Editors' Note: This guest post is by Sarah Stumpf, a bisexual feminist librarian who used to work with the GLBTSSS Library on the Indiana University campus and now works as a Teen Librarian in the south Chicago suburbs. Check out her past guest post here.
Did you hear the latest from PFOX? Librarians are discriminating against the ex-gays! They won't carry ex-gay books at their libraries! They won't take donations of PFOX books! They won't celebrate ex-gay books as part of banned books week! OMG librarians are so mean!
Or to put it in their words:
An organization for people who have left homosexuality is asking the American Library Association (ALA) to include "ex-gay" books in its annual Banned Books Week.
The Chicago-based Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays (PFOX) said in a press release that it has tried to secure a statement from the ALA opposing "the censorship of ex-gay books."
Now this may seem, at first, to be very stupid. You may be reading this and rolling your eyes. But I think it is worth looking at because it isn't going to be long before Rush Limbaugh or the folks at Wingnut Daily start using this as proof that libraries really are a secret plot to bring... or do.. umm... ahh.... hey look over there!! SOCIALISM!! BIG GAY SOCIALISM!!! I think it is truly possible that by Thanksgiving this will turn into a full-blown right-wing talking point that you have to debate with your homophobic second-cousin around the dinner table.
On a surface level, PFOX has an argument that sounds deceptively like it might make some sense. That is why I think this argument has the potential to grow some legs. I mean, keeping certain kinds of books about certain kinds of people out of libraries is bad, right? It sounds like discrimination. It sounds like it harks back to a time when libraries banned books that had GLBT themes or interracial marriage. And who doesn't take free stuff? It sounds kinda mean.
However, that sliver of sense is only based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how libraries work. I am a librarian that works with teens in a moderately sized and fairly diverse public library district. I don't speak for every librarian everywhere, but I want to confirm your suspicion that this really is just as stupid as you probably think it is.
Central to PFOX's arguement is the idea that libraries are censoring fiction and non-fiction books about ex-gays by refusing to buy them or even take donations. But libraries are not merely crap emporiums. We don't have endless budgets or endless shelf space. Librarians don't put every book ever made on our shelves. There is a reason why you need a masters degree to buy books for most public libraries. It is because picking books for a library is a very fine skill.
Librarians buy or accept donations of books for several reasons, but I'm gonna go over some of the big ones. First is bestsellers. I don't see any ex-gay books climbing the top of the bestseller list. Ex-gay materials are just not that popular. We had one ex-gay book at one of my branches, and we pulled it out last fall because it had not circulated ever, and we had it on shelf for 10 years.
Second, librarians buy things that get quality press. I can't remember ever seeing an ex-gay book lighting up the pages of Publishers Weekly or other trade publications. Millions of books are published every year, and reviews help librarians find the good stuff in the vast piles of crap. But the kinds of publishers that handle ex-gay books are usually small Christian publishers that don't send their stuff for review because they know it wouldn't get good reviews. And I can't remember anytime an ex-gay book won a major book award. Ex-gay writing is just not up to the quality that libraries are looking for.
Third, librarians thrive on feedback form our community. We listen to the local people who use our services over loud groups that don't live anywhere nearby. I don't think that there are many ex-gay people in a given local area pushing for libraries to meet their needs. Instead you get this astroturfing, where some group from another city or state is pressuring libraries around the country. But who is actually going to check this stuff out? I doubt that members of PFOX Chicago are going to drive to one of my branches and check out the book. I can't speak for every community, but I don't see any desire for these materials in my community.
And you know, dammit we try. We librarians try really hard. We try to get things that people will love or need or use or adore or remember or appreciate. We do like free stuff, but a book needs to be more than just free to get us to go with it. Most libraries around the world get a box every year from the Scientologists with free Scientology books in it, and most libraries don't put those books into their libraries for the same reasons I've listed above. It really isn't about a vast leftwing conspiracy against ex-gays.
If there were ex-gay books on the bestseller list, getting great reviews, winning awards, and being asked for by my patrons, then I would buy them. I would. It would personally bug me, but I would do my job and get them. When PFOX says that librarians aren't stocking their ex-gay books, they are really saying to every librarian in the country, "We know better then you how to do your job". And as a librarian, that really pisses me off.
If PFOX was serious about getting ex-gay books into libraries, then they would do what GLBT people did 40 years ago. They formed literary organizations to hone their craft and get more books written and published. They started sending their books in for review. Activists like Barbara Gittings started groups to advocate for GLBT books and GLBT librarians place in libraries. They encouraged GLBT librarians to come out and got stories from GLBT people who had been helped by libraries to win the PR war. They convinced big publishers that GLBT materials would sell. They built their case brick by brick, and that is why now "gay affirming books for youth are readily available" in many public and school libraries. But I don't see PFOX doing that.
When PFOX complains that librarians won't stock their books or take their donations, I think they know they are not working with the reality of the library world. They know that if they donate stuff to us, it won't pass muster. But they do it because then they get to complain about how the mean librarians are keeping them down. They get to play into this vast rightwing dislike of libraries because we take your tax money and (try to) give everyone equal opportunities. The millionaire and the unemployed guy can get the exact same thing at a public library. The millionaire doesn't get better books or better service because they paid more or because they deserve it more. And PFOX knows they have an argument here with the potential to drum up support for their cause by telling the Glenn Beck folks exactly what they want to hear. Socialism and teh gays are gonna getcha.