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Monday, May 20, 2024
Petition calls on NOTL board to guarantee library neutrality
Andrew Porteus, left, and Tony Powell Powell are members of a group behind a petition calling on the NOTL Library Board to preserve library neutrality at the town's public library. RICHARD HUTTON
Cathy Simpson RICHARD HUTTON

Four Niagara-on-the-Lake residents have come together for a common purpose: to preserve what they say is the right of library patrons to have access to materials that express different points of view.

The group has launched a petition on change.org chastising the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library board for firing CEO and chief librarian Cathy Simpson and failing “to follow its own policies for protecting library neutrality and viewpoint diversity, and its attempts to ban books or change policies to restrict access to information.”

Two are retired lawyers, one is a longtime librarian and library board member, while the other is a local business owner.

As of Tuesday, 659 people had signed their petition.

“We want to be careful with what we say. We’re not putting ourselves forward as speaking for everybody,” said Tony Powell, one of the retired lawyers in the group.

“We tried to express what we thought was wrong in the petition.”

“Libraries are supposed to be a source of information,” Powell said.

The group feels that Simpson’s termination was wrong, he added, but “what we’re trying to express is why it was wrong in the petition. We assume that would resonate with people who have a similar feeling.”

Simpson was fired in the wake of an op-ed column published in The Lake Report in late February to mark Freedom to Read Week.

Simpson quoted talking points put forward by the U.S.-based Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism, or FAIR, which has been labelled by some as a tool of the far right in the United States and has had its practices criticized by organizations and advocates in the realms of civil rights, social justice and equity.

FAIR executive director Monica Harris refuted those claims in an interview with The Lake Report and said accusations of the group being far right are misinformation.

A second group, the Association of Library Professionals, has also come to Simpson’s defence.

Simpson, so far, has declined to comment on the situation after being contacted on several occasions by The Lake Report.

The NOTL petitioners are not calling on the board to reinstate Simpson but rather maintain the concept of library neutrality by offering materials expressing different viewpoints, even those that some people may not necessarily agree with.

While the phrase “library neutrality” does not appear in the American Library Association’s library bill of rights, its second policy states that libraries “should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues” and “materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

Andrew Porteus, another member of the petition group, is a former librarian with the Niagara Falls Public Library and has sat on library boards in both Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie.

He said the debate about neutrality at the NOTL library started before Simpson’s firing.

“It started with the (op-ed) and then the letter to the editor expressing concern with it,” he said.

The letter Porteous was referring to was from resident Matthew French, who labelled Simpson’s column as right-wing propaganda.

“So the irony is she came out with this opinion piece in favour of neutrality and was concerned about self-censorship,” Powell said. “That was the main thing.”

Previously, library board chair Daryl Novak said Simpson was not fired because of the column.

“I think the one part of the message that we have failed to get across is that Cathy was not let go because she wrote an article,” Novak said earlier this month. 

He also said that because Simpson signed the column as the library’s CEO, it gave the appearance that her opinions were also those of the board.

He said she was asked to write a letter saying the opinions expressed in the column were her own but did not do that.

“That, to me, is very frightening,” Powell said of this response.

Porteous, meanwhile, said one of the foundations of a library is self-education, as expressed by Andrew Carnegie, who spent the later years of his life building local libraries.

“There used to be a series of books, which was great, called ‘Opposing Viewpoints,’ ” Porteous said.

“They don’t publish them any more … but they would take issues like abortion, for example, and they would give information like newspaper stories and from books on both sides of the issue.”

The group plans to bring the petition to town council and speak on the issue at the May 14 committee of the whole meeting.

hutton@niagaranow.com

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