As I'm waiting for tonight's public hearing on the annual city budget, I'm remembering the state library conference held here in Appleton a couple of weeks ago. It was a good conference, with some excellent speakers and programs, opportunities to share with colleagues, and vendor products to review. But I keep thinking about two stories I heard, stories that highlight the importance of what we're doing.
The first was at the awards banquet, where Lynda Barry accepted the RR Donnelley Literary Award, given for the highest literary achievement by a Wisconsin author in 2009, for her book What It Is. She talked about problems in her home life when she was young, and how she regarded school teachers and public librarians as fulfilling parental roles and the public library becoming a home. She told how the public library, as a safe place that welcomed her, offered encouragement and opportunities to learn, had been essential for her.
The second story was told by the staff and library board members of the West Bend Public Library, which this year dealt with some difficult materials challenges -- challenges which had divided the community as the challengers sought to try the case in the media and in blogs rather than before the library board. The challenges had started with young adult materials, particularly a few titles addressing gay and lesbian issues for teens. When the situation finally came before the board, the public comments were recorded on video, and this video was shared at the conference.
Among the many passionate statements pro and con, there were two that resonated powerfully with me. One was a professor from UW-M who reminded listeners that the Library Bill of Rights was originally developed in our country in response to Nazi book-burning. The Nazis actively worked to make public libraries into institutions of propaganda, communicating only party-sanctioned values. The second speak was a mom with two grown sons, one of whom had grown up suffering discrimination, bullying and uncertainty as a gay teen. She said it would have meant the world to him to simply have access to a novel with characters who were like him and dealing with his issues.
This is why we fight for our public libraries. We need a place for everyone -- a safe, intellectually and culturally nourishing center of our community, a place for opportunities to learn and grow, where people and ideas are welcome. Thanks to Lynda Barry and the West Bend Public Library for reminding us.