Banned books are not the biggest threat to libraries and reading.
Banned Books Week began Saturday, ho-hum. Touted by the American Library Association as “the only national celebration of the freedom to read,” it is, like post-911 security measures, an overreaction to a minuscule problem. Meanwhile, a more insidious threat creeps upon the land: the privatization of public libraries.
For years and years and years I climbed on the ALA Banned-wagon each September, just like everyone else, tut-tutting religious nincompoops challenging Harry Potter for Satanism. Or blue noses objecting to dirty words in Slaughterhouse Five. Or liberals, misguided to the core of their souls, protesting the “n”-word in Huckleberry Finn.
Then last year for the first time I took a close look at the actual numbers. According to the ALA’s own website, there were 460 challenges across the nation in 2009. That sounds like a lot — until you consider that there are more than 99,000 school libraries in America, where most challenges take place, plus nearly 10,000 public libraries.
While math is not my strong suit, even I can see the chance of a book being challenged at your library are about 1 in 198, or approximately one half of one percent. That doesn’t sound like much of a threat to me.
And take into consideration that these are simply challenges: In most cases, the governing authority — school board, principal, teachers panel — decide to keep the book on the shelves. That’s what happened, for example, in Tampa, where Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen was challenged for sexual content, or Panama City, where Avi’s The Fighting Ground was challenged for profanities.
I suppose it’s churlish of me to begrudge the ALA its biggest PR opportunity of the year. Since Banned Books Week launched in 1982, the ALA has honed its presentation to a fine edge, and media here and abroad love it. It gives the British, for example, the opportunity to use the words “US” and “censors” in the same sentence.
In fairness, the ALA does a spectacular job, getting bloggers and reporters to pass along pre-packaged items like “15 Iconic Movies Based on Banned Books,” (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings and Sophie’s Choice, to name three).
And I’m glad, really, that the ALA stands vigilant against threats to the freedom to read. Where anyone in a free society gets the idea he or she has the right to tell me — or my kids — what to read is a mystery.
But I am less worried about banned books than I am this New York Times story about the increasing number of municipalities turning their public libraries over to a for-profit Maryland company called Library Systems & Services (LSSI).
LSSI runs 14 library systems across America. It’s chief executive, Frank A. Pezzanite, promises to “fix” libraries and make a profit, mainly by breaking unions and reducing staff.
“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”
I’ve been using libraries since before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and I can’t recall ever meeting a lazy librarian. Admittedly, that’s not a scientific sample, but I can’t believe turning our libraries over to private enterprise, with profit an added layer of cost, can be anything but a bad, bad idea.
Will there be staff reductions? Curtailed hours? Fewer new books, dvds, cds? Fewer computers?
And most importantly, will the underpaid employees of a private company have the confidence to stand up to those who march through the doors intent on banning a book? Pezzanite portrays librarians as slothful time servers, and there may be a few. But most of the ones I’ve known view their profession as a sacred calling, one that includes safeguarding the public’s right to free access to books and information.
I know librarians. Librarians are First Amendment heroes. Who the hell is Frank A. Pezzanite and how dare he slander them this way?
And just think, if L.S.S.I.’s profits shrink how high the late fines will be!