…I got censored.

Next week marks the start of Banned Books Week, and my first assignment as a new member to the Rhode Island Library Association’s Communications Committee was to write an article about graphic novels, since that’s the American Library Association’s particular focus this year. To write anything about Banned Books Week is to speak out against censorship, but unfortunately that’s difficult to do when dealing with RILA because they frown upon anything too “harsh,” so you can’t make statements like “I am a firm believer that you should be able to read whatever the hell you want, of course. However, I also believe just as firmly that you should be able to read however the hell you want.” Apparently, you also can’t say that it’s offensive when a parent disregards their child’s interests and sense of comfort in approaching a text, and you can’t say that it’s ignorant to dismiss the significance of art and other visual context clues that most of us all use every day to gain a deeper understanding of the world around us. You have to instead say that it’s “unsettling” and “naive.”

When requesting these (and other) edits, I was reminded that the audience who would be reading my article are primarily fusty old stereotypes who are (or should be) close to retirement (and those are my words, not RILA’s – I want to make that perfectly clear). Therefore, I should tailor my writing to their expectations and comfort level, particularly since they are also probably the ones who are the least willing to be receptive to the graphic novel format and not as inclined to intervene and support their patrons’ right to read them in the face of parental control issues.

Intellectually, I understand why RILA would be concerned and want me to take that approach, and I am all for the adage of catching more flies with honey than with vinegar (arguably most of my personal and professional successes can be attributed to taking that approach all along), but not when it comes to writing an editorial piece. It IS offensive to dismiss your child or your younger patron’s interests. It IS ignorant to not know that the writer and illustrators behind graphic novels spend gobs of time perfecting their work and making it appealing to kids, which is an enormously valuable tool in encouraging them to read and learn and grow. Oh, and it is also absurdly ironic for what is essentially an anti-censorship organization to censor a piece on censorship, obviously.

I think the ultimate issue here is that RILA and I have two drastically different visions for the future of libraries, as well as different paths that we want to follow to reach those futures. The easy way out, the way that leads to fewer ruffled feathers anyway, is to simply wait for the “old-fashioned” librarians to fade away into retirement and then slowly shift the organization’s image according to our then “new” demographics. Personally, I think that’s a total cop-out, and I think it’s bad for business. If you constantly wait to make changes, you’ll never be anything but second-hand goods, a step (or more) behind the real leaders in the field, the ones who aren’t afraid of the word “hell,” or making boldly accurate statements, or taking calculated risks for the sake of the patrons, the communities, and securing the rightful place of libraries in the 21st century. Furthermore, by the time those less forward-thinking librarians retire, the ones who will replace them will have had more opportunity to become less forward-thinking themselves. Their (our) amazing, innovative ideas will have become watered down, if allowed to be instated, or they will be passe by the time that they can be put into action. It’s the nature of the beast that is professional maturation and the passage of time, but it doesn’t have to be exclusively that way.

Rather than catering to the comfort levels of those who are about to retire, I wish RILA would allow more bold, vibrant pieces to be published in the hopes of attracting more bold, vibrant librarians and library supporters. I think that approach would lead to a far more attractive and secure future for the profession. It’s what other a few state and specialty library association chapters are doing, and it’s what the best library systems I know of are doing as well. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s what the best non-profit organizations and for-profit companies do. And yes, that’s right, it should matter to us how they conduct themselves, too, because you can learn a lot from their success and failure and model yourselves accordingly. And no, I’m not suggesting that you need to completely gut the system, but we all need to be less afraid of how we’ll be perceived (as individuals and as organizations) and just let the chips fall where they may within reason.

As a profession, I feel that we spent an exorbitant amount of time caring about our appearance and congratulating ourselves on that, and I know I’m partially guilty of feeding into this craze with the Tattooed Librarians calendar, but more on that another day. It’s one of the first lessons we learn as kids and teenagers – how we look is so much less important to anyone than how we act, but I feel like many of us have lost sight of that after spending the last half-decade looking in the mirror and being overly excited about tattoos and funky hair. Those are great things to have, but they are not enough on their own – and they count for literally nothing if they are not also indicative of a passion for pushing envelopes and fighting the power. We’ve overcome many superficial stereotypes, and that’s great, but that’s not the end – it’s time to move beyond those.

Cater to the patrons, cater to your community – it’s about what they need and not about how we feel about what they need and definitely not about how we look while we’re giving it. Adult illiteracy, language barriers, poverty, racism, computer and technology literacy, graphic novels and other “non-traditional” book formats, maker-spaces – pick a service your patrons need and become passionate about it and fight for their right to have access to it. Be vocal, be honest, be un-censored! If you give them those things and not an attitude, you’ll be beloved and your library (and library association) will be, too.

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