Q: The director of the public library where I work has been saying informally that he thinks picture books with gay/lesbian/transgender characters belong in the adult section of the library. Because he hasn’t told me I have to move them, I’ve just ignored his comments. But what should I do if he does order me to shift them to the adult collection?
First, consider the nature of communication with your director. When he says “he thinks…” is he actually implying he expects you to follow his suggestion? Is he testing how you will respond?
Biding your time and hoping he’ll forget that comment is going to make you feel anxious and have a chilling effect upon book selection while you more or less “wait it out.” It’s like waiting for another shoe to drop, except you don’t know if there’s another shoe at all. In the meantime, you’ll be miserable.
Instead, consider his informal comment as an invitation for a dialogue about accessibility, and about potentially controversial themes and topics in general. Ask to meet with him.
In the meeting, you’ll want to be prepared on several levels for a dialogue about accessibility. That’s ultimately what’s at stake here: accessibility.
Before the meeting, review your library’s selection policy and departmental procedures. Unless your library’s board-approved policy and/or departments internally approved selection procedures specify instances when children’s books may be purchased for and housed in the adult collection (and if this is the case, we hope that these are duplicates of books also found in the children’s collection; for example, perhaps you there are duplicates of several books for children on human growth and development among parenting resources), there’s no justification for putting any picture book, or any children’s book, only into a section where a children (or parents or care givers) won’t find it by browsing the shelves where other children’s books can be located.
It’s possible your director made a comment informally, because he knows that the policies and procedures leave no room for such a formal request on his part. But it’s also possible he’s testing the waters–seeing how you will respond–before he directs you to take action.
Assuming your policies and procedures do not outline instances when children’s books should be located anywhere other than the collection of materials accessible to children, approach the conversation as if you assume in his role as an administrator, he, like you, is committed to following the board-approved policy, and that he, like you, is committed to making library materials and services available and accessible to everyone in your community.
Be direct but not confrontational. Explain that you are professionally uncomfortable moving children’s books to the adult collection for two reasons.
- To move the books will be in violation of the board-approved policy (if your library policy affirms the Library Bill of Rights, note that the request is also in violation of the professional standards for librarianship that the policy affirms in the Library Bill of Rights)
- Moving the books into the adult collection will make them invisible and inaccessible to most children and their adults who are using the library. Your director might point out that everyone using the library, including young children, has access to all books in the library, as well as to electronic library records. You might respond by saying that most children–the intended audience for picture books and other children’s materials, after all–aren’t likely to be using the library’s electronic records, at least in a sophisticated way. They certainly won’t know that it might be possible to find some picture books in the adult collection.
Perhaps your director will realize that he hadn’t had a chance to think through the implications of his comment, which also has future implications for other themes and topics. (Keep giving him the benefit of a doubt throughout the conversation.) And perhaps he’s also forgetting, out of fear, that the library’s job is to serve the community as a whole and not to serve some perceived or actual special interest to the detriment of others. Alternately, his request is built on the incorrect assumption that he knows the opinions and interests of everyone in the community which is, of course, impossible.
If the director insists the books be moved to the adult collection, your have two options: do as instructed, or refuse to do as told.
If you refuse, you are, of course, risking your job. Think clearly and hard about the possibility that you can be charged with insubordination, or “written up” as uncooperative, etc. Or that you aren’t a “team player,” or that you’re naive and don’t understand the community and/or funding pressures a library administrator faces, etc. This type of “speaking up” even on principle can have more than a chilling effect upon what might already be an uneasy or even difficult staff relationship.
If you want to take a stand and firmly state why you cannot do this (it goes against your understanding of library ethics and intellectual freedom principles, etc.) do not do that without knowing where and who can offer personal and professional support. If you have a union, it’s important for you to contact your union representative in advance. If you have a position in library that does not have a union, or if your position isn’t represented by the union, you may need to contact the library board directly.
Are there other librarians you can talk to–at your library, or elsewhere in your community? Is there a kindred spirit or two in the public schools? In your library system? In your regional or state library organization?
With whom in the community can you talk candidly and at this time confidentially about your opinion and your inclination to take a principled stand?
If you go along with a direct request to remove these books as a group–not just a certain book, but all books in any category or about any topic in the future–you can write a letter to the director that you have done so in protest for the reasons stated above. Copy the library board on the letter. Ask that it be put in your file.
Whether you follow or refuse the request, it is up to you how much further you want to take this. Do you want to involve the local media? Others in the community? Think through these possibilities carefully.
No matter what you decide to do or not do, continue to think about this matter. Talk with and elicit support both locally and from state and national organizations such as the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom and possibly the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) through your state chapter office.
May, 2006; updated 2020