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System Director’s Report:

October 2005

Of Librarians and Grizzly Bears

In a society awash in sex and violence, I find it particularly annoying when some politician or pundit makes a public library into a scapegoat for it all. I understand, however, for all that I do not agree. Prosecuting the creators and purveyors of illegal material on the web would be expensive and difficult. Limiting what Internet service providers could transmit, and home computers could receive, would be politically disastrous. How much easier it is to brand libraries as dens of sleaze and then pose for “holy” pictures, all in the name of protecting children, rather than to really attack the problem at its source.

Thus librarians are increasingly vilified. If only they would do their jobs right, no improper word would ever pollute a child’s ear or impure thought cross a child’s mind. It’s all the fault of the Internet, the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Policy, and of course, those reprehensibly immoral librarians.

The truth, however, is a bit more complex. As children grow, they become inquisitive. They question the wisdom their elders and their elected leaders, and above all else, they start wanting to find out about that most mysterious of all adult activities, that being human sexuality.

Based on the sure knowledge that most children would rather jump off a tall building into a pit full of rattlesnakes than talk to their parents about much of anything, for the last century or so now librarians have been trying to fill in the information gaps. They refer parents to materials that can make those “personal chats” a lot less embarrassing for everyone. They refer children to authentic, reliable, and age appropriate information concerning a host of controversial topics, and believe it or not, they have even been known to advise children that talking to their parents isn’t such a bad idea after all.

To some folks, this still isn’t acceptable. Children must be kept in the dark, and then at some magic moment they will be all grown up and ready to make wise decisions. Just how they are ever to get the information needed to make those wise decisions is a question that polite people just shouldn’t have to talk about.

Most of the time, librarians just shut up, keep doing their jobs, and ignore the attacks. There’s not much profit in arguing with your customers, and besides, many of the folks on the far side of the issue have their hearts, if not necessarily their facts, in the right place.

For me, the breaking point comes when politicians and pundits trumpet the clarion call that little children, due to the moral depravity to be found there, are in grave danger every time they enter a library. That is going too far.

There is no doubt that evil can lurk anywhere. It can be found in a park, a church, a mall, or even in a library. For instance it is a fact that several of the 9/11 terrorists visited libraries in Florida before that fateful day. But the true measure of an institution must also include the good it does. After 9/11, when the telephone system of New York was largely swamped and out of action, tens of thousands of New Yorkers depended upon the internet services of their public libraries as the one way remaining to tell their families they were still alive.

Thousands to one, good outweighing evil, is a pretty fair measure of worth. In crisis situations, I would suggest that you can usually pretty much depend on your public library, and perhaps on your librarian most of all.

As a case in point, a few weeks ago in Des Moines, Iowa, a registered sex offender entered the public library, dragged a toddler into a restroom, and locked the door. The librarian saw the babysitter pounding on the restroom door, and quickly determined what was going on. She delegated one staff member to call the police and sent another outside the building to prevent the suspect’s escape through a window. Then she, the babysitter, and another staff member broke open the restroom door with a screwdriver, rescued the child, and with the assistance of yet another staff member, held the door shut to prevent the suspect’s escape until the police arrived.

Neither that librarian nor her staff knew whether or not the suspect was armed. I suspect that if they had it would have made little difference to them. One of their charges was at risk – nothing else mattered.

Evil can occur anywhere, but the suspected kidnapper would have been far wiser to have plied his noxious trade anywhere but in a public library. Coming between a librarian and the little folks she has dedicated her life to helping and protecting is somewhat like trying to take cubs away from a mother grizzly bear. Only the bear is a whole lot more even tempered about the affair than are most librarians.

To sum it up, children and their questions are frequently embarrassing. We all too often want to shove them both under a convenient rug until they get all done growing up. Librarians try to answer their questions, and libraries and librarians are vilified for it. Some people want to make a political point. Others want the world to be a place that perhaps it never was. Still others just want to protect the children that they hold most dear. You might think that parents are the only ones that fall into this last category, but librarians fall there also. I know hundreds of librarians. What the one in Des Moines did didn’t surprise me a bit. She is a librarian. I would have expected no less.

See you on the 12th.

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