The news that a community in Iowa wants to segregate LGBTQ-themed books in its library is more than unsettling. Wanting to have certain items labeled in a manner that excludes them from the importance of the overall collection is marginalizing, at best, and, more likely the case, insidious, at worst.
What does it mean when a library’s collection can be dissected into segments and categories of approval? Perhaps the better question is: Who decides what is considered approvable material? Are the approval of these items based on popularity? Usefulness? Quality of the writing? Overtness of content? Budget allocation? Or is there an agenda attached to the approval of these items, the kind that lines up perfectly with the approver’s ideological, political, cultural, or societal worldview? On the one hand, these are difficult questions to answer.
But on the other hand, the answers to these questions are easily found in the patrons the library serves. A library is the community’s great equalizer. It is a place for all regardless of income, race, creed, sexual orientation, education level, station, community status, or any other constructed demographic. The beauty of this philosophical service framework is that a library has one job: provide the best resources (e.g. digital or physical materials, programming, space, expertise, etc.) to the community it serves. A well represented collection does just that, even if a difficult task.
Bias is certainly represented within a library’s collection. In fact, I would argue that it is natural for book selectors to purchase materials that specifically interest the individual purchaser. That being said, there is a needed balance in a library’s collection to ensure that a topic is covered—to the best of the library’s ability—from each end of the spectrum and everything in between. Too much or too little of a perspective is a disservice to the community, and also deteriorates the integrity of the collection as a whole. Relegating LGBTQ-themed books to a specific location in the stacks is anathema to what the stacks truly symbolize. It is within the stacks that all voices are collected together. It is within the stacks that different peoples and cultures await discovery. It is within the stacks that the spectrum of thought is fully recognized from A-Z. It is within the stacks that all are given the same treatment. And it is within the stacks that the user of the library can safely go to their favorite authors time and time again, or, if bold, they can randomly or serendipitously choose a new venue of entertainment or enlightenment.
Stories—even the stories we do not like—humble and humanize, educate and empower, offer a new perspective or reinforce understanding of the world. No one is forced to seek a new perspective or introduce themselves to a new voice about a subject. But there is a danger to always finding solace in a single perspective. A continuous, non-altering, single perspective may give credence to the sole individual’s worldview, but it can also be an insular, myopic perspective. As our country continuously redefines itself, it is of crucial importance that diversity is not only represented, but also celebrated. This does not mean that we all have to agree with each other about everything. It means that we can disagree without being disagreeable. It means that materials for you may not be the materials for me, and vice-versa. But it also means there is the option for us to explore a different perspective.
Libraries across the country open their doors every morning to a populace with needs. All of these needs differ. Some want access to technology. Some want to enter a space that is welcoming and safe. Some want to be entertained. Some want to be educated. Some just want someone else to see them as a fellow human being. All of these needs are important. Through inclusivity, the celebration of diversity, and the belief that a library enriches and empowers a community, all who enter a library know that their voice, their constructed demographic, is represented.