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Notes from Executive Director Scott Garrison – Jun 2023

This month I’ll recap the spring 2023 Think Space program from the Michigan Library Association (MLA), which featured journalist Ron French from Bridge Michigan, lobbyist Bob DeVries from GCSI, pollster Bernie Porn from EPIC-MRA, former politician Arlan Meekhof, and passionate librarians including the award-winning Amanda Jones from Louisiana. The speakers and participants offered an array of perspectives that overlapped at times and conflicted at others, making for a very thought-provoking program.

Following opening remarks from MLA President Scott Duimstra, Ron French offered advice for how libraries can work effectively with journalists to get stories out:

  1. Be specific and detailed, and also concise. As many specific examples as possible of an issue help the press connect with people who can provide comment on multiple sides of that issue, including via social media (where one comment can surface many more). Journalists have limited paragraph space.
  2. Be responsive if you want news to get out. Once in contact with a journalist, the faster you respond, the more likely that journalist with limited time and deadline pressure will be to publish your story. Once they do, news can travel fast and generate action (and more stories). Send updates and follow-ups to reporters as quickly as you can.
  3. Have succinct and to-the-point quotes ready ASAP (and recommend others who can offer quotes). French recounted how helpful Lapeer District Library Director Amy Churchill’s quotes were in stories he published about her situation. A journalist may give you time to offer a quote if asked. More quotes can make for better stories.
  4. When you’re facing an existential threat, act accordingly. Be organized, and have multiple people speak the same message with one voice. Journalists respond more urgently when contacted by multiple people with shared concern.
  5. Libraries and the media have a natural affinity because they both care about upholding the First Amendment. The media is primed for First Amendment stories, especially when it concerns an institution like a library.

During Q&A, French emphasized the need for libraries to speak up and not be moderate or fearful when under threat, as bullies often back down when the spotlight gets turned on them. He also recommended using data and metrics to demonstrate when those passionate about an issue are in a vocal minority. This can be especially important insofar as it only takes one case to establish a legal precedent. French also urged participants to attack lies with facts and data, suggesting that had Patmos Library gotten greater media attention for its situation earlier on, it may have had a different millage vote outcome. French closed by reflecting on the stronger position some mainstream news outlets including Bridge Michigan are in now than they were a decade ago, with more staff and greater understanding of free speech issues.

Next, Bernie Porn highlighted some results from a 2023 statewide survey on libraries and book banning that EPIC-MRA administered for MLA based on a sample of 800 likely 2024 voters. He offered highlights from the full report (also broken down by 11 library cooperative regions) based on questions around issues including job ratings for Michigan public libraries, local library use, awareness of book banning, and opinions on restricting access, LGBTQ+ content, and charging library workers with a crime based on collection materials. Porn cited data indicating that respondents support librarians much more than they do book bans, and would be about twice as likely to vote for candidates who do not support book bans than for those who do. EPIC-MRA staff called a total of 847 individuals for this poll, 70% of which were cell phone numbers. During Q&A, Porn and others noted the need to use survey data to respond to those who would question libraries (similar to French). MLA is currently working on a marketing campaign for the data (including graphics at the bottom of their results page). Porn and others also urged caution on using terms like “activist groups” in polling, as how one defines such terms depends on one’s beliefs.

Lobbyist Bob DeVries and former Michigan State Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof discussed dynamics of conservative politics and libraries, in an interview format that raised some interesting and uncomfortable tensions. Meekhof noted how difficult his vision of governing sensibly and doing the most good for the most people, in a bipartisan manner when possible, would be for him to achieve in today’s environment overtaken by extremism, complaint, and belittling opponents. Meekhof described himself as a religious, pro-life, family-oriented fiscal and social conservative (eliciting evident physical bristling from many participants in the room, which reminded me how challenging and necessary it can be to sit with discomfort).

To DeVries’ question about how much today’s Republicans really believe in culture war issues versus using them to generate fear and votes, Meekhof emphasized the importance of engaging people to solve problems, based on what is most important to each of us (which is different for each of us). He also expressed concern about how the culture war has moved us away from letting people have their own beliefs. To him, some see the things that social conservatives stand for (e.g., limited government, protecting families, and guiding children in getting information) to be in conflict with libraries as an extension of government which offer materials some parents find disagreeable. To DeVries’ question about why LGBTQ+ issues are in such sharp focus, Meekhof reiterated his own beliefs, and also asserted that books should be reserved for the appropriate age level and not be banned or removed by the government. He believes all publications deserve to be in libraries, and suggested that participants invite community members on all sides to help set standards rather than drawing fights (e.g., by displaying books that may draw negative attention from some).

Meekhof argued for libraries to respect the taxpayers who fund them and offer collections that reflect the community (which in his view may be shelved by age group). He also recommended that library staff seek to understand, express disagreement calmly, and work to find solutions. Meekhof echoed an idea related to one I’ve heard others at Think Space and elsewhere articulate: build and maintain relationships in your community before you need support, so those relationships can help you through conflict when it arises. It is harder to demonize someone you have a relationship with.

DeVries and Meekhof acknowledged that those who complain about libraries are in a small minority of the broader population today, and though conflict may rise heading into the 2024 election cycle, a large majority of the public support libraries. Meekhof asked how libraries can focus on working with their supporters, and not spend a majority of their time dealing with a vocal minority who complain.

During Q&A, discussion centered on Republican incumbents’ fears of being challenged in primary elections as fuel for the current political climate, finding ways to neutralize extremists through issue advocacy and media engagement, finding library advocates, the fact that libraries have long shelved books in sections including for different age groups, parents’ role in deciding what information is appropriate for their children, public libraries as a necessary and cost-effective public good, and the idea that a vocal minority are targeting stereotypically weak librarians as a form of cancel culture on the right since it is impossible to “cancel the Internet” (where disagreeable content is vastly more prevalent). In closing, DeVries noted that much of what libraries are dealing with is about exerting political control over others.

DeVries and Meekhof’s thought-provoking conversation sparked further discussion for participants over the following sessions. The tension between French’s call to be strong and Meekhof’s urging to not cause trouble reminded me of Representative John Lewis’ call to “never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” If libraries don’t stand up when something happens, are they being compliant? How can librarians instill greater trust in what we do as professionals, while at the same time recognizing that libraries have not been and are not “neutral,” even in saying “we are open to everyone?” Do some see libraries as corrupt entities of a larger corrupt government? Will data and collection development policies (which are derived from values) really influence those who would ban books? Regardless, would those individuals pivot toward working to ensure that libraries don’t select books they find objectionable, by joining libraries’ boards and possibly defunding libraries? If a library should have materials that reflect the community they serve, what constitutes your community? Is it just those with visible similarities, or does it also include others with less visible differences? Libraries as educational institutions must collect diverse viewpoints, so they don’t create echo chambers like social media does (which Meekhof considers very problematic). How can libraries frame intellectual freedom, freedom to read, and the value of diverse collections that can sometimes cause discomfort, in a way everyone can support?

Next, Think Space organizers ran a “crazy eights” small group exercise inspired by the Urban Libraries Council on the themes of talking with and supporting library staff and considering sample collection development policies. Participants talked at their tables about one of a set of prompts, and also one of a set of collection development policies the organizers had collected from various states. Each table generated as many ideas as possible on their prompts and contributed them to a collection for each prompt. Common themes in all of the prompt responses that session co-lead Val Meyerson reported were needing to have empathy for staff, and making sure staff have input into policy and understand the “why.”

The discussion prompts were:

  • How to educate staff on policies and procedures related to intellectual freedom, especially when they don’t necessarily understand or agree
  • How to get staff buy-in on values and policies
  • How to support staff after an aggressive incident occurs
  • How to create space for staff to share concerns
  • How to approach difficult topics with staff members

Participants were asked to consider which of the ideas generated resonated the most for them, and consider the following questions:

  • Is this solution something you already do? How could you do it better?
  • How could you implement something like (idea) with your staff?
  • Are there barriers in your library that would make this idea less viable?
  • Are there further steps you could take to push this idea farther?
  • What issues could the idea create? What issues could it solve?

(Note: please feel free to contact me at if you’d like my notes on some of the great ideas the tables generated.)

In terms of the collection development policies provided, guiding questions included:

  • Does the policy address a diversity of viewpoints?
  • Does the policy address disinformation or bias?
  • What is strong about this policy?
  • What is weak or missing in this policy?
  • Does it include an appeal process for challenged books?
  • Is this process for a decision laid out plainly?
  • Who makes the final decision on challenged materials? Is that the appropriate person?
  • Are there limitations to challenging materials (only one recommendation per form, must have read the book, etc.)?
  • Once a decision is made is that decision in place for a set period of time?
  • Is there anything unique about this sample policy?
  • Are there any aspects of the policy that concern you?

Session co-leader Larry Neal reminded the group how important it is to take time to review collection development policy with library staff, so they understand what collection development means. He also urged participants to listen to staff concerns, review policy with the library’s board, consider case studies of other policies being tested currently, and make changes proactively rather than reactively. Libraries could consider doing the same with other policies, such as a display policy.

Following discussion of the guiding questions, participants also debated whether and how to refer to American Library Association (ALA) principles and values as part of library policy, as well as building credibility and respect for librarians’ expertise (given how some library patrons may perceive ALA, the fact that ALA accredits library degrees, and the work that ALA has done to establish principles, values, and much more).

Finally, Amanda Jones (see slides, which include links to other presentations) spoke about her experience as a teacher-librarian, what has inspired her to speak out on behalf of public libraries in Louisiana, the campaign against her in her community by a very small and vocal group of white Christian nationalists, and tips for how to handle book challenge attempts. Jones collected some polling data from Think Space participants as she spoke, noting that most have plans in case of a challenge, and that most did not have plans in case staff get attacked.

Some strategies Jones recommended include:

  1. Get the library’s collection development policies out to the public.
  2. Use tools she recommends to develop collection policies (noting that is not a professional source and is produced by Moms For Liberty).
  3. Use a script to help keep anger in check when responding to a patron one on one and provide a script to help all library staff know what to say to an angry patron (who may be recording the conversation in hopes of generating a reaction).
  4. Contact EveryLibrary for advice on how to respond.
  5. Remember that citizens often don’t understand what censorship entails when they want a book removed, and some can be irrational in jumping to conclusions about a given book’s content.
  6. Be aware that book challengers use a common game plan often geared toward practice in a given state. In Louisiana, people continue adding books to a challenge list, knowing that those titles will be sequestered.
  7. Resist the urge to practice soft censorship by not buying certain titles out of fear.
  8. Resist publishers’ efforts to soft-censor content. Jones recounted how Scholastic tried to insert a provision to remove a reference to racism from Love In the Library, only to recant after 600 school librarians wrote to Scholastic about the issue.
  9. Educate patrons that books are shelved in age-appropriate sections, and not commingled inappropriately (as some parents fear).
  10. Be transparent with local government, calling out what candidates (especially for library boards) do and don’t know, and educating all local government members you can, based on your knowledge from your degree and experience.
  11. Start a citizen alliance with help from someone close to you.
    • School librarians can do it for public librarians, and vice versa, as part of the same ecosystem.
    • Show up for libraries of other types when they need you, as a citizen.
    • Use your alliance to fight legislation that could hurt libraries.
    • Bring local alliances together into a statewide alliance, in order to be proactive ahead of the 2024 election (challengers have had their plans in place for years).
  12. Go beyond library-based alliances, looking to political groups that share library values, such as Planned Parenthood and others who have lobbyists.
  13. Fight legislation that changes how library boards are selected and puts librarians at risk.
  14. Find out where your stakeholders are (they may be in different social media platforms) and engage them where they are – some of them are ready to fight alongside you.
  15. Learn how to leverage social media tools to block derogatory social media comments and surface supportive ones.
  16. If you file a challenge with ALA, use a personal email so the message is not subject to a Freedom of Information Act request.
  17. Be prepared to handle blowback from your community, in person and online, and don’t let people silence you.
  18. Get media training before speaking to the media.
  19. Learn more from resources like Michigan school librarian Amy Hermon’s School Librarians United podcast (on which Jones has been a guest).

Jones closed with a nod to ALA Executive Director Tracie D. Hall’s TIME100 speech asserting that “free people read freely,” teased her own book (to be published in 2024), and expressed concern that the vocal minority mentioned several times above is going to impact library collections for decades to come. When asked for advice for those concerned about communities who would cut library positions, Jones reminded participants that she has resources on why school librarians are needed and urged everyone to speak out to school boards with data.

Several times in her presentation, Jones spoke of legal cases she is involved in and support she has received to pay legal expenses. MLA’s Amber Sheerin reminded Think Space participants that MLA has some funds available to libraries who need legal support, and that more resources regarding intellectual freedom challenges are available at

If you’ve made it to the end of this extra-long piece, extra thanks for reading! See you next month, and as always, contact me anytime at