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.
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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.” Continue reading “Library Finalists Discuss Security, Vaccine Requirements, TERFs, and More”