Recently, books and libraries have come under attack for sharing stories about individuals and their experiences. While there has always been discourse about literature, today authors, librarians and educators are being slandered with horrific terms such as “groomer,” “pedophile” or “pornographer.”
These attacks are not merely directed toward individuals and books; they become attacks on intellectual freedom and the rights of individuals to learn.
The freedom to seek, receive and impart information is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the declaration’s drafting committee.
Also enshrined in that document is the right to education that promotes “understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.”
The 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child declared the importance of preparing each child “for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.”
When I began my studies as a librarian, I was drawn to memoirs about people who survived the Holocaust. These powerful stories filled me with such despair. That one group of people could commit such hateful, horrendous acts against another based on a false ideology of superiority was inconceivable. I endeavored to learn more, to understand what could drive people to disregard their humanity and turn against others. As I continued to study and learn about the Holocaust, I began to read about other atrocities in history: the events in Rwanda, Cambodia, the history of Black people and Indigenous people in the United States. I began to see that people and their like-minded organizations used their personal belief systems not to better humanity through kindness and support but to target and dehumanize other humans and groups due to prejudice and fear.
As I learned more, I began to reflect on my personal ideology and life choices. Yale historian Timothy Snyder has written that history “does not repeat itself, but it does instruct.”
The caveat to that quote should be “if we are willing to listen.”
A ‘very difficult decision’
I have been fortunate over the past 10 years to meet and learn from educators around the world.
These interactions have been profound learning experiences and have forced me to confront my own biases and transform my thinking on a number of ideas.
Unquestionably, what has made a significant impact on my personal education and understanding of humanity has been my experience in the classroom and interactions with students, through teaching as well as through the conversations and questions raised by students. Listening to them and guiding them to learn about the world in which they live was a privilege.
Sharing the stories of people with similar experiences provided lifelines to students, helping them recognize that they weren’t alone. Passing along books that offered glimpses into drastically different lives helped them to make sense of the world in which they lived.
Recently, I chose to make a very difficult decision to resign my position as a school librarian due to a policy that restricted my ability to share stories. The rise of book challenges nationwide resulted in a requirement for students to get parental permission to check out books that were already approved and among the library collection. I was troubled by the need for this requirement, as existing school board policy already had afforded parents the option to exempt their child from materials they deemed objectionable.
I began questioning my professional judgment in curating an inclusive library collection.
As a librarian and an educator, I always sought to balance the needs of the students, the requirements of the curriculum, and the values of the school and community in which I served. The reality is that this school district in which I served was becoming more diverse. The experiences of my students were more diverse. The world around them continues to rapidly change. They have questions and seek answers. I no longer felt I could guide them to the answers they sought without jeopardizing my career.
It has been insinuated that I sought to undermine parents’ ability to dictate what their child should read. Quite the contrary. I sought to create a space that allowed all students to explore their interests without restriction.
Students always had the right to select their own books, and I encouraged them to discuss questions and ideas with their parents.
‘Only agenda is to learn’
That is the purpose of a library: to seek knowledge, to share thoughts, to raise questions. We share stories in order to understand, to empathize, to learn about the things we do not know. We only need to look at the past for instruction, to see what happens when we fail to recognize the humanity in all people.
There have been many questions raised about the appropriateness of certain books. That is not a question a librarian can answer. That must be left to the reader to discern, for students and their parents to discuss. A librarian looks at the significance or pertinence of a work as it relates to its patrons. That means recognizing all the patrons the library serves, not just the majority. Yes, our own values influence how we feel about certain stories, but that does not make those stories irrelevant to the entire community.
Our libraries and institutions of learning are in a precarious situation. This in turn affects our entire society. There are those who believe that certain ideas and stories are less valuable than others. The lives and stories of our LGBTQ neighbors, Black community members, Indigenous citizens and our own national history are being cast aside and denounced as part of a progressive agenda. The only agenda is to learn.
We must come to terms with our own history. We must also learn to embrace the pain, the love and the joy found in lives that are not our own. History has shown what happens when groups are deemed inferior, and their lives are devalued. This includes when their books and stories are scrutinized.
We must look to the past for guidance on this issue. Libraries and books allow us to explore these stories, to unravel our biases, to learn and to empathize. We must never forget what happens when we disregard a person’s humanity.
We must be willing to listen to all voices in the spirit of understanding.
Matthew Good recently resigned his position as a librarian in the Donegal School District in Lancaster, Pa. He is the librarian for the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights, and an alumnus of the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights, of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellowship, and the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program. He is a member of the Pennsylvania School Library Association and the American Library Association.
This column was first published by LP Lancaster Online and is reprinted here by permission.
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