Librarians must remain unfettered

Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind."

— Dr. Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 1751

John Daly seems to us to be a caring man. He’s been to our news office twice in the last week to explain why he thinks the Guilderland Public Library, of which he is a trustee, should mark books for young adult readers that contain passages he believes are offensive.

He is concerned that young teens will read about sex and then put into practice what they’ve read. He proposes that librarians mark such books with orange stickers to alert parents.

There are some practical problems with this idea. One is that librarians don’t have the time to read and mark the hundreds of new books that come to their shelves each year.

Consequently, Daly has scaled back his initial proposal so that librarians would only read and mark a percentage of the books. This, of course, would make the system incomplete and unreliable.

And such a system could have the opposite effect of that which is intended: We can envision the orange stickers serving as beacons to curious adolescent readers.

Another practical problem is that the librarians think such a system is a bad idea.
"As librarians, it’s part of our ethical code or professional code of conduct to provide materials of all kinds for the community," said Barbara Nichols Randall, director of the Guilderland Public Library. "We try to purchase things that are on all sides of an issue."

Over the years, we’ve admired librarians who keep a wide variety of literature on their shelves, offering something for everyone.

A trustee forms the interface between the community and the library. We haven’t heard any outcry from the community, or even any distant rumblings, about young-adult literature needing to be screened.

On the contrary, the youth programs at the Guilderland library, from our observations, are relevant and well-attended, serving a vital need in the community. A library is a great place for teens and pre-teens to be — to explore, to learn about themselves and about others who are perhaps different than they are.

Matthew Goland-Van Ryn, a non voting member of the library board who, at 17, is a young-adult reader himself, disagrees with Daly’s proposal. He thinks a sticker system would just send teens to another library. Most teenagers know about sex, he said; those who don’t aren’t going to the library to find out about it.

Literature doesn’t lead people astray, but rather enlightens them.

At rock bottom, and far more important than any practical problems, is this core value: We believe that parents together with their children should be responsible for choosing the books a child reads. Each family forms its own moral universe.

One family may find certain religious books offensive while another may find those same books inspirational. One family may find a particular war novel patriotic and essential reading while another may find the same book is a bad influence on their children.

We are reminded of an incident from our own adolescence. Our sister was reading Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land during a Guilderland study hall when a well-meaning teacher stopped her. The book was new, not yet considered a classic; it detailed Brown’s Harlem boyhood among prostitutes, drug addicts, and killers with direct, often profane language.
"What would your parents say if they knew you were reading that"" she was asked.
"My father gave it to me," she replied.

As children grow and develop their own identities as readers, as thinkers, as members of a community, they may push past some of their parents’ limits. Engaging family discussions will ensue as passages are quoted and ideas are debated back and forth.

Librarians don’t want to be, nor should they be forced into, the role of gatekeepers or arbiters of taste for a community. Each of us, as readers, as in life, should be able to make our own choices about what we want to learn and experience.

We understand Daly’s impulse. He says he read a news article about a young-adult author that opened his eyes about content he considered inappropriate. The tendency is to protect others, to give parents support in an increasingly dangerous world.

A trustee certainly can alert others to what he perceives as a problem, and Daly has done that. But knowledge is the best way to combat danger.

We hope the library trustees stand firm tonight when they vote on Daly’s proposed amendment; we hope they let our librarians continue to do what they do best — help individuals find what they seek, extending the quest for knowledge in all directions. We must not force our librarians into picking and choosing, labeling some books acceptable and others not, according to a pre-set code.

Months ago, before this was an issue, we interviewed Elaine Clark, who worked for 25 years as a reference librarian for the State Library and was filling in as the interim director at Altamont’s library.
Among the insights she shared about a profession she loves was this: "One of the things I’ve always liked about librarians is we tend not to be judgmental...Someone asks you a question and you don’t bat an eye. You look it up; nothing fazes you. You don’t ask why. You just help that person get information."
Of being in a library, Clark said, "It gives you pause. It gives you permission to have reverence for something that went before. It gives you a chance to reinvent your own life."

Let us not tamper with such a grand legacy.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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