Wednesday, February 28, 2007

the last last word

I thought that the last letter on libraries, censorship and suchlike was the last I was going to post up here, and that the subject was done. I was wrong. I think this is worth putting up here and although it's long, it's extremely worth reading. All the way through. Promise.

Dear Neil,

I'm sorry to send this undoubtedly self-indulgent
email to you, but I'm going to anyway...I forgive you
in advance if you have had it up the THERE with this
subject and absolve you of even the faintest hint of
obligation to read any further. :0)

That said...

I have some first hand experience in dealing with the
maelstrom that can engulf a library system when it is
targeted by a group of "concerned citizens" trying to
save children from books and the internet and ideas
information in general.

A decade ago, my library system had books on our
shelves with such scandalous titles as It's Perfectly
Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual
Health, Heather Has Two Mommies, and various titles on
witchcraft and other such dangerous ordnances. Several
"concerned citizens" began to check the books out and
not return them - in order to save someone else's
child from being infected by them.

At the same time, we (rather naively) introduced the
internet into our libraries thinking that it might be
A Good Thing. We did this just as we were trying to
pass an operating tax levy. The group turned its
attention from the books to the Internet and our
supposed pandering of porn to kids - though they
did not forget about the books, of course.

And, all hell broke loose. Our local group of
concerned citizens hooked up with the larger Christian
Coalition and made it their life's ambition to defeat
our operating levy - which would have crippled our
library system. They became amazingly organized
seemingly overnight with the help of the Coalition.

I walked out of our main branch one day to find
several van loads of people carrying picket signs and
descending on our building. There were many children
with the group and some of them were given picket
signs and sent out to rally cars driving by to "Honk
if you hate Library Porn" and "Unsafe for Kids". The
other picketing parents sent their kids into our
children's department for us to baby-sit for the next
several hours - while they tried to rally community
support against us. (The irony was not lost on us.)

Caught flat footed, our library system began to
scramble to try to deal with the situation. (The net
was very new to us and many of us were not as well
versed in it as we should have been.) We formed an
internal Internet Safety Task Force (belatedly, yes)
to figure out just what we, as a system, SHOULD be

One man in the group called in the local television
stations and showed up at our main branch and began
to ask children in the library about all the porn
that they were finding on our computers and asking
them to show him how to find it. When staff told him
that he could not ask the kids to do this, he
began to troll for porn himself in front of the
cameras (and kids) - going to a list of website
addresses that, as luck would have it, he had
memorized. The group was asked to leave as they were
creating a disruption.

It played out on the television news over the next
week under the usual lurid teasers with which the
local news has so much fun.

This same man began to show up at our staff building
entrances and hand out copies of porn that he had
downloaded from the net (at his house not at ours) to
staff exhorting them to resign "if they were true
Christians". He created a website and a newsletter
dedicated to the "overthrow of the library

Picketers began showing up at our bookmobile
locations, our other library branches, our Board of
Trustees meetings, etc. We actually had to stage a
public debate that drew several hundreds of people
where we allowed the concerned citizens and forum to
voice their concerns and tried to explain our
position. (We had come up with one by then.)

Our election yard signs began to disappear and be
replaced with "No Library Porn" signs.

We printed lots of informational materials re: our
policies of internet access (we created a children's
website for some of the computes that defaulted to
yahooligans, we filtered a few comps - but left it up
to the patron to decide if he or she wanted to use
that one (yes, even the kids), we came up with what we
think is a fair policy for public computer use (yes,
we did decide not to allow "porn" via library comps -
we basically limited nips and crotches - yes, these
were strange meetings to be in for a bunch of
librarians),we encouraged parents to go to the library
WITH their children instead of just dropping them off,
we held internet safety training sessions for patrons
of all ages, we talked and talked and talked to our
patrons. And, many people "got it".

But, some didn't...several of our staff had the gut
wrenching experience of sitting through religious
services while the pastor or priest condemned the
library and all the library staff for "not protecting
children" and told the congregation to "send them a
message, vote down the library levy."

Others of us found ourselves sitting in dentists'
chairs with our mouths propped open or wearing paper
gowns at doctors' offices and listening to these
professionals asking us why we wouldn't protect
children. This didn't just happen to those of use
holding an MLS who had had a bit of training on how to
handle such things...this happened to all of us from
the youngest pages up to the secretaries in our main
office to our elderly payroll lady.

Every single staff received a letter at our homes
telling us that if we continued to work for such a
godless organization, we would go to hell. Even our
children were questioned at school by their teachers!

It was like the world was burning...

At the same time, we came under intense scrutiny from
the larger library community. We were condemned by
some for "caving" when we gave patrons the option of
using a filtered machine and applauded by some for
finding a workable compromise. Most, I think, tucked
their heads down and were very happy that it wasn't
them...many learned from the things that we had done
wrong - and right. So did we.

And...we got through it...our levy didn't fail (and,
in fact, a few years later, we passed a 42 million
dollar bond issue to build new libraries and improve
the ones that we have). We figured out an internet
policy that works for our system and our rather rural,
small town communities - Amish patrons mingle with
soccer moms and business people, and old school
farmers, while still supporting intellectual freedom.

The Christian Coalition got distracted by something
else and our local concerned citizens group burned
itself out and drifted away.

We won ALA's Library of the Year award the next year
and for the past five years, have placed in the top
five libraries in the country for our size. We did
programs at ALA national and regional conferences so
that other libraries could learn from our experience.

And, we keep ordering replacement copies of It's
Perfectly Normal, and books about Wicca and
graphic novels and whatever else...and, yes, we did
order The Higher Power of Lucky and expect many copies
to arrive at any moment. Hell...we are even getting
the audio.

I wouldn't wish our experience on my worst enemy, does help to put things into perspective.

We are not special. We are just ordinary library
people. We are human - we falter and stand up again.
We learn and do better the next time. There are
thousands of us all over the country - all over the
world. And, we are just doing our job, because
defending intellectual freedom is just as much a part
of our job as reading to third graders and helping
people find American Gods on CD.

We will not trade our ideals for what is easy and
"practical". We will not trade them for a single
word. Our eyes are open and it takes more than an
abused scrotum to make us blink.

I thank you for your indulgence and your patience and
your kind words re: libraries and librarians in the
past. Being a librarian trumps *almost* every other
job in the world - if you ever get tired of writing (I
think that only one that trumps librarian-ing) come on
over - you'd be welcome in the cult...uh...I mean
professon. :0)

Be well!

Lynn Wiandt
Manager, Seville Community Library
Medina County District Library (Ohio)

Here is one of my favorite quotes about librianship.
It is from a novel by Larry Beinhart called "The

"Librarians don't make a lot of money, more than
but not so much, say, as your more successful
panhandlers, so our ideals are important to us and the
love of books and the love of knowledge and the love
of truth and free information and letting people
discover things for themselves and let them, oh, read
romance novels or detective novels, whatever they
want, and giving poor people internet access."

To which there is nothing at all that I can add.


Does the Magnificent Oracular 8-Ball wossname update itself for your new journal entries, or does it only contain the words you put in it at the time of its conception?

Having no idea, I asked the 8 Ball's creator, Dan Guy, who said, Yes. There's not even any caching involved so there's no delay in new posts feeding it.

It picks a random month from the archive (plus the current month), then
a random entry, then a random sentence.

... which, for all his brilliance, goes to show how much he knows. Random indeed. Obviously, it picks the correct and necessary sentence by means as yet not understood by mere mortals...

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