When the winds of liberty rise, nothing will hold these frigates in harbor

We feel a kinship with librarians. Like journalists, they are guardians of truth and keepers of history. Both professions are essential to democracy.
“As a librarian, it’s a bit of a scary time,” Beth Davis told us in this week’s Enterprise podcast.

She has been the school librarian at Berne-Knox-Westerlo for 26 years and has both a reverence and passion for books. She also cares deeply about what books bring to the school community — students as well as teachers and other staff.

In the early 1990s, some gay Guilderland students came out on the pages of our newspaper. They were members of the Gay Alliance at their school, pioneers in a civil rights movement that we covered extensively.

At the time, administrators at BKW said, when we asked about gay students in their schools, that they weren’t aware of any. One said, “Guilderland is more cosmopolitan” and another said, “Counseling is available but I’m not aware of it as an issue.”

Times have changed and sensibilities, too.

“We certainly have students who are gay, lesbian, transgender,” said Davis this week. She noted that the “A” in LGBTQA+ stands for “Allies.” “There are students who have friends who are gay or lesbian or bisexual, and they want to learn more about their friend,” said Davis.

One of the ways they do this is through reading books. Davis believes it is important for the BKW library to have “books for everybody.”

We applaud her approach, which is quietly courageous.

We can see why librarians are scared. We all should be. We are living in an era of book-banning.

Three months ago, the American Library Association came out with a strong statement in opposition to “widespread efforts to censor books in U.S. schools and libraries.” In recent months, a few organizations have advanced the proposition that the voices of the marginalized have no place on library shelves, the library association says, strongly condemning these acts of censorship and intimidation.

“We champion and defend the freedom to speak, the freedom to publish, and the freedom to read, as promised by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States,” says the American Library Association. “We stand opposed to censorship and any effort to coerce belief, suppress opinion, or punish those whose expression does not conform to what is deemed orthodox in history, politics, or belief. The unfettered exchange of ideas is essential to the preservation of a free and democratic society.”

Last fall, Matthew Krause, a Republican legislator in Texas, created a list of over 800 books that he said “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”

The Texas Tribune reported, “Krause informs districts they must provide the committee with the number of copies they have of each book, on what part of campus those books are located and how much money schools spent on the books, as well as information on any other book that violates House Bill 3979, the so-called ‘critical race theory law’ designed to limit how race-related subjects are taught in public schools.”

Among the books on Krause’s list are William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” and Amnesty International’s “We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures.” The list also includes books on feminism and books explaining puberty and reproduction.

That same Texas bill, signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott in September, prohibits teachers from discussing controversial historical, social, or political issues. If these subjects do arise, the law requires that teachers “explore such issues from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”

This led teachers in Southlake, Texas to correctly question, if their libraries held books on the Holocaust, should students be steered to books with opposing views?

Bad things have happened in history. We need to acknowledge them — perhaps so we don’t repeat them, perhaps to make amends. We must not pretend they didn’t exist. To deny the Holocaust is to deny history and its terrible truth. 

And, yes, students might feel distress or anguish when they learn about the Holocaust or about the slave trade or about the mistreatment of Native Americans or about discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people. But no, they shouldn’t feel guilt about their own race or sex. Rather, they should give thought to finding a better way forward.

When Davis spoke this week about it being a scary time for librarians, she said “It’s not an issue that’s just … down South or in Texas. It’s all over and we’re seeing it, you know, even here in New York State.”

We like the approach Davis has taken, keeping records of books that a particular parent has asked his or her child not read. “I believe a parent does have the right to say their child can’t read a book,” said Davis, recalling two topics that had been requested by parents for a child to be steered away from — witchcraft and drugs.

“It’s when you’re going to say, ‘Nobody has a right to read this,’ I will step up and say, ‘Wait. Wait. Fine for your own child … but another student needs to read that book really badly. They’re in a place where they need that book.’”

In addition to students wanting to learn about their gender identification, Davis has had students “thinking about other religions,” she said, or students in the rural district who “want to know inner-city life.”

When Davis was going through the rough middle-school years herself, she said she felt then — and still feels now: “Books can be your friend. Books can keep you company. Books can show you the rest of the world.”

That doesn’t mean everything in a book is good anymore than everything in a friend is good.

Since her youth, Davis has been a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. The American Library Association in 2018 voted to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, stating at the time, “Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America’s 1800s. Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.”

Davis notes that, in one of the books, based on Wilder’s childhood, “Pa” performs in blackface and that “Ma” talks “purely negatively about Native Americans.”

“There are definitely issues,” said Davis, but she doesn’t stop kids from reading the books. Rather, she discusses those issues with students as they’re reading Wilder’s books, which seems like the right course to us. We should acknowledge that some white people were racist and performed in blackface and that some white settlers thought ill of Native Americans.

“My job,” says Davis, “is both to find books for students and connect students with books that, one, can show them they’re not alone, and also show that there are other people out there, other places, people who are different, may have different religions, different beliefs, different cultures.”

Davis refers to a thought from Rudine Sims Bishop — librarians need to provide books that are both windows and mirrors. Bishop, who has been referred to as the mother of multicultural children’s literature, has written:

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.

“When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

“You need to be able to look in a mirror and see yourself in a book,” says Davis. “But you also need to be able to look through a window and see others and the rest of the world and love that.”

“There is no Frigate like a Book/ To take us Lands away,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “Nor any Coursers like a Page/ Of prancing Poetry – /This Traverse may the poorest take/ Without oppress of Toll – /How frugal is the Chariot/ That bears the Human Soul.”






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