Recently, I took part in a debate over social media concerning patron use of public library meeting rooms. The debate did not focus on patrons’ abusing rooms, nor on whether libraries should charge a small fee for their use, but rather if patrons (e.g. religious groups) should be allowed to use them at all. The idea has disturbed me because it is anathema to the mission and inclusion of libraries. It is against Section VI of the Library Bill of Rights and contradicts ALA’s interpretation of the meeting room clause. Being biased towards groups using library meeting rooms is up there with sanitizing the collection based on personal convictions, in my book. The worst part was that there were some (albeit few) librarians who agreed with the person that started the debate!
The debate followed a line of logic going something like this: libraries are public spaces; public spaces are publicly funded; library meeting rooms are therefore publicly funded; libraries should not allow religious groups to use publicly funded meeting rooms because it shows support for whatever religion is meeting there; religious groups have churches, temples, and mosques to meet in, so they should use those. If it wasn’t for pesky ethics, this line of thinking might not look half bad.
We have all heard in library school that we are gatekeepers of information. This is true, but we must not forget that we are also gatekeepers of library materials and services. Being that we have so much power and influence, our professional association, the American Library Association, has created a Code of Ethics for librarians and a Library Bill of Rights to give patrons inalienable rights as they use library resources. Why, you may ask? It’s for when situations like this arise, when a library staff person tries to install their own beliefs as legitimate library policy in violation of our professional principles.
According to Section VI of the Library Bill of Rights, “Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.“
This statement succinctly sums up how librarians should regard the use of public meeting rooms. Everyone should be allowed to use them, no matter their affiliation. And, if one is still in need of clarification, ALA created an interpretation to answer specifics about the meeting room clause in the Library Bill of Rights: If a public library makes a meeting room open to the public, library staff cannot deny anyone from using it based on the subject matter of the meeting.
ALA’s interpretation gives guidance on creating meeting room policies: A public library may set limits on meeting rooms, such as “time, place, or manner of use,” but those constraints cannot be based on the groups meeting in the rooms.
Some librarians may have their hearts in the right place by not wanting to put the library in a spot of suspected advocacy of a religious group, since libraries should be religiously neutral places; however, not wanting religious groups using meeting rooms for the reason that the groups have no right to them (“they have their own places of worship to meet”) is judgmental and is an unethical denial of meeting rooms that violates our profession’s beliefs.
When librarians begin to negatively target groups (religious, teens, LGBTQIA patrons, etc.), tailoring library policy to under-privilege them in some way it is unacceptable and should be stopped immediately. As stated earlier, that is why libraries have codes of ethics: to keep us in line and to make sure that we are not biasing ourselves, our collections, or our properties. We need to follow these codes and professional statements, not out of obligation, but out of a desire to be the most welcoming and helpful professionals that we can be.