Uneasy times as a librarian shuts out other ideas

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com

The word for today is optics — but not the kind where your eye doctor is an expert.

Instead of eyeglasses, I am thinking about the kind of optics that result when the perception of some person’s or some institution’s values are contradicted by the reality of the actions they take.

The Marshalltown Public Library provided an example of poor optics.

Librarians across Iowa have been put on the defensive by parents and grandparents who criticize some of the thousands of books that fill a community library or school library. This criticism has been especially sharp toward books intended for teenage readers that contain content with homosexual or transsexual themes or that include descriptions of sexual encounters that some people believe are too explicit for these readers.

Librarians have stepped forward to explain that it is not proper for people to force the removal of challenged books, thereby taking away other people’s ability to choose what they want to read or what they want their children to read. Library administrators have informed parents how they can limit the books their children have access to in the library or in the classroom.

But those reasonable explanations are not the same message the Marshalltown Public Library is giving some patrons about content aimed at adult readers, not at young readers.

John Worden told me in an email last week he has been called “our problem patron” by library administrators, because he has attended Marshalltown library board meetings for the past twelve months to ask the library to provide subscriptions to a couple of conservative publications, the American Rifleman magazine and the Epoch Times newspaper. The library has refused — even when a couple of library patrons offered to pay for the subscriptions. 

Library director Sarah Rosenblum told library trustees earlier this year she had made a “deep dive” into the content of these publications and has serious concerns about the science coverage in Epoch Times and about the gun magazine being published by the National Rifle Association.

That is where the poor optics occur.

No one expects libraries to carry every book, every magazine, and every newspaper. But how can libraries defend the presence of some books whose themes and content have been challenged by parents and then insist, as Marshalltown’s library does, that a gun magazine and a conservative newspaper do not belong in that library’s collection? 

Librarians have long advocated for what is called intellectual freedom. They believe in the principle of making lots of views and perspectives available and leaving it to their patrons to pick and choose what they want to read. 

Most libraries operate like a buffet. Some people come for the steamed broccoli. Others are drawn by the three-bean salad. That is why it is so baffling Marshalltown officials would dig in their heels and ignore reasonable requests from “our problem patron.”

The library dust-up in Marshalltown certainly shows the scope of our current political divide in Iowa. You often hear people talking about how Iowans are more divided now than they have been in the past. 

But Michael Giudicessi, a Des Moines attorney, provided important context and insight when he spoke last week at the Iowa Freedom of Information Council’s annual meeting.

Michael reminded us that in 1857, Iowa voters ratified the state’s constitution. Legal scholars praise the document for its clear recitation of the meaning behind the motto on Iowa’s great seal. We learned it in Iowa history classes: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” 

But in the beginning, the constitution was not resoundingly popular with people living in the state. 

The ratification vote was 40,311 in favor and 38,681 against. That was an approval margin of 1,630 votes — meaning that a shift of 816 votes would have torpedoed the constitution Iowans still live under 166 years later. 

Talk about optics …

Tags: Commentary

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  • this is about fundamental issues not optics

    “intellectual freedom” like “free” speech isn’t an absolute and can’t be in practice, decisions will have to be made and one of the tasks of a public institution should be to be ask public/transparent as possible about how they go about making these judgements and making a place for public feedback and as necessary corrections. I would guess that beyond the personal politics of this library’s staff they quite reasonably feel some obligation to offer the public trustworthy information and not the kinds of dangerous conspiracy theories promoted by the two publications in question here, is Randy for the spreading of misinformation & baseless conspiracy theories in our public libraries/schools/etc?

  • I would really like to know...

    …how other Iowa libraries are handling this kind of issue. Surely the Marshalltown library isn’t the only library where it has arisen.

    There are so many magazines available now from so many organizations that Iowa libraries must have established ways of deciding which magazines will be made available in their institutions. If nothing else, space has to be a consideration.