Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Impartiality Clause

Last night, I had a discussion with my professor during the GLTBQ lecture of my Young Adult Sources & Services class. She had one perspective on an issue, and I took another side. All through the conversation, however, I had the feeling that, while I felt justified in my point, it was missing something. It wasn't until early this morning that I woke up, knowing exactly what it was.

In discussing the picture book "And Tango Makes Three," I informed the professor that my library kept the book on the Parenting shelf in the children's room. Clearly on the side of homosexuality as acceptable--a viewpoint which I myself hold, having several friends who are among that community--she believed that placing the book there instead of on the shelf was a form of censorship, of keeping the book away from the community. I disagreed, stating that it was a good choice in case some parents didn't want their kid to read it.

But why should it be harmful? It's a book about penguins, it's a (mostly) true story, and it has beautiful illustrations. It also promotes the view that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, and waits until midway through the book to do so. If you think about it, it's a very clever way to get parents to read the book to their children...until perhaps the child realizes that there is something different about two boy penguins who are in love with each other.

And here is where we run into a dilemma: I don't think there is a problem with that. Neither does my professor. Nor, I think, do many parents in my local community. However, some parents do. And by ignoring their wishes, that their children either not be exposed to that viewpoint or not be exposed to it at that age, we ignore an important dictate of the library science profession: The Librarian Is Not Allowed To Push Their Own Agenda Using Collection Policy.

Let me explain. In a small midwestern community in Kansas, per se (although no insult to Kansas in particular is meant), there might be a very small percentage of the population who is gay. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the librarian, however much they may disagree with that lifestyle choice, to include materials in the collection relevant to that subject. It has been argued before, and in nearly every case the law has fallen on the side of the librarian who chooses to include such materials, and against the community who opposes them.

By that rule, so must the opposite be true: no matter how much a librarian thinks it is negative and harmful to raise children with anti-gay morals, it is not their choice to make. Leaving a book like "And Tango Makes Three," which not only is innocuously-titled and therefore of ambiguous content to uninformed readers, but which has also been the leader on the ALA's Banned Book list for three years running, on the main shelves presents the problem of disrespect for the anti-homosexuality viewpoint.

Books like "King and King" or "Heather has Two Mommies" make their intent clear; they are aiming for a certain audience, which has a certain point of view. If a child picks up a book about politics, they will be presented with a certain point of view. A parent may say that they don't want their child to read books about certain subjects at a certain age. And that is their right.

"And Tango Makes Three" contains such potentially objectionable material, but makes no mention of this either in the book jacket nor upon the cover nor within the first few pages of the book. And that makes it dangerous territory for librarians, because a parent may well pick up the book and find themselves having that conversation they wanted to avoid with their children, and wondering why the librarian didn't warn them, didn't keep the book somewhere that they and their children--both uninformed as to the book's content and message--would be able to recognize that it has potentially controversial material.

If a parent walked into my library and requested that book, knowing what it was about, and then asked me why it was kept in the Parenting section, and not on the regular shelves, I would respond that, at this time, the book is still being questioned and that we have a responsibility to this parent to keep the book in the library, but a responsibility to other parents not to force them into an uncomfortable situation by leaving it within the main collection.

I respect their view, I agree with them that I personally think that the book should be read by all children. It's a great book. But in this day and age, it is just not feasible to blithely neglect the point of view of some part of the community, no matter what we think of them, when it comes to objectionable material. One day, I hope that homosexuality, like slavery and racism before it, is a topic about which many people are of the same opinion. I hope that opinion is one of tolerance and respect. But that day is not today, and I have no right as a librarian to use the shelves of my library to push that agenda. The library is a place where all opinions should be equal, and whatever my fellow librarians think, I will continue to stand up for that belief.

NOTE: image taken from Wikipedia. Information about all books mentioned can be found there, on Amazon.com, or in your own local libraries.