The Unwanted Gift: When Saying "No Thanks" Isn't Enough

By Kertesz, Chris | American Libraries, March 2001 | Go to article overview

The Unwanted Gift: When Saying "No Thanks" Isn't Enough


Kertesz, Chris, American Libraries


RELIGION AND MORALITY OFTEN FUEL FURIOUS GENEROSITY AND ETHICAL QUANDARIES

Adolescent sorcerers, mice and men, caged birds, fallen angels, and terrorists--all have inspired somebody to want to ban a book. More troubling and perhaps more of a dilemma than would-be banners, however, are would-be selectors, self-appointed collection-development specialists who are sure they have found a shortcoming in the library and intend to see to it that it is rectified.

These guardians of balance cannot easily be dismissed as censors, since their approach to such "immoral" books as Daddy's Roommate is to match them tome for tome with an Alfie's Home, and balance each textbook on evolution with a creationist tract. Often, such cases involve adults ostensibly seeking to protect the minds and morals of young people.

The separation between church and state is a thorny issue for public librarians in the United States. A library must avoid the appearance of encouraging belief in any one religion, at the same time maintaining a collection that is representative of the public it serves. That can become difficult in communities where faith and citizenship are viewed as one.

In a pluralist society, providing information on all types of religious beliefs is prefer able to focusing exclusively on one or ignoring the matter entirely. This is not usually a problem with reference books or classics of literature, as long as they are selected carefully for objectivity and balance. The tricky part is being able to justify the expenditure of public funds for the gray areas of inspirational fiction, spiritual self-help books, accounts of encounters with angels or other metaphysical beings, child-rearing in specific religious traditions, or essays on sin and morality.

What do librarians do when someone is determined to get books on the shelves that the library, purely for reasons of quality control, doesn't want?

The common element running through the following case studies is that they deal with religion. In each one, aspiring donors have tried to place materials in libraries.

In Toledo, "We strive for balance"

Five years ago, Melanie and Dean Witt tried to donate two copies of George Grant's Killer Angel: A Short Biography of Planned Parenthood's Founder, Margaret Sanger (Cumberland House, 1995) to the Toledo--Lucas County (Ohio) Public Library. Anthony Schaefer, manager of the library's history, travel, and biography section, said the library declined the gift because "the author's political and social agenda, which is strongly espoused throughout the book, is not appropriate." Also, the library system already owned 12 biographies of Sanger, who died 35 years ago.

Last year, the Witts, after a long silence, cried censorship and went to the media (AL, Aug. 2000, p. 19). They were featured in articles on conservative Internet news sites and discussed on the Ask Dr. Laura radio show.

None of the library's other books on Sanger "mentioned her controversial views on race or her association with high-ranking Nazi eugenics officials," the Witts said in a June 6, 2000, article in the online WorldNetDaily. They claimed they had donated Killer Angel to provide balance in the library's collection. "We purchased the books ourselves and didn't ask them to remove anything from the library," Melanie Witt said. "We just thought that they at least ought to be providing another perspective."

"We are listening to all opinions being expressed," said Pat Nigro, then the library's assistant coordinator of marketing and development. "We strive for balance."

A six-paragraph selection policy states that the library chooses materials "on the basis of professional evaluation of the needs of its potential public." Selection is "the responsibility of the director, and under his delegation, such members of the professional staff who are qualified by reason of education and training. …

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The Unwanted Gift: When Saying "No Thanks" Isn't Enough
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