To the editor:
I am writing in response to the May 17, 2022 article titled Displays, Transparency and Library considers Litigation for Future Remarks. I have serious concerns with the inaccuracies portrayed about the library operations, library staff, and board, but also about the library collection itself.
Having a Master's Degree in Library and Information Studies, extensive experience as a public librarian for over 22 years, and now as a law librarian for the last three years, I feel compelled to step in and clear up some misconceptions that have been circulating about our public library and to offer my own insight into a conversation that seems to spin more and more out of control.
You state that there were "seven books addressing children's sexuality in the children's section of the library at the time," and that it was requested that there should be books that represented a "traditional lifestyle" that children could also consider. You further noted that "a tally of how many books concerning Christian, Republican, Liberal, and other topics were available on the shelves was shared, with zero being reported for children that discuss heterosexual lifestyle." The fault in this particular argument is this: heteronormative lifestyles have been the default representation in our country and in children's literature for hundreds of years. You only have to look to the classics that many of us read as children, like the Berenstain Bears, Little House on the Prairie, Amelia Bedilia and more, to see perfect examples of heteronormative lifestyles within children's literature. Walk down the toy aisles at any major retailer and the distinction between "girls toys" and "boys toys" are exceptionally clear. Even colors that girls should wear versus what boys should wear are dictated by these norms. These lifestyles are the norm in our country and are accepted as such in our society, thus the great majority of children's literature portrays this lifestyle. It has only been as recent as the last 20-30 years that we have seen an expansion of representation of other lifestyles in children's literature. This expansion of lifestyles represented include religion and religious celebrations, identity, family systems, cultural differences, race, gender, and yes, even sexuality. According to Library Director Renee Greenlee, out of the 5,779 children's materials in the Vinton Public Library, only seven books in the collection included "non-traditional" headings like "LGBT" or "gay," while a total of 31 books in the collection included headings like "Christian" or "Jesus." Furthermore Greenlee noted that there were an additional 142 books that had a subject heading about a Christian holiday. From a percentage standpoint that means that .001% of the collection has to do with what was deemed a "non-traditional" lifestyle, a very statistically insignificant number.
Children (and our community as a whole) need to see a wide representation of viewpoints in the books that they engage in. In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the phrase, "Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors," to explain how children see themselves in books and how they can also learn about the lives of people different from them through literature. When books don't serve as "mirrors" for children, Bishop notes that "they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in society." In addition to mirroring what children need to see in themselves, books should also serve as "windows," allowing children to see into the lives and experiences of those different from them. In offering books with themes like LGBTQ+, different religious and cultural views, identities, families and more, we are allowing our children to explore new and different ideas in a way that is familiar and safe for them. Literature is a powerful tool for building empathy, understanding, knowledge, and compassion in our children's lives. As Dr. Bishop explained, "When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities."
In another part of the article, concerns were being brought up about how books are displayed in the library. Books are displayed in libraries for a number of reasons: because they're new to the collection, because they address a theme, because they help promote a program, because they highlight current events, because they bring awareness to a part of the collection you may not know about. The reasons are endless for displays in libraries, however, a "liberal agenda" is highly unlikely to be one of those reasons. Like retail stores, libraries also put a great deal of thought into how people can access and interact with our buildings and collections. From the heights of the shelves in the children's area and the size of the furniture, to accessible bathrooms and computers, a great deal of thought and planning goes into how a library is arranged. Because public libraries welcome everyone from the community, they have to be accessible and welcoming to people from all walks of life. This also includes following federal, state, and local laws regarding accessibility, discrimination, and equality. There are very explicit regulations regarding these subjects, many of which have legal implications. My understanding from reading the statements made to the library board at these meetings, is that they both address issues regarding federally protected legal classes. It would not have been unwise for the city attorney to have been at a meeting so as to advise the library board on the legalities of such concerns.
As to the subject of public comments at library board meetings, according to the Iowa Public Information Board, "public agencies may set aside time for a public forum or an open forum, but they are under no mandate to do so under Chapter 21." In addition, the IPIB also notes that "even when discussing a controversial item on its agenda, the public agency understandably does not have to provide time to each person at the meeting." Also according to Chapter 21, "nothing in this chapter shall prevent a governmental body from making and enforcing reasonable rules for the conduct of its meetings to assure those meetings are orderly, and free from interference or interruption by spectators." The Library Board is well within its right to set some basic ground rules for public participation at its meetings, and if there are legitimate concerns about the possible legality of any such rules, then they are also well within their right to contact the City Attorney and seek advice as they see fit. As is good practice, Library Boards should take into consideration the concerns and comments from community members. But they should also take into account best practices from the library field, the latest research, and the expertise of their staff when making decisions regarding policies and procedures for the library.
One such policy consideration that was addressed in your article was in regard to storytimes and the desire expressed by both Ms. Kruckenberg and Ms. Hesson, who wanted the names of the books shared before each storytime. As a former public librarian, I can tell you from experience that trying to do a storytime is like trying to tack putty on a wall, you may sort of succeed at your set objective, but plans are likely to change suddenly. I would often set weekly themes, when doing storytime, but never published the books ahead of time because it often depended on what items were available from the collection, how many kids showed up, the age of the kids, and the overall squirrelly-ness of said kids. Sometimes I read one of the books, sometimes I read multiple books, sometimes I read no books and did fingerplays and songs for 30 minutes. The point is, children's programming is hard, and often requires a very flexible attitude and a willingness to fly by the seat of your pants. And while I appreciate the concerns shared by both Ms. Kruckenberg and Ms. Hesson, the reality is much different and often changes occur last minute that cannot always be controlled. I encourage any parent who has a concern or a question about a program to reach out to the children's librarian or director for more information. They are always willing and able to speak to you about any concerns you may have regarding programs, books, or other library operations. Going to the library board about these issues should have been a last resort, not a first.
Finally, I want to say that I am disappointed by the comments and gossip I have heard surrounding our public library. Public librarians are some of the most dedicated, creative, and kind people I have ever met. They are professionals who spend a great deal of time and money on education, training, and classes that hone their skills and expand their knowledge on best practices. Librarians have had to adapt and change at a quicker rate than many professions, and yet, they still continue to find new and innovative ways to serve their communities.
Ms. Kruckenberg said that "the public library used to be a neutral place for an individual or families to go to check out books of their choice without having propaganda, opinions, or political viewspushed on them." I hate to break it to Ms. Kruckenberg, but libraries and librarians have never been neutral. In 1938, Des Moines Public Library Director Forrest Spaulding drafted the Library Bill of Rights. The bill was designed to speak out against the "growing intolerance, suppression of free speech and censorship affecting the rights of minorities and individuals." One year later, the revised document was adopted by the American Library Association. It has since evolved to include topics such as book banning, race and gender discrimination, and exhibit spaces. Based on the First Amendment, the Library Bill of Rights guides librarians in serving their communities and protecting the rights of all patrons. Librarians have stood up against injustice, intolerance, and more throughout our storied history. Professor and scholar R. David Lankes said, "To be a librarian is not to be neutral, or passive, or waiting for a question. It is to be a positive change agent within your community." Let us hope that we do not continue to run out those "positive change agents" in our public library here in Vinton, because we need them now more than ever.