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A scholarly communications librarian at New York University set off an uncomfortable debate among fellow librarians about the racial views and values of the American Library Association after sharing that she was verbally attacked by a white colleague at an ALA meeting this week. 

What's more, the librarian, April Hathcock, said a formal complaint she made to the organization was met with intimidation by the ALA’s legal counsel, who told her to keep quiet.

On Twitter, many librarians expressed outrage at the ALA’s treatment of Hathcock, one of few black women in a profession that is overwhelmingly white.

And some called for the organization, which says on its website that equality, diversity and inclusion are “fundamental values of the association,” to take a deep look at its culture and policies with regard to diversity.

The ALA has since apologized to Hathcock.

“It seems I will never be able to attend an American Library Association meeting without encountering some kind of racist, sexist trauma,” Hathcock wrote in a blog post on Wednesday. “ALA just isn’t a safe space in our profession for me. And I’m not the only one.”

Hathcock, who did not respond to requests for comment, wrote that she was confronted by a fellow ALA council member during a small, informal discussion at the ALA’s midwinter meeting in Seattle earlier this week. This council member, a white man whom Hathcock chose not to name, “verbally attacked me,” she said.

“He accused me of being a hypocrite, for doxxing people and making ‘racial innuendos’ on my blog. He accused me of being uncivil and unprofessional (yes, he accused me of this in a tirade in a public forum amongst our colleagues). Then, he ended by claiming that I gave him ‘nightmares.’”

About 30 people were in the meeting, including prominent members of the library profession, but “no one said a thing,” Hathcock wrote. “I ran to my room to curl into a ball and cry in terror. At some point, I realized I needed to report the incident and get it through official channels.”

Hathcock wrote in her blog post that she received a phone call at her hotel room the day after the incident occurred. It was an ALA representative named Paula asking if they could meet to discuss the incident.

“I gladly agreed, impressed that things were being handled so swiftly,” Hathcock wrote. “Boy, was I naïve and wrong.”

According to Hathcock, Paula was, in fact, ALA’s legal counsel, and she was there to warn Hathcock against posting about the incident on social media, as she might be held liable if anything happened to the man who confronted her. ALA president-elect Wanda Brown also joined the meeting.

“As a lawyer I knew full well what they were trying to do. I made it clear in no uncertain terms that I would not be intimidated into silence,” Hathcock said in the blog post.

In a subsequent conference session, Loida Garcia-Febo, ALA president, briefly acknowledged what had happened. Hathcock said the session could have been an opportunity to talk about systemic racism in the organization, but what followed was “about 15 minutes of gaslighting and victim-blaming that left me paralyzed in my seat.”

Some people who had witnessed the exchange between Hathcock and the other council member said they had not spoken up because they didn’t know the history between the pair.

“I don’t see how any of that mattered,” said Hathcock. “I barely know this person. But even if there were history, there was no excuse for that behavior and others’ complicit silence.”

In a statement published yesterday, the ALA executive board said that the organization does not accept “harassment, bullying or discrimination of any kind.”

“We established a code of conduct because we take the responsibility of being respectful to each other very seriously,” the statement says. “We send our sincere apologies to Councilor April Hathcock for what she went through at Council Forum, which is unacceptable and doesn’t align with our core values.”

The executive board also addressed the meeting between Hathcock and the ALA’s legal counsel, saying they met with Hathcock to "share some nonpublic information about events after the incident in question." The board added it was "not the intent of the attorney or ALA to threaten Ms. Hathcock in any way." 

The statement said the ALA will be reviewing its current code of conduct for complaint processes and forming a working group to find ways to make council meetings “a safer space.”

The councilor who said Hathcock gave him “nightmares” has resigned, the ALA said. Transcripts of the meeting have not been made public, and Inside Higher Ed was not able to reach anyone who would confirm what was said in the meeting, nor whether they perceived what was said to be racist. One council member, Chris Corrigan, announced on the ALA Listserv this week that he would be resigning, but he did not state why. Corrigan did not respond to requests for comment, but several commenters on social media alleged that he was the person who confronted Hathcock.

Anita Kinney, an ALA member who was not at the meeting, said via email that she has known Corrigan for several years and worked with him in his capacity as an ALA councilor. She said Corrigan is widely respected among his peers and is categorically not a racist. 

Kinney said few people are willing to come forward to defend Corrigan because they are afraid of the backlash on Twitter from Hathcock’s followers.

“The people who want to stand up for Chris are unable to do so for fear of professional repercussions,” she said. “If I were employed as a librarian, I doubt I’d be speaking up. The fear of becoming a target for cyberbullies has silenced more witnesses than we will ever know.”

ALA Council Forums are informal gatherings, and “their lack of structure is a known issue,” said Kinney. “It is disquieting that Chris is being singled out when conflicts like this have been happening at Forum for years,” she said. She noted that people judging Corrigan may not be in possession of all the facts.  

Though she is “sorry to see how this situation has unfolded, I am glad people are finally taking an interest in enforcing the code of conduct at these events.”

Meredith Farkas, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries-Oregon, said she was very concerned about how the ALA handled Hathcock’s complaint.

“When you hear the first thing they did in response to the complaint was try to silence someone from talking about it on social media, you have to wonder if they’re acting in good faith,” Farkas said.

She said inappropriate conduct has “always been going on” at the ALA and other academic meetings, “but now people are reporting it on social media.” Earlier this year, for example, a meeting of classicists in San Diego was derailed by racist comments -- a major setback for a field that is trying hard to become more inclusive.

Farkas was not present at the meeting, but said she hoped those who were there “now feel tremendous guilt” for not speaking up to defend Hathcock.

“Some people say it wasn’t an attack,” said Farkas, but she believes Hathcock is telling the truth.

Brown, ALA president-elect, said in an interview that Hathcock’s experience was not representative of the organization as a whole. The ALA is "totally committed to equal treatment, equal respect and is making strides towards becoming more inclusive."

Karim Boughida, dean of libraries at the University of Rhode Island, disagreed.

“It is representative,” he said. “ALA leaders need to take a stand.”

The ALA has failed for years to address systemic racism and will lose members in the future as a result, said Boughida. “Our field is so white, and though we’ve been talking about diversity and inclusion for 40 years, no one really wants to deal with it.”

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