By Erica C. Barnett
In public interviews last week, the two candidates for Seattle’s Chief Librarian position outlined their priorities for the library system, described how they would manage controversies over intellectual freedom, and responded to questions about what it means to serve the local community—and whether it’s possible to do so from thousands of miles away.
The first finalist, Tom Fay, has been interim chief librarian since the last permanent library director, Marcellus Turner, left the city in March 2021. The second, Chad Helton, is currently on leave from his job as director of the Hennepin (MN) County Library system. Last year, Helton came under fire for moving from Minnesota to Los Angeles, where he lived before taking the job, and running the library system remotely from his home there. Outcry over Helton’s move eventually prompted the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners to pass a law requiring directors of all departments that directly interact with the public to live in the state.
“As a public good, we have the responsibility for unfettered access, whether we agree with the people that are coming in or we don’t.”—Chief Librarian candidate Chad Helton, referring to SPL’s decision to host a group that advocates against the civil rights of transgender people
Asked about his decision to run the Minnesota library system via video conference, Helton said he was hardly the only county employee who chose to work from home. “It wasn’t this thing that I just woke up one day and decided to move to California,” he told the SPL board. “People just found out about it [after the fact]. The staff wasn’t really aware. That wasn’t communicated greatly. But … I didn’t think it was something that was necessary. And I worked off site the entire time that I was there, so it wasn’t really much of an issue for me.”
Asked why he was drawn to Seattle, in particular, Helton returned to a theme he cited several times in his 90-minute interview: Intellectual freedom, particularly when it comes to allowing unpopular voices to speak. “One of the big things that happened here was [when] there was a feminist group that booked the study room, and, you know, they booked it within their rights,” Helton said, referring to the library’s controversial decision to rent its main auditorium to an group that advocates against the civil rights of transgender people in 2019.
As we reported at the time, the group’s legal work included efforts to ban trans women from restrooms on the grounds that they would sexually assault “real” women.
“The way that the library handled that really made the want to be a part of this organization. Yes, the group that came in, I’m sure it hurt,” he continued. “But understanding that as a public good, we have the responsibility for unfettered access, whether we agree with the people that are coming in or we don’t.”
“If a hate comes through that particularly hates African-Americans, and they follow the process, it is my responsibility to support that group with their First Amendment rights. And that’s what I’ve always wanted to do in this work. That’s the vision that I had for [Hennepin] County, and that’s the vision that I have for SPL.”
Asked about intellectual freedom, Fay told the board it was the library’s “legalistic” responsibility to allow the anti-trans group to use their space, but added that the library could have chosen to be less “hyper neutral” and “say, we are legally obligated to provide this this group, this meeting space, however, the library in no way endorses this particular group. That’s one way to at least state where we’re at on an issue without being so neutral.”
“I am not a fan of [requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination.] We know how much difficulty we’ve had just enforcing masks. … It would create other points of conflict, either with staff or security, as we work through and try to sort that out with a patron who just does not want to do it.”—Seattle Chief Librarian candidate Tom Fay
Helton seemed unfamiliar with some aspects of Seattle’s library system operates, and stumbled on certain questions. For example, when asked what he has done to support the development of library services for Indigenous people, Helton noted that other Hennepin County agencies, though not yet the library, do land acknowledgements at meetings; critics argue that these acknowledgements amount to empty gestures that do more harm than good. He also spoke passionately about his efforts to keep LAPD officers inside libraries, arguing that without police on hand, gang activity in certain library branches might have made those branches impossible for the public to access—an argument that isn’t directly relevant to Seattle, which uses private security, not police, inside library branches.
Both candidates agreed that “customer”—a word that has become ubiquitous to describe people who use public services and spaces, like buses, libraries, and parks—is a lousy word to describe people who use the public library. And both said they would not support requiring proof of vaccination for people to enter public libraries—Fay somewhat more emphatically than Helton. “I am not a fan of that,” he said. “We know how much difficulty we’ve had just enforcing masks. … It would create other points of conflict, either with staff or security, as we work through and try to sort that out with a patron who just does not want to do it.”
The library board will announce its decision late this month or in early March. To watch both interviews or submit comments, go to the library’s website.