NASHVILLE, Tenn.-Recently, at a branch of our local public library, I observed a middle-aged man with unkempt hair and clothes standing at the circulation desk with his young daughter. While the librarian processed the girl's library card application, the dad showed his obviously excited daughter a basketful of brightly colored shoelace lanyards. She pointed to the orange one, and the librarian clipped her new library card to it. "That's so you can wear it around your neck and not lose it," the dad explained. The little girl's eyes widened as if it were Christmas morning, as her daddy walked her to the children's section. "Now, let's go see which book you like," he said happily.
Families with limited resources have come to this library for years, not just for a fun read, but also for an opportunity to better themselves. And for parents who don't have the time or wisdom to vet the books their children read, the local librarian has been a trusted friend and authority figure. Which is why recent actions by the American Library Association (ALA) to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) causes are so disturbing.
That sort of social activism was on display two weeks ago at the ALA's annual conference in Anaheim, Calif., where best-selling author John Irving was one of a handful of speakers who took the stage before the packed house. He was there to introduce his new novel, In One Person, in which one of the main characters, a transgender librarian, seduces a 13-year-old boy through the books she recommends to him. But more disturbing than the content of the book were the reasons why Irving wrote it: The American Library Magazine reported that Irving echoed the words of his then-19-year-old son, who told him after reading the manuscript, "There could be one bisexual boy out there like Billy or a transsexual girl [like the librarian] who could be helped by reading the novel."
Such proselytizing isn't new to the ALA. Since the 1970s it has had a Task Force on Gay Liberation (now known as the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Round Table). The organization has also handed out its annual Stonewall Awards, honoring books of "exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience." These awards include such books for children. What is new is the extent to which the ALA promotes the LGBT agenda.
For instance, in April, the Sacramento (Calif.) Public Library added a new dimension to its National Library Week theme "You belong @ your library," singling out the local gay community as its outreach target. The campaign, funded by a $3,000 grant from Scholastic Library Publishing and administered by the ALA's Public Awareness Committee, promoted activities such as a "Come Out! for Aerobics" and "Same Sex Speed Dating for Book Lovers." In June, coinciding with Gay Pride Month, the ALA offered Sacramento's campaign to libraries nationwide, providing free promotional tools, which included posters, transit signs, and window clings.
"We wanted the GLBT community in Sacramento to know that the library is a safe and welcoming space to discover they are not alone, and the theme of 'You belong @ your library' was the perfect message for this community," said the project leader.
As for librarians who might feel that such a campaign is more about social activism than intellectual freedom, it's unlikely you'll hear from them. Library employees, like most other government workers, usually have to the approval of their superiors-superiors who may hold significant positions in the ALA-before they can speak with any member of the media. Any dissenting opinions could result in a librarian losing his or her job.
As for patrons who might prefer their tax dollars be spent in other ways, the ALA officially doesn't want to hear it. Negative feedback from the public about library selections is considered a "challenge," "book banning," or "censorship." The ALA website clearly states that attempts "to remove material from the curriculum or library … are a threat to freedom of speech and choice." This includes "challenges … motivated by a desire to protect children from 'inappropriate' sexual content or 'offensive' language."
With the help of Time.com, the ALA recently released an infographic illustrating the dire need for funding for America's libraries, claiming that "unless strategic investments in U.S. public libraries are broadened and secured, libraries will not be able to continue to provide the innovative and critical services their communities need and demand."
For library patrons like the Nashville father and daughter I recently observed, insufficient funding isn't the only challenge their library faces. The ALA's increasingly vocal social agenda combined with policies that prevent local librarians from responding to their community's values are very real dangers. And these policies may be undermining library relevance and public trust at a time when both are sorely needed.
Editor's note: This article was updated on July 7 to clarify John Irving's quote, the Sacramento Public Library's National Library Week campaign, and policies related to librarians speaking to the media.