“Though they seem at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end. It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet.”–Eric Hoffer
“They said in a joint statement that libraries should present “all points of view.” The Madison County Library System director, Tonja Johnson, said in January that Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee said he would withhold $110,000 from the Ridgeland Library because he received complaints about LGBTQ books. The Republican mayor said “sexual connotations are not appropriate for children when they enter the library.”
This was an illustrative case of the unreasonable politics of a Fanatic being met with patient apolitical coolness and moderation.
Not long ago, I was approached by a resident who expressed very similar concerns to those of this Mississippi mayor about the displayed new materials in the library at which I am director. It seemed to him, he wrote me in an email, that all of our new YA and children’s books were obnoxiously “woke.” He asked: Why is the library displaying these books so prominently? We must have an agenda, he stated.
So I explained that our library, directed by me as it is, is but a messenger from the front lines of the culture wars and not a combatant. If it appears that our collection has taken a sudden turn in one direction or another, I stated, it’s because the PUBLISHERS are putting out materials that are veering in one direction or another. If the new releases from the major houses are all pro- or anti- fill-in-the-blank, so will it appear that we are, though we (by which I mean we librarians and library workers executing our official duties while on the clock) are not. If this veering one way or another is an issue, I told him, you may want to approach the publishers, who exist to make money.
Or, if you are aware of a publishing house publishing a counter-narrative to whatever you find troublesome, email us on our “request a book” form and suggest we buy it. If it isn’t obvious low-effort junk, we will probably buy it. Even if we don’t, we can get it through inter-library loan. A balanced collection can take work, and we take help from reasonable sources when we can get it. Be reasonable and you can help us.
The conversation, which started with a bit of paranoia and maybe even anger on the patron’s part, ended civilly. As a proponent of intellectual freedom, it isn’t my job to defend the VIEWPOINT in any work or collection of works OR to belittle the presumed viewpoint of the would-be censors. I’m so dead inside sometimes, I don’t even care what the viewpoints are anymore. It all seems like blind chickens walking across keyboards to me. But my job is to defend the existence of and access to works that present ALL viewpoints, no matter what any particular chicken thinks.
I would posit that librarians would do well to avoid allowing the unreasonable demands or thought patterns of SOME patrons or politicians–who, in my career have always been an outnumbered minority–to pull them into matching shrillness with shrillness. This mayor in Mississippi came out of the gate publicly saying things that were obviously imperfectly aligned with the law. Religious litmus tests for releasing public funding cannot be applied on a whim (or, thanks to the Constitution, at all) by some zealot elected official somewhere.
Through this whole dumb controversy, Midland County Libraries maintained an adult tone and a cool head. They wrote back in March:
“MCLS continues to work with the city of Ridgeland to resolve funding issues for the Ridgeland Public Library. We look forward to the city fulfilling their financial obligations according to the library services contract and continuing our relationship with the city. MCLS and its funding authorities have had the same contract for services since 1993 with one revision in 2009. Throughout that time, the city of Ridgeland has provided funding approved annually by the Board of Aldermen and submitted payments on a regular schedule. As we work to resolve the current funding issue, MCLS stands firmly behind our library policies and our staff. We remain steadfast in our belief censorship has no place in our libraries. We sincerely appreciate the outstanding efforts of the Friends group and everyone who has donated and spoken in support of the Ridgeland Public Library.”
See? Not shrill. Not hysterical. Not angry. Not even really emotionally involved. And, in just over a month, it got the job done. The library system even had the good sense to re-iterate the correct ethical/professional stance that “all points of view” should be heard.
Good job, Midland County.
“So I explained that our library, directed by me as it is, is but a messenger from the front lines of the culture wars and not a combatant.”
That is an *excellent* way to describe the neutrality that we should be striving for in our profession! We aren’t taking part in the combat within society’s culture wars — we are a messenger; or, even, a mirror of that.
I am going to use that line when asked why our library includes works that someone finds offensive. Read it all and pick your side in the culture war, but don’t expect the library to choose that side for you! Thanks for sharing this!