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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
NOTL’s chief librarian fired over column in The Lake Report
Library board chair Daryl Novak and CEO Cathy Simpson speak at a council budget meeting. Simpson was fired by the library board this week. EVAN LOREE FILE PHOTO

Cathy Simpson, the CEO of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library, was fired Tuesday morning over the controversial content of an op-ed column published by The Lake Report.

The Feb. 22 opinion piece, “Censorship and what we are allowed to read,” focused on Freedom to Read Week, but drew strong criticism from a few in the community over its promotion of some of the principles espoused by the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR).

The column prompted the library board to suspend Simpson on March 8, not long after she returned from vacation, chair Daryl Novak said.

“Cathy has a right to free speech. Her right to free speech needs to be protected. That’s not the issue,” he said in an interview.

“There was never for a split second any issue about Cathy’s rights to free speech as an individual. However, our rights to free speech get curtailed somewhat when we associate ourselves with an organization.”

FAIR officials couldn’t be reached for comment on the criticism.

Simpson declined to discuss her termination but said the views she expressed have been misrepresented by her critics.

She also said that prior to her firing she received several messages of support from the community, professional organizations and other librarians — “but they are afraid to speak up out of fear of retribution.”

“HIDDEN LIBRARY CENSORSHIP”

In part, Simpson’s column cited what she called “hidden library censorship,” which she said takes two forms — “the vigorous defence of books promoting diversity of identity, but little to no defence of books promoting diversity of viewpoint, and the purchase of books promoting ‘progressive’ ideas over ‘traditional’ ideas.”

“I began talking with librarians who believe in library neutrality and pluralism a year ago” and learned about FAIR, she wrote.

An American organization, FAIR has been criticized by some for campaigning against diversity and inclusion programs, and fighting against anti-racism initiatives.

A few letters to the editor of The Lake Report and presentations to the library board last week have been highly critical of Simpson’s references to FAIR, while others have dismissed the notion and sided with her.

Other than content related to FAIR, “the balance of (Simpson’s) article, you can’t really criticize,” Novak said.

“The whole thing about intellectual freedom, about being able to choose what we look at etc.” was not a problem, he added.

As well, he noted, “Cathy was highly regarded and a lot of people are very fond of her.”

In her role as chief librarian, Simpson, 60, oversaw the growth and development of the organization for the past 11 years.

NOT THE LIBRARY’S POSITION

But when Simpson wrote her article as CEO of the library, it sparked “a lot of controversy” for the organization and after The Lake Report published a letter from resident Matthew French criticizing her, “all hell broke loose,” Novak said.

The implication is that what she wrote is actually the library’s position, “and it wasn’t,” he said.

“The board didn’t have an inkling that this was being written or published,” he added.

And, “this is the first time in my memory that a staff person or CEO has ever written anything which has political leanings and political implications.”

A number of meetings were held with her over the past few weeks to discuss ways to deal with the fallout from the column, including an in camera session after the regular monthly meeting on March 13, Novak said.

Last week she was asked to come up with a plan to “rebuild and build the confidence of the board and the confidence of the staff and move forward,” but Simpson’s strategy was rejected by the board, he said.

After being unable to come to agreement on how to proceed, he said the board met again last Friday and voted unanimously to fire Simpson.

“Essentially, we realized that the relationship was broken and not fixable,” he said.

The decision was delivered on Tuesday morning in a short meeting with Novak, vice-chair Wayne Scott and an outside human resources consultant.

The library received legal advice and consulted with the Town of NOTL’s human resources department prior to firing her, Novak said.

As part of their due diligence, board members also researched FAIR “and we all came to the same conclusion,” he said.

“LOST CONFIDENCE OF STAFF”

In the aftermath of the column, in addition to complaints from the public, some members of the library staff issued a letter to the board saying they were “uncomfortable” with the piece and citing their own concerns with what Simpson wrote, Novak said.

“The staff were not behind her. She basically lost the confidence of the staff,” he said.

It was then that “we knew the relationship had deteriorated so badly over time that at least two or three other senior people would quit as soon as they could,” Novak said.

He said that as part of her goal to add different viewpoints to the library’s collection, Simpson brought in some controversial books, such as “How Woke Won: The elitist movement that threatens democracy, tolerance and reason.”

“I think the what it really came down to is the way Cathy was interpreting our policies and what she wanted to do to balance the collection was at odds with what the board feels and what the staff feel in relation to our policies, and our statements on, our mission, vision and values, about equity, diversity, and so forth,” Novak said.

“That’s really where the breakdown came.”

Looking ahead, he said the library might have to update its policies or add some new ones.

LAURA TAIT IS ACTING CEO

The board is “not in a big hurry” to hire a new CEO and has appointed library manager Laura Tait as acting CEO in the meantime, Novak said.

The library likely will bring in an outside human resources consultant to help it figure out what needs to be done differently in the future, he said.

With possible municipal amalgamation on the horizon and having to pay Simpson a sizable severance, the board will take its time to fill the job, he said. The post pays about $120,000 annually.

Novak said he hopes the public understands why the board felt it had to dismiss Simpson.

“It’s unfortunate, but it seems there was a fairly significant difference of opinion on what’s appropriate social, political involvement and how that affects collections development.”

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