Monday, September 26, 2005

Freedom tastes of reality

This was supposed to be my annual post on Banned Books Week. I was going to say all kinds of things about how I'm almost a First Amendment absolutist and exhort you to go read books that scare people and talk to your local librarians about it.

Then the power went out at work pretty much all day today. (Again. I will not comment on our service level from the local electric utility, but this shirt sums it up pretty well.) When the lights go out, we clear the building. So there's a level on which our whole collection was "banned" for most of the day by this power outage.

That level says a lot about librarianship as a "profession." A profession is supposed to have a shared, encoded value system. It's not just a task you do, it's the things you believe and the way those things make you see the world. (And, of course, sometimes those things should be stated as simply as possible.)

For some of us, that makes everything about intellectual freedom. Whether the library is open or closed determines whether the ideas in it are available or not. We try to design circulation policies to help people do the work they need to do without monopolizing a scarce resource. We try to catalog to make ideas accessible and we try to answer reference questions in a way that allows users to find their own answers. We do this because we believe that it's what makes science and art and learning and democracy work.

Of course, sometimes the balancing act is tricky, particularly when you consider that I'm not the most radical librarian out there. Not hardly. I've heard catalogers argue that their added level of access justified a 2 year backlog of material. (Not at my current job, thank God.) Back in the mid-'90s, we gave ourselves quite the black eye by arguing the hard line on censorship. I still believe that the Internet should be a completely free speech zone, and that most libraries should include some sexually explicit material. That said, I also don't think that everything is appropriate for the Children's Room, and arguing as if it were made us look as bad as Dr. Laura and her friends looked to us.

It's easy to say you're against "banning books." It gets tricky when we talk about this book in this place for these people. It gets sticky when we talk about loan periods and fines and reserves and reference and archives. It gets all messed up when we talk about hours and space and services and budgets.

But this is our quest.

If we want free libraries and bookstores, we need to get people talking about what that means. We need to listen to all segments of our communities, on both the concrete and the abstract.

That's why I keep bringing it up. My readers are smart, passionate, involved people. You are who we need to talk to. You are the backers we need, and the constituents we need to hear from.

Speak up.


Blogger tommyspoon said...

Should I serve on the board? Drop a card in the comment box? Stop a librarian on the street, fall to my knees, and pledge my eternal gratitude for all that they do?

I'll tell you what you want to hear if you tell me how to tell you what you want to hear.

7:39 AM, September 27, 2005  
Blogger Joe said...

Actually, going to Library Board meetings would be a magnificent start, and getting on it is even better. A letter to the paper would be a great place to express yourself. My feeling is that this debate needs to happen outside the library walls, not just inside them.

But a friendly comment is great for morale. Some of us are uncomfortable with Public Displays of Adulation, though, so you might not want to just go falling to your knees every time you see a librarian.

It'd be kinda cool though...

8:06 AM, September 27, 2005  
Blogger Hugh said...

It is very sad, but not surprising, when I think about getting a book, my first choice is not the library (where things are free, and after I read it, it will not clutter up my house) but a bookstore.

When I recommend books to people, they say one of two things, either "I don't have time" (which is to say "I don't make time to read"), or "My reading list is too long already" (which is to say "I'm reading the wrong books").

10:45 AM, September 27, 2005  
Blogger lemming said...

(falls to knees and expreses eternal gratitude for the many ref library questions Joe has helped me with over the past year)

A year ago, I would have read the line about "justifies a two year backlog" and said, "oh, yuck." Having waited almost seven months for microfilms to be copied and shipped and three weeks for my university libbrary to process it...

My microfilm needs have nothing to do with national security or personal privacy, I hasten to add.

1:47 PM, September 27, 2005  
Blogger lemming said...

I don't know how you did it, but not ten minutes after I posted that comment, the ciculation folks sent me an e-mail to say that the microfilm is finally ready and waiting for me.

Is this some sort of secret librarian mind connection?

Anyway, thanks - but I'm still not going to read any Hemmingway this year.

4:38 PM, September 27, 2005  
Blogger Joe said...

"Secret librarian mind connection"?

No. I did not expedite your microfilm by using the Secret Librarian Mind Connection.

Next question. :-)

6:28 PM, September 27, 2005  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

I love librarians like a crackhead loves his dealer, especially when they send me an email telling me that my subversive book has finally been returned after being in use by someone else(s) and is ready for me to pick up. This particular book, Democracy and Education by John Dewey, was on loan for 4 months. I am wondering if I should have just gone out to buy it instead of waiting so long?


6:55 PM, September 27, 2005  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:57 PM, September 27, 2005  

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