I always thought the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County was like Switzerland. Accepting yet neutral.
The library system gives shelf space to the Bible and the Koran, Shakespeare and the recently self-published, The New York Times and CityBeat. More specifically, the Main Library downtown is most days home to scholars pursuing theses and the homeless taking a load off, to black urban teens surfing the Internet and trolling for telephone numbers and to white surburban teens plagiarizing English papers.
I know the innards of the Main Library because I worked there for five years, and I was expertly trained to give the same level of service to every person regardless of odor, interest or intellect.
It's all good. Or it was.
The seven-member board of library trustees unanimously decided at the 11th hour to evict last weekend's MTV Rock the Vote activities — including a politically balanced panel discussion — from the Main Library, citing fear that the public would perceive the library as "favoring a political issue," according to spokeswoman Amy Banister. (For more on this story, see All the News That Fits on page 16.)
The library is a "tax-supported public entity," Banister says, that wants to remain non-partisan.
It's an election year, and suddenly every move we make (and don't) revolves around elephants and donkeys. And in a partisan move not seen since Georgie Boy marched us into Iraq, board member Deliaan A. Gettler, a contributor to Republican Party candidates, reportedly raised holy hell after she visited Rock the Vote's Web site.
Though moved to UC's Swift Hall at the last minute, the event succeeded nonetheless because much of the discussion centered around classism rampant in the political process and the subversive tactics of keeping information from disenfranchised, unregistered voters — the ones who most need to vote and whose vote is the most frightening to the current regime.
I sat on a panel comprised of City Councilwoman Laketa Cole, Nathan Ive of WDBZ (1230 AM), former council candidate Todd A. Ward and Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Michael R. Barrett. Although most of the 25 attendees were campaign volunteers from various tables in the vestibule, the folks who found the location showed up angry, armed with copies of protest letters addressed to the library board.
"They went to the national Rock the Vote Web site and saw a piece that said, 'Are you ready to serve?' which was about the draft," said Carmen Hillman, Rock the Vote coordinator for Ohio. "They thought that was partisan and cancelled it at the library after three months of planning, and so here we are preaching to the choir."
Apparently, board members didn't give the event any thought during the three months of planning and waited to dissect it during its last board meeting three days prior and after promotion of the location had saturated the media.
Hillman wondered aloud if she should've cancelled the event altogether. I told her she did the right thing by holding it. Sure, the event's panel discussion could have benefitted from all the foot traffic the Main Library normally gets on a typical Saturday afternoon. And, yep, the library was absolutely the right place to catch all that excess humanity who uses it — the poor, the young and the unaware.
But cancelling signals defeat and political immaturity, a polite scampering away which the "other side" — there, you've forced it out of me — welcomes, is accustomed to and even relishes.
Library administrators should remember this poltical knee-jerking during future political times, like when they'll be earnestly asking for community support to keep their doors open and their staffs at full throttle.
And it'd be a shame if the community didn't respond to those pleas and the board was forced to close branches — probably the ones in poor and mostly black neighborhoods — due to low circulation numbers and all the other reasons they'd cite, heads hanging low. And if that happens, God forbid, the library board will have only itself to thank.
And if, God forbid, by writing this partisan column my Oct. 23 reading and book signing at the Walnut Hills branch is inexplicably cancelled at the last minute, you'll have the board of the Public Library to blame. That'll make the library more like America than Switzerland.
Kathy's collection of columns, Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White, is available in bookstores now.