Libraries shouldn't look for reasons to exclude

Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com

It hasn't been easy to be a librarian lately.

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.

Not every library in Iowa can 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 conservatives are saying young people can read plenty of other books, 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 officials at the Marshalltown library could use a dose of common sense.

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 that 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 is the same argument that defenders of LGBTQ-themed books make in support of school libraries keeping those volumes available. Through the internet, kids can find content far 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 John 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.

Top photo of the Marshalltown Public Library originally published on the library's Facebook page.

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