James LaRue, librarian and head of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, gave a short talk at Dominican University recently (the 22nd Annual McCcusker Memorial Lecture). I attended – and as a non-librarian, I was informed and encouraged by the important work that public libraries are doing to secure and strengthen public space and exchange in our communities. Interesting work indeed.
A long-time librarian in a rapidly changing part of Colorado, LaRue has been on the front line of complaints about books and programming for decades. He has listened to those that wanted books banned or prohibited, joined their groups, and has worked to understand their concerns – all while being 100% steadfast in his commitment to open access and no censorship. Book banning and protests have been front and center problems for public libraries for years. LaRue’s job with the ALA is to support libraries in their advancement of intellectual freedom. It is vitally important.
LaRue told the audience that the majority of complaints cluster in two areas: books for children ages 4-6, and books for teenagers, ages 14-16. As LaRue reflected on the complaints, he realized that the underlying issues were less about conservative vs. liberal, right vs. left, and more about fear and change. Parents lose control of their children as they move from home to school around the age of five. Similarly, when teenagers discover sex and relationships in their early or mid-teens, parents again lose influence. Concerns about what children read and experience at those ages is understandable. Public libraries sit at a place where trust, growth, and community values intersect – and many parents of children at those transitional ages are going to extra vigilant. Listening to the community, LaRue emphasized, is essential for libraries to maintain that trust.
Listening, however, does not mean acquiescing. LaRue stressed that if libraries remove books because of complaints or threats, the bullies learn the lesson that bullying works.
The talk was filled with examples of how LaRue and other librarians have navigated these politically charged waters. Again and again, the need of clear mission and clear process was emphasized. Colleges can learn a great deal – and not just college libraries – from the ways that public libraries have dealt with conflict and protest.
Lastly, LaRue stressed the great power of reading and libraries. We forget, at times, just how much reading corresponds with success in life.
And does reading a good book make you a better person? Early in his career, LaRue was asked that question and immediately answered “Yes.”
He was then challenged because of his response. If reading a good book makes someone good, then shouldn’t reading a bad book might make a person bad? Groups keen on banning books from public libraries usually hold strong opinions about what makes for a bad book.
LaRue’s thinking on the question has evolved. He now emphasizes that what one does with a book – how it is discussed, digested and considered – is what matters. He referenced an influential librarian from the 1940s who stressed the more people should have read Hitler’s Mein Kampf earlier. Reading would have prepared the world for the evils of Nazi Germany.
I hope that you can find time to read more – and please support your local public library.