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Rural library reckons with racial tensions

Black Lives Matter supporters, who were protesting the Douglas County Sheriff, after he made a controversial statement in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, were surrounded and met with hostility from counter-protesters who showed up in support of law enforcement in Minden on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. (Lucia Starbuck/Report for America/KUNR Public Radio)

For almost six years, Douglas County Library Director Amy Dodson has worked with staff to improve access to information and library services. Most of her day revolves around conducting outreach and ensuring that people in her rural community can use the internet and check out books or other media.

So, when Dodson and her staff drafted a diversity statement containing the phrase "Black Lives Matter" amid a series of massive nationwide protests against police violence following the death of George Floyd, she said she could never have imagined the firestorm that followed. 

The draft statement drew the county sheriff's ire and a letter telling the library not to bother calling 9-1-1 for help, making national headlines and sparking a protest that attracted thousands of counter-protesters

Along with the heightened media attention, hundreds of vitriolic responses via emails and public comments poured into the library, spurring the board of trustees to initiate an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 investigation of Dodson and other library staff at a time when the library is already facing a budget crisis. 

"It was a big shock that it has blown up to this degree and I was caught in this at all," Dodson told The Nevada Independent in an interview on Monday. "I'm not backing down and I'm still going to defend myself and my staff and the library, but yeah, it did blow me away."

Dodson hoped the diversity statement could be the start of a conversation with patrons who are often unrecognized, unheard and underrepresented — especially in a county that is about 80 percent white and named after Stephen A. Douglas, a former U.S. senator from Illinois who campaigned against Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election and ardently defended the idea of Black racial inferiority.

Instead, the statement launched the library into a controversy highlighting the tension that exists when a library's role as an inclusive marketplace of ideas clashes with members of the community that funds it.

One of the most frustrating pieces of the public response and investigation for Dodson is that some assumed she wrote the statement as part of an agenda, which she said could not be further from the truth.

"When I do something at work, whether it's write a statement, make a decision, or what have you, it's based on what's best for the library and what's best for the community … it has absolutely nothing to do with what I think or believe," Dodson said. "We don't censor, we don't serve as some kind of moral authority or anything like that."

‘Tap dancing in a minefield’

Most libraries operate with annual budgets based on city or county allocations. As publicly funded institutions central to information dissemination, libraries must serve as a nonpartisan space for all individuals, said Tod Colegrove, president-elect of the Nevada Library Association.

Colegrove described libraries as "third spaces," where individuals can readily access different opinions and information, even if they disagree with those opinions. For example, even though some groups may believe a book should be banned, libraries will still carry that book because of a commitment to a free market of ideas.

"If the library is seen as a partisan, then I've alienated at least part of, if not half of, the base that is otherwise still paying taxes for the use of the library," Colegrove said.

To ensure nonpartisanship, librarians and libraries follow a code of ethics that emphasizes the importance of intellectual freedom, access to information and the need to set private interests aside to serve all patrons equitably.

In the wake of a movement raising awareness of police violence and discrimination against Black communities, numerous public libraries issued statements addressing systemic racism, including the Nevada Library Association. Colegrove said the statements stem from one of the American Library Association's key commitments and guiding principles: equitable opportunities and outcomes for all individuals.

Part of the controversy surrounding the term “Black lives matter” is that there are different understandings of the phrase as a slogan, a grassroots movement or a formal organization. Some view the phrase as calling attention to Black lives that have been historically disenfranchised, discriminated against and overlooked, whereas others may use it to refer to a specific network by that name or a fluid movement marked by protests. 

Similar to the Douglas County proposal, many libraries' statements feature the phrase “Black lives matter,” which an independent federal office determined is non-partisan. The American Library Association defines Black Lives Matter as a movement dedicated to eradicating white supremacy and "combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy."

Still, critics of the library statement accused Dodson of advancing a personal agenda and taking a political stance.

Douglas County Sheriff Dan Coverley voiced his displeasure with the statement in a letter he published on the county sheriff’s website equating support of Black Lives Matter with support of violence against law enforcement. He added that he would not respond to any calls for help from the library because of the statement — a stance he later walked back.

Douglas County Sheriff Dan Coverley, at his press conference, addressing the statement he made against the Black Lives Matter movement before a protest against him was slated to start, in Minden, Nevada, on Saturday, August 8, 2020 (Lucia Starbuck / Report for America / KUNR Public Radio)

“Numerous Black Lives Matter protests have resulted in violence, property damage and the closing of local businesses, sometimes permanently. To support this movement is to support violence and to openly ask for it to happen in Douglas County,” Coverley wrote. 

In one of the hundreds of comments the library received from the public, a woman named Linda Miller called on library officials to give her examples of incidents that occurred at the public library that exhibited discrimination.

“I don’t feel it’s necessary to do this in Douglas County,” she said during a public meeting on Aug. 25, asserting that Black Lives Matter was a Marxist organization.

Though the community's responses were initially harsh, Dodson noted that the library serves about 49,000 patrons, and most of the criticism came from about 200-300 public comments. Since the initial onslaught of responses, however, Dodson said she has been grateful to receive messages of support from various residents as well.

Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford, who is Black and the state’s top law enforcement officer, said at the library board meeting that “Black lives matter” is an “unremarkable proposition,” and that supporting Black Lives Matter and supporting law enforcement are not mutually exclusive.

“I believe as do many of my fellow elected officials and many members of law enforcement that Black lives do indeed matter, you don't have to belong to an organization or even support it for you to believe that Black lives matter and to pronounce it as frequently as you like,” Ford said.

In response to Coverley’s letter, local activists organized a protest on Aug. 8 questioning how the police department was serving Black citizens if the sheriff could refuse to protect the library for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

About 50 protesters showed up in Douglas County and up to a thousand counter-protesters stood against them, carrying signs and voicing support for local law enforcement, KUNR reported, adding that armed counter-protesters accosted Black Lives Matter supporters and demanded protesters leave. 

Some of the anger toward the library could be attributed to a lack of understanding surrounding the meaning of Black Lives Matter, Colegrove posited. Libraries have an obligation to implement policy to increase inclusiveness.

But regardless of the intention behind stating “Black Lives Matter,” the library is "tap dancing in a minefield" because if people are outraged, they might call for library defunding, he said.

Coverley did not respond to multiple voice messages left at his office requesting interviews and clarification on his stance on Black Lives Matter.

Counter-protesters at the Black Lives Matter demonstration to protest the Douglas County Sheriff after he made a controversial statement in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, in Minden, Nevada, on Saturday, August 8, 2020 (Lucia Starbuck / Report for America / KUNR Public Radio)

Addressing criticisms

The catch-22 for the Douglas County Library came to a head at a board meeting on Aug. 25, when library trustees voted 3-2 to investigate the decision-making surrounding the draft statement.

The county and library will split the estimated $20,000 to $30,000 cost of the examination that the county human resources office will oversee. Trustees in favor of investigation cited the community's anger and loss of trust in the library system as necessitating an independent review by a neutral third party.

County officials emphasized that the investigation would be a fact-finding review conducted by a third-party to produce a report evaluating communication effectiveness, leadership and other matters related to library operations and the diversity statement.

“I think it shows ... that the library has taken this seriously on each side, we're objective about it, but that we have an objective report that we can supply to the county,” Board Chairwoman Bonnie Rogers said. “And they won't say, ‘Well, you didn't do anything.’” 

Board Trustee Lisa Foley questioned the need for the investigation because the information in question is already available to the public. She added that the investigation cost would be detrimental to the library system, especially when the library is already navigating a budget crisis because of the ongoing pandemic.

Kate Garrahan, another trustee who voted in favor of the investigation, said keeping the library open in the future was of the utmost importance.

“Right now we're being accused of having no integrity and being very biased,” Garrahan said. “We have to get to the bottom of this matter as clearly and as unbiased as possible and move forward because preserving the library and its reputation is the goal.”

In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Foley explained that if Dodson made a mistake, it may have been that she overrode due process by not sharing the proposed statement with the board before adding it to the public agenda. 

Still, she did not believe a due-process violation necessitated a full investigation — and resigned after the board's vote.

"I think it's leading nowhere. I don't see a significant policy that was broken in posting something that I think was fired by a desire to be inclusive," Foley said. "I don't at all think that they should be investigated for being forward-thinking."

Foley said she resigned to take a stance against a free-speech issue and an investigation she views as a "fear-based" decision.

"I think that there was a very strong reaction in the community to the fact that the library was taking what they called a ‘controversial stance,’" Foley said. "It's not a controversial statement, but in any case they do hesitate to get into controversy and they prefer that an outsider could say what was right and what was wrong here so that they didn't have to take a stance."

The ALA, NLA and United for Libraries released a joint statement supporting, "without reservation," Dodson and the Douglas County Library staff's efforts to implement changes establishing a more welcoming and inclusive community.

Trustees Garrahan and Mark Jensen declined an interview with The Nevada Independent, saying that comments on matters related to the library are available during the board meeting. Rogers did not respond to an emailed request sent through the library and the county public information office.

The county did not respond to further questions asking for more clarity on the scope of the investigation.

Jerome Silas talks to Black Lives Matter supporters, counter-protesters and members of the media at the protest against the Douglas County Sheriff, who made a controversial statement in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, in Minden, Nevada, on Saturday, August 8, 2020 (Lucia Starbuck / Report for America / KUNR Public Radio)

Libraries are no stranger to conflict

Libraries as the touchstones for social movements are nothing new. 

Though most libraries followed segregation laws during Jim Crow, some librarians at segregated libraries spoke out, resigned as a sign of protest or covertly helped non-white people access resources

People demonstrated at libraries with sit-ins, demanding equal access to the spaces and resources available to white patrons. 

"This isn't a brand new idea that libraries are looking to be inclusive and make sure that societies are honoring equality for all people," Foley said.

The recent library controversy comes in a community with a history of discriminatory practices.

Like many other municipalities in the U.S., Douglas County used to have a “sundown ordinance” that was enacted in 1917 and repealed in 1974. The ordinance required indigenous people and non-whites to leave the town limits of Gardnerville and Minden by 6 p.m. each day — a time signaled with a siren that, though halted Sept., 2006, resumed ringing about two months later and has been criticized as a relic of racist practices. 

Tribal leaders in the area have advocated for the removal of the siren for decades to no avail, and a Change.org petition launched this summer has more than 10,000 signatures calling for the county to cease the siren. 

In 2013, the county gained attention when Republican Jim Wheeler, then a freshman assemblyman representing the county as part of his district, said he would vote to allow slavery if his constituents wanted him to do so. He later clarified he was making a point about being elected to represent his constituents’ needs. 

Though the protests and investigation surrounding the Douglas County Library is less than ideal, Colegrove said, it makes sense that a library is a focal point for some of the events occurring at a national scale. 

"I think things like this seem bad because we thought this was all a solved problem, but it's really just a matter of uncovering and growing pains," Colegrove said. “If it were not for the library director and staff with the full support of its library board, trying to move in that direction, would this conversation be happening in Douglas County today?"

Dodson said she has been communicating with other librarians across the state and the country who are having similar conversations.

"I think it's important to shine the light on racism, even when it's not blatant or overt," Dodson said. "We're centers of our communities. We're all about knowledge and learning and personal progress, and so I think it does make a lot of sense that this is happening in this forum. I just wish it wasn't so angry."

Growing pains

As the Douglas County Library grapples with the next few months and the upcoming investigation, Dodson said that her main fears include the forthcoming investigation's costs and the stress on her staff. Plans to develop programming might have to be set aside, she said.

Foley shared Dodson's worries and added that she has been thinking about minorities who might feel intimidated and hopes the public's response does not stop others from speaking out or taking necessary action.

"I hope that people don't give up hope. That they are courageous, that people who are in positions of leadership or in positions of privilege can, if nobody else does, I think it’s on their shoulders to be leaders and like the library potentially could be to stick up for those who might be frightened."

Dodson says she’s been heartened by messages of support, one of the most moving of which came from a longtime resident who identifies as Republican but told her that he fully backs the library. 

"That meant a lot to me, not that their political party is an issue at all, but it's nice to hear that someone who considers themselves conservative still thinks that we were on the right path," Dodson said.

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