Battling over what goes on kids’ library shelves

Friday, March 31, 2000

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Children’s librarians today have to negotiate a
political and emotional minefield of opinions over what kids should and
should not read in the public library, a professor of library science
says, and there are no clear rules about what’s appropriate.

“I don’t give my students answers, I give them questions. I think it’s
up to them as professionals to come up with their own sense of how they
are going to negotiate the issue of providing books to children,” said
Brian Sturm, assistant professor of the School of Information and
Library Science at the University of North Carolina. Sturm spoke at a
discussion on book censorship yesterday as part of First Amendment
Days at UNC, sponsored by the First Amendment Center.

Sturm’s students will have tough decisions to make, said moderator Gene
Policinski, director of media relations at the First Amendment Center.
Librarians are feeling pressure from parents, politicians and advocacy
groups from the political left and right to restrict access to books as well as the Internet.

Some groups are particularly concerned with homosexual themes, Policinski said. He noted that Daddy’s Roommate, by panelist Michael
Willhoite, has consistently been on top-10 lists of banned books around
the country.

Karen Jo Gounau...
Karen Jo Gounaud

But Karen Jo Gounaud, president of Family Friendly Libraries, said her
group didn’t want to ban Willhoite’s book. “Our group has never asked
anyone to remove a book,” she said. “What we’re trying to work toward is
on the end of the First Amendment where it [guarantees] the right of the
people to petition the government for a redress of grievances. We get a
lot of calls from parents and citizens who try to do that and are
labeled censors for exercising their First Amendment rights.

“What we would like to see emphasized more in library schools … is,
how can we empower parents to do their job?”

For example, many libraries will not tell parents which books their
children have checked out, Gounaud said. Without that information, it’s
difficult to monitor whether kids are reading material that is
appropriate for their age group or their parents’ values, she said.

Gounaud also recommended that books such as Willhoite’s be put on a
separate shelf so that parents know the material may be “sensitive.”

But Willhoite was troubled by the idea that kids may have their access to his book restricted. “I have no objection at all to my book being on a special shelf, but I do think it should definitely be there for the
children to walk in, pick it up and read it. I think the reason people
are resisting the book is they’re afraid for their children to be
exposed to homosexuality. I think the earlier they learn about all kinds
of people, the better. … If parents are really concerned about what
their children are going to read, they should be with them in the

That’s not realistic, Gounaud said. Parents are working, and kids often
go to the library during school hours. “You want a library that’s
child-friendly and parent-friendly,” she said. Having a different shelf for
“family-sensitive” books like Willhoite’s, she said, “preserves
Michael’s right to share his information with young people, it preserves
the parents’ right to have the best chance to … decide what’s right
for their family … and still preserves the library’s right to offer a
diversity of information and the children’s right to get the books they

C. Eric Lincoln...
C. Eric Lincoln

The solution sounds simple, but “there is something we call reality,” said C. Eric Lincoln, author and professor emeritus of Duke University.
“The basic question is whether people have the right to experience in
literature the realities they experience in their lives.”

Lincoln said he was particularly troubled by groups such as Gounaud’s
that say they base their recommendations about what is appropriate
material for children on “community standards” on which “the public” can

“Who the hell is the public?” he asked Gounaud. She replied, “Citizens — all of them.”

But Lincoln said, “There are publics and even more publics … and those
include people of diverse orientation.

“It’s too easy to make ‘community standards’ conform to [someone's own]
personal standards. We have a very broad community with different
thoughts and feelings about what can be said.

“I won’t have a problem going outside and taking a drink of water now,
but there was a time when community standards wouldn’t allow it at all.”

Gounaud countered that most adults agree on some basic guidelines about
what’s inappropriate for kids: pornography, for example. But even those
guidelines are being discarded when it comes to the Internet, she said.

“Libraries don’t carry Hustler, but now you can get Hustler through the
Internet,” she said. “We’re not concerned with real information.
Pornography that is … illegal, we don’t call that real information.”

Lincoln was unswayed. “Community standards are nebulous. … There is a
sliding scale of standards, and I don’t know just where on this spectrum
you draw the line, and I’m bothered by who does the drawing.”

An audience member asked Gounaud whether a child, who might be
questioning his or own sexual orientation and have parents who
disapprove of homosexuality, should have access to a book like Daddy’s

She said that the question cuts to the heart of the issue: that parents
are the ones who know best for their children and should have
authority over such matters. “The line where you check out a book is the
line where the library supervision ends and the parents’ begins.”

For himself and his students, Sturm said he would continue to believe
that “a library full of thoughts will encourage thoughtful children,
rather than thoughtless children.”

First Amendment Days 2000

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

·Civil rights brought ‘first freedoms’ together 4.3.00
·Press freedom lets minority voices be heard 4.3.00
·Controls, access problems keep Internet from total freedom 3.31.00
·Battling over what goes on kids’ library shelves 3.31.00
·Who decides what art is? 3.31.00
·The Freedom Forum and First Amendment Center present First Amendment Days: A Celebration and Exploration of the First Amendment 3.20.00
·Agenda 3.20.00