Those Wonderful Librarians

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I’m recently back from Austin, where I spoke at the annual meeting of the Texas Library Association. My topic was America’s War On Sex, Libraries, & Librarians. I’m pleased to say I was warmly received.

And I sure learned plenty from them—some of it heartening, some of it scary. And some of what they said was sadly familiar. Just a few notes:

* A small number of people can cause a lot of trouble.
In almost every community, some people feel terrified that people—young or otherwise—are being exposed to immoral, inappropriate, unpatriotic, or dangerous material in the library. One might argue that that’s exactly when a library is doing its job, but of course not everyone agrees with that mission statement.

Thirty years ago, educator Sol Gordon said that “it only takes four people to disrupt a school board meeting, and only five to take over a school board.” It turns out the same is true of library boards.

Most librarians reported that without active, vocal boards, their library would be reduced to a half-dozen cookbooks.

* Every library offers the public computers.
And that means dealing with questions of “access”: who can watch? What can people view? How much protection do other patrons need?

Different libraries deal with this “security problem” differently. Some are highly protective of adult patrons’ rights to watch undisturbed. But other librarians told me of security cameras aimed squarely at computer users; to facilitate the photography, one library forbids hats. Some libraries keep records of who looks at what sites, which I’m certain is what libraries and internet cafes in Iran do.

When I asked about the urban legend—thousands of masturbators spending hundreds of hours watching porn on library computers—only two librarians in a room of 200 said they’d seen someone watch porn. And both said it was an old, lonely guy who genuinely hadn’t realized he was being rude.

* Even cataloging books turns out to be a political task.
Should a book about teen life go into “young adult” or “adult”? Some parents and religious leaders fear that certain novels will give kids ideas, so they want them put in the “adult” section, which kids can’t easily access. Some librarians cleverly put books about contemporary teen life in “history,” “sociology,” or other sections to enable young people’s access.

* And the taboo stuff?
These librarians were plenty savvy on dealing with censorship. One talked about keeping certain books with sexual information behind his desk, quietly lending them outside the official system. Another librarian has a collection of gay-themed books that she’s been collecting on her own, which she quietly lends out to people from a dozen small towns that don’t even have libraries.

* How’s book banning going?
Most librarians with whom I spoke wearily acknowledged that books were challenged on a regular basis—“and once in a while, someone has actually read a book that they challenge.”

Since 2001, half the challenges are due to either “sexually explicit” material or “offensive language.” The Color Purple and Catcher in the Rye are among the most banned books each year.

Only a few communities hold actual book burnings, none of them last year in Texas.

* Is reading dangerous?
Inevitably we come back to this question. The biggest fear about Guttenberg’s press was that “too many” people would read. The biggest concern about mass paperback printing in Victorian England was that servants would read and get the “wrong ideas.” And today more than ever there’s concern that kids who read about other kids’ difficulties—physical abuse, alcoholic parents, drug use, rape, exploitative divorcing parents—will somehow want to pursue similar horrible lives.

“Urban fiction” is the new term for these books, and they’re being banned with the ferocity that only self-righteous missionaries can muster.

It’s like withholding Black history books from Blacks, or Jewish history from Jews. Minors are a repressed minority—without the dignity or legitimized outrage of any other such group.

* Of course, it wasn’t work every second of the day.
At dinner one evening, someone ordered peach cobbler. I asked two simple questions—“why cobbler?” and “what makes cobbler different than pie or crisp?”—which had everyone scurrying for their smart phones and iPads in pursuit of historical and etymological treasure. Most librarians LOVE research; one said her job was like playing “Trivial Pursuit” every day.

So: Want to be politically active, but don’t want to run for governor or start a new political party? Get appointed to your local library board. Turns out that’s where a lot of American decisions get made.

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