Evanston’s Public Library endured an unwarranted and unnecessary attack recently, one that painted the library as well as the City in a bad light, thanks to the brutal, swift judgment of social media and activist groups. The incident, truly a non-issue blown out of proportion by a combination of misrepresentation and clumsy handling, serves as a lesson. Changes, positive changes one hopes, will result, and the community can be better and stronger for it.
Here’s what happened: The Library scheduled author Ali Abunimah to read from his work, “The Battle for Justice in Palestine,” on Aug. 11 (having been rescheduled from Aug. 4 for unclear reasons). Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons, the very person who approved the reading in the first place, felt that the reading should be part of a larger discussion about the complicated Palestine-Israel issue. Additional events placing Mr. Abunimah’s reading in historical and political context, it was felt, would give the reading greater impact and allow for more thorough and nuanced discussions.
Next came the clumsiness. A Library employee allegedly wrote Mr. Abunimah an email on Aug. 1 saying in part, according to Mr. Abunimah’s blog: “Today [Director Lyons] told me that since I have not yet confirmed a pro Israel speaker she want[s] us to cancel your appearance on the 11th…. I had no idea the program would be cancelled if I didn’t confirm an Israeli speaker before the 11th…”
When such incendiary terms as “pro-Israel” and “canceled” landed at his feet, the author, said Library Board member Diane Allen, “saw the opportunity to use this to his advantage, which he did.” Social media lit up – library and activist message boards castigated the Library. The timing, on a Friday and a Saturday in mid-summer vacation season, limited the Library’s ability to deal with this issue immediately. By the following Monday, Aug. 4, a press conference was scheduled on the Library steps at which Neighbors for Peace, the group sponsoring Mr. Abunimah’s talk, accused the library of censorship and participation in the “Palestinian taboo” – the idea that speech about the plight of Palestinians is suppressed repeatedly.
The Library denies all of this. “All I ever said – other than ‘yes’ – to Neighbors for Peace [is that] we would like to bring in additional credible voices who have something to add to the discussion,” said Ms. Lyons. Asked if she insisted on a pro-Israel viewpoint or an Israeli speaker, Ms. Lyons was unequivocal. “That’s completely false,” she said. “There’s not a shred of truth to that… Evanston Public Library is a place where we should be able to come together and share differing views.”
After all, the Library scheduled Mr. Abunimah’s reading in the first place and never “canceled” it. Having watched Mr. Abunimah’s reading, which took place as scheduled on Aug. 11 and is now available for all to see on the Library’s website, it is clear that a larger program, providing context, history and an academic perspective, would have heightened the impact of Mr. Abunimah’s words and not “censored” them. Context allows for dialogue, debate, access to more information, and informed analysis of a complex issue. A single voice such as Mr. Abunimah’s, valuable when placed next to other views and historic perspectives, loses much of its power in a vacuum. Rescheduling would have allowed a more comprehensive debate.
Neighbors for Peace and Mr. Abunimah, rather than welcoming the opportunity to expand their audience and bring in more speakers, chose instead to attack. Some blog posts actually accused Ms. Lyons of participating in the current Gaza massacre. There seemed no end to the vitriol, even after it was revealed that the event, never canceled, would indeed proceed as planned on Aug. 11.
All of the uproar ignored all of the good things the Library has done and continues to do for the community. As was evident at the Library Board’s meeting on Aug. 20, the Library continues to serve as a modern “public square.”
A deeply moving series of recent conversations on youth violence based on the book “How Long Will I Cry?” engaged the community and gave an outlet for a grieving population to share and learn. Michael Rice, grandfather of slain youth Dajae Coleman, appeared at the Board’s Aug. 20 meeting to personally thank them for the programming, and for “being a partner with the family” and for “doing their part.”
The National Able Network also presented its success stories to the Library Board. Located on the third floor of the Library, NAN offers job counseling, resume critiques, computer training and other resources for job seekers. According to the presentation, the average age of those helped is 50, 40% of whom do not know how to use a computer and 70% of whom are female. NAN is able to help people get real, lasting jobs through grammar, cover letter and keyboard workshops in addition to resume and interviewing assistance. “It’s exciting work, fun work and it’s extremely satisfying,” said the presenter.
Director Lyons has called the program a “wonderful partnership, a wonderful synergy.”
Last year, the Library hosted the Muslim Journeys series, exploring the Muslim faith over coordinated events spanning the year. Muslim Journeys II picks up this year where the first series left off. Programming truly presents different voices and encourages community education and debate.
Library Board President Michael Tannen refused to use the Aug. 20 Board meeting to dwell on the Abunimah event other than to express the board’s unfaltering support for Director Lyons and to praise the staff’s handling of the event itself. The others on the Board, without exception, agreed with many offering thanks and praise of their own.
“We have an amazing staff,” said Ms. Lyons.
Some of the bitter taste caused by the brief controversy remains, however. Charges of censorship are never easy to combat. “It’s clear to me,” said Mr. Tannen, “that there was no censorship or suppression of speech at all…” Accusing a library director of censorship is akin to accusing a physician of ignoring the Hippocratic Oath, or a lawyer of ethics violations, he said. But once a censorship accusation is leveled, it cannot be easily dispelled.
Some outsiders who hear the word Evanston will now remember us as the community that censored a Palestinian writer. While this is neither fair nor right, it reflects the nature of our blogger culture these days. Facts matter less than perception. Ms. Lyons said the incident “certainly demonstrates that no matter the form of communication, it is important to confirm the source,” something the Library teaches all researchers who use its facilities.
It is clear that the Library has learned a valuable lesson about email and other electronic communications. “We are going to look internally at how we communicate, who communicates and what the communication says,” said Ms. Lyons. When a communication goes out will undoubtedly get addressed as well.
It is also clear that Evanston should support and be proud of its Public Library, and we should not stand by as outsiders accuse us, unjustly, of censorship or whisper about a conspiracy controlling Library programming. The Library – deep in mourning over the recent loss of a much loved employee to a bike accident, emerging from a long and often painful separation from City government to stand on its own, changing with the electronic revolution times – should not have had to deal with unfounded attacks.
But they did. And by all accounts they handled the brief uproar with grace and skill, bringing off the reading without incident.
We should all be proud of our Public Library. And we should rally around our Library and challenge inaccurate voices that attack it should something like this ever occur again. Evanston has the thriving, growing, nimble “public square” of a Library it deserves, and we as a community need to support and defend it.