My Turn: Independent public library advisory board is needed now

Posted: Monday, March 17, 2003

Controversy continues to stalk the Juneau libraries' display case policy. The latest revision (Feb. 5) by Library Director Carol McCabe of her "no-public access" policy is still unacceptable. Ms. McCabe wishes to maintain the two prominent hallway display cases for library exhibits only.

She proposes to relegate citizen exhibits to the back corner of the adult reading room, near the small conference room. This is a transparent attempt to limit, not only controversy, but visibility. Her creative word spin calls this presenting the public with "freedom to choose" (to look!). This seems ludicrous and insulting.

In November, at the public hearing on the "library-only" exhibit policy, there was a capacity crowd with a strong and singular point of view. All of the recorded testimony, and a show of hands in the room that night, unanimously called for the library display cases to provide a public forum.

The issue of constitutional free speech came up over and over again and was insisted upon. This new policy goes through the motions, but circumvents the spirit of a public forum. The head librarian, in her third attempt, has not yet come up with a policy that can pass constitutional muster and be responsive to overwhelming public expression of democratic values. It is time for the Assembly to step in and take action on this very important community issue.

Former JDHS librarian and past president of the American Library Association, Ann Symons, along with ACLU attorney Paul Grant, submitted to the city a draft library policy that could serve as a guideline for Assembly review and consideration.

Following are some specific problems I find with Ms. McCabe's policy and my proposed changes:

Problem 1: Only the Downtown library would have any display case for citizen exhibits.

Display space should be made available to the public at the Valley and Douglas branches, as well as the Downtown branch.

Problem 2: An expensive new display case is being planned for installation at the Downtown library, in an obscure part of the adult reading room, where there will be minimal foot traffic and where conversation is prohibited.

At least one, preferably both of the two main hallway display cases at the Downtown library should be available to the public. (The library could periodically schedule its own exhibits there, as well.) The newly purchased $1,700 display case can be installed at the Mendenhall Valley Library.

Problem 3: Restricting citizen participation for exhibits to only legally designated "non-profit organizations."

A diverse number of individuals and groups should be encouraged to create exhibits for public display, e.g., the hockey leagues, student artists, the Juneau People for Peace and Justice, Juneau Yacht Club, Jeff Brown's creative projects, Juneau Sister Cities Program, etc.

Problem 4: The library director, who is the author and supervisor of the policy, designates herself as the hearing officer for appeals regarding the display space. She states that the city manager would provide the final administrative remedy in the appeal process and that any further appeal would be to "a court of competent jurisdiction."

Creation of an independent citizen Library Advisory Board could help define the parameter of exhibits, hear appeals and could shield the head librarian from critical attack. Both Anchorage and Fairbanks libraries have established such boards. The Friends of the Library should not attempt to serve in this capacity. It has a different, supportive mission and is not independent.

I request the CBJ Assembly give this display case matter its early attention and work with open-minded citizens and staff to create esthetic and lively exhibits in prominently placed locations in all three libraries.

I urge members of the public who care about the democratic principles at issue to join me in contacting our elected representatives. Let's develop a policy worthy of our capital city and its fine libraries.

• Dixie Hood is a licensed marriage and family therapist and citizen activist in Juneau. She is supportive of libraries as a public forum and has mounted display case exhibits at the Downtown library for the League of Women Voters and for PFLAG.

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