Over my 14 years as a library director, I have received over 200 "requests for reconsideration"--typically, requests to remove library books, audiotapes, and movies from our collections. Last summer, I pulled out all my responses (I answer all such challenges personally) and read them through again to see if I could discover the underlying pattern. I made a surprising discovery that leads me to think that I now understand why we have gotten so many challenges.
Who are the people who challenge libraries? Overwhelmingly, they are:
* parents of children between the ages of 4 and 6, and
* parents of children between the ages of 14 and 16.
I have two children myself, and I do understand. In the first blush of parenthood, I found myself absorbed and charmed by my daughter. I quickly learned all those habits of protectiveness--moving the drinking glasses away from the edge of the dinner table, holding her hand when we crossed the street, snatching her up when I saw a loose dog.
At about the age of 4, children begin interacting with the world in a way less purely physical, and more concerned with language and social behavior. It's about this time that parents start cleaning up their own language, and start being annoyed by their childless friends, who swear as much as they always had.
The idyll of infancy has come to a close. Parents begin to see that the dangers of the world are both larger, and less well defined, than the potential harm of broken glass, speeding cars, and big dogs. Sometimes, parents reach this realization ... at the library.
Consider the story of the Buddha: Prince Gautama's father sought to protect his son from any knowledge of the world's suffering. The young Gautama was not to see illness, or old age, or death. Eventually, of course, he encountered them anyhow. In his shock and horror, Gautama did just what his father feared: The child abandoned his family, fleeing pell-mell to his own, independent future.
Until their children reach the age of 4 or so, parents feel that the world is controllable; a generally safe environment can be created and maintained. But library collections, even in the children's room, provide ample evidence of the world's woes. No matter that you have told your child that it's not nice to call anyone names: One day he picks up a book of insults, and finds it hilarious. Or you're working hard to have your child be neat and tidy--then she falls in love with a book about a happy slob.
So many of the challenges libraries receive have an emotional content that seems, at first, puzzling and disproportionate. Why? Because parents have just realized that the world is not controllable; that there are a wide range of influences in the world exactly contrary to the messages parents want to send their children.
Thus parents' first reaction is a kind of stunned anger: Why are you, a public institution paid for by tax dollars, deliberately sabotaging their conscientious parenting?
It is often their own dedication that leads some parents to crusades, and blinds them to their own arrogance. They volunteer to review every book in the children's area, because librarians clearly don't understand the effect of literature on young minds. Out with all the disturbing influences! In with innocuous literature like--the Berenstain Bears!
Eventually, most parents come to a resigned adjustment. By then, their children are off in public schools, and the library isn't quite the threat it used to be. Now it's TV, and peer pressure, and how to dress your child so he won't be publicly belittled, and the lessons of soccer sportsmanship. Parents may even learn a new respect for librarians and their now-welcome skills at research and reader's advice. The library becomes again what it was at the beginning: a social asset.
The wonder years
The next crisis point comes with puberty. Suddenly, your children don't even look like children any more. …