Speaking truth

As mentioned earlier this week, I spent an hour and a half on Friday talking to the Diversity Club at the school I work at. (Both lunches, so it was different sets of kids, except for a couple who have a free period over lunch.) We had 23 students by the diversity director’s count (plus him, plus the other diversity director, who is not normally based on that campus.) Two boys, the rest girls, and mostly upperclassmen rather than freshmen.

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Talking about what we do

On Friday, I’m going to be talking to the Diversity Club at the school I work at – about Wicca, and historical witchcraft. I’ve only got 40 minutes or so, so it’s going to be interesting.

This came about in an interesting way – we’ve got a new Diversity Director this year, and he’s been picking a particular topic to talk about twice a week. At the end of September, he sent out a list of topics, through Oct 31st (which is both a regular meeting and Hallowe’en), with October 31st listed as a time to talk about the Witchcraft hunts, Hallowe’en and Wicca.

I looked at my work email, and wandered down the hallway to volunteer. (I’ve been quietly out at work to people I’m closer to, but haven’t been public about it, and he didn’t know my own religious affiliation.) We had a lovely chat – he has Pagan friends, but was delighted not to have to try and field questions directly.

We’re not sure whether I’ll out myself or not (I have been cautious of this with students, because my relationship with them is different than a teacher’s is: I see them far less consistently, and it’s important that all students feel comfortable asking me questions.) But at the same time, the school has a decent history of supporting different religious beliefs and (fact-based) discussion of them by faculty.

Having this conversation:

I’ve spent some time thinking about how I want to do this. I plan to be in there with an easel (my theory is that any conversation that includes the word Samhain, you probably want to have something write it on) and handouts (so that I can focus on taking their questions and discussing, rather than worrying about getting to everything.)

There are some things I know I want to touch on – for example, I’ve been told that a couple of them have made comments that Wicca isn’t a real religion, so I want to talk briefly about what makes a religion, and about how the US does and doesn’t recognise religions. (i.e. there’s no official process, but various Pagan groups and paths have the same kinds of recognition as other religious traditions – IRS non-profit religious status, recognition in the military, ability to grant ministerial credentials, and so on.)

I’ve also made a deliberate decision to avoid getting bogged down in details but to stay accurate (if simplified). For example, I say: “Traditional Wicca is a priesthood path – equivalent to a religious order with specific commitments. Many others adapt Wiccan practices and use the term Wiccan but may vary from what’s described below.” which gets the idea across (I hope!) that there are different ways people use the term.

Likewise, when I talk about ethics, I’ve said: “Ethics are based on personal responsibility for choices and their effects in the world. Free will is a particularly strong value. There is no concept of salvation by deity, but also no idea of original sin.” rather than getting into a discussion of the Rede and the Threefold Law.

I’m also focusing on witchcraft and religious witchcraft rather than the grand scope of Paganism, because that’s how it’s been advertised – but I do mention that it’s one of a larger grouping of Pagan religions, and made sure to include books that mention this.

And there are some things that are not in the handout at all – the “Are you Satanists?” thing, or the “What about sacrifices?” These are answered in a couple of the books I’ve referenced (and that our library owns: I’ll be leaving a few down there for a week or so), but I made a deliberate decision to avoid these questions in the handout, because why give people ideas if they don’t ask about it.

I’ve done my best to treat practices fairly and as if this is a totally normal and reasonable way for religions to work – straightforward, with a sense of depth and more going on for those who are interested.

Don’t worry, I’ll post something (probably Friday) on how it went. I’m talking to both lunch blocks, so it’ll be two different groups of kids. I suspect the hardest thing about it may be avoiding saying “We” and “I” in terms of Pagan practice.

(I’m also trying to figure out what I’m going to wear, since it’s also Hallowe’en. I think I’m going to make it the first wearing of a really gorgeous dress a friend found for me in a consignment store – it’s a pale green, with Celtic stenciling on the bottom) and a fun hat – a gift from the same friend, a Renaissance-faire style velvet snood style cap. And some of my amber jewelry, because I’ll be amused if anyone figures it out – none of it’s obviously Pagan, but anyone who knows a little about Wicca may make the connection.)

Banned Books Week Four:

Wow! I notice that Chris Crutcher has linked here with glowing compliments. Thanks! (And for folks not familiar with him, check out some of his letters to people about censorship issues here.)

For folks who might be new over here, I go by Jenett online. I’m a librarian in Minnesota, and I think knowledge is power. This blog is mostly about my religious life and group work, but every year during Banned Books Week, I’ve made a point of posting a series of posts about freedom of information access issues. (And I always do a special focus on religion and freedom of information access issues.)

Please feel free to ask any questions. Just be aware I may be a little slow to get back to you, as I’m on the board for a sizable public community event this weekend, and will be away from my computer much more than usual between now and Sunday night (and tired and worn out when I’m home!)

I’m anticipating 2-3 more posts on this topic this year after this one – but because of my other commitments, they’ll probably finish sometime next week.

Banned Books posts to date:

These posts are also mirrored to my LiveJournal (most of my entries there are non-public, but the Banned Books week posts are public, and have some extended discussion in the comments.)

The question of controlled access:

There are three different things I want to talk about in this post: rating systems, ‘behind the counter shelving’ and the question of people stumbling across things they don’t want to see (or their parents don’t want them to see.) All three of these are somewhat focused on parents being able to better control what their kids see – but they also have implications for adults (some good, some bad.) And, like everything else I’ve talked about this week, they’re not simple issues.

Behind the counter:

This is in some ways the easiest. In this model, certain books are kept behind the counter – a library staffer has to fetch them for you. People who’ve used rare book collections or genealogy resources or historical archives are probably quite familiar with this: in that case, it’s done to preserve the materials and protect them.

When it’s done with general books, however, it’s a little trickier.

Certain books have a history (statistically demonstrated) of being more likely to go missing – these are usually the books about sex, the books about magic and modern Paganism, plus sometimes a few others. Some libraries have chosen to place these books behind the counter to help stop repeated losses (and the need for replacement.)

In other cases, libraries have been pressured to have a restricted shelf because parents or other residents are concerned about the effect these books will have. (I’m going to come back to ‘Someone might be offended’ in a different post in the next few days.)

So, what’s the problem? On the surface, the books are still available, right? The problem is that many people will not ask for books on these topics if they have to talk to a librarian who might be disapproving. Many people I know have had poor experiences with someone putting down their interests in the past (and especially on these two topics) – and they’d much rather give up on the information, or look at (sometimes far less informative or useful) resources online.

The other problem is that it places an additional barrier. I’ll be up front here: I’m Pagan. [see the bottom of my about me page for more info] While I’m heterosexual, most of my social circle identifies as something that falls into the GLBTQ grouping. I believe sex is a normal healthy wonderful thing in the right circumstances (not just in marriage) – but that people need accurate and reliable information to help them make healthy choices. (Not just about specific sexual issues, but about relationship questions as well.)

So, when these kinds of books go behind the counter, that’s telling me – an adult, who pays taxes, who contributes to my community, who works to help provide education and information in a wide range of ways – that some of the things I’m interested in, I need to go through a gatekeeper for. You’re telling me that my choices (which are legal, mature, and responsible) are less worthy than other people’s.

It also ignores all sorts of other things. Do we add an additional step to checking out books on home canning, because doing it wrong can cause botulism? Car repair manuals because a mistake might lead to a major accident? Books on getting online, because someone who isn’t careful can have nasty things happen? No.

So while I get that people have reasons to treat religion and health and sexuality a little differently, I can’t say I agree – or that it’s a sustainable choice for libraries or communities.

Rating systems:

Another suggestion people have is the idea of rating systems – of somehow flagging books based on content (roughly similar to movie ratings.) Librarians have been against this since the idea first got brought up in the 1950s.

There are physical issues: maintaining labels like this is time consuming and complex, because it takes additional thought, not just standardised practices. (Plus, many libraries now outsource their processing to the wholesale sellers: we get about 90% of our new additions already labelled and with protective covers: all we do is property stamp them, add a quick note about price and date added, and shelve them.)

But there are practical issues. Let’s pick out a few based on challenges that actually happened:

  • Is a mention of menstruation inappropriate in a book for 10-14 year olds? Bear in mind that many young women either have or know someone who has their period at the age of 11.
  • Is discussion of bad things happening to children, teens, or adults deserving of a rating label? In what circumstances? How graphic does the language need to be? How does someone determine that without reading the entire book carefully start to finish?
  • Sex and religion are often hot topics in challenges – but people also have disagreements about medical ethics (think Jodi Piccoult’s My Sister’s Keeper), politics, language (and writing style), and appropriate ways to spend time. Do we flag all of those separately?
  • Different things will offend different people: some people are offended and upset by mentions of non-Christian religions or of choices that are not the ones they’d make. Equally, I’m frustrated by books that imply Christianity is the only possible true religion (and by some other kinds of choices.) The library has to serve both needs.

And that’s just for a start.

What’s a better alternative?

Parents can choose to limit their children’s reading. Many parents I know read books ahead of their children, so they can either talk carefully about any issues of concern. And adults can make use of a wide range of resources to help them find books that suit their tastes – online reviews, booklists, suggestions from people with similar tastes, etc.

Many librarians are also very good at helping parents find the best options for their situation – as long as parents are willing and able to be clear about what they feel is appropriate for their family, or the specific kinds of books they’re looking for. (Librarians are not mindreaders!)

A little patience helps, too – a librarian can do a lot more for you if you give them a little time to check other resources and don’t just demand a list in the next 5 minutes. Many online resources exist these days to help you find books that suit your values and needs. But it’s your job – not the library’s – to do much of that work, because only you know what you want and need for yourself and for your children.

I’m going to leave ‘randomly stumbling on something’ for another day, because I’m short on time, and on sleep, and I’d like to be more coherent for that post.

Banned Books Week 3: Context

Part of my continuing series of posts on Banned Books Week, which calls attention to information access, censorship, and other related issues.

Today, I want to talk about context – in two different ways. One is about what the resource is used for, and the other is what the resource is about.


I’ve been seeing a trend in recent challenges – a number of recent ones are challenges to a book as a required reading (class assignment), reading list selection (where students pick a book off a list and read it) or a suggest reading list (like over the summer.)

In the first choice, students don’t have much option in the assigned title. In the other two, they do – but you’ve got a few other challenges.

But, at the same time, when you’re teaching it in a class situation, you;ve got a lot of potential opportunities for conversation about the book – including any disturbing parts of the book – and a chance to put them into appropriate context.

To highlight a recent challenge: a recent one to Huckleberry Finn in a Twin Cities suburb kept the book, but they’re carefully revamping some of the surrounding teaching material to give better understanding to the issues of racism and to better support students who find it distressing. I think that’s a very reasonable response (though I do tend to think there should be ways to start that discussion without formally challenging the book!)

Personally, I think the point of choosing from a list is to provide choice – as long as there are options there that avoid the likely reasons that someone might be particularly uncomfortable (graphic sex, violence, etc.) and as long as the other choices are appropriate to the reason you’re doing this in class.

The other kind of context:

One really common reason for challenge is that bad and undesireable things happen in the book. However, the protagonist(s) or other major approaches in the book make it clear that these things are not desireable.

There are many examples. Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which is dystopian, has a number of scenes that are very uncomfortable – euthanasia shots given to the elderly and to infants who fail to thrive in accordance with the society’s guidelines being just one of them.

But here’s the thing. The main character is also disturbed by these things. (And increasingly so, as the book goes on, and he becomes more and more aware of what they mean.) The entire book is, so to speak, about how that’s not a good way to run a society.

Another example is books about bullying – The Chocolate War, Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk, and many others. Bullying is a horrible thing. But how do you get the emotional impact across, how do you portray it in a reasonable way, if you leave out all the nasty words and insults? Obviously, this depends somewhat on the writer’s style and structure of the story – but chances are, you’re going to need to have some uncomfortable stuff in there. And yet, you need that stuff to have a story that talks about coming out on the other side of bullying as a whole person.

The last major category is historical – a number of books are challenged because they portray historical events… well, accurately. While this is disturbing, isn’t it even more disturbing to avoid talking about things that actually happened to people because they might be upsetting.

(And if you look at the stats, a sizeable percentage of these challenges relate to African American experiences, which is a whole added issue. The fact that Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is challenged for including descriptions of sexual abuse, racism, and other horrible things appalls me. If someone has to live through it, shouldn’t they get to decide how to tell that story?)

Why was this thing challenged?

There are books in the library I’m sitting in right now (about 12,000 items – and about 1,500 of those are videos and DVDs, and 1,000 or so are fiction) that talk about genocide. About rape. About incest. About brutality. About sexuality – both postive and negative experiences. About racism. About violence. And about pretty much every other horrible thing that human beings have done and continue to do.

We also have books about love. About tenderness. About healthy communities. About making the world a better place. About learning. About creating change. About art and music and dance and pottery. About dreams.

Some of the books in the first list are also in the second list.

Banned Books Week 2: Politics and challenges

I knew, as soon as I started seeing media reports about this, that I wanted to spend at least a little time this year talking about the Sarah Palin censorship related issues – and some other stuff that’s related.

The myth:

As many of you may have seen, there’s been emails flying around about how Sarah Palin tried to challenge a whole big long list of books when she was mayor of Wasila. Except there’s an immediate problem: many of the books on that list weren’t published at the time she was mayor.

I figured this out as soon as I looked at the list: it’s one of the “Top 100 books banned” compilation lists put out by the ALA as part of Banned Books week, and I’ve seen a number of them go by over the years. But Snopes has a nice summary (including relevant quotes), but I was reading about it as things came out on librarian.net (here has a nice summary of her issues and links to the relevant posts) and there’s a bunch of other links from Library Journal here.)

Short version? She did ask (apparently 3 times) about challenging books – she says she was asking about process, the record is a little less firm about that. The librarian was fired for ‘lack of support’ but reinstated fairly quickly after public complaint.

But, frankly, I find this far less interesting than broader issues.

What role do personal beliefs play in government choices?

Politicians bringing personal bias/choices into challenges is not unheard of – there was a challenge in 2006 in Illinois where a school board member who was elected “amid promises to bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making” challenged the inclusion of 8 books on class reading lists based on excerpts from the books she’d found on the Internet.

The books were retained, but included “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; the Vietnam War books Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers, and The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien; Stephen Chbosky’s teen angst tale The Perks of Being a Wallflower; the best-seller Freakonomics; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five; How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez; and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World .” (quote taken from the full story here)

Now, obviously, this also plays into the issue of context (having a book generally available in a library versus on a suggested reading list versus as a required assignment are three different ones) but it does raise the question of how an individual’s beliefs, preferences, or priorities affect their political decisions.

Me, I think that one part of being an ethical person with authority of some kind (as politicians are, and as school principals are, and so on) is that you need to start by assuming that professionals are, in fact, following professional standards. You might be wrong – and it’s always good to have a method of cross-checking. But as a starting assumption, it seems like the place to start.

What does it mean to be a professional?

Now, I generally believe that each person should be able to make decisions for themselves about what they want and don’t want to read. (And that parents should generally be able to make those decisions for their children – though as the kids hit their teenage years, I think sensible parents should start backing off.)

But I also believe it’s important to recognise that we train people as professional [whatevers] for a reason.

This doesn’t mean we can’t ask about the reasoning behind a choice – after all, people do get stuck in what they’ve done, or they may make a bad call in a particular situation. But again, starting from the reasoning that they’re making choices for a particular reason well-informed by common professional practices is a good place to begin.

A digression about professional education:

The library profession is a little trickier than others: for a long time, the MLS or MLIS degree (Master’s of Library Science or Library and Information Science) degree was the entry level degree for the profession – it’s the degree that lets you do more of the professional decision making, and less of the day to day grunt work of shelving, processing, etc. You’d need it to do more than simple reference questions, too.

These days, due to budget cuts and other considerations, many libraries are using more non-MLIS holders for some of these functions, but overall collection development (“How do we decide which books we’re buying” is generally still overseen by a MLIS degreed person.)

What does the MLIS cover? Depends on the program, but my coursework included

  • Introduction to Library Science (overview of the profession and different options – required class)
  • Intro to Cataloging (how we put together standard info about books so people can find them – required)
  • Intro to Reference (answering people’s questions with useful information – required)
  • Reference for the Humanities (one of my areas of background.)
  • History of the Book (One of my undergrad majors was in Medieval and Renaissance studies, and I was trying to decide if I wanted to angle for rare books/archival work.)
  • Public Library History and Theory (a *fascinating* class in all the ways the public library has changed over time, and how that reflects political and cultural shifts.)
  • Library User Instruction (how to teach people how to do things in a library – also a lot of survey design and project planning stuff, so we’d know how to present a complete program proposal.)
  • Academic library administration (an administration course was a requirement)
  • Collection Development (how do we decide what books/items to buy, and what are the issues)
  • Information Policy (how do we develop information policies and where do they come from?)
  • Communication for Leadership (highly recommended by my school, as library work often involves working closely with a team of others)
  • Information Seeking Behavior (how people look for information)

I’ve also done another class in Reader’s Advisory, or how you answer the question “I like X book – can you help me find some more like it?” or “What should I read next if I like A and B and C?” through professional development funding.

My program was fairly varied as I wasn’t sure (and still am not) exactly which type of library I really wanted to work in. These days, I usually define my professional interests as being about helping people find information that matters to them, and about issue of information policy and education around technology, especially Web 2.0 type resources. But I also love talking about reader’s advisory and collection development (which explains why I’m currently quite happy with my current job – a college-bound high school gives me lots of chances to do all these things.)

So what does this mean for libraries?

Librarians generally order books for one of three reasons.

1) It got good reviews in a professional review resource.

There are a number of these – Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, to name just a few. (There’s also all sorts of specialised resources for particular topics or types of focus.) Reviews focus on their utility for libraries, so the Booklist reviews often have a last sentence that suggests who the book might particularly interest, or notes on Young Adult potential crossover.

Here, we go through the Booklists every few months, and order things that look of interest to our collection, plus #2 and 3 below. We also look at a few other resources regularly – there’s a publication of University Press books of potential interest to school and public libraries that we order a fair number of things from each year.

2) Someone requests it.

Sometimes this is a specific request (“Can you get This Specific Title?”) and sometimes it’s a request for general books on a particular topic. Here, where a lot of our selection is assignment driven, we look at trends.

For example, we usually have at least one person interested in doing their US history research project on the Salem Witchcraft Trials – so we have a bunch of books about that, and pick up major new works when they come out. Or we got several books about the Armenian genocide after people chose it as a topic for two years.

3) Librarians see a particular gap in the collection.

This is the one where the most professional judgment is often involved, because you’re both judging what a gap looks like and what you’re going to use to fill it. That said, librarians will use their knowledge of the entire community they’re serving, the existing collection, their budget demands, resources at comparable library systems, and professional review resources and other tools to help figure that out.

Library wholesalers produce lists for collection development. For example, you say the size of library you have, and they send you a list of “A good collection in US History for this size library might really want to think about [this list].” where that list hits major titles in the field that are suitable for the collection (so a high school will get different titles than a public library – different age ranges, different needs). Who puts together these lists? At most of the wholesalers, this usually involves someone with library experience and background, and generally their MLIS.

4) There are a few other options.

We’ve started subscribing to a paperback subscription service: we send them money, they send us 18 paperbacks each month. We’re doing it as a quick and easy way to get a range of fun pleasure reading – most of the books are light romances, thrillers, mysteries, SF and fantasy, etc. with the occaisional media tie-in novel. Think airport books. We don’t pick the titles in advance, but we’ve been fairly happy with the selection – and, of course, if we ever had serious concerns about a specific title, we could just not add it to our collection.

Back to our politician:

Your average local politician may be a very good person, and very interested in many things. But what they usually *aren’t* is someone who is fully aware of all of the different issues, demands, and resources in either a school system or a library. This is only reasonable: even people who work in those school systems or libraries often aren’t aware of all of those things: they’re most aware of the bits they work with regularly.

And of course, an outside perspective can sometimes help people see something that could be done more effectively. And it can help someone to ask questions about things that help everyone see new potential resources, opportunities, and approaches.

But at the same time, I think it’s important to respect the professional training and background – not to mention daily experience – that goes into decisions in schools and libraries. And that means a few things:

  • Learn what the policies are. How do classroom assignment titles get chosen? What selection criteria does the library use? It’s good to have clear policies (that are flexible enough to adapt to changing community needs.)
  • How do these fit into other libraries, other schools? Obviously, other institutions might be messing up on something too – but if a bunch of other schools are including a book, there’s probably something of merit in it.
  • Learn about the entire community that’s being served. And if you’re representing the entire community, don’t just cater to the bits you like or agree with. More on this in a second.
  • Treat the teachers, librarians, and administrators like reasonable professionals, and be aware of power issues.

From the other side:

Likewise, librarians and teachers can do the same things.

  • Have policies. No, really. Now. Look at common issues that have come up over the last few years, and adjust. Make sure your policies cover actual practice – whether that means changing the practice or changing the policy. Have the policies somewhere you can hand them over.
  • Know why you’re making particular choices. Can you explain why you want to use a particular book in class in a couple of sentences? Doing that is not only going to help you explain if someone has questions or concerns – but it’ll help you better explain that choice to students.
  • Behave like a professional. No one’s able to read every professional journal in their field – but keep up on the high points. I find that reading a couple of email lists, skimming several more, and keeping my eye on about 10 library blogs doesn’t take too long – and it means I’m really likely to hear about major issues pretty quickly, which means I can look at what I’m doing.

Know your community:

Back to knowing your community. Public libraries and public schools are supposed to serve their entire community – not just the folks who agree with them or look like them, or who want the same things. (Private schools have more leeway in a lot of ways, because they’re dealing with a much more closely defined community.)

This means that as well as serving people who believe that sex should be confined to marriage, you need to make sure there are resources so that those who make other choices know more about their options. You need information so that those who are being abused (emotionally, verbally, physically, sexually) know that they’re not alone – even if those descriptions are uncomfortable to read.

It means knowing that there isn’t just one religious group or one ethnicity or one point of view – but that you need to represent those in your community and beyond. (This is part of the Library Bill of Rights.) And it means not just buying to your preferences, but to the needs of the community to ensure a balanced collection.

Ok, going to stop here for today, since this is plenty long.