Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Banned Books Week: one author's story

Most challenges to materials in public libraries are not about restricting access to ideologies, per se. The more frequent rational for challenges has to do with protecting children. A case in point...

Chris Crutcher is a therapist and child protection advocate, a former teacher and popular young adult author. His books have won numerous awards, including:
  • California Library Assn's 2005 St. Katharine Drexel Award
  • Writer Magazine's 2004 Writers Who Make A Difference Award
  • Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award
  • NCTE's 1998 National Intellectual Freedom Award
  • ALAN Award, 1993
  • ALA has named eight of his books as “Best Books for Young Adults,”
  • four of his books appeared on Booklist’s Best 100 Books of the 20th Century, compiled in 2000 – more than any other single author on the list
But it's also true that his books have more than once been on the annual list of most challenged titles. On his website, Crutcher prints lengthy excerpts from his critics and challengers and his responses. It's all interesting reading, but I find two of his statements especially interesting:
I stand for the right of parents to forbid their children to read a particular book. Someone in my old line of work will make a hundred fifty dollars an hour when those children come as twenty and thirty year old adults trying to deal with the power struggles of their childhoods. I don’t like it, but I stand for that right. I don’t, however, stand for the right to decide what other people’s kids read.

I’m also not interested in entering into the free speech/intellectual freedom argument wherein one side says we have to keep our kids safe by censoring what they see and the other says it’s fine for any parent to censor what his/her own kids read, but not fine for them to make those decisions for all parents. We either believe in basic intellectual freedom or we don’t. We either believe in our own abilities as adults to help our kids process tough information or we don’t, and not many minds are going to change regurgitating those arguments.
As a public librarian, I believe in parents and families. As a parent, I did my best to help my kids with the tough issues, and I believe in supporting other parents. It's not my job as a librarian to pre-empt those family decisions.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Banned Books Week: what the heck are "banned books?"

"Banned Books" is somewhat of a misnomer, because what is generally meant by the term is actually "challenged books." Many books are challenged -- or asked to be withdrawn from libraries -- though few are actually banned. This is an area where type of library is significant, as the public library vs. the school media center vs. the school curriculum are all very different. Indeed, there is seldom a mention of banned books in university or corporate libraries.

The American Library Association's website notes the distinction between banned & challenged books, but also notes that they do not own the name. Banned Books Week is sponsored by a consortium. From the bannedbooksweek.org website:
Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the National Association of College Stores. Banned Books Week is also endorsed by the Center for the Book of the Library of Congress.
ALA also notes there is no movement to change the name because "a challenge is an attempt to ban or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group." ALA maintains lists of frequently challenged materials, year by year. From 1991 to 2007, the following titles appeared on the most annual lists:
  1. The Chocolate War - Robert Cormier (12)
  2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (10)
  3. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck (10)
  4. Bridge to Terabithia - Katherine Paterson (9)
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain (8)
  6. Alice Series - Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (7)
  7. Forever - Judy Blume (6)
  8. Scary Stories Series - Alvin Schwartz (6)
  9. Fallen Angels - Walter Dean Meyers (5)
  10. Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling (5)
  11. It’s Perfectly Normal - Robie Harris (5)
  12. The Catcher in the Rye - J. D. Salinger (5)
You should be able to find all of these in our catalog and on our shelves.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Banned Books Week: I'd Like To Find *BLEEP*

Banned Books Week -- welcome!

He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper."
- Edmund Burke
While public libraries do not enjoy having challenges to materials, they provide some evidence that we're doing our jobs. We are equal opportunity offenders: we may not try to antagonize anyone, but we have to be willing to antagonize -- and thus help -- everyone.

Needless to say, this valuable social function often lacks for appreciation. The citizens of Athens executed Socrates in 399 B.C. after he was found guilty of promoting dangerous ideas. But in a nation founded on the belief that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," we can hope that executions for ideas are unlikely.

In order to constitute our nation, our society needed to guarantee these rights. The very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution says "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech..." It follows that the freedom to speak requires the freedom to listen and the freedom to write requires the freedom to read.

But even if we don't execute people for ideas, some ideas and ideologies will be popular, some will be controversial, and some may be persecuted. Things that are innocuous to some will be offensive or threatening to others. And public libraries have an obligation to select materials that present a broad spectrum of thought and values of our communities.

From the American Library Association: Banned Books Week...
celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met.
Welcome to Banned Books Week 2008!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Literary music

We were fortunate to have singer-songwriter Anne Hills perform at our library yesterday. The Allmusic Guide says of Anne:
A stunning soprano tone has made Anne Hills one of contemporary folk music's premier vocalists. But her affinity for choosing unforgettable material and her knack for writing heartfelt original songs have brought her to the upper echelon of her craft.
Anne gave a terrific performance for an appreciative crowd -- and took the time to express her admiration of librarians' support for intellectual freedom. Her beautifully expressive voice brought tears to many eyes with her best-known song, "Follow That Road."

But the centerpiece of her concert was songs from her two latest CDs, both of them adaptations from Victorian literature. The earlier, Beauty Attends: The Heartsongs of Opal Whiteley (2006), excerpts the childhood diaries of gifted naturalist and educator Opal Whitely, first published in 1920. The University of Oregon describes this as "a world as a child of 6 and 7 sees it, alive with creatures, fairies, talking trees, and singing creeks." Anne's songs, with music by Michael Smith, bring this 19th century child's view of nature to life.

Her most recent effort is Ef You Don‘t Watch Out!: Anne Hills Sings the Poems of James Whitcomb Riley (2007), reviving the work of the beloved Hoosier poet. I admit to a great personal fondness for Riley's work. My grandfather, who had a university education and whose own father taught high school, spent his life as a family farmer. Riley's writings combine another Victorian perspective on nature and the importance of the family farm with his well-known humorous and cautionary poems for children, and Anne's songs bring both these worlds beautifully into the 21st century.

Anne was a joy to work with. This was her second visit to our library, following a 1981 appearance in the Voices of Winter trio -- but I hope not her last.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Diversity @ the Library

Public libraries have an obligation to serve the entire community and to present a broad variety of viewpoints. This makes us naturals for supporting diversity. We're not exclusively a children's library, a men's library, a Christians' library, a straight library or a white library. We're not exclusively a Muslim's library, a women's library, a teen library or a library for people with disabilities. We're all of those and more. We're everyone's library; our resources and services reflect it.

Our local paper, the Post-Crescent, ran a story a few weeks ago: "Valley getting more diverse," and it's true. While the article focused on the growing Hispanic population, we have grown more ethnically diverse in lots of ways. Some would say we had a lot of catching up to do: though there's no evidence there was ever an actual ordinance to the effect, Appleton had reputedly once been a "sundown town" where African Americans could not spend the night. Thankfully, that's changed!

In addition to visible and active African American and Hispanic populations, Appleton is blessed with a thriving Hmong community. This morning, Jennifer Gaines Bates of the Hmong American Partnership addressed our staff and we had a good discussion about Hmong culture and traditions and how we might better serve this population. One thing we've done recently is to establish a Hmong Resource Center collection, including all our materials in the Hmong language or about the Hmong culture.

Hispanic culture and collections being larger and more diverse, we can't so easily pull together all the Spanish language materials or everything about Spain and Latin America. But we're working to develop those collections and make them easier to access. Our online catalog has a Spanish language version. We're also exploring issues: last night we hosted a spirited discussion of immigration issues following a showing of the film Crossing Arizona, an award-winning documentary about illegal border crossings.

In a couple of weeks, we'll be hosting the Consulate General of Mexico for a few days, as they work to make updated visas and other identification available to Mexican citizens. Our Mayor's office has arranged this for the second year in a row and we'll have volunteers from local Latino groups helping. And we join many other libraries in recognizing National Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15-Oct. 15.

Our community is blessed not only with a great variety of ethnic populations, but with organizations that support diversity. Our library is a longstanding member of Toward Community: Unity in Diversity and the Fox Cities Rotary Multicultural Center. Library staff attends meetings of inter-agency coordinating councils serving local Hmong and Hispanic communities. We've done some multilingual story hours and we're planning more. It's exciting to see how diversity has enriched our community and library.

"Universal access to all knowledge is within our grasp."

A talk by digital librarian Brewster Kahle at the Dec. 2007 Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference.

"We really need to put the best we have to offer within reach of our children."
-- Brewster Kahle

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Library Card Sign-up Month / The Smartest Card

Our friends at the OWLSnet shared automation network have just posted the following on their "What's Simmering?" blog for our InfoSoup shared catalog:
The Smartest Card

A library card is the smartest card you can carry, and September is Library Card Sign-up Month! This national campaign was started in 1987 to meet the challenge of then Secretary of Education William J. Bennett who said: "every child should obtain a library card - and use it." Since that time, thousands of public and school libraries join this effort to ensure every child does just that.

InfoSoup is celebrating this event with our "Shhhhh... They're in the library" posters. Maybe you've seen them around your community? Here are the pdfs if you'd like to see the complete set: Farmer, Family, Youth, Young Professional. If you're a library supporter, please feel free to print some and post them around your workplace, church, and/or other places you frequent in your community to help us spread the word.

Make sure your family and friends have the smartest card of all and sign up for a library card during September! If you'd like to share your stories about how your library card helps you, please feel free to post them in the comments.
For my money, a library card is the best back-to-school supply a parent can provide their child -- and it's free!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Odd correspondence

One of the interesting aspects of library management is the unusual correspondence that occasionally crosses my desk, such as the following exchange of letters:
Friends of the Library
225 N. Oneida Street
Appleton, Wisconsin 54911-4780

Dear Sir or Madam:

My name is Kenneth Snipps and I need upir help.

I was recently “invited” to join an organization calling itself “Friends of the Library.” Now this sounds innocuous enough, and I certainly enjoy reading books, (in fact I’ve authored several - none of which currently appear in your library, but that’s another letter) but there are a few things keeping me up at night.

First, my neighbor Mr. Biggs has told the story about the initiation required to join this little group, and frankly it’s terrifying. I know all about “The Crypt” located in the subterranean caves deep below the library. I know how the floor is littered in dried bones. I know how every “applicant” is forced to his knees, hooded and vulnerable. And I know about the blood sacrifice.

My question is do I need to bring spelunking equipment, or is there an elevator that goes directly to “The Crypt”?

Thank you for reading and responding to my letter.

Your friend,

Kenneth Snipps
Since this was not sent specifically to our friends group, FOAL (Friends of the Appleton Library), Mr. Snipps may have simply had a wrong address. In any event, the provenance of the attached reply is unclear:
Dear Mr. Snipps,

Thank you for your kind note. Personally, it provided an interesting diversion, as there is little to do here after the cherry harvest. In my official capacity, I must express alarm that your friend Mr. Biggs is irresponsibly spreading such stories about our fine family-friendly institution. His time at our library should have left him with no such “delusions.” Clearly something has gone wrong with our techniques.

We must therefore insist, with gentle firmness, that you and Mr. Biggs both remain calmly in situ until library officers arrive. These fellow friends of books will bring you to a quiet place where your concerns will be addressed, alleviated, and quite permanently removed.

In the meantime, there is a service you can perform as a friend of the library. We are running out of shelf space and will soon be shipping to you numerous cartons of books. Please store these cartons in a cool, dry area until such time as we can expand the library and are able to retrieve them. You may, if you wish, read the books, but be careful not to change their order within the cartons. On no account modify any of the Dewey Decimal Numbers written on the books spines in careful “library hand.”

Do not worry; brighter days are ahead. Trust us.

Edna Houdini, Security Officer
Friends of the Library

cc: Lazlo Toth, Friends Chairperson

Monday, September 8, 2008

Banned Books Week seems early this year...

The annual Banned Books Week is coming up Sept. 27-Oct. 4, but the presidential campaign has created some unusual attention for the issue of book banning in public libraries. The Sept. 4 Wall Street Journal reported:
[Gov. Palin] floated the idea of pulling books she considered offensive from a local library.
Published reports have led to a flurry in the biblioblogosphere and political blog world. The Ongoing War Against Reason has an interesting post about the controversy:
I have been reading some blogs where people are making quite a fuss over some books that Sarah Palin wanted to ban. What I am confused about is why are people getting so upset. I think Ms. Palin is a better judge of such matters than most people are. ...

Hopefully Ms. Palin can implement a nationwide program that will get these books removed from all the nations libraries. There has a to be a clause in the Patriot Act that can give legal precedant for such a move.

While one may or may not enjoy such tongue in cheek humor, there are a couple of unfunny things at play:
  1. Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, as Mayor of Wasilla, did pose questions -- perhaps only theoretical or rhetorical, but apparently on more than one occasion -- about removing some books from the public library collection.
  2. Hysterical anti-Palin postings to the contrary, there is to date no actual published evidence of any attempt on her part to ban or remove any particular titles. The circulation of bogus lists of titles she supposedly tried to censor does a disservice to Gov. Palin and the truth.
In a time of high ideological conflict, such as this presidential election, it's important to stay level-headed, and remember that too often "truth is the first casualty of war." That being the case, I appreciate librarians like Jessamyn West, who have worked to stay even-handed. When someone posted the list on her blog, Jessamyn noted "there appears to be no truth to the claim made by the commenter, and no further documentation or support for this has turned up." Many other commenters noted the lack of a source and the danger of unsubstantiated allegations.

I appreciate neutral sources like snopes.com which give a factual perspective. I do not enjoy reading Michelle Malkin's comment: "This time it's hysterical librarians and their readers on the Internet disseminating a bogus list ... looks like some of these library people failed reading comprehension." Why feed potential criticism that we're hysterical -- even when we're not? To her credit, Malkin credited Jessamyn West for doing the right thing. While I haven't run into hysterical library people, I have noticed people trying to capitalize on the controversy.

Those who feel themselves locked in a culture war may be too willing to sacrifice facts to serve their ideology, but for librarians to do so in any case is to subvert our own professional ethics. Thankfully, I don't find this to be generally true of librarians, but some people may have been too willing to uncritically repeat spurious information that accords with their prejudices. It's like the credulous friends who send you the emails that begin "forward this to everyone you know." We ought to know better, though sometimes our feeling outruns our thinking.

Politics aside, let's remember the real issue for libraries. It's vital that public libraries represent a variety of values and points of view in their collections. Government should neither interfere with the availability of content and viewpoints, nor with parents’ rights to determine what values they teach their children.

Parents can tell their children what they can and can't read, but not my children. Book banning, family values, and reading decisions are for families -- not mayors or governors. Free people need free access to ideas and information, not what "the authorities" deem acceptable. Most libraries will have something to offend everyone. Librarians need to select and deselect things for their quality as library resources, not their ideology, and be mindful of the often subjective nature of offensiveness.

We should welcome the opportunity to responsibly discuss the importance of our freedoms.

Library Ninjitsu

The winner of the statewide contest to create a video promoting the AskAway virtual reference service.

“Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study”

Kathleen Hughes writes on the PLA Blog:

The ALA Office for Research & Statistics and the Information Institute at Florida State University today published “Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2007-2008.”...

Key findings include:

  • Libraries reported double-digit growth in online services: audiobooks and podcasts (up 33 percent), video (up 32 percent), homework resources (up 15 percent), e-books (up 13.5 percent) and digitized special collections (up almost 13 percent);
  • Funding data indicate libraries are relying more on non-tax funding sources;
  • 66 percent of public libraries offer free wireless access, up about 12 percent over last year;
  • Almost two-thirds of all public libraries provide 1.5Mbps or faster Internet access speeds, with a continuing disparity between urban (90 percent) and rural libraries (51.5 percent);
  • 74 percent of libraries report their staff helps patrons understand and use e-government services, including enrolling in Medicare and applying for unemployment;
  • 73.4 percent of libraries provide technology training to library patrons;
  • Staffing levels are not keeping pace with patron demand — both for those staff who provide training and other direct patron services, as well as those who maintain the IT infrastructure;
  • While the number of Internet computers available to the public climbed for the first time in several years, one in five libraries report there are consistently fewer computers than patrons who wish to use them throughout the day.

... The complete report is freely available online now at www.ala.org/plinternetfunding, and a copy of the bound report can be purchased at a minimal cost through the ALA Store. ... Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and ALA, the report provides national and state-level data from more than 5,400 rural, suburban and urban libraries; information provided by 45 state library agencies; and feedback from focus groups and site visits in four states.