On the EDge: If a library isn’t controversial, it is failing its duty

Stock image | St. George News

OPINION – Controversy is in the eye of the beholder.

Despite all the teeth gnashing, hand-wringing and feigned outrage, controversy is rarely a bad thing.

Its function is to open our eyes, our ears, our minds to new and different perspectives that just might enhance our intellect. It’s that curiosity thing, that need to know, that need to broaden ourselves, gain new knowledge, even if it challenges our preconceived mindset.

And, where do we find information to help us learn?


Where do they keep books?

The library, of course.

Libraries, if they are doing their job correctly, are storehouses of controversy with tomes on everything from religion to politics, economics, culture, sex and all those other things it is not considered polite to discuss at Sunday dinner but that wander through our brains.

The Washington County Library System is under fire right now, facing charges of censure and prejudice after a long-term employee, unhappy with the way his issue was handled internally, went to the media regarding how the library in Hurricane handled its observance of Pride Month, an LGBTQ awareness event.

About a year ago, one of the librarians created a display with a banner reading “Got Pride?” that featured research materials and a selection of LGBTQ-related books.

The display was shot down by library officials who deemed it as “advocating for a controversial position that is not universally shared within the community,” Washington County Library System director Joel Tucker said. It was decided that the display would be given the milquetoast title “June is Pride Month,” with all of the research material removed. The books were allowed to remain with the provision that future displays would not be LGBTQ specific.

The issue simmered for a year until last June when employees created a new display that focused on diversity in general and featured subjects on race, religion, sexual orientation and other topics.

Tucker was good with the display because, as he told St. George News, “It didn’t focus on one topic. It didn’t focus on anything controversial. I thought it was the perfect display.

He did, however, take issue when employees wore buttons that read: “Ask me about LGBTQ reads.” There were also brochures of related titles for library visitors who wanted more information about LGBTQ issues.

Tucker made the employees remove the buttons because there were complaints from library patrons who didn’t like what they believed was the library advocating LGBTQ orientation.

With all of the attention being given to LGBTQ rights and equality, it would make sense for a library to have plenty of reference material on hand to help educate the public beyond the screaming memes and sweaty disclaimers on the internet and floating through the social media orb.

It would also make sense that during a month devoted to LGBTQ awareness, the library would highlight those books and papers and make them readily accessible to the public, which may have a closeted curiosity, but a curiosity nonetheless.

It would also make sense, from a legal point of view, for the library, to offer reference materials about a part of the population it serves and is funded by because the LGBTQ

Community pays taxes, too, you know.

But that word, “controversial,” has been thrown on the table and heaven forbid that we deal in controversy, especially in a place where socio-economic progress is stuck in an “Ozzie and Harriet” mindset.

Tucker said he promises that the literature and books related to LGBTQ issues will remain, but that he wants the library to be neutral ground that is open to everyone. That is not possible if a group is singled out as being “controversial” and that is the root of the problem here.

Who made the determination that the LGBTQ community is “controversial” and on what grounds was that decision made?

Most importantly, who is next?

Will Black History Month one day be deemed too “controversial” for library displays?

Will National Women’s History Month get kicked to the curb because somebody complains that it is too controversial?

It is one thing to have your own beliefs, whether based on religion, politics or planetary alignment. It is quite another to try to silence the beliefs of others, which is what this type of censure accomplishes.

Limiting intellectual input tilts the playing field, skews the demographic and, in this instance, spurs bigotry.

I’m pretty sure you could walk into any library and find “Mein Kampf,” Adolph Hitler’s books on his hatred of Judaism and communism and his plans for Germany, volume one published in 1925 and volume two in 1926.

I’m also pretty sure that the poisonous books would still be considered controversial, at least among those with a drop of sanity remaining. The value in reading Hitler’s books is that even in his madness, there were moments of artificial clarity that resulted in a clamoring from a worshipful nation that didn’t realize it was being duped until it was too late and its sons sent off to war.

I’m not sure about the Newspeak generation, but old school historians and scholars encouraged us to read those books to prevent history from repeating itself. The jury is still out on whether we learned our lessons.

So, while the book may be uncomfortable or controversial, there is merit.

In fact, if controversy determined what your libraries offered, we’d have a lot of empty space on the shelves.

I mean, what would happen to the books telling the tragedy of the holocaust?

What about legal discussions of Roe v. Wade or “The Communist Manifesto?”

Our history includes, of course, book burnings and bans because of books and information that was once considered controversial.

There was “Ulysses,” “The Color Purple,” “The Catcher in The Rye,” “Tropic of Cancer,” “Brave New World,” “Call of The Wild,” “All The President’s Men,” “Heather Has Two Mommies,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Green Eggs and Ham” and the greatest American novel, “Grapes of Wrath” that have all, at one time of another, been considered taboo.

There are those who object to the Bible, the Book of Mormon and other religious tomes as being controversial.

And, what about books about Donald Trump that are not flattering or books about Barack Obama that are? Do we not get a balance to seek truth and historical significance in scholarly, well-crafted books and references?

The thing is, if you do not find controversy in your library, your library is failing its duty as a source of information.

Tucker said he wants the library to be neutral ground that is open to everyone, but it cannot be neutral ground or open to everyone if it avoids unpopular or “controversial” books and references or displays because then you only get one very filtered side of the story.

Tucker promises that the literature related to LGBTQ issues will remain.

There simply won’t be any displays associated with them or any other “controversial” subject.

And, that’s not good.

No bad days!

Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews, @EdKociela

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • Happy Commenter August 21, 2018 at 7:16 pm

    Hey special eddy! Libraries are neutral, are you smokin’ that outhouse brown again? You sunk your own piece this week stoner!

  • bikeandfish August 22, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    Washington Co. made a mistake in censoring their professional staff and truly missed an opportunity to create meaningful displays and engage their community. But I think their is a wide range of options and guiding principles between” claiming to offering “neutrality” and judging success by controversy. I think Ed orbits a thoughtful premise, and the spirit of his argument holds alot of merit, but controversy is an odd benchmark.

    I get the desire to reclaim the county’s talking point but I just don’t think it holds water. Recognizing and respecting the lived realities of local, national and world citizens is a fair standard but it doesn’t require using the county’s fear of controversy as the main benchmark. We know controversy is an intentional cop out and talking point by bureaucrats afraid of dealing with difficult social issues. But I don’t think we need to empower that tool.

    I initially considered the issue problematic coming from the staff instead of the public but had my mind changed by researching the ALA and their various statements. They make a strong argument about why library staff are not neutral and why displays are important. I have a lot to think about and I hope the Washington Co. administrators do as well.

    • Happy Commenter August 22, 2018 at 2:31 pm

      Public libraries are to be neutral by nature. They are publicly run organizations and are not there to promote any view of any group in any way. Any attempt to promote any one group in a display should be met by the public with extreme prejudice. Nothing to think about here. A library is a place to do research and read. They do not exist as a place to promote or legitimize any single group!

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