Intellectual freedom essential for libraries
PHOTO BY ERIN ROLL/STAFF
By ERIN ROLL
A parent objects to her son’s choice in a library book because it conflicts with religious beliefs. A parent wants to have a book removed from a school library shelf over “objectionable content.” A library experiences protests over a featured speaker.
Those were some of the subjects and situations that James LaRue, formerly of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (ALA) and a former library director with the Douglas County library system in Colorado, talked about with the Montclair Public Library’s Board of Trustees Monday night, Feb. 11.
The library was to be closed to the general public the next day, Feb. 12, for a staff in-service. LaRue gave the library trustees a preview of the talk he was going to give to the staff.
In LaRue’s 24 years working in public libraries, he and his staff have seen 150 challenges to books.
Anyone can challenge a book if he or she wants the book removed from a library’s circulation, or only checked out to certain users due to content objections.
Schools, unlike public libraries, act “in loco parentis,” which refers to the legal responsibility of a person or organization to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent. Therefore, a school is more likely to be pressured by parents into removing a book from its shelf, LaRue said.
Ninety-nine percent of the book challenges addressed by the ALA come from parents of children in two age groups: between the ages of four and six; and between the ages of 14 and 16. Those are the ages when children are exposed to new ideas directly outside of their parents’ purview, LaRue said.
“It’s about the preservation of innocence, and the belief, ‘I want my baby back,’” he said.
LaRue mentioned a case involving Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” the story of an escaped slave haunted by the ghost of her dead child. A Virginia high school student, who was assigned the book for school, was disturbed by its content.
The student’s mother took the issue to the state board of education and the legislature, leading to a bill that allowed parents to review a list of books to be included on a class syllabus, including books with controversial content, and give their approval to them, LaRue said.
In his position as a director of humanities for the school district, Marcos Vargas has dealt with books being challenged. “I get a [surprising] amount, considering the community of artists we have in Montclair,” said Vargas, who is also serves as library board trustee. “I remind them, [the book] stays until a decision is made.”
Besides challenges to books, LaRue said, a library may find itself addressing concerns or complaints about scheduled speakers.
A library in Montana booked a speaker series on the contributions of different ethnic groups to the state’s history, such as black cowboys in the American West, and Chinese immigrant workers helping to build the railroads. These were well-received. But when the library booked a speaker on the contributions of Muslims to Montana and America’s history, a veterans’ group protested.
The library went ahead with the talk, LaRue said, and the discussion was framed in the context of shared American values such as respect and expression. A large overflow crowd outside was unable to get in, so the library staff offered them cookies and hot chocolate and thanked them for coming.
But what can be done when a known hate group tries to book a library’s facilities for an event or a meeting?
Librarians today have refused permission to a hate group asking to use its space. However, under the ALA’s interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, a library cannot bar one group from using its facilities while allowing other groups to use the same facilities.
In recent years, LaRue said, there has been a balancing act between intellectual freedom and social justice: the balance between promoting ideas and expression, even something that has the potential to be hurtful or offensive, while being mindful of the rights and concerns of the larger community. This applies both to what books a library will have on its shelf, as well as to issues related to speakers and events.
“I want to make it clear, I do not believe these two values are in conflict with each other,” LaRue said of social justice and intellectual freedom. “They’re two sides of the same coin.”
The discussion also briefly turned to the Drag Queen Story Hour, featuring Harmonica Sunbeam, that Montclair hosted in January. Earlier in the meeting, the library reported that the story hour had been very successful, with a sold-out audience of 47 children and 54 adults. “You look at the photos, the kids are having a wonderful time,” LaRue said.
However, at the meeting on Feb. 11, Trustee Ilmar Vanderer brought up a negative social media post about the story hour. LaRue suggested that libraries set a policy on who is authorized to respond on behalf of the library or the library board.
And he acknowledged that tracking hurtful comments about library programs is difficult: “In a social media world, it is very hard.”