Libraries don’t hide controversial material, especially during a national movement

Displays, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Lisa Hoover

A trustee on the Fairfax County, Virginia Library Board has created a bit of a local stir with comments that suggest he wants to see censorship of library materials and displays. His comments were captured in a recording of the meeting. 

The trustee, Phillip Rosenthal, starts with a disclaimer that his statement is his opinion, “not what my supervisor thinks,” and by reassuring his listeners that he’s not racist. He then states that he is “appalled” at some of what he found in the library’s collection. The first on his list of concerns is books by “Muslim writers,” although he says he doesn’t really have an “issue” with books by Muslim writers. “Why don’t we have books by Catholic writers, or Mormon writers, or Jewish writers, or Baptist writers.” “We’re highlighting the Muslim writers,” he says. 

Fairfax County Public Library Dismantling Systemic Racism book list
Fairfax County Public Library

The thing that “most upsets” him, he explains, is that the title is “Dismantling Systemic Racism” by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a Co-Found of Black Lives Matter he identifies as a “Marxist” and “communist” and “anti-Semitic.” He says that by having it in the collection the library is “promoting” these “kinds of books” to the public, which he believes is improper. “There should be some books to tell the other side” and “we’re changing the history of America,” he continues. “A library is supposed to be non-partial,” he says. 

I decided to check out the library’s webpage to see exactly what he was objecting to; it turns out the library is not, at least as of 8/27/20, highlighting Khan-Cullors book per se – it has a carousel of books, of which hers is one, related to systemic racism.  Unless he just wants her book removed, I’m guessing he wants the carousel taken down, presumably because he objects to the focus on “systemic racism.” We’ll touch on the issue of currency later, but for now let’s focus on the other side argument. What is the “other side” of this issue, unless we’re going to highlight explicitly racist authors and books? Unless he wants to see books that argue systemic racism isn’t real, which I can see making an argument for, but I’m guessing that’s going to be hard to find in “popular” books – whether or not it exists seems more likely to pop up in academic literature. I did a little web surfing looking for something that would be a likely public library buy on the topic and didn’t find anything; perhaps Rosenthal has some suggestions for purchase? If so, it seems to be me adding them to the collection would be the right move, not removing what is already there. 

Rosenthal also mentions “Black Lives documentaries” in the collection and asks why “we don’t have some white lives documentaries.” 

I decided to take a look through the catalog – I looked for DVDs, then narrowed to biographical. I found, among other things, The King’s Speech, about King George VI; Itzhak, a film about violinist Itzhak Perlman; Chariots of Fire, about British Olympians; The Theory of Everything, about Stephen Hawking; Unbroken, about Louis Zamperini; Mary, Queen of Scots; Woman in Gold, about Maria Altmann; Suffragette, about (among others) a woman named Maud and Emmeline Pankhurst; The Founder, about Ray Kroc; Goodby Christopher Robin, about AA Milne; The Post, about Kay Graham; and The Greatest Showman about PT Barnum. If you’re not familiar with all of these names, they’re all white. 

I’m guessing the objection isn’t so much that the collection doesn’t have documentaries about “white lives,” but that they’re showcasing documentaries on black lives. I’m not on their web or collection development teams, but my guess is they’re highlighting documentaries on black people because most of the United States is currently talking about racial issues, but I’ll come back to that. 

Next Rosenthal calls out the Rainbow Reads book series. “Why don’t we have the flip side?” he asks. “I don’t know what we’re going to encourage our young readers to do” with those “types of titles” and says some of the county citizens are offended by these “types” of titles, specifically listing several religious communities. “And we’re promoting it on our website,” he says.  

I didn’t actually see any on the main catalog page that seemed to be promoting this, so either they took that down or he’s just objecting to having them in the collection at all. I didn’t find anything with a search for Rainbow Reads, so I decided to try some subject searching. Under Gay Rights — Children’s fiction, I found one book (This Day in June). Under Gay Rights — History — Children’s Material, I found one book (What was Stonewall?) I’m sure I missed a few that might fall under children’s or teen’s books, but it doesn’t seem like there is exactly a massive amount of reading material here. 

So the objection either becomes having them at all or highlighting them. The meeting was in July, so I’m guessing this may have been related to a digital display in June…. LGBTQ Pride Month. Highlighting current events and issues is what libraries are supposed to do. 

In addition, the idea that a library is “promoting” something by having it in the collection or including it on the website is pretty silly; my library has lots of stuff I don’t agree with. The Fairfax County Library appears to own Mein Kampf; I’m assuming the library isn’t promoting that. The library – and the librarians – don’t necessarily (and shouldn’t) agree with or support everything in the collection. We have a Bill of Rights about this. 

Another trustee or staff member chimes in and explains collection philosophy and the fact that the library collects related to issues of increased interest. Another trustee, identified by the Burke Connection as Darren Ewing “takes issue” with this explanation, saying to “hide behind” increased interest is “solely inaccurate” and we should “put the two wings up.” “There’s nothing wrong with social justice, but…to put it in a framework,” he says. The discussion then moves into a discussion of meeting procedure. 

I don’t disagree that libraries should collect materials on all perspectives, clearly they should, but highlighting or developing collections around current issues is not “hiding behind” anything – it’s what libraries are supposed to do. You anticipate what people are going to be interested in and looking for, and you make it easy for them to find. By doing things like creating a display. And again, I am curious how “two sides” should be represented here; what is the other side? 

Most of the country, if not the world, is looking at Black Lives Matter and civil rights issues in the US; pulling together the materials the library has on these issues makes sense and is an appropriate library decision. This is especially true given that it looks like 49% of the population in the county is non-white

The Virginia Library Association has also made a statement, available here, which says that these statements “run counter to the goals of a library, especially in one of the most diverse counties in Virginia.” The VLA cites the County Library’s strategic plan and emphasizes that to “protect and enrich” the community the library’s collection must reflect the community. 

It’s frustrating to see a Library Trustee – presumably someone who loves libraries – making these statements because they seem so antithetical to what libraries do. It’s not entirely clear what he wants as a solution, but at the very least it seems like he’s asking the library to ignore current events and to hide or downplay collections on controversial subjects. I’m also saddened by the implication that by including something on the library website the library is “promoting” it. Librarians buy and check out materials every day we disagree with; that’s our job. 

Reference list: 
Burke Connection. (2020) Outrage Over Comments by Trustee on Fairfax County Library Board. Burke Conneciton. Retrieved from August 27, 2020.

Lisa Hoover

Lisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.


  • You might want to point out that Patrisse Khan-Cullors *does* ID as communist and marxist.

    Anti-Semitic, it doesn’t seem so (can you find a reference for this? I cannot. even just try googling her name and anti-semitic…. nothing comes up). The way it is phrased is misleading and casts aspersions unnecessarily.

    While we probably wouldn’t want to feature on a display an anti-semitic work, this is much different than featuring a communist/marxist work.

  • I checked the catalog and quickly found some “Mormon writers” . Shannon Hale, Brandon Mull, Orson Scott Card, Stephanie Meyer and Brandon Sanderson

  • Such a great piece. Thanks for summarizing this so well. It’s such a concern when people within the library organization don’t understand the role libraries play in providing currency and access.

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