Check it out: Librarians aren't enemies of the people.
They aren't now. They weren't back five, 10, 20 or 30 years ago, either. But every few years someone decides libraries are the battleground on which to fight against the perceived iniquities of modern society.
Public libraries are one of the best inventions of mankind. They are repositories of knowledge charged not with keeping it all behind lock and key, but accessible to the masses, in most cases for free. Experience shows, however, that the sharing of knowledge doesn't make everyone comfortable. Think the Forbidden Zone, Charlton Heston/Dr. Zaius style.
Operating a library, and being a professional library, can from time to time feel like waltzing through a minefield. Think about it: How do you meet the needs of a diverse population of taxpayers whose money supports the library's collection? How do you provide the widest swath of information to the widest swath of people?
The truth is, any good library will always have some book or movie or other volume capable of offending someone in the community. That's because communities are never so monolithic that everyone will agree on every issue or decision. They call it library science for a reason. It's not just willy-nilly selection of volumes or organization of information. Librarians typically are people with a high level of respect for people's intelligence and for access to information. They deliver on it every day, quite literally.
When people come along who believe in, shall we say, a more restrictive view of information access, it's perhaps only natural that librarians and libraries get in their cross hairs. Librarians have been the subject of cancel culture before anyone knew what that term even meant. Every few years, politicians or other crusaders start looking for books or other materials in libraries and designate themselves as the culture warriors whose mission includes shoving changes in societal attitudes they don't like back into the box they wish Pandora had never opened.
It's a form of making America great again, with visions of Mayberry and a time when Dick and Jane ran around the white picket fences. It was idyllic. And while some people's insular lives might have looked like that, the imagery is entirely a fantasy as far as capturing the American experience.
As we noted, operating a library is one of the best things any community can do, but too many people think it's easy -- or even desirable -- to stock the shelves with materials that won't shock or offend anyone. The overarching goal of a library is, or should be, to inform, not to avoid offense.
If you're looking to be offended, we're sure you can meet that need at a public library, or even a public school library.
That's what going on right now in Arkansas and other places. It's not a conspiracy, per se, but the current flood of self-appointed crusaders combing through library databases for any number of books on a circulated list of "offensive" volumes arises from a loose network of organizations and individuals looking for a place to focus their outrage over what they perceive as a society headed in the wrong direction. They're the last line of defense against whatever they've come to define as perversion, sinfulness or behaviors that might otherwise lead an unsuspecting soul to ruin.
Now, let's not pretend that what goes on the shelves of any library is or should be a free-for-all. Libraries need careful and informed analysis of books and other materials. Budgets usually serve to constrain libraries from getting every volume they might want, so choices indeed have to be made.
A library's offerings, however, need to serve a broad and extraordinarily diverse collection of people, with disparate information needs. That's where these attacks by special interest groups and individuals are disconcerting: Often, it's not just that they're trying to protect themselves or their families from exposure to certain kinds of information; these crusaders press for libraries to shed volumes so that nobody in the community might access them.
And let's be honest: The targets these days are the same ones the Arkansas Legislature has felt a need to legislate against. It's popular at the state Capitol to malign Arkansans viewed as transgressing traditional values and to create an atmosphere that says, "You're not welcome here."
Some lawmakers have joined in the battle against librarians, painting them as probable indoctrinators, people with agendas, destroyers of innocence and communities. One bill making its way through the process will remove a law protecting librarians from criminal prosecution under obscenity laws should they "furnish" a harmful item to a minor.
Senate Bill 81 also aims to codify a process for challenging the "appropriateness of material" for children in public and school libraries, again demonstrating how some Republicans, once champions of local control, now eschew local decision-making.
Lawmakers should leave the libraries alone and stop adding fuel to the fire that's designed to consume certain ideas based on loud and persistent challengers' criticisms, not the overall needs of the community. It's not that libraries shouldn't have a process for review; most we know of have exactly that. But the goal today appears to be turning over library decision-making to the most restrictive views within a community. That flies in the face of what should be a library's mission.
Discussions are fair expectations. What's happening today feels more like a crusade in which someone -- probably a librarian -- is going to figuratively be burned at the stake, on a fire made of stacked books.
Libraries and librarians do not deserve to be attacked. And certainly decisions about which books should be on the shelves shouldn't belong to city councils and quorum courts, which are political bodies ill-equipped to serve as arbiters. Some of them will run for cover at the hint of controversy, which doesn't always service communities well.
Here's the solution for people concerned about their kids seeing or learning something that might offend: Monitor what your kids bring home. Have conversations with them. Engage them about important issues relevant to their age groups. Be on guard for opportunities to communicate your values through the unique relationship your family members share.
But don't make the mistake of believing every family in your community wants to apply your values to their circumstances.
The best thing everyone can do for libraries is to let them be the valuable assets they are to every community and not attempt to force them into a narrow view of what knowledge gets a crusader's stamp of approval.
There's a whole wide world out there and libraries need to reflect that. As for the transmission of values, that's the very important task of each family through faith, traditions and relationships.