EDITORIAL: The public prevails

THE ROELIFF JANSEN Community Library is one of the county’s cultural gems. It’s a place of learning and fun, a performance space, a gateway to explore whatever is on our mind without having to explain why.

Hard to imagine anyone would dislike a library, especially the Roe Jan Community Library. But somebody put a few bullet holes through the front entrance back in 2010. It happened at night a short time after the library building on state Route 22 opened. Nobody was there and the damage was quickly repaired.

The library has not experienced anything like that again. Like other libraries in the county, the Roe Jan Community Library staff and board have worked hard to fulfill the library’s mission of public service to residents of the Towns of Copake, Hillsdale and Ancram. The library thrives.

But library service continues to change along with the overall digital economy. Library users borrow books and non-print items using their phones. Kids know where to find things–good and bad–that adults know nothing about. What should be filtered and when? And with so much digital tech and media–also good and bad–why do we need libraries?

These questions and concerns confront all public libraries. And here, possibly elsewhere too, there are peaceful people who may not believe spending public funds on new library services is a proper role for their library.

In response the American Library Association has developed an administrative “tool” for public library boards and staff that helps them embrace “Turning Outward” toward their communities. It’s a matrix of steps and processes that owes a lot to brainstorming and focus group methods and possibly to 90-day diet plans. The ALA website describes Turning Outward, saying: “It entails taking steps to better understand communities; changing processes and thinking to make conversations more community-focused; being proactive to community issues; and putting community aspirations first.”

The Roe Jan Library staff and board are using “Turning Outward.” But they recently took a little detour when they invited all the members of the Town Boards of Ancram, Copake and Hillsdale to meet with the library for one of the structured conversations that can lead to new library programs that are useful to the community. They hadn’t reckoned with state’s Open Meetings Law.

The stumbling block is that the library planned to talk with the elected town board members privately; the public was not invited. But if three or more members of a town board are present, that’s a quorum and its meetings must be open to the public. Barring the public would be against the law. That’s according to Robert Freeman, executive director of the State Department of State Committee on Open Government.

So instead of inviting all five members of each board, the RJCL has acknowledged the problem and left it up to the boards to determine who should attend the library-town boards session. No quorum/No legal conflict? Maybe. But limiting the number of participants reduces the value of the meeting because there will be fewer viewpoints from the very community leaders whose support might be crucial to the future of the library.

That might be remedied by having some board members attend another of the Turning Outward sessions the library plans. But it’s not the same as having everybody in the same room.

However this gets resolved the library’s new approach has avoided an even bigger problem, because the very notion that a library would exclude the public from observing a library gathering is contrary to the values of openness, inclusion and independence that place public libraries among the essential institutions of a functioning democracy. And it does nothing to advance the goal of “putting community aspirations first.”

The library’s effort to refocus its programs is essential to its survival. And the library board and staff now know a lot more about how self government works in this state. This was a misjudgment remedied and a quick response. The library has the right to claim it as a small victory. The public has a right to know what its public officials are up to. The library has now upheld that right.

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