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Niagara Falls
Monday, May 20, 2024
Letter: Library professionals support NOTL’s fired chief librarian

The following is an edited version of a letter to NOTL library chairman Daryl Novak.

The Association of Library Professionals would like to express its concern regarding the firing of Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library CEO Cathy Simpson by the NOTL Library Board.

While the association has no wish to interfere with the internal matters or decisions of a public library board, it nonetheless feels compelled to offer its perspective on these events not only owing to the fact that Simpson is also a charter member of the organization, but because the principles at the heart of the events in question concern the association’s commitment to library neutrality. 

We concur with Simpson’s views expressed in her Feb. 21 op-ed in The Lake Report, “Censorship and What we are Allowed to Read,” that public libraries need to aspire to neutrality and collect materials that may be unpopular and even offensive to some members of the community.

In setting out these arguments, Simpson ably exemplified the NOTL Public Library’s own collection development policy, which says it is committed “to intellectual freedom … while protecting the collection from societal and political pressures. 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.”

We are concerned that, in firing Simpson, the board in effect punished her for defending the principles in the library’s own policies, ironically reinforcing the very concern that she was raising regarding the illiberal narrowing of permissible discourse in public libraries. 

We also believe her firing sets a troubling precedent that will have a downstream chilling effect on the professional speech of other CEOs and directors.

Finally, in the aftermath of these events, the board’s decision has drawn negative national and international attention on NOTL Public Library, all of which could have been avoided if the board had taken or encouraged a more dialogical, mediating path, rather than a punitive one. 

Like Simpson, our association believes attempts to limit viewpoint diversity for adult library users should be resisted regardless of from which part of the political spectrum they come; that library professionals have an obligation and the right to comment in public forums on matters pertaining to the integrity of the profession, and of libraries as an institution; that it is the mission of the public library to facilitate through its collections and spaces robust and informed debate about controversial issues; that the communities public libraries serve are too diverse to restrict materials to only a narrow spectrum of views; and that events like Freedom to Read Week in Canada and Banned Books Week (U.S.) should, accordingly, highlight the diverse range of challenged materials from across the political spectrum.

These convictions are spelled out in the association’s Statement of Purpose: that it is intendedto advance, promote, and defend … institutional neutrality, open inquiry, individual liberty, freedom of thought, freedom of speech and intellectual freedom.”

The association stands by Simpson’s arguments that public libraries must uphold the essential value of institutional neutrality, for only in doing so can they create the conditions in which the freedom to read is possible.

By raising awareness of these issues among the profession and members of the public, we hope Simpson has helped to forge an opportunity for further dialogue and debate in the profession and among community stakeholders regarding these critical issues — a debate in which the association is also committed to engage.

We respectfully encourage the library board to reconsider its decision and restore Simpson to her position as CEO. 

Erik Wilkinson
Association of Library Professionals
Manhattan, Kansas

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