Freedom and limits at the library

When I was eight, I wanted to check The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde out of my neighborhood library back east. My heart’s desire in hand, I approached the checkout counter.

Miss Shoemaker—one of those always-frowning, cat’s-eye glasses wearing, kid-shushing spirits today’s library scientists are still trying to exorcise from the public mind—gazed down her nose in stony disapproval, and perhaps an icy pleasure at nipping this brazenness in the bud. I had to be 13, she informed me, or get my parents’ permission to check out an adult book. To her consternation, my mother was only too happy to give her consent. Miss Shoemaker’s lemony expression soured still further as Mom handed me the dangerous volume to carry home all by myself.

Fortunately, this was not my normal experience with librarians. They have tracked tirelessly through mountains of reference material (there’s a reason they call rows of bookshelves “stacks”) in search of facts for me. They have broadened my pleasure reading further than I ever would have alone. For my part I sided with them when the unenlightened wanted to ban A Catcher in the Rye and Slaughterhouse Five. When a school board switched an unabridged Canterbury Tales for an expurgated version with less graphic details in one story, I told one board member, “If high school kids want to wade through Chaucer, they deserve a few racy parts.” Especially racy parts written in Middle English.

So imagine the shock to my free-thinking when I found DVDs of Foxy Brown (rated R) and Scary Movie 4 (unrated) on the shelves of my local Valley branch. Not censored versions, either, but the full Monty, complete with cleavage-laden cover art.

Being a parent—one of whose kids has already read Dr. Jekyll—I checked with the librarian to find that, yes, there are safeguards to keep children from taking these home, even with the coming express self-checkout system. I felt a little better.

But there’s more involved than personal taste. What scandalized Miss Shoemaker failed to faze my mother, and what scares me may not give you a second thought. The questions are the same for my children as they were when I was a child and will be for my children’s children’s children: What is the proper combination of education and entertainment for the public library, who determines that mix and how?

Public libraries have material selection policies. Patrons suggest, staff librarians evaluate and county librarians decide. Input is as close as your local branch or county library website. Selection policies list criteria such as artistic significance, literary merit and appropriateness, which bring us back to Foxy and Scary 4.

Neither are classics in their own time, nor likely to be in any other. We’re not talking Schindler’s List, The Godfather, Psycho or The Graduate here; such films are not for the very young, but are among the American film Institute’s 100 best American movies and have stood the test of time, the only critic that matters. Scholars will have to dig pretty hard for literary merit in Foxy and Scary, though I don’t doubt some are already at work.

All has not been Great Books 101 for me, I admit. Somewhere between actually taking out Dr. Jekyll and mythologizing the experience in my own mind, I got my fill of the usual trash—which I bought with my own money, or just read in the store until the clerk chased me out.

So there it is: the practical result of the philosophical questions on education, entertainment and the public library: What do we as a community buy for each other with public money, and what do we as individuals pony up for on our own? To be part of the answer, get involved with the library. Because it’s your library.

Let’s assume the library’s security system is foolproof and keeps kids safe, even the ones that can get around a computer faster than I can tie my shoe. Let’s agree some of the bestsellers I get from the library for relaxation between my usual fare of Uplifting Biographies and Histories of Important Events are not appropriate for all eyes. It is not too much to ask adults to obtain some DVDs at their expense. There’s a Blockbuster across the street from my library branch, and I’ll bet there’s one not far from any other in the Valley.

Whatever bad influences I’ve gotten in life didn’t come from the library, and that’s important.

Wayne Steffen is university editor at Fresno Pacific University.