Not long ago, I had a visit from the father of a 15 year old young man. The son is the friend of a recent suicide, also 15. Shortly after that death, the father found about a dozen CDs in his son's possession, all checked out from the library, and many marked with "parental discretion advised."
And the father lost it. He broke many of the CDs, demanded from library staff a list of everything his son had ever checked out, and had many confrontations with his son. He also tried to call me, and I returned the calls, but we never connected.
By the time he came to see me, though (the day of the suicide's funeral), the father was in a very different mood. He presented all the CDs to me, admitted that he was the one who destroyed them, and very respectfully said that he understood that the library, and that I personally, do a lot to help the youth of our county to be healthy. But he could not square that with the availability of these CDs, many of which, he said, had themes of suicide in many songs.
And this encounter goes to the heart of libraries and challenges. The father was not a wild-eyed censor, seeking the destruction of all library materials. He was a father who was deeply afraid for the well-being of his son. We had a very frank talk. I understand his fear. I've lost friends to suicide, and I well remember the anger, often misdirected, that results from it.
I have thought about these issues for years, and shared some of my thinking with him: first, that although many people, particularly when they're afraid, think the job of the library is to protect children, that isn't so, at least not through the suppression of access to knowledge. Our job is access. We don't direct our culture; we reflect it. That includes a lot of stuff that makes non-fans squirm. Second, removing such materials from libraries doesn't suddenly make them unavailable to youth; we buy them because youth have already heard them, because they are in demand. Third, emotional expression, even of very dark moods and feelings, is the meaning of music. It's how youth work through the complex feelings of adolescence. Fourth, young people often have no idea what the singers are going on about. The man admitted that he loved hard rock as a youth, and often, didn't know the lyrics at all, or attach much significance to them when he did.
But we also discussed another truth: there are waves of teen suicide, with one setting off another. And at such times, there is a terrible fear that your own children might be next. Faced with that, you think, why would any public institution want to have anything that might contribute to the next death?
The man was most careful to articulate that he did not blame the library for the suicides. As we discussed, the "trigger" could be anything or nothing. Finally, he just respectfully disagreed with the stand of the libraries about purchasing and providing such material to teenagers, and asked me to review the items and think through our policies again. That's a perfectly reasonable request.
And I will.