Column: Libraries serve communities, not aggrieved parents

By Clay Wirestone, Michigan Advance

Libraries hold a conflicted place our collective imagination. To many of us — to me personally — they’re magical. We were first exposed to worlds of imagination and ideas on the shelves of our local libraries. To others, these buildings serve as indispensable community gathering spots, places to learn and meet and share.

But to a small and vocal group, school and town libraries threaten social order.

To these parents and town residents, libraries offer books that can warp or corrupt the minds of youths. Never mind the ceaseless flow of filth on TV sets or online, these residents seem to say. The real threats lurk between two covers. In St. Marys, the town flirted with the idea of shutting down the library altogether because of a book featuring a transgender student. Other communities across the state have seen similar challenges to their library collections.

These controversies tend to resolve in similar ways. After someone lodges a complaint, library staff and town or school authorities review the book. They consult guidelines. They hold meetings. Usually, but not always, the book remains in the collection.

This only makes sense. Libraries don’t serve aggrieved individuals. They serve masses of people, either students or communities. A family can always choose not to check out an offending volume. They can choose not to visit the library altogether. A whole town or school still needs access to information, especially to new ideas or controversial subjects. Together, they learn and grow in compassion.

Library professor R. David Lankes sums it up: “Bad libraries build collections. Good libraries build services (of which a collection is only one). Great libraries build communities.”

The library’s perspective

Libraries didn’t ask to be put in this position.

I’m married to a longtime library director, and his experiences have changed my perceptions. Libraries exist to serve their communities, full stop. That means that some libraries stock abundant romances or true crime books, while others may boast of extensive science fiction collections. Other communities may enjoy audio books or DVD movies or video games. Collections tend to follow the tastes of those who actually use libraries.

Far from being temples of learning, libraries behave like living organisms. They shed old books every year, a process known as “weeding.” Books that don’t circulate or contain outdated information should be removed from the shelves. My husband tells me that keeping a collection trim and well-organized improves the user experience. More people check out more books.

I heard the same during a conversation with the owner of a local record store. People want options, but they want to feel in control while they browse.

All this means that school and community libraries may be many things to many people, but they don’t court controversy for the sake of controversy. They offer books they think people want to read. They offer spaces they think people want to use. Most library directors want to have honest dialogue with those who may complain about their holdings. It may well be that the book someone finds profoundly offensive hasn’t been checked out since 2002. In which case, who’s being harmed?

Gerard Kleinsmith, vice mayor on the St. Marys City Commission, complained the town’s library doesn’t have books by former President Donald Trump: “You can’t even check out one book by a former president who won the county by almost a four-to-one margin,” he said.

The obvious question would be how many active library users want to check out such books. If they demand it, the library director might want to act.

Regardless, the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library has access to the Sunflower eLibrary. That service has electronic versions of books by Trump available for checkout. You can also check out the former president’s Truth Social account if you’re curious about his most recent thoughts.

Libraries have evolved along with the rest of us. As just noted, most offer ebooks along with physical copies. Other kinds of media can be checked out as well. More than many other taxpayer-supported institutions, they understand the need to adapt.

Events like “Banned Books Week” in October urge readers to experience challenged books themselves, firsthand. Our week of columns gives a similar perspective. With society enmeshed in debates about race and sexual orientation, we can all benefit from hearing how others live and experience reality.

Brack perceptively writes of “All Boys Aren’t Blue” that it “should be read and evaluated as an unfolding picture of the cultural moment, a necessary contribution to our national conversation about race and sexuality.”

We can all contribute to that conversation.

How? You can start by simply visiting your local library. Check out a book — challenged or not. Attend a community event. Be part of constructing civic institution that, at its best, brings people together.

A version of this column first ran in the Advance’s sister publication, the Kansas Reflector.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: [email protected]. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.