God, libraries and Harry Potter

GobletAs GetReligion readers may know, I am starting to get interested in podcasting (in this post-Katrina era of crowded commuter trains). One of my favorites is the weekly Pottercast program put out by the fanatics at The Leaky Cauldron. This week’s episode (No. 6) is linked to the annual Banned Books emphasis by the American Library Association.

Listening to the show reminded me of a recent piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education that was sent to me by the most excellent librarian who is my wife. It’s titled “The Loneliness of a Conservative Librarian” and it was written by David Durant, head of the government documents and microforms desk at East Carolina University. At first glance, this seems to be an article about politics. Durant writes:

The problem is not that most librarians have liberal or leftist views. It is that the overwhelming prevalence of such views has created a politicized atmosphere of groupthink and even intolerance, in which left-wing politics permeate the library profession and are almost impossible to avoid. . . .

The solution is not to replace left-wing with right-wing politicization. Rather it is to leave politics to the individual. Just as we should collect and provide access to materials representing a broad range of beliefs, we should welcome diverse viewpoints within our profession.

And so forth and so on. It seems that ALA meetings may, in the near future, turn into Michael Moore film festivals.

Like I said, this sounds political. But when you listen to the Pottercast, you realize that — at the local level — the conflicts between librarians and their conservative patrons are almost always about (wait for it) — sex, salvation and, OK, some people would say Satanism. The entire story of the challenges to the Harry Potter books is built on the distrust that exists between the powers that be in public libraries and conservative parents.

But there is more to this story than “banned books.” If journalists want to cover this story, I suggest that they dig a bit deeper. Once again, there are interesting people on both sides of these debates. A few years ago, I had a chance to cover Nimbus 2003 — a global Potter studies festival — and I was surprised to find that the two largest flocks in the hallways were real-life witches (Wiccans and druids, mostly) and, believe it or not, evangelical Christians (many homeschool moms). It was interesting watching them study each other before and after the main sessions.

With that scene in mind, I wrote the Pottercast staff a letter. I offer it here, in case it might interest any journalists who are thinking about doing Banned Book Week stories or follow-up reports on faith and the Potter books.

PotterPeople:

I wanted to make a comment or two about your Banned Books Podcast.

First of all, please know that I am a mainstream journalist who covers religion and church-state issues; the husband of a librarian; a life-long Democrat; and the father of two children who has, after some initial skepticism, read all of the Potter books to them myself — in part because of JKR’s highly intelligent use of traditional Christian images, names and themes. I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, although I was raised Southern Baptist. Art and reading are crucial in our home.

Now, a few quick comments. Much of the protest about the Harry Potter books is, in my opinion, uninformed and knee jerk. Yes, they should read the books and even some of the books about the books, on both sides of the argument.

You should know, however, that there are millions of dedicated Rowling readers out there in church pews — something you have never addressed in your Podcasts. It is wrong to leave your listeners with the impression that, when it comes to things Harry, the world is divided into smart secular people and stupid religious people. You also need to know that many people, when they talk about Banned Books, tend to forget:

* To consider a different form of banning, which is the issue of books that librarians — acting on their own biases — never purchase in the first place. What shape might this bias take? As New York Times columnist David Brooks has noted, in the months leading up to the 2004 election “the ratio of Kerry to Bush donations” by librarians “was a whopping 223 to 1.”

Now, I am not all that interested in the political implications of this. What I wonder about are the religious and cultural implications. What percentage of the best-selling religious books in America never make it to library shelves or are never given multiple-copy status (even with millions of copies being sold across the nation)? What controversial books by cultural conservatives never make it to shelves and are, thus, banned books of a different stripe?

* That many parents do not fear the presence of objectionable books in libraries. They fear that tax-funded professionals will deliberately undercut parental authority. In a school context, they fear that children will be required to read objectionable books — with no alternatives given.

Many parents do not want to ban books. They want alternatives. Try to imagine public school teachers and librarians deliberately assigning objectionable books to, let’s say, Muslim parents. Try to imagine an educator assigning a Unitarian kid a book by, let’s say, Pat Robertson.

Parents have rights. They do not have the right to ban books for other people’s children. No way. But parents should be able to trust librarians and teachers not to actively attack the values taught in their home.

So I would urge you to open up your Podcasts to more points of view, not fewer. I would urge the people who organize the Banned Books events to be open to more points of view (and more books), not fewer.

The bottom line: Liberials can ban books, too, especially if they are in charge of library budgets.

So let’s hear a cheer for diversity and intellectual freedom — beginning in libraries.

Oh, and if Sirius Black died in the (using alchemical terms) black book, and Albus (white) Dumbledore died in the white book, who might die in the RED, or final, sacrificial stage of the alchemical process? Rubeus (Latin for “red”) Hagrid? Someone in a family that is, well, rather red-oriented? Just asking.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    I’ve been trying to figure out who Dumbledore (honeybee) stung before he died.

    Terry, y’know what would have made your letter a whole lot better? If you could have provided actual examples of librarians “banning” (by not purchasing) books, rather than just implying some kind of hypothetical bias.

  • tmatt

    Avram:

    There is no study on that. It’s a topic that comes up among librarians all the time. Hang out with them for 30 years or so and you’ll get enough anecdotes to make you want the study. My fear is that someone like Focus on the Family will do the study and then no one will take it seriously.

    When I started investigating the Harry Potter fights, long ago, I did find some cases — Asheville leaps to mind — in which you had libraries doing events to celebrate Potter and other works about magic, witches, etc. That blurred the line over into some books that really did celebrate the occult.

    Which raises the question: What is wrong with that? Separation of coven and state?

    Which raises the question: Seen any library festivals lately to celebrate, oh, the Christian witness of J.R.R. Tolkein or something?

    But do what I do. Go to your local public library and look for, oh, books by James Dobson or other major figures on the religious right, including bestsellers. Do this in places like Dallas and Houston, places where there are more Baptists than there are people. What you end up with is anecdotal, but worth newspapers digging into.

    Oh, and look for the new kid’s editions of the “Little House on the Prairie” classics, the ones with the prayers, hymns and church scenes edited out.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    The anti Potter folks, among Christians, still are few and far between. Could this be another place where in the pursuit of balance, people with a very small following get much more attention than they deserve?

    Another question — why does a librarian’s judgement of what is acceptable or not acceptable trump all? Can a banned book ever be a bad book?

    HP’s going to get it, I think, in the last book. (BTW, his mom had red hair, I believe, and she’s already died)

  • J-D

    Since it involves the expenditure of public dollars for public use, I’m surprise there’s not something equivalent to school boards for public libraries. We don’t allow the Army to say how they’ll spend the money budgeted them. We don’t allow Medicaid workers to decide on their own who should get Medicaid. Why should librarians get to decide, all on their on, what books are purchased? It’s a “public” library, run by “public” funds, what’s wrong with the “public” being involved?

  • J-D

    Oh, for the record, I’m a big Potter fan. Didn’t read them at all till the first movie came out because I thought it was just so much prattle. Saw the movie and then read the books. Like others, I see distinctly Christian themes in the books.

  • Michael

    Most public libraries do have a board, either appointed or elected. That’s where the “public” can express its concerns.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    Michael and J-D,

    My librarians (both public and academic) are happy to buy books that I suggest and have done so on several occasions. Especially at a public library, try sending an E-mail to them with a purchase suggestion and your library card number.

  • tmatt

    Dan:

    Some libraries are more responsive to patrons than others and there are red and blue zone libraries, even if the librarians are blue, blue, blue as a class.

    But this is what I meant when I said that the RELIGIOUS issues (as opposed to straight politics) are what come out at the local level.

  • Peeves

    You write: “Oh, and if Sirius Black died in the (using alchemical terms) black book, and Albus (white) Dumbledore died in the white book, who might die in the RED, or final, sacrificial stage of the alchemical process? Rubeus (Latin for “red”) Hagrid? Someone in a family that is, well, rather red-oriented? Just asking.”

    We have a host of redheads to choose one, though I know that Hagrid is a “favorite” target for death (it seems like his death is predicted in each book, doesn’t it!).

    I for one am quite concerned about Ron and/or Ginny – or a host of Weasleys. For the story to have real power, it would be really terrible if one of these two characters died though. Hagrid – while being a very important person to Harry – is not in the same category as Ron or Ginny. I’m not predicting which redhead will go (how can I – I am a redhead myself and that would break the “Redhead Code of Honor”), it could be Percy Weasley or Charley Weasely for all we know! We have several more Weasleys to choose from (and the memory of Molly’s bogart in Order of the Phoenix) – so it’s a real stretch to decide which redhead will go “behind the veil” with Sirius and “Dumbledore” (just how dead is Dumbledore, anyway?). So will it be Hagrid or a Weasley? If a Weasley, which one? (I still shudder at Ron’s little joke “Die, Ron, Die” – what was that, Book 3?

    But I think – following the Alchemical formula – we can predict with almost certainty that a redhead will go in Book VII.

    I just hope it’s not Ginny.

    p

  • ceemac

    tmatt writes:
    That many parents do not fear the presence of objectionable books in libraries. They fear that tax-funded professionals will deliberately undercut parental authority

    ******
    Sometimes parental authority needs to be undercut and that is a major task of the educator. Schools and libraries are not populist insitutions. They are by their very nature elitist.

  • ECJ

    “Sometimes parental authority needs to be undercut and that is a major task of the educator.”

    What are the ‘sometimes’ and by what authority do educators presume to do so? Who decides when these ‘sometimes’ occur? Who certifies that their motives are pure, and their instruction sound? Who provides them the wisdom and insight they require to faithfully accomplish the task? Who gave them this task in the first place?

    It is my privilege to raise my children. Not some apparatchik in the education nomenclatura – some ideologue who has an agenda, but will not be around to pick up the pieces. He will subvert a parent’s instruction on sex. But where will he be when the daughter turns up with a chronic venereal disease? If educators want to raise children, they can have their own.

    Btw, this is exactly why education is so troublesome. The real power in education is in the transmission of world view. That is the power after which educators lust. And that is why parents so jealously guard it.

    ECJ

  • Todd

    “Sometimes parental authority needs to be undercut and that is a major task of the educator.”

    Do you truly believe this, ceemac, or are you simply being unnecessarily provocative? If the latter, why? And if the former, then I fear that you have little understanding of what it means to be a parent. ECJ is correct – it is a privilege to have been given the opportunity to raise my children. You, and educators in general, do *not* have the privilege, responsibility, nor right to undermine the training that I provide my children.

    “They are by their very nature elitist.”

    Who defines what it means to be an elitist? I suspect that a blue-zone elitist and a red-zone elitist may not have all that much in common.

  • David Neal

    Terry:

    Several thoughts from a (non-journalist) fan of this site:

    Awesome letter!

    “The anti Potter folks, among Christians, still are few and far between. Could this be another place where in the pursuit of balance, people with a very small following get much more attention than they deserve?”

    I’m not so sure about that. MOST of our Christian friends won’t let their kids read Potter (ours do, but I’ve just never been able to get into it). However, those same friends don’t march down to the public library to protest their inclusion in the catalogue. I would agree that the “activists” are in the minority, but I also think it has less to do with “pursuit of balance” and more with the sense that “protesting simply draws more attention to the books and, therefore, makes it more likely that people will read them to see what all the fuss is about.”

    “Sometimes parental authority needs to be undercut and that is a major task of the educator.”

    Scary. Exactly why parents need to stay involved in their children’s education whether it’s in public school, private school or home school. While I agree with one of my agnostic friend’s observation that some people just don’t make very good parents, I agree with ECJ’s thoughts.

    Keep up the good work of encouraging your professional peers to “get it” when they cover it!

  • Seth Williamson

    This has been a bee in my bonnet for a long time. When I see these “banned books” celebrations the irony is thick enough to cut with a knife. In the rural county where I used to live, their selection not only seemed to lack new books that would be of special interest to conservatives or the religiously orthodox, but they attempted to refuse a book I donated that would have constituted their sole title arguing against legal abortion. They had a bazillion books on witchcraft, but almost nothing new from an orthodox Christian viewpoint. I don’t know what irritated me more: their de facto censorship, or their smug ignorance that they were in fact censors in the first place.

  • Jonathan S

    In regard to undercutting parental authority, on the whole I agree with the parents on this thread. (Confession: not a parent myself.) But as a professor (and a Christian) I do also see the value of challenging some parentally-instilled values, such as racist ideology or atheistic assumptions about human nature, which I consider not only incorrect and untruthful but also harmful to our ability to get along as a community. Of course this raises the question of who gets to decide which values should be questioned and which should not. (I’m humble enough to admit that it’s a complicated question and should ultimately be a discussion which involves parents and educators working together, which doesn’t happen.) But I did want to say that as a Christian, I find times when parental authority should be questioned on matters where truth is at stake.

  • ceemac

    Todd et al,

    I wrote:
    Sometimes parental authority needs to be undercut and that is a major task of the educator. Schools and libraries are not populist insitutions. They are by their very nature elitist.

    It is an provocative topic but I was not intending to be unnecessarily provocative.

    Education by it’s very nature may undercut parental authority. (By the way for a connection to this blog I consider journalists educators.)

    Here’s an example. We talk about education as being one way that children may be lifted out of the underclass. In doing so we are hoping that those children will reject the values of the underclass. For example we want the children to embrace the value of deferred gratification which may very well mean rejecting the values of parents who have always lived for the moment. Or we want them to fall in love with reading but they may live in a home that doesn’t have a book.

  • Libertine

    Kudos to tmatt for casting a light on this subject. Us progressive too often forget that there is a subset of our own who are all too happy to alter or remove certain works out of some misguided notion of sensitivity. I’m hoping to see more journalistic pieces on this matter in the future.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    “In the rural county where I used to live, their selection not only seemed to lack new books that would be of special interest to conservatives or the religiously orthodox, but they attempted to refuse a book I donated that would have constituted their sole title arguing against legal abortion.”

    I begin to see why the Findlay-Hancock County Public Library (www.findlaylibrary.org) is an award-winner… I’ve never had this problem here and never knew how lucky I was.

  • Bob

    Let’s not forget that Griffindor’s color is red…That gives us a number of people to choose from (Neville Longbottom?)

  • http://JAVA ECJ

    ceemac

    The situations you describe represent the abdication of parental authority. Indeed the underclass proceeds directly from a lack of parenting. As a result, educators attempt to become surrogate parents. But they are collosally bad at it, and to hear them tell, they would prefer not to do it. It makes their life hard, and they almost always fail. What teacher wants to deal with an undisciplined angry kid who cannot read? So there is no elitism associated with these situations. It is more like triage.

    Instead, what came to my mind when I read your statement was this:

    http://www.ctsix.org/1/2005/09/Misinterpretation-of-Parents-Rights-Law-at-Crux-of-Massachusetts-Controversy.cfm

    Here we have an educator who wants to normalize homosexuality to first-graders without telling their parents. Most parents think six is a little young to be talking with a child about the subject of sex in any detail let alone introducing homosexuality into the picture. The educator obviously disagrees. But these children are not his responsibility. He has no right to pre-empt parental authority just because he fears that parents will teach some “reactionary dogma” of which he dissaproves.

    I would call his teaching degenerate and libertine. So who gets priority? Since I bear the responsibility of raising my children, I have the privilege of determining what they are taught. When he stands in my place – when he has done for my children what I have – then he can have an opinion. Until then, he can go pound sand.

    ECJ

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Terry: But do what I do. Go to your local public library and look for, oh, books by James Dobson or other major figures on the religious right, including bestsellers. Do this in places like Dallas and Houston, places where there are more Baptists than there are people. What you end up with is anecdotal, but worth newspapers digging into.

    I live in the NYC area, so I’m not about to find myself in a Texas libary anytime soon. But I just used the search function on the Houston Public Library’s website, typed “dobson james” into the author field, and got three pages of results. Not all relevent, but there’s Bringing Up Boys, and Chidren At Risk (co-authored with Gary Bauer), and Dare to Discipline (in both English and Spanish editions), and Dr Dobson Answers Your Questions, and more.

    What were you expecting me to find?

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Terry: Oh, and look for the new kid’s editions of the “Little House on the Prairie” classics, the ones with the prayers, hymns and church scenes edited out.

    This is the first I’m hearing about this, and I’m having trouble finding anything about it. Do you mean the “My First Little House” series? Those look to me like they’re very young children’s picture books, retold with just the bare story elements.

  • SusanP

    One doesn’t have to be in charge of a library budget to be complicit in ‘banning by omission’.

    I was recently told of a couple who, to celebrate a milestone, donated a number of books on Orthodox Christianity to their local (New England state) library. Less than six months later, their adult daughter saw those same books out on the sidewalk with other books being culled/given away.

    P.S. The shaded background quotes are great!

    Disappointing. And hardly the result of budgetary constraints.

    I agree, then. Journalists who are concerned with book bannings and their accompanying hoopla should also ask tough questions of those making aquisition decisions.

  • Stephen A.

    Kudos on the shaded background quotes! Very sophisticated.

  • Stephen A.

    This is an EXCELLENT post and an incredibly underreported topic.

    As a former Barnes & Noble employee in the mid-1990s, I shuddered every October when this notion of “banned” books came up. Leaving aside the fact that there were few REALLY banned books (many were simply commented upon as not being age-appropriate during school board meetings. I guess that’s “banning”) the store self-censored itself, and was in turn censored by the national HQ.

    I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that the owners were flaming liberals and Democrats, but it’s amazing that we got 5,000 Howard Stern books in at once, while we got about 30 Rush Limbaugh books in at the same time as the standard order, and had to back order them almost immediately. Bear in mind this was the South (well, Florida. Still conservative.)

    The children’s department supervisor was obsessed with about three topics – sex, African slavery and the Holocaust – and it seemed about half the books were about that. Though I shouldn’t blame her, the publishers printed titles on these topics by the hundreds, and teachers assigned them by the truckload. When kids got to choose their own books, the boys often chose True Crime – books on mass murder. Girls stuck to books about “empowerment” and teen-level books that dealt with issues such as heroin addiction and sexuality were popular. (Are you scared yet?)

    I’m not surprised that libraries would behave in the same manner as the bookstores. I do know that the ALA has led the fight to keep information on what a child checks out from parents’ prying eyes. That’s interference with a parent’s right and responsibility to raise a child.

    In Ceemac’s clarification of his comments, he points out some positive and legitimate ways the school can intercede when parenting goes awry, but ECJ correctly hints at the idea that educrats are often driven by an ideological agenda that is starkly opposed by many parents (and it’s not just teaching gay sex that’s the concern.) That’s when their power becomes a concern.

    As for the media’s role in all this, they all too often paint the parent who complains about an over-sexual book as hysterical – or they slant news stories to give voice and credence to those who see them as such. That’s troubling.

    On Harry Potter, I noticed they ditched the uniforms after the first year. Too uptight for such hip witches, eh? But the monogrammed t-shirt should sell well. Good product placement.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    I’ll second Stephen on the ahded backgrounds.

    Susan, is a library obligated to keep every book donated? A few years back I culled several boxes worth of books that were cluttering up my apartment and hauled them across the street to the library. I’ve no idea whether they went onto the shelves or into the next book sale; I’d not be a bit surprised if it was the latter.

  • Michael

    Susan,

    What we don’t know is whether the books (a) already existed in the collection, (b) were outdated and not of literary significance, (c) pure dreck that shouldn’t be in a library collection, or (d) of such little interest that they were taking up space that could be used for better books.

    Librarians make decisions about the kinds of books and significance of their collections all the time. Not every book needs to be carried by the local library. Librarians are professionals who are trained and skilled at making decisions about what kind of books readers are looking for and what kind of books are appropriate for the collection.

    Admittedly, this doesn’t fit into the “great left wing conspiracy to prevent people from reading conservative books,” but it is a plausible explanation.

  • SusanP

    I should have said that the books donated were purchased new–I can’t absolutely vouch for their not being “dreck” but their daughter, who assisted in the choices, is our church librarian. It was my understanding that the donation was intended to provide information on a subject–Orthodox Christianity–which had very little coverage in the library.

    I grant that they may have served their purposes better by inquiring beforehand whether or not the library would be interested in increasing its collection on the subject.

    It simply seemed to me that six months was too short a time in which to make a decision about how much or little circulation the books were getting.

  • Stephen A.

    “(c) pure dreck that shouldn’t be in a library collection, or (d) of such little interest that they were taking up space that could be used for better books.”

    Define “dreck” and define “better” books. There’s the crux of the problem with an elite philosophy governing which ideas are “relevant” to allow readers to see and which are not.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Susan: It was my understanding that the donation was intended to provide information on a subject–Orthodox Christianity–which had very little coverage in the library.

    There might be a reason the subject has little coverage in that library. It could be because the librarians have a bias against that material. Or it could be because patrons hadn’t expressed any interest in that topic, so the librarians had wisely decided not to devote valuable shelf space to it. Or maybe something else entirely.

    I googled for donating books to a library, and a couple of the pages that turned up said “While some books will be added to our collection, most will be sold at Friends of the [locality] Public Library book sales to benefit the library system.” It was pretty much the exact same phrasing, leading me to believe that it was boilerplate text, which leads me to believe that this is a common library policy.

  • ceemac

    Stephen A:
    Define “dreck” and define “better” books. There’s the crux of the problem with an elite philosophy governing which ideas are “relevant” to allow readers to see and which are not.

    ****
    It’s an age old question. And it is not just liberals or modernists that give elitist answers.

    How about a philospher beloved by at least some conservatives?

    It’s been close to 20 years since I read the Republic. But if I remember correctly Plato had some pretty elitist ideas about the content of education. He may not have used the words “dreck” and “better” but the concepts were there. He could be seen as an advocate of education undercutting parental authority.

    In his Closing of the American Mind, Allen Bloom critiqued modern western education. But was no populist. He embraced Plato’s ideas about education. At least for the best students at the best schools.

  • http://www.durblog.net Durb

    I’m a big fan of the Potter books, and a conservative evangelical. There are lots of us. But I’ve been slow to keep up with the books and have only read the first three. Thanks for giving the deaths away without a “spoiler” warning! AHHHHHHHH!!!!

  • Mark D.

    A triple thank you: for the link to John Granger’s site, for the letter to the podcast people, and for the shaded quote background.

    Durb: no sympathy. It’s volume six, they are extremely fast reads, and she’s give us years to catch up.

  • Stephen A.

    But ceemac, we’re not talking about elite education for elite students, we’re talking about readers consisting of the general public, or at least those who go to libraries regularly.

    If the books were being hand-selected for a school’s curriculum, while I would still hope for diverse opinions (hahaha) I would understand if the book selection was narrowly focused. But we’re talking about LIBRARIES in which, supposedly, a diversity of thought is allowed.

    Thinking about my examples further, I’m not sure which is more shocking, censorship in the libraries or in bookstores.

    As for Spoilers, I hate that, too, but it *has* been a while since this series began. Also, I saw a t-shirt for sale online “__(character)__ dies on page 659.” Hows that for a spoiler?!! Don’t know which book that’s in, by the way, and I may have the page number wrong.

  • Harris

    Of course, there is always the commercial side to the equation: libraries like the local grocery store, only have so much space. What stays on the shelf, what goes, and what is bought (or not): depends on the intersection between audience demand and a sense of what is significant. The local library branch down the street keeps mostly the current titles and very little by way of reference.

    The Main Branch downtown is a different story, but even there, the requirements of space limit what ultimately will be stocked.

    Titles in the library, no less than titles at the bookstore (or cans of soup at the grocery store) are in competition with one another: what moves or what will move — what matches the readers — will be kept. (and for those rarer items? there’s always inter-library loan!)

  • tmatt

    Harris:

    Precisely right. And it is the interests of large number of local patrons in middle America that are causing the tensions.

    Then again, if millions of Americans have written off their local libraries as hopeless, this can shape perception of “audience demand.”

    Which is why librarians have to study sales figures in their region and in the nation as a whole.