Libraries shouldn’t look for excuses to exclude

March 2, 2023 2:51 pm

The library conflict over conservative magazines in Marshalltown raises similar arguments as in the Statehouse dispute over LGBTQ materials in schools. (Photo illustration via Canva)

This has not been an easy time to be a librarian.

Sixty-plus years ago, back when the library card was a coveted sign of my status as a young reader, Miss Botts and Mrs. Sager were never viewed as conspirators of controversy in the corner of the free world where I grew up.

I never remember a time when their domain, Bloomfield’s library shelves, was a controversial place to be.

That was then. Now, too many people in Iowa have drawn targets on the backs of the librarians in Iowa’s schools and town libraries.

Much of the controversy has come from people who want to block their own children and grandchildren from having access to certain books and who also want to block other people’s children from reading those books, too.

But recent news out of Marshalltown shows library officials are creating some of the discord themselves — by neglecting to bring a dose of common sense to their work. And I am not talking about stripping controversy from the library shelves.

Allow me to update you about the controversy in Marshalltown. I think that will help you understand why that city’s library dispute is so unfortunate and so unnecessary.

The Marshalltown Times Republican has reported on the strong feelings that have formed since John Worden of Green Mountain, a patron of the Marshalltown Public Library, first asked the library to purchase subscriptions to a couple of conservative publications, American Rifleman magazine and the Epoch Times newspaper, for library visitors to read.

Library director Sarah Rosenblum and the library’s board of trustees have steadfastly said “no” — even after Worden and another library patron offered to pay the cost.Rosenblum explained at a meeting of the board of trustees that she made a ”deep dive” into the content in American Rifleman and the Epoch Times. The gun magazine is publishing by the National Rifle Association. Epoch Times is affiliated with the Falun Gong religious movement.

She had what she called serious concerns about the science coverage in Epoch Times and about the American Rifleman being a benefit of NRA membership.

Every library in Iowa cannot accommodate every book, every magazine, and every newspaper. But that is really the same point some parents and some grandparents are making about certain books written for teenage and pre-teen readers.

These parents and grandparents are saying there are plenty of other books available for young readers, so why must these LGBTQ books be available. The response from librarians, teachers and other parents correctly comes down to, yes, you can block your child from reading those books, but libraries should not be blocking other parents who may want their child to have access to those books.

This is where a dose of common sense is needed by officials at the Marshalltown library.

If we trust parents to make the correct choice for what books their children read, shouldn’t we trust adults to make the correct choice for what newspapers and magazines these adults choose to read?

Worden told the Marshalltown library trustees that he had done an even deeper dive into the content of American Rifleman and Epoch Times than the head librarian has, the Times Republican reported.

“I think that the staff and this board is inserting themselves between the patrons and the material,” Worden said. “The patrons own this building and everything that’s in it. They pay the wages. They come first.”

Another library patron echoed Worden’s comments. Ray Mitchem told trustees, “I think we have to be careful not to put blinders on. I think the public can choose. The public should decide if it is something for them,” he said of the publications Worden has suggested.

Gary Thompson, a member of the Marshalltown City Council, attended the library’s January meeting and weighed in on Worden’s request.

“You guys allow your patrons to use the internet,” he said. “They’re going to find misinformation, pros and cons, on everything. I think you guys made a big mistake.”

The councilman’s comments about access to the internet make the same point that defenders of LGBTQ books in school libraries make in support of having those available. Kids have access via the internet to content that is even more extreme than what is found in the library.

Libraries traditionally have been advocates for intellectual freedom — making many views and perspectives available for their patrons. Through the years, libraries have taken the position there is no place for censorship in a free society.

The Marshalltown library’s policies even state, “The library will not reject materials which are requested by patrons or suggested by standard review sources because of the point of view or ideas they reflect.”

Call me naïve, but I think Worden is correct. A well-rounded public library should have the American Rifleman and the Epoch Times on its shelves, especially if a generous donor is taking care of the expense.

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Randy Evans
Randy Evans

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a 43-year-old nonprofit education and advocacy organization that works for improved government transparency and citizen accountability. He can be reached at [email protected].