Last week, the California Library Association announced this year’s inductees into the California Library Hall of Fame. One of them is Tessa Kelso, the sixth head librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library. It’s worth looking back at this formidable librarian and an unusual episode in the history of intellectual freedom where she took the offensive against a would-be book burner by suing him… and winning.
Recently in The American Conservative, long-time conservative writer and pundit Rod Dreher wrote about ‘Queering the Public Library.’ Dreher, a resident of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, complained about the materials and programming offered by the Free Library of Philadelphia. At issue were those books and programs related to library’s Pride Month Celebration, including ‘information on bullying, safety, and coming out,’ ‘biographies of important LGBTQIA+ figures in the community,’ and two programs: a singer/songwriter celebrating diversity and a drag show.
Long after we won the Cold War, communism is still a fighting word for many in the United States. And materials for children and young adults are the source of most challenges to books and intellectual freedom, so this combination was a combustible one.
Government officials charged with overseeing public education may frame these attempts at censorship in terms of their pedagogical responsibilities, so it is important to see how these attempts differ from the appropriate use of responsible selection by professional educators and librarians.
Due the widespread adoption of digital materials, dwindling budgets, and economies of scale, more library collections aren’t under the control of librarians, who in many cases have essentially ceded control and collection development to outside vendors. Most of the time, the system works well and offers a wealth of material, but it has troubling implications for intellectual freedom.