31 years ago, We Are the World was released as a response to both Band-Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas and the Ethiopian famine. One of the stories about that recording session was that artists were told to “check their egos at the door” (to ensure that, the solos were recorded after the chorus).
Ten years later, I sat in a class discussing collection development and got (in different words) the same message: the collection I would be creating, or helping to create, was not mine, it was the institution’s and the community’s. A strong collection development policy needed to be in place, one that covered acquisitions and weeding. Without one, accusations of bias could arise and challenges could be made.
It’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart. If you were to come to my house, you would see my carefully curated collection, one that reflects my personal tastes and interests. Entire genres are missing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only one city’s sports teams are mentioned. And while it can be fun to play “guess Laura’s college major”, there are gaps – big ones – in the non-fiction section. I feel free to remove entire swaths (cozy mystery series and a certain eight volume set about a boy wizard with the initials H.P., I’m looking at you!).
But that’s at home. At work, my responsibility is to what might interest students and faculty when reading for pleasure, no matter how much I might dislike the genre or author. It’s to supporting and enhancing the curriculum, whether or not I care about the subject. And it’s to adhere to the collection development policy guidelines already set out. In 20 years, there have been two challenges – both settled with a degree of sensitivity on all sides. A friend, semi-seriously, suggested that I was censoring when I refused to purchase Madonna’s Sex for my 4-12 school (I’d previously weeded Total Woman – WTH was that doing on our shelves to begin with???); I responded by saying that a $50.00 book that fell apart after one read was not an effective use of my budget, no matter what the content.
So, why all the lead up? Because within the past few weeks, two issues have arisen outside work that may affect our curriculum.
Issue One: The book deal that Simon & Schuster made.
Issue Two: The incoming president and any books about his presidency and history. (no link because it was a query on a closed elist)
What to do, at my library, about both? My school is committed to diversity and inclusion. As a librarian, I have to support that by providing books that might not agree with my personal political beliefs. I can’t assume that everyone agrees with me (here, here and here for more). A number of years ago, I had a colleague who would, on dress down days, wear a t-shirt that read “Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot” – this in a school with students who were conservatives, Republicans and even included some relatives of the then-current president. Years earlier, another colleague said, in a faculty meeting, that she really liked two students, but they were… you know… Republicans. Which apparently made reading their English papers and fairly grading them difficult. To be honest, I’m embarrassed that nothing was done about either.
Back to the books.
Over the years, I’ve tried to not purchase quickie books about current events and popular figures. During the seemingly endless 2016 campaign season, we did purchase as many of the candidates’ books as possible, on the premise that knowing what they believed (in as much as they put that into the book) was important for potential voters. Only one of those books, The Art of the Deal, is still on our shelves. Should any of those candidates run in 2020, they’ll either write an entirely new book or update the old, so no need to retain it. Beyond that one book, however, I doubt we’ll be purchasing anything about President Trump until at least 2020 and even then I’ll be looking for perspective, analysis and a relatively neutral tone (memoirs and autobiographies are a different matter, for obvious reasons).
As for the S&S book, it’s not the type of book that we would purchase no matter the author. There are many similar books that aren’t on the shelves. We’re a school library serving grades 6-12 and students might hear about these books from parents, but they can get them from the public library. Faculty can do the same. As the wonderful Barbara Fister says,
For librarians, it’s a case study in how to interpret what we value and how we enact those values in practice. It’s not all that difficult a dilemma for academic librarians; we can buy a copy and assume people will accept that it’s okay to spend a few bucks on a book that will serve as a primary source for understanding trolls; even if what the troll says is offensive, it’s documentation of our contemporary culture. Books are rarely challenged in academic libraries, but in public libraries, it’s another story. If there’s a demand for a book, they may buy dozens of copies to avoid having hold lists running into the hundreds, so we’re talking about more than a few bucks. We’re also talking about money that, once spent, can’t be used to make the library shelves more diverse, less dominated by the latest celebrity thing. People have a tendency to think that if a public library buys a book, they endorse what it has to say. And everyone feels they have a say in how their local tax dollars are spent. It’s a real dilemma, if possibly short-lived. Books like this tend to end up in the book sale bin when interest wanes, as it will.
We don’t teach political science. My history teachers are lucky if they can get the US History class into the 1980s (none, to my knowledge, have managed to get to this century). We’ve got time before we have to purchase books on the 45th President – we barely have anything on the 44th!
So, my advice? Remember it’s not about you and your personal preferences. Support diversity and inclusion for conservative points of view as well as liberal. Adhere to your collection development policy regarding rigor and purpose. Relax.