Who Chooses What America Reads?
September 10, 2012
By Carmen Rockett
Librarians seldom admit that they practice censorship…They call it “a proper choice of books with a limited book fund. Anything not in keeping with the ideas of the library board…is ruled out.” (Attributed to George Bowerman)
A young anonymous librarian, referred to as “Jay Otis” used these words in a charge against librarians in the mid 1930’s: “The librarian as censor must try to represent the best and most enlightened public opinion.” He continues, “The ‘best and most enlightened opinion’… seldom reaches as far as the works of Marx, Lenin, Strachey and Dutt.”
Library patrons will discover that the “best and most enlightened opinion” today rarely reaches as far as works on scientific topics from a creationist perspective and non-revisionist history. The public library in Palmdale, California, for example, apparently carried no books on scientific topics (i.e., biology, geology, dinosaurs, the Great Ice Age, etc.) from a creationist perspective. This library gives a token nod to the topic of creation in nine books. The opposing view, seemingly the “best and most enlightened opinion” was expressed within 32 volumes on the topic of evolution and 33 on Darwinism/Darwin.
Another area of concern includes biographies written from a Christian perspective. Although you’ll find a handful of biographies on such greats as Billy Graham, Jonathan Edwards, and Corrie Ten Boom, you’re less likely to find books on personalities such as Isaac Newton and Freidrich Handel that relate the deep faith of these individuals. Theologian and conference speaker, Mike Davis discussed his frustrations with the library system’s lack of equitable treatment for materials expressing positive views of anything Christian: “To give you an example, I searched for a book on the first woman ever to speak before a joint session of Congress. She knew five presidents personally, published over 5,000 poems and she was blind. Her biography is not in the Austin Public Library. Why? She’s a Christian. Her name is Fanny Crosby.”
Most people are under the impression that librarians (who perpetuate the belief) choose books for their stacks based on public demand. This concept is true to a certain extent, but it’s not the sole criterion used in choosing books for public stacks. Note the instruction given in “Redesigning Library Services: A Manifesto,” which cites Lionel McColvin in his classic The Theory of Book Selection for Public Libraries (London: Grafton, 1925).
“No demand means no use and, therefore, no benefit,” McColvin argues. But he also argues that a passive adapting of collections to demand would betray the mission of the library.
“‘If however, we consider the library as a social force with the power to direct to some extent man’s demand…we will not be content to leave demand our only consideration.” (p. 37, emphasis in original).
It is a matter of deliberately privileging some documents over others…The books placed in the shelves, in the reader’s face, so to speak, carry an implicit endorsement: These you should read; these are good books for you…Other materials, those not selected for (or weeded from) the collection, are actively (though implicitly) treated as less suitable for readers.’”
How does this affect unknowing library patrons? Davis explains the impact by putting it in terms of an impressionable child left by his parents to browse in the library. Not only will he pick up and absorb what’s placed before him in the library, but he will unconsciously begin to make value judgments about what’s not on the shelves. “It must not be important if it’s not in the library.”
Great minds, including ministers and statesmen, built our earliest libraries for the purposes of improving and serving the public. The library belongs to the public, and should fairly represent the needs and beliefs of the population. What does our population believe? In 2011, according to a series of surveys conducted by the Barna Group, 84% of Americans consider themselves to be Christians, while 67%, when given several options, chose the following description of God: “the all-knowing, all-powerful and perfect Creator of the universe who still rules the world today.” According to those statistics, between 67% and 84% of the taxpayers in this country espouse Christian values. Library collections simply don’t reflect the flavor of the American public, nor do they indicate that our tax dollars are being spent in a way with which we agree.
The war for the hearts, minds and souls of Americans rages around us! Ephesians 6:11-13 puts this into perspective: “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”
There is an evil presence who wants our hearts as well as the hearts of our children. He’ll use every tactic possible to snatch a soul, and what better way than through entertainment or education—in this case, books. Consider this quote by Nobel Literature Prize winner, Saul Bellow, “There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” This statement holds true whether the information you present is truth or fiction - whether it is uplifting or demoralizing. Words move people’s souls and change value systems. European Dictator, Adolph Hitler realized this while striving to bring Germany and all of Europe under his iron grip. He believed firmly in the power of the written word as seen in this quote taken from his autobiography, Mein Kampf, “For even propaganda is no more than a weapon, though a frightful one in the hand of an expert.”
So what—does all this matter? Is it our place to restore balance to libraries or do we take an indifferent stance? One mother answered my survey question, “Are libraries important tools in affecting the moral climate of the public?” with this response, “Personally, I think the library should be there to impart information, not morals.” Really? Is this even possible? Can libraries present information on religion, history, science, or politics without imparting morals? I contend that when a child encounters the 215 books on witches and witchcraft in the Palmdale library or the 192 books on Islam and related topics, they will affect his beliefs and morals. Karl Marx believed that the power to change society lay within the confines of pen and ink when he proclaimed, “Give me twenty-six lead soldiers and I will conquer the world.”
With the bad news comes good news. We can help fix this problem. I am not recommending censorship—only that we stop the censorship of books that promote our conservative values. We have the same weapon the enemy loves to use—the written word. The following steps will allow individuals or groups to make changes in their own communities:
Prayer—The Front Line. Prayer is every Christian’s first line of defense. (Phil. 4:6 and Prov. 15:29) But we can’t just use it as our first line of defense—we should keep on praying if our requests are clearly lined up with His will (See Luke 18:1).
Meet With Like-Minded Individuals. The goal of meeting with other concerned individuals is to share our vision to improve libraries and work with them to build a more balanced collection. These meetings provide an excellent forum to develop ideas regarding how to approach library staff, to gather information about the local library, and to compose book recommendation lists that match our criteria as addressed in a later paragraph.
Research. Effective task groups become familiar with how libraries operate. Ask questions such as:
- What policies do they follow and why?
- What are their goals? Can we help shape those goals or redirect them?
- Where do libraries obtain funding?
- To what higher authorities does our local library answer?
- Who are we dealing with? Learn the names and background the director, the library board, and the library staff.
Conduct internet searches, peruse newspaper archives, and visit with friends and associates, and interview library staff to find the necessary information.
Establish a Rapport. At a concerned Mom’s meeting, one mother made a point that’s vital to the success of this effort. “It’s important that we tell the library staff how grateful we are for all they do.” This concept applies the wisdom of Proverbs 22:11, “He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king for his friend.” By approaching library staff in a gracious manner, we may find we have library staff friendly to our cause.
Clarify criterion for choosing books. Libraries have some really fine books on a variety of topics already, and they have plenty of what Susan Schaffer MCauley, author of For the Children’s Sake, calls “twaddle.” We want to help them fill in the gaps, which are:
- Materials on scientific topics from a Creationist perspective
- Materials that show fathers as godly (or at minimum) moral heads of their own households.
- Materials that promote the institution of the family as designed by God with one father, one mother, (and children) united in a bond of love.
- Materials that expose the dangers of cults and satanic activity.
- Materials that point to Christ as the solution for today’s problems.
- Materials that report events in history without revision.
Acquire Books. We can help libraries to achieve balanced collections in more than one way:
- Book Suggestions—libraries have a system that allows patrons to suggest books by name or ISBN number. This method does not cost the individual, but there’s no guarantee the library will purchase suggested items. Librarian Lillian Nolan, of Fond du Lac, WI, proved to be helpful when I discussed the lack of balance in public collections. She expressed her willingness to add books supporting creationism and strong traditional families, but she asserted, “I will only keep them in the collection if they’re checked out regularly.”
- Book Donations—Libraries often accept donations from patrons with few restrictions. Individuals or church groups can donate excellent books from trusted sources to libraries. It must be understood that the library reserves the right to sell any books donated in their annual “Friends of the Library” sale, so you face some risk that your money won’t achieve the goal you intended.
I’ve learned by experience that you may be able to improve the chances that your donations will remain in the library by discussing your intentions with the director of the library, and with each acquisitions librarian. They may be willing to look over your list of book suggestions (include sources) to preapprove your purchases.
Follow the Chain of Command. When librarians resist attempts by the taxpaying public to include specific books, what recourse do we have? Davis tells us that if we have addressed librarians in an appropriate manner, we should move up the chain of command with letters to our elected officials. We should explain our concerns respectfully and delineate the steps we have taken. Often a polite letter from an organization such as the American Center for Law and Justice will help errant libraries see the expedience of honoring reasonable requests.
Spread the Word. As mentioned above, an important criterion to determine if a book remains in the library is whether or not the book circulates. Many Christian families have given up on the library because they are frustrated with the lack of balance in the selection. Inform Christian families about efforts to improve the collection. Spread the word by writing articles for newsletters of interested groups. Arrange to speak at Christian school, home school, and community meetings to tell how important it is that these books circulate.
Who chooses what the American public reads? This important task must not be left in the hands of those who consider themselves the enlightened elite, preaching the belief systems of Marx, Darwin, or the Koran, while tearing down traditional Judeo-Christian values.
Now that your learning is abused:
Now that the fighting’s at your door:
Now are you peaceful in your house?
Now are you neutral in this war?...
I say the guns are in your house:
I say there is no room for flight.
--- Archibald MacLeish, “Speech to Scholars” as quoted in Forbidden Books in American Public Libraries, 1876-1939 (Greenwood Press, 1984)