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Why checking out library books you don’t approve of is misguided

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Gemma Johnson - published on 06/20/22

Instead of marching in with a vendetta that's guaranteed to backfire, try a more effective approach.

Recently I noticed a surprising message in a Catholic parenting group on social media.

“Let’s hide the pride this month!” one parent wrote. “Check out all the pride-themed picture books from your library so little kids don’t see them. I’ve got my local library, who’s got theirs?”

I was so dumbfounded I didn’t know what to say at first.

This strategy may be well-intentioned, but it demonstrates a total misunderstanding of how libraries work. I know something about this because I spend a lot of time in my local library as a volunteer and I know our librarians personally.

I’m also a mom of many and bring my kids to the library a lot. I sympathize with the desire to be cautious about the content our children read and consume. I screen library books before bringing them home for my younger children, and I usually stick to pre-approved picture book lists. For my older children, I regularly have in-depth conversations with them about what they’re reading, always encouraging them to tell me immediately if they come across anything in a book that seems morally questionable or makes them feel uncomfortable.

But checking out library books I don’t want my children to see, in order to keep children in general from seeing them, isn’t an effective strategy when you disapprove of book displays.

First of all, librarians pay close attention to circulation numbers. They use algorithms that help them choose which books and products to purchase next. If all the books about a certain topic are checked out from the library, that send the message that these books are extremely popular — so popular, in fact, that they can’t keep them on the shelves. That triggers the process for librarians to purchase more of the same books.

So checking out all the books about a subject matter you don’t like will have the exact opposite of the intended effect.

It’s also a bad idea to hold the books hostage, because libraries exact fines for overdue materials. And yes, you can be sent to collections for overdue books.

Another thing that bothers me about this approach is the “us vs. them” mentality. Why assume that librarians are some kind of enemies who need to be reprimanded? 

Librarians are by and large dedicated, thoughtful people who devote themselves to the education and enrichment of the local community. Some share Catholic morals. But that doesn’t mean they can only display Catholic books at the library.

Libraries are for everyone — not just Christians. However you try to spin it, it’s not OK to try and control what content other families read and watch.

Of course, it’s understandable to prefer that books with adult themes not be prominently displayed in the children’s area. There’s a good point to be made about respecting families’ right to have conversations about sex, gender, and sexual attraction privately, and only when parents deem it appropriate.

So here’s a suggestion: If you don’t like the books on display at your local library, get involved at the library and befriend people there. Then you can look for the right opportunity to share your opinion, in a friendly and non-combative way. 

This approach is not a starry-eyed vision. My own local library does not put up any kind of Pride-themed display, and I’m sure that’s because several board members are Christian and are known to be actively religious. Without even saying anything explicit, their enthusiastic and friendly involvement in the library bears quiet fruit.

Instead of marching in with a vendetta (that is guaranteed to backfire), let’s try a more effective and respectful approach. Let’s look for ways to befriend, volunteer, and build bridges of rapport and goodwill. 

We can change hearts with loving kindness instead of making others “the enemy.” There isn’t a trendy rhyming campaign slogan for that, but it’s a lot more likely to succeed.

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