Friday, January 03, 2014
AMHERST — A graphic novel series containing racial stereotypes that some parents argue is inappropriate for pre-teens will not be removed from the children’s area at the Jones Library as a group has requested.
But library officials are pledging to be part of a community dialogue focused on racial issues and to better inform the public about the children’s room policies and how books are chosen.
The Jones Board of Trustees Thursday took no action on a request from five parents asking that “Tintin” books be moved from a shelf at the entrance to the children’s area to either the young adult or the adult section of the library. As a result, the 1930s-era series by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, will stay where it is.
Library Director Sharon Sharry argued that relocating the books would amount to censoring them, citing the American Library Association’s definition of censorship as a “change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives.” This can include changing the age or grade levels that have access to the material.
“If the Jones Library does nothing else, we protect everyone’s constitutional right to read anything he or she wants,” Sharry said. “Our mission does not include censorship.”
However, Andrew Grant-Thomas, one of the parents, said he was “astonished” that the “Tintin” material has not received more scrutiny from library staff members. He pointed to “Tintin in the Congo,” a story in which the black people of the Congo are presented as monkey-like imbeciles who are easily manipulated. “Our argument is fairly straightforward: These books are profoundly racist books,” he said.
Jeannette Wicks-Lim, another of the parents who submitted a memo as a “request for reconsideration of library materials,” said she appreciates that the trustees conducted a nearly hour-long discussion on the matter, but she, too, is surprised that library staff members aren’t doing more to examine books for inappropriate content.
“I’m somewhat dismayed that even blatantly racist material would not be more carefully thought about,” Wicks-Lim said.
Wicks-Lim, who is Asian-American, said that as a child she experienced embarrassment and humiliation due to stereotypes learned by other children, and didn’t know how to respond. She said that youngsters don’t have the critical thinking skills necessary to deal with inappropriate content.
Sharry, however, said she is concerned that moving the books would open the door to other parents or patrons demanding changes to materials that don’t jibe with their religious or political beliefs.
“It is not the job of the librarian to tell the community what it should or shouldn’t be reading,” Sharry said.
William Newman, the director of the western Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he commends the library trustees for standing firm.
“These are crucial issues, but censorship is the absolutely wrong way to go about addressing them,” Newman said.
Ali Wicks-Lim, spouse of Jeannette Wicks-Lim, said children of color are already experiencing a separation from their white peers, due to the appeal the “Tintin” series.
She said she wants the children’s room to be a safe place for all children in the community. “Yet these books are right as you walk in, right at eye level.”
Ali Wicks-Lim said she understands concerns about censorship, but thinks that moving the books or adding labels about their content would be a middle ground.
But Sharry said it is the responsibility of parents and guardians to know what their children are reading.
“The ultimate message is all parents need to walk into this building and assume their children can’t just run free,” she said.
Library trustee Chris Hoffmann said American Library Association guidelines state that age restrictions aren’t appropriate to a well-functioning library. “It’s clear the library director has made the right decision,” he said.
Both trustees Michael Wolff and Jonathan McCabe said they are sympathetic to the concerns of the parents.
As a member of the ACLU and NAACP, Wolff said that he is conflicted, noting the treatment of the Congo by Belgium is a dark chapter in its history.
McCabe said that as father of 4-year-old he has been surprised at some of the material in the “Babar” series, but uses reading these books to his child as a teaching opportunity.
Ali Wicks-Lim said she hopes to pull people together to discuss parenting and race and may turn to the Human Rights Commission to help work on such programming.
Sharry said she supports that.
“Let’s have some programs to talk about racism in society,” she said. “The library is the perfect place for that.”