Who Decides What America Reads?
- Wednesday, November 12, 2008
A young anonymous librarian, referred to as “Jay Otis,” used the following words in a charge against librarians in the mid 1930s: “The librarian as censor must try to represent the best and most enlightened public opinion.”1
Homeschooling parents will discover in sharp contrast that the “best and most enlightened opinion” today rarely reaches as far as works on scientific topics from a creationist perspective or non-revisionist history. The public library in Palmdale, California, for example, apparently carries no books on scientific topics (i.e., biology, geology, dinosaurs, the Great Ice Age, and so forth) from a creationist perspective. It does, however, address the topic of creation in nine books. The opposing view, seemingly accepted as the “best and most enlightened opinion,” is 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 will find a handful of biographies on such greats as Billy Graham, Jonathan Edwards, and Corrie Ten Boom, you are less likely to find books on personalities such as Isaac Newton and Freidrich Handel that relate the deep faith of these individuals. Theologian, conference speaker, and homeschooling father 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 [Texas] Public Library. Why? She’s a Christian. Her name is Fanny Crosby.”
Most parents are under the impression that librarians (who perpetuate the belief) choose books for their stacks based on public demand. Librarian Lillian Nolan of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, proved to be helpful and gracious 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.”
This concept is true to a certain extent, but it is not the sole criterion used in choosing books for public stacks. Note the contradictory parameters given in “Redesigning Library Services: A Manifesto,” which cites Lionel McColvin in his classic The Theory of Book Selection for Public Libraries. “No demand means no use and, therefore, no benefit,” McColvin argues. But he also argues that a passive adapting of collections to public 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.
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. (London: Grafton, 1925)
How does this affect unknowing library patrons? Mike 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 is placed before him in the library, but he will unconsciously begin to make value judgments about what is not on the shelves. “It must not be important if it’s not in the library.”
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