Opinion

Libraries serve communities, not aggrieved parents. Challenged books have much to teach Kansans.

December 12, 2022 3:33 am
Books on shelf in library

School and community libraries in Kansas have faced challenges to the content of books. But libraries do more for their communities than archive dusty volumes, writes Clay Wirestone. (Getty Images)

Libraries hold a conflicted place our collective imagination. To many of us — to me personally — they’re magical. We were first exposed to worlds of imagination and ideas on the shelves of our local libraries. To others, these buildings serve as indispensable community gathering spots, places to learn and meet and share.

But to a small and vocal group, school and town libraries threaten social order.

Challenged books week

Kansas Reflector opinion columnists read books challenged by parents and residents and give their thoughts.

Monday: Clay Wirestone on libraries.
Tuesday: Lori Brack on “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”
Wednesday: Iridescent Riffel on “Melissa.”
Thursday: Mark McCormick on the stakes for students.

To these parents and town residents, libraries offer books that can warp or corrupt the minds of youths. Never mind the ceaseless flow of filth on TV sets or online, these residents seem to say. The real threats lurk between two covers. In St. Marys, the town flirted with the idea of shutting down the library altogether because of a book featuring a transgender student. Other communities across the state have seen similar challenges to their library collections.

These controversies tend to resolve in similar ways. After someone lodges a complaint, library staff and town or school authorities review the book. They consult guidelines. They hold meetings. Usually, but not always, the book remains in the collection.

This only makes sense. Libraries don’t serve aggrieved individuals. They serve masses of people, either students or communities. A family can always choose not to check out an offending volume. They can choose not to visit the library altogether. A whole town or school still needs access to information, especially to new ideas or controversial subjects. Together, they learn and grow in compassion.

Library professor R. David Lankes sums it up: “Bad libraries build collections. Good libraries build services (of which a collection is only one). Great libraries build communities.”

A view of books inside the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library in St. Marys
The Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library’s lease was questioned by the St. Mary’s City Commission. It ended up being renewed. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

 

The library’s perspective

Libraries didn’t ask to be put in this position.

I’m married to a longtime library director, and his experiences have changed my perceptions. Libraries exist to serve their communities, full stop. That means that some libraries stock abundant romances or true crime books, while others may boast of extensive science fiction collections. Other communities may enjoy audio books or DVD movies or video games. Collections tend to follow the tastes of those who actually use libraries.

Far from being temples of learning, libraries behave like living organisms. They shed old books every year, a process known as “weeding.” Books that don’t circulate or contain outdated information should be removed from the shelves. My husband tells me that keeping a collection trim and well-organized improves the user experience. More people check out more books.

I heard the same during a conversation with the owner of a local record store. People want options, but they want to feel in control while they browse.

All this means that school and community libraries may be many things to many people, but they don’t court controversy for the sake of controversy. They offer books they think people want to read. They offer spaces they think people want to use. Most library directors want to have honest dialogue with those who may complain about their holdings. It may well be that the book someone finds profoundly offensive hasn’t been checked out since 2002. In which case, who’s being harmed?

Gerard Kleinsmith, vice mayor on the St. Marys City Commission, complained the town’s library doesn’t have books by former President Donald Trump: “You can’t even check out one book by a former president who won the county by almost a four-to-one margin,” he said.

The obvious question would be how many active library users want to check out such books. If they demand it, the library director might want to act.

Regardless, the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library has access to the Sunflower eLibrary. That service has electronic versions of books by Trump available for checkout. You can also check out the former president’s Truth Social account if you’re curious about his most recent thoughts.

Libraries have evolved along with the rest of us. As just noted, most offer ebooks along with physical copies. Other kinds of media can be checked out as well. More than many other taxpayer-supported institutions, they understand the need to adapt.

 

In the past nine months, hundreds of books across dozens of states are being banned at an alarming rate. A majority of the bans feature books written by authors who are people of color, LGBTQ+, Black and Indigenous, and feature characters from marginalized groups. (Getty Images)
A majority of the books being challenged in school and community libraries are written by authors who are people of color, LGBTQ, Black and Indigenous, and feature characters from marginalized groups. (Getty Images)

The personal perspective

All this leaves the books themselves. What about these collections of words, sharing stories and individual experiences? What about the challenged works and their authors?

The Kansas Reflector opinion section has decided to visit the library this week. Three of our dedicated columnists have sat down and gathered their thoughts about challenged works. They joined me to talk about their experiences on this week’s podcast installment, and you’ll be reading their columns during the next few days.

Let me tell you a little bit about them.

  • Lori Brack has helped lead a group of freelance writers covering arts throughout Kansas. She helped start this project back in May after the book “All Boys Aren’t Blue” was challenged in Salina. At the time, I considered bringing together writers to read these challenged works. But with the politics of the summer and fall, the project didn’t coalesce until recent weeks.
  • Iridescent Riffel has written about transgender folks and the ways that Kansas politicians exploit their humanity. At the same time, she has been a courageous voice for kindness and openness in our communities. I thought she would be the perfect person to read and comment on “Melissa,” the book that touched off the dispute in St. Marys.
  • Finally, Mark McCormick has been a longtime columnist for the Reflector (and other Kansas news media outlets) addressing racial justice and discrimination. His idea for the last of the columns was to take a wider, more comprehensive view of what’s at stake for our children. Mark has been an invaluable guide in recent months, as have all of these contributors. I may edit their columns, but their words teach me.

Events like “Banned Books Week” in October urge readers to experience challenged books themselves, firsthand. Our week of columns gives a similar perspective. With society enmeshed in debates about race and sexual orientation, we can all benefit from hearing how others live and experience reality.

Brack perceptively writes of “All Boys Aren’t Blue” that it “should be read and evaluated as an unfolding picture of the cultural moment, a necessary contribution to our national conversation about race and sexuality.”

We can all contribute to that conversation.

How? You can start by simply visiting your local library. Check out a book — challenged or not. Attend a community event. Be part of constructing civic institution that, at its best, brings people together.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Clay spent 2017 to 2021 at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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