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Members of the Freedom Readers rally against book censorship before an Elizabethtown school board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. Complaints from parents and community members about school library materials have put pressure on school librarians in Lancaster County. Some complaints about school library books even have been made to local police departments. 

THE ISSUE

“The Akron Borough Council’s proposed 2023 budget includes no funding for the Ephrata Public Library, the first time in over 30 years the municipality’s elected leaders have withheld the contribution,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Jade Campos reported last month. The explanation given was budget challenges, but one council member has objected to some programs held at the library. As Campos noted, “the debate in Akron coincides with vocal challenges to public school libraries in parts of Lancaster County, with parent groups and some elected school boards considering the removal of books and materials that touch on issues of sexuality, gender and racism.”

School libraries and public libraries are under siege. This should disturb anyone who believes in the freedom to seek information, read, learn and flourish in a democratic society.

“Children know that if they have a question about the world, the library is the place to find the answer. And someone will always be there to help them find the answer — our dedicated librarians,” said librarian turned first lady Laura Bush. “Our nation runs on the fuel of information and imagination that libraries provide.”

Unfortunately, some people seem wary of that “fuel of information and imagination.” They’re aware that knowledge is power, so they try to control access to it.

During World War II — facing an enemy that burned books — President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote of the power of “books as weapons,” and noted that “a war of ideas can no more be won without books than a naval war can be won without ships.”

He asserted that libraries are “essential to the functioning of a democratic society” and he was right. Libraries, whether in public squares or public schools, exist to make us better, more rounded and more informed citizens. And for those who don’t have access to broadband and the internet — as is the case for too many Pennsylvanians, particularly those living in rural areas — libraries are vital.

Libraries are not pushing a “woke” agenda. That word — co-opted from Black American activists — now is used, indiscriminately and without definition, to disparage everything from progressive politics to the accurate teaching of history to empathy and kindness.

Librarians are trained to curate books of fiction that help us to discover and understand the world and the diverse people living in it, and they are skilled at directing us to accurate, factual information.

Apparently, that’s what some people fear.

The ‘library’s principles’

Akron Borough Council member Paul Swangren Jr. recently castigated the Ephrata Public Library for hosting a women’s health program that discussed sex.

“The class was about how to have healthy sex, increase your sex drive, what is an orgasm. That’s not what the library’s principles are,” Swangren asserted.

Library executive director Penny Talbert explained that the program was sponsored by WellSpan, not the library itself. Library board President Mike Eichenlaub tried to explain that the library is required by law to allow outside groups to use the facility.

Nevertheless, the mere fact that such a discussion was held on the library premises seemed to aggravate Swangren. Akron Borough Council now may withhold its usual funding for the library when it votes on its budget this month.

We can’t believe we even have to say this, but what is a municipality doing if it can’t contribute to its local library?

This is just a brief selection of the ways in which the Ephrata library has made itself essential to the community it serves:

— It offers story time for preschoolers, family movie nights, movie matinees for grown-ups, book discussions, home-schooling resources and kids’ activities ranging from esports to science to sewing.

— It has partnered with CareerLink of Lancaster County to offer resume-writing help and workforce development and digital literacy classes.

— It offers home delivery of books to residents who live within 3 miles (the distance between the library and the Akron Borough building is less than 2 miles).

Last year, Akron donated $20,000 to Ephrata Public Library — or just 2% of the library’s overall budget. This year, the library asked the municipalities in its service area to increase their contributions by 20%.

Instead, Akron proposes to give nothing at all, even though more than half of its residents have active library cards. One Akron resident told the borough council that Akron might be regarded as “a freeloader community” if the municipality doesn’t contribute to the library.

It would be.

By sharp contrast, the small municipality of Clay Township is contributing even more than the Ephrata library had sought from it. Kudos to Clay Township’s leaders for recognizing the library’s value to township residents.

We implore Akron Borough Council to follow suit.

Swangren believes the library has an “agenda” that does not align with the community’s conservative values.

But more than 60 Akron residents attended the borough council’s meeting last Monday, and most were unhappy about the possibility of the borough not paying its share of library funding.

This suggests that the community’s values include supporting the local library.

“I just think it’s very important that the library represents everyone in the community,” Talbert said. “It seems a bit odd that they would say ‘I want you to represent our viewpoint’ when the library’s mission is to give unbiased information.”

But again, unbiased information is what frightens some people. They want libraries — school libraries and public libraries — to dispense only information that comports with their worldviews.

Which brings us to Warwick School District.

Silencing other voices

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Ashley Stalnecker reported last week, a group of parents calling themselves Warwick Parents for Change invited local church leaders to help combat what they described as “woke curriculum” and library materials that “debauch and deflower.”

“These kids, our kids, your kids, have lost the realization of who they are as being created in the image of the Living God,” wrote Mark Mueller in an invitation to local clergy. “Instead, they are being redefined by socially determined labels, reduced to mere products of race, sex, and ‘gender identity.’ ”

While Mueller’s prose is purple, it’s not very precise — a library book doesn’t have the power to “deflower,” though it can describe and illuminate.

Mueller wrote that Warwick Parents for Change seeks to intervene on behalf of students who have been “traumatized” and “targeted” by a “social justice movement.”

Students are not “traumatized” by the accurate teaching of history or by a compassionate approach to diversity. Students are traumatized, however, by racism and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. This is why students need to be able to see themselves and their lives in a school library’s materials.

As we’ve written before, we should not fear books that unflinchingly explore complex subjects, such as the Holocaust, slavery in America, racism and LGBTQ lives. Softening history’s rough edges and silencing diverse voices means we fail to equip children with the knowledge, compassion, empathy and reasoning they need to get by in a challenging and diverse world.

School librarians and educators are trained to help children learn and explore tough subjects in age-appropriate ways. Warwick policy wisely allows parents and guardians to opt their children out of access to books they deem inappropriate.

One group of parents shouldn’t be permitted to determine what other parents’ children may read. Or to impose their own worldview on a school district’s curriculum.

Donegal’s loss

Matthew Good reluctantly resigned from his position as a librarian in the Donegal School District because he was compelled to restrict junior high school students’ access to already-approved books in the school library collection.

As he writes in today’s Perspective section, “Sharing the stories of people with similar experiences provided lifelines to students, helping them recognize that they weren’t alone. Passing along books that offered glimpses into drastically different lives helped them to make sense of the world in which they lived.”

But Good was impeded by a Donegal policy that requires students to obtain parental permission to access certain books. This onerous opt-in policy is quite different from sensible opt-out policies — such as Warwick’s — that allow individual parents and guardians to restrict their children’s access to library materials.

We worry that other school librarians, faced with similar pressures, will follow Good’s exit out the school library door. What a loss that would be for their students and their communities.

Good wrote that the purpose of a library is to “to seek knowledge, to share thoughts, to raise questions. We share stories in order to understand, to empathize, to learn about the things we do not know. We only need to look at the past for instruction, to see what happens when we fail to recognize the humanity in all people.”

We should heed his words. Please take a stand for the libraries that enrich your lives and those of your children. Democracy depends on libraries, and they depend on our support.

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