Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2008 | Features

Life, Liberty, and Libraries

By Shelbi Thomas
Culture wars are fought every day, not with guns and bombs, but with books and ideas. The frontline? Your local public library.

Across the segregated South, children of all colors gathered together for story time on the front lawns of their public libraries. Jim Crow laws barred the dark-skinned children from coming inside the libraries, so—under the hostile gaze of police officers and picketers—librarians came to them.

Back in the 1960s, a few brave librarians pushed to make their workplaces early sites of integration. When those library doors finally opened wide, it wasn't just a win for African American kids; it was a victory for everyone. Libraries lived up to their promise as democratic places where people could read and think freely on a variety of topics and perspectives.

"Libraries have such a capacity for influence," says Joan Bessman Taylor, a library and information science assistant professor who teaches the UI's "Public Libraries as Cultural Domains" course. "They get so taken for granted that they seem invisible, yet they're fundamental to what people [in this country] value."

Libraries reveal volumes about the communities they serve. Walk through the doors of the Iowa City Public Library, and of course you'll see books. But you also might find an English conversation group, a screening of a documentary, a Johnson County Democrats meeting, an Irish music and dance performance, or a reading from an Iowa Writers' Workshop grad. For Iowa City and countless other communities, the library is more than a storehouse of information; it's a place where people and ideas meet.

Some of these meetings are peaceful. Others, involving censorship or book burnings, can be explosive. In Taylor's class, an elective offered by the UI School of Library and Information Science, students explore how these encounters support the idea of libraries as what scholar Rebecca Knuth has called "living tissues of culture." Through readings from a variety of sources, students learn the history of public libraries and their transformation from stiff bastions of culture into welcoming community centers.

The seminar-style course operates like the UI Main Library in which it meets, allowing class members to share ideas freely and to dig deeper into their areas of interest. "It's great because [Taylor] lets us talk and interpret the readings as we want, but she also tells us what the conventional thought is," says Kate Johnson, a library science master's student from Cedar Rapids who plans to become a public librarian.

Taylor wants her students to realize how the daily decisions they'll make as librarians can impact patrons long-term. Even today, many people perceive librarians as stern enforcers of order, prowling the book stacks with a fierce "sssh!" ready to admonish patrons who disturb the hallowed halls. Such perceptions arose from Victorian-era librarians, who often spoke out against popular fiction. Seeing themselves as protectors of high culture, these early librarians frowned upon recreational reading that they believed lacked moral and educational value. They also feared the upheaval of traditional class and gender roles, spurning books with heroines who challenged societal conventions, outwitted men, or rejected family life.

Although librarians—facing a decline in library usage and funding—ultimately decided to accept popular fiction by the 1900s, old stereotypes still linger. That's why Taylor's students think about how to make libraries less intimidating to users. "Knowing the background of how librarians have been perceived by patrons, I try to be more proactive and friendly," says Johnson, who works at the reference desk in the UI Main Library.

The course raises plenty of questions about the role of a library in a community. Should libraries stick to books or provide new technology and media to meet the needs and desires of patrons? In more and more of today's libraries, visitors can grab a cup of coffee, watch a film, check out a piece of artwork, borrow an iPod to listen to an audiobook, and even receive homework help from librarians. Some critics argue that such libraries overlap the functions of coffee shops, movie theaters, schools, and other cultural institutions.

"This class brings to light the fact that there isn't a single unifying function of a public library," responds Taylor. "The library is for the people, and it should reflect the people and community in which it exists."

Discussions about the purposes of libraries are important, because the institutions are so much more than a repository of books. Each volume, CD, or DVD is a testimony to freedom of expression, each library card a symbol of intellectual liberty. Because these ideas are incompatible with totalitarianism, libraries often become the targets of extremist regimes that want to disenfranchise a particular community or quell opposing thought. By destroying libraries, governments can erase the records of the people they represent and take away the ability of future generations to know about them. As Heinrich Heine, a 19th century German poet, once prophesized, "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings."

In the 1970s, Khmer Rouge soldiers turned Cambodia's National Library into a sty for pigs. They used books to roll cigarettes and light cooking fires. More than two million people were murdered in the regime's brutal genocide—some of them executed in the library's garden.

Earlier that century in Europe, Nazis not only ravaged Jewish libraries, but also replaced treasured materials with their own propaganda. Today, the National Yiddish Book Center at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, still works to regain the lost cultural history of Jews. Volunteers have rescued more than 1.5 million books, sometimes at the last minute, from demolition sites and dumpsters.

Even in modern democracies, censorship remains a threat. American book burnings and bannings span from a religious pamphlet declared heretical in 1650 to the Harry Potter series of today. Over the years, parents, school administrators, and other groups have pulled everything from The Great Gatsby to The Adventures of Captain Underpants off library shelves.

While Victorian-era librarians concerned themselves with preserving the status quo, contemporary librarians see themselves as guardians of the people's freedom to read. The American Library Association regularly publishes lists of the most-banned books, and it also issues statements against laws like the Patriot Act, which allows the government to obtain warrants to search library records.

Author and filmmaker Michael Moore credits librarians for rescuing his book, Stupid White Men. When HarperCollins threatened to ax the book unless Moore watered down critical comments about President George W. Bush, librarians started a letter-writing campaign that caused the publisher to reverse its decision. "As Michael Moore says, 'Don't mess with librarians,'" Taylor tells her class. "'They rule the world.'"

Even as librarians work to preserve reading freedoms, they have to be careful that their policies and book selections don't inadvertently prevent access to materials. They have to consider—and find the budget for—large-print books for patrons with sight problems or a sign language interpreter for events. They also have to face difficult questions about who can meet in the library's public space. Communities nationwide had to address this issue several years ago when white supremacist Matt Hale announced his plans for a public library tour.

Still, most encounters made at the library end in learning rather than conflict. Whether through scrolls and tablets of the ancient age or the e-books of today, libraries have opened countless minds to a world of ideas.