As we near the end of another year, it is an opportune time to reflect on why public libraries exist and the role we play in our communities. I began working in public libraries in 1994 and have been a professional librarian since 1999. I entered this profession because I like books, research, and learning, but I found out very quickly the heart of the public library is so much more than that. We are one of the very few places in society today that is unequivocally for everyone. Regardless of age, race, religion, gender, or social standing, anyone is welcome to come through our doors and be treated with respect and dignity. We help the marginalized, isolated, or lonely make connections that they desperately need. We help the unemployed find jobs and senior citizens file their taxes. We help people start businesses and help existing business owners become more successful. We boost local economies and help train workforces. We ensure everyone has free and equal access to information and everyone can choose for themselves what they want to read, view, or hear. The public library is a cornerstone of a strong community and a strong democracy. As former Kentucky Governor Wendell Ford once said “If information is the currency of democracy, then libraries are its banks.”
For as long as public libraries have existed, people have challenged the items held in their collections and called for certain items to be removed. These have come from every side of the ideological and political spectrum and, until recently, they have been met with equally bipartisan resistance. Freedom of expression is a founding principle of our nation, after all, and it should be vigorously defended. Unfortunately, that notion is increasingly being forgotten; libraries across the country are coming under fire by those who would seek to politicize them and twist their decisions for their own purposes.
Make no mistake, every public library respects the right of its citizens to question items in its collection, just as we value and encourage citizens to suggest items to add. It is out of that respect that we take each request for reconsideration seriously and adhere to a standard process. It is out of that respect that we don’t make any public statements that could bias the process and cast doubt on its validity. It is out of that respect that we remain neutral and apolitical in our assessment. When anyone submits such a request, we convene a review committee and each member reads or views the work in its entirety. They measure the work against our collection management policy, consider why the item was purchased in the first place, determine if the subject or topic is otherwise represented in our collection, and make a measured and rational decision. Decisions to remove something from the library are not made lightly, nor should they be.
You may have heard about one such request for reconsideration that has been the subject of a fair amount of news coverage. As often happens, most of the comments cited in these reports and elsewhere were made by people without first-hand knowledge of the item in question, reacting to the item’s provocative title and things they’d heard about it. In fact, the library’s copy hasn’t been publicly available for months. During the committee’s review, they learned that the item did, indeed, have explicit photographs that seemed unrelated to the text they should have been illustrating. They also learned that this item was purchased because it was the only item readily available at the time about sexuality and sexual health for gay men. It contains important information about health, safety, and consent that are not contained elsewhere in our collection and to remove it would be to erase this topic altogether. They also learned the item had been checked out several times since it was purchased over five years ago and has a list of twenty people waiting. To make a logical, unbiased decision that isn’t just personal opinion, all of these factors were considered.
As a result of this process, we decided to retain the item until all of the holds placed on it prior to November 21 have been filled, since those residents and taxpayers have a right to access the item. Once they are finished, all copies will be removed from the collection. Since it was purchased, other books on this topic have been published so we are able to fill the information need with sources that don’t necessarily contain the explicit imagery that is superfluous to the text.
All decisions we make are approached in this manner – logically and based on facts, not opinion and emotion. At the November 14 St. Charles City-County Library Board of Trustees meeting, there were statements made to the effect that the Library's administration has been pursuing an agenda by purchasing items that are inappropriate for public libraries or are not commonly found in them. I cannot state more strongly that this is false. Of the five books that were referenced at the meeting, all are commonly held at libraries across the state of Missouri and the nation. We are a large library, larger than more than 98% of the public libraries in the U.S., and to exclude items from our collection that are included in collections of literally hundreds and thousands of other libraries -- libraries in communities large and small, urban and rural -- would be to fail our residents and taxpayers who expect access to them. In fact, excluding these, or any such lawful subject matter ranging from religious texts to political works or anything else, would be exhibiting the very bias and agenda that has been alleged.
A common refrain is that the materials in question don’t reflect the values of the residents of St. Charles County. Yet, cumulatively they have been checked out hundreds of times by those very residents. Do they not count as true St. Charles County residents? Are their tax dollars somehow worth less? The answer, of course, is obvious if you’re approaching it from an apolitical, unbiased point of view as we always do.
It is our promise to you that we will continue to do so.
Chief Executive Officer