For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
June 8, 2006 - Culture Sends Conflicting Messages to Children
Not long ago, one of our patrons registered a complaint about a children's picture book called "Princess Buttercup."
The book was about a party being planned by a group of fairies -- diminutive beings, all female. Princess Buttercup set out to gather honey for the party, then got distracted, then got lost. Eventually, she flagged down a butterfly, and found her way back.
That's pretty much the whole story: a slice of the whimsical social life of mythical creatures.
But on one page appeared three lines about another fairy, Princess Iris. Iris was lazy. She didn't like to work. She liked to play ball. There was an illustration of Iris throwing a tiny blue ball into a spider web.
Oh, and one other thing. Alone among the fairies, Iris had brown skin and black, curly hair. Iris was a fairy of color.
The patron complaint was that this illustration, taken with the comments, promoted a dangerous and negative stereotype. It linked "laziness" with "black" with "basketball." No other fairy was so singled out for criticism -- other than Buttercup herself, who, perhaps, who had some problems with her attention span.
The patron, who in addition to being thoughtful and articulate, is also a person of color, asked that we remove the book.
I responded to her written "request for reconsideration" (a form created by the library), also in writing. The library has a comprehensive policy manual, detailing what we buy and why. On the basis of those policies, I believed we should keep the book. The patron then appealed that decision to the Library Board of Trustees.
While I suspect most librarians would strongly support materials that eschew bigotry and racism (and indeed, we have many in our collection), there are a few key facts the public should understand:
* the library isn't pushing any agenda. That isn't our job. Our job is to gather the intellectual content of our culture: books, magazines, music, movies, and such. Then we organize it, and put it out for the public.
* we buy what is published. And what is published, mostly from mainstream presses, presents a variety of viewpoints and perspectives. We don't direct our culture. We reflect it.
* a good deal of what appears in books is intended to be humorous -- but not everyone will think it's funny.
Yet our patron is quite right that early influences are often more powerful than those we encounter later in life. Good parents do pay attention to the messages sent by our culture -- and often find that such messages contradict privately held values.
From a practical perspective, I believe the library cannot possibly purge its shelves of all those works that somebody will find offensive. Why? Because people are offended by almost everything -- and often, in opposite directions. That is, what one person finds sexist, another finds insufficiently supportive of traditional values.
If we are to remove materials at each complaint, then our shelves will be bare. Such a strategy enriches no one and impoverishes us all.
I do understand the desire, particularly strong among parents of children between the ages of 4 and 6, to want the world to be safe, and affirming, and kind.
But it isn't. Not always.
The power of literature is to help people -- especially the young -- come to grips with life. I'm not advocating a ruthless exposure of children to everything dark and difficult. But I do advocate the enormous value of parents reading to their children, and talking about what they read together.
I believe that knowledge, and shared understanding, is the best antidote to ignorance and bigotry -- both of which are far too common, whether the message of "Princess Buttercup" was intentional or not.
Our Board of Trustees, upon reviewing the matter, did vote to retain the title. But they also encouraged us to bring the matter before the rest of the community -- not to seek a vote on the retention of each title, but to promote a dialog within Douglas County.
Are we as alert as we should be to the often conflicting messages of our culture? How might we better talk to our children about such issues as negative racial stereotyping?
Next week, I'd like to hand this column over to the patron for her own perspective. I hope you'll give it careful consideration.