Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Library collections shouldn’t be based on political ideology

An e-mail campaign is circulating a list of books supposedly targeted for removal from the Wasilla public library by Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin during her tenure as mayor.

The list, as it turns out, is false -- no specific books were ever targeted -- and Snopes.com does an especially able job of dissecting the myth’s origin and logically defusing it (www.snopes.com/politics/palin/bannedbooks.asp).

Snopes points out that many of the books on the list had not even been published yet during the time in 1996 that Palin was supposed to have issued these challenges. But I believe the factual elements are cause for genuine concern: that although no specific titles were mentioned, Palin did initiate rhetorical discussions with the city’s librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, about the possibility of removing objectionable books from the city library.

As recounted by Anne Kilkenny, a frequent city council attendee, “Sarah said to Mary Ellen, ‘What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?’ … Mary Ellen sat up straight and said something along the lines of ‘The books in the Wasilla Library collection were selected on the basis of national selection criteria for libraries of this size, and I would absolutely resist all efforts to ban books.’”

Palin also tried to fire Emmons because Palin didn’t feel she had the librarian’s “full support.” Again quoted by Snopes, newspaper reports stated that Emmons was reinstated the next day after public outcry.

So even though the list of books appears merely to be a standard “hit parade for book burners,” I believe that book lovers could have legitimate cause for concern. As vice president, Palin could wield considerable influence upon federal funding for libraries.

In the same way that the Clinton Administration made federal funding contingent upon libraries installing filters on the Internet, Palin could advocate legislation that placed restrictions upon the selection of books. No more individual challenges against individual libraries -- barring any Supreme Court challenges, any library that accepted federal funding would have to accept the government’s book collection requirements.

But I believe that a library best serves our communities when materials in its collection are not subject to influence by any one person or faction that could rise to power and then lose it. Library collections under these conditions would be in constant states of flux during costly overhauls to reflect the prevailing ideology.

Emmons’ response to Palin cites national selection criteria -- and not individual preference -- as the governing factor behind building a collection.

And Emmons, of course, would be honor-bound to challenge all attempts at censorship under the Library Bill of Rights, adopted in 1948 by the American Library Association (www.ala.org). It affirms that libraries are forums for information and ideas and its accompanying “basic policies” state that libraries should provide materials presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. “Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

Speaking as someone who has enjoyed access to a public library at nearly every stage in my life, I know from first-hand experience how vital this resource is. There is just no way that I could afford to purchase every single book that I want to read. Not to mention the access it gives me to newspapers, magazines, sound recordings and videos.

The library card in my wallet grants me access to collections in three Northern California counties -- Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake. Additional resources can be supplied through a cooperative exchange with library systems throughout the North Bay.

And so, regardless of how you plan to vote in the upcoming election, every single one of you who relies upon your local library needs to be ready to advocate that library collections continue to be guided not by personal ideologies but by objective national standards.

Published Sept. 16, 2008 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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