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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

When the board wants to censor...

I got a call today from a colleague, a public library director back east. Her board, appointed by the mayor, now has a majority of folks who all attend a politically powerful and conservative church. Recently, under the leadership of another church member, a petition was presented to the board demanding that the library establish a collection of materials that would be strictly forbidden to minors. Which materials? Anything involving sex.

The board thought that was a pretty good idea.

This director is very smart and sensitive, politically astute. But she, and her staff, are also alarmed. Why?

We could play this out by example: so sexual materials would be denied even to those kids working on health projects for school? Even kids who might be sexually abused by family members? Even kids being pressured by other kids to have sex, and want to know what kinds of consequences might ensue?

As I've said before, the biggest problem in America is NOT that children are reading too much. Indeed, the more they read, the LESS likely they are do something foolish, and the safer they are by a long shot.

But it doesn't do any good to just stonewall people. Here's what I told her: the real issue is that parents in her community are frightened. They're worried about their kids. They think, they hope, that if they can just stop children (meaning "teenagers") from reading about sex, or watching sexy situations on film, then the teenagers will stop thinking about it, will stop doing it. They'll remain children.

When you put it like that, it just doesn't make much sense, doesn't it?

But I'm not making fun of them. The fear is real.

So what I suggested is that instead of fighting this out with one church, open it up. Talk to lots of churches. Ask for church members who will admit that they're worried about their children's sexuality, and are trying to find a way to talk to them about things that matter. Guess what? Book clubs and discussion groups are a terrific way to get generations to begin important discussions. Teenagers want to know what the adult world is about. They're looking for some guidance.

Ignorance will not protect them. It might, in fact, kill them.

Libraries are knowledge institutions. We are not consecrated to the preservation of ignorance; we are consecrated to the purpose of knowing.

Instead of having just fighting a defensive action against parents, why not use our unique abilities, our deep knowledge of literature, our expertise in developing and delivering programs, to help families talk with each other?

This way, libraries might take the lead in training lay people to be discussion leaders. Talk about books that parents love -- and find out whether or not they speak to their teenagers. Or find books that kids love, and see if the parents can imagine themselves young again.

It's just possible that both sides might learn something new. And the library would have helped.

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