Loving Your Library

I’ll bet most of us have warm memories of the local library.  I grew up in Dallas, where one of the many library2benefits of the big city was the library system.  The local branch was great, but we also took advantage, on many Saturday mornings, of the main library downtown, easily reachable by bus.  I started going there with my older sister (who knew the right buses to catch, and where), later developing the confidence and know-how to travel by myself.  The library was always part of a downtown trip: I can remember reading about Betsy and Tacy in the deep-silled windows; devouring Greek myths in the dim light of the Majestic theater before the movie started; long bus rides home, lost in a book.

I love public libraries, and always have.  I have some issues with American Library Association, though.

The ALA was chartered in Philadelphia during the centennial year of 1876.  At the time their aim was modest: to enable librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense.”  The organization held firmly to middle-class values: Arthur Bostwick, elected President of the ALA in 1908, proudly stated in his inaugural address that, even though sin-glorifying books might tempt the general public, “[t]hank heaven they do not tempt the librarian.”  For many years, that seemed to be the case, especially in smaller library systems.  My brother-in-law recalled how, when he tried to check out a copy of The African Queen at the age of 12 or so, the librarian peered over her glasses at him: “Phil, do your parents approve of you reading this book?”

As we all know, this is no longer the case, even in small towns.  The anti-censorship proclivities of the ALA can be traced back to 1938, when Nazi book bonfires were burning in Germany and American library patrons were protesting The Grapes of Wrath. (In some cases, Steinbeck’s novel was actually removed from shelves.)  Concerned that protests would lead inexorably to bonfires, Forrest Spaulding, director of the Des Moines Public Library, wrote a list of anti-censorship principles.  These became the “Library Bill of Rights,” (LBOR) adopted by the ALA the following year.  Though less than a page long it’s a formidable document, undergoing five revisions and acquiring its own interpretative adjunct (the Office of Intellectual Freedom) and its own legal arm, the Freedom to Read Foundation.  Most Americans would agree in general with the aim of the LBOR, but in 1967 one little word was added to Article V (A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, background, or views).  That word, inserted between origin and background, was age.

There’s where the “issues” are: the ALA’s long-standing association with youth.  Since the early 1900’s, when the first children’s department was created the New York City, libraries have increased their influence on children and what they read.  The ALA’s Newbery Medal, established in 1921, was the first children’s book award in the world.   Any children’s author would say that librarians are her best friends—the gatekeepers she can’t bypass. 

But the exploding social mores of the sixties and seventies introduced themes of sex, suicide, and substance abuse to the juvenile stacks.  Parents—a least a few parents–suited up for action.  But they ran smack into Article V and a very determined library association.  The LBOR has no power of law, but it’s backed with considerable intellectual muscle and a power of conviction that can be very intimidating.    

library3For example, the expansion of computer access in public libraries led to the Children’s Internet Protection Act, signed into law by President Clinton in December 2000.  CIPA requires schools and public libraries receiving government funds to block objectionable internet sites, including pornography, on their public-use computers.  When the ALA, in partnership with the ACLU, challenged CIPA, their case went all the way to the Supreme Court.  In 2003 the court’s decision upheld the constitutionality of the law—score one for our side.  But the decision left this loophole: blocking software can be disabled at any time upon an adult patron’s request, thus turning libraries into providers of porn.  Depending on where computers are situated in the library, a patron’s viewing tastes might easily be sampled by anybody of any age passing by, as several court challenges to this “over the shoulder” viewing can testify.  All in the name of intellectual freedom.

The best-seller status of Fifty Shades of Grey bumped “intellectual freedom” to a new level.  Almost no one denies that this three-volume series about a sadomasochistic affair is anything but soft-core porn, of the sort that public libraries have traditionally shunned.  But as sales figures zoomed into the stratosphere, libraries gained notoriety for not shelving the books.  When the Brevard County, Florida, library system removed its copies, the National Coalition against Censorship (which includes the ALA) went into action with a strongly worded letter to the Brevard County Library Board.  Strong words had their effect, and Fifty Shades returned to the shelves.  In Maryland’s Harford County, the director’s decision not to purchase the trilogy stirred a firestorm of criticism on library websites, but she stood her ground—to a point.  You can’t check out Fifty Shades in print form from Hartford County, but the electronic version is available.  Given that the phenomenal success of the series is partly due to readers (of any age) quietly downloading it to their Kindles and Nooks, this seems like less of a courageous stand.

Wait a minute—you might be thinking.  If my sixth-grade daughter takes a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey up to the circulation desk, will they check it out to her?  I asked that question at my own local library.  Bear in mind, I live near a city famous for “a church on every corner”; the headquarters of a very large denomination and home to at least three Christian Colleges.  Community standards would seem to preclude the library even owning a copy of Fifty Shades, but at this moment they own 31 copies (in every possible format), with 192 patrons waiting on the reserve list.  If a savvy sixth-grader put her card number on the list, the clerk at the circulation desk would check it out to her as soon as it was available.  What about at the smaller public library in the neighboring county, home to a well-known Baptist university?  Their answer was the same: “We leave it up to the parents to monitor their children.”  Even though, if the clerk knew the child’s family, she might mention that this was not appropriate reading material.  When the LBOR says no patron will be denied access to material on the basis of age, they’re not kidding.  

So what’s a parent to do?  Community efforts to get materials removed from the local library almost always fail.  If an individual parent were to make a complaint about a particular book, she would be handed a form: “Request for Reconsideration of Library Materials.”  Besides identifying the objectionable materials and specifying her concerns, the form asks, “Can you suggest other material to take its place?”  (That question seems beside the point, and according to Dan Kleinman of SafeLibraries.org, it is: “It makes the process personal—puts you [the patron] on the spot, makes you look like an idiot.”)

What happens after she turns in the form?  I asked the Collection Services Manager for the library I use.  She said the staff reviews all requests and recommends one of three actions: 1) removing the item, 2) moving it to a different location, or 3) retaining it.  Number 3 is by far the most common.  Occasionally an item is moved—from the children’s to young adults’ section, for example.  But almost never is it removed.  Again, the ALA is ready and armed: “Strategies and Tips for Dealing with Challenges,” a handbook on their website, walks the librarian through every step of a potential challenge, including proper demeanor, standard deflections, and talking points for the media.

Why not tag books with a content label, like the MPAA rating for movies?  The ALA’s “Statement on Labeling” claims that would be “an attempt to prejudice attitudes and as such, it is a censor’s tool.”  The Statement also takes on groups or individuals who offer to set criteria for evaluating content: “[I]njustice and ignorance rather than justice and enlightenment result from such practices, and the American Library Association opposes the establishment of such criteria.”

At this point, concerned parents are likely to throw up their hands in dismay.  What can they do?   First of all, we can appreciate what we have: the public library is still a priceless community resource.  The ALA is a liberal organization, but it’s a voluntary organization—not all librarians are members, and not all are unduly influenced.  Says Pamela Palmer, an assistant branch manager in Franklin County, Virginia: “Because I’m in a very small library and function so autonomously, speaking my mind about matters of taste and morality or politics just isn’t an issue.”  If the local librarian where you live shares your tastes and concerns—and many do—be thankful for them.

And where Christians are unable to remove objectionable material, they still have a say when it library1comes to adding books–even in larger systems, where the main branch does all the ordering.  The Collections Manager at my library says she acquires about 95% of materials requested by patrons.  In more liberal areas that might not be the case, but a friend of mine says, with a smile, that when she requests books she can always find some reason why her request promotes diversity or serves some other PC end.

Our own Betsy Farquhar recommends “positive library activism”: “There’s a heavy emphasis these days on the user and the user community.  The homeschool community is talked about fairly respectfully in some circles because they tend to be heavy users.”  Besides requesting books, Betsy repeatedly checks out wholesome titles to bump up their status in library records: books that circulate remain in the collection, even if they’re anything but PC. 

Public libraries need funding, and they justify funding by usage.  Building rapport with the local librarians, suggesting positive additions to the collection, and supporting worthwhile material are all godly strategies to tug the local library in a more family-friendly direction.  In many ways, it’s still a loveable place.

For more library resources, check out Emily’s post from yesterday and follow the links.

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Betsy on April 16, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Well done, Janie! I like the way you did this post. 🙂

  2. Connie on April 17, 2013 at 9:48 am

    It comes down to this: no one cares about our kids moral development as parents do. Or, maybe I should say, no one cares if our kids develop Christ-like character, except parents. Nudging that character along is hard work. We read everything our kids read if we’re not familiar with it.

    Sadly, I still remember a gret deal of the sludge that that I waded through in the library growing up, as my parents simply did not understand the dangers that were arising at the time.

    However, I still love libraries, and a trip to the library is an enjoyable family outing for us, even if we come home with books that we’ve already read

    Our library system is very amenable to patron suggestions on ordering and has bought copies of books we’ve suggested. I need to make a list from Reedemed Reader!!

  3. Janie Cheaney on April 17, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Connie: that’s the spirit! We’re trying to make our site easier to navigate for finding good books. Stay tuned . . . .

  4. Eileen Spinelli on May 3, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Hello dear Janie,
    I haven’t been able to find a way to contact you
    except through comments…but I did so want to
    thank you for your kind review of my book: Jonah’s Whale.
    I just received the page from my publisher.
    And I’ve got the biggest smile!
    All happy wishes,
    Eileen Spinelli

  5. Alice on April 6, 2023 at 6:42 pm

    Yes, I request books from your site and our city library usually purchase them. Great to increase the Christian content in the library. They just bought the Wilderking series for us. I’m in our local library at least once a week so know the librarians. I spoke to them during the awful period where 12 years and overs had to have a covid vaccine pass to enter. Our tiny one room library had a full time security guard. I said it’s a sad world when we need a security guard to keep the teenagers out of the library.

    • Janie Cheaney on April 7, 2023 at 6:21 am

      That sounds like a super-extreme policy! I hope that’s over, and you are wise to cultivate a relationship with the local librarians. It makes all the difference.

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