Sunday, May 03, 2009

West Bend, WI Library Board Members Dismissed for Doing Their Job

Publisher's Weekly reported recently that "four members of a library board in West Bend, Wis., were dismissed last week for refusing to remove controversial books from the library’s young adult section..." (read the entire PW article at

I wish the PW writer had put it like this: "Four members of a library board in West Bend, Wis., were dismissed for doing their jobs responsibly and acting in accordance with constitutional principles and laws regarding free speech."

A number of organizations—the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Association of American Publishers and PEN American Center—all criticized the dismissals, which is terrific, but perhaps the alternative phrasing I offered might have prompted a broader swath of people to protest. 

The language we use to talk about censorship issues must be accurate and specific.  Otherwise, we engage in conversations based on terms so vague as to be almost meaningless, making it nearly impossible for people with opposing points of view to understand each other.

Also from the PW article: "[Two library] patrons accused the library of promoting “the overt indoctrination of the gay agenda in our community” and demanded that the library add books “affirming traditional heterosexual perspectives.” After reading this, I found myself scratching my head. If Brent Hartinger's GEOGRAPHY CLUB, Stephan Chbosky’s THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, and Esther Drill’s DEAL WITH IT! A WHOLE NEW APPROACH TO YOUR BODY, BRAIN, AND LIVE AS A gURL are pushing "a gay agenda," does that mean books addressing themes about heterosexual sexuality are promoting a hetero agenda? What exactly do the accusing patrons mean when they say "gay agenda"? My understanding of the term "gay agenda" is that it has to do with ensuring that all homosexual people have equal rights under the law. Do the two patrons think that's a bad thing? Or--as I suspect--do the two patrons see the gay agenda as something insidious and threatening—such as that books addressing homosexuality will make everyone who reads them gay? Or maybe those patrons fear a gay agenda promoting tolerance of homosexual people in all settings--in churches, schools, etc. I'm still speculating here; I have no idea exactly what "gay agenda" means to the folks who initiated the book removals. But I find myself wondering, if tolerating gay people and gay-themed books is the problem, just why is tolerating them so...intolerable? I don't understand. I thought tolerance of differences among people was a good and desirable and even honorable thing.

The two patrons who initially complained back in February about the West Bend library's YA collection including books about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues also demanded that the library add books "affirming traditional heterosexual perspectives." Considering that public library collections everywhere, including, I assume, West Bend's, already contain a majority of books in which the romantic and sexual interactions take place between people of opposite genders, I'm not sure what sorts of books these disgruntled patrons would like to add. It would be interesting to know. Specifically.

I wish everyone engaged in conversations about censorship and book removal would define their terms and points of view with great specificity. It's my hope--perhaps naïve, but still--that if we examine what we're really wanting and get specific about what we really object to—or fear—we might have a very different sort of conversation, a more productive sort. And we might have more people willing to stand up to improper librarian dismissals and book removals as well as violations of the First Amendment.

Which, from the point of view of those of us at As If!, would be a good thing.

Posted by Deborah Davis

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