket that corresponded to an actual passenger on the ship’s final voyage. At the end of the exhibit, she explained, you found out if your ticket-holder survived or died that night in 1912. “I’ll never forget that,” Coogan told LJ. “It was so compelling. I’m trying to think of something [KCPL] could do, as part of a program or series of programs, round table, community conversations, that would do something like that—that would put you in the place of someone else. Maybe a neighbor, maybe somebody who lives across town.”

Whatever KCPL decides to institute, said Coogan, it will reinforce the library’s role of a safe, inclusive space. “I think that the library has an even greater responsibility to rise up during this time,” she explained, “to make sure that people know that every person matters and every voice counts, and at the library you witness that every single day.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Frank Goudy says:

    I hope true intellectual honesty and tolerance can be present at all libraries. However, there seems to be a growing trend for many who profess a so-called liberal view to be quite intolerant and aggressive to assert that only their views will be heard.

    Of course, this very biased article reflects this liberal agenda by selective reporting- that is if you call it reporting. A balanced view and presentation was typically avoided.

    • JEDI MASTER says:

      The confirmation bias is strong with this one.

      No specific examples of bias, just generalizations and open ended statements that do not move the conversation into actual evidence.

      Good work, padawan.

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