June 28, 2022

LETTER: Libraries are a place for everyone

Aric Bishop


First, I want to start by saying I do not speak on behalf of my board, but as a librarian having a master’s degree in library and information science (from the University of Washington, ranked #2 in best library and information science programs), who has worked in the profession for seven years for both academic and public libraries, who holds a gold-level firector’s endorsement (which is the highest level) from the State Library of Iowa, and who has recently been nominated, and accepted into, the Iowa Library Association (ILA) Leadership Institute for August 2022.

Controversy is connected to most anything anymore, and maybe it would surprise you to know there is a controversy regarding what library was truly the first in the United States – there are three that are competing to hold the title. Controversy then seems to be forever connected to the library and maybe should be since the library was created to serve all members of its community – and all members typically do not agree. In recent months, throughout the state of Iowa and surrounding communities, libraries have been connected to controversy once again, and this time it’s not about “who was first” but the collection itself.

I’d like for you to think about equity, about communities, and about libraries and what they do as you continue to move forward in this letter.

Libraries of the 21st century are embracing a movement that: “Libraries are for everyone.” This means our collection will become more diverse including books and materials in languages other than English, programs that appeal to a wide range of interests and age groups and often displays to promote topics and events targeted at different segments of the population.

Of the 39,784 physical materials in Gibson library, roughly 70 books exist in the collection that include LGBTQIA+ content (this includes children’s picture books, young adult novels, and adult novels). However, the library has 1,500 titles that correlate with the subject term Christianity. That does not mean that someone cannot identify as both Christian and LGBTQIA+, because people are multifaceted and patrons who may identify this way would find something in the collection for them too.

The library recently had a Pride Month book display for June 2022, in the same area by the circulation desk where the library has also had displays for: African-American History month, Native American Heritage Month and one for Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month during their respective months.

Displays are created in libraries for several reasons: showcasing new titles added to the collection, because they address a theme, because they help promote a program at the library, they highlight a current event going on in the world and because they help inform patrons about materials available that patrons may have never seen.

Not only that, but in the library profession we have the library bill of rights which proclaims the following, “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” As well as the freedom to read Statement, which is essential to our democracy, and there are countless private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country who are working to remove or limit access to reading materials or censor content. It is up to each of us to defend our freedom to read and to access materials and information.

The Gibson Memorial Library has policies that adopt both the library bill of rights, the freedom to read statement and embraces intellectual freedom (the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction) as core pillars to the operations of the library. How books are selected for the library are explained in the library’s collection development policy which is a policy adopted by the library board. For our library, books are selected and approved by the library director.

As director, I identify what materials to be added to the collection by: present and potential relevance to community needs, cost, relation to the existing collection and to other materials on the subject, attention by critics and reviewers, potential user appeal and requests by library users. For content, I look at authority (who is writing the book and how are they an expert on the subject), comprehensiveness and depth of treatment, skill, competence and purpose of the author, reputation, and significance of the author, has the book won an award, relevance and use of the information, and representation of diverse points of view, important movements, genres and trends.

The library has a policy on how patrons may fill out a form to “reconsider” a certain program, book or display that may be featured in the library. These forms are generally filled out by the user who has an objection to a certain display, material or program and then given to the director who then gives them to the board of trustees.

However, children (and especially young adults, adults, and the community as a whole) need to see diverse books that represent a broader viewpoint. In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor at Ohio State University and author specializing in children’s literature, coined the concept of, “windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors,” to explain how children see themselves and interact with the books they read, but also how they can learn about the lives of people different from themselves.

When books don’t serve as “mirrors” for children, Bishop notes that, “they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in society.” In addition, to serving as “mirrors,” books should serve as “windows,” allowing children to see into lives and experiences different from their own. Finally, as a “sliding glass door” they can move between both perspectives and walk away with better empathy and compassion.

In offering books with themes about different identities, religious and cultural views, families, LGBTQIA+ content and more, we are allowing our children to explore new and different ideas in a way that is familiar and safe for them. Literature is a powerful tool for building empathy, understanding, knowledge and compassion in our children’s lives.

As Dr. Bishop explained, “When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see we can celebrate both our differences and similarities.”