19 September 2007

Raising my Librarian Hackles

Just in time for Banned Book Week--this story has hit the airwaves. A woman in Maine has borrowed two copies of the sex education book, It's Perfectly Normal (Harris, Robbie) from two separate libraries, and she has refused to return them. The general stereotype of the spinster librarian with a bun, or at the very least, a well-placed finger in shushing position, gives absolutely no credit to the role of the librarian as the defender of intellectual freedom. Librarians are taught that every person has a right to read whatever they want. It's not our business to ask what they are reading or why. It's even considered bad form to comment on materials at checkout--"Do you like John Grisham? Me too!" So when I read stories like this one, about an individual who takes it upon herself to determine what is and isn't suitable for patron consumption.....well! I get my bun in a twist! Seriously, though, who does she think she is?

I am familiar with the book in question, although I have not read it myself (I guess she has one up on me there.) By now it is an old book, but I remember when it came out, and it caused controversy then, too. Sex ed books are easy targets for censors, and my guess is that the use of the word "normal" in the title upsets some readers because, hey, what's normal? My definition may not jibe with my neighbor's. Be that as it may, nobody has a right to tell me or anyone else what books I can or cannot read, and by removing a book my ability to choose is effectively removed, too.

Here's a story from my own experience. One day, a patron handed me a book and said, "I think you should see this." The book in her hand was The Biggest Bear, a picture book by Lynn Ward. A Caldecott winning picture book, written a long, long time ago (read "in the unenlightened past".) Someone, who clearly did not like or approve of the book, had written all over it, claiming that it glorified hunting, was violent, cruel to animals, and single-handedly responsible for the downfall of society. The book was removed--no doubt the scribbler's intent--but reordered (as a Caldecott winner, we're practically required to own it.) The thing is, the scribbler had every right to dislike that book. They even had the right to come up to me and voice that dislike. They even had the right to lodge a formal complaint (we have paperwork for that.) But there is an even simpler solution to that problem--if you don't like the book, DON'T READ THE BOOK! This is a large and vast world. And even in a place as bleeding-heart as the Boston area, there are people who probably like hunting. Or maybe they just like books about bears. Or maybe they just want to see what passed for award winning Children's literature nearly 70 years ago. All those different types of readers have the right to go into their library and look for The Biggest Bear if they want it. And pre-pubescent children who want to know about their changing bodies have a right to read It's Perfectly Normal. Heck, kids who just want to know what the other sex looks like with no clothes on has a right to look at the book. Grown-ups who want to know what's considered "normal" sex ed have the right to look at that book. Maybe they don't like what they see. Then they talk to their kids themselves, instead of leaving it up to a book. Or they say, "That book is from the hands of Satan himself! Don't read it!" At which point the child has the right to decide for him or herself if they want to take their parent's advice.

My daughter is only six, so she still pretty much does what I tell her to. If I tell her to put a book down, she generally does. That will change, and there will be things that she will want to keep secret from me. If she seeks out information from a source other than me, I would much prefer that she wanders the stacks of a library, perhaps soliciting some guidance from a non-judgemental librarian, rather than trawling the internet, with its abundant lack of organization, accountability, or expertise. However, if there are would-be do-gooders, weeding collections based on their own one-sided value system, with no regard for differing taste, opinion, or perspective, then she is robbed of the opportunity to make her own choices. And as a parent, I don't like to think that anyone is disadvantaging my daughter in anyway. So self-appointed censors--HANDS OFF! If you want to save the world, become a librarian and protect books, not destroy them.

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