NWA EDITORIAL | Libraries and librarians are not the enemies in the current phase of the culture wars

Libraries, librarians are not the enemies

Bookshelves and laptops are placed on the library desk.E-learning class and e-book digital technology - (Getty/stock photo)
Bookshelves and laptops are placed on the library desk.E-learning class and e-book digital technology - (Getty/stock photo)

In the United States, the word "freedom" is tossed around quite effortlessly these days. There were times in the nation's history that such declarations threatened to get colonists jailed or hanged. Modern-day Americans can often fall victim to a modified concept of freedom, i.e., a sense that the best government is the government that regulates most -- as long as that regulation is focused on someone other than ourselves.

The "others" in recent years have, by design in Arkansas and other GOP-controlled states, been the LGBTQ+ community. Part of a fear-driven approach to governing is finding a target with limited means to respond and for whom there is a relatively limited level of support in a wider population of similar thinkers. At different times in our nation's history, it's been different minority groups. Republican dominance in Arkansas has in recent years opened the door to some members of the party vilifying the LGBTQ+ community through legislation on drag queens, transgender individuals and, now, through limits on books they seem to fear might "turn someone gay," as though reading about it is the trigger.

Swept up in that attack have been, for example, teachers, accused of "indoctrinating" students with liberal ideas. And with the last legislative session, librarians have found themselves in the cross-hairs of state- and local-level politics over books with subject matter conservative activists find offensive.

To no one's surprise, some of the state's librarians aren't having it. A little more than a week ago, the Fayetteville Public Library, the Central Arkansas Library System, the Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library as well book sellers in the state filed a federal lawsuit, attempting to establish a bulwark against state government efforts to join a crusade against knowledge. The mechanism is defined as an effort to protect the children; the result is an overly broad constriction of freedom.

One of the reasons public libraries are such special places is because they are great equalizers -- the poor and rich, the learned and the not-yet-educated, people of all races and backgrounds can access information in libraries. When libraries have hundreds of thousands of volumes, rest assured there is something of interested to everyone. Also rest assured that somewhere in the stacks, there is reading material that will offend.

This is a feature of libraries, not a bug.

The battle in Arkansas, as most cultural political battles are, has been carefully crafted to appear as though librarians who oppose the state's approach to intervention must be tantamount to aiding and abetting pedophiles or perverts. But it's the state that has erred by creating laws so "sweeping," as the lawsuit's plaintiffs say, that legal, constitutionally protected books and other materials become subject to illegal government restraint.

Act 372 specifically would require new "off limits" sections of libraries where materials that could potentially meet a vaguely defined "harmful to minors" definition would need to be placed. Remember, Arkansas is a place with a lot of small libraries with such limited resources that architectural changes to meet the law would be impossible, leaving complete omission of materials as the only option to remain in compliance.

Keep in mind, too, the standard definition of minors as someone under 18. Does it make sense to lump materials suitable for a 17-year-old student in with materials that someone might view as "harmful" to a 5-year-old child, should a parent be lackadaisical enough to turn that younger child loose without no supervision.

There's also this particular Damoclean situation the law sets up: Even if libraries with tens or hundreds of thousands of volumes could build such restricted sections, leaving only one conceivably "harmful" book or other item on generally accessible shelves opens librarians to criminal liability. The category becomes so broad that librarians, even if they give it their best efforts, don't have full control over the circumstances that could land them in legal trouble. The result of that could be such a strict constraint on book selections that even adults would see their access to constitutionally protected materials limited. A library limited to little more than "See Jack run" doesn't serve the public.

Someone has to make decisions about what goes on the shelves of public libraries. In most instances, that's best left to knowledgeable and educated library professionals who value the spread of information, not the restraint of it based on political or other preferences. And, until when discussions of a book need to happen, we tend to think local library boards and their staff -- the ones closest to the public they serve -- should play the major role in determining what's appropriate. Libraries and their constituents certainly don't need legislatures setting the terms of book selections in 75 different counties -- especially when their effort to do so is riddled with constitutional problems.

Whatever villains lawmakers see or imagine seeing out there, it's not the libraries or librarians. And it's not books.

If this is the age of parental empowerment, as our governor has suggested, let's leave the power of child rearing and book selection in the hands of the parents.

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Whats the point?

Legislative dictation of library practices doesnt serve the interests of Arkansans and their use of libraries.


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