Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Monsters from the Id: The Library as Metaphor

The picture of the library painted by the WBC4SL, CCLU, and SafeLibraries is symbolically complex.

First, there's the American Library Association, in reality a small organization with at most an advisory role to any other library in the country. But to the would-be censors of West Bend, the ALA is some kind of evil empire, strong-arming control away from local citizenry, importing foreign ideas, as if somehow the Constitution in Washington were different from the Constitution in small-town Wisconsin. It's all very reminiscent of Red Scare rhetoric, and I keep waiting for the blog post on "fifth columns" and "sleeper cells."

Then there are the library staff. They, apparently, have an "anything goes" policy, imported from the ALA. They've put obscene materials on the shelves, and somehow keep it there even though it's illegal (yet are never prosecuted, which must be part of the conspiracy). They insist children be allowed to examine those materials because they want to sexualize the innocent. And they censor opposing points of view, since they won't shelve enough books on "reparative" therapy that could "cure" teens of homosexuality -- never mind that medical and psychological experts have warned that "reparative" therapy is ineffective at best, and more likely just plain harmful.

And don't forget the library patrons, a good portion of whom are predators and sociopaths. People are having sex in the bathrooms, masturbating in front of porn-laden computer screens, and traumatizing children and adults alike. And again that same mystery: large numbers of people are witnessing crimes in progress but nobody ever thinks to call 9-1-1. Apparently, they're dissuaded by the "anything goes" library staff, under the control of the multi-tentacled ALA.

I have no doubt that there are elements of truth on all of this. Some won't like the policies of the ALA, some will find certain books objectionable, and yes crimes are sometimes committed on library premises, as they are committed in almost any venue where large numbers of people gather. (Parents would be wise to remember that no public library is a school or day-care center, and that they can't just drop their kids there on the assumption that they are being supervised by a responsible adult.)

But the claims of the would-be censors go far beyond the truthful elements upon which they build. They connect the dots in a way that builds a picture with little relationship to reality. If we have to evaluate their claims as allegations of fact, we are left with little choice but to term them paranoid delusion.

But maybe there's another level of analysis that can be used. Maybe the surface meanings are less relevant, whether the would-be censors are consciously aware of it or not. Maybe for them, the library is a mythic symbol. The library has become the deep, dark woods through which the hero must pass, battling dragons and ogres along the way. This actually works, but the censors have forgotten that the deep-dark woods is a metaphor for our own minds, and the monsters are aspects of the self.

What then is so scary about the library? How does it get so deep and dark?

That, I suspect, is obvious. What is so scary about a library, any library, is that it contains ideas. More to the point, libraries contain many, varied ideas, multiple voices and multiple viewpoints, the left and the right, the conservative and the progressive, the straight and the gay, the religious and the secular. If one is not careful, one might be forced to confront the fact that not everyone thinks alike. The true horror of the library is that a child might learn that the world is not quite the way his or her parents claim It to be.


  1. So true, Non-Censor. Diversity and non-concurring opinions are what scares the righteous and the god-fearing. Fortunately, diversity is increasing, even in West Bend, Wisconsin, and it is not a reversible trend. There is cause for hope.

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