by Lynn Mandaville
Even though I am six years gone from Wayland and eight years gone from “my” Henika Library, I keep as close tabs as I can on both through this publication.
So, it was with more than passing curiosity that I read the article this past week about the request for removal of a book from the high school library called Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.
In case you’ve not been paying attention, there have been, in recent months, inordinate numbers of cases of what is mistakenly called book banning throughout the country.
I say mistakenly called banning because I think in most cases it’s a matter of books being challenged in public and school libraries, rather than outright calls to ban, or worse, burn books.
But let me digress to an earlier time that does reflect on today’s iteration of objections to literature in libraries now.
I began my career at the Henika Library in 1985. The library was then an agency of the City of Wayland, and was, therefore, under the auspices of city government, from financial to general policy and procedure.
My first experience with an objection to material held in the library’s collection was from a small, elderly woman with Parkinson’s who frequented the library once a week.
Her usual fare were romances. But not just any romances, mind you.
She read romances from Avalon Publishing, a publisher which caters to a specific demographic of readers.
Avalon books are published in various genres from romance to mystery to westerns. They range in length from 170-199 pages and are wholesome stories entirely without profanity or overly descriptive action.
These were the books my patron was familiar with. Pleasant and squeaky clean.
Apparently, someone had recommended she read a title outside her normal fare, a large print edition of a Harlequin romance. If you know Harlequin books, they, too, are geared toward a specific demographic of readers, one that tends to like its stories a bit more “descriptive” in nature.
My patron approached the desk as usual, and I greeted her as always with a friendly “How are you today?”
And she responded by slapping the Harlequin large print romance on the counter saying, “This book deserves to be put right in the burn pile!”
I took her meaning right away.
She found it to be filthy. As soon as the characters began to embrace and kiss passionately, she was done with it and back to express her strong objection.
I listened to her politely, then asked if she wished to lodge a formal complaint to the board.
It turned out she didn’t want to. She simply wanted someone to hear her out, to offer her an apology, and to steer her back toward the newer Avalon romances she could count on.
Five years later into my career I was serving on the Wayland Board of Education, and a parental complaint came to the board about a Newberry Award book by Lois Lowry called The Giver.
The Giver is a dystopian novel for young adults about a society in which one person in every few generations is tapped to be The One upon whom all society’s secrets, fears, and anguish are bestowed to spare the rest of the people that pain. It should be also be noted that the Newberry Award is one given to a single title each year for excellence in children’s literature.
I was particularly interested in how the school district dealt with such complaints, since there was nothing in city policy nor in Henika Library policy for handling a complaint more serious that that I had dealt with over the “dirty” romance.
And it was none too soon, because it was only a short time before an elderly gentleman strode into Henika Library with a non-fiction book in hand, wanting the book removed from the library altogether.
This book was one volume from a Time-Life historical series about the 1960s, and it dealt with the Lyndon B. Johnson years following the assassination of JFK and during the turbulent Vietnam war era.
The objection made by this gentleman was that it quoted Johnson using particularly salty language which, in his opinion, demeaned the office of the President.
I know that this seems somewhat quaint an objection in these times when f-bombs are prevalent. But Mr. T. was adamant that to quote the President using such language was utterly unacceptable in a book held in a public library.
Without my experience on the school board, I wouldn’t have had the policy, procedure, or template on which to base the protocol my library board would follow to handle this complaint fairly and thoroughly.
And I believe, from reading this recent article about the challenging of Oryx and Crake, that the policy used for this challenge hasn’t much changed from the early 1990s. (If I’m incorrect about anything substantive here, please, readers, please correct anything I’ve said.)
Just as we did in the public library, the first step is to offer a challenge form to the complainant on which he or she gives all pertinent information about the book in question: title, author, publication date and publisher, and specific citations found to be objectionable.
Once the form is received by the curriculum director a committee is formed composed of a school librarian/media specialist, an English teacher at the appropriate grade level (not required at our public library), at least two board members, and a community member at-large.
Their first order of business is for each committee member to read the book in its entirety, meaning all of it. A reasonable timetable must be established since many books can be lengthy, and a committee member’s time may be short.
Second, the committee members meet to discuss their opinions about the book and the specific complaint made about it. It is here that the committee must come to an agreed upon recommendation to the board as to the disposition of the title; to keep it, to discard it, or to move it to a more appropriate location within the district’s libraries.
Third, the recommendation is made to the whole board at a regularly scheduled public meeting where a verdict is made.
When the Henika Library Board’s committee met, all members had read the volume about LBJ from cover to cover, and it was agreed that a book reporting factually on the historical record should not, and would not, be culled from the series in which it appeared, much less from the public library collection.
When the WUS committee convened concerning The Giver, not only did all committee members read the book from cover to cover, but so had the complaining parent. Each page cited as having an objectionable passage was reviewed and discussed. The librarian/media specialist offered copies of reviews from professional journals such as Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and any other reviews deemed pertinent to this award-winning book.
After determining that the book had merit, that it was placed properly within the school’s libraries, and was not detrimental to students who chose to read it, the committee recommended that the Board of Education retain the title in its current locations.
The decision was accepted respectfully, and the committee was thanked for its time spent.
In this recent report about Oryx and Crake we don’t get all this detail, but we do know that the complainant had not read the book in its entirety, but, in fact, had read only 19 pages, whereas the school board members on the committee had read it in all its 400-page fullness.
I can only assume that the procedure for consideration of objectionable materials has not changed in the many years since I sat on the committee for The Giver, or for another book from one of the elementary school libraries, a non-fiction book of animals we find on the farm, probably published in the 1950s. (In that case the item in dispute was a black and white photograph of a rooster mounting a chicken. The photo measured maybe 1 and ½ inches square on the bottom of the page near the fold. That book was also retained in the library as age appropriate and community appropriate, seeing as to the proportion of the population which was agricultural at the time.)
So, to return to our current political climate in America, I believe what we are witnessing now is not just one person whose sensibilities have been offended by a single book.
No longer is it enough to hear someone out, to simply listen with respect while she vents about the wretched book she couldn’t continue to read.
What we are witnessing is a full-scale threat to the First Amendment by an ultra-conservative, Christian Nationalist movement.
I am not suggesting that the parent who objected to Oryx and Crake is a member of such a movement.
In fact, the article doesn’t make mention one way or another about any affiliations that parent may have, or of how the decision of the board was met by her, so I can only assume that the objection was hers alone and that the decision was accepted graciously.
But around the nation we are hearing reports about unruly mobs of people gathering at local board of education meetings to rant and rave about the pornography being forced upon innocent children from kindergarten through high school, about the “grooming” of public-school kids in the ways of (gasp!) liberals and, worse, teaching factual American history at its less than stellar times.
Unlike in the four challenges related above, the decisions of local school and public library boards are not being accepted graciously for being considered carefully, thoroughly, and fairly by the committees charged to do so.
In fact, elected officials are now being threatened with bodily harm for the service they provide their constituents in defending First Amendment Freedom of Speech.
Also, in fact, in a community not too far from Wayland, the Patmos Library in Georgetown Township has been held hostage by a well-funded minority of citizens who have mounted successful opposition to millage renewals for general support of the public library.
I would put it to you that most, if not all, of these modern attempts to censor library materials are unconstitutional.
With the possible exceptions of school materials where local standards may have some bearing on age-appropriate content, or where material is entirely hate speech or outright calls to sedition, it is entirely un-American to censor information from its population.
A truly free society cannot exist where ready access to information and the printed word is denied.
And it is my personal opinion that without the First Amendment all other amendments are worthless.
I applaud the Wayland Union Board of Education for their thankless duty to the people they were elected to serve.
And I applaud the woman who voiced her concern for her courage to express herself in a safe space where she accepted the results with grace.