, Salem, MA

April 18, 2014

Our view: Ever-evolving libraries still defend basic freedoms

The Salem News

---- — Of all the problems threatening American youth these days, a cartoonish, cape-and-briefs-wearing character from a series of children’s books would seem to be far down on the list.

Somehow, however, the “Captain Underpants” series was deemed dangerous to young minds by enough people to land the series by Dav Pilkey in the top 10 titles on the American Library Association’s list of “Most Challenged Books.”

That Captain Underpants, accurately described by its author as “a series with no sex, no nudity, no drugs, no profanity and no more violence than a Superman cartoon” should make the list of works targeted for censorship is sillier than the plot of the books themselves. Yet, libraries have also been pressured to remove far more serious titles from their shelves, the ALA reports. “The Bluest Eye,” the novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, also made the list, offending some with its stark depiction of racism, incest and child molestation. Sherman Alexie’s prize-winning “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” is on there, too, as “readers” were taken aback by its drug references, sexual content and racism.

“The list shows the wide range of books that can get people rattled and touch upon their deepest fears and antagonisms,” Barbara Jones, who directs the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told the Associated Press.

One thing is clear: Your local library has something to offend everyone.

Good, we say. Along with news organizations, libraries are among the greatest defenders of the First Amendment right of freedom of expression and, as the ALA puts it, “the corollary right to receive and consider ideas, information and images.” As we have said in this space before, public libraries are this country’s great equalizer, affording anyone with a library card and a curious mind access to a seemingly infinite treasure trove of knowledge, information and ideas.

While we should all be thankful librarians defend access to that information so vigorously, we shouldn’t be surprised, because it was here in New England that the idea of a free library first took root. The town of Franklin, of course, named itself after Benjamin Franklin, who in turn donated 116 books to the town. Franklin’s town meeting voted to lend the books to its residents free of charge in 1790. Other communities laying a claim to first public library status include Boston and Peterborough, N.H.

Today, libraries face the dual challenges of dwindling budgets (a trend that has hit public school libraries especially hard) and the changing needs of the people they serve.

“As communities have changed, so has the relationship of the library to the community,” ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels said. “The traditional library was a passive provider, reacting to community needs. The library opened its doors, and people came in to use its materials and services.

“Today, the library must be proactive; it must engage the community. ... Increasingly, libraries are serving as conveners, bringing community members together to articulate their aspirations and then innovating in order to become active partners and a driving force in community development and community change.”

That is certainly true here on the North Shore, home to several innovative, engaging, forward-thinking libraries. Peabody Institute Library, for example, will work this year with Clark Farm in Danvers on a Community Supported Agriculture project, offering regionally grown fruits and vegetables to local “shareholders” throughout the summer. The library has also unveiled this year a “creativity lab,” which includes a 3-D printer and scanner, an embroidery machine and a recording studio.

“Our model of a free public library is a little different,” library Director Martha Holden told reporter Alan Burke in February.

As much as Peabody Institute Library and its counterparts change to meet the times, however, they deserve praise for continuing to defend the bedrock principle of a free exchange of ideas, however uncomfortable those ideas — including a briefs-wearing children’s superhero — may be to some.