“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” So goes the quote from librarian Jo Godwin. From Dr. Seuss to kosher books to Drag Queen Story Hour, this episode will explore what it means to challenge censorship, and what happens when patrons disagree with content in the library.

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Episode Transcript

Bianca Hezekiah When new teens come to my branch I sort of try to gauge how comfortable they may or may not be. If it looks like they are a quiet person that wants to browse privately, I’m not going to jump on their back and say, “Hey.. Would you like to see the cool new fantasy series?” You know, take it one by one and see how people feel.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Bianca Hezekiah is a Young Adult librarian at the Eastern Parkway branch. A big part of her job is interacting with any teen from the neighborhood who comes into the library. She gets to know them, and helps them find books and resources.

Bianca Hezekiah You want to put yourself forward as someone who is friendly, accessible, but also someone  understanding and not going to follow you around. We’ve all had that experience where you go into a store and someone’s like, “Hi, can I help you? Let me know if you need any help with anything. Are you being helped right now?” and you’re like, “I am trying to help myself.” So, you don’t want to be that person at a library but you also want the people to know, I am here to help you through some information, to help you browse, but come to me when you’re ready. 

Eastern Parkway branch in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. (Brooklyn Public Library)

Felice Belle Recommending books for teens is a challenge anywhere, and especially in neighborhood where a few distinct communities intersect. Crown Heights is home to a significant population of Hasidic Jewish people, as well as Caribbean and African American people.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, the teens who come into the library might be navigating their own reading interests as well as the religious and cultural values of their communities. Bianca described one Jewish teenager who comes to her branch pretty often to ask her for new books.

Bianca Hezekiah She likes fantasy series but also is very clear about what her family is willing to let her read. There are different sorts of kosher… criteria, I guess.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras As with many religious communities, there are certain things that are okay to read, and certain things that are not. Figuring out how to recommend a book to a teenager—that the teenager will like and the parents will approve—especially in the fantasy genre, can be challenging. So, Bianca does her best to figure out the parameters by walking the teen through the options available at the library.

Bianca Hezekiah I was like how about this series, and she was like, "I read that." I said, "What about these?" ... "I read those." So I’ll say, "What about this?" And she’ll say, "Oh, I tried that but then my mom said I couldn’t read it anymore." And it wasn’t a question of sneaking. She just said, "No not this." And of course as a teen librarian, I want to be supportive of like, you know, this is a big growing time, you want to explore and see what else is out in the world and it’s a great way to do that through books. But you also got to know, if I said I don’t want that, it means that I’m not interested... Eventually, she started coming in and saying, "Well, do you have anything by this author? Well what about this author? What about that author?" Because I think she went to her teachers or to her parents said, "Well, you told me I can’t read these, well what can I read?" And I was like, "We don’t have anything by those people... but I can see if I can request for it to be ordered." And, you know, one teenager that has this situation, it’s more than likely there are going to be a bunch of other teens who feel similarly. 

Library patrons sitting in the reading room of Eastern Parkway branch in the 1940s.
(Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Felice Belle Bianca puts in requests for books pretty often. Because, having books that are relevant to the community is one of the most important ways the library can show that it is a welcoming place—a place for everyone.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And also a place where you can explore new ideas, if you want to.

Felice Belle Right. It’s important that a library has all kinds of books. That doesn’t mean you have to read them, of course. In the case of this teenage patron, she was able to say, “No, I can’t read that.”

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Sometimes, though, patrons get upset by books or materials on the shelves that they’re not going to read, and don’t agree with. And Bianca had another story about that kind of situation. Around Halloween, she set up a thematic display in the Young Adult section.

Bianca Hezekiah I put up a "Witches and Demons and Murder, Oh My!" little mini book display. Basically, like supernatural fiction. But one guy was very upset about the display. He was like, "You’re a library! You shouldn’t be putting books about murder and demons and promoting demons like this! That's not right. That's not okay." And I’m like, "Okay, yes, it’s October, that’s why the display is up." I think what I ended up saying was that we have all kinds of stories here at the library. I think I ended on something like that because I wasn’t going to take the display down. You could be offended by any kind of book at the library if you’re someone who’s looking to go in and be offended by something.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s what we’re going to dig into today. We’re calling this episode “Something to Offend Everyone.” I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras.

Felice Belle And I’m Felice Belle. You’re listening to Borrowed.

[MUSIC]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras There’s a quote from a librarian named Jo Godwin that’s often thrown around in library school. It goes like this: “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”

Felice Belle Which basically means that if a library is truly committed to representing different viewpoints, then there are going to be books on the shelf that you don’t agree with. And that just means it’s a really good collection of books.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras At Brooklyn, we have a ton of materials. 4.1 million, by our last count. And here’s the thing: library collections change all the time.

Angie Miraflor It’s not just like once they’re on the shelf, that’s it. We have to relook at things we have to purchase all the time. Because the times change, culture changes, you know, history moves around. And even though the books don’t talk and don’t scream and yell and ask for help, we have to pay attention to them. 

Felice Belle Angie Miraflor is the director of customer experience at Brooklyn Public Library. And she told us about an event that doesn’t happen often at BPL.

Angie Miraflor So, a few months ago we had a request for reconsideration, which is what our form’s called, turned into us. And it was challenging a children’s picture book. 

Felice Belle A patron found a book on our shelves that they thought shouldn’t be there. So, the patron challenged it. And the challenge ended up with Angie, whose job it is to figure out what to do.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And by the way, books get challenged all the time in libraries. Harry Potter gets challenged for witchcraft, To Kill A Mockingbird gets challenged for violence and racist language, and a children’s book called And Tango Makes Three about two male penguins raising a baby penguin together at New York’s Central Park Zoo… that one gets challenged a lot. But this particular book challenge stuck out to Angie.

Angie Miraflor The challenge was that some of the images and the text had some comments towards certain racial groups that were inappropriate… or pictures depicting certain ethnic groups in ways that could potentially be offensive. It was traditionally an author that people really go towards when we think about children’s literature, and then to find that one of the author’s books had content that was very questionable... I think that’s what made that specific thing unique and what started such a complex discussion.

Felice Belle The book was If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss. And just to say, this isn’t the first time that the issue of Dr. Seuss’s racist drawings has come up. It’s a pretty well-documented phenomena. But it might be surprising because his books are full of rhymes and whimsical drawings, and kids are still reading them today.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras But it doesn’t matter what the title is. Whenever a book is challenged at the library, it is taken seriously. The patron’s challenge sets off a pretty involved process to review the book.

Angie Miraflor Our first step is that we have a collection development committee, and part of their job is to look at these forms and just do the research. They look at things like our collection development policy, our collection maintenance procedures—so the procedure of how we deselect materials. So they look at internal stuff but they’re also looking at more national types of research. So they all looked up if that book had been challenged in other libraries and what their response was.

Felice Belle After all the research, the committee makes a recommendation to the chief librarian, and then he and Angie make a final call. And, for this particular challenge…

Angie Miraflor The decision was to keep the title on the shelves. And I think in this case also there’s a historical part about it too. In the past, these groups were viewed in a certain way and we need to learn from what happened in the past. We can’t delete it. Deleting it is probably really dangerous, you know, because that means that the potential of it happening again is very high.

A librarian from Brooklyn Public Library reads a Dr. Seuss book to children circa 1959.
(Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This gets at a core belief held by many libraries, not just ours. The idea that libraries should challenge censorship. That libraries should be saying: We know you’re not going to agree with everything in the library, but it’s still important to reflect different viewpoints and different moments in history.

Felice Belle Right, and this value is actually in our Library Bill of Rights.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Which is something that most people might not know about, that there is a bill of rights for libraries. And it’s an interesting document. It was created by the American Library Association, the ALA, in 1939. The 1930s, if you remember from history class, was a pretty terrible decade for many people, but also a terrible decade for intellectual freedom. Fascism was on the rise in Europe, book burning was happening in Germany, and in the United States, a tariff act was passed that included a ban on importing “obscene or immoral” articles.  

Felice Belle And in the midst of all this, a bunch of people who ran libraries across the United States got together and decided to do something about what they saw as a dangerous erasure of ideas. You can get a sense of the time period in the preamble to the original 1939 document. It reads: “Today indications in many parts of the world point to growing intolerance, suppression of free speech, and censorship affecting the rights of minorities and individuals. Mindful of this, the Council of the American Library Association publically affirms its belief in the following basic policies.”

Krissa Corbett Cavouras A very impressive start.

Felice Belle For sure. And as necessary today as it was in 1939. The proclamation was followed by a series of values. Today, there are seven principles in the library bill of rights. And what’s interesting is that sometimes, values within the bill of rights conflict with each other.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Specifically, the two that we want to talk about are the idea that public libraries should be for everyone, no matter your “origin, age, background, or views”—and the idea that libraries should be challenging censorship.

Felice Belle So, if you you have a patron who is offended by material—like the patron in Crown Heights who didn’t want to see demons in a book display, or the patron who didn’t want If I Ran the Zoo on the shelves… then we have to question whether those people feel welcome in the library.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s sometimes a murky line to walk between making sure that our collections represent a wide array of viewpoints, and also ensuring that patrons feel they are actively welcome here.

Felice Belle One way that libraries have answered this question is by making sure that the library collection has books with contrasting narratives. That’s something Angie brought up.

Angie Miraflor How much of a democratic institution are we if we are not giving people all the information they need to make an educated decision? Right, and I think that’s where libraries come in. we are the ones that need to provide as much information as we can about a topic on both sides, whether you want to hear it or not. And then it’s up to you to make that decision about what your opinion is or what your vote is… or whatever.

Felice Belle So if we’re going to have Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym on our shelves, we’re also going to have Toni Morrison's “Playing in Dark,” which analyzes and interrogates Poe’s problematic racial and cultural depictions.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And the rules aren’t set in stone either. History changes—and what makes it into the realm of acceptable is also changing. So, in this case, BPL decided to keep If I Ran the Zoo on the shelf… but about a decade ago, another children’s book with racist depictions of black people was taken off the shelves after it was challenged. That book was Tintin Au Congo.

Felice Belle One common defense of Tintin Au Congo is that the book reflected the colonial attitude of the time, and thankfully times change. I think the point is that the lines for these things are always shifting. Yes, libraries are places for intellectual freedom, and we will continue to challenge censorship—but also, history moves along and new paradigms emerge!

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Exactly; there’s been this ongoing conversation among librarians to challenge the idea that libraries are “neutral spaces,” to ask whether that plea for neutrality just allows the dominant perspective to stay dominant. So perhaps the question should be, what can libraries do to disrupt dominant narratives, and take a stand as institutions with our choices, with the materials on our shelves, with our programs. And a good example of how a public library shows its hand is the controversy over Drag Queen Story Hour.

Felice Belle Drag Queen Story Hour is an organization with local chapters around the world. Since the organization started in 2015, a lot of public libraries across the country have embraced the program. Brooklyn Public Library hosts regular Drag Queen Story Hours in some of our branches. It is exactly what it sounds like. Drag Queens reading picture books to kids. It is a joyous event, and the goal is really to encourage acceptance of difference.

Drag Queen Story Hour at Park Slope library during the 2018 Summer Reading kick-off. (Elizabeth Leitzell, Brooklyn Public Library)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Recently though, there have been protests outside some libraries that host Drag Queen Story Hour. In February, protesters and supporters gathered outside North Public Library in Evansville, Indiana. Here’s sound of that protest from 14 News WFIE in Evansville.

[SOUND OF SHOUTING]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras On one side of the entrance to this little library, protesters held signs with slogans like “Stop Queering Our Families” and “Protect our Children.” And on the other side, supporters held rainbow umbrellas. One person dressed up as Cinderella to show their support.

Felice Belle And you don’t have to go as far as Indiana to see culture wars come to a head at the library. In Port Jefferson, Long Island, protesters showed at another Drag Queen Story Hour. Things were civil, and of course people have the right to protest peacefully, but it just underscores this point: that libraries aren’t really neutral spaces.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I think that libraries do take a stand. At least at Brooklyn Public Library, we are saying that gender play is okay, and that we want people who identify differently to feel welcome here. Take it from Yolanda.

Yolanda What I like to do at Drag Queen Story Hour is dress like a monarch butterfly. So I’ve got a butterfly dress and butterfly wings and butterflies in my wig. [LAUGHS]

Felice Belle Yolanda is a storyteller with Drag Queen Story Hour, and a few months ago she read and sang to an audience of gurgling infants and wandering three year olds at Central Library.

[SINGING AND GUITAR]

Felice Belle She sang the name song and read two children’s books that have been challenged at libraries—one was And Tango Makes Three about the Central Park penguins and another was I Am Jazz, a book about a transgender girl learning to embrace her identity.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras For Yolanda, the fact that all of this was happening at the public library had special resonance.

Yolanda I know there are those that protest what we do. But the fact that the library supports us is an incredible gift and I think it’s very wise. Because people come to the library, which is a public safe space and they bring their kids and they learn some things, ask questions and then they go back into their lives, their communities, their churches, and schools, and they have a better understanding when someone else is afraid, and they’re able to speak to those that are afraid and have something to really share, you know.

[SINGING AND GUITAR]

Felice Belle That’s it for this story. Up next we’ll have librarian Leigh Hurwitz with an exciting list of book recommendations.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras For BookMatch this episode, Leigh has gathered a series of graphic novels and manga books for teens.


Leigh Hurwitz So, in thinking about this episode, which is about censorship, I thought about my experience as a librarian with a very common form of censorship, and largely that is around books that talk about sexuality and sex. Specifically comics, because they are so visual, often they are targeted for censorship or a soft ban, because it’s easy to open to a page and without knowing the context of anything decide that it’s “inappropriate.”

So comics can be actually a really great way in general to elevate voices and experiences that are not being represented in prose novels or in media in general. The common theme through these titles is that they are all queer. They have characters that are gay, trans, gender queer, nonbianary, gender non-conforming.

Girlfriends by Milk Morinaga is Y.A. yuri manga. Yuri is "girls love," so it’s manga about characters who are gay and girls. This one is about Mari and Akko who are in high school and Mari is kind of shy and quiet, Akko is outgoing and friendly and they become friend and they start to realize their attraction to each other and kind of are navigating through what that means.

The next book I chose is Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf: A Sex Education Comic Book. It’s edited by Saiya Miller and Liza Bley. It’s a compilation of autobiographical comics and in between each of the comics that was part of each different issue of the zine are little essays from Saiya and Liza that kind of talk about their own personal experiences and their reflection on each of the comics that are included here. It’s called a sex education comic book, but it’s less about facts and more about personal experiences, which I would argue are part of a good sex education.

The next book I chose is Spit and Passion by Christy C. Road. It’s about Christie growing up in the early 90s in Miami in a Cuban-American family and kind of realizing—coming out to herself as queer and also discovering punk music, specifically Green Day.

Fresh Romance started as a crowd-funded digital comic, and so there are stories in here all by different writers and cartoonists. They’re all broadly romance stories but some of them are historical fiction, some are a little more speculative. And this is full color, but again all of the art is very different in each story, as is the writing style.

Click here to find all of Leigh Hurwitz's book recommendations in our catalog!


Felice Belle Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, BKLYN library [dot] org [slash] podcasts as well as a link to the BookMatch list. We’ve also put links there to a few articles about the idea of challenging censorship, so take a look.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.

Felice Belle We are recording from Central Library’s Information Commons Recording studio. And guess what, if you have a BPL library card, you can reserve time here too and make your own podcast.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Until next time!

Felice Belle Thanks for listening.

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