The Public Library: Gateway to Knowledge or Portal to Porn?

Some parents in this small Michigan town are afraid of what their kids can’t 'unsee'

By |2021-11-24T07:55:16-05:00November 24th, 2021|Michigan, News|

It’s hard to imagine a kerfuffle over putting library cards in the hands of school kids. But in Williamston, a small town east of Lansing considered politically purple, there have been some heated discussions.

The Student Success Initiative, which grew out of an Obama-era program, was implemented recently by the Capital Area District Library (CADL), a library system serving much of Ingham County, including Williamston. Through this program, schools leverage the resources of the community’s public library to assist students with their academic work. It’s quite simple: Public school kids are automatically signed up for a library account unless a parent opts out. 

Some parents in Williamston don’t like that.  

“We went through our first nine schools, and it went fairly well,” said Scott Duimstra, executive director of the CADL.

In Williamston, the 10th and final school, it was a different story.

“The controversy was [over] some of the content that we have in our collection,” Duimstra said. “Now, being a public library, we explained that we have a wide variety of materials that represent a variety of backgrounds, a variety of author points of view. And as diverse as our society is, you see that diversity reflected in the library’s collection as well, too. 

“I think what some of the parents were complaining about is if their students are just given these library cards that they could check out material that either the family might not agree with or that might not be age-appropriate for the children,” he continued.

Some of the complaints from parents originated at a recent Williamston Community Schools school board meeting, where a parent waved around copies of Maia Kobabe’s award-winning memoir in graphic novel form, “Gender Queer: A Memoir.”

“If a little child or any child looks at that, they can’t unsee that,” the parent said. “The library does not rate or cordon off any of this material.”

“What we tell parents is we encourage parent involvement in their child’s use of the library,” Duimstra explained. “So, if you have a concern that your child may check something out that you don’t want them to check out, the best way to kind of counter that is to use the library with your child. And so we tell them that the library’s role is to not be the parent in that situation.”

Students participating in the program can check out up to three books, audiobooks or magazines, and they have access to the library’s public computers. They aren’t able to download or stream content from the library system’s website and don’t have access to DVDs or the “Library of Things” unless they sign up with a parent for those privileges. Further, parents have access to their child’s library account, something Duimstra explained is par for the course since parents or guardians are financially responsible for the materials. 

Barb Shumer is a retired librarian who has been a board member of Stand with Trans, the Michigan-based organization that supports families with transgender kids, since 2016. “It’s just so sad, really, that parents operate from such a position of fear that they feel that they have to protect their children from information that provides all points of view,” Shumer said. 

While public libraries have a wider array of books, materials, and resources than school libraries do, it’s “extremely unlikely” kids would access materials inappropriate for their age or grade level, Shumer said. 

“I worked as a children’s librarian at public libraries for over 30 years in various communities, and I really can’t remember it happening,” Shumer said. “Through all of time, children and families have so much to gain and so little to lose in having free and easy access to the breadth and depth of public library materials.” 

Shumer has read “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” In fact, for Stand with Trans, she’s spent the last several years compiling an ever-growing book list of transgender- and nonbinary-related books geared toward kids. It can be found on the Stand with Trans website, along with other resources. Entries for each book are annotated and titles are grouped by age-appropriate level. 

“Gender Queer: A Memoir” contains some sexually explicit content, which is why Shumer said she can understand the parents’ objection to it for younger kids. Yet, she points out, it’s clearly identified as a young adult book. 

Both Duimstra and Shumer recognize a trend in parents’ latest attempts, however misguided, to protect kids from being exposed to certain kinds of knowledge. And yet, the public library is not the only source of kids’ media consumption: They may be exposed to social media, television, movies, music and other content without much parental oversight. 

Perhaps because gender identity is one of the hot button issues of the day, “Gender Queer: A Memoir” has become something of a lightning rod. For the past couple of months at least, parents have been “waving around” copies of Kobabe’s book at school board meetings from coast to coast. (In those cases, parents demanded the book be pulled from the school library’s shelves.) 

Kobabe responded in a Washington Post op-ed. “Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth,” Kobabe wrote, “who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies and health.” 

Duimstra said he was uncertain how many students have been pulled from the CADL program by their parents, since schools manage student participation and share information with the library to set up the accounts. 

“I would just say, libraries are founded on First Amendment access, and that’s access to all types of content: books, films, media,” Duimstra said. “And it’s something that we protect to the highest of our [ability]. And so if we ever get what’s called a request for reconsideration of our titles, it’s highly unlikely that we would take something out of our collection.” He did say, however, they might consider whether or not the title was in an age-appropriate area.

Shumer brought up the First Amendment, too. She referenced the American Library Association’s definition of intellectual freedom as it relates to libraries: 

“Intellectual freedom is the right of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Intellectual freedom is one of the core values of the library profession; it promotes access to information and guides the defense against censorship.”

About the Author:

Ellen Shanna Knoppow
Ellen Knoppow is a writer who believes in second acts.