The Elkhart Public Library in Indiana, like some of its counterparts around the country, marked off the second week in September for discussions and films connected with "Banned Books Week." A local television news personality thought this meant the library was celebrating the banning of books and asked for a list of titles the staff considered harmful.
A barely patient librarian explained that the intent of the week was to celebrate resistance to censorship during a decade when more and more books are being challenged in public libraries and schools. One title rising higher and higher on the national hit list, by the way, is "The Diary of Anne Frank." The complaint cards talk about its "sexuality."
I had been asked to speak before an audience that included not only librarians but also a number of Elkhart high school students. (Kids are seldom invited to discussions of how their intellectual growth is being threatened by all the various groups obsessed with their moral health and are forever being spoken of in the third person by those who war over them.)
During the day, several librarians told me about a brave young high school teacher who was using books that had gotten other teachers into trouble, such as "Of Mice and Men." When I met him, the teacher refused any commendation for courage. "I have the lower-level kids," he explained. "Their parents don't look at the books their children read. My students don't know these books are controversial. They like them or they don't like them. They like 'Of Mice and Men' a lot. Two of them told me it was the first book they had ever understood."
The teacher had come to the library to listen to some of the talks and to see what new books had arrived. The library has a sizable and enthusiastic children's division and, for that matter, tries to entice youngsters into the building before they can even read. On Oct. 30 there's going to be a Halloween parade to which children not yet in kindergarten are invited. There'll be a puppet show and a treat.
The director of the Elkhart Public Library, George Brich, somewhat resembles Sydney Greenstreet in size, bearing and astuteness. I asked him if the library, like others around the country, had been under siege more often than usual in the past year.
"Not really," the library director said. "We have the complaint forms and the review committees and all that, so they know what procedures to follow. But actually, if you listen to them when they come in to complain -- really listen -- often that's all they want. Not long ago, a Baptist minister stormed into the library. Some books had set him off. I took him into my office and we talked for two hours. About all sorts of things. He was a lot quieter when he left. And I said to him, 'Reverend, my door is always open.' And he said, 'So is mine.'
Brich allowed himself a brief retrospective smile. "I tell my staff, 'Listen to them! Not condescendingly, but with empathy.' The people who come in with complaints feel very deeply about what troubles them. They need to express themselves. It's like writing a letter to the paper. If the paper prints it, you feel better."
In the Elkhart library, as in a large number of public libraries around the country, children are not restricted to children's sections. With what Brich calls The Universal Library Card in use, kids can take out any book they want, and any number of books they want. In my time, kids were supposed to stay in their place in the library. And we could take out only two books at a time. I figured they were worried that our eyes might wear out.
Now, with kids free to check out any book, I wonder if the library often hears from parents alarmed at what their tykes have brought in the door. "Oh, sometimes a parent will get angry at a book a kid has brought home," Brich said. "And the parent will bring in the kid's card and tell us he's returning it. We mail the card back to the child. It's his card. The child can return it, but nobody can return it for the child."
After having the card mailed back, do some of these kids, aware of their parents' wishes, return the cards themselves?
"Just a few," said the library director. A card providing access to the whole library is just too valuable to give back.
Not all events at the Elkhart Public Libary are connected with books. Late in the afternoon, a library user, who was otherwise a vagrant, kicked a dog that frequently suns himself by the entrance. When the dog, usually very amiable, snapped an objection, the vagrant loudly demanded that the animal be shot. The staff calmed the vagrant by putting on a videotape cartridge for him, and later showed him out by a side door. The dog remained where he belonged.