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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: Public libraries can lead way in viewpoint diversity

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Celebrating diversity is one of the six values adopted by the Spokane Public Library Board. If diversity is your highest value, all people and all viewpoints should be welcome.

But in the name of being inclusive, “obviously some people have felt excluded,” said Spokane Public Library Deputy Director Caris O’Malley this week.

An interview with O’Malley, Executive Director Andrew Chanse and Communications Director Amanda Donovan shed light into the process that resulted in drag queen performances at two recent children’s story hours.

Library programs are developed in two ways. Librarians with expertise in specific subject areas consider educational themes and seek out community groups or individuals who can add something to the topic. Alternatively, a community-based group that believes it has something to offer approaches the library with a proposal. Librarians screen proposals for bias or an agenda and for alignment with the Spokane Library’s mission, vision and values statement.

O’Malley said it was local drag queens who approached the library as individuals, with no formal affiliation or connection to the agenda of the national movement. They proposed a reading on diversity and inclusion, and he saw it as an opportunity to include a marginalized group. According to Chanse, library leadership “did not go into Drag Queen Story Hour thinking there was a political agenda, the community turned it into a political event.”

It’s curious why no one on the library staff saw the reaction coming, given the volume of news coverage over the last two years. Controversy has been generated by “Drag Queen Story Hour” events around the country. Video of grotesquely risqué burlesque performances have surfaced on social media from other libraries, most recently the Renton, Washington, branch of the King County Library System. While Spokane’s local drag queens appear to have been slightly more tasteful in their attire at the library, the regional and national uproar threatens to kill support for future library bonds and levies.

Maybe staff members didn’t feel free to speak up.

Lessons have been learned at the Spokane Public Library. O’Malley said the number of phone calls questioning the local performances has “stirred conversation among staff.” And the librarians charged with cultural programming have realized the reaction has “revealed potential gaps in programming.” For conservatives who felt excluded and marginalized, O’Malley said he now recognizes a need to lean harder into diversity.

It won’t be easy. The lack of viewpoint diversity is hard to overcome as we sort ourselves into cultural bubbles. Universities have become notorious for a lack of tolerance for expressing viewpoints outside the progressive mainstream, but robust tolerance is what we need as an antidote to polarized politics. Public libraries can be the local institutions that lead the way. Leaning in will mean real dialogue giving alternative viewpoints equal respect.

The Spokane Public Library schedules more than 100 programs each month, according to Chanse. Any individual or group in the community can propose a program by contacting the library through the website or their local branch librarian. And there are objective criteria. A “yes” answer to any of these questions means a “no” from the library:

    Is the presentation speaking against a particular group?

    Is there an overt political bias or agenda?

    Is the proposal recruiting converts versus educating about religion?

The library programmed a community conversation before the story hour events, but it missed the mark. It was a panelized lecture on the self-perception of gender versus objective definitions of male/female biology. It was not a dialogue.

When asked if the library would consider organizing a second panel on why biology matters and the problems with gender fluidity theory, the answer was a definite “it depends.”

It depends on the educational value, respect for diversity and inclusion, and expertise of proposed panelists, according to O’Malley.

Educational value? Check.

Respect for diversity and inclusion? That would be the point of having a second panel, to respect the diversity of the community and include those who felt excluded.

Expertise of the proposed panelists? The right people can be found if there is a will to do it. It’s all about celebrating diversity.

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