By: Kate Lechtenberg
Recently, librarians in Rumford, Maine were accused of using displays of library books to further their “political agenda.” Librarians defended themselves, pointed out that their library displays are in line with policies about displays and programming. Deborah Caldwell-Stone pointed out that LGBTQ materials and displays are experiencing an “upsurge” as issues are being debated and becoming more mainstream in the public sphere. I’d like to explore two key ideas related to this issue; first, I argue that LGBTQ+ materials and displays are mainstream parts of today’s culture and libraries and second, I argue that creating LGBTQ displays is still a political act, just as choosing not to create those displays would be.
LGBTQ+ materials, displays, and programs are mainstream–not fringe
The pastors who challenged the displays in Rumsford argued that featuring LGBTQ texts is a radical move”: ““The library should not be promoting a far left political view that sees homosexuality as acceptable and to be promoted over and against a conservative and traditional view that sees homosexuality as wrong and to be avoided.”
An editorial in the Portland Press Herald rightly stated that “Banning discrimination based on sexual orientation is not a ‘”far left political view” in Maine – it is the law.” Likewise, the Supreme Court affirmed the right to same-sex marriage in 2015, and public opionion has steadily shown increased support for LGBTQ rights, with 73% of U.S respondants voicing acceptance of both gay and lesbian relations and same-sex marriage, and 63% supporting same-sex marriage. Similary, 62% of Americans report support for transgender rights.
Despite President Trump’s recent efforts to undermine transgender rights, the fact remains that affirming the rights and dignity of LGBTQ+ individuals is very much a mainstream position. In such a context, displays that simply feature stories by or about LGBTQ people, history and issues, cannot be considered partisan. At one time, perhaps simply creating a display simply featuring LGBTQ+ characters could have been considered a partisan statement, for example, in a time when sodomy laws were used to prosecute those engaged in same-sex sexual relations. However, those days are clearly gone, and the question is closed. That doesn’t mean everyone agrees, but it does mean that libraries can and should display LGBTQ+ books and provide relevant programming without fear of intimidation or censure.
Moreover, the American Library Association has clear position statements, policies, and resources supporting broad goals of equity, diversity, and inclusion and the Rainbow Round Table (previously the GLBT Round Table) provides specific support for LGBTQ patrons and issues. Even if public opinion and legal precedent were not so firmly in support of LGBTQ rights, the ALA’s commitment to inclusivity supports collection development, displays, and programming that affirm the dignity and humanity of all people.
On the larger question of the “political” in libraries
Fortunately, the displays in Rumford were upheld, as are many challenges to LGBTQ materials and displays across the country. I am proud to be part of a profession that actively promotes inclusivity as part of its everyday functions and long-term goals.
However, I also think it can be a mistake to go too far in denying the political nature of many choices that librarians must make every day. But by “political,” I don’t mean “partisan.” While “political” is often interpreted as meaning taking a position that sides with a particular political party’s stance, I find Hess and McAvoy’s distinction between “political” and “partisan” to be useful.
In their research in secondary social studies classrooms, they describe the “political” as any question that requires deliberation on the larger question of “how should we live together?” This broad questions acknowledges that as citizens, we hold values and beliefs on a variety of topics that relate to our everyday lives, ranging from those that address interpersonal relationships like “Should we use a person’s pronouns of choice or traditional male/female binary pronouns?” to questions directly related to politicians like, “Who is the best candidate for President?”
Hess and McAvoy draw a distinction between the former, a political question about how people in a democratic society should relate to each other, and the latter, a partisan question that requires a citizen to take sides on a particular political party, candidate, or policy. Nearly everything is “political” because it asks us to consider our values and beliefs about how people should make decisions about how to live together in diverse company–and we simply cannot avoid making decisions and, to some extent, advertising our beliefs on a daily basis. However, not everything is a partisan issue.
The basic dignity and legality of LGBTQ citizens, relationships, and rights are not partisan issues.
When a librarian makes a display featuring LGBTQ people, he or she is sending a message about the library’s values and beliefs. Likewise, if a library choses not to create a display featuring LGBTQ people, particularly, during GLBT Book Month, that choice is political. This sort of political choice is unavoidable in our work; we make these choices every day when we select books, create programming, and interact with patrons. The Rumsford librarians’ choice of display fits into this quotidien category of political choices, but they are not evidence of partisan advocacy.
Similarly, any display about Banned Books Week suggests a position on intellectual freedom issues, and any book display including Harry Potter books suggests a value for the book that surpasses concerns some have raised about the occult, disrespect to adults, or J.K. Rowling’s partisan comments.
We cannot and should not try to avoid or disavow the library’s place in the critical role in providing access to information to citizens seeking to deliberate on the question of “How should we live together.” But we also cannot ignore the fact that this very commitment to access and intellectual freedom are, in themselves, political commitments. And we can be proud of the values they represent.
Kate Lechtenberg earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Education, where her research focused on how teachers select, frame, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues. She teaches courses in young adult and children’s literature, collection development, and critical literacy at the University of Iowa. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.