By: Jessica Garner
The quarter mark of 2018 has arrived (as of this writing) and it should surprise no one who pays even a casual amount of attention to current events, this first quarter has already been a blur of ideological clashes. I’ve been spending much of my energy in this space (and in my headspace) looking at how issues of intellectual freedom manifest themselves in a larger context. Librarians, after all, have been expending energy to keep their buildings, shelves, and collections free from the meddling hands of demagoguery since forever. The challenge is now facing media companies, corporations, individual citizens, and the government itself as overtly as any time before. As always, answers won’t often be simple or obvious. But sometimes, the world of current events still tosses us a good, old-fashioned, library fight.
Let us travel, for a moment, to Orange City, Iowa.
The battle over LGBTQ rights in the United States is hardly a new one, but it impossible to ignore the two-steps-forward-one-back gains made by the movement in the last 25 years. It’s hardly the end of the journey for activists, but 63 percent of Millennials say they feel “comfortable with LGBTQ people in all situations.” Anecdotally speaking, I feel like the number of accepting Millennials may be even higher.
Yet in Orange City, a petition was circulated to reorganize the shelving of public libraries to have all LGBTQ-themed books grouped together. A report in the Des Moines Register suggests the library has begun a move to test such a change and will vote again later to decide whether the acquisition process for new LGBTQ-themed books might also be altered by allowing a “review process” for new books dealing with LGBTQ themes. The petition calls for all new acquisition of LGBTQ materials to stop until the review process is discussed. The reporting on the board’s actions may be inaccurate, according to someone with knowledge of the events. At this time, it does not appear the library is labeling or segregating LGBTQ books, nor are they halting purchases. In my time as the acquisitions librarian for a much larger system in Georgia, I was never presented with any sort of constraint beyond financial ones. Frankly, the entire idea boggles my mind, but library history is riddled with examples of outside groups looking to control the content in libraries.
The petition had fewer than 350 signatures. Orange City has over 6,100 residents. If math isn’t your thing, about five percent of the population felt strongly enough about the issue to sign the petition. For all the “two steps forward” involved in the publication of so many more texts aimed at exploring LGBTQ issues, the petition to the library certainly represents the “one step back.”
Sometimes, making the connection from the cultural struggles at hand to the everyday function of libraries is an exercise in the vigilance of “what may be.” In Iowa, less than 10 percent of a small town is taking a straight line toward infringing the intellectual freedom (not to mention the emotional well-being) of an entire community.
Now, there are a lot of ways to organize a collection. And these petitioners are not asking to have the books banned. Yet. But the petition does ask the library to specifically single out a single bit of subject matter and ask to have it specifically segregated. I’m not sure about Orange City, Iowa, but in many small towns putting LGBTQ books together in one space is effectively quarantining them away from the readers who might most want to explore what those books held inside. I’m a Millennial and my husband is a Gen Xer, and we both have experience growing up in small towns. We agreed it would take enormous courage for a patron to be seen approaching such a collection if that person were just beginning an exploration of their sexuality or gender identity. Where is the intellectual freedom to learn and explore any topic, much less one so intimate, if the very layout of a library collection removes the ability for a patron to browse comfortably?
Again a battlefront on the Culture Wars intrudes on public libraries, as it so often does. Again we hope against hope to see strong voices emerge to encourage the people of Orange City to reject moves to control their collections and acquisitions. The broad and polarizing debates on politics should not be shouldering their way into the library, although it seems impossible they will remain outside. Our answers may not always be simple or obvious, but sometimes they are.
Jessica Garner is the Access Services Department Head at Georgia Southern University and has worked in Public and Academic libraries for over ten years. She has been involved with Children’s Services, Collection Development, Cataloging and Interlibrary Loan first as a Public Librarian at Live Oak Public Libraries and then at Georgia Southern University. Her scholarship interests include Interlibrary loan, intellectual freedom, and patron services. Find her on Twitter @jessCgarner.