What Does National Library Week Mean During a Time of Book Bans and Censorship?
National Library Week is a time to appreciate the weighty responsibilities of library staff in the face of book challenges.
Book banning and censorship is an alarming topic in libraryland these days, as well it should be. The American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom publishes a newsletter every Friday compiling headlines on the materials challenges around the United States. Week after week it becomes more and more difficult to stare down the fact that so many of my fellow Americans are spitting in the face of liberty by attempting to impose narrow-minded interpretations of their religion on others. I say others, but it's not actually that abstract. No, they're doing it to us: To me, and to you. These attacks on libraries -- these attempts at book banning -- they're personal to every library user, and they're despicable!
Before we go further, I need to be clear about something: I think book challenges, or requests for reconsideration as some libraries call them, are good. I, and many of my colleagues, believe that libraries are places of community engagement, that they should be in constant conversation with their communities, that our patrons should feel a sense of ownership over their library, and be empowered to help shape the services they offer. After all, public libraries are funded by tax dollars which implies that they exist to serve the common good -- not any one person's good, not the richest person's good, not just my good, not just your good -- they exist for all of us equitably. In that context, when a member of the community exercises their position as an actor in the civic dance by asking the library to reconsider the inclusion of an item in the library collection, while it may seem like just one person waltzing with one library, it is in fact, one person entering a collaborative process with an institution that is, by proxy, representing everyone else in the community -- a much larger boogie than they realize.
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Not every librarian has had a book in their collection challenged, but many have. A few years ago, when I was the manager of a branch library, I was approached by a concerned mother of two school-age kids. The entire family were patrons so I had interacted with them regularly up to that point. There was a book, she said, that she thought shouldn't be shelved in the kids section. It was a graphic novel that contained a panel of a topless mermaid. I listened to her concerns and she showed me the page in question. I thanked her and said I would think about it and let her know what we would do.
Over the next few days, I read the book in full, spoke to several subject matter experts on youth literature, took the matter up my chain of command, read over our collection development policy, and looked at where other libraries shelved the book. I also read reviews and looked up the author and their other books to get a general sense of their target audience. As a point of information, in the paragraph above I wrote "topless mermaid" which is a turn-of-phrase that could imply something sexual. To be clear, this book and the panel in question was not that. Moreover, every library I looked at had it shelved in the kids section -- the book was definitely for kids, not teens or adults. Based on all of the above, I decided that it was shelved in the appropriate section.
When I explained my process and final decision to my patron, she may not have been totally satisfied, but I think she understood. She had approached the library with her concern in good faith, and I had done the due diligence required to make the sensible call. I had reviewed the original decision made by our catalogers (and many others, besides) of shelving that book in the section for school-age kids and agreed with it. I suppose that she could have brushed all of that aside as irrelevant and started a crusade to move that book to another section or remove it altogether, maybe railed about the obscene image her kids were subjected to, spittle flying, at a Board of Supervisors meeting. Perhaps she could have lobbied to get me fired, defund the library, ransack it's collection for other instances of bare nipples. These exact scenes are taking place all over the country, even down to the spittle.
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Even during National Library Week when, according to the American Library Association, we should be "...highlighting the valuable role libraries, librarians, and library workers play in transforming lives and strengthening our communities," there are first amendment deniers out there hollering to rid our libraries of books that reflect people and concepts that exist in the world, things like homosexual love, racism, cuss words, child abuse, and human bodies. They do this with the curious notion that these subjects will cease to exist if books that include them, regardless of context, are removed or censored. Out of sight, out of mind, right? As if putting little stickers over the tiny penises in Maurice Sendak's award-winning picture book In the Night Kitchen would somehow make penises disappear? Would it mean that main character Mickey didn't have one? And what type of person is thinking about that when reading In the Night Kitchen? Certainly not the book's intended audience.
And nudity is not at all the point, really, just as it wasn't in Sendak's book. The point is that these fundamentalists aren't objecting to words and images in our books in good faith, as a collaborative effort between library and community member. Their objections stem from criteria framed by deeply-held personal religious convictions, not common good, which is a problem that goes beyond book banning. The long-held separation of church and state exists for that very reason -- combining the two elevates a specific religion at the expense of all others making it an act that is antithetical to the common good. Truth be told, though, I admire people that have deeply-held religious sense. The religion itself though, regardless of the faith, is like chewing gum; no one wants it directly from anyone else's mouth, especially when you already have a stick of your own.
Library materials, however, are not chewing gum. Their flavor is much more complex. And there are so many of them! Even a small library branch can have thousands of books. Yet, these inquisitors make it seem like a single book's very presence is enough to force people to read it. This ludicrous notion is part of what makes the lists of books some politically-motivated religious organizations bazooka out to their members so offensive. Ironically, a huge number of people who rail about supposedly obscene library materials have not read the books they're protesting. That's like leaving a bunch of emotional one-star Yelp reviews about restaurants you only heard about third-hand, and where you have never eaten.
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Invariably, though, all of this nonsensical hullabaloo becomes about protecting the children. The children!!! What a tragedy it would be if little Sally sees that penguin Tango has two daddies in Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell's And Tango Makes Three and something crazy happens, like she learns that same-sex couples exist (even in the animal world)? Realistically, though, the probability of precocious Sally choosing that single book out of the hundreds or even thousands of other picture books in the library's kids section is miniscule. And what happens if she does and her parents don't want her to read it? Nothing wrong with that, parental discretion is how raising kids is supposed to work, isn't it? Kids books have all sorts of normal subjects that can be viewed as sensitive: Religion, illness, monsters or scary pictures, even death. If a book is not right for your child, simply don't borrow it! When it comes to children's book selection, a parent's responsibility is not that different from what it is at the supermarket: If you don't want your toddler to snatch up a chocolate bar, you watch to make sure they don't. You don't get hysterical trying to force Safeway to remove all the chocolate bars.
Which brings us to my final point on this National Library Week: We, as a society, must respect our library workers as professionals and as people. This is not optional, it is vital and at risk of hyperbole, the existence of our democracy depends on it! What do I mean? Well, I wrote above that when an item is challenged, library staff reconsiders it based on various criteria, acting as a representative of the entire community in deciding its fate. A decision to keep an item in the library collection means that it stays there for everyone's benefit, even if it doesn't benefit every single person. That's how representative government works, too -- we pay taxes and trust other people, presumably with some qualifications on the matter, to craft laws and make decisions on our behalf. This applies to elected officials as well as appointed positions and civil servants, librarians are the latter. It's an imperfect system which is why there's bound to be collaborative processes that exist to build consensus. It's why libraries offer opportunities for book challenges. But when a portion of society try to sidestep the system and bully the people that make decisions on their behalf, they initiate a vicious, unsustainable cycle that ultimately ends in the destruction of the common good -- the system eating itself. Perhaps this seems far removed from your average book burner protesting at a small town library, but it's not -- actions have consequences. Banning books is how it starts…
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