It’s Pretty Dark in a Closed Mind

There is an article in the Wall Street Journal that is making its way around the Young Adult (YA) and librarian Twittersphere right now, even invoking its own hashtag #YAsaves. The gist of the article is that current YA literature is too dark, too violent, too graphic, and address topics far too dark for teen literature. It starts off with an anecdote about a mother who went to a bookstore and found nothing in the YA area that she felt was appropriate for her daughter; it was the equivalent of turning on the TV, flipping through a dozen channels out of the hundreds offered, and then declaring that there was nothing on worth watching. It certainly falls into the “isn’t the first time, won’t be the last time” critique of young adult literature (or any literature, for that matter).

For all the emphasis on the books and the subjects that they cover, there is little mention as to what is driving authors to write books that cover topics such as rape, self-mutilation, incest, homosexuality, drug abuse, and sex. From the article, it would sound as if the YA authors, publishers, and librarians of the world had formed a triad in order to promote these topics, parents and moralists be damned. The blame is placed on these groups for writing, publishing, and promoting it, even though it is the teens themselves or their parents who are purchasing or borrowing the content. If readers did not care for books like “Shine”, “Rage”, or “Speak”, then those books would live out their lives on the shelves in bookstores and libraries untouched and unnoticed. The almighty dollar dictates what kinds of books are going to be produced; even the Wall Street Journal should understand that the demand drives the market, not the supply, especially when it comes to literature.

I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed at the feeling of a need to rush to the defense of this literature by my fellow librarians. Too often I think it provides unnecessary validation to the opposing argument and frames the issue as a matter of what librarians consider appropriate or important. It should not be about us; it should be about the (mythical) standards that objectors wish to impose. To me, this is a time for some argument jujitsu and it starts with a question: so, what do you think is inappropriate and why? From there, just start objectively breaking down their answers. Is there a book they would consider to be appropriate? How much is too much sex, violence, drug use, etc.? Because if they want book selection to follow a criterion, let them attempt to define it. It’s really a trick question; there is no way they can define it in a meaningful and objective way. Let their words destroy their own arguments; they don’t need our help.

As it appears in others articles regarding objections to literature, there is the standard lament about how those objections are not readily sympathetic. As if it wasn’t enough in their own minds to be right, but they want their viewpoint to be popular as well. It’s a strange brew of arrogance and ignorance that goes into that sentiment. The arrogance of attempting to define standards based on personal subjective viewpoints, an “I know best for everyone else” idea that is neither original nor surprising in the long scope of history. But to never ask oneself why such objections are not popular, why they don’t receive wide support, and why people react to them negatively is just breathtaking. There is no examination or analysis of the counterpoint, a willful continuation of ignorance that just further perpetuates the vilification of the opposing party. (Don’t worry, I’m not excluding my fellow librarians from this either. It annoys the hell out of me when it happens.) Perhaps, upon some reflection, those who object to books or art might realize why there is strenuous opposition to their objections; for a society that values freedom of expression, it might be unpopular when it is felt to be curtailed.

The topics that these YA books address may be dark, but not as dark as adopting a worldview that doesn’t extend beyond oneself.


[Another good take is this post by Liz Burns, “There’s Dark Things In Them There Books!”]

Open Thread Thursday: Summertime

(Wanna feel old? This song came out 20 years ago. Yeah.)

With the arrival of Memorial Day weekend, the summer officially begins. (Nevermind what the calendar says in regards to that statement.) June also means that the ALA Annual Conference is near, returning librarians to The Big Easy once more. While I will not be attending this year (and pretty sad about it too), I did want to redo something that I did last year: the ALA new conference attendee Twitter list. This was last year’s new attendee list to give you an idea of what it looked like last year and who was on it.

The list is currently empty, so I need the names of Twitter librarians who are going to their first ALA this year. I’ll be advertising it on Twitter (of course) and looking to get more names to the list. It’s a neat list especially once you get to the conference and can check out what other new people are doing. Or the more experienced attendees can check out what the new folks think and maybe invite them out to an event or two. (And ALA does keep an eye on it; well, the all seeing eye of Jenny Levine, that is.)

Otherwise, this is an open thread. Talk about conference stuff or whatever.

Big Tent Librarianship: Six Months Out

About six months ago my Library Journal Backtalk article “We Need Big Tent Librarianship” was published. For myself, it was a pivotal piece; it was the articulation of a personal belief on a very public platform. I fretted over the little article unlike any blog post, fiddling with the wording and construction the whole way. While I did not write anything truly controversial, there were moments of trepidation as to how it would be received. It feels foolish now, but there was a distinct “What have I done?” kind of moment to the final draft being accepted. It was certainly more of a product of my perceived vulnerability; that was I was trying to convey something to which I was deeply personal and passionate in my belief. It felt like a turning point in my writing and step forward in my appearance on the library scene. 

In looking back on it now, it’s a bit hard to measure an impact or progress or result. Unlike the bulk of library statistics, it is nigh impossible to measure something that seeks to induce change at the ideological level. Six months is the wrong timescale when the purpose is to move attitudes over generations of librarians. I would surmise that some people might balk at that scale, that it was too large, too ambitious, and too far reaching for a single one page Backtalk article in a trade publication. Despite that, I think it can be done even if it takes the rest of my life to do so. I’m not saying this to be dramatic, but as a realist; a concept like big tent librarianship is something that requires a cultural shift from thinking that libraries are so inherently different as to how they are remarkably alike.

It is this last part (how they are alike) that has been my greatest takeaway from the last couple of months. While people would be quick to point out the unique features of each library type, I’m still drawn back to basic purposes and goals of the library institution. To me, it is the heart of the case for library preservation across all types; how can one library be deemed less fit for saving than another when they share nearly identical mission philosophies? To me, the unique features do not define the library but are merely offer an example as to how nuanced service and materials can be. It demonstrates flexibility in meeting needs and serving the community while maintaining those core values.

I can see people every now and again talking about big tent librarianship, so I know it is has gone further than the words I wrote back then. It’s good to see and just tells me I’m on the right path. This path isn’t about repeating what I wrote, but acting on it instead. That’s the next big step for big tent librarianship and the one that will take the longest. But, like any journey, it all starts with a step.