Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What are libraries for?

Libraries are gigantic holding tanks of information on a vast array of topics, available for anyone.  At least, that's what they're supposed to be.  And many are definitely still doing their best to make a variety of materials available to the public, but that's not to say there isn't a struggle at times.

Tulsa library, according to an article on, receives about a dozen complaints each year, or 45 complaints since 2008.  But it's not all bad news, says Laurie Sundborg, chief operating officer at the library.  She goes on:
"We appreciate when someone does this [files a complaint] because we can review our decision to include the item in our collection and convey to customers what public libraries stand for in the community.  We represent a diversity of viewpoints in the community and the people who make up our community.  
"As a parent, I may have something I'm completely comfortable with while a parent next to me may not. We encourage each family and each parent to take an active role with their child and talk about the values they want passed down to them." 
It's good to know that some libraries at least have a positive perspective on challenges and that there is a process in place with which to confront such challenges.  It is also good to see that there is still support for the idea that libraries are for providing materials of all sorts to people of all sorts and not just keeping items that won't cause too much fuss.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Gloucester Public Library removed a display of LGBT related materials during Pride Month after a few patrons and one politician expressed feelings of discomfort.  According to an article in, the display was taken down two thirds of the way through Pride month after "A few library patrons complained, and county Supervisor Gregory Woodard objected to the idea of 'promoting gay rights.'"

Promoting gay rights made a few people uncomfortable and so the display was taken down:
It's the queasiness of people like Woodard with people who happen to be gay that ruins even innocuous public expressions of what should be, yes, pride.  
It's Woodard who chose to sabotage a display in a public library based on his own discomfort with members of the public who are different from him.   
At least one member of the Board of Trustees spoke out against the decision to take down the display.  Jody Perkins stated that she was "not happy the library would 'cave in to bigoted individuals."
She's also not happy library staff ignored protocol for removing an exhibit or materials based on complaints. The library's policy manual directs a complainant to fill out a form and discuss it with the library director. If that doesn't resolve things, trustees meet for a final decision.  
Instead, after four or so complaints trickled into the library and an anonymous message appeared on the county administrator's answering machine, staff took the exhibit down last week.
Sure, there were complaints and the Library Director felt it would "ease the concerns" to take down the display, but that doesn't excuse the fact that protocol was ignored and the opinions of a few individuals was enough to get rid of a display meant for an audience that also uses the library.  Everyone should be able to find materials at a local library and the opinions of four or five people should not be enough to keep materials away from an entire people group that seeks representation in library collections.

If you go into a library and find something that makes you uncomfortable, instead of immediately trying to get it removed, why not put it back on the shelf and just don't read it?  I can't answer this because that's not how I think.  But I am glad that more often than not, libraries follow Tulsa's example and follow procedures to address concerns, but ultimately leave (most) materials in their collections for those in the community who want access to them.

Thanks for listening.


  1. Well said.

    It makes me incredibly angry that people are so set in their own narrow-minded ways and refuse to re-evaluate or challenge themselves. A library is suppose to be a place where you can find books on any topic; a place where you can learn about views that aren't your own to broaden your horizons.


  2. I wonder who made the ultimate decision to remove the display. Sad they didn't follow their own policy. Sad they caved to a few complaints.

  3. The library director was the one who made the decision, but it's still not a great thing to do as it starts things going down a very slippery slope.