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Saturday, July 13, 2024
Residents want library board to commit to neutrality
Resident Tony Powell, standing, insists that the firing of chief librarian Cathy Simpson was unethical. He spoke to the NOTL Public Library board last week. JULIA SACCO

Cathy Simpson may not be returning to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library, but some residents say their battle for library neutrality — the right of patrons to access books that express multiple, even offensive viewpoints — is far from over. 

During last Wednesday’s library board meeting, residents Tony Powell and Steve Payne made presentations regarding the outrage some residents felt in response to Simpson’s firing as CEO — and what is left to be done.

Chair Daryl Novak told The Lake Report the board did not respond to the delegations as they “did not bring anything forth that had not been stated already in various forums.”

In an email, Novak explained the board will mount a workshop in the fall focusing on how balanced and diverse library collections are maintained.

“Hopefully, this may help address current misconceptions held by a few residents,” Novak said.

Simpson was fired following an op-ed column she penned for The Lake Report in late February.

It focused on censorship in libraries and drew criticism for supporting a controversial U.S. organization and espousing what some called right-wing talking points.

The piece also prompted a letter from library staff objecting to the content of the column.

Powell’s presentation focused on concerns about what he said is a lack of diversity of thought on the current board.

“I am concerned there may be a lack of ideological diversity in the present library board,” he said.

“And the likelihood that all share similar biases, which, in the absence of self-awareness, would lead to bad judgments.”

He leaned on the fact that the decision to fire Simpson was unanimous, noting a subsequent petition garnered 800 signatures supporting her.

Payne’s presentation began with acknowledging that Simpson will not return.

That does not settle this issue at all, as far as the community is concerned,” he said.

Payne referenced the library’s collection development policy, which states that: “The library upholds the right of the individual to access information, even though the content may be controversial, unorthodox or unacceptable to others. The presence of an item in the library does not indicate an endorsement of its content.”

“Now that (Simpson) has nonetheless been fired, it is up to the board of the NOTL library to decide whether it believes in its own collection policy statement, or is willing to fire staff like Cathy Simpson who support it,” Payne said. 

The library board has previously stated Simpson was fired not for writing the column, but for signing the column as the library’s CEO, thereby giving the appearance that the board shared her opinions.

After the meeting, residents raised their concerns in conversations with The Lake Report.

Brenda Dyck-Goossen, a former member of the library board for 12 years, said Simpson didn’t deserve to be fired. 

She said among library professionals in her circle, the NOTL library board is seen as a “laughingstock,” for the way Simpson’s situation was handled. 

“This is completely ridiculous. It’s like a kangaroo court. And during Freedom to Read Week? It’s the basic tenet of librarianship,” she said. 

During the meeting, the library board discussed the process now underway to appoint a new board member, following the resignation of Graham Bailey a few months ago.

The board has received several resumes and is set to begin selection and interviews.

Dyck-Goossen said she hopes the board keeps neutrality in mind when choosing Bailey’s replacement.

“To be on the board, it doesn’t matter if you know a little bit about IT or some kind of administration if you don’t understand the democratic principle that the library provides information to everyone,” Dyck-Goossen said.

Daniel Shakhmundes was shocked to learn about Simpson’s dismissal.

“I couldn’t find any merit in it. The termination speaks for itself,” he said. 

He believes the library board made a mistake and should be held accountable for costing someone their livelihood.

“They cost someone their job,” he said. “Why should we put up with that?”

Christine Stevenson came out to show her support for neutrality and voice her concerns about a need for more diversity of thought among the library staff.

“I’m very concerned about what’s happened here and I don’t think these (board members) are qualified to be doing what they’re doing,” she said.


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