Friday, September 27, 2013

Anoka County Library, Rainbow Rowell, and the road to censorship

It is a long story, well, too long for here. You can go here, to MPR, to see a sort of full story of this, but, almost briefly, I will try to outline it. A neighboring Library system to me, The Anoka County Library system, got together with their local public schools for a summer reading program. One of the books was "Eleanor and Park," a novel by Rainbow Rowell. A little parents group ended up complaining about it because there is swearing. I think they said "Oh my fucking god, there is so much fucking swearing in it!" No, they didn't really. Anyway, the School Board acted like these were reasonable, thinking people and apologized and took it very seriously, but we're not talking about them. We are talking about the Library system. Their big role was that they were bringing the author out for a talk with students. As this all sort of blew up, they withdrew the invitation. Or, here, this is how they put it:

 "The school district and the Anoka County Library system collaborated on the summer book program because we share the goal of encouraging young people to read. The district's media specialists selected the book and the library system agreed to fund the author visit. The county library was in the process of executing a contract with the author when we learned the book had been formally challenged by the parents of a student at one of our high schools. As a result of the challenge, leadership of the library concluded it would not be wise to finalize the contract and they chose to withdraw financial support for the visit. The author's visit would have occurred at the same time the school district was going through the challenge process. It may well have raised issues in the community that would have overshadowed and detracted from the purpose of the author visit, which was to give students the opportunity to talk with a writer about writing."

Presumably the leadership of the Library is Marlene Moulton Janssen, director of the Anoka County Library ( Apparently the Library Board was involved in the decision as well. I do not know if Ms Janssen has experience as a librarian or is merely an administrator, but her and the board's appropriate simple response to this situation was to continue to do everything in their power to book Rainbow Rowell, and have her come to their Library system, say they have
no authority over what the School system chooses to do, and say all Librarians involved have acted impeccably and that they stand by all their choices and support the validity and importance of Rainbow Rowell's work. They should reiterate that they run a free Library. For extra credit they would have tied it into Banned book week, hosted additional speakers on this issue, and loudly announced the buying of more copies of the book to support the increased demand. It should have been an opportunity!

The simple termination of the contract process bitterly failed Libraries and librarians everywhere, and is hard not to see as an act of cowardice. It would not have "raised issues in the community that would have overshadowed and detracted from the purpose of the author visit, which was to give students the opportunity to talk with a writer about writing". It would have clarified and enriched them.  It is not enough for the public and librarians to bemoan censorship and put old books on their quaint "banned books week" shelves, but they need to speak out directly where and how these things happen in Library systems, with people like Director Janssen and the Anoka County Library system trying to play it real careful around the edges of censorship and so facilitating it by ascribing so much respect to it.

I know that a neighboring Library system invited Ms Rowell to speak, and I have heard she is "Shy" of Minnesota. I think the situation as far as Libraries are concerned can still be redeemed, but at this point would probably best be done by the greater twin cities Libraries consortium, called MELSA. They should be getting Rainbow Rowell up here for a week to talk in a variety of area Libraries and generally making a fuss of this as a learning opportunity and a watershed event, rather than waiting for it to go away, which means it will more likely play out the same way in the future.

The issue of censorship is, fortunately, not one that Librarians must contend with relentlessly in our culture, but, though smaller than some of their day to day issues, the line they draw against that censorship is possibly the most fundamentally important aspect of their job, and no amount of vigilant thoughtfulness on this matter is too much. Visibly and publicly standing ones ground on this line is not just the right thing for Librarians and Libraries to do, it is their job. Get to it.
author and thing that came with author picture when stolen from her website!
some Anoka Library, I have no idea why I am putting pictures in this post.
Marlene Moulton-Janssen
Marlene Moulton Janssen!
Is this book appropriate for 2 year olds? We just ask that Libraries keep it behind the desk or on one of the higher shelves.

1 comment:

  1. Please do NOT let your two year old read Fahrenheit 451!!! I made that mistake many years ago. I left her with the book after reading Good Night Moon, thinking it will help put her to sleep. I woke the next morning to find that she had burned our household's entire library to the ground while we slept. I asked her why. She said to keep us safe. "But Daddy," she said, "I know them all. That big book about the whale, it starts like this, 'Call me Ishmael."


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