Over the years, I’ve clocked a fair number of hours inside the walls of libraries. As a conditioned student, I cut my teeth on Melvil Dewey’s Decimal System. I’d later adapt, evolve and learn to speak the language of Zotero fluently.
When I wasn’t roaming the literature-filled stacks of the living and deceased, I buried my body, mind and soul into carrels with volumes wrapped in plastic film. Drizzled with academic-induced stress and beset by new calamities each semester, I’d sequester away from the world for a few short hours.
Between the stretches of exams and never-ending papers leaving me tired, poor and needing to catch my breath, a building filled with books gathering another decade’s worth of dust became “The New Colossus” I needed.
In the last few years, my experiences in them have shifted. My research is of a different nature than it was when I needed permission to view unique collections and archives.
I now spend my time in libraries chasing kids (they are my own, so this is acceptable). I’ve traded the distinct and alluring smell of musty publications penned by stale authors for chapter-less children’s books, and because of this, I’ve become reacquainted with the influencers of my youth: Harry Allard, Shel Silverstein and Ludwig Bemelmans.
Bookcases and endcaps for bedtime story materials are waist-high in this forgotten territory. Mixed in with the gleaning of the familiar, my family and I also bring home new offerings. An assortment of Duck and Goose adventures, Ryan T. Higgins’ Bruce the bear series, and my oldest child’s favorite, Barb the Last Berzerker.
If these titles are foreign to you, I strongly suggest you enter your local library’s children’s section immediately. A mountain worth of magic rests there. These bastions of hope are filled with literature and possibilities, along with activities, crafts and displays beckoning an adolescent’s imagination.
I confess I, myself, would never be so bold as to place glue sticks, colored markers and beads in front of multiple children in a room full of tempting periodicals, but librarians are a different breed. They are, indeed, superheroes.
Their ability to create a space to harness juvenile-fueled havoc is as remarkable as it is commendable. Yet not everyone feels this way.
In my small community of Suffield, Connecticut, librarians, the books they procure, and their vocational competency are being scrutinized. The most recent incident is the most alarming and the one that finally caught my attention.
A few months ago, a children’s book, What Are Your Words?: A Book About Pronouns was part of a large display in the children’s section. The short work by author Katherine Locke and illustrator Anne Passchier describes a day in the life of a young person named Ari.
Ari and his uncle talk about the words that describe them and how they feel that day, including pronouns like she/her, he/him, they/them, ey/em, and ze/zir. We’ve read this book in our house, finding nothing scandalous or salacious in it. Others in our community have not felt the same.
A concerned citizen felt threatened and believed the library and its staff were pushing an agenda. This caused an elected town official to become involved, resulting in the book being removed from display.
Subsequent meetings have transpired at our town hall and library since, with emotions running high and tension tight as piano wire. All this led to the newly hired library director’s resignation.
At first, I watched from afar, catching up with the information I received in an attempt to get it all in order. I went back and read meeting minutes, viewed recordings, and attended the most recent in-person gathering. What I observed was disturbing.
I saw a lack of awareness and a detachment of anything resembling empathy offered by a portion of local government representatives, in this case, the current board of selectmen. Citizens of Suffield have shown up in frustration, worried about seeing their first selectman invoking authority and power to remove a children’s book from display.
Instead of listening to constituents, elected officials seemed more concerned about waiting for their chance to speak. Bristling with a defense reserved for courtrooms and a strategy to win at all costs, they quickly dismissed concerns as fictitious fabrications. This was done with a mixture of stone-cold stoicism, eyerolls and soft chuckles.
An acknowledgment of the sensitivity around this issue would have been refreshing to see. What’s transpiring instead is a fracturing community continuing to find another reason to break away from each other.
Watching the overreach of those in political power, my mind went to James Dunn. My time at Wake Forest School of Divinity just missed his tenure.
His passing a year before my arrival at the school is something I still haven’t forgiven him for. Yet his spirit speaks through those who knew him well, and his voice comes through the writings he left behind for the bold to discover and live out.
Dunn, a champion of religious freedom for all and maestro of public policy, once reflected, “Like breathing in and breathing out, freedom and responsibility are two parts of one process.” I reread these words recently.
I thought of the freedom given to those who enter libraries to sift through and pluck out information. Librarians have the right to go and seek and unearth the stories. The stories they choose often showcase places and people that remind readers of the vastness of this world and the close connectedness it can provide.
Stories provide proof of others out there who are like us or share our passions. Without these stories, we wonder if we’re correct in thinking we’re islands unto ourselves.
I think too of the responsibility that comes with such a gift. As I might find stories and works that resonate with my being, I’m likely to find those that challenge it—making me uncomfortable with the fact that not everything on those sagging library shelves is intended for me. In those moments, I leave the book where it is and my library card in my wallet and simply move on.
Furthermore, I’m of the belief that librarians are aware of their own responsibilities. Their roles are well-defined by the American Library Association (ALA).
The fact that former Kent Memorial Library Director Julia Styles was not granted freedom to perform her responsibilities in her position is shameful. Styles shared in a parting letter to the community her challenges:
“My duty as a librarian is to honor the First Amendment rights of everyone. To protect the privacy of our patrons. To not assign any kind of moral value to the books we provide. To let readers—and the caregivers of young readers—decide for themselves what is appropriate. To serve everyone in town—without judgment. Unfortunately, I have not been allowed to do that.”
Today, I hear rumblings from some of my neighbors suggesting, “No books were actually banned from the library.” I’ll concede and say they are right.
But a book was banned from being displayed. It was regulated, moved and pushed to where it couldn’t be as easily seen.
And maybe because I’m Baptist—the kind of Baptist Martin Luther King, Jr., James Dunn and Roger Williams were—I can’t help but think of the disturbing similarities of a time not long ago when we regulated, moved and pushed something else from being displayed anywhere but the back of buses, away from lunch counters, and to predetermined red-line parts of towns throughout this country—marginalized people.
Let us tread cautiously when choosing what and whom we relocate from our libraries and lives.
Senior pastor of Second Baptist Church, Suffield, Connecticut. Cox received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. Besides reading, baking and amateur gardening, most of his time is spent with his spouse, Lauren, and their two daughters. Opinions and reflections are his own.