Local Government Magazine
LG Magazine

Hold the line, we know what we are doing

Louise LaHatte, chair of The Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa’s (LIANZA) Freedom for Information standing committee, says libraries defend a person’s right to read and access reliable information. Local government’s role is not to hide or withhold access to challenging ideas but to present them in their proper context, and in such a way that provides the reader the tools to examine and critique them.

You may have heard about the recent situation at Cumberland City Council in Sydney and read about this in the June issue of this magazine, where Cumberland City councillors voted to “take immediate action to rid same-sex parents’ books/materials in the council’s library service.” Thankfully, the decision was reversed at a follow-up meeting on May 15.

Closer to home, at least one local government representative followed Brian Tamaki’s lead to protest against Rainbow Storytimes, citing its ‘appropriateness’ for children.

Libraries in Rotorua and Hastings cancelled events due to safety concerns back in March, while the Gisborne Library experienced a heated protest with protesters waving signs and chanting against what they called the “sexualisation of children”.

There have also been spiralling protests and book challenges in the USA, attempts to defund libraries that resist censorship and fire librarians who refuse to remove challenged content.

Libraries advocate for the freedom to read and freedom of access to information.

Here, in New Zealand, there have been increasing challenges to library content and activities on topics including sex education and Rainbow Storytimes. The context of book challenges differs here from that of the US, but we must still be prepared for it.

These situations of disinformation are on the rise, say New Zealand’s Disinformation Project, which says it has seen a clear rise in LGBTQ events becoming the target of New Zealand’s disinformation networks. The Rainbow Storytime nationwide tour planned for Pride Month was cancelled due to threats of violence. Rainbow Storytime founder Sunita Torrance, who performs as CoCo, told RNZ she and co-performer Erika had received death threats and threats of attack.

“This is especially true of diversity and inclusion initiatives from local councils or any LGBTQ events for young people or rainbow families,” says Nicole Skews-Poole, the Disinformation Project Director of Communications.

Nicole notes that online hatred towards LGBTQ communities, especially trans and non-binary people, has been growing here over the past two years.

“Just under a year ago, The Disinformation Project published a snapshot report which outlined the growth of transphobia in disinformation networks,” she says.

“We have a serious issue when libraries don’t feel safe to showcase and celebrate local diversity because groups of people have come to believe false and harmful ideas about other members of their communities.”

How do we combat this type of disinformation that is silencing our communities?

Local government representatives have a role to play. They can provide leadership and support for their libraries. We saw many examples of positive leadership around rainbow Storytime events in March. But these challenges are not going to stop, and libraries and local government need to be prepared for future challenges.

Standing strong and providing clear messaging that the targeting and the language used by these campaigns is unacceptable is one step. As is supporting libraries and frontline staff who are trained professionals with a goal to manage access to information and support their communities.

The legislated purpose of local government is in promoting the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities. The act also says when making a decision, a local authority should take account of the diversity of the community and the community’s interests within its district or region; the interests of future as well as current communities; and the likely impact of any decision on each aspect of well-being.

Elected representatives need to understand the distinction between governance and operational decision-making. An interview on Reality Check Radio with a Rotorua Councillor revealed that he believed that he had been elected so he could make decisions such as cancelling rainbow events on behalf of his constituents. Clearly not someone who understands the difference between governance and operational decision-making.

A challenge occurs when a person attempts to impose their views on what they think is right, wrong, or harmful onto others. They are trying to determine what others can access based on their beliefs. The opposite of this is accepting and tolerating ideas that we find different from our own.

These are the core principles of freedom of information that libraries stand for. Libraries need a clear process to ensure staff know how to handle challenges while supporting the democratic principles that libraries represent. And elected members need to support those processes for libraries.

 LIANZA recently prepared an online toolkit to help libraries understand the legislation and environment surrounding challenges to books and events.

This toolkit helps libraries prepare for challenges by identifying the policies and processes libraries should have. It includes printable quick guides for public library managers, collections librarians, school librarians, front-of-line staff, and call centre staff. You can find it here: www.lianza.org.nz/resources/freedom-to-read.

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