Library Battles

Enjoying Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, by Wayne A. Wiegand.

In addition to documenting the value libraries have for their communities, Wiegand describes the perennial battles in libraries over their collections and what literature is suitable, particularly for children.

In the 1850s, the director of the Astor Library in New York was railing against the tastes of the youth of his era, who, in his view, preferred “the trashy…like Scott, Dickens, Punch, and The Illustrated News,” presumably instead of serious improving works like the classics. No Tale of Two Cities on the shelf for you.

Series fiction, be it Horatio Alger in the 19th century or the wildly popular Nancy Drew novels first published in the 1930s, have always been particularly vexing. Children clamored to read them,  caring not one whit whether they were literature, but librarians were undecided about whether to offer them.

Wiegand relates,

“Not censorship, but selection” masked other traditional cultural and literary biases within the profession. Despite the fact that the ALA revised the Library Bill of Rights in 1967 to include “age” as another group having the right to access all public library collections, many children’s and young adult librarians persisted in shunning series fiction. Those who did otherwise sometimes paid a price. For her first major acquisition as Rhinelander, Wisconsin children’s librarian in the mid- 1970s, Kris Wendt, who read Nancy Drew as a child, purchased three complete sets of Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins mysteries. Word of her transgression spread quickly. Several months later a forceful colleague—”incensed that Rhinelander broke ranks to acquire such ‘trash,’ … accosted me in the ladies room during a regional children’s services workshop… Arms folded across her ample monobosom and glowering as though she would like to alphabetize my internal organs,” she “cornered me against the sinks. In a voice like a silver dime she declared, “You have lowered the standard of children’s literature for the entire Wisconsin Valley!’ ” Wendt held her ground; Nancy stayed in the stacks much to the delight of Rhinelander’s children.

I’m glad she and many others held her ground. Nancy and the Hardy Boys were not my series, I read “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators” and the Encyclopedia Brown ones. Great literature they weren’t, but they were part of a habit that paved the way thereto–and the ability to enjoy the occasional trashy mystery to this day.

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