Opposing Viewpoints: the Heart of Libraries

The greatest thing, I believe, about our library (and libraries in general) is that we don’t censor. We can’t censor, because that means choosing some topics over other ones. The library must be a free arena for all types of knowledge from very differing viewpoints. Our role is to include all viewpoints on a topic so that the population has a chance to choose for themselves. Obviously we strive not to have books that promote hate or contain false information, but taking books that don’t necessarily agree and putting them next to each other on a shelf is crucial to the central mission of libraries.

Not censoring means sometimes collecting books that some people might find offensive. My parents used to tell me not to talk about politics or religion at the dinner table (both subjects which I really enjoy talking about). Well, we have scads of books on both of those subjects at the library, and from all corners of the viewpoint spectrum. We have The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, but we also have The Dawkins Delusion, Darwin’s Angel: a Seraphic Response to The God Delusion and The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski. And they all sit fairly close to each other on the shelf (probably closer to each other than any of those authors would agree to sit in real life!).

Author Chris Hedges has written books which to some would seem to be from opposing viewpoints. In I Don’t Believe in Atheists, he argues that atheism has become a religion in it itself; in American Fascists, he goes after the Evangelical right-wing in the United States and argues they are becoming a new fascism. But that’s why I love Chris Hedges; when he sees hypocrisy or injustice he takes it on no matter what group it is.

In politics we have books like Democracy Incorporated, Sheldon Wolin’s tome on how the United States is becoming inverted totalitarianism, sitting on the shelf near Mike Huckabee’s book government-downsizing plan, A Simple Government. Those books take a very different view of what the United States political system is becoming.

Religion and politics are easy picking grounds for opposing viewpoints, but controversy is everywhere. Take economics: we have books by David Harvey, a Marxist geographer who writes critiques of global capitalism, alongside books by Milton Friedman, a strong supporter of free-market economics and capitalism. Both are necessary if the Library is to represent all viewpoints on the topic.

People have not always appreciated libraries having controversial books or books on controversial topics. There have, on occasion (actually, far too many occasions), been challenges to a book being held by a library. The American Library Association and Canadian Library Association keep track of these challenges. Frequently appearing on the list are such favorites as TTYL by Lauren Myracle, Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie  and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (just to name a few).

What annoys me the most about challenges against these books is they are often challenged for being “unsuited for age group,” because they are mostly books for teens. They are basically telling the teens that you can’t read about controversial subjects or topics because you’re not old enough. That annoyed me when I was a teen and still annoys now that I am much older. Youth, like adult users of the library, should not have their access to ideas censored. The library is a free space of knowledge for all age groups.

Next time you’re in the library take out two books that contain different viewpoints on the same subject and see which one you agree with… you might find yourself agreeing with some points in both books. That is the benefit of the library. Also, read books that have been challenged as not being suitable for libraries. For more details, check out the full list of challenged books over the years put together by the American Library Association.


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