By David Townsend
Libraries in North Idaho are under pressure to withdraw or restrict the display of certain books – especially those with LGBTQ subjects – with the argument that they are making “pornography” available to juveniles and teens. This movement also threatens libraries and librarians throughout Idaho as our Legislature has attempted to impose fines on libraries for making certain books available to young readers.
And, it’s not just happening in Idaho. According to a report released Thursday by the American Library Association, efforts to ban books nearly doubled in 2022 nationally compared to the previous year. The report listed 1,269 book-banning attempts in libraries and schools.
Full disclosure: I worked for the Coeur d’Alene Library for 20 years, so my opinions about restricting books and other materials are pretty slanted. That said, I never met a librarian who was in favor of having pornography available in their collection. In fact, even before filtered computers were mandated for libraries in Idaho, our policies did not allow access to adult sites on the public computers.
Are there books on human sexuality in the library? Yes. Should there be? Yes. Should such books be available to all ages, provided the writing is age-appropriate? Again, yes. Should parents have control over which of those books their children check out and read? Of course.
And that control already exists. Parents and legal guardians are required to give their permission before a library card can be issued to a juvenile. Otherwise, parents and guardians must check out their children’s reading materials on their own cards.
There are age limits on children coming to the library by themselves. Librarians assume responsible parents will take an active role in knowing what their children are reading and checking out. In fact, they encourage reading and visiting the library as a family activity.
So, yes, parents should have control over what their kids are reading. However, you don’t get to decide what some other parent considers appropriate for their children, any more than you can decide what another adult should or should not read.
A basic problem with this discussion is that there is a disagreement about what different people define as pornographic. Is “Grey’s Anatomy” obscene? It certainly depicts in detail the human reproductive system. But what about a juvenile or teen book about anatomy with accurate information and graphics detailing the same information? I know a lot of parents, myself included, who are perfectly comfortable with their children having access to that kind of material. We prefer accurate, science-based information for our children.
I suspect the real problem for some folks are those other books, fiction and nonfction, with characters and information that don’t quite fit into their strictly heterosexual, cookie-cutter concept of what families or people in general “should be.”
Librarians deal with the public. They understand that people and families exist in a wide variety of shapes, colors, faiths, cultures, political philosophies, and, yes, sexualities. Librarians feel a responsibility to serve whole communities, even when they may be personally uncomfortable with the material they are asked to share.
We are not talking about sleaze here or material that is pandering or exploitive. We are talking about books and other items that describe a world as it exists and permit diverse groups to see themselves represented.
Criminalizing libraries and librarians is just another form of censorship and an encouragement to have government too involved in the personal lives of free people. Book burners and censors have never been on the right side of history. By all means, be in charge of what your children read and see on the internet and other media. But don’t ask librarians to take responsibility for controlling the access of people who do not share your world view.
David Townsend retired as the communications coordinator for the Coeur d’Alene Public Library in 2020.