Opinion

OPINION | GREG HARTON: Why librarians will be the last ones to light the match

From an admittedly loose definition, libraries are "banning" books all the time.

Unless a library has an unceasingly philanthropic supporter named Musk, Bezos, Buffett, Gates, Zuckerberg or the comparatively impoverished Waltons, it simply can't afford every one of the 2 million or so books published worldwide every year. The biggest banner of books is probably the local library's limited budget.

For every volume librarians are able to say "yes" to, there's probably a hundred books they reject.

That's collection development, not book banning, I'm sure they'd say.

It's a job someone has to do. Would you want that responsibility?

Of course, the term "book banning" is thrown around a lot these days. In some areas, such as Crawford County, a group has appointed its members to be library monitors with a set of standards they want applied to all books. In Saline County in central Arkansas, the county judge last week fired the director of the county library system after months of controversy as some residents demanded certain books be removed from the general collection. Most of the books targeted by these activists include racial or sexual topics.

Is moving books from general circulation to a part of the library not accessible without permission a form of banning books? The fired librarian in Saline County had said so.

Librarians, generally speaking, promote what their national organizations refer to as intellectual freedom or "freedom to read." Their jobs include a duty to build book collections on topics of interest as eclectic as the residents who make up the community they serve. They do not exist to serve any particular personal agendas (and shouldn't) other than using their limited resources to meet the wide-ranging needs of library customers.

But what about offensive materials?

How would you go about building a library collection that offended nobody? If that's the goal, the shelves would be so bland it's doubtful many readers would even bother walking through the doors.

Activists mostly target books on the basis they might somehow end up in the hands of children. In order to protect the children, library shelves must be scrubbed of offensive materials, these groups assert. Most often, this involves LGBTQ-themed books or books with sexual themes or images.

It's fair that parents should be concerned about what their children might see in a library. And so my recommendation is less about book banning than it is about parental guidance. A book that offends me may be perfectly fine for another parent helping their child select a book to read. Should my more conservative perspective dictate what everyone at the library has access to?

It certainly takes time for a parent to, for example, first read a book a child has expressed an interest in to determine whether it's suitable. But that's the job parents signed up for, isn't it? We're told by state leaders parents should be empowered. They're talking about school choice, but doesn't that principle apply in libraries, too?

No group -- especially not the one whose primary skill is to scream the loudest and threaten the most -- should be permitted to dictate the limits of reading for everyone in the community.

If a book seems offensive to your point of view, decline to read it or let your child read it. If just seeing a book about something you dislike or disagree with vehemently makes your head feel like exploding, maybe a public library isn't the place for you.

Librarians work for the entire community, not just a small segment of it. Don't expect them to light a match if anyone gets around to suggesting a book burning.