American libraries are having a #MeToo moment

There will be no shushing of this conversation.
There will be no shushing of this conversation.
Image: AP Photo/Michael Rubinkam
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Earlier this year, Somerville Public Library’s “Books & Brews” book club selected comedian and actor Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance as its next read. A week later, a woman accused Ansari of sexual misconduct. Without intending to, the Massachusetts library had inserted itself into the conversation about #metoo, the movement that has exposed sexual harassment and abuse in a myriad of industries across the globe.

The librarians running the group found it a perfectly natural conversation to be part of.

“We didn’t want to overrule what the group had voted for because it’s their book club and we want them to lead the direction of it,” said librarian Cassie Graesser, who facilitates Books & Brews with her colleague Lilly Sundell-Thomas.

“But we did want to be prepared.”

Responding to big cultural shifts is baked into librarians’ mission statements. As the #metoo movement spreads from industry to industry, institution to institution, US libraries are actively thinking about how their work can foster productive dialogue around the problems the movement has brought to light.

In Somerville, Graesser and Sundell-Thomas included questions in their discussion guide such as “Do you think that art can—or even should—be separated from the artist?” in case participants needed prompts. They didn’t. Unlike a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit satirizing people’s reticence to speak openly about the Ansari controversy and #metoo movement, the 35 members of the club had no problem debating the heavy, heady topic.

“We thought we might lose a few people because of the book, but we got our highest turnout yet,” Graesser said. “People were interested in talking about the book, but also in sharing thoughts about the controversy. It definitely changed the conversation. It made it much deeper.”

Librarians perennially find themselves at the center of cultural conflict—often pushing back against peoples’ urge to ignore America’s first amendment right to free speech by censoring work they deem offensive on topics ranging from race to gender to religion. James LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom, points to efforts to ban Harry Potter books based on accusations they promote Satanism to chronic calls to pull The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for a diverse range of complaints about their depiction of slavery and discrimination, including the use of the n-word.

The ALA maintains a running list of “challenged books”—titles the public has fought to remove—by drawing on media reports and reports submitted by individuals. The ALA also provides confidential consulting and training to help libraries combat efforts to censor their collections.

“We don’t believe in censorship, that’s our clear stance,” said LaRue. “We think instead of denying tough issues are out there, we should engage with them.”

But LaRue acknowledges the #metoo movement provides unique challenges. Looking at the list of 2016’s Top 10 challenged books, he noticed a curious first with Bill Cosby’s Little Bill series of children’s books.

“For the first time in the history of our office, as far as I know, a book was challenged not because of the content of the book, but because people didn’t like allegations against the author,” he said.

That trend expanded in 2017. Books by YA author Jay Asher and writer and producer Sherman Alexie, who have been both accused of sexual harassment, topped last year’s challenged books list. But the challenges are complicated because, even before the accusations came to light, people lobbied libraries for a decade to ban the books for different reasons—for Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why portrayal of teen suicide and for Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian profanity and sexually explicit scenes.

Generally, American librarians have no appetite for pulling controversial books of any nature from the shelves—hundreds of public libraries circulate copies of Mein Kampf, Lolita, and books by writers who crimes range from misogyny to murder.

Instead of pulling from the stacks, librarians can combat cultural crises by adding to collections and the experience of patrons, says Rebecca T. Miller, editorial director of the Library Journal & School Library Journal, which both identify and review books for librarians. In a recent editorial, Miller offered a selection of titles to help young readers navigate sensitive issues from interacting with people with autism to teaching kids about consent, books such as Benny Doesn’t Like To Be Hugged and What Does Consent Really Mean?  She also asked peers to reassess displays meant to appeal only to boys or girls and not divide kids into demographics.

“Public libraries are pretty flexible organizations so, while you might not see huge reactivity, you will see a responsiveness to different movements,” Miller said. “#Metoo made us aware of gaps we have in collections and programing and we will respond.”

Sometimes, however, librarians’ antipathy toward censorship and their mission to serve community needs can be at odds. Last month a rural Iowa library shifted how it categorized books after residents pressed to segregate titles with LGBTQ themes, which residents deemed potentially offensive, from other books. Officials for the library couldn’t be reached for comment and half a dozen librarians at other rural libraries either didn’t return Quartz’s calls or declined to comment for this story. A clear gap exists between the ALA’s openness to discuss complex modern problems and the hesitation amongst some librarians to court controversy.

Kay B. Madewell, director of the Clyde W. Roddy Public Library in Dayton, TN, population 7,200, says the library strives to “provide what the community is looking for without censoring materials.”  But when asked if the library has a role to play in tackling cultural problems she hesitated a moment then replied: “No, we don’t go down that road, being a small town library.”

Librarians insist The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird will always find shelf space even if they have to fight for it — Harper Lee’s masterpiece made ALA’s 2017 list of most challenged books once again. But alongside it will be materials addressing modern movements, and titles from an expanding range of perspectives.

“I think Huckleberry Finn is a good book and it shouldn’t be removed,” LaRue said. “But let’s be honest, other good books, many of them written by black Americans have been written since. We don’t have to remove books that people don’t like. We can instead add more books to collections that reflect the consciousness of the time.”